Sunday, November 01, 2009

Indefinable Influence - Books that nurture the right-brain

"Lying on a stack of straw on the threshing floor, I had been reading for a long time – and suddenly I revolted. Once again reading all morning, once again with a book in my hands! And it’s been that way day in, day out, since I was a child! I’ve spent half my life in a world that doesn’t exist, among people who never lived, invented people, being as agitated about their fates, their joys and sorrows, as if they were my own, linking myself to my dying day with Abraham and Isaac, Pelasgians and Etruscans, Socrates and Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Dante, Gretchen and Chatsky, Sobakevich and Ophelia, Pechorin and Natasha Rostova! And how can I now distinguish between real and imagined companions of my earthly existence? How can I divide them, define the degree of their influence on me?" - книга("Book"), Ivan Bunin

I was once a fulltime reader, a book nut who, in my sparsely furnished apartment, had an easy chair with a stack of books on both sides. The year was 1992, I was 21, living alone, and perpetually broke - but didn't really notice. I had no computer (save a beat-up and ageing Apple //c) and no television, just a CD player with which to play my Jimmy Buffett and Led Zeppelin, and a Half-Price Books habit. When I would get home from work, I would put on some music, cook and eat dinner, clean the kitchen, and then sit in the chair to read until I was too tired to continue. When I had finished a book, I would place it on top of the stack on the right side of the chair, and then grab the next book from the stack on the left.

Since then, life moved on, and I lost at first the time to read, and then the habit. Now I'm lucky to finish three physical books in a year. I have cheated on reading by listening to audiobooks in my car on long trips, or on the commute to work - a habit I picked up when I delivered pizza and got tired of the radio.

I stumbled across the above quote last week, and it really struck a nerve with me. I reflected for a while on the days of the simple apartment that I lived alone in, the chair, and the stack of books. And then I began thinking of my Hamlets and Dantes - Siri and Miles Teg, Fiver and Joseph Knecht - and the fantastic worlds opened to me from the stack of books, and the books read to me in my car. So like we geeks do, I made a list. Below are some of the more creative or personally influencing works I've come across. I expect everyone has heard of some of these, possibly most of them, but some of them are gems I stumbled across that I have never heard discussed, which is a shame, because they're all brilliant and everyone needs to read them.

Here, then, are my 15 recommendations of books worth reading. Ideally, you should read all of them, and we should get together at the local pub and talk about how awesome they were over brews and greasy food... but I'll take what I can get. I'll write some basic setting details and impressions, and I'll do my best not to ruin the stories by revealing too much plot.

1) Across the Nightingale Floor - Lian Hearn

Feudal Japan! Intrigue! Swordfights! Jato, the heirloom sword that always finds its way back to its family. "The Hidden", a persecuted nonviolent community with odd religious rights and names that sound strange to the Japanese ear - Tomasu, for example. The gypsy-like clan of assassins known as "The Tribe". And the Nightingale Floor itself, designed to chirp when it is walked on, to prevent thieves or assassins from crossing it without raising the attention of palace guards.

The story is of Tomaso/Takeo, who is caught between the three worlds of The Hidden, The Tribe, and the family of his Shogun-like adopted father. The story is rich with character and mystery, and has a small element of supernatural in it (some members of The Tribe can turn invisible, for example - and I don't think the words "ninja" or "samurai" are ever used in the series).

I sorted this list alphabetically to keep my personal preferences from ordering it poorly, but as it happens, this is my favorite book of the 15. It's ranked highly on Amazon, but if you search Google for it, there are a couple of stinker reviews of it that are high on the list. Screw those guys! The writing was fantastic, the story was engaging and wonderful. Drop everything and go read it! Seriously.

2) Blindness - Jose Saramago

I never saw the movie "Blindness" that just came out, and I can only assume it was butchered, like all book-come-movies are. This is the book the movie was based on, complete with the "I'll remember your face" line in it.

