Friday, October 14, 2016

The Three Body Problem ~ Liu Cixin

**Warning – Spoilers!**

I love Science Fiction but I don’t read it very often – it’s so hard to find one that does not have those ‘Mad Max’ elements of silliness that really irritate me.  However, after Googling something inspiring to read in the vein of The Martian (which I absolutely loved) I came across a recommendation for the Chinese novelist Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem.  The recommendation states it is a cross between The Martian and Contact, however it is nothing like these two novels. But, it is different and I enjoyed it so much that I have just started The Dark Forest being the second book in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy.

The Three Body Problem is set along several time lines.  It opens with the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, and a young women called Ye Wenjie who witnesses the murder of her father.  Her younger sister and Mother have joined the Red Guards and Ye Wenjie is imprisoned for something she has not done. All these events compound in causing her to lose faith in humanity.  When she is finally released from prison, being an Astrophysicist, she starts work at the secretive Red Coast Base (similar to S.E.T.I.).

In the present day Wang Miao, a nanomaterials specialist, is plagued by the image of a countdown.  What is this the countdown for?  He is directed to a scientist who plays the video game The Three Body Problem created by the mysterious E.T.O. She tells Wang to stop working on his latest project and it will stop. Wang has also been commissioned by the police to investigate the E.T.O.  He sees the name of the game on her PC and decides to check it out further.  It’s a very unusual game where the people of a planet called Trisolaris must endure chaotic eras in between stable eras.  The chaotic eras bring immense heat or biting cold.  The Trisolarans must dehydrate their bodies and have them stored in order to survive.  Each level of the game is a different civilization as it progresses through eons of time, and the game itself only appeals to a certain type of person.  When this person is identified by the E.T.O. they receive an invite to a 'meet-up' of the Earth-Trisolaran Organisation.

On the planet Trisolaris (named due to its three suns) a signal has been received from Earth.  The signal is received by a 'listener' who sends a message back advising Earth not to respond, if it does then the Trisolarans will be able to pin point its location and they will come and they will invade.  They will not be friendly.

Ye Wenjie receives this warning at the Red Coast Base and answers back that humanity has lost its way – please come.

It will take the Solarans 450 years to reach earth, and based on mankind’s ever rapid advances from Stone Age to Steam Age, from Steam Age to the Technological Age, and then to the Information Age, they fear that by the time they arrive mankind’s science will have far surpassed their own.  The Solarans create a supercomputer called a Sophon that can interrupt scientific research on Earth and send out false results, effectively bringing scientific progress to an end.

Back on Earth scientists are committing suicide.  All that they know, all laws of physics, no longer apply or make sense.  The now retired Ye Wenjie’s own daughter commits suicide and Wang visits Ye to see if she needs any help.  It is via Ye that he finds out about the Red Coast Base and that the Solarans are a reality.

I loved the weirdness of the video game, the discussions on evolution and man’s progression through time.  I even understood some of the physics (something I failed at miserably in high school, and what my own sister lectures in at University in the UK.)

What surprised me was the graphic account of Ye’s father’s murder during the Cultural Revolution.  Being a Chinese novel I would have thought that this may have been censored, but I'm so pleased it was not, as it gives a very authentic background to Ye Wenjie's coldness and detachment from humanity.

This is my first novel by a Chinese author, and I did struggle a bit remembering the names and who the characters were but you do get used to them.  I’m not sure how the translation stands up to the Chinese language, but I do know that I want to find out if mankind will survive the Solarans!!


Friday, February 5, 2016

Ulysses ~ James Joyce

Words cannot explain how much I loved this amazing piece of work by Joyce!  I was astounded and flabbergasted by his knowledge and use of language. 

The structure of Ulysses is based on Homer’s The Odyssey, which I did read first, however without my study guide I would have missed an awful lot of the references, some of which were so clever that they were hilarious.  It is definitely beneficial to read The Odyssey first to fully appreciate the skill involved in creating the structure for Ulysses.

It is also beneficial to read A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man to understand the character of Stephen Dedalus.  This I also did, and loved it, although it was heartbreaking in places.

Ulysses is set in Dublin and is basically one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew (this in itself has many connotations which I won’t go into as the Study Guides describe it so much better than I).  Bloom is a bit of a loner, he’s on the outside of his group of friends, and he’s a cuckold.  He is however a very caring and gentle man, who dearly misses his son Rudy who died in infancy.  During the course of the day he finds himself concerned about Stephen Dedalus and tries to be a father figure to him, and after a challenging evening keeps him out of trouble.

