Chabon and Mistry short stories

A paired look at Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag and Michael Chabon Werewolves in Their Youth.

I chanced upon these back to back, both short story collections, both by writers in their working youth – Mistry’s first book and an early one for Chabon. Both as much as anything nostalgic, bittersweet recollections of childhood, the middle class childhoods of their own existences.

Chabon: laugh out loud funny – you know…so that it gets almost irritating for those who are suffering through your pleasure. They start sounding snarky when they say they must read it too. The guy’s brilliant, this collection is splendid.

Mistry: the blurb says ‘extremely funny’. But the only good thing about the shit of his world – and I mean that literally, the shit on the street, the upstairs lavatory that leaks onto your head as you sit on the toilet, the filth, the water supply turned off at 6am because the city is without again, the monsoonal water running down the inside of your house – the good thing about it is that this is all happening to middle class educated people, the same ones who, had they lived in Chabon’s childhood, would have been clean and without want. This life he writes of is the relatively privileged existence one can have in India, that’s what I mean by ‘good’. I mean, there is a worse life. I couldn’t imagine anything less hilarious. I could not imagine anything, if it comes to that, less ‘compassionate’ – another promise of the blurb. I don’t know that Mistry is ever the victim of that sentiment, but certainly not in this book. He is without mercy, I would say, as he describes the degraded condition of the middle-class, to be juxtaposed against those that bitterly resent them for being – if not ‘haves’, then not as ‘have not’ as they are – those below these middle-classes, treated by these middle-classes as scum, servants to be abused from morning to night, day after year after decade. He is without mercy in his examination of himself, too, in the last story very nicely describing his safe-in-Canada life as he writes about the life he once had. ‘Joyful’ – another word from the blurb.

Mistry’s great skill is at depicting the India he has evidently decided is his mission in life to put down on paper. Probably even if he had the ability to write as Chabon does, it would be entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Chabon, on the other hand, is not only a master story teller, but he is also a wonderful technician. It is perfectly clear that Chabon is a man who loves words, he loves the smallest units of writing, he loves the next largest, he loves what he does. Mistry works hard. Chabon works bloody hard but we don’t know that he does.

In the end, I can’t imagine Mistry ever breaking out of what he does, living in Canada with a toilet that works, whilst writing somewhat guiltily about the life he so wisely left behind to that end. Chabon, on the other hand, has no fetters. He does what he wants, not what he has to. He can do anything – and, to be fair, he does.

A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

This took me right back to the 1970s when I read most of my sci-fi. Thoughtful political and social background to a story set in the near future (early 1980s) with projections to a further future. The decay of the environment, scarcity, the division of the world into not surprising blocks all rang true. The world is largely composed of an Islamic bloc including North America and a Soviet bloc including the UK where the story is set. Australia, I’m pleased to report, is one of the few independent countries.

Character development doesn’t stand comparison with Shakespeare, but it compares favourably with the run of the mill science fiction I’ve read so much of. Priest is a polished writer, which makes him easy to read. The basic premise was believable, it’s nice not to have to be convinced to suspend disbelief.

I confess I hadn’t heard of him before, despite being well regarded, most notably these days for having written the book that later became the Nolan movie The Prestige. I could read more. It struck me as rather PK Dick without the drugs.

Trots off to look up that idea online. Spots this:

« Je me sens très différent de Philip K. Dick car ses problèmes avec la réalité sont liés avec la drogue. Tandis que moi, cela a plus à voir avec la psychologie, les croyances, etc.”

My French is pretty lousy, but I take that to be a quote from Priest. I’d rather read a Dick than a Priest and I think that the things Priest does okay, Dick does fabulously.

Interestingly, even though both writers are so concerned with the mind and the nature of reality, there is the same sense for both writers that their books would make great movies. I don’t know why more of Priest’s haven’t been. The thing that is nice about this is that although one feels they would make good movie material, that is quite independent of the books being good. These days there are too many books which have as their only reason for existence the hope that they will be turned into movies.

I guess Priest is a writer not in fashion. I don’t even have a GR friend who has admitted to reading this. Pity!

 

 

 

 

Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

There aren’t many better recommendations for a book than ‘Sick as a dog but couldn’t put it down’. This is one of those.

It works for survivalists, bridge players, parallel worldists, philosophers, post-catastrophists, cannibals looking for new recipes and anybody with Woody Allen’s tastes.

It’s gotta be a fav of his. Those naked young things in the bunker with the middle-aged unattractive but pizazzy leader, one his daughter. Although his daughter confesses of the three breeding partners available, he’s the only one that does it for her, he is gentlemanly enough to settle for his daughter’s friend Barbara, who has also had the hots for him since forever. Woody Allen heaven, though maybe mid-twenties is too old for him to look at.

