As noted recently, I’m taking advantage of my Kindle’s reverse-chronological book list to keep track of what I’ve been reading, and blogging a few thoughts about the books. Here’s part 2.
Second Foundation — Isaac Asimov
Very much more of the same, following on from Foundation and Foundation and Empire, which I wrote about last time. It remains compelling reading, but it continues to astonish with its amazingly primitive technology: for example, apparently the libraries of 20,000 years into the future will still use microfiche. I quite like the sense that Asimov, as he was writing these stories, had no more sense of where they were headed than we have.
Windfall — Desmond Bagley
Desmond Bagley is my absolute favourite thriller writer, and some of his earlier novels — The Golden Keel, Landslide, Running Blind — rank with anything written in the genre. That said, there was a definite drop-off in quality in his last few books. This is the last one that was published in his lifetime — two more would follow posthumously — and it feels much less taut than his better works. It held my interest, but I didn’t find it compelling. Not a good place to start if you’re not already a fan.
Foundation’s Edge — Isaac Asimov
Asimov returned to the Foundation series three decades after Second Foundation with what turned out to be the first of two sequels, to be followed by two prequels. I’m pretty sure I read this as a teenager and found it inferior to the original trilogy; but as I read it recently I remembered pretty much none of it, so I might be mistaken.
This feels very, very different from the first three books. Unlike them, it’s a single novel rather than a sequence of short stories. It’s also much longer than any of the previous volumes, so that it sustains a single narrative with a small cast of characters for about six times as long as a typical original-trilogy story. I’m not sure this is to Asimov’s advantage. As a writer who was always distinguished more by his ideas than by his actual writing, the short story was his natural medium (something that’s also true of Philip K. Dick). When stretched out to novel length, his work feels somehow insubstantial. The characters don’t develop (in fact they’re hardly sketched at all beyond a few mannerisms): that wasn’t a problem back when we only spent 40 or 50 pages in the company of a given character, but it is a problem when we’re stranded with these ciphers for 400 pages.
Also unfortunate: the texture of the plot feels very different from the original trilogy. That doesn’t make it bad, of course, but it does mean that people who came here hoping for more of what they loved in the older books are likely to be disappointed. This story reads more like a quest narrative than future history. Perhaps worse, Asimov unnecessarily multiplies entities, so that the ideascape over which the story takes place is not the one we’ve been used to.
If all this seems rather unrelentingly negative, all I can say in defence of Foundation’s Edge is that, somehow, it’s left me wanting more, so I will at some point go on to Foundation and Earth, the last book of the series. I can’t explain why, but somewhere in there, Asimov has successfully buried a nugget of Asimov-ness that still sings with the same clear, pure voice as the older works.
Mary Poppins — P. M. Travers
I can’t remember now what made me read the original Mary Poppins novel — the first in a widely spaced sequence of eight, of which the first few provided the material that the well-known film was constructed from.
I’m glad I did. The feel of the book is dramatically different from the film, and very much more interesting. I can understand why the author, P. M. Travers, was so unhappy with the film. The original is much starker, more mysterious, even almost sinister. Mary Poppins herself is harsh with the children, scarcely showing them any affection, and vain. Her occasional moments of kindness are skimmed over quickly, almost with embarrassment — by Mary herself as much as by Travers. She is evidently a person of some importance in the magic world that’s behind the stage-set of the mundane world — perhaps a demi-goddess or similar. But she also has very human failings.
Where the book really hits home, bizarrely, is a chapter where Mary Poppins hardly appears, entitled “John and Barbara’s Story“. John and Barbara are the baby twin brother and sister of the two elder children, and don’t appear in the film. In the book they are very young — less than a year old — and so, like all babies, are able to talk with the sunlight, the wind, and birds. And like all babies, they forget this ability when they reach their first birthday. Stated baldly, it sounds twee and sentimental; as Travers writes it, it’s heart-breaking. It’s the inevitability of the loss that hurts.
“Listen, listen, the wind’s talking”, said John, tilting his head on one side. “Do you really mean we won’t be able to hear that when we’re older, Mary Poppins?”
“You’ll hear all right”, said Mary Poppins, “But you won’t understand”. At that Barbara behan to weep gently. There were tears in John’s eyes, too. “Well, it can’t be helped. It’s how things happen”, said Mary Poppins sensibly.
The twins’ mother completely fails to understand what’s happening — she thinks they’re crying because their teeth are coming through. She appears an ignorant clod in their eyes, but one they are indulgently fond of. There’s something achingly brilliant about this: we all feel that we lose something as we grow up (even while gaining much more). Travers nails that feeling by embodying it in a ludicrous manifestation, then treating it dead seriously.
[Mary Poppins was published in 1934, which means it was eleven years too late to be in the public domain under the anything-before-1923-is-OK rule. But at the time it was published, copyright lasted 28 years, with the option of another 28 years if renewed. So when it was published, it was due to go into the public domain in either 1962 or 1990. The ethical implications of this observation are left as an exercise for the reader.]
The Prodigal God — Timothy Keller
A short but very affecting book by the leader of a successful church in New York City. His thesis is that the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is better understood as a parable about two lost sons — lost in different ways — and a prodigal (that is, extravagantly generous) father. Keller argues persuasively that when Jesus told the parable, its main target was not the obvious “sinners” that are represented by the younger brother, but the ostensibly religious pharisees that are represented by the older brother. Both are equally in need of the father’s forgiveness and love.
This is a book that I’ll come back to repeatedly. It’s a fresh and refreshing take on a moving story whose power has been dulled by repetition, and it portrays a delightful vision of Christianity (which is very much in line with my own understanding).
Slam — Nick Hornby
Hornby is a fine novelist, but probably still best known, and rightly, for his first book, Fever Pitch, an essentially non-fiction account of growing up as an obsessive Arsenal fan. The book deserves its success: it captures that obsession so perfectly that I think everyone who has a sport-loving partner ought to read it, just to get inside their head.
Slam is not that good, though. It’s a magic-realism first-person tale of a young boy who accidentally makes his girlfriend pregnant. Mostly it’s about the mudane issues of coping with this, but it’s interspersed with passages where the narrator sees, and literally lives through, parts of his future, after the baby is born. It’s not quite clear whether these are real or hallucinations, and part of the disappointment of the unresolved ending is that you never find out what was actually going on — is it a time-travel story or not? Some readers may feel that the ambiguity is the point; to me, it feels like a cop-out.
The Annals of the Heechee — Frederik Pohl
Like Foundation’s Edge, this is the fourth book in an ongoing saga; also like it, this is longer and less involving than its predecessors. I’m sticking with the series — there’s only one more book left to go anyway — because I want to know where it’s headed. But Annals seems to be composed primarily of digressions, blu-tacked together with rudimentary gobs of plot only where absolutely necessary. Anyone new to Pohl would do much, much better to read Gateway, the brilliant first installment in the Heechee saga.
[Read on to part 3]