Book Review: The Dark Forest, Book Two of Remembrance of Earth’s Past, by Cixin Liu

My mind has been expanded significantly by the first two books of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The scale and scope of the undertaking is truly on par with the greatest science fiction I’ve ever read. Hard science and theoretical ideas run deep, but remain very human and rational.

It’s a syncretic hyper-extension of the way we think and behave pushed into a highly orchestrated future that requires deep conceptualization to imagine.

Comparisons to Asimov are apt.

Cixin Liu boldly describes human culture and philosophy facing impending first contact with an alien race that has advanced technology with a richness of supposition and detail that captures a wide range of human emotion and response. He does this with very few characters and an elaborate, all-encompassing style. The details are exceptionally well thought-out.

The setup incorporates the vast distances in space and a nuanced portrayal of human society dealing with an enemy about whom little is known and who will not arrive to attack for hundreds of years.

I am continually taken aback at the breadth of this work. Liu’s narrative is centuries long. It’s on the scale of James Blish (Cities in Flight) or, as has been noted, Frank Herbert (Dune).

While humans invent cryogenic hibernation and a space armada and other standard responses of sci-fi to deal with this situation, there are unique circumstances.

The sophons, a pan-dimensional use of protons that travel across space, arriving at Earth to unfold and manipulate our reality, was a mind-blowing central concept of The Three-Body Problem. In Book Two, Liu posits Wallfacers and their companion Wallbreakers as a complex reaction to this tactic of the Trisolarans.

Since the Trisolarans can see, read and influence human behavior, the only safe space to shield anything from them is within the human mind. The Wallfacers are created and tasked with never writing anything down, never explaining what they do or why they do it to anyone. They embark on their plans to resist the Trisolarans independent of social and military planners. Wallfacers become the central pre-occupation of The Dark Forest. It is conceptually impressive and flourishes into a great plot.

The Trisolarans do not make any significant appearance until the climactic battle at the end of this volume and are peripheral players throughout. This allows Liu to explore humanity through the behavior – and responses to the behavior – of the Wallfacers in a way that is totally original.

So now Liu has to describe humanity’s initial response – filled with variety: those who give up, those who would fight, those who would defect to the enemy – and to posit the extension of all these reactions 200 years into the future.

It’s galactic in scale and all just a little hard to swallow by the time you get to the division of this book between Earth of the late-20th/early 21st century and human culture of the year 2200. But to Liu’s credit The Dark Forest is more human and relationships are deeper, more sensitive and believable.

Cixin Liu grew significantly as a writer between the two works. He takes on the psychology of humanity faced with the cosmic situation he has created and works through abstract philosophical responses to create a range of believable, if summarized, cultural changes in us.

I liked The Dark Forest better than The Three-Body Problem because Liu goes further to extrapolate his visions of how humanity behaves in the face of the complex circumstance he has created. He includes and fills-out more intimate reactions and attempts to create a broad image of us and how we react – intelligently but oh, so human.

The Wallfacer Project is the primary mechanism for this. That the story advances 200 years in a leap of human culture is the second. Without giving too much away, allow me to say that many of the characters manage to  hibernate and emerge hundreds of years later which results in a fascinating conceit:

Liu convincingly describes near-future humans who have survived post-Trisolaran contact. They’ve endured The Great Ravine – an epic depression of global scale that reduced human population by billions – and an era that forced most cities underground.  They’re tech is smart.

But this future human society is confronted daily by waking up hibernators, characters we know and appreciate from our time, awakened on schedule to proceed with the ultimate plan of Earth’s defense. It creates a truly original relationship between us and our future selves.

In some ways Liu’s future human relationships are a near-perfect emulation of contemporary generational relationships between the Digital Generation and anybody over 40. The clunky 21st-century hibernators call them “kids” though they’re a highly advanced civilization.

The Dark Forest is considerably more about philosophy, politics and social and military strategy than The Three-Body Problem, which was more computing and science. But it’s pretty heady stuff.

All of it is headed toward first contact and when the 2000-spacecraft-strong armada of Earth finally meets the first craft from Trisolaris, the story doesn’t disappoint. So many previous steps have led to this moment in our narrative, they unfold like the petals of a blooming flower as the action explodes. The battle is a brilliant sequence.

We come now to a principle failing of this work. The conclusion of The Dark Forest is meant to bring a suspension at last to first contact, but the solution that achieves this was, to me, a disappointment. When it finally happens, I wondered why it hadn’t come sooner to us to approach the problem this way.

