Articles about novels

The Mind-Body Problem — Rebecca Goldstein

If you don’t already know a lot about the history of philosophy, you will by the time you’ve finished this book. If you do, then you’ll recognise a lot of it. like Goldstein’s more recent 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, this book is full of philosophy, Jewish culture and academia. But there’s also quite a lot of sex. Or at least lots of musing about sex.

I find it pretty ingenious how Goldstein manages to incorporate so many concepts from philosophy explicitly into this story of a young woman academic’s love life. She explains the ideas succinctly either through the characters or direct to the reader, and makes them all relevant and apposite. This would actually be a great book to read as you embark on a course in philosophy.

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The Long Earth — Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Like a lot of great SF, this starts with just one single premise. What if we suddenly discovered an unlimited number of pristine Earths, and we could all travel between them at the flick of a switch?

One day, a blueprint for a very simple electrical device appears on the Internet. Thousands of people build one of these little boxes, flick the switch — and disappear. They’ve “stepped” to an alternative Earth, untouched by humans. From there they can go back or continue on to a multitude of more-or-less parallel Earths. The story follows a number of characters through the massive social changes that follow on from this: suddenly there are endless frontiers, on pristine worlds where environmental degradation and climate change are irrelevant. There is also a lot of sci-fi adventure as people explore millions of the alternative Earths, some of which are very different — essentially alien worlds. And they don’t just stop there — the third book in the series is called The Long Mars.

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Demian — Hermann Hesse

Demian is very mysterious and alluring. This book is about him and his influence on the narrator — they first meet when they are both schoolboys. Demian then turns up repeatedly as the years go by, gradually taking the narrator into a circle of freethinking misfits. It’s less fanciful than the other Hesse novels I have read, but still packs a bit of a punch.

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Zeustian Logic — Sabrina Malcolm

This story is more fun than you would think, given that it is about a teenage boy coming to terms with his father’s death. Astronomy and mythology are two of Tuttle’s boyish hobbies; they run like threads through the stories he tells his younger brother and the conversations he has with his friend, and also play a big part in the novel’s resolution. His father, a famous mountaineer, disappeared in controversial circumstances which made his loss even harder for his family to deal with. The repercussions continue even a year later, when the novel is set.

Apart from dealing with his father’s death, he also has to deal with his mother and brother, who are struggling in their own way to manage. And of course he also has to negotiate the usual teenage issues; mostly school, and also the juvenile delinquent petrolhead who lives next door (along with his cute half-sister — it’s not all bad).

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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — Jules Verne

It’s good to finally read this famous book, starring the famous Captain Nemo and his famous ship the Nautilus, and discover that its fame is well-deserved: it’s a page-turning adventure story with drama, intrigue and nifty gadgets.

The narrator, a maritime expert, joins an expedition and eventually ends up aboard the Nautilus with couple of his companions. In a series of episodes we find out about the ship, a little about the captain, and a lot about various going-on under the sea. Verne puts a lot of really interesting and generally plausible ideas into the story, which is impressive for a speculative fiction written nearly 150 years ago. I have always wondered about the title though: I always thought that it referred to a depth of 20,000 leagues, but then I discovered that 20,000 leagues is about 100,000km, ten times deeper than any ocean. I now realise that it’s simply the distance travelled while under the sea — they circumnavigate the globe underwater, following a very meandering path.

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Owls Do Cry — Janet Frame

This is deservedly one of the classic New Zealand novels. When I returned it to the library, the librarian eagerly asked me how it was. I said it was really good — a novel version of Frame’s short stories. The shifting viewpoints give a broad understanding of the characters and events, and the impressionistic first-person narrative really made me feel what it must be like for the main character, living a life very different to mine. Bad things happen to her, but there are also many marvellous moments of beauty:
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End as a Man — Calder Willingham

Jim Flynn put this book in his top 5 novels list, so I grabbed it when I found a copy recently. He said it was the greatest novel portraying contemporary American college life. “Contemporary” in this case means circa 1950, and it is actually set in a military college, so it’s presumably a bit different from a civilian college like Harvard or whatever. It does seem a bit bizarre, with the ubiquitous corporal punishment and merciless bullying of first-years by older students who are still just out of their teens. I don’t know whether this weirdness is due to being 60 years ago, being American, being a military school, or being a work of fiction. I suppose it’s all four, but I do get the impression that the general features of the books’s college life are based on fact. Holy cow, what a hell-hole it must have been.

So the characters end up in various unedifying situations, usually of their own making, and we see them as they deal with things, usually badly. It becomes apparent that the novel mostly concerns the misfits and bad hats of the academy, which explains a lot about the dramas that befall them. The book ends with a couple of eloquent and very different speeches, and closes with just deserts all round.

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Dept. of Speculation — Jenny Offill

This small but perfectly-formed book is a simple story of girl meets boy and all the usual things that follow. But it’s told in an unusual way so that I sometimes felt as if I was inside the main character.

The viewpoint changes around a bit, and the tone varies from personal to almost clinical at times. But even so, there is so much insight here, like this heart-rending evocation of the isolation of a new mother whose partner is away during the day:

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I love reading philosophy, and I love reading novels. So this philosophical novel is right in my sweet spot. I have read some of Goldstein’s non-fiction, but after reading this fun and thoughtful book I want to search out her other work.

It’s a story about Cass Seltzer, an academic whose life changes when he publishes a book about the psychology of religion. The catalyst is the book’s appendix, which contains the titular 36 arguments along with commentary and rebuttals. That appendix makes him into a superstar — he gains fame, notoriety even, and an academic superstar girlfriend. The novel covers his career from the beginning, through his fame, and more.

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The Anthologist — Nicholson Baker

This is a fascinating book about poetry, disguised as a wry and humorous story about a poet with writers’ block. It’s like two books in one!

The protagonist is a likeable everyman. Well not really an everyman — he’s a poet and academic rather than just a regular Joe. But he’s definitely likeable in the way that Nicholson Baker’s characters often are. (I feel that Baker’s protagonists tend to be versions of himself, even though I don’t at all know what he’s like in real life. I presume he is likeable.)

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