Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Review: "Reputations" by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Reputations (2016)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973)
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

190 pages

Although most of us care about how we are viewed by others, for people in the public eye these concerns can come to dominate their lives. Desperate to hold on to the position they have achieved or the power they wield, such public figures can become extremely sensitive to anything that might raise awkward or unflattering questions about them or their actions. Given that situation, among their most hated and feared enemies must rank political cartoonists, caricaturing their appearance, personality and policies in a most public and visible manner.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s intriguing novel Reputations tells the story of just such a caricaturist, Javier Mallarino. Mallarino draws a daily political cartoon for one of the leading newspapers in Columbia. Over several decades of work, he has skewered a broad swath of people among the Columbian political and elite classes with his drawings and accompanying brief, but often pointed and potent, captions. For the common people in Columbia, he has become the conscience of the country, someone trusted to tell it like it is.

But Mallarino lives in the public eye too, and though he does not carry the weight of having to make policy, his career nonetheless rests on the tenuous and fickle foundation of public perception. He lives --- and draws --- with the knowledge that readers’ trust in him can, no matter how strong it may appear, evaporate overnight if his integrity and truthfulness suddenly come into question. The weight of this reality has led Mallarino to sacrifice everything and everyone, including friends and family, on the altar of his reputation.

As the story opens, Mallarino, in his sixties, prepares to be feted by the Columbian political and media establishment, in recognition of his many decades of work. It should be the crowning achievement of a successful career, a moment of contentment and celebration; instead he finds himself ruminating on the fame he has achieved, on both its value, as well as its personal ramifications and costs. He recalls an early 20th century Columbian caricaturist who had become the “moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half,” (7) and who had nonetheless since “been devoured, like so many other [public] figures, by the insatiable hunger of oblivion.” (6)

Mallarino’s vague doubts and uneasiness unexpectedly find concrete form the day after the celebration, when a chance meeting leads him to recall an event from early in his career --- a moment based on which he had drawn a particularly impactful political cartoon, one that had launched his career to new heights. As he looks back at his motivations for drawing that particular piece, and the dramatic consequences of its appearance in print, he comes to recognize and re-evaluate the over-riding importance that considerations of his position and legacy have played in his work, and the resulting impact on how he has lived his life. He must consider how he to move forward in the wake of his new-found awareness.

The themes in Reputations recall Vásquez’s 2013 novel The Sound of Things Falling (my review here), though this latest novel has a more deliberate pace, feeling almost claustrophobic compared to the variety of settings and drama in the earlier one. In both stories, characters reflect back on their lives, attempting to understand and come to grips with dramatic events that have had lasting impacts. While in The Sound of Things Falling these events were largely random and unpreventable, in Reputations, Mallarino comes to realize the level of complicity he has had in the outcome of critical events in his life. While he had long considered his actions and their impacts as having been largely inevitable and unavoidable, when forced to face their long-lasting consequences, he comes to realize how thoroughly he had rationalized away the control he had had over his choices and so his future.

And so, as the best stories do, Reputations becomes a tale that leads us to ask questions about our own lives and choices.

Other reviews / information:

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: "The Wall" ("Die Wand") by Marlen Haushofer

Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)
Marlen Haushofer (1920-1970)

314 pages

Even a casual glance through the fiction books I’ve reviewed since starting this blog reveals my penchant for post-apocalyptic novels. My interest, though, rests not with the precipitating, catastrophic event itself, but rather with the characters’ reactions to the new situation they find themselves in. How do they pick up and go on?

Precisely that dilemma presents itself to the narrator in Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s novel, The Wall (Die Wand, in the original German). Haushofer constructs the story as a report written by a woman trying to make sense of her life spent in a shockingly constricted world: Two and a half years earlier, having traveled up into the Austrian mountains for a few days of holiday with a couple who own a small hunting lodge, she had settled in for the evening while the couple walked back down to the little village below the lodge to pass some time at the local inn; the next morning, surprised the couple had not yet returned, the woman walked down toward the village to try and discover what had happened to her friends, only to encounter a wall, “a smooth, cool, resistance on a spot at which there really couldn’t be anything but air.” (14) With just that little amount of warning or fanfare, the woman finds her life unimaginably changed.