I’m obviously trying to critique here without giving anything away, so I’ll conclude with a metaphor from another saga.

I used to love trolling fans of The Lord of the Rings by saying, “Put the ring in a box. Give it to the Eagles. Tell them to drop it in the fires of Mordor. End of story in 20 minutes.” After all, the Eagles easily defeat the winged Fellbeasts of the Nazgul in the great war of Middle Earth, they’d have no problem getting by them to rid the world of the ring.

Sometimes a simple plot hole can take away the power of a saga, so you have to avoid it to go on, and to enjoy the ride.

I hate to say it, but when the final philosophical and cosmological play is made in the battle between Earth and Trisolaris – elaborate and complex as it is – I saw it coming.

I really, really want to elaborate with anyone who has read these two.

Off to read Book Three, Death’s End!


Book Review: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

I embarked on The Three-Body Problem because a colleague considered it a cultural touchstone that occupies the moment between China and the Western world. I traveled in Chinese-speaking countries for many years, and know a little of the Chinese having studied there, but this is the first Chinese novel – sci-fi or otherwise – I’ve ever read, so I was curious how it would be.

The Three-Body Problem is Book One of Remembrance of Earth’s Past, a trilogy being marketed as a global phenomenon: the first major sci-fi novel out of China by “China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.” It received the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award in 2006 and Three-Body Problem has been immensely popular among hundreds of millions of Chinese and a comparatively small, committed group of sci-fi readers internationally. It was originally published serially.

The English translation by Ken Liu (Tor, 2014) was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo Award for best novel – becoming the first translated novel to be nominated for a major SF award since Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in 1976. Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

Translations of Books Two and Three were released in 2015 and ’16 and the Three-Body Problem movie is expected later this year.

The novel takes the late-1960’s, early-70’s as a launching point for a fictional narrative that bounces forward 40 years to look back upon it as history. The context for beginning requires some understanding of the temperament of China, then. I took footnotes seriously and in real-time. I kept my cell-phone or computer handy and spent a few minutes googling and reading about historical events and figures as I went along to aid the translation. It helps.

The main characters are mostly scientists – theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, a nanomaterials guy – or military strategists. This is highly intellectual hard science and military thinking. You have to know a thing or two about the state of contemporary knowledge in many disciplines or be willing to learn as you go. I think this would have been more enjoyable in the serial form. I got regular headaches trying to read and follow all this in massive novel form.

Keeping Google handy helps a lot with both the Chinese history and the science. Complex scientific theories and ideas are referenced liberally throughout. It’s apparent Cixin Liu, an engineer by trade, has an expansive and comprehensive understanding of many disciplines. His knowledge of computing, theoretical physics, astronomy and chemistry has bloomed into the books of Remembrance of Earth’s Past. I got headaches, but I learned a lot.

The Setup

During the Cultural Revolution in China, a young woman, Ye Winjie, sees her father, a prominent scientist, killed before her eyes. Ye Winjie is profoundly affected by this and the brutal ignorance of the state and its ferverous minions. She grows up to be a scientist, herself, and is assigned to a remote radar telescope facility for a top secret project. She discovers scientists have revealed an alien culture in the vicinity of Earth’s next-nearest star, Alpha Centauri. A warning from the alien culture not to reveal Earth’s location for fear of invasion is unequivocal.

Ye Wenjie decides life under humanity is worse than worthless, headed for self-destruction, and, skillfully masking her intentions to gain the access necessary, she uses a massive radar dish and the power of the sun as an amplifier, to send a message across space, unilaterally inviting the aliens to come to Earth and take over. And so begins the saga between Earth and Trisolaris that will last hundreds of years.

Now two groups of people exist on Earth who know about the aliens, those who want to prevent them from coming and those who would aid them. We are are led in the narrative of those who would prevent them by a naive but inquisitive scientist and his gruff but lovable foil, an earthy cop who balances out the eggheads and help them push on.

Ye Winjie is a confined leader of those who would aid the aliens – called Trisolarans because they live on a planet with three suns. Yet she manages to connect with a disgruntled hippie who believes imperialist capitalists are carelessly destroying the world. He in turn inherits billions from his industrialist father, and together they create a small, committed force to help the aliens come to Earth to take over.