To be frank, our intrepid leader is probably being pragmatic in going for Barbara. She plays bridge better and isn’t (quite) as irritating, whereas the daughter Karen is such a dick. This book does full on Electra AND Oedipus, so add that to the list: good for complexists.

Oh yeah. Good for linguists too. Manny is such a gentleman. To think he knew all he had to do to set me on the road to French was imprison me for a few weeks, eighteen hours of teaching a day, and a kind of taser on a low dose, a mild encouragement to get your memory working if need be. Note to self: maybe he’d forgotten that part. Make sure he doesn’t reread it.

Postscript re the bridge: I thought it read fairly convincingly, like he was either at least a low level player or got good advice, keeping in mind that it was published early sixties, so out of date now, but of the moment, for example, he refers to the Italian style of bidding. I thought that showed quite detailed knowledge or research. There is enough action at the bridge table to keep a reasonable player with an eye for science fiction entertained.

Anton Chekhov A Brother’s Memoirs by Mikhail Chekhov

For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.

I’ve read Anton Chekhov’s letters, a form of writing which might distinguish itself from autobiography by being both more honest and of greater literary worth. Letters are, after all – or where when people used to write then, at any rate – small literary gifts. I had a friend who used to send me letters hand-written and tied with a ribbon in a bow. They insisted upon being read in a special place with some degree of devotion. The experience is the very opposite of receiving an email and scanning it while logging onto facebook.

So when I saw this book half-price at The London Review Bookshop, I had to buy it, fully expecting it to add to my reading of Anton’s letters.

The book does not pretend to be more than it is: various pieces published over a period and now cobbled together. If you are expecting the book itself as a whole to be some sort of technical triumph, a remastering of the very idea of The Book, it isn’t. It’s a cobbled together collection of bits and pieces. But what marvellous bits and pieces they are. I am mystified as to why this book has been frequently panned. It’s nicely written – I’m surprised Mihkail Chekhov doesn’t seem to be remembered for his writing – with anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the pathetic. Some of them are directly about Anton and have, I gather, found their way into many a resource on him.

But much of the book is about the surrounds of the Chekhovs. How people like them lived in that period. The collective Russian artistic community, the intelligentsia, the bohemians, the people of the stage, the publishers of presses and magazines are the stuff of this book. We see how poverty-stricken, talented Russians like Anton and his siblings survived, not only economically, but spiritually in a period of censorship which is hard to credit. It serves to remind one that the Soviet model did not spring from nothing, nor did it spring from Marxism. It sprang from what was already in Russia, subservient masses, an aristocracy and a Tsar. It is an exceptional period in the history of the world and this book puts the reader vividly, right in the thick of it.

One vignette will serve to illustrate how extraordinary the censorship was in this period of late nineteenth century. Mikhail mentions the presence of detention cells in the universities. One of the reasons for being put in a cell was for applauding one’s professor. You may reread that last sentence, it won’t change. Every attempt was made to drum free will and independent thinking out of students. To publicly appreciate one’s teacher was punishable. You can see where Stalin comes from, not to mention Gogol.

I sense a strong connection between English and Russian. I gather it can’t be technical, but may be emotional. That doesn’t surprise me. Maybe the English and the Russians stand historically undefeated in similar ways, sharing a similar psyche, in some regards at any rate. It suits Russian to be translated into English is my gut feeling. The translator in this case, Eurene Alper, is a specialist translator of Chekhov. You can find at his site his translation of Chekhov’s doctor’s recollection of him. It will give you a taste for more. Then you can buy the book.

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

The thing about a good bookshop is that it encourages speculation. This was another book I picked up in Daunt Books on Marylebone High St. Mary Beard will be familiar in particular to the British, but I’m guessing to a lot of other English speakers, as a high profile academic, with a public presence I imagine is unusual for somebody in this discipline. She is the Classics editor of the TLS and it is a hodge podge collection of book reviews she has written over quite a long period of time, linked together by various themes, that form the basis for this book. The units are small, I found myself looking forward to a tale and a cuppa for a week or two.

I hadn’t done any Classics since school and this was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t realised just how much surmising has come from so little evidence. How many careers, books – an entire academic industry, not to mention a popular one too – has been extracted in a manner that one could rather precisely say ‘literally’ brings to mind blood from a stone. The big theme of this book is explaining how our view of this ancient period is dictated by interpretation in a way that makes me, as a historian of more modern times, aghast. It’s all made up! Almost. The characters, the stories, the very palaces we visit to pay homage to our ideas of how things were.

