Tuesday, January 29, 2013

525. England Made Me – Graham Greene

History: This book was first published in 1935, and was republished as "The Shipwrecked" in 1953.
Plot: Anthony is a ne’er-do-well and a rake who has been a failure at one job after another all over the world. Anthony has a very close relationship, which borders on incest, with his twin sister, Kate. Kate is the personal secretary and mistress to Erik Krogh, a wealthy Swedish businessman. Through Kate’s influence, Anthony obtains a job as Krogh’s bodyguard.
Krogh is ruthless and amoral in his pursuit of more wealth and power. A central theme of this book is internationalism. Krogh has no allegiance to any country. His only loyalty is to himself and his fortune. There is a good bit of talk in this novel about how nations and borders will be a thing of the past in the modern world with quick travel by airplane and instant communication by telephone and radio.
Krogh is engaged in all kinds of shady business deals to sell worthless stock and defraud shareholders. Krogh also lies to a labor union leader to avoid a strike and then frames the man for wrongdoing and ruins his reputation before firing him. Krogh’s closest thing to a friend is Hall, who has known Krogh since they were both poor young men. Although Krogh has treated Hall badly through the years, Hall is fanatically loyal to Krogh and would do anything for him. Just as Anthony and Kate’s relationship borders on the incestuous, Hall’s infatuation with Krogh borders on the homoerotic.
Ferdinand Minty, an expatriot Englishman who is employed as a reporter by a Swedish newspaper. Minty is eccentric. He lives in a seedy tenement and wears a wrinkled old coat and suit. He is a sadist who tortures a spider by watching it under a glass until it dies. He constantly refers to himself in the third person and is a diehard Anglo-Catholic who is constantly praying to obscure saints. Minty is an alumnus of Harrow, the English public school. When he sees Anthony wearing a Harrow school tie and begins to ask him questions, Minty almost immediately recognizes Anthony as a fraud. Minty’s assignment from his editor is to report on Erik Krogh, so Minty offers to bribe Anthony to leak information to him.
Anthony is appalled by Krogh’s amoral business practices and decides to leak the information to Minty and then return to England where he plans to have a true relationship with his current mistress whom, up to now, he has used merely as a sex object. When Anthony leaks that Krogh is planning to marry Kate, Krogh realizes that Anthony is about to ruin his reputation and wants to prevent Anthony returning to England. Hall engineers a late night poker game to attempt to have Anthony run up large gambling debts and be unable to leave Sweden. After being foiled in this plan because Anthony already has tickets to sail to England, Hall murders Anthony whose death is made to look like an accident.
Review:  In retrospect, the premise that nationalism is on the way out is kind of laughable for a novel published in 1935, two years after Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 and four years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939. However, it's no more laughable than reading things published in the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell that opined that we had entered a new era of world peace and prosperity.
If England made Anthony Farrant she couldn't have been very proud of her job, and unless Graham Greene has a grudge against England we fail to see much point to his title. For the Anthony Farrants are ubiquitous, they are indigenous to every land, and go their small, pestiferous way at one period of history as well as another. Not sufficiently honest with themselves to be real criminals, they are none the less predatory. Every business house knows the type, and when it is unfortunate enough to have hired such a one it gets rid of him as quickly as possible. It may, of course, seem that a rat would not make much of a hero for a novel; but then, novels aren't what they used to be. Or is it that readers aren't? Futility appears nowadays to be as fruitful a subject for the novelist's pen as success was formerly. And perhaps it is better so, for if one becomes sufficiently bored with the presentation of futility one may be moved to try to amount to something, though merely for the sake of being different. Hence, in "England Made Me" Mr. Greene may be covertly preaching a sermon.
Anthony Farrant was probably not born bad, he may even have had less of the Old Adam in him than most. But he never grew up. At the age of 30 or thereabouts, after he had been sacked in half the mercantile centres of the world -- Singapore, Hongkong, Calcutta, to say nothing of London, Paris and Amsterdam -- he was just as ingratiating and just as unable to distinguish between right and wrong as when a child. His sister Kate preceded him into life by half an hour, and she has all the traits he lacks: stamina, stability, loyalty. And this, the author would have us believe, explains the obsession she labors under that she can transfer these qualities from herself to him -- to use a trite expression, make a man of him. In the end Tony, going down to another, and this time final, defeat, brings about Kate's disillusionment.
In an earlier period of history Kate Farrant would have been the mistress of a king, for it is neither love nor wealth which motivates her but lust for power. But kings being out of date, and industry and finance in the saddle, she accedes to the wishes of Krogh of Krogh's, whose branches circle the globe and whose stock manipulations have made, and can break, millions of holders. But -- a bit of psychology to be noted -- Kate does not desire power for herself. Anthony, sacked again ("resigned" he had written her), is on is way back to England, and she wants this hold on Krogh that her brother may be provided for. Not, however, as a mere parasite; she insists that Tony be given a job. She herself is not a mere parasite but Krogh's confidential secretary, for although the headquarters of the firm is in Stockholm, the business is conducted in English. Just before Anthony arrives -- Kate's meeting him in a small English port is one of the most effective short scenes in the book -- Krogh had been frightened by a Socialist demonstration, so he takes on Anthony as his bodyguard.
Mr. Greene in "England Made Me," as should be evident by this time, might have contented himself with writing only a melodrama. Had he done so the story would have been less good than it is. On the other hand, as seen in Kate's obsession about her worthless brother, and especially in her acceptance of a loveless relationship solely for the purpose of establishing and advancing him, the author's aspirations to be a novelist of psychological discernment are manifest. Had he been able to carry his psychology deeper and further the book would be more impressive. Graham Greene sees implications which he realizes will immensely strengthen the story but seems on the whole not to be able to work them out convincingly. The central spring of all which subsequently takes place is the mental relation between Krogh and Anthony immediately the two have come together. This is imagined with considerable subtlety, and is, we believe, something few novelists have used, although one has but to look about to perceive instances of it.
If one wished to go back to the ancients, one would say that Tony discovers the Achilles' heel of the great man. Up from peasant beginnings, Krogh can be powerful only so long as he is impersonal, cold, ruthless. Once he can be made in any part of his life to acknowledge silently within himself an inferiority to others, once he drops his role of Jove to become human, he will start to disintegrate. And Tony, who is as genial as such lesser scoundrels always are, suddenly finds the great man putty in his hands. Krogh permits Anthony to drag him from the opera to a music hall, he lets him buy his suits and ties, he permits him to plead for a discharged workman. To be sure, the disintegrating process might have been long drawn out, and it makes for action in the story to have Tony discover on his sister's desk confidential information which he can make use of to blackmail Krogh.
The firm, for all its glittering exterior, is crumbling within. Krogh has been forced to short-term loans, and to sell the stock of one subsidiary to another in order to put through an American deal. There are also pre-dated checks. A cynical touch, for "England Made Me" is often both cynical and sinister, is Krogh's offer of marriage to Kate. "Because a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband?" she queries. And without compunction he acknowledges the correctness of her diagnosis.
There is one other character to be mentioned -- Hall, of the Amsterdam office. Associated with Krogh from the latter's humble start, he is the faithful retainer to whom all the dirty work is entrusted. It is Hall who engineers the sale of the subsidiary company in such a manner that it shall appear a genuine transaction. It is Hall who flies to Stockholm when Krogh, suspicious of Tony, and also afraid of his growing power over him, sends for the faithful henchman. And the riddance is complete, and Kate, her work for Tony finished, her dream for him broken, goes marching on, out of Krogh's, out of the book, a tarnished figure, though one is not without some respect for her.
Too often the author of "England Made Me" seems to be shadow-boxing, not delivering the full punch. But the story is skillfully fabricated, and the suspense so well maintained that any one who starts it is certain to go to the end.
In typical Greene fashion, the seedy antihero wrestles with his conscience as murky moral dilemmas begin to trouble even his disreputable soul.
A strong theme is the questionably close bond between the main protagonist, the always ineffectual Anthony, and his twin sister Kate. Her life as secretary and live-in mistress to the crooked tycoon, Krogh, who is no great lover, absorbs her time and energy but leaves her emotionally unfulfilled. By getting Anthony to Stockholm and on Krogh’s payroll, she is looking for a much closer relationship with her charming, unreliable and totally broke brother. His failure to respond, and the unhappy ending, leaves her in an even worse position as Krogh’s artificial empire threatens to unravel.
Opening Line: “She might have been waiting for her lover.”
Closing Line: “the missal in the cupboard, the Madonna, the spider withering under the glass, a home from home.”
Quotes: “Tuesday is always a tiring day for me.”
Rating: Not as good as other Graham Greene novels.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