Meanwhile, the chapters concerning the Trisolarans are fast and heady. The unique structure of their system – a planet with three suns – results in rapid-fire changes described expertly in socio-philosophical and biological terms. It’s smart, interesting theoretical evolution.

The Three-Body Problem is a huge story with bold strokes, and lots of technical and philosophical ideas emerge from high concepts and hard science. A solid understanding of computing, physics, astrophysics, chemistry and theory is brilliantly at play here as the Trisolarans develop and indeed outdevelop us.

There are fascinating conceits:

  • the idea of dozens of physicists and scientists going mad because the physical universe itself flickers and communicates with them directly is terrifying, an idea that shakes the core of belief in what is real.
  • an alien culture less than five light years away has warped their specific consciousness through an elaborate and abstract intervention only they can observe with highly sensitive devices. It’s fantastic and explained through complex multi-dimensional chemistry.
  • having no machines, the Trisolarans construct a giant computer out of single individuals with flags – a massive human motherboard, with files of soldiers running as BUSes through it. It’s just so Chinese. But brilliant in the details of the construction.

While science makes this novel complex, by the time it all gets unraveled, including the complicated rationale of the humans who choose to collude with the aliens in their effort to take over the Earth, we are left with a basic story and simple characters executing a complex, tumbling plan toward Human and Trisolaran interaction. It’s a contact story that spans hundreds of years.

I was reminded of the devices of other sci-fi novels – the aliens use a video game to communicate with humans like in Ender’s Game, the rapid evolution of the Trisolarans reminded me of a story I read in the 80’s about life that forms on a pulsar.

The science and technology elevate this work more than the philosophy. There are clunky philosophical problems I associate as typically sci-fi that are exposed by the science, but it feels inhuman.

It’s sad and simplistic to accept a sane, highly educated person could give up on humanity unilaterally and gain access to the means to execute their betrayal. Isn’t it? It may sound sexist, but I couldn’t imagine a woman being the one to do it.

Once she commits the greatest universal act of betrayal in human history, Ye Winjie finds a community of supporters from cultures all over the world. Have we given up on ourselves so completely? It’s depressing.

This strikes me as a cultural question. Maybe it’s a collision of my mindset with contemporary Chinese or SF. The Chinese and the Trisolarans are foreigners to me here and Sci-Fi is my means of comprehending each, only abstrusely.

Conveniently, the Trisolarans live only four and a half light years away, so communications require just eight years between planets. Presumably in the next volume … we meet.

I finish what I start so I’ll review The Dark Forest, Volume Two of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past, next.

Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada

A glacial is thousands of years of cold temperatures and glacial advancement. The last glacial ended 15,000 years ago, and we’re told the epoch we’re living in now, the Holocene, is an inter-glacial period.

But the unprecedented speed with which the ice has disappeared over the last 100 years gives us pause.

Humans as a species are having an effect on global temperature and the ice. It is undeniable now there’s at least a chance the change is irreversible. So, some ask the academy and society at large to admit the dawn of the Anthropocene, an era in which the glaciers may never return.

The Holocene was so named for the most powerful force of the epoch, the sun. The Anthropocene declares we, humans, anthros, have surpassed the sun in our ability to affect the planet. Some conservatives and capitalists who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s happening as anything different from anything that has happened in the past, say to call it the beginning of the Anthropocene is jumping to conclusions.

The story of three generations of a family are nothing to a glacier.

But historical records exist, and the stories your great-grandma told your grandma, your mom and you about the world are passed down. The oral tradition which has guided the entirety of human advancement for generations passes information down hundreds and thousands of years.

What if you could interview generations living in the Arctic Circle over the last several decades – this critical time – about what they’ve both seen first hand, and the stories they’ve been told for centuries?

There’ve been some humans who have gone northward a little ways and made some progress, but undeniably the greatest authority in the vast glaciated north are the polar bears who have roamed the ice and seas for thousands of years.

The last 100 years has brought them into contact with us humans, which is how it is possible, Yoko Tawada informs us prosaically in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, that we come to know them just a little bit.

It’s a gorgeous expansion of that little bit that makes this a magical novel.

This slim, beautiful biography of three generations of polar bears living not at the North Pole, but among us – in Russia, Germany and Canada between the 1960’s and today – uses an ethereal, intermingling of human and bear to tell it. In Tawada’s work, exceptionally sensitive humans and very particular bears can communicate profoundly and with feeling.