Molly Bloom is Leopold’s voluptuous operatic wife, who is having an affair with the director of her theatre group.  The affair is no secret, and on the day that she is expecting her lover Leopold ensures that he fills his day and evening away from home. 

The events are mundane in themselves, a funeral, a visit to the newspaper office, a trip to the pub, a walk on the beach (where Leopold undertakes a lewd act), a visit to the ‘red light’ district (keeping an eye on Stephen) and eventually home again into the bed which is still warm from Molly’s antics.

The wonderful thing about this work is how it is presented.  First of all there are so many things that need to be kept track of (ie the lemon scented soap in Bloom’s trouser pocket which he buys in the morning, the outcome of the local horse race, and the various people he interacts with) as they crop up throughout the novel.  By various devices we learn about the history of Dublin and Ireland, its notorious figures (real and fictional) and politicians, along with the general mood of the day towards current events and Ireland’s stance with England.

The novel is written in many styles which, if read without a study guide, would be an impossible task to understand.  Once you realise what Joyce is trying to achieve within the style you marvel at his cleverness and revel in the words.  Such styles include one section which demonstrates the evolution of the English language from stylised Latin to Dublin slang.  Truly amazing! One part is written in the style of various prose such a newspaper accounts, diarists, sensationalist novelists, romantic novelists etc and another section is written like a play (the events in Night Town) etc. 

But, for me the most beautiful sections of Ulysses were those written as a stream of consciousness.  They were incredible, and made me think about the way that my own thought processes work and yes, like in the book, they do jump around and are unfinished. 

The last section is written as Molly’s stream of consciousness so that we finally get to see her point of view and why she is having an affair.  At first she seems to despise Leopold, but by the end you realise she does love him dearly and that realisation is the most beautifully written passage in the whole novel.

Ulysses is without doubt the most challenging book I’ve read since Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  It took me a good five months to complete with the assistance of a study guide, reading half an hour each morning before work when I could guarantee no interruptions and no danger of falling asleep which always happens when I read in bed! I finished it late last year but I have been ruminating on it ever since, still trying to get my head around what I have experienced, and I know that I will never read anything like it ever again.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Harp In The South ~ Ruth Park

Set in the slums of Surry Hills in Sydney, during the Depression, The Harp in the South follows the misfortunes of the Darcy’s, a working poor Irish Catholic family.  It doesn’t matter where it is set, as this story can relate to any family living below the breadline.  The daily struggles become the norm, and there’s plenty of families with a father like Hughie – easily led when it comes to the drink and a few pounds in his pocket, and a daughter like Roie (Rowena) - too innocent when it comes to the boys.

'Mumma’ Darcy battles daily to make ends meet.  Two growing daughters, a husband who’s generally M.I.A. at the pub on pay day, an elderly mother, two eccentric tenants (not forgetting to mention Puffing Billy the temperamental coal stove), and all living in a rundown cramped terraced house among many other struggling families.

There is plenty of humour, but there’s horror too – the flushing out and killing of the bed bugs, a seedy abortion house, and the ever present memory of Thady, the six year old son who went missing whilst playing outside.  Mumma is constantly haunted by what could have happened to him, what he would look like growing up, and this comes to a head towards the end of the novel.

On top of everything else, there’s the sheer lack of privacy in the Darcy’s lives.  Everyone ends up knowing their business, and paper thin walls don’t help.  Mumma is constantly worried about what the neighbours will think, which clouds her judgement when Roie is assaulted and she stumbles upon Roie's terrible secret which must be kept from the neighbours at all costs.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald (in twelve daily installments in 1947) The Harp in the South is the second part of Park's trilogy, though it was written first.  It is nostalgic in the telling, which at times tends to gloss over the sheer awfulness of the Darcy’s lives, but it also makes you realise that if you have your family around you then you can pretty much face anything.  

Although I did read Missus first, The Harp in the South can be read as a standalone novel – but as I want to know how it all ends up I am currently reading Poor Man’s Orange too.

The Harp in the South was our six monthly ‘buddy’ read discussed via Twitter for January. (Follow @CaffeineChapter, @johnson_mjj, @JudyAuthor, @TomJohnson_Art, @Italiankiwiblog if you would like to join us for our next 'buddy' read!).