524. Felicia’s Journey – William Trevor

History: This book was published in 1994.
Plot: After taking a ferry to England and beginning a hopeless search to find the lawnmower factory in Birmingham where she believes Johnny now works, Felicia encounters an older man, Joseph Hilditch, a catering manager at a factory, who is also the son of Gala, an eccentric TV chef who enjoyed fame in past decades. Hilditch regularly watches the old programmes of his presumably-deceased mother while he cooks her recipes, and collects material about his mother. Hilditch offers to help Felicia, however, his motives for doing so are initially unclear, and it is subsequently suggested through flashback sequences that he has in the past befriended but then turned on vulnerable young women. He refers Felicia to a Bed and Breakfast and offers to drive her to a factory that he suggests could be the one she is looking for, which is on the way to the hospital where the unmarried Hilditch claims he is going to visit his wife. Felicia fails to find Johnny at the factory, but while she is out of the car, Hilditch goes through her bags and steals her money. Subsequently Felicia comes across a Jamaican Christian witnessee who offers Felicia a free overnight stay at a church home. While staying at the hostel, Felicia discovers that her money has gone, and after appearing to accuse others at the home of stealing the money, flees the hostel for Hilditch's house.
Hilditch has meanwhile discovered Johnny's whereabouts, in the barracks where he is still serving with the army, but does not disclose this to Felicia. He does however tell her that his wife has died, and that she suggested that Felicia abort her unborn child. After the abortion, which Hilditch pays for, he takes her back to his house and gives her an overdose of sleeping pills. While digging out in his garden, the Jamaican Christian parishioner and a new convert enter his yard and begin to preach about Jesus. Hilditch feels flashes of guilt and confesses that he did, in fact, steal and cheat Felicia. Upstairs in the house, Felicia awakens from her sleep and struggles down the stairs. Hilditch finds her trying to escape the house, but allows her to leave. He later walks to his kitchen, where he hangs himself with a pair of tights.
Review: The most disturbing novels about murderers are the ones where the reader inhabits the killer's mind and comes to know and, in a sense, understand him. Such is the case with `Felicia's Journey', a novel that treads a very fine line between sympathy and disgust for both main characters, Felicia, a young girl looking for the father of her unborn child and Mr. Hilditch, a refined and courteous catering manager, who sets about to befriend her. Her initial innocence and snivelling about her condition, though understandable, is grating, while the friendly and gentle Mr. Hilditch, although we (and Felicia) should know better, is the more interesting and thoughtful character. What's at once troubling and fascinating about the novel is this general lack of sympathy for Felicia and the feeling that Hilditch just `can't be that bad.' I'm sure Trevor has constructed the narrative this way in order to unsettle the reader, and it works. I can't divulge one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, other than to say, growing self-awareness is not always a good thing. I'm reminded of Hannibal Lecter, another likable bad boy. However, Lecter is great fantasy while Mr. Hilditch is the much more realistic and believable character. You know he's living just around the corner. This novel is beautifully written and unusual in every sense.
Opening Line: “She keeps being sick.”
Closing Line: “She turns her hands so that the sun may catch them differently, and slightly lifts her head to warm the other side of her face.”
Quotes: "Hidden away, the people of the streets drift into sleep induced by alcohol or agitated by despair, into dreams that carry them back to the lives that once were theirs. They lie with their begging notices still beside them, with enough left of a bottle to ease the waking moment, with pavement cigarette butts to hand."
Rating: Good.