It amazes me how she creates this delicate balance between what we can understand and what we cannot and what the bears can and cannot grasp. The intersection of human and bear is deliberately an imperfect and haunting space, like any introduction between species at an equal level demands. It makes this book completely inhabitable.

Yoko Tawada was born on March 23, 1960, in Tokyo and studied Russian literature at Waseda. She moved to Germany when she was 22 years old in 1982 – seven years before the fall of the wall.

In her new country, she received a Masters in contemporary German Literature at Hamburg before completing a Doctorate in German literature at Zurich. She writes in German and Japanese and in 1987, she published Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts—Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai (A Void Only Where You Are), a collection of poems in a German and Japanese bilingual edition

And then the wall fell.

I have not read anything else by Tawada except this novel, which comes to me because New Directions published it and Susan Bernofsky translated it. But her wholeness of composition is staggering.

The three parts of this novel are incredibly different and yet weave together perfectly to tell not only the stories of the bears but of all of us as we have gone through what we have experienced these last 60 years.

The grandmother polar bear who begins the story has no name. She mothers Tosca, who not only has a name, but has the ability to engage and relate across continents. Tosca in turn births Knut, whom she rejects, so he is raised by us. It is an amazing idea.

The history of the Soviet Era is held in the grandmother, then the era of change – the end of the Cold War – in the telling of Tosca, and the sad withering of our culture into a global conglomeration bereft of deep and important memories of our past in Knut, a real-life polar bear, who captured the hearts of Europeans and Russians just ten years ago, in the Aughts, and whose history you should only google, read and learn about after you’ve read this novel.

The connection between us and the bears, that of our Class, mammalia, is here explored with compassion and interspecies love. I was completely enamored with Tawada’s use of what it means to be a mammal as a means of connecting us to another species as opposed to separating us from other mammalia. We don’t have kinship with bears, we have mammalian-ship with them. Genius.

But more than capturing what little exists of the understanding between us and the polar bears, Tawada has captured the predominant feeling of post-neoliberalism: the feeling of no place, of having no memory that will last, of how much history is disappearing into the sands, or melted seas, of time.

This is a visionary expression of a contemporary crisis that few have yet fully grasped: placelessness. The placelessness of those whose place is being taken away and the placelessness of those who have lost the ability to feel place – bears and humans respectively – is metaphoric for much human experience in the last 60 years: immigrants, refugees, citizenship, culture.

The bears as metaphors for a sensible understanding of what has actually been going on, remind me of the  metaphors for what actually existed that reside in the works of oppressed Soviet writers. Amidst climate change deniers and global warming warriors, Tawada takes a sensitive approach to make us at least observe faithfully.

Great book.


Book Review: The Terranauts, by T.C. Boyle

The Terranauts

I’m a creative person who is the children of scientists. My father was one of the greatest sulfur chemists of the 20th century and my mother was a physics and pharmacology educator and researcher for decades.

Art and music and writing is my genetic code, while my environmental education and upbringing was always one of deep and proper science. The latter influenced me to be rational and theoretical and to question and wonder about our world, my life. The former, to be social and to feel the world, to dance and to get high. So perhaps I’m biased in my reading of Boyle’s particularly incisive view of the scientists who are the main characters of The Terranauts. But let me tell you, it’s great.

It takes a lot of sensitivity and prosaic power to get inside the hearts and minds of people locked up together in an intense project, a collaborative effort of scale, or a prison, and express that faithfully. You really have to go through experiences like that or understand how working together happens in a deep way to attempt something like this. You have to understand people, socially and personally. Boyle does.

In The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle has invented an immense human project, populated it with entirely believable characters and embarked on a plumbing of their emotional and physical landscape with such brilliant detail, I find myself taken aback at the effort and his skill pulling it off.

His description of the technology of the Terranauts’ sealed-glass home in the desert is so vivid in detail down to the workings of the structure itself and including the flora and fauna – in some instances even described with Latin nomenclature in such a way as to feel beautiful – that I had to remind myself this place does not exist.

The pleasure I got from the contemplation of plants, animals and weather ‘inside’ by his characters is distinctly due to Boyle’s sensitivity, rooted in research and built with great prose. His descriptions of the emotional aspects of the scientists’ relationships to their subjects as well as to their co-workers is equally nuanced but even bolder.

The comfort Boyle has developed in delving into human sexuality here reveals an honest portrayal of our superficiality more than our capacity for love. But it isn’t cold.

Science is calculating.