Returning to the hunting lodge, the woman holds at bay the crushing fears threatening to overwhelm her by turning her focus to her immediate survival. Initially she takes stock of what is available in the lodge, but, in the weeks that follow, as hope of rescue dims, she is forced into a broader evaluation of her options in the mountain highland she finds herself trapped in. Occasionally the woman’s thoughts do return to the wall, and speculation on its origin, but given her lack of any means to investigate it, the never-ending work to stay alive, and her barely contained fears of potentially permanent isolation, she forcibly cuts such digressions short.

Thus the story dwells hardly at all on the cause of the apocalypse, or its broader implications --- in fact, we readers are seemingly freer to speculate about that than the woman herself, as she mentally protects herself from hopelessness and depression. Deliberately avoiding any specifics of the apocalyptic event itself, Haushofer has instead created a captivating drama out of the woman’s physical and physiological fight to survive.

The tension in the story arises out of details in the woman’s recollections as she writes her report, help by notes she has kept on a calendar. She uses the act of writing to help maintain her sanity, processing the events that have transpired since the bewildering moment in which the wall radically changed her world. She does this by starting her story at the beginning, when the wall first appeared; but as she writes her report, she cannot help but foreshadow dramatic incidents that have befallen her over the two and a half years. She does this cryptically, clearly attempting to keep dark memories of certain days at bay, even as they unavoidably force themselves into her thoughts. As readers we begin to assume her dread, coming to recognize the devastating impact these hinted-at events will have on the fragile world she has constructed for herself, both physically and mentally.

The woman’s efforts to adapt and survive make up a large part of the story, but a deeper thread winds through the plot, as the woman looks back on her time before the wall, re-evaluating her former life, and more broadly life in that former world now ended by the wall, in the harsh and clarifying light of her new existence. She comes to see the shortcomings of her earlier self, and becomes increasingly dismissive of the miss-placed emphasis she sees people had unthinkingly placed on so many elements of modern life. She gradually discovers that, despite her many difficulties, she is more comfortable in this new, simpler and more natural life, than she had ever been in her old one.
Here in the woods, I am actually in my appropriate place. … how they had all plagued me with things that revolted me. I had only this one, small life, and they hadn’t allowed me to live in peace. Gas ovens, power plants and oil pipelines; now that people are no more, they finally show their true, pitiful face. And back then one had made these things into idols instead of simply useful objects. (243)

Though The Wall can be read as a straight-forward, post-apocalyptic survival novel, Haushofer weaves into the story a thoughtful meditation on the many and varied complexities mankind has created in the modern day world. These complexities have generally been allowed to develop with little thought to their impact; through her narrator, Haushofer makes evident some of what we have sacrificed in the exchange: an ever increasing separation from the natural world of our origins.

Other reviews / information:

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, January 29, 2017

“Thoughtful People” in Partisan Times

On a recent edition of the radio program On Being entitled How to Live Beyond this Election (27 October 2016), host Krista Tippett interviewed teacher and community activist Eboo Patel, and poet Natasha Trethewey.

Addressing the increasingly vitriolic and partisanship discord that has largely eliminated considered discussion and debate in the U.S., Patel recalls a key moment in his own growth as an engaged citizen --- as someone interested in developing understanding, and participating in discussion:

DR. PATEL: One of the ways my life changed in college was William Raspberry who wrote for the Washington Post.
So, when I was 19 or 20 — and I was a fire-breathing dragon at this time. You couldn’t come within 50 feet of me without getting long lectures on people of color, consciousness, and socialism. My dad damned near kicked me out of the house at one point. He said to me, “If you give me one more lecture being bourgeois, you can find some other bourgeois dad to pay your bourgeois college tuition."
DR. PATEL: William Raspberry writes a column in which he says, “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” And that was so striking to me. Because I was — the way I viewed the world at that point was, “I’m the smart one. You all are the dumb ones. My job is to figure out how to make you smart.” And the definition of “smart” was you thought like me.
MS. TIPPETT: Or how to make you see things my way, which is smart.
DR. PATEL: Yeah, exactly, right? And this notion of William Raspberry, who was, generally speaking, a progressive columnist was like — look, the smartest people I know choose the pro-life side and understand that there’s something else at stake. The smartest people I know are against the death penalty and understand that people who might be in favor aren’t crazy, that there’s a set of values, something at stake there.

(Patel’s comments begin at 28:26 into the unedited version of the interview; the unedited and edited interviews can be found here, along with the transcript of the edited version.)