523. Veronika Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho

History: This book was written in 1998.
Plot: Veronica is a beautiful young woman from Ljubljana, Slovenia who appears to have the perfect life, but nevertheless decides to commit suicide by ingesting too many sleeping pills. While she waits to die, she decides to read a magazine.
After seeing an article in the magazine which wittily asks "Where is Slovenia?," she decides to write a letter to the press justifying her suicide, the idea being to make the press believe that she has killed herself because people don't even know where Slovenia is. Her plan fails and she wakes up in Villete, a mental hospital in Slovenia, where she is told she has a week to live.
Her presence there affects all of the mental hospital's patients, especially Zedka, who has clinical depression; Mari, who suffers from panic attacks; and Eduard, who has schizophrenia, and with whom Veronika falls in love. During her internment in Villete she realises that she has nothing to lose and can therefore do what she wants, say what she wants and be who she wants without having to worry about what others think of her; as a mental patient, she is unlikely to be criticized. Because of this newfound freedom Veronika experiences all the things she never allowed herself to experience, including hatred and love.
In the meantime, Villete's head psychiatrist, Dr. Igor, attempts a fascinating but provocative experiment: can you "shock" someone into wanting to live by convincing her that death is imminent? Like a doctor applying defibrillator paddles to a heart attack victim, Dr. Igor's "prognosis" jump-starts Veronika's new appreciation of the world around her.
Review: Veronika does decide to die, but it doesn’t mean she succeeds. Somehow she wakes up to find herself inside a mental institution and the knowledge that she has damaged her heart so badly that she only has a few days left to live. Veronika is now faced with the prospect of ‘waiting’ for death; a much different approach to the whole thing, but nevertheless she still gets her initial wish. However, as the days shorten and her resolve wans, Veronika starts seeing life in a different light. Existence begins to bother her, the beauty of nature shines through the grey Ljubljana mornings, when suddenly one day Veronika wakes up and realises with horror that things are changing inside her… that in the face of death, her survival instincts have begun to take hold.
This was the first Coelho book I ever read, and like all his books it is simple to read. Coelho doesn’t overcloud or embellish his words unnecessarily. Instead, the focus of the book is firmly upon Veronika and her feelings, which in this case, are actually quite complex. To begin a story with a suicide attempt is a sure-fire way of gaining your readers attention, as Coelho well knows. But it is Veronika’s progress as a lost young woman trying to find her niche in the world that drew my attention. Coelho’s efforts to document these psychological transitions are admirable. I often found myself thinking that if I were in her place, that’s exactly how I would feel/ think/ act.
‘Veronika Decides To Die‘ is not such a long book. It weighs in at about 200 pages, but it does make one feel grateful to be alive. This is a book I would recommend to anyone who has ever thought of suicide. I believe it has the power to draw many people away from that dark thought. Existence is a gift. Whether one thinks it is holy or not is entirely up to them, but life really is a blessing, a miracle, a cosmic phenomenon. Coelho points out in his novel that a change in perspective, no matter how slight or dramatic, can often tie a falling person tighter to the thread of life.
Opening Line: “On November 11, 1997 Veronika decided the moment to kill herself had at last arrived.”
Closing Line: “He would leave the reports on the building’s the lack of security until later.”
Quotes: “The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”
“Haven't you learned anything, not even with the approach of death? Stop thinking all the time that you're in the way, that you're bothering the person next to you. If people don't like it, they can complain. And if they don't have the courage to complain, that's their problem”
Rating: Philosophically Good.

