Geek-gasm: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe

on Monday, November 29, 2010
Hoorah for the nerds!

My end of year reading slump is over and it is all thanks to the most outlandishly geektastic novel I think I've ever read. Imagine The Big Bang Theory scripted by the love child of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (which, in this book's universe isn't altogether impossible) and you might get just a smidgeon of a sense of Charles Yu's debut novel, How To Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe.

Set in Minor Universe 31, which is an awful lot like our universe except that the laws of physics were only 93% installed (the universe is a program, geddit??), it follows the absurd, mind-bending loops in space and time of one Charles Yu (got to love this current trend of naming one's protagonist after oneself), Time Machine Repairman and nostalgic loser. Most of his friends exist either as hypotheses or computer programs, except for his parents, who probably did exist at some point and his future self, who is destined to kill him, ad infinitum. How To Live Safely... is absolutely riotous, even for those of us who flunked tenth grade science and don't understand the first thing about physics. The techno stuff is just brilliant, especially given that Yu made the majority of it up, but the real paradoxes he confronts are handled so lightly that the grognards out there can be eased into the vortex. Even I, whose entire left side of the brain is non-functional, found myself pondering the nature of time loops and multiverses.

Those of you who I have managed to scare off thus far should crawl, nay sprint, back without caution. For what makes this book really shoot beyond the stratosphere (sorry, this nerd thing is infectious) is its tender exploration of a child's need to live up to the expectation of his parents. At heart, How to Live Safely... is about the ever changing nature of the relationship between father and son, particularly as the son attains adulthood and comes to understand his father as a man rather than a god. Yu's recognition and ultimate forgiving of his father's failings has a universal resonance beyond the laughs and scientific gimmickry that permeate the rest of the novel.

The fact that I have chosen to review this, after having eschewed the proper 'review' on this blog for so long ought to tell you something. But if you still need it spelled out, here you go. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, whether you are the sort of person who hangs out in comic shops fantasising about banging a Martian babe, or a lover of deep, lyrical yet funny literature. Or anything in between. Or either side. Whatever. Just read it!

Meanwhile, I'm off to find where I put my Pocket Hadron Super Collider...

Reality Hunger? No Thanks... I'm Full!

on Tuesday, November 23, 2010
A strange thing has begun happening on my bedside table. Other than the discovery of food scraps of unknown origin or age and the attendant biological bi-products thereof, I have noticed another possibly unwelcome fungus intruding on my book pile. Somehow, and I really can't account for this, there seem to a number of... I can barely bring myself to say it... non-fiction books creeping their way in.

At first I didn't pay them any heed. Patti Smith's Just Kids seemed a decent addition to any respectable library. Next came two of my favourite African writers' memoirs - Andre Brink's A Fork In The Road and Chinua Achebe's Education of A British Protected Child. Three non-fiction titles by my bed? Something was indeed afoot and, before I could say eukaryotic outbreak of epidemic proportions, two cultural figures whom I greatly revere, albeit on opposite ends of the spectrum, released books. First came Keith Richards with his widely-acclaimed Life, followed closely by The Box, the next work in Gunther Grass's autobiographical series.

It was all getting rather ominous. Something had to be done. I quickly rushed out and bought some more novels and piled them on top of the non-fiction works, most of whose spines I had turned to face the wall anyway. But any inkling I might have had that the tide had been successfully stemmed was shot to Hell when my brother gave me Blood Lands by Timothy Snyder, a book about Europe under the twin menace of Hitler and Stalin which might just prove invaluable in my own work. So what am I to do? I have already read one book of non-fiction this year (this of course depends on how you choose define the biblical texts), which is one more than I usually attempt. Do I finally give in and allow the levee to break? Dare I try becoming a more well-rounded person? Damn them all! Reality, as they say, is for those who can't handle novels (well, they actually say drugs, but grant me the liberty to paraphrase here). Or do I have before me the ultimate year-ending challenge? Ah, what the heck. It's gotta be better than Twilight!

Reading Rehab...

on Monday, November 15, 2010
2010 has turned out to be a rather slack year in terms of reading for me. Only a month and a half to go and I've only managed to get through 140 books thus far. I'll be lucky to hit 160 by New Year's Eve. There have been some pretty good ones along the way - Elizabeth Catton's The Rehearsal, Dan Rhodes's Little Hands Clapping, Philip Roth's Nemesis, Tom McCarthy's C and Fernando Pessoa's Education of a Stoic spring to mind - but nothing has absolutely blown me away since I read Philippe Claudel's incredible Brodeck's Report in January.

Now it seems an end of year malaise has well and truly set in. The new Auster (nice character sketches, where was the novel?) and Krauss (same rabbit, different hat, less spectacular the second time round) left me feeling luke warm, and even Rebecca Hunt's much-hyped "magical realist" novel about depression, Mr. Chartwell failed to really deliver. So I need a new hit. Badly. I am cruising towards book 150 and I want to be absolutely bowled over. Are there any books left in this world that I have not yet read that are capable of giving me that literary jolt? Or have I inadvertently subjected myself to years of aversion therapy by reading so incessantly? Anyone out there got a suggestion? Please...

