Mark Haddon, Alexander McCall Smith, George R.R. Martin, Phillip K. Dick, Dorothy L. Sayers

I plan to keep this update brief. Five books are a lot to cover in one blog entry, after all.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon: I read a review of this book when it came out in hardcover, a little over a year ago, and have been meaning to read it ever since. By its very nature, it is not a delightful book, but certainly a meaningful one. I was afraid at first that it would feel like one of those books that you end up reading mostly because you feel you should, in order to understand the character and the people he represents, but actually, I sympathized intensely with Christopher—the way he dreads talking to strangers, the way other people appear like aliens (varelse, beings with whom you cannot communicate), the way he observes his own mind, the way he has trouble handling overstimulation. Even the “groaning”—it’s his reaction to too much stimuli, a way of creating “white noise”, he says—I could understand that too. Of course, I don’t sit down and groan, but my reaction to stress similarly functions as white noise (one of the reasons why I find fugues so soothing). Autism may be a disorder, but it is only an exaggerated extreme of a condition already present in the continuum of a normal human mind. Personality is really a blurry thing—I think that each person has the fundamental capacity to approximate all personalities. External conditions and internal decisions bias (or perhaps, limit) him towards a certain mode of behavior, reaction, opinion, interaction, but ultimately, I think, we are formless.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith: Read this at the Coop. Another series which The New York Times Book Review introduced to me. Advertised loudly as being one of the Today Show Book Club selections. (I get the impression that the literati throw up their hands and shudder if a book is “mainstream” enough to end up on one of these TV book club lists. Or perhaps that’s just one of my friends who abhor pop music and refuse to watch blockbuster movies. In any case, Anna Karenina was on the Oprah Book Club list—I have to admit that it annoys me that there will be thousands of people who, until now, refused to read it on account of it being too inaccessible, and will now proceed to act as if they’re the first ones to discover Tolstoy, but on the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with popularizing the classics. Actually I think the people who will now proceed to deride Anna Karenina’s actual literary merits simply because it made it onto a book club list will annoy me more.) Where was I? Oh, right. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency can’t be read for the formulaic pleasures of the mystery novel. The mysteries are by no means trivial, but they are not the tricky intellectual challenge of Sherlock Holmes…or even the more akin Miss Marple. It belongs squarely to the other tradition of the genre—that of human observation and intuition as opposed to hard cold logic and deduction—but to such an extent that I don’t even really perceive it as a mystery at all. It does not belong to the genre. I enjoyed it immensely though, humorous and light in tone, without losing realism. I would like to read the sequels, someday, although I don’t know if I’ll search obsessively for them.

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin: Just when I thought I was getting sick of epic fantasy. I don’t know why or how this book pulled me in, because it does use all the trademark fantasy conventions and doesn’t seem particularly original in any aspect. The Curse of Chalion, which has a similar atmosphere of paranoid court intrigue, has that whole interesting religious avatar angle I wrote about in my LiveJournal, but A Game of Thrones doesn’t have anything so startlingly new. I bet it’s the writing. Sometimes, the writer’s style will make or break the story—there are certain stylistic conventions that I absolutely can’t stand, for example—and I think that’s probably the case. I am trying my best not to look for the sequels because these books are long. I’ve seen them before but never got tempted until now. (That’s what happens when you go rummaging in Lamont’s Farnsworth collection.)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Phillip K. Dick: I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I watched Blade Runner (last fall). I was surprised to find how different the atmosphere is—Blade Runner is post-apocalyptic in its colors and moods, but the original story merely has a nuclear winter situation; its actual feel is more, well, suburban. (Hm, more like Minority Report, even.) I was also surprised to realize that its theme is not about death or defining humanity/intelligence/sentience, but religion. The whole Mercerism parallel, you know, which isn’t even mentioned in the movie. I recognized the Mercerism metaphor immediately, but I thought it was a simple satire on Christianity, until the latter half of the book, when I realized it was a lot more ambiguous than that. Dick is definitely an intensely religious man, but an intensely tormented one too. Of course, by religious I don’t mean necessarily Christian. I associated of course with Christian mysticism, but on second thought, the sheer pain suggests the bodhisattvas. Plus the utter sense of aloneness in empathy, of empathy being a sham yet being no less real—a very agonized spirituality. Startled me particularly because the kind of people who tend to enjoy Blade Runner or Phillip K. Dick, in my experience so far, are disillusioned adolescent males who engage in indiscriminate cynicism, utter prophecies about a dystopic future and enjoyed The Matrix before it became popular (and then proceeded to despise the sequels). You know, that kind that tends to skim through Sartre (and maybe Ulysses), and moans about the lack of order/morality/humanity in the world. The type who are adamantly atheists—I wonder how they’d interpret this ambivalence about Mercerism, Deckard’s sheer pain at the end of the story. I’m still not sure what to say of it myself.

Lord Peter, by Dorothy L. Sayers: Where was this book when I was hungry for late Victorian mysteries? A complete pleasure to read, and every mystery ingeniously contrived. I would say more but I’m rather tired of typing now. Not quite the same flavor as Sherlock Holmes—more contemporary with Agatha Christie than Arthur Conan Doyle. Although I much prefer Wimsey to Poirot or Miss Marple, and the crimes are much more interesting.