Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: A CITY IN WINTER

CityInWinterImage © Mark Helprin and Chris Van Allsburg.

Chris Van Allsburg is probably best known as the writer and artist of the book “The Polar Express.” This is one of three by Mark Helprin illustrated by Van Allsburg, and the book is formatted in a similar style to the artist’s other books that I’ve seen. At 8 by 10 inches, and 148 pages, it straddles the boundary between picture book and children’s novel. The illustrations are gorgeous, often making good use of perspective and low viewing angles, two Van Allsburg trademarks.

The story by Helprin has many good qualities, and some that bothered me as well. The prose is often full of strong, evocative imagery that rivals the pictures. It’s told from the perspective of a young girl from distant mountains who is secretly a princess destined to rule the massive city she comes to, or so she’s been told, but at present that city is ruled with iron control by “the usurper,” who killed her parents. As the innocent girl is swept into city life and put to work in the massive kitchens of the royal palace, she finds friends who help her toward her destiny, though that path is dangerous for all of them. The emotional arc of the story works well, and I liked the characters, but the book is full of impossible things (like a single room filled with ovens for baking that takes hours to travel through) that kept pulling me out of the story. The plot is also full of lucky coincidences and deus ex machina solutions that don’t play fair. I suppose I might have accepted such things with less trouble in my own childhood, so perhaps this book is not for me. In all, I liked it, but never fully fell into the story, as I think one should with a fantasy. The “willing suspension of disbelief” was too difficult.

Mildly recommended.

Rereading: STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein

StarshipTroopers

Image © estate of Robert Heinlein, art not credited.

This is the novel that put Heinlein into idealogical conflict with many of his faithful readers. It posits a future America where full voting rights are only granted to military veterans, and follows the life of Juan Rico from high school, to enlistment in the service, (which is strictly voluntary and the recruiters do their best to discourage recruits), then through basic training, advanced training, and combat action on distant planets. Juan is “Mobile Infantry,” which means he wears a powered armored suit that sounds like something out of Transformers, and his missions are against a hostile alien civilization nicknamed “Bugs,” as they are set up in communal hives rather like ants or termites.

Heinlein was a Naval Academy graduate, and Naval veteran, though he did not see combat, I believe. The ideas he presents are well thought-out, and even though they present life choices I would never make, I found those choices rational, admirable and believable as told. The military in the book is idealized, in that everyone is on the same page, works hard and well together, and there are almost no desk jobs, except for veterans with severe injuries like lost limbs. Human nature being what it is, both the military and the government as presented are never likely to happen in real life, but as ideas to strive for, they’re certainly worthy of thought and fun to read about. The book does get bogged down in idealogical and political discussions at times, but mostly it’s about a boy’s journey to manhood in an arena of great danger but even greater camaraderie. Despite the sniping Heinlein took from many left-wing writers and critics, the book won the Hugo Award for best novel, the highest honor in the science fiction field. It’s a fine read that will make you think, whatever your personal beliefs.

Note that if you’ve seen the movie, which I haven’t, expect the book to be different, and from what I understand, better.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE RUNAWAYS by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

RunawaysImage © Zilpha Keatley Snyder, illustration by Daniel O’Leary.

At my age there are very few authors I started reading as a child who are still around. Snyder’s first book for young readers was published in 1964 when I was 13, her most recent came out in 2011. I own and have enjoyed most of them, this 1999 title is one I found recently.

Dani and her mother Linda are stuck in the small, poor desert town of Rattler Springs, Nevada in 1951, having been lured there by an inheritance that turned out to be essentially worthless land. Dani hates it and is determined to run away back to the northern California coast town where they used to live as soon as she can raise the bus fare. There are lots of complications, though, a primary one being Stormy, a learning disabled boy she’s befriended who lives with a much worse mother nearby and who wants to come with her. A husband and wife team of geologists come to town and offer to rent Linda’s property, giving them a real chance to get ahead of their debts, and their daughter Pixie soon joins Dani and Stormy in their runaway plans. Turns out her parents mostly ignore her, and she’s all for the adventure. Bully Ronnie Grabler does all he can to ruin their chances, and lots of other problems arise, but Dani is determined to make a break for it, especially after Stormy is badly beaten by his own mother.

Like all of Snyder’s books, this one has great characters and human insight and an engaging storyline. Recommended.

Rereading: I WILL FEAR NO EVIL by Robert Heinlein

IWFNEHeinlein

Image © estate of Robert Heinlein.

