June 10th, 2012


June Books 6) Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

I came home from points east today, a rather horrible journey where the planned travel time of seven hours ended up more like thirteen. However, this meant that I read a lot of books en route, combined with a small backlog from the outbound leg, so there will therefore be much bookblogging this afternoon.

Hard Times was flagged up to me by first F.R. Leavis and then you guys as an interesting Dickens book. I must say I liked it; of course, part of the usual charm of Dickens is where he goes over the top, but it was really interesting to read him being rather restrained in style and concentrating both on characters and background, and aiming at uncomfortable subjects like divorce rather than the easier targets of poverty and cruelty. I wasn't completely convinced by the efficacy of Louisa's final confrontation, but I guess I'll trade a well-written if ot quite convincing scenario for another two hundred pages of fervent exaggeration. Perhaps this is a Dickens book for people (like Leavis) who don't really like Dickens; it's certainly unusual, though still very recognisable as his style, and I found it refreshing.

June Books 7) Jar Jar Binks Must Die, by Dan Kimmel

One of the nominees for Best Related Work in this year's Hugo, this is a collection of essays about sf cinema, mostly published before in fanzines and on the now sadly defunct Internet Review of Science Fiction. Several of the early pieces are a bit peevish, but most of them brim with enthusiasm and certainly gave me a few thoughts for films which I haven't seen but might enjoy. (The gaps in my cinematic knowledge, both of sf in particular and of classics in general, are pretty huge.) Inevitably, as you get from any collection of previously published pieces, it is not perfectly structured and in places repetitive, but generally interesting reading for someone like me who would like to know more about the subject.

June Books 8) The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, by Selma Lagerlöf

Nils is a Swedish boy who gets magically reduced in size and discovers that he can talk to animals, and has a bunch of adventures, some of which are morally improving and some of which are just adventures, mainly with geese though other animals get a look-in too. Lagerlöf, who was an early Nobel Prize winner, clearly loved the countryside and her writing is very sensitive to the rhythms of nature and the rural economy, and also somewhat anti-modernist. I wasn't completely satisfied with my translation, by Velma Swainston Howard, but I loved the illustrations in my edition by Thea Kliros.

June Books 9) The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, by Van Wyck Brooks

My grandmother's step-brother, explaining how New England in the early nineteenth century saw an extraordinary outburst of literary talent, which he attributes in part to the region developing its intellectual resources through Harvard and proximity to Europe, while at the same time it became increasingly politically and economically sidelined as the continent opened up, benefiting New York and points south. (This then of course doesn't explain why the era of literary excellence ended at the time of the Civil War, but perhaps the war itself is explanation enough.) I had not previously appreciated the literary importance of Concord, Massachusetts. As in his other book, which covers largely the same period but in the rest of the US, Brooks has a breezy and entertaining style telling us about all the connections between writers and other artists of the period; I felt also that he gave more attention to women writers (though none at all to non-whites) here. The most striking observation was that most schoolteachers across the entire country in the early nineteenth century came from New England, so it was very much setting the cultural pace for the new nation. (Another striking observation - Uncle Tom's Cabin had been translated into Welsh in three different editions before any of Charles Dickens or Walter Scott had appeared in that language.) Anyway, rounds out my political knowledge of the era nicely.

June Books 10) The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, edited by Terry Carr

This was one of the sf anthologies that made a huge impression on me as a teenager, and I think about half of the ten stories fully retain their magic for me - "We Purchased People" by Fred Pohl, "The Hole Man" by Larry Niven, "The Author of the Acacia Seeds [etc]" by Ursula Le Guin, "A Little Something For Us Tempunauts" by Philip K. Dick, and "If The Stars Are Gods" by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford. (And the other five aren't bad either.) God be with the days when you could credibly do a Year's Best SF with only ten stories, though. Also notable that there is only one woman (Le Guin) of the ten, which I hope would be impossible today.

June Books 11) A Good Hanging and other stories, by Ian Rankin

This is the last of the Rebus books for me - though I still have about a half-dozen other Rankins on the shelves - a collection of short stories published in 1992, when Rebus's sidekick was still Brian Holmes rather than Siobhan Clarke; I missed her but otherwise really enjoyed all the stories, excellent little crime vignettes - in some cases you can see what the twist is likely to be but still admire Rankin's skill in getting us and Rebus there. (A couple of odd stylistic lapses in the second story, "The Dean's Curse", which almost made me wonder if Rankin had taken on an understudy; or else a case of Homeric nods.) Glad to finish Rebus on a high note, though chronologically I should have read it after Tooth and Nail or Strip Jack, much much earlier.

June Books 12) Sphere, by Michael Crichton

One of the few remaining sf books available on Bookmooch that I vaguely felt like reading; a Big Dumb Object is found on the ocean floor, and though it turns out to be of future human manufacture it also contains another Smaller Dumb Object which is alien. (I see that there was a film version starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson as the three surviving scientists, which completely passed me by.) It teeters on the edge of becoming interesting, especially when it seems like the psychologist who is the viewpoint character may be an unreliable narrator, but basically all of this has been done better before, and Crichton's desperate attempts to address race and gender are rather painful to read. You can skip this one in good conscience.

And that brings me to the end of my travel reading catchup. Though I am also well behind in writing up the Doctor Who audios I have been listening to...