Recent Reading

“What have you been reading?” the imaginary voices in my head — those of the imagined readers of this web log — ask.

Well, I’ll tell you, phantoms and figments.

As usual I have several books going at any given time, books for different locations and portions of my day. Some I finish faster than others, with more time to devote to reading. Some I won’t mention here because I’m still working on them.

I finished “Retief at Large,” a collection of several of Keith Laumer’s stories of James Retief of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, Earth’s diplomatic service. Think swinging sixty’s era James Bond if he worked for the U.S. State Department instead of the British Secret Service. These are humorous, satirical stories of greedy, career-minded diplomats, a vast cast of alien species as stand-ins for Earth cultures (the Groaci — five-eyed, spindly-legged aliens — making frequent appearances as the Soviet analog), corruption, super-power competition, etc. Fun stuff. I enjoyed it.

I read a novelization of the old TV show “The Rat Patrol.” It had been sitting on my shelf for years. I don’t know where I picked it up. But it was a decent WWII romp, even knowing which characters would survive and which were introduced only to be sacrificed at intervals.

At long last I got around to “Tropic of Cancer.” Not for me. I have no philosophical objection to unsavory narrators. But the entire book is filled with nothing but unsavory characters. I recognize the skill and artistry that went into the novel, okay? I can appreciate a thing without enjoying it. Let me leave it at that.

I’ve been re-reading Patrick O’Brian’s novels of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. What a wonderful contrast with “Tropic of Cancer.” O’Brian deals with the human condition at least as well as Henry James; better, in my opinion, which is the only one I’m much concerned with. And his characters, human and flawed as they are, don’t revolt me.

I read Greg Bear’s “City at the End of Time.” This is science-fiction at the bleeding edge, a novel of theoretical quantum physics, Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, causality, and consciousness. And probably lots of other things that I failed to notice. It is an absorbing, intriguing book, chock-a-block with ideas that are doled out artfully, the narration leaping back and forth across eons, maintaining mystery and the reader’s interest. I think the ending could have used a few more pages, but then again a neatly tied-up ending wouldn’t have fit well, I suppose.

And I finished the latest of the Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, “Vallista.” It’s always nice to encounter Vlad again. But I couldn’t help but get the impression that Brust is getting tired of him. This one felt like he was going through the motions; that with two more novels to go, he just wants to wrap things up. The first-person smart-assery that I expect is there, but is seems perfunctory. The mystery/time-travel aspects didn’t much interest me. If feels that Mr. Brust is trying to finally flesh out his fictional universe’s backstory. Whether this was planned all along, or Mr. Brust feels the need to establish an internally consistent grounding for all the magical doings of the last fifteen novels (and the half-dozen or so related novels) is beyond my knowledge. But I don’t think it is either necessary or advisable. An aura of mystery should obtain to magic. Explaining too much dilutes the sense of wonder that should suffuse a good fantasy yarn.

Believe it or not, I’ve gotten through more, but I think I’ve rambled on long enough for one day.