522. What a Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe

History: This book was published in the UK by Viking Press in April 1994.
Plot: Godfrey, son of the wealthy Matthew and Frances Winshaw of Yorkshire, is shot down by German anti-aircraft fire during a secret wartime mission over Berlin, on 30 November 1942. His sister Tabitha alleges that he was betrayed by their brother Lawrence, but no-one believes her, and she is committed to a mental institution. Nineteen years later, after a party to mark the 50th birthday of their other brother Mortimer, Lawrence is attacked in the night by an intruder, but survives, killing the intruder in the process. The intruder, a middle aged man, remains unidentified.
Later, in the 1980s, a young novelist, Michael Owen, is commissioned to write a history of the Winshaw family, receiving a generous stipend from Tabitha Winshaw to do so. He works on this on and off, but with no deadline or pressure to complete, the project stagnates and Michael becomes reclusive, staying in his London flat watching videotapes of old films – in particular the 1961 British comedy What a Carve Up! starring Kenneth Connor, Shirley Eaton and Sid James. He emerges back into society, and resumes his interest in the project, following a visit from a neighbour, Fiona, seeking sponsorship for a 40-mile bicycle ride.
The novel focuses by turns on the various figures in the Winshaw family: the lazy, hypocritical, populist tabloid newspaper columnist Hilary, the ambitious and ruthless career politician Henry, the brutal chicken and pork farmer Dorothy, the predatory art-gallery owner and art dealer Roderick (Roddy), the investment bankerThomas, and the arms dealer Mark. In each of these sections the novel depicts the way in which actions by individuals from the same family, serving their own greedy interests, have distressing and far-reaching consequences.
Michael's renewed interest in the Winshaws coincides with the appearance in his life of Findlay Onyx, a private detective hired by Tabitha to pursue the mystery of whether or not Lawrence was complicit in Godfrey's death. Michael develops a warm, but platonic, relationship with Fiona. She suffers from the symptoms of some mysterious illness, but her consultations are constantly delayed, or her records are misplaced, by underresourced health service professionals. She is eventually admitted to hospital, but because treatment was not administered soon enough, she dies shortly after New Year, 1991.
Very soon afterwards Michael is surprised to be invited by Mortimer Winshaw's solicitor, Everett Sloane, to attend the reading of Mortimer's will at the remotely located Winshaw Towers in Yorkshire. Until this point he believes he was invited to write the history by chance, but as events transpire he is more deeply related to the family than he realizes. He attends the reading of the will along with the artist Phoebe, one of Roddy's conquests and lately Mortimer's personal nurse. The family members learn that they will inherit nothing from Mortimer but his debts. As the night progresses events begin to shadow those of the film of What a Carve Up! more and more, with the various members of the family meeting violent deaths that accord with their professional sins. It is the night that allied warplanes embark on the bombing of Iraq following Saddam Hussain's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It is revealed that Michael is the son of Godfrey's surviving co-pilot, who was also Lawrence's mystery attacker. The following morning Tabitha ensures that she is piloting Hilary Winshaw's seaplane to take Michael home, but deliberately destroys the plane, killing them both.
Review: Michael Owen, the narrator of alternate sections of What a Carve Up!and the apparent author of those parts written in the third person, has been a fan of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes stories in his youth. When he visits Findlay Onyx, the elderly, camp private detective who has befriended him, he notices that his Islington bedsit is furnished exactly like the apartment of Thaddeus Sholto in Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four. The recognition is a symptom of his narrative self-consciousness.
"Mystery" is a word that Michael himself often uses. It signifies that he knows that he is a character in a plot. Indeed, he voices exactly this understanding near the end of the novel when he tells his new inamorata, Phoebe, "I thought I was supposed to be writing this story . . . but I'm not. At least not any more. I'm part of it."
This éclaircissement is more a confirmation than a surprise, for Findlay has already told Michael "the real mystery is you". Michael has been commissioned by the apparently mad but wealthy Tabitha Winshaw to write a history of her family, a collection of the nastiest and greediest and most successful individuals spawned by postwar British society. At the heart of his account, and the beginning of this novel, is the "mystery" of the disappearance of Godfrey Winshaw Рthe one decent member of the family Рin a secret mission over Germany in 1942, and of Tabitha's deranged insistence that their brother Lawrence is to blame. While playing Cluedo with Joan, his friend from childhood and one of several women with whom he will fail to have an affair, Michael has had a premonition of his own involvement. He has been playing as Professor Plum, who, he realises, is the culprit: "I wondered what it would actually feel like, to be present at the unravelling of some terrible mystery . . . to find, all at once, that you were thoroughly and messily bound up in the web of motives and suspicions which you had presumed to untangle."
Michael was once a novelist, though as he begins his narrative he is a depressive recluse who has abandoned his career. In the middle of the novel he rediscovers a narrative fragment he wrote as a child called "The Castle of Mystery"; an awareness of mysteries is his narrative addiction. He keeps hearing the word. Joan uses it about his commission to write about the Winshaws. "So . . . are you going to tell me about this mysterious new project of yours?" He keeps using it himself of the odd events surrounding his attempts to catalogue the misdeeds of the Winshaws. When his own publisher has his house burgled and documents and photographs stolen, he is questioned by the publisher's formidable deputy: "The only effects of our conversation were to leave the mystery more clouded than ever." Riding a London bus to his next appointment with the hapless Findlay, he thinks of himself travelling "ever closer towards the next stage in a mystery . . ."
Made aware of "mysteries", the reader is alerted to the narrative significance of any otherwise unexplained detail. When characters smell jasmine, though there is none growing in any garden, we know it is a clue. When we hear that Lawrence wrote a note on the night of Godfrey's death containing the words "BISCUIT, CHEESE and CELERY" we realise that it cannot have been only an instruction for his supper. When Michael mentions twice that he and his parents never used to see his father's parents, we know that we will eventually discover the reason for this.
Mysteries are, in one sense, reassuring. For narrative mysteries, unlike mysteries in life, have solutions. Puzzles are set whose solutions a playful author has already envisaged. When Dickens died, he left The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his uncompleted novel, a mystery. What is the explanation of Drood's disappearance? We can at least be certain that there would have been an explanation. In life, mysteries tend not to have solutions, for there is no plot-maker (unless, like 18th-century novelists, you believe that God makes plots of all our lives). In the prologue toWhat a Carve Up! Michael ruminates on the mysterious death of his childhood hero Yuri Gagarin in an air "accident", and calls this "another of adulthood's ubiquitous, insoluble mysteries". Yet in the ending to this novel, Gagarin's fate is recalled and made part of Michael's story.
It is a mystery made into a final explanation, for explanation is always the other side of mystery.
Opening Line: “Tragedy had struck the Winshaws twice before, but never on such a terrible scale.”
Closing Line: “Tragedy had struck the Winshaws twice before, but never on such a terrible scale.”
Quotes: “The upshot was that she lost her religion - with a vengeance - and walked out on him, taking these three daughters with her. Faith, Hope and Brenda.”
Rating: Very Good