Ban this Blog!

on Thursday, November 11, 2010
In my recent slackness, I managed to miss Banned Books Week by more than a month. Shame on me. Shout as I do from rooftops about the importance of literary culture, it seems I'm actually the sort who would stand by in silence while books get thrown into the bonfire. But don't come goose stepping to my door with a bag of marshmallows just yet. A recent episode at my old high school has given me the opportunity to wax lyrical on the subject. Better late than never!

As some people in Melbourne may know, Rabbi Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus College refused to allow Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati to be stocked in the school library because it paints Jewish orthodoxy in a rather unflattering light and essentially encourages people to turn away from religious observance. Oy gevalt! In his own words, Kennard argues that "Dancing in the Dark, a polemic which gives an inaccurate, one-sided and fanatically negative presentation of Jewish life, with a clear agenda of disengaging young Jews from Judaism, is not a book that is appropriate, in my judgement, to be in the library of a Jewish school." A rather extreme interpretation of Bavati's story or thesis, but he is entitled to his opinion.

The move, however, seems to have backfired. By shining the spotlight on the novel in this way, Rabbi Kennard ensured that pretty much every kid, including the ones who never read, would go out and buy it. Um... Mazal Tov? Needless to say, sales of the book have skyrocketed. Personally, I have never understood the rationale for banning books. That kind of crap doesn't even fly in fascist states. For every edict silencing an author, there is a samizdat distribution network to give them back their voice. Not that Bavati needed underground support. Dancing In The Dark is freely available from any local bookstore. Don't get me wrong. I understand why some books might not reach the shelves of a school library - hardcore pornography, graphic depictions of violence, propagation of hate thought... If kids really want that sort of stuff, they shouldn't be getting it from the library. They should be hitting up their school computer labs! Or downloading it to their iPhones and showing it to each other at the back of the playground.

Now, here's the weird thing. I'm usually a big fan of Rabbi Kennard. He's a great guy, very learned, a fantastic administrator and, from all reports, an inspirational educator. Indeed, I credit him with almost single-handedly saving the school from its previous decline. Which is why I'm so dismayed that he has gone down this path. He claims his actions did not amount to a 'ban' as such, but that is really a semantic argument. A rose by any other name still makes me sneeze in Spring. If the school takes issue with the viewpoint expressed in Bavati's book, then encourage the kids to read it and discuss it in an environment that promotes free, critical thought. Isn't that the very essence of education? Banning the book was an unfortunate misstep that I hope Rabbi Kennard will see fit to rectify.

Oh, and as an aside, I find it rather amusing that Robyn Bavati can now hold her book up alongside such esteemed classics as Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (a personal favourite of mine), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and that bastion of out and out depravity, Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants. I'm guessing Ms. Bavati won't be donating any of her royalties to the Mount Scopus College Annual Appeal... though she might want to flick a few bucks Kennard's way for the publicity!

The November Non-Challenge: Books I'm Reading Instead of The Books That Changed The World

on Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Way back in January, when I was plotting out monthly challenges, I had intended The Books That Changed The World to immediately follow Books For Blasphemers. I wanted to wade through all the major works that have helped shape this crazy world we live in. For better or for worse. In the list I had J. S. Mill's On Liberty, Marx's The Communist Manifesto, Mao's Little Red Book, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Darwin's Origin of The Species, Hitler's Mein Kampf and Greer's The Female Eunuch. I had yet to decide on a poetic form with which to review them, my two favourites having been taken up by the Biblical texts (limerick) and the Books I Swore I'd Never Read (haiku). Perhaps a few sonnets were in order. Then it occurred to me. Hadn't I suffered enough for your entertainment? I read Eat Pray Love for fuck's sake! Plus, did I really want to go out and buy Hitler's paranoid rantings? I'd be too ashamed to do it in person, even more so than that time I bought The Celestine Prophecy. Or Twilight. Ordering it online would put me on some CIA watch list. Again. I get arrested at airports enough as it is. While I was being consumed by existential kvetching, the pile of books I was excited to read continued to grow, and I came to realise that I needed to abandon the whole challenge approach altogether. And so I bring you a very loose theme for November, Books I'm Reading Instead of The Books That Changed The World. Yeah, it's wordy but I like the sound of it. I've already knocked over the new Auster and Krauss novels (more to come on them soon). Don Quixote straddled the October/November divide. I'm about to start the new Bernhard Schlink. And any day now I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi, which I am very chuffed to see is back in print, shall find its way to my mailbox. I haven't decided what else will make the list this month but hey, I like to live dangerously. In a room. In the corner. With a book.