I exaggerate a little, of course: it isn’t ALL made up. And Beard takes pains to distinguish between the various types of academics delving into the crumbs of evidence from which they build the edifice of their theories. Nonetheless, there is clearly an odd sort of person who is attracted to the Classics, who wants to impose their ideas of what a person, or a period, or a war or a thing is, upon the reader. I was particularly relieved to read this, because it puts me at ease with my instinctive dislike of Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. This isn’t history, it’s pure fiction which has acquired a mystique based on some sort of veneration of Yourcenar’s obsessive ‘methodology’ in becoming Hadrian. We are left with something which is most likely Hadrian in Yourcenar’s clothes, her mentality, her personality. The result is overworked and plain tedious. I’ve fitted Yourcenar right into Beard’s general observations of how the industry goes. Like archaeologists in a thriller (and I dare say in real life) they are willing to go to any lengths to protect their claims. Let’s just say bitter battles have been fought.

Beard starts off with an essay talking about why Classics matters, placing it in perspective of the centuries since the period itself, why we might continue to find it important to try to understand the period. It’s a moving start to a book that is hugely entertaining, written by somebody who has strong views with the knowledge and experience – she is Professor of Classics at Cambridge – to sustain them. Without having read any of the books which she discusses, one’s sense is no punches pulled and that cops some writers get are fair. She also has a way with words which makes the reading easy.

Everybody could do with reading this, we are imbued with the period – or interpretations of the period – and becoming aware of just what that means will, I think, astonish you.

Home is Where the Wind Blows by Fred Hoyle

Fred’s been my companion at breakfast so often this year that I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised Manny’s been a bit testy at times. I expect that question’s been at the back of his mind ‘If he’s here for breakfast, where was he last night?’ In fact I haven’t taken Fred to bed, not once. It hasn’t been a question of primness, loyalty or even the bed not being big enough for the three of us.

It’s more Fred’s unflagging enthusiasm, energy and opinionated observations of everything, bombarding the reader as an independent thinker might. One finds oneself stopping to reflect every few pages of a rather long book not because you reach some sort of sciencey stumbling block but because he’s just presented a theory about 1920s hat fashion, or the efficacy of geese as domestic lawnmower or the reasons we organise into society. He carries you along in a way that is infectious, thrilling – and tiring. I love reading in bed, but this is more theoretical than practical. Mainly I fall asleep by the time I find my place. In the mornings, however, I’m irritatingly bouncy and chirpy and happy. That’s the time to pick up Hoyle.


Hoyle was nothing if not stubborn. I’m thinking of something that plays only a small part in his chosen story: Steady State theory. One of the themes of Alan Lightman’s interviews with scientists of that period is the tension between it and the Big Bang theory and the denouement as the supporters of the former all slowly accepted defeat. Not so much beaten by the bell, as by the bang. But ‘all’ did not include Hoyle. To me it is easy to understand why. The mechanisms we have which permit our survival in the world include our sense of confidence, our judgement, intuition. They are difficult to reject even in the face of blunt evidence to the contrary.

In practice, he was not as stubborn on the point as many have made out. Donald D. Clayton points out in his obituary of Hoyle that

The steady-state theory makes strong predictions. Hoyle’s reaction to poorly documented attacks on the steady-state theory was to demolish the “disproofs.” Almost against his will this reaction placed Hoyle in the position of seeming a sore loser in a scientific debate, a perception that persisted until his death. But in 1964, Hoyle pioneered calculations of nucleosynthesis in a big-bang cosmology with Tayler by arguing that a hot big bang was the source of a uniform cosmic density of helium, though he and Tayler differed on whether the big bang was necessarily of a primordial object (which Tayler favored) or could have been a cumulative result of a series of smaller events involving miniature oscillating universes (which Hoyle himself favored.)

Indeed, Clayton goes on to point out that

Three of Hoyle’s papers were selected for the AAS ApJ “centennial volume” featuring the most influential research of the twentieth century published in AJ and ApJ. (This is a record equaled only by Chandrasekhar and Baade.) I would argue that his 1964 paper with Tayler on big-bang nucleosynthesis might also have been included. Most of his publications were in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, however, including the field theoretic steady-state model. These earned the international Crafoord and Balzan Prizes, and many felt that Hoyle might have shared Fowler’s Nobel Prize but for Hoyle’s embarrassed status over exobiology.

Hoyle was an absolute heavyweight of his field. But he was also always an outsider, as suggested by the poignant title of this book, and had the sort of relationship such people have with the rest of the world that ensures that things stay that way. As well as being an outsider, he was also a loner. I’m sitting in the loungeroom of the Geneva Four Seasons as I write this; Hoyle is the only one who might be said to be sharing my company. But around us people, not matter how they are organised – alone, in couples, in groups – have their mobile phones in front of them. Almost every one. Has there ever been such a mass addiction? What confuses me, in the context of this book, is how do people think any more? In tiny bytes between one screen and another, one twitter and another, rushing from FB to Youtube. Can you have profound thought without profound concentration – without being alone?