Yet, there is so much of that capacity for love displayed – in the love of a scientific subject, or for the idea of team, or for loyalty as a badge of love. Even the subtleties of friendship and the complicated feelings that tie people together are handled exceptionally here.

This is a faithful portrayal of the emotional landscape of men and women put together for two years separated from us all, and Boyle has created a believable continuum that speaks to everyone about how we act.

Jealousy, lust, envy, competitiveness, anger, love, longing … it’s humans under glass.

T.C. Boyle gets us. His characters over the years are always like people I know or meet along the way. Here he throws four men and four women together separated by only inches from a half dozen of their friends, colleagues and lovers for two years solely for the purpose of expressing intimacy. It’s an incredible conceit seen vividly through.

Employing the style of first-person chapters collected together to do the telling works because of Boyle’s talent for briskness of plot. Though I don’t generally love the format, here it lets Boyle expand inner monologue, the guts of people’s feelings in confession, post-facto, as scientists would … really as anyone would.

Confessing after the fact, telling the truth and letting it out feels so good. It’s a really cool way to unreveal the “True Story of the Terranauts!”

The arrangement of these chapters and points of view is beautiful construction. The first-person chapters are woven in a way of telling the tale that seems complete, unfettered, whole. And it happens progressively.

It doesn’t take long to feel a part of this ecosystem and, once you’re in, you’re equally concerned as the characters as to whether the goats are getting fed or whether there are any tilapia left. You’re equally worried about O2 levels.

The characters are genuine, believable and, confessing their relatable flaws, they’re likable. Those who seem initially like obnoxious foes or nemeses go through transitions and humanize while the flaws of protagonists are openly dissected and brought down to earth.

My emotions changed towards characters and so I felt a part of the immense human enterprise. Like I was on the team, in the dome or at Mission Control, not some dopey tourist staring through the glass on my way to the Grand Canyon. Brilliant.

In retrospect the archetypal quality of the characters is resonant. The details make Boyle’s ecosystem a deeply human environment of our typical longings, lusts, and desires met and unmet. The way we see each other in constrained circumstances relates clearly to how we behave in society and Boyle uses an incredible palette of language to achieve this. I could feel the soil of the Ecosphere between my toes. I wanted to hug Linda, hard.

And, I guess typically for me, I felt kinship with Vodge and Linda and Gretchen.

I thoroughly recommend The Terranauts to anyone with brains and a heart – or for that matter a penis or a vagina.

Way to go, T.C.

3.5/5 stars

A Word on T.C. Boyle’s Utter Coolness

T. Coraghessan Boyle is truly a social writer.

I don’t mean socially-conscious. Or Socialist. Or that he seeks to influence or corral a group of readers in some direct manner.

I mean he’s a social being … and an excellent writer.

His ‘socialness’ is apparent on Twitter where I have enjoyed daily images of his routines – the morning, the egg, the paper, the rat – and of his various voyages. But recently I became one of the many readers/followers to whom he has replied. I was reading his novel Talk Talk, (Viking, 2006), and tweeted some friends about it including his handle and what? what? @tcboyle dipped in to the thread to comment. Turns out he’s totally personable on Twitter and comfortable discussing his work in detail. (More on Boyle’s tweets in my review of Talk Talk).

So last week when I picked up his latest novel, I tweeted to tell him I was starting The Terranauts … and he responded! It was crazy. You can see the exchanges @mtksf. His openness and ease daily with his readers or the public or whatever twitter followers are, strikes me as pretty unusual for a novelist of his stature. I mean, he’s just so cool.

After 15 novels and dozens of short stories and collections, a bibliography of 25+ works, numerous national awards – the guy’s a prolific American man of letters – he still takes time out to hang with his twitter followers. Blows my mind. Though I shouldn’t be surprised. The one time I met him, pre-twitter in 2004, at KPFK in Los Angeles, he was totally present and easy-going, too.

He works at his discipline, teaches it, and is un-self-conscious enough to engage with his readers as a regular person. I can only conclude T.C. Boyle is as great a guy to hang out with as his novels are.

Book Review – Lincoln in the Bardo

The originality of the structure of Lincoln in the Bardo immediately sets George Saunders’ debut novel apart. It’s composed of stacked lists of quotations attributed to the souls occupying Oak Hills cemetery in the Georgetown section of our nation’s capitol in 1862; to the President at the time, Abraham Lincoln, and to his son, Willie, recently deceased; and to the night watchman and manager of the cemetery, neighbors, historical figures and eyewitnesses to the events of the time.