Saramago has a fantastic writing style that another famous Spanish author does: Borges. Is there something special about Spaniards with putting prose together beautifully, and having very wild premises? Borges had his Tlon and infinite library, where Saramago is more grounded with his infectious, incurable blindness, his insane asylum turned into a holding warehouse for the newly blind, and a full examination of the subtleties of a newly-blind society (e.g., fear in a group can turn it brutal, and home ownership gets a little more vague).

3) The Brief History of the Dead - Kevin Brockmeier

Here's how the afterlife works: You live in a big city that grows and shrinks as necessary, and everything is normal... as long as someone in the real world has met and remembers you. Once everyone you know dies, you disappear from The City and go off to God-knows-where... actually, that's not a bad euphemism in this case.

The story is from two points of view, in the real world, where a pandemic is going on, and The City, that has no direct contact with the world of the living, and must quiz new arrivals to find out what news they can.

The population of The City progressively shrinks over the course of the story - over the course of the pandemic - and the remaining inhabitants go about trying to find common connections between themselves to determine who's left in the world of the living.

4) Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment - Deepak Chopra

Mr. Chopra announces very clearly in the forward to this book that he was supremely nervous in trying to write the story of Gautama Buddha, not wanting to appear presumptuous or arrogant, but wanting to pen a cogent and persuasive novel to share the beauty of traditional Buddhist stories.

I didn't care for Chopra's "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success", the only other book of his I've read, so I didn't have high hopes for this work, but I was surprised. It's a wonderful tale that combines what is known of the historical Siddhartha with compelling accounts of his interaction with various spirits and ascetics, childhood friends who became battlefield opponents, a father who struggled against the predictions of court astronomers, and of course what it's like to achieve final enlightenment and then try to teach people - it's not all holding up a flower and smiling, after all.

Good stuff, and definitely not meant to be a manual of Buddhism or introduction to ancient Brahmanist culture, but the world he creates, and the characters, are rich and immersive. Hard to put down.

5) Code of the Lifemaker - James P. Hogan

This is the first book I ever read that wasn't required school reading. In my youth, as I've probably mentioned several times in this blog, I wasn't much of a reader, and painfully drudged my way through enough of the mandated high school books to get a passing grade in literature classes, and then stopped. I never read all of The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men (although I listened to the audiobook later in life - good stuff), The Call of the Wild, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird (audiobooked that one, too), Catcher in the Rye, or any of the others I was required to because I just didn't see it as fun. My apathy as a student was a monumental waste, full of missed opportunities, and I have nothing but regret for my outlook on life back then.

So eons ago there was this robotic terraforming ship that swung through our solar system, and crashes into one of Saturn's moons. Badly damaged, and confused about what its mission should now be, the ship sends its robots off to do their thing, but the "program" is distorted, and things get off course significantly. Over the years, the mistakes get worse as damaged robots build their replacements, and over the centuries, they start evolving into genders, develop rudimentary emotion, and eventually achieve full sentience. All this is summarized beautifully in the book's prologue, the genius of which, frankly, overshadows the story's main action.

So now it's the modern day, and we send a ship over to investigate, similar to the events in Clarke's "2010, The Year We Make Contact" to see what the hubbub is when we get weird readings coming from Titan. We find robots advanced far beyond anything known to humans... living in primitive conditions. Since they live on Titan, which is cold, we look like crazy fire gods when we come land on their world.

The book's title stems from some translation problems we have talking to them... and that's all I'll say. Fun read, great sci-fi ideas.

6) Edenborn - Nick Sagan

Sci-fi dystopian, post-apocalypse, virtual reality clones, a host of bitchy, plotting women lying to each other, mutating retroviruses, the "Black Ep" plague that renders all primates sterile... except that one species of monkeys - now why are they different?? Yes, folks, this novel has it all. It's a sequel to one you are more likely to have heard of: Idlewild.

What drew me to this book initially was the post-apocalypse world using VR to raise children - great Sci-Fi, that - but what I ended up liking most was the variation on the "last man on Earth" story. This book had several small communities of last-men-on-earth, and the real story is how their conflicting ideas of how to survive drove the plot.

