Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sailing to Byzantium (a Robert Silverberg short story)

“Sailing to Byzantium” is a long “short” story of 59 pages from Robert Silverberg.  Silverberg, who sold his first story in 1954, went on to become one of the most respected writers in all of science fiction.  He is a particular favorite of mine because of his special talent for creating fully developed, believable characters to inhabit the pages of his science fiction and fantasy stories.  No matter how outlandish or speculative the plots of his stories, it always feels like they are happening to real people. 

“Sailing to Byzantium” is set in a 50th century world in which only five cities exist.  These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, ordinary cities; they are replicas of major cities from the past that have been reconstructed here as they were in their prime solely for the pleasure of this world’s citizens to explore and experience them.  From time-to-time, one of the cities is “retired” and replaced by a new one so that people will always have a new experience to look forward to.  Since no one in this world seems to have a job anymore, rotating the cities on a regular basis plays a major role in keeping boredom to a minimum. 

Robert Silverberg
The five cities are all staffed by “temporaries,” a group of people there to play the roles of those who lived in the actual cities in the past.  As the story begins, the current cities are: Chang-an, Asgard, New Chicago, Timbuctoo, and Alexandria.  The story’s central character is a “visitor” to the 50the century, a tall man who has vivid memories of the “Old Chicago.” The man knows almost nothing about himself except that he is different from everyone he has met so far.  He remembers that his name is Charles Phillips and that he has somehow been transported here from his 1984 life…whatever that may have been like.

Phillips wonders about the true nature of the “temporaries” he encounters as he explores different cities with his 50th century girlfriend.  Are they real or are they something less than human?  But wonder as he might, definitive answers are hard to come by until he meets another “visitor” from the past for the first time ever.  Phillips is astounded to learn that this Viking warrior from a period in time much older than his own has figured out a few things for himself that never occurred to Phillips’ more “modern” self. 

“Sailing to Byzantium” is first class science fiction, but it really hits its stride when it shifts into a story of true love between the twentieth century Phillips and his doomed fiftieth century girlfriend.  This story is too easy to spoil by saying much more, so I’m going to stop right here.  Silverberg fans are probably already familiar with this one and how it turns out, but if you are not one of those hardcore Silverberg fans, I recommend that you find “Sailing to Byzantium” and enjoy it as a standalone read.  It’s a good one.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century

Juliet Hulme, daughter of a prominent English couple, came to New Zealand as a young girl when her father was recruited for a university position in Christchurch.  Her lack of social skills did not stop the physically striking Juliet from making an impression on her classmates, albeit it, for the most part, a negative impression.  Pauline Parker, on the other hand, was blessed neither with physical attractiveness, nor with any social skills of which to speak. The angry and socially inept Pauline wanted badly to find a soul-mate to whom she could reveal her thoughts and dreams, and Juliet wanted just as badly to find someone she could recreate in her own image. The two girls were made for each other because each of them got their wish.

The two teens shortly after the murder
Pauline Parker’s mother, Honorah Rieper, did not die an easy death.  Barely aware of what was happening to her, the woman nonetheless valiantly attempted to fight off her attackers, and it was only when Juliet held her down by the throat that Pauline was finally able to finish off her mother.  There was never any doubt as to whom the woman’s murderers were, but the defiantly gleeful manner in which the two teens confessed to what they had done still managed to shock and surprise the country. 

Five and one-half years later, after the two young women were released from prison, they assumed new names and began the new lives far from Christchurch, that they hoped would shield them from further notoriety.  And it worked for forty years.

There is a lot of material out there, including one major movie (Heavenly Creatures), a documentary made inside Anne Perry’s Scotland home (Interiors), and several books that attempt to explain how two fifteen-year-old girls could so callously murder the mother of one of them.  In Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, Peter Graham explores each possibility, one by one, reaching his own conclusion that the strong homosexual ties between the two girls, compounded by a perfect meshing of two distinct personality disorders, created exactly the perfect storm needed to make such a thing possible. 

More recent photo of "Anne Perry"
Perhaps most shocking today, is how differently the two women have responded to what they did in 1954.  On the one hand, Paulette Parker has lived a life of repentance and appears still to be much bothered by what she did to her mother.  On the other, Juliet Hulme (Anne Perry) still shows no remorse whatsoever and has constructed a version of the events that she uses to explain why she had no other choice but to help her friend commit matricide.  As Graham notes, Perry’s version of what led up to the murder is so obviously false that it cannot be taken seriously.  Anne Perry appears to be much the same person that she was in 1954.

When asked if she ever thinks of the woman she and Paulette murdered, this writer who has made a fine living for herself writing bloody murder mysteries for the last four decades said this:

“No. She was somebody I barely knew.”

And yet, as late as 2006 according to Peter Graham, Anne Perry and her publisher were known to grant interviews about the murder just prior to the publication of a new Anne Perry book, under the theory, I suppose, that “no publicity is bad publicity.” 