521. Reasons to Live – Amy Hempel

History: This book of short stories was published in 1985.
Plot: Hempel's now-classic collection of short fiction is peopled by complex characters who have discovered that their safety nets are not dependable and who must now learn to balance on the threads of wit, irony, and spirit. Two themes run through the 15 stories collected here: an intense regret at life's missed connections and a sharp, wittily observed sense of what it takes to survive. PW praised Hempel's "many gifts, including her deliciously absurd sense of the trivia we all carry around with us and her comic obsession with animals."
Review: The pieces in this collection are often so short that they veer towards gestural sketches. Rarely do we know things about Hempel's characters such as name, age, and sometimes even gender beyond a reasonable guess. However, the writing is so taut that these stories hum with energy and often build to a blow-like ending, painful and revelatory. While a few lines of dialogue come across as preciously precocious, these stories dazzle with their humor as well.
Opening Line: “My heart- I thought it has stopped.”
Closing Line: “I lied,” he said, “There is no bad news.”
Quotes: “I think it was that love that I loved. That kind of involvement was reassuring; I felt it would extend to me, as well. That it did not or that it did, but only as much and no more, was confusing at first.”
Rating: Good.

520. Solaris – Stanislaw Lem


History: This book was published in 1961. Solaris is one of Lem’s philosophic explorations of man’s anthropomorphic limitations. First published in Warsaw in 1961, the 1970 Polish-to-French-to-English translation of Solaris is the best-known of Lem's English-translated works.
Plot: Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris, with whom Terran scientists are attempting communication, is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism. What appear to be waves on its surface are later revealed to be the equivalents of muscle contractions.
Kris Kelvin arrives aboard the scientific research station hovering (via anti-gravity generators) near the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, a scientific discipline known as Solaristics, which over the years has degenerated to simply observe, record and categorize the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, they have only achieved the formal classification of the phenomena with an elaborate nomenclature — yet do not understand what such activities really mean in a strictly scientific sense. Shortly before psychologist Kelvin's arrival, the crew has exposed the ocean to a more aggressive and unauthorized experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation gives unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans.
The ocean's response to their aggression exposes the deeper, hidden aspects of the personalities of the human scientists — whilst revealing nothing of the ocean’s nature itself. To the extent that the ocean’s actions can be understood, the ocean then seems to test the minds of the scientists by confronting them with their most painful and repressed thoughts and memories. It does this via the materialization of physical human simulacra; Kelvin confronts memories of his dead lover and guilt about her suicide. The torments of the other researchers are only alluded to but seem even worse than Kelvin’s personal purgatory.
The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for their limited earth science to explain, deeply upsetting the scientists. The alien (extraterrestrial) mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human mind of (objective) consciousness that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.
Review: Solaris is the best-known work of Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem. Published in 1961, this work continues to intrigue readers from casual SF fans to academic critics like Frederic Jameson and Slavov Zizek. It has been the basis for two cinematic adaptations, the first by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (critically acclaimed) in 1972, and the second directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney (critically “meh”) in 2002. Lem, who died in 2006, was not happy with either film, both of which focused more on the human relationships and the love story than on Lem’s philosophizing or scientific speculation.
He was also dissatisfied with the translations of his work. Most print editions you will find in the US today (bearing an image of Clooney smooching co-star Natasha McElhorne) are reprints of a rushed 1970 translation of the French translation of the original Polish. Literally, it’s a translation of a translation. Lem didn’t even think the French translation was faithful, and, as a fluent English speaker, liked the Polish-to-French-to-English translation even less. Anyone who has done translation of any kind realizes it’s never an exact process, so lots of time and care is necessary to preserve the writer’s vision and intent as much as possible. The process is eased a bit when translation between languages with similar bases (like Spanish to French), but Solaris went from a Slavic language (Polish) to a Romance language (French) before being translated into a Germanic Language (English, and if this surprises you, listen for that Germanic lilt in this reading of Beowulf in the Old English). Needless to say, some things were lost in translation.
Given the book’s notoriety, it’s hard to believe that there has not been a direct translation from Polish-to-English in the fifty years since its publication; until now, that is. Bill Johnston, an Associate Professor of Second Language Studies and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, has made the first direct Polish-to-English translation of the novel with the permission of the Lem estate. On the previous translations,
So far, the Johnston translation has only been released as an audiobook available on Audible.com , although it will be coming out as an ebook and–if the Lem family has their way–a paper copy as well. When I received an email from Audible advertising this, I was initially excited but then a bit peeved because I knew it meant that my next listening credit was spoken for!
Opening Line: “At nineteen hundred hours ships time I climbed down the metal ladder past the bays on either side, into the metal capsule.”
Closing Line: “I had no idea, as I abided in the unshaken belief that the time of cruel wonders was not yet over.”
Quotes: “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is.”
Rating: Good.  