7) The Fourth Omni Book of Science Fiction - Various

I stumbled across this book when I was 18 and visiting my father and sister in Florida for a month. I found it on my father's bookshelf, and when I flipped through it, I was instantly hooked. It is a collection of short sci-fi stories from various authors, my favorite of which is "The Way of Cross and Dragon".

In "Cross and Dragon", the Catholic church of the future sends envoys to other planets to suppress heretical teachings. The titular religion is a heretical teaching that the main character investigates. The cult teaches that in the days of Christ there were also dragons, and Judas was a dragon-tamer, and ultimately the hero of the story. Sure, he betrays Jesus, but he feels really really bad about it! He is combined with the story of the wandering Jew, and I believe at some point he atones by carrying a legless Jesus on his back on his teaching journeys after his resurrection - or something bizarre like that, it's been a long time since I've read it.

8) The Gods Themselves - Isaac Asimov

When you think of Asimov (if you think of him), you think Robots, and Hari Seldon. The Robots and Foundation books comprised only a small portion of his 600+ books, and small onesies like "The Gods Themselves" get overlooked. But these are often great reading that should be sampled.

There is a certain magic about works by prolific authors that don't have sequels and don't have much fame or familiarity with the public. Frank Herbert had his "White Plague", Le Guin had her "Left Hand of Darkness", Dickens had his "Edwin Drood" serial... part of it, anyway. Asimov had "The Gods Themselves", and many like it: Nemesis, The Ugly Little Boy, Pebble in the Sky, Nightfall, many other great works that don't get much press.

"The Gods Themselves" is about the search for clean, abundant energy. Someone figures out how to pipe in matter from a parallel universe that has different physical properties than matter from our universe, which we can leverage for free energy. We also get to meet the inhabitants of the other universe, and find that they have odd properties of their own: They are semi-solid, have three genders, and a group of overseers that are genderless and fully solid. Somewhere in there you get to worry about the sun blowing up.

9) Hyperion - Dan Simmons

I love Dan Simmons, but I haven't met anyone else who has ever read him. A few years before Stacey was born, I picked up the paperback "Children of the Night" on a whim in a drug store, and read some of it while waiting for a movie to start at a local theater. This was in the time of my life where I still viewed myself as a hardened tough-guy, emotionless, except for my Achilles heel: I had recently held my cousin's newborn son, the first baby I ever held. That baby, and the dozens I've held since, slowly transformed me into a sappy fool regarding all things kid-related. "Children of the Night" had a description of a Romanian orphanage near the beginning that brought me to tears, and I was thankful to be in the dimly lit theater.

Beyond the tearjerker moment, the book was a good, suspenseful vampire story. Dracula and his ilk had developed a coping mechanism to combat the local "wasting disease": a shadow organ in the stomach that absorbs blood and steals nutrients from it. Pretty good read, great variation on classic vampire stories.

After finishing that, I looked for more of his work in bookstores and libraries, and eventually found a collection of his short stories, "Prayers to Broken Stones", which had stories in various genres - horror, sci-fi, metaphysical - and all of them had the same dark edge that drove me to quickly finish "Children of the Night".

"Prayers" had a short story in it titled "Remembering Siri" that was really moving. The protagonist was a soldier in an intergalactic army similar to Haldeman's "Forever War", flying around at relativistic speeds and ageing at a slower rate than the worlds they visit. On one of these worlds, he falls in love with Siri, but is forced to leave to be stationed somewhere else. When he returns several years later, having only aged a few months himself, he finds that a local cult has sprung up concerning himself and Siri. The story recounts how their relationship unfolds, and that's as much as I'll give away.

About a year after finding "Prayers", I found "Hyperion", took it home, and eagerly attacked it, not knowing what I'd find. It was a sort of "Canterbury Tales" motif set in the far future, where travels wake up from hypersleep on the planet Hyperion, and engage each other in conversation about how they got there and what their plans are. The universe they describe is rich with great sci-fi themes. There is no faster-than-light travel, but there are stargates set up at fixed points, controlled by AI, and there is FTL communications through similar technology to the stargates. AIs non-violently succeeded from human control, and the hardware they run on vanished, but they still run a lot of things for humans. Where they went to and why they help humans out are mysteries that get explored a little throughout the book and a big reveal regarding that happens in the sequel, "Fall of Hyperion".