To this point, they seem to be correct about that. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

A High Wind in Jamaica

Welsh writer Richard Hughes published A High Wind in Jamaica in 1929 (sometimes published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage), and the playwright’s novel would go on to be turned into a Broadway production by dramatist Paul Osborn in 1943.  The novel was also adapted for a 1965 movie of the same title that starred Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, and was performed as a radio play on two occasions (once in 1950 and then again in 2000).  To say the least, the novel has had a good run.

Despite all of that, I was unfamiliar with the novel and its author until I heard Ann Patchett praise it at the San Antonio book festival a couple of weeks ago in a conversation she had there with author Elizabeth McCracken.  It is Patchett’s theory that A High Wind in Jamaica has served as the blueprint for countless novels about children who are totally oblivious to the dangerous circumstances they may suddenly find themselves in.  She admits to more than once having used the pattern herself, including in her current novel, Commonwealth (a novel that turns out to be much more autobiographical than I would have imagined before hearing the author speak about it).

Anthony Quinn, James Coburn in the 1965 movie version
A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a group of children being sent to England from Jamaica by their parents so that they can attend boarding schools in the mother country.  The children, all of them roughly between the ages of three and ten years old, are sent on their own – the youngest children being in the complete care of their older brothers and sisters.  Unfortunately, the rather lazy and negligent captain of the vessel on which they leave for England, allows his boat to be boarded and taken by a small group of the most incompetent “pirates” in the history of piracy.  The cowardly captain, in fact, makes a run for his own freedom, abandoning the children to the pirates who had temporarily moved the kids to their own little boat.  Now, the Danish pirate captain and his crew are stuck with a bunch of kids they have no idea what to do with – try as they might to figure it all out.

To the kids, who never realize that their very lives are in jeopardy, it is all one big adventure and soon enough they are climbing ropes and getting into trouble at a pace that astounds even the roughest of the pirate crew.  The captain knows that he has to get rid of the children one way or the other if he is going to be able to avoid capture and prison – or worse – but no one wants to take them off his hands.

Richard Hughes
Richard Hughes tries to take the reader inside the minds of the children and what they see from their distinctive points-of-view, his theory being that the minds of children do not work anything remotely like the minds of adults work.  This is a point that none of the adults in the story ever seem to figure out – and the repercussions stemming from this oversight are both comic and tragic.  In the end, the children who live through the prolonged “kidnapping” may be the least affected by what happened to them on the high seas around Cuba. 

Bottom Line: A High Wind in Jamaica is clever piece of satire that manages to be both a comedy and a tragedy.  It is easy to see why the short novel (191 pages) has been popular for so long, and if Ann Patchett’s theory is correct, why it will remain a studied piece of writing for decades to come.  Despite its sometimes-tedious writing style, this one makes for an interesting read.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, began keeping her Book of Books (the “Bob” referenced in this memoir’s title) in 1988 when she was just a high school junior.  (As a point of reference, I began my own “Bob” in 1970, a few months before I turned twenty-one.)  Paul describes Bob as “factory-made, gray and plain, with a charcoal binding and white unlined paper, an inelegant relic from the days before bookstores stocked Moleskine notebooks,” exactly the kind of non-descript little book, I suspect, guaranteed to remain forever safe from the prying eyes of outsiders. 

In twenty-two chapters, each chapter carrying the title of one of the books listed in Bob, Paul exhibits just how precisely she is able to reconstruct segments of her past by studying Bob’s pages.  Each of the books chosen for chapters of their own remind the author of where she was both “psychologically and geographically” when she first read them.  By studying the list to see which books she read before and after the highlighted title, Paul can easily see whether the earlier books put her in the mood for more of the same or pushed her toward reading something very different.  Too, if her reading choices moved in a new direction, she can quickly determine how long that new interest or trend lasted.  And she confirmed something concerning one’s memory about which most avid readers will readily agree: Keeping a list of fiction read does very little to solidify the recall of characters or plot details – what it does do is provide a better understanding of changes in one’s own “character.”

Pamela Paul
My Life with Bob is an intimate look into the life of a woman who has made books and reading the central core of her life.  She has had many roles during her life:  student, daughter, wife, mother, etc., but I suspect that she takes equal joy in knowing that reader is an essential term others would use to describe who she is – and always has been. 

Readers are a curious lot, and one of the things we are most curious about is what others are reading.  We cannot resist browsing the bookshelves of those whose homes we visit, often altering our opinions (either upwardly or downwardly) about those being visited according to what we see on their shelves.  We find ourselves straining to read the titles of books on shelves sitting behind pictures of celebrities and politicians because we know that people are more likely to reveal their true nature and level of curiosity by what they choose to display on their private bookshelves than by what comes out of their mouths.  We can’t help ourselves; that’s the way we are.

If you are one of those people, you are going to love My Life with Bob because Pamela Paul is a kindred spirit who gets it.