Ted Chiang is the thinking person’s sci-fi inventor, a writer of amazing short stories in the tradition, perhaps, of Phillip K. Dick. Chiang’s output is not prolific but a piercing intelligence illuminates his eclectic body of works. He might well drift in obscurity, except his most famous story was made into the stunning sci-fi movie “Arrival.” Now his second volume “Exhalation.” showcase seven short stories published over the last decade and a half, plus two new tales. All of the stories vary in subject matter, style, tone, and plotting. All of them make the reader think. A handful seem didactic but if these aren’t what you come to sci-fi for, rest assured. There are at least two long gems here. “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” posits a world in which commercially sold prisms let you interrogate your alternative realities a little apart from you own. And “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is glorious, a galloping tale of avatar-style software-bound “lives” tended by a zookeeper. Ted Chiang celebrates imagination at its most free and lyrical.
If you have any interest at all in expanding your attentiveness or in finding new ways to see the world or in unlocking your creative spark, I commend “The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You.” Brilliant design journalist Rob Walker is a magpie, picking out how artists and thinkers of many different types cultivate a muscle of paying attention, of “noticing.” The book is a cornucopia of 131 different exercises, some almost puny, some major projects, all persuading you to no longer just coast through life. Walker is an engaging, lucid writer who really sweeps you up. Me, I’ve decided to have a go at five of his 131, and just by listing them, you can tell if this book is for you: “Spot something new every day”; “Don’t photograph, draw” (I’m such a bad artist that I can’t wait to do this without fear of failure); “Follow the quiet” (just walk in the direction of least noise); “Take a photo walk, with no camera”; and “Interview a friend, loved one, stranger – or even an ideological nemesis)”. Marvellous
Here’s one for the geeks, the real heroes of the universe. Forget the soldiers, the tycoons, the footballers, it’s the programmers, the ones who write the code that underpins our modern world, who rule. Clive Thompson, an assured chronicler and a deft stylist, does something remarkable with “Coders,” attempting to write the history of modern programming, and to a large degree, succeeds. Moving through the generations of hardware and software, and the generations of attending coders, Thompson interviews the super creators, the uber coders, the role models for all those filmic tropes we love, but also the regular folks who program for a living. He addresses meritocracy, gender biases, coding style, and our current discontents with the ubiquitous software we use. I’ve done some coding in my own life, of a very mixed quality, and I’ve written fictional characters from that world, so I found every chapter fascinating. If at the end one has the feeling that “Coders” does not quite delineate a coherent history, well, I think we’ll need the luxury of some more passing time before we have anything truly magisterial. In the meantime, this is a balm for the soul, a paean to those who shape the digital.
Novelist and top-notch journalist Nathaniel Rich has opened my eyes, completely altering my understanding of the history of climate change. “Losing Earth: A Recent History” relates the barely believable tale of how scientists already understood in 1979 (hey, let’s be clear, we’re talking about four decades ago!) exactly what global warming is and what the eventual consequences must be. What’s more, in the United States, a bipartisan decade of hearings, legislative efforts, and general discussions took place through the reigns of Carter and Reagan. Only when the oil industry turned its beady eye on the issue did partisanship and disinformation swing into action, and in 1989 Bush senior started the tradition of resisting international and national corrective action. Originally published in the New York Times Magazine, Rich’s wonderfully written and meticulous history not only puts climate change into the correct historical framework, but he includes a stunning afterword, a call to action that exhorts: “But there is one thing that each of us can do ourselves … We can call the villains the villains, the heroes heroes, the victims victims, and ourselves complicit.” This book makes for essential reading.
“Court Me Kill Me,” the fifth in the series starring fashion photographer Anna Burgin, foregrounds Anna while her journalist friend, Danny Churchill, is mostly out of action. When murders around the globe implicate their ally-maybe-friend, the enigmatic, capable Clare, and Anna’s studio is trashed, she finds herself thrown into a fearful police mess that has her questioning Clare’s involvement. David Bradwell plots tightly, although I found the eventual denouement to have less impact than it should, but his main strengths are his “ordinary folk” heroes and the wonderfully sharp and humorous repartee between them. A most satisfying mystery.