519. Slow Man – J.M. Coetze


History: This book was written in 2005. 
Plot: Paul Rayment, a man of late middle-age, loses part of a leg after his bicycle is hit by a car driven by a reckless young man. He becomes reclusive and retreats to his flat where he is cared for by a succession of nurses. None suit him until Marijana, with whom he shares a European childhood (hers in Croatia, his in France), comes along. Paul's feelings for Marijana, and for her teenage son Drago, become more complex. When Paul offers to finance Drago's education, Marijana's husband becomes suspicious of Paul's relationship with Marijana, which causes trouble in their family and culminates in Drago fighting with his father and moving in with Paul.
It is not until the famed author Elizabeth Costello shows up unexpectedly and uninvited at Paul's doorstep that he confronts his feelings for Marijana and his resentment at the state of his life following his bicycle accident. Costello's sudden presence in his life confounds Paul, who believes she is merely using him as a character in her next novel.
Review: This is the first novel JM Coetzee has written since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003. It displays all his expected pitch-perfect restraint, the language diamond clear, his attention always revealing a great deal more of his characters' intentions than they know themselves. He seems at pains here, though, to examine the nature of these gifts; to dismantle the mechanisms of his storytelling; to let the reader pull back the curtain a little and see him at work on the levers of his fiction and witness his practised pressing of all the right buttons.
Slow Man starts as a simple enough story. In an Australian suburb, a man is knocked off his bike. Paul Rayment enjoys the sensation of his body flying through the air. 'Relax!' he tells himself, as if he knows already that this is the last bit of lightness he will ever feel. He's right, too. When he wakes in a hospital bed, it is to give his consent to doctors to remove his leg above the knee.
The novel, thereafter, examines his reluctance, in the familiar phrase, to come to terms with the loss. To begin with, he can't cope with his nurses and, in particular, the one who calls 'the bedpan the potty; [and] his penis his willie'. When he hires a woman who can talk to him without embarrassment, who can bathe his stump and help him to his lavatory and rub some of the frustration of his new condition out of his back he, not surprisingly, falls in love.
The woman, Marijana, is a Croatian immigrant, married with children and an unfulfilled history that seems part of her attraction. Deluded, a little, Paul believes he can find ways to make her love him, despite his old, knobbly fingers and his singularity - he is a retired, divorced man who collects photographs of old Australian mining towns - and his new circumstances. He tells her of his love and she promptly disappears. It is at this point that into his life, and into the novel, comes Elizabeth Costello.
Readers of Coetzee will know Costello from his previous book. On that occasion, she acted as a kind of crabby alter ego, a novelist in her late sixties, invited to give a series of lectures on her - and perhaps his own - preoccupations, 'The Novel in Africa' and so on. At the heart of Elizabeth Costello, to further confuse matters, was a series of lectures Coetzee gave, partly in her persona, to the grandees of Princeton University in 1999, called 'The Lives of Animals'. In these, Costello argued controversially, fictionally that in the industrial production of meat for food 'we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end ... ' Costello, you might say, therefore comes into Slow Man with a bit of baggage.
For Paul Rayment, this is literally the case. The novelist, now a couple of years older and more frail, of whom he has heard vaguely, arrives on his doorstep with her things, brusquely introduces herself and moves into his spare room and his story. She explains her presence by quoting to Paul the opening section of his novel, the bike and him flying through the air and so on. Far from intruding on his novel, she suggests, he has intruded on hers: '"You came to me [Paul], that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?" He is silent.'
From then on, as we are invited to believe she has all along, Costello dictates events, setting up rendez-vous, examining Paul's motivations for him. She has a novelist's sense of always moving things along, without ever quite knowing what will happen next. Her interventions into what, until then, has been a story of some compulsion might threaten, you imagine, to collapse any plausibilty and identification in Paul's predicaments. In fact, even as she reveals her manipulations, they prove what a consummate writer of fiction her creator, Coetzee, can be.
Opening Line: “The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful,like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle.”
Closing Line: “And he leans forward and kisses her thrice in the formal manner he was taught as a child, left right left.”
Quotes: “Truth is not spoken in anger. Truth is spoken, if it ever comes to be spoken, in love. The gaze of love is not deluded. It sees what is best in the beloved even when what is best in the beloved finds it hard to emerge into the light.”
Rating: Fair

518. Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

History: first published in 1928. It was Waugh's first published novel; an earlier attempt, entitled The Temple at Thatch, was destroyed by Waugh while still in manuscript form. Decline and Fall is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. It is a social satire that employs the author's characteristic black humour in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.
Plot: The novel tells the story of Paul Pennyfeather, student at the fictional Scone College, Oxford, who is sent down for running through the college grounds without his trousers, having become, inadvertently, immersed in the activities of the Bollinger Club. Having defaulted on the conditions of his inheritance, he is forced to take a job teaching at an obscure public school in Wales called Llanabba, run by Dr Fagan. Attracted to the wealthy mother of one of his pupils, Pennyfeather becomes private tutor to her boy, Peter, and then engaged to be married to her - the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde (who later becomes "Lady Metroland," and appears in Waugh's other novels.) Pennyfeather, however, is unaware that the source of her income is a number of high-class brothels in South America. Arrested on the morning of the wedding, after running an errand for Margot related to her business, Pennyfeather takes the fall to protect his fiancée's honour and is sentenced to seven years in prison for traffic in prostitution. Margot marries another man with government ties and he arranges for Paul to fake his own death and escape. In the end he returns to where he started at Scone. He studies under his own name, having convinced the college that he is the distant cousin of the Paul Pennyfeather who was sent down previously. The novel ends as it started, with Paul sitting in his room listening to the distant shouts of the Bollinger Club.
Review: In a little foreword to this novel the author entreats us to bear in mind throughout that his book is meant to be funny, and we have, though at times somewhat strenuously, to take him at his word. And Mr. Waugh is funny, with that mingling of worldly wisdom and bunkum which is the ne plus ultra of your masterly undergraduate.
He affects to tell the story of a varsity man who was sent down, but the story is, as it is intended to be, so very silly that he has had merely to interest himself in its superficial presentation, and he manages this so extremely well that one is occasionally reminded of P. G. Wodehouse, though it must be added that Mr. Wodehouse has a far greater knowledge of human nature than appears to reside at present in Mr. Waugh's consciousness. But anyway "Decline and Fall" is a great lark; its author has an agreeable sense of comedy and characterisation, and the gift of writing smart and telling conversation, while his drawings are quite in tune with the spirit of the tale.
Opening Line: “Mr. Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr. Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr. Sniggs’s room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College.”
Closing Line: “Then he turned out the light and went into his bedroom to sleep.”
Quotes: “...any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”
Rating: Didn’t like.

517. Neuromancer – William Gibson

History: This book was written in 1984. It was Gibson's debut novel and the beginning of the Sprawl trilogy.
Plot: Henry Dorsett Case is a low-level hustler in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan. Once a talented computer hacker, Case was caught stealing from his employer. As punishment for his theft, Case's central nervous system was damaged with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to use keyboard skills to access the global computer network in cyberspace, a virtual reality data space called the "Matrix". Unemployable, addicted to drugs, and suicidal, Case desperately searches the Chiba "black clinics" for a miracle cure. Case is saved by Molly Millions, an augmented "street samurai" and mercenary for a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage, who offers to cure Case in exchange for his services as a hacker. Case jumps at the chance to regain his life as a "console cowboy," but neither Case nor Molly know what Armitage is really planning. Case's nervous system is repaired using new technology that Armitage offers the clinic as payment, but he soon learns from Armitage that sacs of the poison that first crippled him have been placed in his blood vessels as well. Armitage promises Case that if he completes his work in time, the sacs will be removed; otherwise they will dissolve, disabling him again. He also has Case's pancreas replaced and new tissue grafted into his liver, leaving Case incapable of metabolizing cocaine or amphetamines and apparently ending his drug addiction.
Case develops a close personal relationship with Molly, who suggests that he begin looking into Armitage's background. Meanwhile, Armitage assigns them their first job: they must steal a ROM module that contains the saved consciousness of one of Case's mentors, legendary cyber-cowboy McCoy Pauley, nicknamed "Dixie Flatline." Pauley's hacking expertise is needed by Armitage, and the ROM construct is stored in the corporate headquarters of media conglomerate Sense/Net. A street gang named the "Panther Moderns" are hired to create a simulated terrorist attack on Sense/Net. The diversion allows Molly to penetrate the building and steal Dixie's ROM.
Case and Molly continue to investigate Armitage, discovering his former identity of Colonel Willis Corto. Corto was a member of "Operation Screaming Fist," which planned on infiltrating and disrupting Soviet computer systems from ultra light aircraft dropped over Russia. The Russian military had learned of the idea and installed defenses to render the attack impossible, but the military went ahead with Screaming Fist, with a new secret purpose of testing these Russian defenses. As the Operation team attacked a Soviet computer center, EMP weapons shut down their computers and flight systems, and Corto and his men were targeted by Soviet laser defenses. He and a few survivors commandeered a Soviet military helicopter and escaped over the heavily guarded Finnish border. Everyone was killed except Corto, who was seriously wounded and heavily mutilated by Finnish defense forces attacking as they were landing the helicopter. After some months in the hospital, Corto was visited by a Government military official and then medically rebuilt to be able to provide what he came to realise was fake testimony, designed to mislead the public and protect the military officers who had covered up knowledge of the EMP weapons. After the trials, Corto snapped, killing the Government official who contacted him and then disappeared into the criminal underworld.
In Istanbul, the team recruits Peter Riviera, an artist, thief, and drug addict who is able to project detailed holographic illusions with the aid of sophisticated cybernetic implants. Although Riviera is a sociopath, Armitage coerces him into joining the team. The trail leads Case and Molly to a powerful artificial intelligence named Wintermute, created by the plutocratic Tessier-Ashpool family, who spend most of their inactive time in cryonic preservation inside Villa Straylight, a labyrinthine mansion located at one end of Freeside, a cylindrical space habitat located at L5, and functioning primarily as a Las Vegas-style space resort for the wealthy.
Wintermute's nature is finally revealed – it is one-half of a super-AI entity planned by the family, although its exact purpose is unknown. The Turing Law Code governing AIs bans the construction of such entities; to get around this, it had to be built as two separate AIs. Wintermute (housed in a computer mainframe in Bern, Switzerland) was programmed by the Tessier-Ashpool dynasty with a need to merge with its other half – Neuromancer (whose physical mainframe is installed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Unable to achieve this merger on its own, Wintermute recruited Armitage and his team to help complete the goal. Case is tasked with entering cyberspace to pierce the Turing-imposed software barriers using a powerful icebreaker program. At the same time, Riviera is to obtain the password to the Turing lock from Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool, an unfrozen daughter clone and the current leader of Tessier-Ashpool SA. Wintermute believes Riviera will pose an irresistible temptation to her, and that she will give him the password. The password must be spoken into an ornate computer terminal located in the Tessier-Ashpool home in Villa Straylight, and entered simultaneously as Case pierces the software barriers in cyberspace – otherwise the Turing lock will remain intact.
Armitage's team attracts the attention of the Turing Police, whose job is to prevent AIs from exceeding their built-in limitations. As Molly and Riviera gain entrance to Villa Straylight, three officers arrest Case and take him into custody; Wintermute manipulates the orbital casino's security and maintenance systems and kills the officers, allowing Case to escape. The Armitage personality starts to disintegrate and revert to the Corto personality as he relives Screaming Fist. It is revealed that in the past, Wintermute had originally contacted Corto through a bedside computer during his convalescence, eventually convincing Corto that he was Armitage. Wintermute used him to persuade Case and Molly to help it merge with its twin AI, Neuromancer. Finally, Armitage becomes the shattered Corto again, but his newfound personality is short-lived as he is killed by Wintermute.
Inside Villa Straylight, Molly is captured by Riviera and Lady 3Jane. Worried about Molly and operating under orders from Wintermute, Case tracks her down with help from Maelcum, his Rastafarian pilot. Neuromancer attempts to trap Case within a cyber-construct where he finds the consciousness of Linda Lee, his girlfriend from Chiba City, who was murdered by one of Case's underworld contacts. Case manages to escape flatlining inside the construct by choosing of his own free will not to stay. Freeing himself, Case takes Maelcum and confronts Lady 3Jane, Riviera, and Hideo, Lady 3Jane's ninja bodyguard. Riviera tries to kill Case, but Lady 3Jane is sympathetic towards Case and Molly, and Hideo protects him. Riviera blinds Hideo, but flees when he learns that the ninja is just as adept without his sight. Molly then explains to Case that Riviera is doomed anyway, as he has been fatally poisoned by his drugs, which she had spiked. With Lady 3Jane in possession of the password, the team makes it to the computer terminal. Case ascends to cyberspace to guide the icebreaker to penetrate its target; Lady 3Jane is induced to give up her password and the lock is opened. Wintermute unites with Neuromancer, fusing into a greater entity. The poison in Case's bloodstream is washed out, and he and Molly are handsomely paid for their efforts, while Pauley's ROM construct is apparently erased, at his own request.
In the epilogue, Molly leaves Case. Case finds a new girlfriend, resumes his hacking work, and spends his earnings from the mission replacing his internal organs so that he can continue his previous drug use. Wintermute/Neuromancer contacts him, saying that it has become "the sum total of the works, the whole show," and has begun looking for other AIs like itself. Scanning old recorded transmissions from the 1970s, the super-AI finds a lone AI transmitting from the Alpha Centauri star system. In the matrix, Case hears inhuman laughter, a trait associated with Pauley during Case's work with his ROM construct, thus suggesting that Pauley was not erased after all, but instead worked out a side deal with Wintermute/Neuromancer to be freed from the construct so he could exist in the matrix.
In the end, while logged into the matrix, Case catches a glimpse of himself, his dead girlfriend Linda Lee, and Neuromancer. The implication of the sighting is that Neuromancer created a copy of Case's consciousness when it previously tried to trap him. The copy of Case's consciousness now exists with that of Linda's, in the matrix, where they are together forever.
Review: Neuromancer is basically a futuristic crime caper. The main character is Case, a burnt-out hacker, a cyberthief. When the book opens, a disgruntled employer has irrevocably destroyed parts of his nervous system with a mycotoxin, meaning he can't jack into the matrix, an abstract representation of earth's computer network. Then he receives a suspiciously sweet offer: A mysterious employer will fix him up if he'll sign on for a special job. He cautiously agrees and finds himself joined by a schizophrenic ex-Special Forces colonel; a perverse performance artist who wrecks havoc with his holographic imaginings; a long-dead mentor whose personality has been encoded as a ROM construct; and a nubile mercenary with silver lenses implanted over her eyes, retractable razors beneath her fingernails and one heckuva chip on her shoulder. Case soon learns that the target he's supposed to crack and his employer and are one and the same -- an artificial intelligence named Wintermute.
Unlike most crime thrillers and many works of speculative fiction, Neuromancer is interested in a whole lot more that plot development. Gibson famously coined the word "cyberspace" and he imagines a world where continents are ruled more by corporations and crime syndicates than nations, where cultural trends both ancient and modern dwell side by side, where high-tech and biotech miracles are as ordinary as air. On one page you'll find a discussion of nerve splicing, on another a description of an open-air market in Istanbul. An African sailor with tribal scars on his face might meet a Japanese corporate drone implanted with microprocessors, the better to measure the mutagen in his bloodstream. When he's not plumbing the future, Gibson dips into weighty themes such as the nature of love, what drives people toward self-destruction and mind/body dualism. It's a rich, heady blend.
That complexity translates over to the novel's prose style, which is why I suspect my first effort to read it failed. Gibson peppers his paragraphs with allusions to Asian geography and Rastafarianism, computer programming and corporate finance. He writes about subjects ranging from drug addiction and zero-gravity physics to synesthesia and brutal back-alley violence. And he writes with next to no exposition. You aren't told that Case grew up in the Sprawl, which is the nickname for the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, a concreted strip of the Eastern Seaboard, and that he began training in Miami to become a cowboy, which is slang for a cyberspace hacker, and that he was immensely skilled at it, et cetera, et cetera
Opening Line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Closing Line: “He never saw Molly again.”
Quotes: “´Wonderful´, the Flatline said,´I never did like to do anything simple when I could do it ass-backwards.´”
Rating: I didn’t like