Patel refers to a column, Our Civil Disagreement, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist William Raspberry (1935-2012) at the close of his long career. In that essay, which appeared in The Washington Post on 19 December 2005, Raspberry used the word “thoughtful” as opposed to “smart,“ which I would say is a small, but important difference; one does not necessarily need to smart to be able to be open to carefully listening to and considering opinions that differ from one’s own. Otherwise Patel captures well the essence of Raspberry’s wonderfully stated counterpoint to our partisan times.

The entire column is worth the time to read, and can be found here; I’ve reproduced below the portion that inspired Patel’s epiphany:

…we've come to think that producing winners and losers is the essence not just of politics but also of life. It isn't.
Making this country work for everybody is, and it would be a good thing if all of us -- journalists emphatically included -- remembered that.
What has made this a little easier for me is a discovery I've mentioned before: that in virtually every public controversy, most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides. I know I do. But the fact that I am unalterably both pro-life and pro-choice keeps me from savaging thoughtful advocates of either view. (I still retain my license to savage anyone who insists on putting horror masks on people whose opinions they don't like.)
Can it be that trying to see the other guy's side simply takes too much of our time and energy? Sometimes I suspect that the desire to savage rather than convince an opponent stems from the nagging suspicion that just maybe we are on the wrong side of the logic. I mean, if you are convinced that your position is the correct one, why wouldn't you want to examine it and explain it in a way that might win a convert or two?

One wonders what Raspberry would make of the ever more disturbing depths to which public partisanship and bickering has sunk in just the few years since his death.

Other reviews / information:

For a look at the origins of modern day partisanship, see Making American Foreign Policy, by Ole R. Holsti, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University. From my review of the book (linked to here):
[Holsti] demonstrates how Vietnam sundered the Cold War consensus that had existed since WW II, and from the data he demonstrates the quite divergent and highly partisan viewpoints that have developed, and how an alignment arose between domestic and foreign policy opinion on each side of that partisan divide. He also examines the trends in opinion over the past five decades, noting that even such dramatic events as the end of the Cold War and the 9-11 attaches have not led to the development of a new consensus, and that in fact the partisan and ideological divides in politics have only become deeper.

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Historian Vincent Harding Foreshadowed --- in 2011 --- Social Conditions that Escalated to Impact the 2016 Election

In a 2011 interview on the radio program On Being hosted by Krista Tippett, historian Vincent Harding (1931-2014) identified among “the white community of America” a growing “uncertainty” over their place in an economy and society undergoing a dramatic transformation away from the America of their youth --- the era of their parents and grand-parents. He described “the anxiety, the fear, the anger” that was growing out of the disintegration resulting from these changes.

The uncertainty that he described in 2011 manifested itself at the ballot box in 2016 by playing an important role in the powerful rejection by a segment of American society of the current direction of the country, a reaction that went beyond voting for or against specific policies or plans. Though the results of the election should not be simplistically reduced to any single, isolated cause, Harding’s words do seem startlingly prescient, anticipating some of the principal conclusions being drawn in the flurry of analyses that the election outcome has unleashed.

His comments, which I have reproduced below, came in response to a question from Tippett about the changing face of hope in the United States. I have included Tippett’s specific question and Harding’s response to it as lead-in to give the context to his subsequent comments on the white community in America, which come toward the end, and which I have highlighted in italics.

The interview (“Vincent Harding --- Is America Possible?” can be found at the On Being website here. Tippett’s question and Harding’s reply can be found starting at the 59:13 mark of the unedited version of the interview. The transcript on the web-site is of the edited, final version of the interview; below I have added in the parts of his comments that did not make the cut into the edited version, showing them in [brackets].

MS. TIPPETT: I was listening to the BBC in recent weeks, and they’re watching us from afar. They were interviewing a journalist about this moment in American history, which seems very tumultuous and the question was, “Is it really more violent and more despairing than it’s been before or does this happen repeatedly?” And the comparison was made with the 1960s.

They said, look, there was a lot of social turmoil then. There were assassinations, right? I mean, many assassinations. But this journalist said — and I just want to know what you think — he said that he thought the difference between the 1960s and now was that even though there was incredible tumult and violence, it was at the very same time a period of intense hope, and people could see that they were moving towards goals. And that that’s missing now. What do you think about that analysis?