I read on, enjoyed it immensely, and then I came to the chapter about a military guy flying around at relativistic speeds who meets a girl... "Oh!" says I, "this is the universe that Siri lives in!".

10) I Heard the Owl Call My Name - Margaret Craven

The best, darkest, "going native" book I've ever read. A dieing vicar is sent by his church to be a missionary to a Canadian aboriginal village. What initially drives his action is getting the local church rebuilt. The locals are lukewarm about it, as is mother church. Becoming emotionally bound to the locals and their struggles makes both the locals and the church vie for his attention.

The book goes into detail about the tribe's attrition due to western schools, the effects of alcohol on the community, white hustlers looking for artifacts, and tribe girls being effectively stolen and turned out.

It is the ideas in this book which are dark, and although the prose makes no bones about the stark realities of natives trying to stay unified and grow their numbers, the story has compassion. Very well done.

11) Life of Pi - Yann Martel

So this kid ends up on a lifeboat with a tiger, for months, lives through it, and no one believes his story when he finally washes up on a Mexican shore. That's the crux of the action. The narration is one of those gems of storytelling that only Indians can pull off, and it reminds me stylistically of "Slumdog Millionaire".

The lead character, Pi, tells us a rich backstory of growing up a zookeeper's son, and dabbling in Hinduism, Islam, and Catholicism in his search for God. He mixes in his history, including his father moving the zoo to another place, his childhood struggles, and the events leading up to the shipwreck, with life on the boat. How do you keep a hungry tiger from eating you? How do you keep fed and hydrated?

Some interesting sidebars occur in this book, for example: the lifeboat lands somewhere and gives you the briefest hope that Pi will survive in a Robinson Crusoe style, waiting to be rescued, but something (and naming it here would reduce your enjoyment of the story, so I omit it) causes the boy and the tiger to both abandon the island.

The joy of this story is that the fantastical elements are very believable. I believe this boy could survive with a tiger using his method of taming it. I believe that a giant pond of algae and meerkats could be floating in the ocean somewhere, undiscovered.

12) Magister Ludi, The Glass Bead Game - Herman Hesse

Sure, Hesse wrote "Siddhartha". Whoopty do. A recent re-read of that book was a lot more well-met than when I read through it in high school. Somehow the idea that the book was the Buddha story was lost on me - I have no idea how, I just completely missed it the first time through.

I don't say "Whoopty do" for any cheap laugh, I say it because "Siddhartha" is much surpassed in beauty and philosophical content by "Magister Ludi". This is the book that sparked my first attempts at right-thinking, and is bar none the deepest book I have ever read.

The world is a vague time in the future, intellectuals live in seclusion from the secular world. The titular "Game" is a symbolic representation of many hard and soft sciences. Elements of maths, physics, geology, architecture, psychology, can all be represented with the system of symbols in the game. Playing the game well requires you to become expert in many sciences, and to make comparisons of things that don't seem to a layman to be related - "establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines", as the "General Introduction" to the game tells us. The beauty of the book is that the game is never described in detail, no rules or examples are ever shown. In a way, it's a Macguffin, but a very interesting one.

The story is a biography of Joseph Knecht, and watches his ascent through the Castalian school to become Magister Ludi, or "master of the game". Hesse employs subtle wry wit in his use of the biographer's comments, sprinkling such gems as "No knowledge has come down to us of Joseph Knecht's origins. Like many other pupils of the elite schools, he either lost his parents early in childhood, or the Board of Educators removed him from unfavorable home conditions and took charge of him" throughout the narrative. "No, it doesn't matter who he was" is clearly implied by the thinking of the biographer, but reading the story to its conclusion shows that Joseph felt otherwise, and the elite biographer is shown to be somewhat naive on matters of the human condition.

