There’s a programme on BBC Radio 4, the station which proverbially over-fortifies the over-forties, called A Good Read. In it, the presenter and two guests each introduce a book they’ve read recently, and discuss them. The books are usually fiction, but they do manage an eclectic mix, and I find it a great way to learn about books and authors of whom rumour has yet to reach mes oreilles. The following post is rather like that, except that I get to introduce all three books. Hah! The eclecticism is, however, maintained – indeed, I decided to write this post having just read three books, each one excellent, but each very different from the other.
My copy of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a novel by Marina Lewycka, had been on our shelves for a long while, Mrs Crox having bought it ages ago as part of bookstore three-for-two offer. I had been persuaded to read it for want of something to while away the hours on the train, and by my colleague Dr R. D. of Hertfordshire, who had found it amusing.
It is indeed billed as a comedy, and perhaps it is – I found it much darker than the blurb promised. The protagonist is a sociology lecturer (and prototypical Guardian reader) whose mother has just died, leaving bereft their 86-year-old father who is on the point of senility. She (the Guardian reader, that is) is immediately locked in battle with her hard-as-nails, Thatcherite sister, ten years her senior, over what to do with their mother’s legacy. But there’s a more immediate threat – the father is courting and seems to be about to marry Valentina, a 36-year-old immigrant from the Ukraine, whose hair and embonpoint are as fake as her reasons for being in the UK. Why the Ukraine? The entire family, you see, is a postwar immigrant from that country. The protagonist had been born in the UK, but her elder sister grew up in the dregs of war-torn Europe – explaining their political differences. I won’t tell you what happens, but glimpsed between the comedic elements are disturbing panoramas of a family trying to keep itself together amid the wrenching social upheavals of the twentieth century. When you leave the book, it is the upheaval that remains. Bittersweet and thought-provoking.
I had been sent Timeswitch by John Gribbin by the author himself, and devoured it in a few large gulps. Gribbin is best known for his prodigious output of popular science books (his book In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat finally put me straight about the Double-Slit Experiment), but he has written SF in the past. Timeswitch is a return to the genre. It’s good old-fashioned, straight-down-the-line, Hard SF in the tradition of Arthur C. Clarke or Gregory Benford. It concerns scientists and science, time travel and time paradoxes, and the hardcore physics is front and centre. The schtick is this – British boffinry in the twentieth century is involved in a secret time-travel experiment in which one of their number goes back in time in an effort the derail the Industrial Revolution. The idea is to slow or prevent greenhouse warming. It soon becomes clear that we’re not talking about any twentieth century we know – this is an alternate Universe in which Harold won the Battle of Hastings, the British Empire rules, and science is far in advance of ours.
Alternative History is a respectable subgenre in SF, and one of which I am rather fond. One of my favourites is The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, an adventure that takes place in 1976 in an England in which the Reformation never happened. As you might expect, Amis scores in literary allusion where Gribbin rules in solid physics – and although you can see the endings of both books a mile off, the plotting is excellent. Particularly so in Gribbin’s book, where it’s tighter than a Liverpudlian Z-lister on daytime TV. The plotting has to be tight – loose ends in time-travel heists are liable to come back and bite you like a bull-terrier named Möbius. Alternative history has begun to leak through into real history – historians no longer see history in terms of single and therefore inevitable outcomes, but study what might-have-been. A useful compendium of this kind of history is Virtual History, edited by Niall Ferguson, and I’d also recommend The Shaping Of America in which A. L. Meinig presents a detailed view of the growth of the United States that gets away from the old Manifest Destiny view.
Now, I am rather keen on ScrabbleTM, and this is the subject of my final selection, Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. The author writes about the business of sport for the Wall Street Journal, and this is his drama-documentary, if you like, of two years spent in the wacky world of competitive ScrabbleTM in the U. S. and A., where they do things differently from what they do here. As Fatsis tells us about the variously obsessive and dysfunctional experts in the game – when interviews progress to living and traveling with them and sharing their highs and lows – he gives us a detailed breakdown of the game’s history, and the tortured relationship between the geekery of scrabbledom and the toy-company executives for whom ScrabbleTM is just another product line.
But as Fatsis is sucked into the obsession himself, the book becomes less a documentary and more a personal odyssey. This is very much the confessional-style of American journalistic writing, in which the supposedly neutral journalistic observer becomes part of the story. This can work very well indeed (a recent success was Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I enjoyed immensely) but one can understand how some readers might find this uncomfortable, as documentary drifts into drama. What, then, is one supposed to be reading? What messages should one take away from such treatments? In my view, the way a story is told matters less than whether the story itself is good. Skloot’s was, indeed, a great story that needed to be told. Fatsis’ is less so, not because the book is less well-written (it’s superb), but because the topic is less likely to have the same broad appeal. If you aren’t a scrabbler, I wonder how much you’d take away from this book, with its knife-edge play-by-play commentaries and detailed discussions of such arcana as rack management and anagramming. If, however, you are a devotee of ScrabbleTM, you’re bound to like it. It’s certainly improved my game.