Time now for the second instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do. Here’s why I’m doing this.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (David Sedaris, 2010). Wow, this is a peculiar little book. It’s a set of 16 very short stories, each one a parable featuring some human quirk (usually, a detestable one) bestowed on a heavily anthropomorphized animal that gets an extremely unpleasant comeuppance. (I did say it was peculiar). It took me the first third of the book to decide that this was more than just sophomoric, but once I did I was amused – albeit in a sort of stiffly disapproving way. I’m not sure if the parables got progressively more clever, or if I just adapted to see more cleverness in them. By the last, I was chortling. That last parable, by the way, features a greased-up gerbil sent by an owl to evict leeches from the rectum of a hippopotamus. (I did say it was peculiar.)
Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum (Richard Fortey, 2008). This is a behind-the-scenes book about London’s Natural History Museum – one of the best and most venerable museums on the planet. I’m a museum junkie and I love any chance to get behind the locked doors that separate the public displays from the collections. So it’s a little hard to explain how I let this book escape my notice for 12 years. Fortey’s concern is to tell stories illustrating two theses: first, that museum collections (not just displays) are very important; and second, that the scientists who build and curate them are often somewhere between endearingly quirky and completely depraved. The first thesis is sold well. The second flirts at times with equating harmless eccentricity with criminal behaviour; I could have done with a little less suggestion that there’s anything amusing about unwanted gropings in elevators. But: neither that nor the fact that the prose sometimes lumbers a bit was enough to keep me from eager page-turning. The cast of characters – curators, keepers, administrators, collectors, and even thieves – is simply fascinating. On my next visit to the museum, I’ll be looking carefully at the blue whale in hopes of finding the now-sealed trapdoor that apparently led to an illicit still. Read Dry Store Room No. 1 and you may come up with a nonstandard museum-visiting goal of your own.
Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov, 1957). Like Moo or Lucky Jim, Pnin is a novel about academics (in this case a teacher of Russian, Timofey Pnin), set on a university campus. Unlike Moo or Lucky Jim, it’s dull. I’m sorry, was that too blunt? Nabokov was a brilliant writer responsible for several enduring classics, and I thought Pnin might be another – and as an academic myself I’m well placed to be amused by novels about the foibles of academia and academics. However, Pnin is a great example of something important: no book works for everyone. To me, Pnin was a rambling, plotless mess; and I wish it were a much longer book. Why? Because its mere 126 pages convinced me I shouldn’t quit reading; had it been 400 pages I’d have quit and read something more interesting.
Now, to be fair, my experience with Pnin wasn’t entirely bad. I did enjoy a couple of places where Nabokov the scientist was on view. For anyone who doesn’t know: Nabokov, when he wasn’t writing novels, was a systematist of butterflies, with a focus on the blues (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae). At one point, he describes the “lyrical ovipositing” of Pnin’s wife, a poet, and I pictured her flitting through the world depositing a couplet here, a turn of phrase there, like a butterfly laying eggs in a meadow. Later in the book, Pnin and a friend see some butterflies on a riverbank, and Nabokov gives a lovely description of them and their behaviour (they’re blues, of course) before making a cameo: “‘Pity Vladimir…is not here’, remarked Chateau. ‘He would have told us all about these enchanting insects’”. This was fun. But was it worth 126 papers of dreary Pnin? It was not.
A Closed and Common Orbit (Becky Chambers, 2017). This is the second in Chamber’s Wayfarers science-fiction trilogy that started with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It’s common for the second book in a trilogy to be a let-down. This one, though, I enjoyed more than the first. The books are what I’d call contemporary space opera. They have the earnest straightforwardness of Heinlein’s juveniles (but with the benefit of social mores that aren’t 70 years out of date). On the surface they’re simple adventures, in space and on strange planets, but really they’re about the importance of friendships among humans, aliens, and even artificial intelligences. A Closed and Common Orbit follows a spaceship’s AI downloaded into a humanoid body… you know what? No matter how I describe the plot, it’s going to sound sophomoric. But it ends up being funny, poignant, and exciting (not necessarily all at once). A quick and easy read – this isn’t James Joyce – and one that kept me from dozing on a plane at 1:30 a.m. Which is saying something.
Record of a Spaceborn Few (Becky Chambers, 2018). Next after A Closed and Common Orbit, and the conclusion of the Wayfarers trilogy. Which wasn’t really a trilogy at all, but a set of three books loosely connected by some shared characters and themes. They’re space opera and sound cheesy when described, but each has a warmth that overcomes the possibility of cheese. Record of a Spaceborn Few tackles perhaps the biggest idea of the three. The “exodus fleet” is a recurring motif in science fiction: huge starships carrying people away from an Earth they’ve abandoned for various reasons. This book asks an interesting question: what happens when the purpose of the exodus has been met – but people stay on the exodus fleet anyway? I enjoyed this book enormously and if you have tolerance for science fiction at all, any of the three in the “trilogy” is worth picking up.
The Reckoning (John Grisham, 2018). I suppose everyone gets bored, and so after writing a couple of dozen books to a formula – no matter how successful a formula – even John Grisham might like to mix it up a little. So, how about having the crime committed on about page 15, and then 400 pages developing the psychological backstory that led to it? That’s what Ruth Rendell would do, and in her hands it would be chilling. And what if the psychological backstory was also a wide-ranging family saga that took the protagonist to war? That’s what Herman Wouk would do, and in his hands it would be gripping. In The Reckoning, John Grisham tries both – and the result is tedious. I should have skipped this one and re-read The Pelican Brief instead.
Blackout and All Clear (Connie Willis, 2010 and 2011). This is really a single novel in two volumes, and it belongs in the same longer thread as Willis’s other Oxford time travel novels – Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog. Blackout/All Clear are really an expansion of her brilliant novella Firewatch, and they follow a group of time travelers from 2060 Oxford sent to observe key events in England during the Second World War. There’s a rather conventional plot device – are they stuck in the 1940s, or can they get home? – but what I love about these books is how the characters become immersed in historical detail – at Dunkirk, during the Blitz, even bumping into (sometimes literally) Alan Turing and Agatha Christie and General Patton. The narrative arc is rather flat, which means that for a very long time the plot doesn’t really seem to be advancing as much as accumulating more incidents. But in the end, that turns out to be the point: that there’s importance in everyday events and heroism in ordinary people; and that the war wasn’t won by Churchill and Montgomery and Patton but by everyone. (So wash your hands.) Even by Alf and Binnie Hodbin – two child evacuees who enter the story as incorrigible holy terrors but pretty much steal the show (along with quite a few other things). I absolutely loved these books.
And that’s #AYearOfBooks so far. (If you missed the first instalment, it’s here.)
© Stephen Heard March 26, 2020
Image: One of many piles of books around my house. © Stephen Heard CC BY 4.0