26. Johnny and the Dead

This is one of my favorite Pratchett novels. His work is always about the question of how to be human, which in this case means the relationship between our past and present, the dead and the living.

His ability to imbue even a brief sketch of a character with life, humanity, and of course humor is on full display–we are very funny creatures, after all–along with his fundamental optimism. Without ever being leaden about it, the difference in perspective on modern life between the dead and living characters in this story makes clear how what we think depends on where we’re looking from.


24. Seven of Infinities 25. Only You Can Save Mankind

I read Aliette de Bodard’s Seven of Infinities for an SF meetup I want to try out this week. Fortunately, as a novella, it wasn’t difficult to get through it in time for the meeting. I haven’t read any of the other books in this universe, and it might be that doing so would improve the experience. The action of the story is swift and compelling. I found the setting intriguing, but a little obscure in places–the title reference, for instance, suggests the tarot but seems to refer to a mahjong-style game piece. Much is implied but never explained, which I suppose you’ll have with shorter works, but I would have liked some more solidity. And the characters are individually fine, but in many places I had a difficult time figuring out why they were behaving the way they did. There’s a romance story in this, but it feels like it takes place by authorial fiat; it could have used more buttressing.

Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind is one that I pull out every few years and reread with a deep, fond satisfaction. It’s a familiar trope at this point — John Maxwell, age 12, plays a computer game that turns out to be surprisingly real — but the approach and the philosophy are completely Pratchett. The book was published in 1992, not long after Good Omens, and there’s a lot of that same style in it. Pratchett was hitting his stride with the Discworld books then (Small Gods was also published in ’92), and clearly had the same kinds of thing on his mind no matter what universe the story took place in. The technology (and the background of the Gulf War) date OYCSM sharply at this point, but since that date happens to overlap my own adolescence, I don’t mind, even though I never got into that kind of computer game. I will continue to reread this one every few years, I suspect.     


23. A Natural History of the Senses

After weeks of trying to get myself to finish The Art of Noticing — a book I truly love and truly just do not seem able to finish right now — I pivoted, as they say these days, to this old lurker on the shelves. The choice was prompted by a passing reference to Diane Ackerman in some newsletter I subscribe to — We have something by Ackerman, don’t we? Indeed we do.

A Natural History of the Senses is 30 years old, and I almost certainly purchased it during the century now ended. I am certain that many of the references cited are out of date, some of the anthropology suspect. And yet.

In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow I began to cry. I wasn’t in the least bit unhappy. Quite the opposite; I felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. The intensity of the color affected my nervous system. At the time, I called the emotion wonder, and thought: Isn’t it extraordinary to be alive on a planet where there are yellows such as this?

As we grind through Year 2 of the pandemic — less and less likely to have any definitively agreed upon endpoint — which seems to have a common effect of alienation, it would appear that what I need are books suffused by sensate reality, and Ackerman’s lush descriptions were a balm to my nerves. This is one of those volumes you can open to any random spot and find something there to delight the imagination. Her page on kissing alone is worth the price of the book. (The cover price in 1991 was $11.00. Can you remember books being that cheap? It’s $17.95 now, and in one of the chapters she recounts watching the launch of a space shuttle, which she describes as “clinging like the young of some exotic animal” to its rockets.)

The book is divided, reasonably enough, into sections for smell, taste, touch, etc., with a final chapter on synesthesia, all of them described with a rich depth of feeling (in the sense of sentiment) that is quite without self-consciousness.


Nothing? Something?

I’ve been in a reading slump ever since I finished Braiding Sweetgrass a while back. Yesterday I started flipping through How to Do Nothing again and landed on a bit where Odell is talking about some art… pieces? performances? that are really, as far as I can tell, about the difference between a thing being a thing – and particularly an art thing – vs being nothing at all. “Applause Encouraged” was one in which people sat in a roped-off viewing area, watched the sun set, and clapped when it finished. That reminded me of a bit in The Art of Noticing where the author and his wife happened across some unopened crates in a museum room and had an amiable argument about whether this was art-in-waiting, or were the crates themselves the art?

I am not qualified in the slightest to have a discussion about What is Art, but whether or not we consider something art, when we look at things as if they might be art, we are looking at them as being different from nothing at all. A blank wall is nothing. A blank wall with an empty frame hung on it might or might not be art, but in order to have that argument at all, we move the wall, or at least the part of it in the frame, from the “nothing” to the “something” category.

A big part of Odell’s book is about making this contextual mind-shift, taking into our awareness the sounds that fill what we ordinarily call silence, the energy that fills the space we call empty. What happens when we look at everything as if it was something?

(And then of course because I was well-trained in college to be suspicious of all binary models, is there a liminal edge between something-ness and nothing-ness, and what does that consist of? Perhaps for another day. Also there was an old Bloom Country strip where the news reports that, “Today, nothing happened.” Hmmm.)