I plunged into this work thinking these crazy quotes would continue for a few pages and then return to a normal third or first person narrative. Not only did they not, the form became its own sort of thing with hilarity and piety. The quotations interact, finish one another’s sentiments.

Saunders’ approach from his short stories in Pastoralia, where letters and notes and faxes between characters move plot and create conflicts, is here in fuller effect. This “debut novel” thus actually resides somewhere between the novella and the norm of long-form fiction. Almost as if Saunders still isn’t ready to write one of those “novel” things.

It was initially off-putting because pretty quickly quotes from real historical sources reside in equanimity with a tumbling invention of the thoughts of the dead.

The first time several quotations are used to describe the same person and there are wide disparities implying unreliable reportage, forcing the reader to flip back-and-forth to separate quotes from actual historical texts from made-up ones, it’s a hilarious reminder that we’re in a novel, and it doesn’t matter.

Fiction and Non-fiction swim together.

In the mid-90’s, in San Francisco, it was the fashion among serious young (read: unpublished) writers like me to read the postmodern fiction of structuralists like Harry Matthews, the only American member of the Oulipo, with great love. The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle bears consideration in advance of talking about Saunders as constructionist.

There is a confidence and ease I love about George Saunders. He really is in command of his craft. With this form, within a matter of a few chapters, you are in his world. If a person were to come over to you and look over your shoulder while you’re reading this novel, it would look to them like insane gibberish.

Saunders’ effort is totally original but like Matthews and the Oulipo before him, uses structure to train you into his narrative – isolating you from being able to “tell” this book.

It was immediately apparent an audio book of this work is basically impossible without dozens of actors and a unique method for attribution, audibly. It’s another thing, a book.

I wonder how the e-versions look/read?

Once aboard, the form establishes a rhythm and momentum that sends this richly imagined exploration of death, life and loss, forward with vigor.

The historical facts surrounding the 16th President and the death of his son at the White House and the Civil War that raged with the nation’s history in the balance are the nest in which Saunders crafts a re-imagining of purgatory. He does so to examine our sense of purpose and meaning – in life and after death.

But rather than a staid, dusty exploration of our historical understanding of the deaths of the time, Saunders populates his work with real people – everyday people who lived and died normal and un-extraordinary lives, filled with sins and loves and hates and pettiness. It is part of his charm in the short form that his characters are easily believable and admirable for their flawed, utterly human qualities. They are our guides to the mind of our beloved Lincoln, and nation.

Saunders’ exceptional understanding of people and compassion for their desires, dreams and regrets is again on display as this diverse collection of souls from many walks of life reveal themselves and the stories of their lives.

The population of the cemetery includes slaves but the book fails to really plunge into the national sin. I read a review that felt the opposite, that the recrimination and oppression of the slaves in the cemetery by the whites was clearcut and evocative, giving voice to the horror, but it was disappointing to me.

As I reflect on the role the slaves do play, it is once again as from a position of rectitude, to be able to look back at slavery and racism to contain it in the national narrative.

There are some serious and violent points of intersection between the black and white population of the cemetery and one particularly poignant one never ends, an eternal struggle. But I can’t help but feel this could have been developed. Slaves and masters in the same cemetery, with only the masters in marked graves, seems a rare territory and an opportunity to explore racism more deeply.

The conceit does fruit into a tangential reference into Lincoln’s conclusions on the matter, conclusions that led to years of bloody war over ending slavery. This book isn’t about that though, nor about the civil war.

It seems to be about how we, all of us, think of ourselves and our lives more than Lincoln or anyone else in 1862 does. It seems to be about how we think of our lives in advance of, and even after, death – whether it’s the death of someone we know or ourselves. In that, Lincoln in the Bardo succeeds with sensitivity and compassion.

Saunders understands un-requite, failure, desperation and the longing we all feel. He also knows how to craft this understanding into an incredibly direct narrative. It’s amazing.

Apparently he has said about his process that the narrative tells him how long it is to be, what it is to be. In this case it became something wondrous.

I am left with so much after this novel. I find I cannot describe it very well. It’s like a magician’s deception. What you find within is worth much more than the conceit.

It is clear though, the magician knows his audience inside and out.



Waiting for the Saunders to Drop and a Word on Libraries

At last the pub date has arrived.

Tomorrow morning Lincoln in the Bardo, the debut novel from George Saunders, goes on sale. I’m #10 on the list for one of the 17 copies coming to our city-wide library system, but it probably won’t get to my local branch by tomorrow, so there’s a copy on hold for me at a local bookstore. More on this process in a moment …

Though I don’t usually buy books anymore – and when I do, I prefer buying them from independent bookstores or my former employer, Half Price Books – in this case, I want to read it as soon as possible and so the corporate behemoth will take my money. I hope at  least some of it ends up in George Saunders’ account.

On three occasions, when I lived in New York, and in D.C. and in L.A., as a member of the press and publishing industry, I had access to advance copies. It was exquisite. To have your hands on a novel before everyone else, before it can be reviewed, critiqued, analyzed and translated, before society gets its grubby fingers all over the way reading a new book feels, that’s a great thing. I miss that.

I wish I could tell the novelists that; how excellent it is to connect with their work unencumbered.

In my reviews, I struggle to avoid giving away plot points or spoilers. My reviews are more about how a book feels, how the words are cast. I am trying to discuss tone and quality of writing without giving away anything because I revere the feeling of getting into a book without knowing where it will take you.

I suppose e-readers get early access nowadays, but I still can’t get comfortable with them. They still come nowhere near the lovely feeling of a book in my hands. So …



Thank you.


A Word On Libraries

I’ve traveled a lot, and not like a tourist. I have moved to places to live there in order to honestly experience them. My plan was to feel what a full set of seasons in a place feels like before judging it. If, after a year, I felt it deserved more of my time, I’d stay longer. By this method I have lived in Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, Taiwan, Japan and India for many years.

The very first thing I do when I get to a new place is get a library card and like most, my greatest experience with a library system was in NYC.

For more than a century and a half writers have gone to New York City drawn by the virtues of the New York Public Library system; its depth and efficiency. With the publishing industry right there, new books make it into the system quickly.

When I was in Brooklyn, if I wanted a brand new book that I read about in The New Yorker or the Times or the New York Review of Books, I could simply ask my  librarian to get it and have it sent to my local branch. For fifty cents I had my hands on the latest, hottest shit. I took full advantage of it.

There was nothing like that where I grew up. When I left San Antonio, Texas, at eighteen it was a cultural backwater and a cowtown. There were few libraries and they certainly had no such service.

But fast-forward 32 years and the SAPL system has caught up. In fact the system is all online and I can order books directly to my local branch without ever speaking to a librarian.

Still, lately, if I’m at the grocery store or bank or somewhere and I open my wallet to get my card or I.D., people have noticed my library card. These are actual responses:

  1. Is that a library card?
  2. Do libraries still exist?
  3. Who goes to the library anymore?
  4. Dude, the Internet.

or words to that effect. Often.

I cringe, smile a tight smile and reply: it’s still a great resource.

Despite that there were few branches when I was a kid here, and none nearby, my mother took us to the library like clockwork every two weeks in the summer and during the school year as necessary. My sister and I would load ourselves up with books on these trips – usually ten to fifteen each at least – and take them home and plow through them.

One of the most attractive things to me about the mother of my child, the last great love of my life, was that she had this habit herself. She always had a library card, always pushed us to get them as soon as we got anywhere we were to be living. She went regularly herself, and when our son was old enough, maintained this precious habit as a parent as much or more even than I did. I love that about her.

My old college classmate Siva Vaidyanathan writes about the crucial need for libraries and their changing role in society. He is one of the most sensible academics I know and it comforts me to know he at least is attempting to help maintain this cultural resource in a society fast becoming illiterate.

From Mark Twain:

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

To say we are becoming illiterate is no exaggeration. Videos, audio and memes of the shortest textual length are how most people consume information today.

Do yourself a favor. If you do not have a library card, google your local branch, figure out how to get there and sign up. Trust me, you will be amazed at what you find there for free. You can get movies, music, novels, instructional coursework … all for nothing.


Well, just counting down the hours now til I get  my hands on Lincoln in the Bardo.



Book Review – The Accident by Ismail Kadare

The AccidentThe Accident by Ismail Kadare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.

– 2017 Nobel Literature Laureate Bob Dylan

I have always been a romantic, despite the cruel human stupidity deteriorating this world.

I have seen and read and loved a lot and come to know the pain of it and of cynicism. I have come to appreciate Dorothy Parker and Bob Dylan. I have fought to resist the patina of the produced and to stare long in pursuit of a realistic understanding. Yet, I have always believed and fight still to believe in beauty, nature, goodness, harmony and love. I am not yet completely jaded. Hence I remain a romantic.

Even now, despite my age, I look upon a woman I find attractive from a distance and, knowing nothing about her, still think, “what if we are perfect for each other, in some way.” 50 years of living on this earth has dampened my spirits and broken my heart, but not ultimately my belief in the possibility of love.

But when people ask me what I want to write about, I’ve given the same response for decades: my interest is literary fiction about real relationships and people. I like the ability of a great writer to honestly capture what goes on between people in states of profound intimacy as effectively as the interior dialogue within them.

And the truth is, little of the best of this writing is romantic. The best is at turns cynical, petty, harsh and loving in ways that seem impossible to describe … until someone does.

I would give Kawabata as my first and greatest example. Then perhaps Kundera. You could add Hanif Kureishi to that list and now yet another K – Ismail Kadare.

Aksidenti, by Ismail Kadare was written in Tirana, Albania in 2008 and translated into English as The Accident in 2010. It is a haunting exploration of love, lust and desire wrapped into the puzzling investigation of a car crash.

From this seemingly simple conceit, Kadare weaves the pieced-together tale of two lovers, composed of the evidence and actualities that surrounded them. Untrustworthy depositions mingle with contradictory ones and the use of language amazes and delights as the story tumbles along, revealing unrequitedness, jealousy and the power game of love.

The first time I ever heard of Kadare was on a flight returning from Maine to New York City in August of 1999. I had taken a sailing trip up the coast of Maine for nine days with two close friends and I used the opportunity to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace the first time.

On the flight home, I had my tray table down and my journal out as I was making notes on the text. I pulled out the Tolstoy to copy some quotes from it and the man seated next to me noticed it. “Ah, Tolstoy!” he said, and as I turned to him he covered one of his eyes with one palm, stared at me through the other, and exclaimed, “Kutozov!”

It was an instantaneous connection over the scene in War and Peace in which the one-eyed general Kutozov is approached by a foot soldier who has come to ask for orders only to hear from the wizened general that it doesn’t matter what they do, that the orders, like the battle itself, are irrelevant.

The man seated next to me had a bushy mustache, thick black hair, and a slight Eastern European accent. He could have been Russian, but was more likely Czech or Hungarian or perhaps from one of the former Yugoslav Republics, which were then in the throes of separation and even dissolution.

The man put his hand down, looked at me and then asked, seriously, “Have you read Kadare?” When I shook my head no, he continued, “You must. He is the greatest living writer.” Which is how I began my exploration of this Albanian who has since won the inaugural International Man Booker Prize and is perennially a candidate for the Literature Nobel.

The Accident is first and foremost a puzzle of an investigation, but the story is about retroactively composing the last weeks of the lovers, Mr. Besfort Y. and Rovena, tossed from a taxi that “veered off the airport autobahn at kilometre marker 17.”

Kadare effortlessly moves between third and first person accounts in chapters that take off in different directions, leaving the reader to catch up. But once you do, he delivers a deep understanding of human emotions expressed directly. He is clever and precise in his method of setting you up to grasp what he is trying to say about us and the way we love or treat one another.

I had to flip back several times to remember things and put things together, but rather than being a nuisance or distracting, it became charming – as though I, too, were involved in this elaborate investigation and as if I might be the one who ultimately sees the truth.

Kadare doesn’t insult the reader. It is so great. He ‘hup-hups’ the reader to stay abreast, hiding important facts of the case in everyday accounts only to have them remembered later and tossed and turned all about. The puzzling elements are crisp and Borgesian, while the emotional landscape of this relationship and its satellites of love are raw, detailed and exceptionally written.

There is so much feeling in the human relationships, described nakedly and with stark eloquence, that I found myself thinking once again how much is lost to me by being in the United States. The relationships in our books are so narrow and empty of emotional range.

More and more it is because we are becoming flat and superficial. Americans on dates talk about tv shows, movies, stuff and money. We are fast becoming the kingdom of porn stars and prudes working in concert to confuse a society increasingly incapable of understanding true love or what meaning is.

Ismail Kadare’s love story or lust story or death story or whatever this is, is much more full than even real everyday loves in the United States, an incredible book.

I am glad Bob Dylan won the 2017 Nobel, but I must say, I am increasingly with the crowd favoring Kadare to win it soon.

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