Beginnings and Endings

Some interesting new releases, the winners of awards for best Australian children's fiction, and a pair of long reviews of some older books.

Issue #28: Sunday 21 August 2022

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

Proving Ground by Kathy Kleiman

After the end of World War II, the race for technological supremacy sped on. Top-secret research into ballistics and computing, begun during the war to aid those on the front lines, continued across the United States as engineers and programmers rushed to complete their confidential assignments. Among them were six pioneering women, tasked with figuring out how to program the world's first general-purpose, programmable, all-electronic computer--better known as the ENIAC-- even though there were no instruction codes or programming languages in existence.

This looks really interesting, though at present it’s only available in hardback. I might wait for the paperback, or get it from the library.

Buy it at Readings.

The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

‘So you believed the alleged rapists over the alleged victim?’ Jane’s voice took on an indignant pitch. ‘Girls lie sometimes.’ I nodded. ‘And rapists lie all the time.

Chilling, timely and gripping, The Unbelieved takes us behind the headlines to a small-town world that is all too real - and introduces us to a brilliant new voice in crime fiction.

Yet another debut crime novel by an Australian author. Hard to keep up! But this one looks particularly good.

Buy it at Readings.

Other News

Booker Prize Longlist Announced

Thirteen books on the 2022 longlist.

I haven't yet read any of these. But it's worth noting in particular that Alan Garner, at the age of 87, has been nominated for his new novel Treacle Walker. I bought a copy of this a few months ago but haven't yet read it. Now I must. Alan Garner wrote several highly acclaimed novels for young people in the 1960s. You might recall his books The Owl Service, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and Red Shift, all of which are excellent. So the fact that he's still writing, 60-some years later, and being nominated for a prestigous award like the Booker, is remarkable.

More details

Winners of the CBCA Book of the Year Awards Announced

The Children’s Book Council of Australia give annual awards for what they call the “Book of the Year”. I’ll only list the two main fiction categories here.

Book of the Year: Older Readers

Winner was Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim

Wen Zhou is the daughter and only child of Chinese immigrants whose move to the lucky country has proven to be not so lucky. Wen and her friend, Henry Xiao - whose mum and dad are also struggling immigrants - both dream of escape from their unhappy circumstances, and form a plan to sit an entrance exam to a selective high school far from home. But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen's resilience and resourcefulness to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows.

Honourable mentions went to Girls in Boys’ Cars by Felicity Castagna and How to Repaint a Life by Steven Herrick.

Book of the Year: Younger Readers

Winner was A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr.

Meixing Lim and her family have arrived at the New House in the New Land, inherited from First Uncle who died tragically and unexpectedly while picking oranges in the backyard. Everything is vast and unknown to Meixing and not in a good way, including the house she has dubbed Big Scary. She is embarrassed by the second-hand shoes given to her by the kind neighbours, has trouble understanding the language at school, and with fitting in and making new friends. Her solace is a glasshouse in the garden that inexplicably holds the sun and the moon and all the secrets of her memory and imagination.

I really enjoy reading books for younger people (well, a lot younger than me, as I’m now 71!) and these two award winners look well worth trying.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Now, I’m going to cheat here, because I don’t want to publish reviews of any of the above until I’ve had a chance to talk about them on our podcast. We’ve been scrambling to record episodes of the podcast before my co-host Perry Middlemiss heads overseas to attend the World SF Convention in Chicago, so we’ve been trying to read a bunch of books before he goes. I will say that out of the four books above, the only one I didn’t like was Past Master.

So reviews of these have to wait for future issues of this newsletter, I’m sorry. As compensation, at the end of the newsletter you’ll find instead a couple of long reviews of books I read a few years ago.

Currently Reading

The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak

Like Past Master and Stand on Zanzibar mentioned above, this is being read for an episode of the podcast where we’ll be looking at the fiction nominated for the 1969 Hugo Awards.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

A re-read of this classic by Dickens. This is the Standard Ebooks edition.

Waiting on the Shelf

Both of these 1968 novels, too, are being read for the purposes of the Hugo Time Machine segment in the podcast. I’ll be glad to get through them all so I can roll on to some books I really want to read.

Read Some Time Ago

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanith

This is a very sad book, but one well worth reading.

