I am greatly enjoying Siddhartha Mukherjee’s THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, a fat, satisfying, humane tour of scientific history, ranging (so far, in the first 90 pages or so) through territories as widely flung as Mendel’s pea gardens and the constitutional rulings of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr; hitting notes as far apart as corny references to ‘Hotel California’ and elegant musings on hereditary illnesses within the author’s own family. Gorgeous and world-expanding.
As I mentioned briefly in March, I’ve forayed into the visual arts for the first time this year. I have a faint echo of a self-image – lingering from adolescence I suspect – as hopelessly, lopsidedly verbal, too clumsy for the physical world, whether it’s in gross or fine motor, even though it hasn’t strictly speaking been true for some time. But visual aesthetics were definitely totally new to me till I plonked down money for watercolour supplies at Art Friend in January this year. It’s been a deeply rewarding journey learning new skills and ways of thinking, even as I’ve also hurtled a little wildly between attempts and media. Anyway, all of this is just a preamble to my (probably unreasonable) excitement about having recently acquired some pastels and tonight produced some fuchsias. I’m quite sentimental about fuchsias.
I’ve been on a bit of a genre binge lately: there was the Walton, and then Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN, which I ultimately found both absorbing and unsatisfying, for many of the reasons laid out in this excellent blog post and comments thread. The beginning was rather too mannered for my tastes: the mysteries were set up in a way that seemed to show too transparently the strings behind the puppetry, and the whole atmosphere lent itself too much to glib comparisons to JONATHAN STRANGE (at points feeling almost like fanfiction). But once Mak Genggang and Prunella Gentleman came onto the scene it all came much more alive – though I never did find the magic as convincing as the social satire.
I’m now inching through Ken Liu’s English translation of THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, which also has at times a strange clash of tones and registers. There’s the subject matter of Cold War US pulp SF (which was, I’ll have you know, basically the highlight of my preteen life) and sometimes even the strange abrupt characterisations of that genre; blended with the depth and interest that always (for me) accompanies the depiction of real totalitarianism; and then the fantastical-historical computer game exploration of hard physics problems that I can only, due to the limited horizons of my reading, associate strongly with Greg Egan. The last is so weirdly compelling that today, at a work meeting, I found myself suggesting that we might dehydrate a project and then reanimate it with water under more hospitable conditions. These creeping metaphors.
I’ve absolutely adored some of what Jo Walton has written, but after the disappointment of MY REAL CHILDREN, I approached THE JUST CITY with trepidation. And while it had originality and humour, and much of its middle section was ambitious and absorbing, I found the denouement – and its implications about the central conflict of the story – a huge letdown. I thought there were immensely interesting conflicts being layered through the key characters – the three viewpoint characters as well as the incipient antagonists, Kebes and Ikaros – but those did not ultimately mature, and in fact Kebes was transformed, unjustly and wastefully into a kind of bathetic caricature of male possessiveness and destructive vengefulness. (Like Gale Hawthorne in THE HUNGER GAMES with all unsympathetic characteristics dialled up to eleven.) There seemed to be so much promise for the carefully laid booby traps for the city (the slave children, the workers, the Noble Lie) to unfold organically and ensnare it in its own logic; but instead it all detonated on the single trigger of Sokrates’ revelations, which arose as abruptly as some gloating villain monologue, and indeed relied on Athene unaccountably (after several hundred pages of barely-there development) assuming that kind of inscrutably villainous role.
I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend Balli Kaur Jaswal’s SUGARBREAD, which I had the very greatly privilege of reading as an advance review copy, and of blurbing. (Thusly: “SUGARBREAD is a warm and wry portrait of childhood, in all its intensity and its confusions, and a deeply satisfying exploration of prejudice, conscience, loyalty and reconciliation.”)
This morning I finished reading JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson of the US-based Equal Justice Initiative. It’s a book that enlarges the reader, for sure. I didn’t know there were so many ways for my heart to break. Part of me wants to buy a copy for every school library in Singapore.
It’s not that I didn’t know, before, how dreadful the death penalty and the US penal system are, or how awful race relations are in that strange and yet strangely familiar land. I used to work at a prison reform organisation, so many of the issues are not new to me (something which made it hard for me to fully appreciate, say, THE NEW JIM CROW as a fresher reader might). But in the warmth of Stevenson’s stories, the directness of their no-nonsense telling, rather than academic or forensic education there is… transformative human connection. I’m botching this sell. Just read it yourself.
(I actually had the opportunity to very briefly meet Stevenson in the outfit I used to work for. I had at the time only a much sketchier concept of why he matters so much. I wish I’d been more informed of what a great honour I was enjoying.)