Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Some novels, stories, and poems that I revisit regularly, Pt. 2

These are stories and authors who popped up after I began the first post on works I regularly reread.  And, as I think about what I'm going to write about them, the urge to jump up, hustle over to the bookcase, and dust them off for another reread is ever present.  Oh well, it's that old "too few hours or years and too many books" problem as usual.

Herman Melville
I have a theory that every writer has a wild book tucked down deep inside somewhere.  Some manage to get it out, while others either repress it or aren't aware of it.  If it does get out, then readers and critics are confused and generally don't like it, for it's not what they want or expect from the writer.  I think Melville's wild book is Mardi.  And, in my usual contrary way, I consider it a favorite.  Mardi is satire, rather like Gulliver's Travels which was published in 1726 and revised in 1735,  whereas Melville's work was published in 1849Melville may have been influenced by Jonathan Swift, but I haven't read any scholarly commentary that suggests that.

In Mardi,  Taji, the narrator, is in pursuit of his lost love, Yillah,  a Polynesian woman whom he had  rescued from native priests who were going to sacrifice her to their gods.  She was once again kidnapped, and Taji, in a small boat, went off in search of her once again.  He is accompanied on his mission byKing Media, who was bored with his duties and looked for adventure; Babbalanja,  a philosopher;  Mohi, an historian; and Yoomy, a poet.   As you can imagine, with such a crew representing the political, the philosophical, the historical, and the poetic viewpoints, there are long and sometimes confusing discussions about the universe and everything else as they traverse the  South Seas in search of Yillah.  During their journey they visit various islands, each of which exhibits some facet of human cruelty or weakness or folly.  One of the islands is obviously Europe and another is the US in the late 1840s.

Some contemporary critics have called it an allegory and others "a mess."  Some have called it both an allegory and a mess.  It's one of those books that the reader has to go along with Melville (or Taji) and enjoy the ride and not insist on a tightly woven consistent narrative with no loose ends at the end.
Read it for fun, and whatever else you can get out of it. 

Herman Melville
The Confidence Man:  This is a short allegorical novel set on a Mississippi riverboat, the Fidele, Fidelity or Faith in English, if I'm not mistaken. It consists of a series of encounters that passengers have with various confidence men (or perhaps really only one in disguise), all "representing" various charitable organizations.  Perhaps what fascinates me the most is that I'm never quite sure what underlies the various encounters.    

Herman Melville
Moby Dick is probably considered his greatest work, if not one of the greatest novels written in the US during the nineteenth century, if not also the twentieth century.  It's too early to say anything definite about the twenty-first century, but so far I haven't seen anything to compare to it.  It's a comedy, a tragedy, a revenge play, a travelogue, a history of whaling, and a scientific treatise on cetology.  Enough said.

Greg Benford:
The Galactic Center Series
Six novels.  The first is In the Ocean of Night which was published in 1977.  It is set in the late 1990s on Earth and near-Earth space and features the adventures of Nigel Walmsley, a Brit who somehow got himself a position as an astronaut in the NASA Space Program.  He wanted to go into space and England didn't have a space program.  The sixth novel is Sailing Bright Eternity, published in 1996 and is set some 30,000+ years in the future in the vicinity of the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

In between are some of the most spectacular science fiction adventures I've ever read and that covers 60+ years of reading SF.   In volume three, Great Sky River, published in 1987, we jump ahead some 30,000 years and meet Kileen Bishop and his group of friends and relatives on the run from the mech civilization, AIs and robots who are determined to wipe out all organic life.  Bishop and the other humans are closer to being cybernetic hybrids than 100% human with their metal and plastic reinforced exoskeletons and electronically enhanced senses.  Volumes Four, Five, and Six are mostly concerned with the activities of the Bishop clan and their struggle to avoid destruction by the mechs. However, there a few surprises in store for the reader.

Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon

It's one of the great mystery novels, at least to my way of thinking.  Part of its attraction may be that when I read the novel, I always see the actors from the film playing their respective roles.  I must also admit that I've seen the film more often than I've read the novel.  Actually I saw the film first, actually long before I read the novel.  It features a tough, cynical detective, a femme fatale, sleezy villains, and, of course, the Falcon!  Great stuff.

Nikos Kazantzakis
Zorba the Greek
This is another example of having seen the film first and then reading the novel, primarily because of the filmA young bookish intellectual attempts to escape his cloistered life by reopening a lignite mine on Crete which he has inherited.  He is aided and abetted and confused by Zorba, an adventurer, miner, soldier, and survivor.  Zorba is the exact opposite of the intellectual--earthy, practical, exuberant, almost a life force in himself.   The book is ironic in that it encourages the reader to put down the book and go out and do something in the real world.  After reading Zorba, I got so entranced by Kazantzakis' works, that I went out and read everything of his that I could find.  I think that by now I've read almost everything he's written that's been translated. 

