Our actions are questions

An epigraph for a chapter in a book I read recently.  The quote is from John le Carre’s A Perfect Spy:

Sometimes, Tom, we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it.  Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.

It reminds me a of a line from the ZBS radio drama, Moon Over Morocco, about “entering into the process” that I’ve used often.  The world is rife with complexity and results are not always predictable.  Sometimes it’s wiser to act, see the results, and then adjust, than to spend too much time planning.

Self-involved, but genuinely out to give you a good time

The latest from legendary writer, Michael Moorcock, is a blend of biography and fantasy akin to Richard Bowes’s Dust Devil on a Quiet Street which I read last year. However, where Bowes’s semi-autobiographical novel is subtle and shot through with haunting darkness, Moorcock’s is broad and direct and more than a little rough-hewn.

The windows into his early life and the nostalgia-gilded memories of post-War Britain were fascinating and at times insightful:

Tourism depends on lots of people everywhere with loads of disposable wealth, which means all kinds of changes go through a place that cultivates it. The real, messy, informative past disappears to be overlaid with bad fiction, with simplified folklore, easy answers. Memory needs to remain complex, debatable. Without those qualities it is mere nostalgic sentimentality. Commodified identity. Souls bought and sold.

The cameos by noted science fiction authors, literary authors, and pop culture figures paint a fascinating picture of Moorcock’s early life and the times.

The first incursion of the mystical and adventurous is fun enough, especially as adolescent Moorcock convinces himself of whatever he needs to believe in order to follow the girl of his dreams.  But later fantastic bits feel clumsily stitched in, and the self-construction felt heavy-handed at times (especially when it comes to sex and romance), even when he tries to balance it with self-deprecation:

Good-natured and generous by inclination, like so many writers, I was probably monstrously insensitive, utterly self-involved, but genuinely out to give her a good time

or

I seemed able to sympathise with her but not understand her.

In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I appreciate the intent behind the novel, but the pacing was a little too slow and the autobiography a little too self-congratulatory. I would have preferred a straight biography or a straight fantasy that spared me trouble of sorting the bits out. I’ve always thought of myself as a completist where Moorcock is concerned, but The Whispering Swarm proved me wrong.

The Teeth of Events

My plan for 2015 is to read more mainstream fiction–although I doubt I’ll completely avoid science fiction and fantasy. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman is a foray into that world. It is a kind of book I don’t normally read, and I grappled early on with my own expectations regarding pace, tone, and plot.

It is a slow, meandering, self-indulgent narrative. The author is occasionally guilty of being “to clever”–not using quotation marks, the constant bouncing around in time, and the excursions into side topics, can sometimes be confusing, off-putting, and self-indulgent. However, Rahman paints a portrait of two interesting men in long, slow, oblique strokes, and the book is littered with gems that allowed me to forgive the off-putting moments:

To say that an unexamined life is not worth living is, in my mind, putting things a tad too strongly. What I know now, however, is that an untested life can lead some people into a kind of moribund discontent that cannot easily be shaken off.

Or the story that cut right to this (relatively) new father’s heart of a man watching his son make a choice that moves him from childhood to adulthood that ends with the line:

But that Saturday morning, as he walked into the children’s library, what I believe I felt was his heart breaking. Watching a door close that can never be opened again is, I am sure, enough to break a heart.

Or this which speaks to mortality

Everyone, he continued, wants his life to stand for something other than what it would, which is about eighty years–in the West, at any rate–eighty years of working, eating, sleeping, shitting, breeding, and dying. Lives of buttoning an unbuttoning…

Or this grim excursion:

I’ve read that in fishing communities throughout the world, the same story is apparently told about dolphins, the benign dolphin is how it’s described, about a fisherman thrown overboard but saved by a playful dolphin that nudges him all the way back to the land. But you have to ask: What if the dolphin is just playing, nudging away for fun but with no regard for the direction it’s moving this bobbing creature, the stricken seaman? Who knows? There may be lost fishermen whom the incoming tide would have returned to safety but for the dolphin who playfully takes them off to the setting sun. The only fishermen we ever hear from are the ones brought back to shore. The rest perish at sea. Which is another way of saying we live in the world we notice and remember. Scientists call it the availability bias.

And finally

Our choices are made, our will flexed, in the teeth of events that overwhelm and devour us.

So it may not be for everyone, but I don’t regret reading it.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

I recently read Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness.  Apparently, he wrote it as an exercise, never intending to publish it.  He was convinced to do so by his editor and Samuel Delaney (hence the dedication).

It is a book, I think, for Zelazny completists.  Too unconventional to appeal to typical readers and certainly not for fans of Amber–despite the war of gods and powers it portrays.  The characters are both complex and barely painted.  The systems at work are only hinted at.  But neither of those are the point.

It is a playground of perspective and language from a master of prose.  It deserves to be preserved if only for such gems as:

The Steel General, who has dismounted, stands before [redacted to prevent spoilers] like an iron statue at ten o’clock on a summer evening with no moon…. and his voice is a thing of such beauty that one could listen to it for years.

and

The focus of the fugue has become this moment of intensity, and they clash with a force that sends widening ripples of change outward through the universe, rising, diminishing, gone by, as Time once more tricks history around events.

and

And [redacted] awaken to a sound of laughter that is like the singing wind.

As with many of his “lesser” books, Creatures of Light and Darkness is a short but rewarding read.

1440 Books

Every few years, something compels me to take another stab at blogging.  With the birth of my second child, I face once again intimations of my own mortality and the intersection of two trains of thought on that mortality:

  • I keep a Goodreads account to track the books I’ve read.  Sometimes I post reviews, sometimes just ratings.  Over the last few years, I’ve averaged around 44 books per year.
  • A few years ago, a morbid impulse sent me to the US Census life expectancy tables to look at the number of years, statistically speaking, that I have left.

These two numbers together birthed the concept of 1600 books–the idea that I have a finite number of books left to read.  That concept helped me to learn to put books down.  If I wasn’t enjoying it within 50 pages, I walked away.  After all, there were only so many left.

This year, I looked at those numbers again.  Based on my advancing age and slowing rate of reading, I came up with the figure of 1440 books–or ten gross of books.  As I contemplated resurrecting this blog, that seemed like a solid basis for blog posts.

I plan to do sporadic, relatively short posts about the books that I’m reading and the thoughts about life that they spark in me.  I can’t promise to be regular or even interesting, but I will be honest.