Lately, for my mystery reading, I’ve returned to another old friend from my past: the Lovejoy series by British author Jonathan Gash. It’s a murder mystery series — the sort where the star, who is not a detective of any kind, in each book is confronted with a murder to solve. Usually against their will; they’d rather be doing anything else.
The Lovejoy series has the added attraction that each book spends a fair fraction of the text talking about antiques. The main character, known only as Lovejoy, is an antiques dealer struggling to make a living. He’s also an antiques “divvie” — he has a definite, if somewhat mystical, connection with genuine antiques. He can always tell the difference between real and fake (as he describes it, a bell goes off in his chest).
I just started reading them last week, and I was immediately struck by something.
Back in 1974 Thomas Nagel published the now-famous paper What is it like to be a bat? It was an examination of the mind-body problem. Part of Nagel’s argument includes the notion that we can never really know what it’s like to be a bat. As W.G. Sebald said, “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
But in What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience (2017) neuroscientist Gregory Berns disagrees. In his opinion Nagel got it wrong. The Sebald Gap closes from both ends. Firstly because animal minds aren’t really that different from ours. Secondly because we can extrapolate our experiences to those of dogs, dolphins, or bats.
I think he has a point, but I also think he’s misreading Nagel a little.
Okay, not all the Agatha Christie — not yet — but I’m getting close. I’ve read all the Hercule Poirot short stories and novels (save one; the last). I’ve read all the Miss Marple novels and all the Tommy and Tuppence novels (but none of the short stories in either case). I’ve read a few of the stand alone novels, but there are a number of those to go. (I’ve even read a collection of her plays.)
The very last novels are disappointing, but the vast bulk of Christie’s work is a genuine treasure. To be honest, I never realized how engaging and wonderful her writing actually is. I’ve been a Poirot fan since childhood but never explored her other work because I saw it as ‘too old-fashioned and ordinary.’ My mistake!
Speaking of better late than never, recently I’ve finally explored a few other mystery authors, one of which was long overdue…
After eight books I think it’s safe to say that I am not, and probably never will be, a fan of science fiction author Stephen Baxter. Just over a year ago I read his Manifold trilogy and was notably underwhelmed (see this post about book one and this post about the whole trilogy).
Recently I finished The Long Earth, a five-book series Baxter co-authored with my all-time, no-exceptions, favorite fiction author, Terry Pratchett. The series is based on an interesting parallel worlds idea from a short story, The High Meggas, Pratchett wrote back in the mid-1980s.
Much to my disappointment, I was also notably underwhelmed by this series.
In what seems the distant past of late summer 2019, I posted about an interesting science fiction novel by Greg Egan, Quarantine (1992). The post didn’t get many views back then — only 13 that August, and only 27 total by the end of the year. And through 2020, it only racked up another 37 views. (That’s 64 total for those keeping score at home.)
Then, this January, the post got 257 views — 161 in the first three days. After being largely ignored for a year-and-a-half, something made the post go mildly viral. No one commented, so I have no idea how or why the post got so much traffic.
I have a thought it might have to do with the title.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first John Scalzi book I read, Redshirts. I thought it was delightful and definitely my kind of book. I also very much enjoyed the second Scalzi book I read, The Android’s Dream. Because of that, I’ve been looking forward to reading his trilogy, The Interdependency.
This past week, courtesy of online library books, I finally did, and I do regret to report that I found the series rather underwhelming. I ended up skimming through the last half of the last book just to find out how it all turned out.
I think the biggest issue for me was lack of action. There was a ton of narration, explanation, internal monologue, and talking, but there wasn’t much action.
It’s been a week since we all watched — stunned — as an army of cultist haters, fascists, racists, and thugs, invaded and raped our Nation’s Capitol. Since then the wind seems to have (at long last) shifted to a new quarter. Nothing in the last four years was enough, but this straw was too heavy.
How real that change is remains to be seen, but the House is set to move forward with a historical second Impeachment, and with McConnell now giving it his blessing, and many Republicans desperately wanting to buy redemption, it’s possible we might see a conviction in the Senate.
Which makes writing a post very hard to focus on.
In light of yesterday’s post, I was initially a bit confused. Is this, because it’s a wrap-up, the last Mystery Monday post of 2020 or, per yesterday, the first one of 2021? I say we wait until after the popping of the champagne corks, so this is the last one of the past year.
No question that this is a wrap-up of an active reading year when it comes to (murder) mysteries. I’ve enjoyed the genre from a very early age (the enjoyment was handed down by my dad). In this atrocious year, they’ve provided a welcome escape and respite.
The year also marks my return to library lending, albeit electronically.
I just finished reading Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics Is Different (2018) by science writer Philip Ball. I like Ball a lot. He seems well grounded in physical reality, and I find his writing style generally transparent, clear, and precise.
As is often the case with physics books like these, the last chapter or three can get a bit speculative, even a bit vague, as the author looks forward to imagined future discoveries or, groundwork completed, now presents their own view. Which is fine with me so long as it’s well bracketed as speculation. I give Ball high marks all around.
The theme of the book is what Ball means by “beyond weird.”
In every literary genre (in every type of art, really), there are classics that stand out and often participate in forming the language, or at least some of the territory, of the genre. That is part of what makes these works classics. (Lord of the Rings is an ultimate classic — all Medieval fantasy since is in reference to it.)
I suspect all serious readers have a classic or two they’ve never gotten around to. Last week I finally got around to reading the classic science fiction novel, Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley.
For a novel written 88 years ago, it’s surprisingly prescient and relevant.