Friday, August 14, 2015

The Story of Lucy Gault ~ William Trevor

Set in Ireland, opening in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence, Captain Gault finds himself the target of arsonists who aim to set fire to the homes of protestant land owners. Trying to protect the house Gault lets off a gunshot which accidentally wounds one of the arsonists in the shoulder, a troubled boy known to Captain Gault.  Filled with remorse Gault visit’s the young man and his parents and offers them money.  It is incredible that he feels that he is the one who is in the wrong, but that is his perception.  The money is refused, and in fear of repercussions for his actions he decides to move his family (wife and daughter) to the safety of England.

The Captain’s daughter Lucy is distraught at the thought of leaving her beloved ‘Lahardane’, but she is only eight years old and doesn’t understand the trouble surrounding them.  No matter what she says, she cannot change her parent’s mind, so there is only one thing for it – she runs away. Lucy believes that once her parents find her they will understand just how much she doesn’t want to go and they will change their minds, however, Lucy injures herself and never makes her intended destination.  A search is made for Lucy once it is realised that she cannot be found in her usual haunts and, when clothing is found on the beach, it is supposed that she has gone for a swim and drowned.  Travel plans are delayed in the hope of finding a body, but eventually the grieving Captain and his wife leave, not for England as now that is not far away enough but for Europe with no forwarding address.

Henry and Bridget are two servants left to maintain the herd of cows and the grounds, and shortly after the Gault’s departure Henry finds a bundle of clothing – and within it a starving child close to death.  His life and that of his wife’s will change forever.

With no forwarding address the Captain cannot be contacted and although various relatives are tracked down, the fact that Lucy has been found goes no further than these relatives for various reasons.  

As Lucy grows up, her vigil for her parents remains unwavering.  She is convinced that they will eventually return, but as the months turn into years this vigil will have an unalterable impact on her life and happiness. 

I absolutely loved this, it is incredibly sad, but it is so beautifully written that you hardly notice how tragic it really is.  


Monday, July 27, 2015

Musings on my Recent Book Choices

I was thinking today about how various books have become interrelated in my reading choices.  

A couple of years ago I was reading Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and by chance picked up another book where one of the characters was also reading Of Human Bondage (Dr Blood Money by Phillip K. Dick) and as he was actually reading out passages as part of his characterisation (being on radio in outer-space) I had to be careful of any plot spoilers!

Lately though it’s been Homer’s The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses that seem to have featured in my reading.  Many of the books I’ve read in the past few months have made reference to The Odyssey (such as The Untouchable by John Banville) and one of my latest reads Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee is referenced back to Ulysses with the title character having re-written Ulysses, from the perspective of Molly Bloom, with a book called The House on Eccles Street.  The constant reference to The House on Eccles Street had me intrigued so I thought I would check out Ulysses, and when I read that it was loosely based on The Odyssey my next reading schedule was set.  

The Odyssey didn’t give me the same challenge as my copy of Chapman’s translation of The Illiad did, but I can see how it would have entranced youngsters for many years.  It is more accessible and more of an adventure story.  However, it was important for me to read it if I wanted to understand the structure of Ulysses and I do like to do things right!

I started Ulysses as an audio book, but I soon realised that I wasn’t ‘taking in’ the stream of consciousness passages whilst listening to it in the car (driving being my main focus).  I bought the book instead and looked up Shmoop on-line who have a study guide for it and started again.  I love the myriad of thoughts that go through a character’s mind in just one passage alone and it has made me notice my own thought processes and how they jump around and cut off in the same manner. (Thought is the thought of thought). I can quite identify with Stephen Dedalus, though my thoughts aren’t quite as high ranging as his!

As it happened, around the same time, I started a new audio book in the car (Umbrella by Will Self) and I couldn’t believe it when the opening quotation was announced …….

“A brother is as easily forgotten as an Umbrella.” James Joyce

…… and the opening passage began with Zachary Busner, the main character, singing “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man” rather gleefully indicating that the narrative style is copying that of James Joyce’s, and boy did I enjoy it, it was so cleverly written.  The start of a sentence could be in one time frame with one character and by the end of the sentence you are in another time frame with a different character.  Quite often I didn’t even notice the shifts, and rather than being annoyed I enjoyed the challenge of going back and finding where it happened, thinking ‘you crafty bugger’.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much if I wasn’t doing Ulysses and was already ‘in the zone’ for that style of writing.