The world of Hoyle couldn’t be more different. As a child in rural Yorkshire isolation from the world at large was normal. News came now and again. Nature was the principal of play, entertainment, adventure. Observation. Patience. Wonderment. Curiosity. Deduction. Experimentation. These were the sorts of qualities a child could develop with nature as prime playmate. There was another sort of isolation at work. Young Hoyle walked incredible distances to and from school for years on end. He calculated that he had walked 10,000 miles over the course of his highschool years. These days even if a person did have to do that, he’d do it plugged in. To brain-numbing music is the choice of many. To phones is another. Hoyle had nothing but his own thoughts to occupy him. Are thinkers like this possible any more? The habit was never lost. Hoyle walked and walked on his own even when he no longer had to.

Not just on his own. His passion for climbing was either shared by or forced upon his colleagues. There are many like this in Hoyle’s book. These are from Clayton’s personal collection.

William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot (next to Clayton's red Volkswagen) at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
William A. Fowler, Donald D. Clayton and Fred Hoyle stand in the parking lot (next to Clayton’s red Volkswagen) at Loch Duich Hotel, Wester Ross, Scotland in August 1967. The Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich can be glimpsed between Fowler and Clayton. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these three friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
Willy Fowler and Fred Hoyle at the beginning of their hike to the top of the distant mountain in August 1967. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
Willy Fowler and Fred Hoyle at the beginning of their hike to the top of the distant mountain in August 1967. This occasion was the first joint climbing trip in Scotland by these friends. Such trips became a frequent and important part of the golden years for nuclear astrophysics at IOTA (1967-72).
The climbing group at the top of Ben Scriel on a very fine climbing day in June 1969 includes from the left: Fred Hoyle, Wallace Sargent (see photo of Sargent and Clayton on the way up, this site), Donald Clayton (Jr.), Willy Fowler, Vahe Petrosian and Stewart Harrison.
The climbing group at the top of Ben Scriel on a very fine climbing day in June 1969 includes from the left: Fred Hoyle, Wallace Sargent (see photo of Sargent and Clayton on the way up, this site), Donald Clayton (Jr.), Willy Fowler, Vahe Petrosian and Stewart Harrison.
Clayton, Fowler and Hoyle preparing to begin the ascent of Fionn Bheinn, 3059 ft "Munro" (up left) near Achnasheen, Wester Ross, on June 1, 1970. Frequent climbs by these three close friends occured during 1967-74. Each was about 3000 ft, done during one day, talking of mountains and astrophysics.
Clayton, Fowler and Hoyle preparing to begin the ascent of Fionn Bheinn, 3059 ft “Munro” (up left) near Achnasheen, Wester Ross, on June 1, 1970. Frequent climbs by these three close friends occured during 1967-74. Each was about 3000 ft, done during one day, talking of mountains and astrophysics.

These are from Clayton’s collection – these and more can be found here. I dare say there are many hills and mountains in the UK that could be renamed according to the cosmological problems discussed on them by Hoyle and his colleagues. Can this be done today? Is there any territory to be traversed in the UK that doesn’t permit the endless intrusions and interruptions of the internet? Hoyle walked 5 miles to and from school in primary school, eight in high school. Often in the rain, with shoes that might have holes in them. We laugh at the Monty Python skit about The Four Yorkshiremen:

But the reason it’s funny is that it’s true. Life WAS hard and it was never far from his mind that it could be worse. Money comes up again and again in his book as he describes early struggles to make ends meet. His big break was getting to do the radio shows that feature so prominently in the recollections of others talking about their lives as scientists. His popular books and shows galvanised youngsters around the world to take up science, hunt down the meaning of life. Martin Rees commented:

His lifelong success as a populariser started in 1950 – in the pre-Sagan era, long before the dominance of television – with a celebrated series of radio talks. Huge numbers of people (including many who later achieved scientific distinction) were inspired by these talks, by books such as Frontiers of Astronomy, and by his lectures.

But I’m not sure that Hoyle understand how inspirational he was in this way. He was so many things. A scientist’s scientist. The people’s scientist. An outsider. A fighter. A loner. A grudge-holder. A shit-stirrer. An interested observer of the world at all levels, with ideas and opinions about every bit of it. A good raconteur. A good writer.

My copy of Home is Where the Wind Blows is littered with notes and underlinings, ticks and crosses. It’s that sort of book. It involves you every bit of the way. And you get to understand the origin of The Four Yorkshiremen. What more could a book offer?