I read this long novel twice, first as serialized in GALAXY magazine, later in this paperback version. I was drawn back to it after reading the second half of the new Heinlein biography by William H. Patterson Jr. I found it pretty odd when I first read it. Quite a good read, but different from other Heinlein books. I remember thinking it was the work of an old man, being the story of Johann Smith, a very old man with many health problems but lots of money to hire the best doctors to keep him alive. A man essentially a prisoner in his own home left to argue with his old friend and lawyer Jake Solomon, and fantasize about his very beautiful and sexy secretary Eunice Branca.

Things turn strange when Johann decides to try a risky operation transplanting his brain into a new young body. Johann has a rare blood type limiting the donor possibilities, but plenty of money is offered and a list of possible donors grows. Abruptly with chapter five, everything changes, as Johann finds himself waking up gradually from the transplant surgery, not remembering how it happened. He’s sedated and restrained, but as he grows stronger he discovers something he hadn’t expected: the donor body is female. More shocks follow when it turns out it’s that of his secretary, Eunice. Johann is devastated, as he cared deeply for Eunice, but something even stranger helps him: Eunice’s spirit or essence begins speaking to him inside his head. It seems they’re going to share her body and his mind with Eunice as an unseen partner, helping him learn to be female with all that entails, from social behavior to sex.

There are interesting twists, as his granddaughters sue, claiming he can’t prove he’s who he says he is. Eunice’s husband gets involved in the story and the life of the new combined person, as do her doctor, nurse, and her four bodyguards. But most of the remaining pages are filled with internal dialogue between Johann (now Joan) and Eunice on every possible topic from their two lives and divergent experiences, philosophies and desires. The book does get bogged down by the sheer amount of this, and it often slows the story to a crawl, though most of what Heinlein has to say is interesting. I did get tired of the back and forth sex talk, though, there’s too much of that.

I remember reading at the time the book came out that Heinlein was very ill, and I always thought that must have affected the writing. Certainly there’s lots of preoccupation with illness. But in the Patterson bio I learned it was only after he had turned this manuscript in to his editor that he fell ill, and remained so for long enough that he wasn’t able to do his usual copy editing of the galleys. Heinlein’s publishers always seemed to feel his books were too long, and he normally did a lot of cutting, but did not trust others to do it, so the final contract for this book stipulated it would be published as written, no cutting. That’s enlightening, and I can see where cutting might well have helped the story.

But there are plenty of details that must come from Heinlein’s own life and experiences that would have been cut, and for that reason I’m glad to have it all here. And this book was the beginning of Heinlein’s drift away from the usual tropes of science fiction to concentrate on what interested him most: people and the things they cared most about like sex, death, and money. There are still some fine ideas in the book, but the characters and their lives are the real focus.

I WILL FEAR NO EVIL is not a Heinlein book I would give someone to try if they hadn’t read much by him yet, but it’s well worth reading all the same.

And Then I Read: ROBERT A HEINLEIN Volume 2

RAHVol2Image © William H. Patterson, Jr., art by Donato.

In many ways it’s impossible to review this 671-page biography, which is only the second half. But in one way, it’s easy: are you a fan of science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein? Are you interested in learning about his life? Then this two-volume tome is essential reading, and really the only accurate way to date to find out what the man and his life were all about. Heinlein is one of my favorite writers, and his writing is full of the personality, ideas and ideals of the man himself, so I found reading about him almost as fascinating has his work.

One thing that kept surprising me was how many health problems the man endured and struggled with, beginning before his writing career when he developed TB in the Navy, something that left him forever vulnerable to infections and viruses. After nearly every public appearance he got sick, but that didn’t stop him, particularly when he had a cause, like the series of blood drives he sponsored at conventions. The one time I saw Heinlein in person was at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. That was the beginning of his blood drives that did much to raise awareness and increase donation.

This book could only have been written after the passing of both Heinlein and his wife Virginia. He never liked analyzing his own work, and was very suspicious of others who did. He had a long-running feud with writher Alexei Panshin over the latter’s book and articles about Heinlein’s work. Another surprisingly antagonistic relationship was with early SF fan and would-be agent Forrest J. Ackerman. Forry clearly loved Heinlein’s work, and thought it should be spread more widely, but his method of doing that was highly unethical: representing himself as Heinlein’s agent to foreign publishers and movie companies without any permission, and making sales that Heinlein knew nothing about!

I first discovered Heinlein when I was a teenager, and I devoured his books for young readers. Soon after I began reading his more adult material in books and magazines. He seemed so impressive and successful, it was surprising to me to learn that he wasn’t financially secure until his novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” became a surprise paperback best-seller in the late 1960s, and kept on selling well for years. I think it’s probably his best novel, and I remember feeling gratified when the world finally caught on.

There are many more things I could say, but the bottom line is, if you’re a fan, you’ll want to read these. Don’t miss out.