Friday, July 12, 2019

book excitement: new preorders. I'll definitely need more tea.

image from we❤it

Although I knew it would be deadly, I was just glancing through Lit Hub's "Most Anticipated Books of 2019, Part 2" from July 9 and got so excited that I couldn't help myself and preordered ten.   I'm not ashamed to admit that I have compulsive book buying disorder, but then again they're books I really want to read so I suppose that makes it okay on some level.     Here's the list -- a strange mix to be sure, but then again, that's my reading life:

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Press)

The Promise, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

Forgotten Journey, by Silvina Ocampo (City Lights)

False Bingo, by Jac Jemz (MCD/FSG Originals)

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf)

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, by Susanah Calahan (Grand Central)

Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, by Nina MacLaughlin (FSG Originals)

Mary Toft or The Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer (Pantheon)

Dead Astronauts, by Jeff VanderMeer (MCD)

Luckily I have plenty of books to keep me busy in the meantime; otherwise I'd be going a little bit crazy with anticipation.    As it is I can't wait.  

and now, I must go to Nepali Tea Traders for more tea....

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

the coolest showdown ever: The Great Eastern, by Howard A. Rodman

Melville House, 2019
344 pp

"Let us watch. We have some tales to tell." 

There are books that you hate to see come to an end, and The Great Eastern is one of those.  

From the moment I read the blurb I knew I had to read this novel: 
"A sprawling adventure pitting two of literature's most iconic anti-heroes against each other: Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab. Caught between them: real-life British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the century's greatest ship, The Great Eastern.  But when he's kidnapped by Nemo to help design a submarine with which to fight the laying of the Transatlantic cable -- linking the two colonialist forces Nemo hates, England and the US -- Brunel finds himself going up against his own ship, and the strange man hired to protect it, Captain Ahab, in a battle for the soul of the 19th century."
 History meets literature in this novel, which is based around the laying of the Transatlantic cable.  Before we get to that, however,  through a rather sinister but ingenious plot, the renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is kidnapped, brought to a clinic and diagnosed as having had a stroke.  Although ill, unable to move or speak, he is taken aboard his ship The Great Eastern for its launch, which was interrupted by an explosion that killed eight people and caused enough damage to send the ship for major repairs.    By midnight some few days later, Brunel is pronounced dead and afterwards "interred in Kensal Green."  But wait.

Moving from England to New York, while the city is immersed in celebrations over the initial success of the laying of the Transatlantic cable,   financier Cyrus Field, who had realized the "commercial possibilities of connecting Europe and America," and was responsible to the "community of capital," aka his investors, is in panic mode because the cable,
"having carried a few fine and select messages, had flickered. Guttered. Was now: extinguished." 
 He can't let anyone know since his "livelihood and freedom would be upon the rack," but the biggest secret he must keep is that he knows there was no fault in the laying of the cable, but rather that something has "snapped it."  After giving some contemplation to the issue, and after eliminating various possibilities, he comes to the one "simplest and most terrifying" conclusion: that there is a "sea-creature, of malevolent will and unimaginable might" at work here, an "oceanic Leviathan."  As Field ponders what to do, he asks himself
"Who in our Republic would have the knowledge to find him, the instinct to track him, the desire to slay him?  'Twas not a long list. 'Twas not even the fingers of one hand.' "
Field needs a "knight to slay a sea-dragon," and he knows there is no one more eminently qualified  than a certain Captain Ahab to accomplish the job.

from Wikipedia

Meanwhile, on board this "oceanic Leviathan," or rather the Neptune, the captain of this "sub-marine vessel"  has a guest, brought on because of his great engineering feats in order to make the Neptune into a machine that can further the mysterious captain's cause: to "combat a savage empire."

from Wikipedia

I meant this as a summer read, but really, it is a book to be enjoyed any time of year.  While definitely inspired by Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (yes, seas, plural,  Vingt mille lieues sous les mers..." ) and Melville's Moby-Dick,  this novel is original, fun, and the "sprawling adventure" the blurb paints it to be.  I'd add "rollicking good yarn" as well, but it's so much more than story.   As Janet Fitch says in her back-cover blurb, the genius here is in the author's "outrageous linguistic brio," and author Steve Erickson is spot on in his contribution when he states that
"Not another scrivener alive or dead but Rodman -- lyrical and witty, erudite and passionate, dare we say rapturous, dare we say obsessed -- could have charted let alone helmed this singular, exhilarating Flying Dutchman of an epic."
 I couldn't agree more. I can only imagine what great fun he must have had while writing this novel; matched only by the great fun and immense pleasure I had while reading it.  It is an adventure story par excellence, but at the same time in the telling the author has paid an amazing tribute to two great authors and two unforgettable literary characters, while highlighting, as one reader puts it, the
"European transformation of the world in the 19th century -- violently globalizing, spawning enormous wealth but also the seed of perpetual violence, domination, and vengeance ..."
Purists may have issues (I hear the grumbling in my head and I don't care), but for readers of adventure stories who want something completely different, you can't do any better.   And when the movie comes out, I'll be first in line to see it.  And yes, there is a film in the works, and if it doesn't get screwed up, meaning doesn't stray too far from its source, it ought to be one hell of a movie, in the same way that this is one hell of a book.

Monday, July 8, 2019

the book group read: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton

NYRB Classics, 2016
253 pp

I would normally post about a novel like this one at the oddlyweirdfiction page of my reading journal, but reading The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe solely as science fiction is just not accurate. It is a novel that, as Jeff VanderMeer notes in his introduction to this edition, offers its readers a
 "portrait of an intelligent, middle-aged woman grappling with the ultimate existential crisis: How does one conduct oneself while dying?" 
This book was my real-world book group's read at the end of June; it is also one of the most thought-provoking novels I've read in a long while.  Written in 1974, and alternatively titled The Unsleeping Eye, it is almost prescient, as it deals with issues that are at the center of much debate forty-plus years later.  It's also one I can highly recommend.

In a society where disease and serious illness exist no more, forty-four year-old Katherine Mortenhoe is facing her last four weeks of life.  Terminal illness is rare in this version of the future, but Katherine is suffering from "an affliction of the brain cells," and for the short remainder of life she will be slowly deteriorating.  But NTV has an idea: Katherine's final weeks and her death will be televised for the "pain-starved public" on Vince Ferriman's "Human Destiny" show.  The company has invested fifty-thousand pounds in Roddie, their star reporter, surgically replacing his eyes with cameras, and has offered him a three-year contract that would as he puts it, "keep me in luxury the rest of my life."  As he also notes, with his new eyes, he now had the "most staggering tool for reportage the world had ever known."  Katherine Mortenhoe's death is something he has to get right.  The more immediate the coverage, the more empathy will be garnered from the public, and the higher the ratings will climb:

"The point of suffering in the Human Destiny shows was that it could continue to excite horror and compassion because it was never trivialized - it was always real. And because there was time for study in depth, the participants could be shown as individuals, not merely as newsreel symbols - the legless soldiers, the starving baby, the shredded bomb victim. They were real people, with real mothers-in law, and real dinners burning on the stove unheeded. It was details like this that kept the show alive, kept alive the capacity to involve."

 There's only one problem: Katherine wants nothing to do with any of it.  For her, death is not a commodity to be bought and sold; her only option, it seems, is to disappear.   To work around that problem, Roddie follows her until he finds himself in a position of trust, but soon he begins to have qualms about what he's doing, even as the cameras are "rolling."

As VanderMeer says, the world in which Ferriman and Roddie do their work  is
"an uncanny mirror of our own, of an age in which everyone really is a camera eye, or at least carries one around in his pocket." 
Aside from the focus on the overreach of technology and reality television, which caused no end of discussion with the ladies in my book group, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a very human novel at its core.  It unravels slowly to eventually become a story of not just death and dying, but also of relationships in a society where everything is driven by technology.  Each of the people in Katherine's life sees her differently; it is only through Compton's careful writing that we can begin to put her together as a whole.  My group also noticed that when Compton is writing about Katherine, he does so using a third-person point of view, whereas Roddie narrates his own sections, which I think is appropriate given that we're seeing her then through his eyes, aka, the camera, broadcasting to us, the readers, if you will.

There is so much more to this novel than I can ever throw into a few words for this post, but it is a deeply-moving story that kept me reading almost without stopping.  It is also most pertinent to our own time of  intense media saturation into private lives, or as Roddie's ex-wife puts it, "Peeping Toms. Voyeurism. Selling misery."  It's also not hard to imagine while reading that yesterday's fiction has become today's reality, which for me at least in this instance is a rather disturbing thought.

Just fyi: there is also a film based on this novel which I'll be watching this week before the spouse gets home  --  Death Watch (1980). I'm a bit nervous since I'm not sure a film could actually do justice to this book.