With summer 2017 officially here, we have six mini-reviews of six books, old and new, classic and recent, science fiction and science fact, offered for seasonal reading: Dandelion Wine (1957), Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), Rocket Boys (1998), A Tale for the Time Being (2013), Hidden Figures (2016), and The Fifth Heart (2015).
Enjoy! And don’t forget your own recommendations.
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
First Published: 1957
Bradbury was a master fantasists; here, we have something next to magic realism, an account of a 12-year-old boy’s summer, 1928, in a small town. Among the nostalgic reflections lurk fantastic elements, which may be viewed as the distortions of childhood perception and recollection.
Some people will gripe about the book’s slow pace and uncertain resolution, but few writers have captured a child’s perception of summer as evocatively as Bradbury.
Bradbury loved his fix-ups, loose novels made from existing short stories, and this one works quite well, if you don’t mind the slow development and meandering plot. But I dislike the change to the ending of the Lonely One’s tale, which robs the story of much of its power.
Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma
First published: 1998
Generation X’s literary-hipster writer finds himself in genre-related territory with his late twentieth-century tale of the supernatural doings and apocalyptic events surrounding a girl who slips into an unexplained coma and then returns to life, years later.
The novel begins with the author’s pop-culture-fixated wit and characters. The band of friends face circumstances they cannot explain, and– initially– they face them as I believe many people would.
I generally like Coupland (Life After God (1994) spoke to me in ways I find slightly embarrassing now, but I still stand by the book). GFIAC‘s second half becomes overly didactic, even for Coupland, and its resolution feels like a cheat, with a deus ex machina concluding the book on behalf of an author not certain what to do with his story.
Homer Hickam, Jr., Rocket Boys:
First Published: 1998
The basis of October Sky, Hickam’s memoir blends fact with acknowledged fictionalization in his account of how science and the early space program inspired some small-town teen boys.
Many people have written on the inspirational nature of the book and movie, which remind us that pursuing science and knowledge is what differentiates humanity from most other things inhabiting the earth, so I’ll leave that be.
The novel also gives us developed, fascinating characters engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. Hickam freely invents to make his story more interesting, but some of those fabrications work very well. The story of book-Homer’s journey through a storm, and his encounter with a woman his father assisted, years ago, probably didn’t happen– certainly not as presented here– but I wish it had. It makes for great reading.
Other fabrications and distortions should have been left behind. Young Homer Gumps his way into the company of noteworthy historical figures, and these encounters feel silly. He never met Wernher von Braun at a science fair and it doesn’t really improve his book to write such a scene. His chance encounter with John F. Kennedy plays as cartoonish next to the rest of the story.
Ruth Ozeki A Tale for the Time Being
First Published: 2013
In the wake of the 2011 Tsunami, a Japanese-Canadian writer in British Columbia finds a floating, barnacle-encrusted package containing two narratives, one of an early-2000s Japanese teen dealing with disturbing circumstances, and the other, the diary of a World War Two-era kamikaze pilot.
The book won numerous literary accolades, and it veers into genre territory with events that can only be described as magic, or scientific phenomena indistinguishable from magic.
The book’s complex examination of fiction, reality, and the difficulties we have arriving at any kind of definitive truth should boggle and beguile the minds of any thoughtful reader, and it does a decent job of explaining (yet again) Schrödinger’s cat without becoming silly, and finding humor and wonder in Nao’s perspective, no matter how bleak her life becomes. Her description of the monster outside the monastery where her great-grandmother lives stands as one of the great pieces of descriptive writing in twenty-first century English literature.
It takes talent to juggle Zen, artificial intelligence, maid cafés, metafiction, metaphysics, quantum physics, and time travel (of a sort) in one novel, and I’m impressed at how well this quirky books works. At times– and especially in the final chapters– it becomes excessively, tediously expository, feeling the need to explain (and add) too much.
I grant that Nao attends a poorly-ranked school, but does bullying in Japan actually get this bad?
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
First Published: 2016
The inspiration1 for last year’s hit movie, this book relates oft-ignored scientific, social, and biographical histories. Black female mathematicians go to work at Langley during the Second World War, and those jobs continue to exist as NACA becomes NASA and the Space Race begins. Some of these women play key roles– but their contribution gets ignored by the public and overlooked by historians.
The past is definitely another country, but Shetterly negotiates it well, with a tale spanning decades of change and development. She doesn’t ignore the significant social injustices of the past. They’re often central to the story, and they seem all the more evil and absurd for their appearance in a community that prizes talent and intellect. While giving us a full look at such foul matters, she doesn’t ignore the positive aspects of period America. I don’t know entirely how we got from a world that valued science and spoke with eloquence to one that prefers truthiness to facts and communicates in obscenity-laden posts and semi-literate twitterings, but we need to once again embrace the hopes, social and scientific, that motivated these women.
Heroism and positive role models become easier to find when the culture encourages heroic enterprises.
Sometimes Shetterly’s writing becomes repetitive. On a couple of occasions I thought I had mistakenly opened the book to a page I’d already read.
1. The film focuses on the early-1960s NASA experience, condenses and invents characters in order to have a clean narrative, parachutes in a couple of incidents that happened years earlier to other people, and fabricates some incidents entirely.
However, John Glenn really did request that Katherine Johnson recheck his flight calculations, trusting her numbers over the IBM computer’s, so there’s that.
Dan Simmons, The Fifth Heart
First Published: 2015
The lauded SF and horror writer pens a bizarre historical novel, in which Sherlock Holmes (during the period after his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls) goes to America with the author Henry James to solve the murder of a Washington socialite, prevent a masterplot by Moriarity, and solve his own personal riddle: is he himself real, or a fictional character?
Putting that most delicate and psychologically-complex(ed) of American Men of Letters, Henry James, into a potboiler story starring Sherlock Holmes, proves an inspired concept. Even granting that this isn’t quite Doyle’s Holmes (We learn that Watson alters the great detective’s adventures to protect client’s identities, remove offensive details, and create clear moral structures), the story works fairly well, most especially when James finds himself in situations better-suited to the sort of Boys’ Own tale or a Penny-Dreadful he dismissed. The incident at the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery– the situation could have happened in a Scooby-doo cartoon or a Dan Brown novel– manages to be both suspenseful and hilarious.
When did Simmons stop editing or even doing a reasonable level of revision? Because I can find no other explanation for the meandering quality of his most recent novels, which devote pages, seemingly, to whatever idea enters his head while he’s writing. We get not one (that would have been fine) but two critiques of “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” Historical figures turn up whether they contribute to the plot or not. We flash back to the Jack the Ripper case which, Holmes, of course, secretly solved. A Wise Native Medicine Man offers important advice. Several good ideas also get wasted; the pay-off for Holmes wondering if he’s fictional isn’t worth the time spent on it.
The Fifth Heart ends with a twist that many readers will suspect, but most will reject for being too far-fetched, even for this book.
The Fifth Heart features some fun moments in nineteenth-century America, but it desperately needed a good editor.
A niece, playing with fire at the Toronto Barbecue Eats Festival.