The book concludes with "posthumous writings" of Knecht himself, the "three lives" that are a requirement of the Castalian school, and they all deal with spiritual quests. The lives recounted are of a rainmaker from an old matriarchal, pagan village, a herder who is instructed on the illusory nature of the world by a local yogi, and a pious hermit filled with self-doubt seeking a confessor. Hesse confesses that his original plan for Magister Ludi was to have it be a reincarnation tale, with Knecht being the characters from the "Three Lives" as well.

13) Red Prophet - Orson Scott Card

What if Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh really had mystical powers? "Red Prophet" explores this in Card's "Alvin Maker" series about life in colonial America where old wive's tales, charms, and elemental spirits are all real. Certain people have "knacks", special abilities to do things beyond what their training would allow: a carpenter has a knack for seeing how things fit together, a midwife can feel the health of a baby, speak a word to slow labor, some people have varying degrees of prescience, empathy, and clairvoyance. The lead character of the series is the seventh son of a seventh son, his birthright effectively bestowing him with superpowers that grow over the course of the series.

"Red Prophet" is the second book in the series, set when Alvin is still young, and involves the events surrounding Tecumseh's War. Native Americans have a knack that they all share, but no white man has: naturalism. The very earth supports them, giving spring to their steps so they can run for miles, quieting their footsteps when they hunt (or avoid Whitey). Tenskwatawa in this book is gifted empath who's gift mentally crippled him with pain when he witnessed a tragedy, and he turned to alcohol to quiet the pain enough for him to travel the country seeking help for his condition, and for his people. He is mistaken for a drunk native by the local townsmen, but Alvin, naturally, ends up helping him out, which has a profound side-effect on history.

14) The Red Tent - Anita Diamont

This is the story of Dinah, one of the biblical Jacob's daughters, from her point of view. Dinah, should you not know your Old Testament, is the girl that gets kidnapped and "defiled" by the prince of a local Goy nation, Shechem. After much ado, to avoid the wrath of the Jews and El, the whole area "converts" to Judaism, and Dinah is promised to them as the prince's legitimate wife. And by convert, I mean all the men get circumcised.

The punchline of that story is the Jews wait for all the men they just circumcised to be sore and bedridden, and then they sneak in in the middle of the night and slaughter them all, and steal their women and their stuff. God decides that, even though that was kind of harsh, he's going to stick with his chosen ones, changes Jacob's name to "Israel", and makes them leave the area.

This book presents the same basic events from an entirely different perspective. Dinah's mother and sisters (Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah) are from a different culture, and hold onto some of their non-Jewish heritage, like the Red Tent, which is where women live when they are menstruating or giving birth.

Central to the story are Jacob's relationship with the four women (they are all Jacob's wives), Joseph and Levi's relationship with Dinah, the conflicting customs of the two cultures, and Dinah's reunion with Joseph and the rest of the family after Jacob's death. Central to the setting is the toolset of women in biblical times, how they survived, how they passed time, what they taught their children.

If you are Jewish or Christian and interpret the Torah/Bible literally, this book will undoubtedly piss you off for various reasons - most likely blasphemy and heresy will top your complaints. I urge you to read the book anyway, keeping as open a mind as you can. (For what it's worth, I liked "The Last Temptation of Christ" also.)

15) The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

More fantastic Spanish writing, set in Barcelona around 1950 (I think, some mentions being in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War were made). In the small town where this novel is set, there exists a secret shop called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where rare books are preserved. Members of the Cemetery are allowed to take one book from the shelves to protect at home.

The protagonist, Daniel, protects a book called "The Shadow of the Wind". He attempts to track down the book's author, thus beginning the mystery that drives the action. In the book-within-a-book there is a demonic antagonist, who Daniel finds references to in the real world. Mysterious figures show up, it is revealed that the author's other works have been systematically destroyed, but by who?? And will they come after Daniel to get the book he is sworn to protect?? Well, naturally.


I initially had 20 books in here, but as it is I've already hit the 50k mark writing these summaries, off and on for about a week. I'll spare you any more suggestions here, but I do have more, and will probably go on about them in future entries here.

If you are so inclined to see more now, here are some books I have already reviewed, briefly summarized, or mentioned in this blog in the past:

Anathem :
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and
The Castle in the Forest :
Heretics of Dune :

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