DR. HARDING: Hmm. Krista, I think that that is such a complicated kind of issue that I can only pick at it and tease it out and play with it in the best sense of play. I think that what I see now is the fact that all over this country, wherever I go, and, of course, where I go tends to be sort of self-selective because I am most often going into situations where people are operating out of a sense of hope and possibility, where in their local situations, whether it be Detroit, or Atlanta, or a campus someplace, or a church community in Philadelphia, that there are women and men and young people who are operating out of hope. [That they really believe in the possibilities that come to them from their own connection to the history of hope, as it were, and to the vision that they have of who they are and who they could be.]

My sense is that, in the ‘60s, there was probably a larger kind of canopy of hope that we could see, and we could identify, and that people could name and focus on. Now, we are in particular spots, locations, sometimes seemingly isolated. But I feel that there are points, focal situations, where that is still available and where people are operating from that.

So I think that it is not simply the matter of hope or no hope.

I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty that it did not allow itself to face before. 

[Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color, that that was our realm. But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.]

And I think that that’s the place that we are in, and that’s even more the reason why we’ve got to figure out what was King talking about when he was seeing the possibility of a beloved community and recognized that, maybe, for some of us, that cannot come until some of us realize that we must give up what we thought was only ours [in order for all of us to find new possibilities] in the building of a beloved nation. Can there be a beloved nation? Why don’t we try and see?

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review: "Thus Bad Begins" by Javier Marías

Thus Bad Begins (2016)
Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

444 pages

Why do we tend to react so harshly in response to relatively minor deceptions that happen to us personally, while often shrugging off or at least failing to generate sustained indignation over barbarous behavior that we learn has been perpetrated against others, even against friends? This feature of human psychology lies at the heart of Javier Marías’s novel Thus Bad Begins.

Though nominally set in modern day Spain, the story develops as an extended flashback of Juan de Vere, a young man just out of university in the early 1980’s. De Vere works as an assistant to the film director Eduardo Muriel, and, as the novel opens, Muriel has a special request for him: to begin observing closely a friend of Muriel’s, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Muriel has apparently learned some disturbing news about Van Vechten, and wants de Vere to help him discover whether it’s true. In answer to de Vere’s repeated attempts to begin his assignment with more details, however, Muriel will only say that he has heard that “the Doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one,” (43). Thus Muriel leaves de Vere to perform his investigation in the dark --- leaving him at the mercy of his imagination in guessing what the truth might be.

De Vere works at Muriel’s apartment, eventually spending so much time there that Muriel provides him a cubbyhole room in which to sleep. As a result, de Vere gradually becomes a little noticed witness to life in the apartment, where Muriel lives with his wife Beatriz and their three kids, as well as a housekeeper.

De Vere’s intimate view into Muriel’s family life only heightens his curiosity at what Van Vechten could have done to inspire such misgivings in Muriel. Though de Vere generally finds Muriel “one of the most upright, charming, fair-minded men [he] had ever met,” (47), he also observes Muriel regularly behaving coarsely toward his wife in private, often disparaging and belittling her verbally. As de Vere begins his pursuit of the truth about Van Vechten, he struggles to square Muriel’s indignation over what he has apparently learned about the doctor’s “indecent behavior towards a woman”, with his dismissive and derogatory conduct toward his own wife.

Out of this seemingly simple mystery, Marías creates the kind of intriguingly intricate and thought-provoking meditation on human behaviors and idiosyncrasies that runs through so much of his work. His characters exhibit a convincing mélange of good and flawed qualities --- able to demonstrate kindness in some situations while succumbing to temptation in others --- and so provide fertile ground for Marías to elaborate on our human condition. And what Marías sees deep inside us, what he reveals to us about ourselves, can arise suddenly in his telling, a moment of self-awareness for a character that for the reader comes with a jolt of recognition, hitting far too close to home:
… one of those griefs that you put off because you don’t want to confront or plunge into it and which, nevertheless, always comes back, recurs, grows deeper with each attack, having failed to disappear during the period you were keeping it at bay or far from your thoughts. (14)
Characteristic of so many of his novels, Marías mixes fiction and reality to great effect in Thus Bad Begins, including historical figures and places throughout the story. Marías places the fictional director Muriel in a context of real-life members of the film industry; these include director Jesús Franco --- famous for horror and sexploitation films --- and his frequent producer, Harry Towers, along with several popular actors.