George R. Stewart
Earth Abides
This is another of my favorite SF post-holocaust novels.  It's what I call a quiet novel in that it depicts the quiet day-by-day struggles of the survivors of a war that killed most of the humans on Earth.  There are no mutant, slavering monsters, semi-human or otherwise.  The threats are the typical ones of providing food and shelter, and dealing accidents and disease in a world without ERs and vaccines.  And, of course, there are some who figure taking food, etc. is easier than working.  It's also the story of how myths about the survivors or first families begin in a society that is largely illiterate and how those survivors might be viewed in the future.  One other element is that of the making of a sacred symbol purely by accident.  

Lawrence Durrell
The Alexandria Quartet
I was hooked from the first pages of Justine, the first novel in the series.  It was on the reading list of a class I took, and I immediately went out and got the next three.  I've read it at least 3 or 4 times now and had to search for the hardbound copies as the paperback ones were disintegrating.

Justine:  LGD's accounting of events of past year spent in Alexandria just before outbreak of WWII--primarily of his relationship with several women, one of whom is the enigmatic Justine. 

Balthazar: LGD sent his manuscript to Balthazar, one of his friends in Alexandria who also appears in the manuscript.  Balthzar then returns the novel with his version of those same events as seen from his perspective.  We now have two versions of what happened.

Mountolive:  a third version of that same period by Mountolive (who is mentioned in the first two books) of the same events, giving a third and  completely different version of LGD's relationship with Justine.

Clea:  this is an accounting of the events that take place when LGD returns to Alexandria in the midst of WWII, about a year or so after the events told in the first three novels.

The series really asks us if we really ever know the full story of our own history. 

 Durrell's second series, The Avignon Quintet--he sometimes referred to it as The Quincunx and consists of the following five novels: Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian, and Quinx.

 This is a strange series of novels in which Durrell creates an Author who creates a character who writes a novel in which the Author includes a number of his friends and acquaintances, but takes "poetic" license in his creation. This is the first novel in the series--Monsieur.  

The remaining four novels are about the Author and his experiences in Egypt and France during WWII.  What is bizarre is that "fictional" characters from the first novel appear in other later four novels and interact with the Author and his friends.  In addition, several characters from "The Alexandria Quartet" also briefly appear. It's all rather confusing at times, and I had to create a diagram to keep the characters separate as many of the characters from the first novel are actually created from different friends and acquaintances of the Author. 

One of these days I will go back and reread both series for a third? fourth? time. 

Ursula Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness

This novel is one of my top ten SF novels.  If anyone ever asks me to recommend an SF novel for someone who has never read SF, I always mention this one.  It is well-written and has  an engaging main character, action, and an idea to explore.  The idea is simple.  Humans do not have sexually active periods like so many of our fellow residents here on earth. Humans are sexually active all the time.   Moreover, humans like most of our neighbors here have two genders, male and female.  Le Guin in this novel asks the question:  What if humans had specific periods in which they were sexually active and in between those periods, they were sexually neuter?

Winter or Gethen, as the inhabitants call it,   is a planet in which someone has apparently modified humans.  Humans on this planet become sexually active every three weeks and remain so for several days.  At this point they develop sexual characteristics, typically at random, so that humans on this planet can become either male or female. If a Gethen is paired with someone It (they are genderless during this period--what pronoun would you use?) likes, then the first one to go into kemmer (their term for the sexually active period) becomes by chance either male or female.  The other one then becomes the other sex.  If the one who becomes a female at that point gets pregnant, then that person will remain female and nurse the child until it is weaned.  At which point, that person then reverts to the sexually neutral state.  So, in a family pair with two children, each of the two adults could have been the mother of one of the two children.  As you can see,  this upsets all of our ideas about what males and females are like.  In fact, that's the issue Le Guin explores in this work: what are the real characteristics that belong exclusively to males and females.  If you haven't read this one yet, I strongly recommend you do so.


Kim Stanley Robinson
Three Californias:  Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge
When first published, they were known as the Orange County Trilogy, but the series title was changed when the trade paperback edition was issued.  My own name for these three is The California Troika.  A troika is a Russian horse-drawn vehicle in which the three horses are side-by-side, so there is no lead horse.  The three novels in this series all take place in the Orange County area at approximately the same time, some years in the future. But, this is an alternate universe series like no other I have read.  I have made several posts on these works, and clicking on the label Three Californias or The California Trioka will take you to them.  If you decide to read them, it makes no difference with which one you start.