I’ll be with Ulysses for a while as I intend to take my time with it because it has had such a huge influence on literature and once I have read it I shall so enjoy those literary references that I could not have appreciated if I hadn’t done so.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Dark Adapted Eye ~ Barbara Vine

This month’s Caffeine and Chapters Book Club read is an Edgar Award Winning Novel.  Having never read any books from the list of winners I realised this was a genre I probably hadn’t tapped into.  I liked the sound of this title over all the others on the list and so I downloaded it as an audio book.

I didn’t realise that Barbara Vine was the nom de plume of Ruth Rendell’s.  I had recently read The Killing Doll by Rendell and thoroughly enjoyed her characterisations and the dark nature of the novel, so once I realised who had written this book I was quietly pleased about my choice.

What a great story it is.  It is the tale of a family with dark secrets and the secrets are slowly unraveled by Faith, the niece of the main character Vera, after she is approached by a true crime writer who wants to write about Vera’s life.  The title of the novel relates to the opening of Faith’s eyes to events in her family and seeing them with an adult’s new perspective.

The novel opens with Vera’s execution and Faith mentions just about all the main characters without us knowing who they are and how they will relate to the story.  As the novel progresses some of these characters and their relationships are a revelation.

In short Faith’s father has two sisters – Vera and Eden.  He places these two women on a pedestal as paragon’s of virtue and Faith finds it very hard to live up to their standards only to find that they were not very virtuous at all as she pieces together their past.  Vera is much older than Eden and pushes her son away in favour of raising Eden when their parents die.  Faith often stays with them on holidays only to find them whispering and keeping secrets and making her feel very uncomfortable a lot of the time.  Vera’s son is very scornful and cruel to her but Eden appears to counter his presence with beauty and a strong love for her sister Vera.

Things take a turn when Faith’s family are told that Vera is expecting.  She is a much older lady and with her husband away (this is set during the 2nd World War) they can do the math.  They don’t receive much communication whilst she is pregnant but are relieved when they are told eventually by Eden that she has delivered a healthy baby boy – Jamie.

Vera is completely devoted to Jamie, but when she falls very ill she is devastated by the fact that Eden has taken him to live with her and her new very wealthy husband.  Eden has been trying for a child of her own, but a miscarriage and subsequent problems mean that she can no longer have a baby.  What ensues is a very bitter custody battle to try and bring Jamie back home to Vera, which culminates in murder and Vera’s execution.

What I loved about this novel were the insights by Faith describing the time she spent with the two women.  What seems innocuous at first becomes darker when viewed in light of the later events.  The characterisations are absolutely brilliant and their history quite complex.  What we have here is a mystery story, but we are still left with a mystery at the end of it – well two actually.  Who was Jamie’s father and who is actually Jamie’s mother?

This is a fantastic read and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell will be on my reading list for the rest of this year.  With Rendell’s passing a few days ago I can see there are a lot of novels I need to catch up on.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Strangers on a Train ~ Patricia Highsmith

Architect Guy Haines has the ability to achieve anything he wants in life – a successful career, a fantastic home, and a beautiful new wife……. but all this changes on the day he catches a train to Metcalf to talk to his estranged wife about a divorce.

On the train Haines is subjected to a very uncomfortable conversation with the wealthy but bored Charles Bruno, though when Haines reaches his destination he has pretty much dismissed Bruno as a harmless crackpot.  But Bruno sees this fortuitous meeting as the start of a very beautiful friendship ~ one that will come at great cost.

Bruno believes that he has the idea for a perfect crime, one that attaches no motive to the perpetrators, and which will secure each of their futures.  But Bruno’s careful planning doesn’t account for Haines having a conscience and the fact that there will be others who are determined to get to the truth.

Highsmith had me on tender hooks throughout this novel.  Her characterisations were excellent, I detested the smarmy alcoholic Charles Bruno and felt all of the emotions attributed to Haines.  The nightmare world that she portrays is unshakeable as is the persistent Bruno.  Living out his fantasies Bruno drags Guy, a once honest man, down into hell without the strength of character to make it back in one piece.

I did this one as a ‘buddy read’ with a couple of readers who I have connected with on Twitter.  All three of us felt the high anxiety of the storyline, and once we had finished we agreed that we needed something calming to read afterwards!

Hitchcock made a movie by the same name, but he detracted from the novel considerably and it is extremely dated by today’s standards.