Though Franco and Towers may be known to some readers, the pair clearly don’t have the fame that typical real-life figures who appear in novels might; also, only Towers actually appears in the story, and then only for a brief moment. Rather than use his fictional characters to illuminate historical figures and their times, Marías’s inclusion of historical people into the novel seems intended to provide a degree of verisimilitude to the fictional story he tells. The outlandish and stylized films of Franco that Marías refers to, and the strange and immoral stories he describes from Towers’ life have the effect of making the fictional characters and their situations and actions feel more realistic, more plausible.

Marías’s approach also introduces ambiguity about where the fictional elements of his story end and true history begins. That uncertainty leads to surely the most unsettling part of the novel for a reader: whether Marías has drawn from historical reality the disturbing secret of Van Vechten’s past that de Vere ultimately uncovers. Early on, de Vere guesses that this secret might be tied to the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of the fascist victors; Muriel essentially confirms de Vere’s assumption, pointing out a weighty reality of Spain, particularly in the 1980’s:
Almost everything [in Spain] has to do with the [Spanish Civil] War. … A war like that is a stigma that takes one or even two centuries to disappear, because it contains everything an affects and debases everything. (37)

The roles in Spain of individuals and the actions of society at large during and after the war in fact play a central role in Marías’s telling. Given Marías’s style, one cannot help but fear that the uncovered details of Van Vechten’s past are historically accurate, even if he himself is a fictional character. More broadly, Marías’s story provides a look into the complicated, post-dictatorship social situation in Spain in the early 1980’s. Less than a decade removed from Franco’s death and the initially tenuous transition to democracy, Marías points out ways in which social behaviors changed much more rapidly than the political situation managed to keep up with, demonstrating the impact this had and some of the behaviors it led to.

Sometimes, admittedly, Marías takes the liberty to descend to more concrete commentary, offering through his characters pointed statements on mannerisms he dislikes. A bit like product placement in a movie, characters will suddenly make critical comments that seem likely to represent Marías’s personal views, such as de Vere pointing out while listening to a friend relating a story: “He made that awful gesture imported from America that people use to indicate quote marks”. (342)   Such comments pop-up up occasionally, and generally seem a bit gratuitous --- often not quite fitting the manner of the characters saying them.

That is a mere quibble, however: in exchange for such isolated moments, the reader is rewarded with Marías’s wonderful observations of our inner lives and complexities. In Thus Bad Begins, he examines the fluid range of justice people have, leading us to respond to perceived personal wrongs with harsh revenge, while being able to look past, ignore or simply not pursue knowledge about more brutal crimes committed against others. As readers, we are left to wonder about our own reactions in such situations --- though hopefully for all of us, with lower stakes than the characters here.

Other reviews / information:
The books title, Thus Bad Begins, comes from a Hamlet. The story also contains a long quote from Henry IV Part 2 on how easily rumors spread, that Marías later refers back to in a comment that seems particularly apt for our current environment:
… our level of credulity has reverted to what it was in the Middle Ages, with rumor stuffing our ears with false reports … and we refuse to ask for proof, accepting everything as credible because everything has already happened, or so we believe. (285)

Other works I have read by Marías, though I read all but three of them before I began this blog of reviews:
  • The Man of Feeling: An opera singer sees a couple on a train; they all disembark in the same city, and he meets them in a hotel, eventually falls into a complex relationship with the woman, who is unhappy in her marriage. My review here.
  • The Infatuations: A woman learns that the male half of a couple she has seen repeatedly at a café has been killed, and she becomes involved in trying to understand what happened to him; my review here.
  • While the Women are Sleeping: A collection of short stories; my review here.
  • When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
  • A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
  • Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious.
You can find quotes from some of these works, and from Thus Bad Begins here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: "Pond" by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond (2016)
Claire-Louise Bennett

195 pages

When I read or hear a review of a book that piques my interest, I add the title and author to a list on my phone, as a reminder for some future visit to a bookstore. Generally, even if months or years pass before I finally come across the book, reading the summary on its cover provides me a sufficient reminder of why it had caught my interest in the first place. Some entries on my list, however, have a question mark at the end of the title and author’s name: my notation for a review that intrigued me, but didn’t necessarily convince me. These are the cryptic entries on my list; when I finally encounter one of these titles in the bookstore, I have generally forgotten what had earlier caught my attention --- and, more importantly, what hesitations had tempered my interest.