The Wild Shore is set some half century or so after the US was destroyed by a sneak nuclear attack.  It is the story of a young male, late teens, and his experiences during one year in a small village that has grown up after the bombing.  In that respect, it is somewhat similar to another of my favorite post-holocaust novels, Earth Abides by George Stewart. 

The Gold Coast is set some years in the future and is an extrapolation of what life would be like if there were no dramatic changes.  The main character, again, is a young male, whose father is an engineer in the military-industrial complex--he works for a company that strives to get contracts to build hardware for the US military.  Like most of his friends, our hero is mildly opposed to what his father does for a living, and he is mostly concerned about the latest designer drugs, sex, and the contemporary music scene.  The novel is the story of events in this person's life that change him.

If the others can be classified as SF, then Pacific Edge is clearly a fantasy.  It is set some years in the future, again in Orange County,  in a world that has gone green.  Large corporations and nation states have been broken up all over the world.  Small is beautiful.  Recycling has become an important activity.  Cars are a rarity and most people get around a bicycles.  The main character is a young man, possibly in his early20s who has become the local expert in remodeling and fixing up abandoned houses. Local politics features strongly in the novel. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"Notes from the Underground"
This is almost impossible for me to describe.  The first part is a philosophical rant against those who think that human behavior will eventually be completely predictable and explainable by the immutable laws of science.  In addition the narrator contends that there are two types of people:  the doers and the thinkers or the intellectuals.   Everything that is accomplished is done only by the doers, because the thinkers are paralyzed when they attempt to handle all the ramifications of acting.

The second part shows our reclusive narrator in action and supports both of the arguments put forth in the first part.  In one sense, the work is an essay and an example of many of Dostoyevsky's themes that he depicts in his novels.

There are others, of course, but I have resolutely refused to think about them for fear that what was supposed to be one post will expand to a trilogy, or even worse.  Some may find it hard to believe that I actually do so much rereading, but I do and this explains why I really am decades behind in my knowledge of contemporary literature.  But, that's a decision I made long ago.  I'm sure you made your own and very likely it's not the one I made.  Be that as it may, there's room for both of us, isn't there?

I just realized that the title of the posts includes poems, and I haven't mentioned any at all.  Oh well, maybe some time in the not too distant future. . .

I hope you consider reading some of these. 


  1. I have attempted the Le Guin several times, and I lost interest each time. I wonder why. I think it may be the excessive exposition that fills that first quarter of the book. Perhaps I need to give it a go one more time.

  2. RT,

    You are right. There is a considerable amount of exposition early on, but that dwindles and the action begins.

  3. Thanks for the reviews! I was just thinking about reading more Melville, just the other day. I've only read Moby Dick. I'll have to give these other books of his a try.

    1. Cheryl, as I am sure Fred will also say, the Melville novels are each unique. Melville had success with Mardi, less success with The Confidence Man, and almost complete failure with Moby-Dick. Melville's fans liked his South Seas adventure novels but were reluctant to embrace departures from those styles. But history proves Melville's fans were shortsighted. Each Melville novel is special and interesting in its own way. Perhaps Melville's best effort -- to my mind -- was his posthumously discovered and published novella -- Billy Budd. This should be required reading for anyone who ever has leadership responsibilities in business or government. (Moby-Dick, BTW, should be required reading for everyone!)

  4. Cheryl,

    I signed up for a course on Melville when I was in grad school. I assumed that it was going to be about Moby Dick. I was surprised when the instructor informed up that we would spend the semester on Melville's work excluding Moby Dick. My first thought was -- He wrote something else? Along with the novels I mentioned, he has some great short works too, but I didn't want to get into short stories also. That would have added easily another long post. .

  5. RT and Fred,

    Thank you for inspiring me to read more Melville. My To Be Read list grows each time I visit this blog, lol.

  6. Cheryl,

    You are welcome. I agree with RT's comments about Melville. Once he got past _Omoo_ and _Typee_, his first two south Pacific quasi-fictional/biographical romances, he ran into increasing trouble with readers and critics.


  7. Fascinating list. I added Mardi to my one of these days list. I read The Alexandrian Quartet long ago and I recall I greatly liked it. ,I must have to have read all four books.

  8. mel u,

    Hope you enjoy Mardi. It's a very different Melville. Durrell is one of my long-time favorites, ever since I read the Alexandria Quartet. I think I've read just about everything he's written, including some of his poetry.