I was one of legions who fell in love with James Ellroy’s clipped, frenetic prose over the course of his L.A. Quartet. set in the 50s and 60s. but by the time I devoured that series’ closer, “White Jazz,” it was apparent the stylistics were getting out of control. “American Tabloid,” the first in his Underworld trilogy, was brilliant, with a riveting storyline, but the remaining two of the trilogy tested my patience. Now “This Storm” succeeds “Perfidia,” kicking off on New Years Eve, 1941, a day after its predecessor, within a prequel series to the L.A. Quartet. A body in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, a puzzling address book … and evil Dudley Smith, dogged Sergeant Elmer Jackson, forensic cop Hideo Ashida, treacherous Joan Conville, together with dozens of other outlandish characters, embark on a seemingly endless plot of villainy, racism, and death. The novel’s pace is astonishing but not to good effect, for the tapestry of monstrosities and their ill-doings quickly becomes pointless. And the style! If Ellroy remains a brilliant painter of both seediness and glitz, his words and sentences have become amped up into an undisciplined, jerky mess. I enjoyed a handful of scenes and character immersions but the plot revelations, when they came, carried no emotional heft at all. Overall, “This Storm” is an unlikeable nightmare without a heart, and a lumpen pastiche of the literary dances of Ellroy’s older prose.
A fabulous half year of reading, with very few duds indeed. Only 3 books rated 9/10 (all nonfiction!), but 15 hit ratings of 8/10 and of those, I’ve pulled out 5 to present a first-half list of must reads, 4 novels, 4 nonfiction. It’s an eclectic mix and you’d need to ensure genre/topic are to your liking, but I commend them as must-reads.
“The End of Ice” by Dahr Jamail [9/10] is a stunning travelogue cum journalistic climate change investigation cum ode to climate change sorrow.
“November Road” by Lou Berney lyrically and sparely thrills with a tale of a JFK-era mobster on the run.
“Killing Commendatore” is the latest Haruki Murakami moody, enigmatic spellbinder.
Mick Herron is the new master of the spy novel and “London Rules” thrills and delights.
“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal is the modern paean to jogging.
Sophie Cunningham’s “City of Trees” [9/10] is near perfection, part memoir, part essayistic reflection on the earth we’re scrunching.
Andrew Lowe’s “The Dying Light” is a double shot of caffeine into the police procedural genre.
Genius historian Robert Caro graces us with his craft and ethos in “Working” [9/10].
I picture Scottish band Idlewild, which I saw in Melbourne maybe a decade ago, as a group of very able musicians, plus, notably, self-declared poet Roddy Woomble. Woomble left the band after their heydays first few albums, and his next few releases were fine but more like earnest, if literate, poems set to minor key songs that never lifted. Idlewild reformed in 2015 and now “Interview Music” is a welcome blast from the past, but, really, a Roddy Woomble album buttressed by earnest musicianship that graces some songs with flair but can also retreat into disparate if professional chops. “Same Thing Twice” returns to the band’s jagged, scream-led roots; at the other extreme, “Lake Martinez” is a lovely Woomble lyric-led ballad; and “Mount Analogue” is a fine in-between chunky toon.
A “crimmy” ( as some of my friends refer, perhaps ever so disparagingly, to a crime novel) set in formerly industrial Newcastle towards the Queensland border, in a world of petty criminals and small time business people and ordinary folk, “Hiding to Nothing” is the second boisterous outing of house painter Lachlan Munro. Lachie is a house painter but also attracts chaos and swirling wrongdoing; this time the mix is a milk bar robbery, gangster Billy Wong and Lachie’s combustible con father. The action is swift, caper after caper, and the dialogue is sharp (though not as humorous as I’d expected, reflecting more on my sense of humour than on the author’s style). A fun read over a few hours straight and a peep into the feral side of a lively Australian city.
Only a few weeks after enjoying the second book in T.W.M. Ashford’s “Checking Out” time travel cum space romp series, I jumped straight into the concluding Book 3, “Checking Out: Anticlockwise.” George Webber, once a guest at the Le Petite Monde hotel, gateway to the multiverse, takes a lead role in this adventure, partnered with concierge Pierre, in wild corners of the universe and the cracks in its time continuum. Once again, the pell-mell zany time travel plot twists come thick and fast, once again the Doctor-Who-style fights and flights entertain, and once again a light sense of humor leavens the strangeness. The entire concoction is served up with wonderful flair and control. Another one-sitting read and another smile-inducing pleasure.