From Books

Ten Books: 2017, Volume 3


Virtual graffiti on the subject of my recent reading. This volume covers ten books read in the late summer and early fall of 2017.

Placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists are highlighted with spray-painted color rankings.
  —

  • Is Mark's Gospel a Life of Jesus? : The Question of GenreAdela Yarbro CollinsIs Mark’s Gospel a Life of Jesus? : The Question of Genre (1990)
       Not really a book tuned to my interests or level of competence in it subject. It examines the question of Mark’s genre (as its subtitle indicates–duh!). How did the writer of the gospel see his work in the context of ancient writing forms? Was it a “life” of Jesus patterned on other examples of the time or was it something different, perhaps a new form? Possibly, yes. One or the other, maybe a bit of both or neither. In any case, a question for specialists, not me.

  • PlainsongKent HarufPlainsong (1999)
       Just a beautiful, sweetly sad but hopeful novel. Sibelius’s Second Symphony in prose. This is my first exposure to Haruf’s work and I would be happy to read more. This first impression reminds me in some ways of the novels of Jane Hamilton and, especially, Wallace Stegner.
     
    Wikipedia tells me that Haruf set all of his novels in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. A bit of trivia. More interesting is the news that he wrote a sequel to this one, 2004′s Eventide. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I won’t be able to resist it and the chance to visit these characters again. On the other hand, I enjoyed the open-ended, optimistic but uneasy last chapter of this one. I’d hate to see things turn out differently than what I’ve imagined.

  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter 73   Carson McCullersThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
       The deaf-mute John Singer is the axis around which four melancholy, wounded characters spin in this languid and dusty story. Singer reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, title character of The Idiot. (Spoiler alert: neither Myshkin nor Singer is an idiot.)
     
    The four satellites are drawn to Singer’s kindness and purity and do not recognize his sadness and personal tragedy. To greater or lesser degrees, these characters break, and only experience a full realization of their own hopelessness after Singer’s sad departure. The cause of this departure is never known by the four–Singer’s only friends.
     
    This is a heartbreakingly sad debut novel for a 23-year-old writer. McCullers lived a sad life herself, if her Wikipedia bio is accurate. The novel is not just sad, it is beautiful too, and perhaps McCullers lived a life of some beauty too, despite and in the face of her disappointments.

  • Martian Time SlipPhilip K. DickMartian Time Slip (1964)
       Colonists from Earth scratch out a hardscrabble existence on Mars. A repairman, who immigrated to escape his schizophrenia through the hard work and slower-paced life of the colony, finds himself entangled with a rich and powerful man, and through him meets a severely autistic child for whom he attempts to construct a machine to cure symptoms of the condition. Time travel and native Martians, “noble savages” known as “Bleekmen,” are involved. A hallucinogenic and time-hopping struggle ensues.

  • Jonathan Livingston SeagullRichard BachJonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)
       A mega-hit novella from the 1970s that employs a sentient seagull to illustrate a vague sort of mash-up of Norman Vincent Peale and Eastern philosophy. Jonathan learns from his teacher Chiang that a higher level of existence is available to him, here and now, not in an afterlife. This leads Jonathan to throw off cultural norms and to set his inner gull free. This results in short-term loss but long-term gain. Later, older and wiser, Jonathan passes on Chiang’s teachings to a disciple.

  • The First Scientist: A Life of Roger BaconBrian CleggThe First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon (2001)
       Roger Bacon is an intriguing figure from the dawn of the scientific method. He was certainly one of the first to propose a clear framework for its foundations. The first, in Clegg’s well-argued opinion. Both a man of his times (13th century) and ahead of his time, Bacon seems to have suffered from bad luck and bad will during his lifetime, and has been frequently misunderstood through the centuries after his death.
     
    An altogether better introduction to Bacon than that found in The Cipher and the Friar (see my griping appraisal of it in Ten Books: 2017, Volume 1). This is a fine biography and should be a rewarding read for anyone with an interest in the history of science.

  • Sons and Lovers 44   D.H. LawrenceSons and Lovers (1913)
       A powerful and disturbing novel. A mother trapped in a marriage to a poor, abusive, alcoholic coal miner. In her disappointment she transfers her affections and hopes to her eldest son. He marries a shallow but physically attractive woman who loves only herself and appearances. Unhappy, he sickens and dies. The mother then transfers her affections to her second son. Artistic and sensitive, he allows his mother’s smothering love to ruin both of the competing relationships he enters. Finally she sickens and dies–having realized her baleful effect on her beloved son’s life–and the son is left with nothing. A third son never suffered from the mother’s suffocating love and follows in his father’s footsteps as a miner and a drunk. A daughter marries and escapes (as far as we know) relatively unscathed.
     
    I know now that the novel contains substantial autobiographical elements, something I wondered about as I read it. I’ve known nothing of Lawrence’s life, but there must be fascinating biographies available and I am eager to read one.

  • The Thirty-Nine Steps 20   John BuchanThe Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
       Suspense novel and a gripping fugitive chase. The fugitive in this case is the good guy, on the run from bad German hombres. Not hombres, of course, but whatever the insulting German equivalent might be. Bad drumpfs?
     
    Entertaining, though I couldn’t help wondering at several points, “why doesn’t he just turn himself in to Scotland Yard and take his chances with the truth?” His chances didn’t seem very good on the run. But of course that wouldn’t have made for much of a tale.
     
    As recently as 2003, this novel was chosen as the #138 on a list of UK readers’ best-loved novels, and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaption, The 39 Steps, does even better. The film consistently ranks at or near the top of lists of best British fims. The book stands with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (which I plan to read soon) and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (one I have read and loved) as much-praised novels brought to the big screen by big Al.

  • Murmurs of Earth: Voyager, the Interstellar RecordCarl Sagan, et alMurmurs of Earth: Voyager, the Interstellar Record (1978)
       A fascinating account of the quixotic and brilliant idea to attach LP records to each of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. These probes were launched twelve days apart in 1977 with missions to fly by and explore the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. They performed spectacularly! NASA knew that as a product of the velocities achieved, these ships would escape our solar system and travel for billions of years through the interstellar space of the Milky Way. Sagan and others recognized this as an opportunity to throw a sort of message in a bottle into the ocean of our galaxy. This book features first-person accounts from the men and women who took charge of the task of compiling Earth’s first message to the stars.
     
    These records contain spoken greetings in 55 languages, musical selections from around the globe, a selection of photographs, and more.[1] There are extremely long odds the message will ever be received (“extremely” doesn’t begin to convey a sense of how long are the odds). Still, a fascinating exercise and an interesting read.
     

    I read this book and wrote about it months ago. I’m only now publishing this on my blog and, behold and lo, Voyager 1 is back in the news. On Facebook I commented on NASA’s story, and now I’ve cannibalized that comment for use on my blog. See Long Distance Call.


  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before SwineKurt VonnegutGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1964)
       An early Vonnegut novel, following Cat’s Cradle and preceding his breakout Slaughterhouse Five. It is the story of Eliot Rosewater, the inheritor of a large family fortune and sole director of the Rosewater Foundation. This foundation is a vehicle designed to protect the family fortune and to pass it down unmolested to heirs. But he wants, really, only to be a volunteer fireman and to love his fellow man. He’s crazy, in other words, and in danger of losing everything he doesn’t want. Money corrupts, but not everyone.
     
    Kilgore Trout makes his debut in this one. Several of Vonnegut’s early sci-fi stories are referenced–his “2BR02B” for one–and ascribed to Trout. Rosewater is a story with none of supernatural or sci-fi effects that appear in many of Vonnegut’s novels, and yet his fictional alter ego, the author of cheap sci-fi paperbacks, plays a pivotal role it. So it goes!

Notes

  1. Audio selections from the Voyager records are available on YouTube. I was listening to one contribution recently when Joann, evidently unimpressed, asked, “Who is that?” When I replied, “Blind Willie Johnson,” she asked, “Was he deaf too?” [^]

See also:

Ten Books: 2017, Volume 2
Ten Books: 2017, Volume 1
Seventeen Books – 2016 Part #3
Ten Books – 2016 Part #2
Ten Books – 2016 Part #1
113 Great 20th Century Novels
46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels
45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels