Sunday, 28 October 2007

Travel: London

While preparing for our current trip to Copenhagen, I realized I hadn't put up the photos from our first trip to London, which can be found here:

Our first trip, we mostly hit the sights and a couple of museums. Elaine and I had wanted to visit the Tate Modern since its renovation in the 90s, it wasn't a disappointment.

We're planning another trip to see our friends in Cambridge at Thanksiving, and will have more photos from that trip soon.

Review: "Significant Others" by Armistead Maupin

Hot on the heels of "Babycakes" and just finishing up the outgoing part of our trip to Copenhagen, I finished "Significant Others" last night. It had a nice structure, two groups of supposedly like-minded people getting together in their private enclaves and a third group outside both camps. There are excursions between the groups that highlight their differences and similarities. Along the way, there are many playful and serious observations about class, politics, gender, sexuality, romance, friendship. Pleasingly enough, there are a handful of new peripheral characters that are satisfying in their own right, and highlight new aspects of the core characters.

Anyway, I plan to read the rest of the series soon enough. For now, on to explore Copenhagen and perhaps break into my other two books for the trip: "Mauritius Command" (the next in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian) and a centenary collection of the short stories of Charles Herman Bosman.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Review: "Babycakes" by Armistead Maupin

I picked up "Tales of the City" in the airport on my way to South Africa earlier this year, devoured it, and picked up the next two books in the series ("More Tales of the City" and "Further Tales of the City") for the trip back home to Stornoway.

I loved the dialog, especialy in the early works. I often found myself laughing out loud as I read, no matter the surroundings. The series is full of characters and situations that are great fun to read. I do get the sense that some of the characters are types rather than fully rounded, but it's the same as any good comedy, where you have a core of characters you know and then a whole host of bit players who act as foils for the core characters, allowing them new ways to express themselves. Some of the convoluted plots (the Jonestown arc, the Cannibal Cult), were a bit much, and distracted me to the point where I didn't feel the need to pick up any further books in the series for a while.

On the cusp of an upcoming trip to Copenhagen, I went by the public library to pick up some new reading material (I typically go through two or three books a trip). Browsing through the shelves, I found the fourth and fifth volumes in the series, "Babycakes" and "Significant Others". Just as half the popcorn rarely lasts me through the previews, I finished "Babycakes" before the trip even started.

What surprised me about this latest work was its change of tone. The Barbary Lane in the fourth book is a bit more somber. There's still humor and life, but the character of Mouse in particular is a bit wearier in a world that has moved into the 1980s and is now all too intimately aware of AIDS. There were also a few scene changes (Seattle, London) that allowed for a bit of good natured cultural commentary. I particularly enjoyed the several characters who found themselves traveling from the West Coast of the US to London, which resonates slightly with my own experiences a bit farther North and a few decades later.

Anyway, it's a good read, but probably is best enjoyed if you work your way through the earlier books. I have "Significant Others" with me and will likely comment on that shortly.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Review: "Cold Stone Jug" by Charles Herman Bosman

"Cold Stone Jug" by Herman Bosman was recommended to me during a trip to South Africa earlier this year. I ended up acquiring the anniversary edition, which finally came a few weeks ago. The book is in the same family as Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead", which similarly fictionalizes a real-life stint behind bars.

Like "House of the Dead", "Cold Stone Jug" describes the day-to-day prison experience. The people, the clothes, the environment, the routines, all are described in intimate detail. Like "House of the Dead", the narrator moves from a death sentence to a fixed term in prison, to release. Even the reliance on the prison infirmary as a release from the monotony of prison life is duplicated.

What makes both works enjoyable is the hopefulness, strained though it is at times. We know that somehow the narrator survives the ordeal, somehow his humor and wit survive. The anniversary edition in particular is enjoyable because it includes prefaces, etc that firmly root the work in the biography of Bosman and in the reality of the penal system he was incarcerated in.

Like any good book, this book left me wanting to read more from and about the author. Further reviews of the author's work to follow...

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Review: "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" by Philip K. Dick

He picked up his science fiction book and dropped it flat to the desk again. "You know, these guys who write these things... these rocket ships and time-travel machines and faster-than-list drives, all that stuff. If you want the hero to be on Mars you say something like -- 'he turned on the automatic high-gain propulsion tubes.' This one isn't so bad but some of them are. They go barreling around the universe. It must be easy to write this stuff; they must bat it out"

"I see," Fergesson said, not following the man's talk.

"I'd like to meet one of these science fiction boys. I'd hire myself out as a technical consultant." Carmichael's great horse-teeth showed in irony. "Ten or fifteen percent of the price he gets. This stuff is just fake. They fake it as they go along"
Philip K. Dick, "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland"

"Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" is the first PKD book I've read since finishing "I am Alive and You are Dead", the excellent biography of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère. Having read about Dick's feeling (or at least his second wife's feeling) that science fiction work was somehow beneath a real writer and knowing that he always wished for success in mainstream novels, the above passage is striking.

The work itself is pretty typical of Dick's mainstream novels. So many of the elements (the dynamic of salesmen and engineers in retail, health food stores, 1950s San Fransisco) are common to "Humpty Dumpty", "Voices from the Street", "In Milton Lumky Territory" and "Mary and the Giant". The narrative itself is fine. As with so many of Dick's novels, there are uncertainties to be resolved, competing views of reality that accumulate evidence until one is revealed to be if not true, then at least the view that all the characters are willing to act on. This and the general paranoia of the main character are typical Dick, and enjoyable enough. What distracts in the characterization.

There's a passage in "I am Alive and You are Dead" where Carrère compares Dick's characters to termites in a fumigated colony, coming together by reflex rather than design. Although a bit harsh, there's a kernel of truth that stayed with me as I read "Humpty Dumpty". It's not that the characters are entirely unsympathetic or their situations unbelievable. It's just that they are seemingly creatures of intellect and whim with a few "tics" thrown in rather than consistent, emotionally mature, living creations. By way of comparison, I finally got around to reading "The Lathe of Heaven" by Ursula Leguin a while back. The central conceits of "Lathe" (altering reality by subconscious thought) seemed very Phildickian to me, but the characters in LeGuin's work have a more believable emotional center.

Characterization not withstanding, "Humpty Dumpty" is not bad, but is perhaps best left for those who enjoy Dick's mainstream writing well enough to seek it out.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Review: "I Am Alive and You Are Dead" by Emmanuelle Carrère

I recently finished "I am Alive and You Are Dead" by Emanuelle Carrère, which is an astounding biography of Philip K. Dick. It's the kind of view of the author that changes your understanding of their work in retrospect, and certainly set me up for an interesting read as I now make my way through "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland", one of Dick's very early mainstream novels, which is only now making its way into the popular press. A separate review of "Humpty Dumpty" will follow in a few days.

In addition to presenting a chronology of facts and events from Dick's life, "I am Alive" constantly points out parallels between Philip K. Dick and the worlds he created in his mainstream and science fiction novels. Some of these connections are easy to make out, as it is not hard to imagine whole portions of a book like "A Scanner Darkly" coming from Dick's experiences in 60s and 70s California. Other connections are more complex and even astonishing, and difficult to describe if you aren't already familiar with Dick's work in depth. Without laboring the point and hence spoiling countless novels, let me simply say that the line between Dick's life and his work was a lot blurrier than one would think, given the fantastic nature of much of his work.

The material is well researched, and is seamlessly crafted into a detailed chronology that manages to inform and entertain at the same time. I'm reminded somewhat of "U and I" by Nicholson Baker, another work in which an author who is entertaining in his own right writes about an author he enjoys. Just as Baker recalled Updike as a part of his own life, it is clear that Carrère enjoys and remembers Dick's works as part of his life. Unlike "U and I", only occasionally does Carrère insert asides from his own life into the work, where the title for "U and I" might as well have been printed in exaggerated perspective with the letter "u" an inch high and the letter "I" a foot high. It is a skilled biographer who can hide enough traces of themselves to allow the reader to appreciate their subject in depth while leaving enough traces of themselves that we want to see more of their style. I look forward to reading other translations of Carrère's work.