So it was when I came across author Claire-Louise Bennett’s book Pond in the bookstore a couple of months ago --- it was on my list, but with one of those enigmatic question marks tacked on. Reviewing the summary on the dust jacket convinced me to go ahead and buy it, but left me with little clear notion of what I was wading into when I later opened it to begin reading. In particular, though I read the book as a novel, once I’d finished and sat down to write this review it dawned on me that perhaps it actually consists of a collection of short stories.

Ultimately it can be enjoyed either way, as a set of loosely related stories, or a kind of impressionistic and meandering novel. Bennett has structured the book as a series of vignettes, narrated by a young woman recalling and reflecting on moments in her life, from the mundane to the dramatic. Many of the woman’s recollections center on events in and around a small cottage she leases near the Atlantic coast of Ireland, a dwelling and landscape that she seems to inhabit deeply, with all her senses.

In one story she watches a storm pass over the mountains outside her window as she takes a bath, meditating on the storm’s relationship to the mountains which she imagines it to be revisiting. In another, after spending days sick in bed, she pulls on a coat over her nightgown and walks up a hill from her cottage to get some air; when, as she leans on a gate to enjoy the view of the countryside, a young man with the hood of his jacket pulled up walks toward her up the path, her initial, instinctive fear suddenly gives way to a fevered eroticism as she finds herself bridling again her natural caution and introverted passiveness.

These remembrances seem to pour out of the Bennett’s narrator --- stream of conscious accounts during which she veers off onto non sequiturs, gets distracted by details she can’t quite recall, and jumps back to fill in information that suddenly occurs to her, just as someone sharing a story with you over a cup of tea or a beer might do. In many of these recollections, she broods on the hidden meanings and implications in her relationships with neighbors, friends and boyfriends, meditations that verge on the obsessive as she sorts through her feelings.

In others, she paints lush, impressionistic portraits of the physical world in and around her cottage, exquisite and engaging descriptions that demonstrate an intimate and almost anthropomorphized perception of her surroundings and their impact on her life. Within her remarkable hyper-awareness, the boundaries between her inner musings and the world she inhabits can become fluid and uncertain:
There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain, visiting the mountains again perhaps after who knows how long, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And to begin with nothing, just a storm, nothing original, nothing I hadn’t heard before. I went about my business for a while until it struck me I should disconnect the cables and thus the lights went out on those small matters I endeavor to attend to and I didn’t mind very much because the matters were straightforward and already composed and yet were at the same time quite beyond me at that moment. It was of no great consequence really. I got into the water which had been waiting for some time, the temperature loosening, and then I had the idea about opening the window wide, which I did with no difficulty despite the rigid appearance of the clasp.

And then, from there, it was possible, unavoidable really, to listen to the storm going around and around, and I knew it was an old one that had come back --- it seemed to know exactly where it was and there was such intimacy in its movement and in the sound it made as it went along and around and around. Yes, I thought, you know those mountains and the mountains are familiar with you also. No --- it was not raging, it was not simply raging --- I heard no element of anger in fact. How loud it was and yet so fragile, stopping and starting for a long time --- it didn’t know where to begin, but it was by no means frantic, either, not at all. I moved a web of lather about the roots of my hair and became immersed in the body of the storm; I knew its structure, saw its eyes, felt its past, and I empathized with its entreaty. It had style, it was experienced; and it came back, and it came back again.

Going around and around, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And even though the mountain did nothing the mountain was not impervious to the storm and in fact dreaded its retreat and longed for it always to come back, and to come back again. (65-67)

Resist the temptation to try and tease a concrete plot out of Bennett’s tales in Pond. Instead, surrender to the meandering sensibility and colorful imagery of her story-telling, and so delight in her narrator’s keen, if often ambivalent, meditations on the fundamental ties that bind us to the natural world and the many people in our lives. And perhaps, as a reward, find yourself encouraged to look more deeply and intensely at even the most apparently quotidian details of daily life.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: "Death's End" by Cixin Liu

Death’s End (2016)
Cixin Liu (1963)

Translated by Ken Liu

604 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it’s not possible to write about it without including some context from the first two books, The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest. So, if you haven’t read the first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review of The Three-Body Problem here; if you’ve read that, but not The Dark Forest, you’ll find my review of that second story here.]

Oh my.