It’s written by Paul Kalanithi, a young and promising American neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 36. The cancer had already spread to other organs and was considered inoperable, though there was a chance chemotherapy and radiation could help extend his life.

In this book he recounts his diagnosis and his subsequent life up until the point where he was unable to keep on writing. A moving Epilogue by his widow continues the story up to and beyond his death.

But this is definitely not a depressing book. It’s sad, but it’s dense with thoughts about life and death and how we cope with the knowledge of our eventual demise.

The whole first part of the book is about Kalanithi’s life before this diagnosis, starting out with his strong love for literature. He thought after leaving school that he might become a writer or an academic in the liberal arts. He recounts his fascination by what gives life meaning; but then through that how he was drawn to the study of the brain.

I studied literature and philosophy to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and working in an fMRI lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world…

He begins to study medicine in earnest and eventually becomes an intern in a major hospital, on the way to becoming a neurosurgeon. It’s here that he has to confront issues of life and death close up, and begins to have to make profound decisions about his patients’ lives.

As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives — everyone dies eventually — but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. When a patient comes in with a fatal head bleed, that first conversation with a neurosurgeon may forever color how the family remembers the death, from a peaceful letting go (“Maybe it was his time”) to an open sore of regret (“Those doctors didn’t listen! They didn’t even try to save him!”). When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.

And again:

Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

Kalanithi was a student of literature as well as a surgeon: his use of language in this book is beautiful and clear; he frequently invokes poets like T.S. Elliot, and in the Epilogue his wife recounts how he could quote passages from The Waste Land from memory.

The second half of the book is, of course, his diagnosis and how he manages to go on living with the knowledge of his imminent demise.

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

The final paragraph in Kalanithi’s account, addressed to his daughter at some future time — she was only a toddler when he died — is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s not for me to quote it here out of context.

I read this book twice within a month, highlighting passage after passage. It’s a book I would want to read again if I knew that my own death was near.

Buy it at Readings.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This is a wistful book about the fallibility and mutability of memory. The very first words in the novel are “I remember”, and throughout the book we are brought to consider the untrustworthiness of our recollections. “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed,” says the narrator.

Later, he says:

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.

Tony Webster is in his mid–60s when he receives an unexpected bequest which causes him to think back on the events of his youth, from his senior years at high school through university and a few years afterwards.

At high school, his group of friends is joined by Adrian, a new arrival at the school. While Adrian fits in well with the group, he is somewhat their intellectual and cultural superior. He has a series of intense classroom debates with their history teacher about whether we can ever make a really objective assessment of historical events, even quite recent ones. But, in a wryly ironic note, the narrator comments that his own recollection of these debates is almost certainly flawed.

Tony tells of his early clumsy encounters with young women, and his constant sexual frustrations at the time. “You may say, But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.”

Eventually, during his university years, he meets Veronica: “About five foot two with rounded, muscular calves, mid-brown hair to her shoulders, blue-grey eyes behind blue-framed spectacles, and a quick yet withholding smile.” It’s this relationship which is at the core of the novel, because he has a bitter break-up with her after a year of going out together. Veronica then takes up with Adrian, Tony’s intellectual school friend. And some time later, unexpectedly, Adrian takes his own life for reasons which are not clear.

All this is many decades in the past as Tony now recounts those events, but they are brought back into his life when he is advised of a bequest from Veronica’s mother Sarah, who he had met only once when visiting her family. The bequest is a modest sum of money and, astonishingly, Adrian’s diary. Except that Veronica is in current possession of the diary and refuses to supply it to Tony.

Tony’s attempts to get hold of the diary and his renewal of contacts with Veronica play out in the rest of the novel. He finds himself confronted with past events and actions of his own which he had forgotten, or badly mis-remembered. It takes him a long time to discover and understand the conseqences resulting from his youthful behaviour.

This is a beautifully-written novel which really makes you think about life, and how our memories can betray us; about how we can fail to grasp what has been going on, even at critical moments of our lives; and how we can deeply misunderstand other human beings.

A Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and deservedly so, I think.

Buy it at Readings.

Further reading: Oliver Sacks wrote a very interesting article called “Speak, Memory” on the whole topic of the unreliability of memory in the New York Review of Books. And of course, he has dealt with some of these issues in his collections of case histories.

And that’s it for this time. See you next issue.

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