In Death’s End, the concluding novel in Cixin Liu’s mesmerizing and mind-bending science fiction trilogy, Liu explores the full ramifications of the dark vision of life in the universe he introduced readers to in the first two novels. When looking up at the night sky, Liu clearly does not fantasize about potentially thrilling and enriching encounters with galactic civilizations in the vein of science fiction adventure stories such as Star Trek or Star Wars; quite the contrary, he envisions, to quote one of his characters from the second book,
the universe as a dark forest. Civilization [as] an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care … because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. (484, The Dark Forest
Popular, romanticized views of space exploration and discovery evaporate quickly in the searing heat of Liu’s all too plausible premise.

In the opening story of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, humanity discovers that life in the universe is much more prevalent, and dangerous, than previously imagined. This revolution in humanity’s understanding of the cosmos turns out to be but the tip of the iceberg, however, and in the second volume, The Dark Forest, Liu lays out the harrowing logic behind his bleak vision of the universe.

Early in that second story, Ye Wenjie, the physicist who in the first book revealed Earth’s location to the Trisolaran civilization at our nearest neighbor star, cryptically suggests to young physicist Luo Ji that he study “cosmic sociology.” She briefly mentions to him two fundamental axioms of her newly conceived field: “First: survival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.” (13, The Dark Forest)

Ye Wenjie goes on to hint at “two other important concepts: chains of suspicion and the technological explosion.” (14, The Dark Forest) As readers, the importance of concepts such as life’s ferocious survival instinct and the inescapable conflicts caused by life’s exponential growth in the face of fixed space and resources, as well as the unpredictable timing and scope of technological revolutions, follow readily from our knowledge and understanding of the development of civilizations on Earth.

The cryptic chains of suspicion idea, however, seems to represent for Liu the crux of the danger when considering cosmic sociology: to put it simply, no galactic civilization can know a priori, upon discovering the presence of another civilization, whether it is benevolent or malicious. Given that uncertainty, together with the axioms of cosmic sociology, the unpredictable rapidity of technological expansion, and the challenges of the immense interstellar distances and cultural differences naturally in play, the only safe bet for a civilization is to remain hidden. And, if one cosmic civilization does discover another, the only viable option is to immediately destroy it, for fear of otherwise being discovered and destroyed first --- for Liu, the inescapable risk of hesitation is annihilation.

Luo Ji, introduced to the idea of cosmic sociology as the The Dark Forest opens, gradually comes to understand its implications, and in the end uses his new found knowledge to divert the Trisolaran invasion fleet, and so save Earth, by establishing a dangerously tenuous balance of mutually assured destruction. The stakes, though, rise dramatically in the final story, Death’s End, as events upset the delicate balance established by Luo Ji, and humankind must face the full consequences of becoming a visible presence in the dark forest described by Ye Wenjie’s theory of cosmic sociology.

The already expansive, if bleak, scope of Liu’s vision blossoms in Death’s End to challenge everything we think we know about the universe. In a scene set back in the time of the first book, Liu hints at his interpretation of the reality visible to us when we examine the universe beyond our solar system. Ye Wenjie’s daughter, Yang Dong, has found her cherished career as a research physicist in ruins as the Trisolarans have stopped mankind’s progress in the sciences by randomly altering the results of fundamental experiments in physics; Yang Dong finds herself adrift, at a loss to move forward with her life. In a fit of nostalgia, she visits her former lab, where she meets a scientist who has created a model that simulates changes in Earth’s physical environment over millennia, and that allows him to see how altering or removing various factors at a particular point in time can influence Earth’s subsequent development. When he demonstrates how dramatically different Earth would look if life had never developed --- not simply absence of roads and cities, but fundamentally different atmospheric and terrestrial conditions --- Yang Dong finds her life completely unmoored: what meaning has physics at all if everything can be altered by the presence of life? As the story proceeds, the full implications of this reality become clear.

Lest one think that the central themes in this trilogy simply represent an interesting plot line created by Liu, he makes clear in an Author’s Postscript to The Three-Body Problem that he considers the ideas at the heart of this trilogy as deadly serious:
There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligences exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.
I think it should be precisely the opposite: Let’s turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race on Earth and build up the trust and understanding between the different peoples and civilizations that make up humanity. But for the universe outside the solar system, we should be ever vigilant, and be ready to attribute the worst of intentions to any Others that might exist in space. For a fragile civilization like ours, this is without a doubt the most responsible path.

Turning on its head the typical vision of the universe found in traditional science fiction --- of a thrilling future expansion of humankind out into the cosmos --- this trilogy from Liu will leave readers looking up at the night sky with a newfound respect, if not also a shudder of fear.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf