Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Foundation

So, having just finished Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov for my bookgroup, I thought I would revisit the Foundation books that I read probably 40 years ago. I would say I was not as taken with it as I remember being when I was a young adult, but this book was certainly interesting enough to keep me engaged. In Foundation, which was originally the first of the series, Hari Seldon has caused unrest in the Empire with his predictions of imperial decline and is brought to trial and exiled to the planet Terminus, at the far end of the universe. He is allowed to take his group of experts, who are also working on psychohistory, with him and they become The Foundation, whose ostensible goal is to record all the known history of the Empire. We jump a few decades ahead and Seldon is now dead, and The Empire has indeed fallen. The universe has devolved into smaller fiefdoms that are ruled by military might. Technology has disappeared from most of the planets of the former Empire  but has been maintained on Terminus (notably atomic power), which has largely remained unaccosted due to its technological superiority. Seldon is set to reappear holographically 50 years after his death and his predictions about the future are anxiously anticipated. What everyone learns is that The Foundation's purpose is a sham but a necessary one in order to move the universe forward through chaotic times as expeditiously as possible. We are introduced to a series of storylines and characters who have been trained by or have enough knowledge of the Foundation to recognize the pivotal crises in Seldon's predictions and keep everything on track, notably Salvor Hardin, a mayor on Terminus, and Hober Mallow, a cunning trader. The ending makes it clear that it is not an ending at all, but just a pause in the progression of Seldon's predictions.

Prelude to Foundation

Although this book by Isaac Asimov was written after completion of the original "Foundation series," the chronology of the stories would put this one first. I had never read this one and do feel it provides some excellent background to the award-winning series.
We meet Hari Seldon for the first time and come to understand the evolution of his thinking as the originator of psychohistory, which can predict the future. Hari, a talented mathematician, comes from a minor planet to give a paper on the theoretical proof for psychohistory at a conference on the Empire's capital planet of Trantor. Needless to say, even though his idea is still in the theoretical stage, many people would be most interested in being able to predict the future, including the Emperor.  Seldom sincerely replies that psychohistory is not practical or do-able at this point in time and is summarily dismissed to return home. But before he can leave the Trantor, he is approached while eating lunch in a park by a friendly stranger, Chetter Hummin, who warns Hari that the Emperor will not let him go so easily. When Hari is attacked by a couple of thugs, he begins to believe the threat is real and accepts  Chetter's offer to relocate him someplace safe while he continues to work on his theory. So Hari and Dors, a female historian from the university on Trantor who has been assigned by Chetter to bodyguard Hari, get moved around several times. Hari remains convinced of the impossibility of actualizing psychohistory without written records, but Chetter is equally convincing that without it, the declining Empire will soon disintegrate into Chaos for millennia. Based on historical research, Hari then decides that, if, as certain myths contend, some nearly human robots did exist at an earlier time, and if he can find one, the robot might contain enough data about civilizations and events for Hari to implement his predictive theory. In his search for a robot, Hari is continually getting into trouble with unfamiliar cultures, species, and customs and always getting rescued by either Dors or Chetter. Eventually, Hari finds a robot, but the real solution to his dilemma is his dawning realization that the complex social diversity on Trantor is enough of a foundation for him to move ahead with making psychohistory viable.
Although this book was really great for setting the context of the Foundation series, it was not a particularly compelling novel. Nobody can fault Asimov when it comes to brilliant forward thinking ideas, but the characters are not well developed enough to really make them likeable or detestable, and there is really very little plot. There is, however, a pretty nifty surprise ending.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturn Run

John Sandford, a prolific author of thrillers, here joins force with Ctein, "photographic craftsman," physicist, and science fiction thinker/writer, to create a science fiction thriller based on the device of earth's humans making first contact with alien beings. When a seemingly ne'er-do-well rich kid working at an astronomy lab notices clear evidence of a space ship landing and then departing from the rings of Saturn, the race by earth's major powers is on. China has already planned a manned launch to Mars but now is scurrying to reconfigure their ship and crew for the longer journey to Saturn. Under orders from a take-no-prisoners President, the U.S. is frantically trying to remake their space station into a ship that can travel to Saturn and get there before the Chinese. Both sides recognize that not only is there tremendous risk involved with the trip and with first contact, but also there is the potential to gain technological knowledge that is decades, if not centuries, ahead of our own. The cast of characters aboard the U.S. Richard M. Nixon will become real people and their challenges will both convince and engage the reader. There is a good chance that the failure of one of the two innovative power plants on the Nixon is the result of sabotage and that likely means a spy is on board. Recent news about the discovery of a whole system of exo-planets makes the belief that we are not alone in the universe ever more likely. What the crew finds when they arrive at Saturn's rings is unexpected.
The authors offer an Afterword that will discuss the scientific work invested in creating a realistic and believable set of technologies for the late 2060's timeframe of the novel. Well worth the read if you are a fan of sci fi.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses

This is book #7 in Catriona McPherson's "Dandy Gilver" series of cosy Scottish mysteries -- there are 11 so far. Mrs. Dandy Gilver (nee Dandelion Dahlia Leston) is the mother of two growing boys and wife of husband Hugh Gilver, who is less than enthusiastic about her chosen profession as a detective. Nevertheless he holds down the fort when Dandy and sleuthing partner Alec Osborne must travel for their work. This time they head to Portpatrick, on the coast of Scotland to track down the youngest Lipscott sister, Fleur, at the request of the two older sisters. When Dandy was 18, she spent an idyllic summer at the Lipscott country manor and feels a sense of obligation to the family. Supposedly, Fleur is working as a schoolmistress at St. Columba's College for Young Ladies. Dandy goes undercover as Miss Gilver, English mistress, and finds that Fleur is not happy to see her, that several other school mistresses have inexplicably disappeared from the school in recent months, and that the current head mistress has some very odd priorities for running the school. Meanwhile, Alec has taken on a case of his own in town, agreeing to find the missing wife of a local shopkeeper. Not surprisingly, their cases will collide. When a woman is washed up on the town's beach, nearly unidentifiable after days in the water, Alec wonders if it's the missing wife, and Dandy fears it may be the latest missing school mistress. Set in the 1920's, the book is full of detailed settings, well-developed characters, and a twisty plot. At the end we learn the reason for Fleur's bizarre behavior, restore her to her family, find out what the devious head mistress of St. Columba's has been up to, and catch the murderer. I will certainly seek out other books in the series and perhaps also some of McPherson's stand alone novels, which sound intriguing. Just for fun, you can visit the Gilver estate online, and learn some background about the characters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Warmth of the Heart Prevents your Body from Rusting

French psychologist Marie de Hennezel has written several books on aging that have been translated into English.
I honestly did not much care for this book although she had a lot of good things to say, many of which are excerpted here in an article from The Mail Online (British newspaper). There is also a good interview with de Hennezel in the Huffington Post about her book The Art of Growing Old that is worth reading. There are excerpts from several reviews here, all of which are quite positive. Maybe I was just in a grumpy mood, or maybe it was her frequent reference to ugly bodies of the aged... Apparently de Hennezel has written 10 books and is a household name in France where she leads the charge on re-examining our views on aging.

At Seventy: A Journal

Born Eleanore Marie Sarton in Belgium, May Sarton (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995) was a prolific (over 50 books) American poet, novelist, and memoirist. She is often associated with Lesbian literature and widely read in Women's Studies, because she was one of the first women writers to focus on love between women and then to come out herself, after her parents' death, in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. She preferred to be thought of as a writer who explored the universal aspects of love and life, however. For 13 years Sarton had a partner, Judy Matlack,  and in this journal written during her 70th year, she often refers to that love. It was during the course of writing this book that Sarton learned of Judy's death, although apparently Judy had been in a home with dementia for quite some time.
What struck me most about this journal was the amazing pace of activity she sustained. Between friends and admirers coming to stay a few days or just share a meal, and her packed schedule of appearances to do readings all across the country, she struggled to find quiet time to write. She carried on avoluminous correspondence, often responding to 25 or more letters a day. She stayed in touch with distant friends by phone as well. She was a passionate gardener, and worked in the garden almost every day, weather permitting. This is even more remarkable given that  she lived in York, Maine, the last decade or so of her life. Some notable quotes follow:
"I do not feel old at all, not as much a survivor as a person still on her way. I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring." (p. 10)
When someone asked her at a reading why it was good to be old, she responded, "This is the best time of my life. I love being old...Because I am more myself than I have ever been."
"One thing is certain...the joys of my life have nothing to do with age...Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence the goldfinches daring about..." (p. 17)
"I am far better able to cope at seventy than I was at fifty. I that is partly because I have learned to glide instead of to force myself at moments of tension...(p. 37)
"I live more completely in the moment these days, am not as anxious about the future, and am far more detached from the areas of pain, the loss of love, the struggle to get the work completed, the fear of death. I have less guilt because there is less anger." (p. 37)
"A face without lines that shows no mark of what has been lived through in a long life suggests something unlived, empty...Still one mourns one's young face sometimes...At the same time, I felt that my face is better now, and ...That is because I am a far more complete and richer person than I was at twenty-five...Now I wear the inside person outside and am more comfortable with myself...I do not have to pretend." (p. 61)
"...it is possible to keep the genius of youth into old age, the curiosity, the intense interst in everything from a bird,to a book to a dog..."(p.76)
"The autumn of life is also a matter of saying farewell, but the strange thing is that I do not feel it is autumn. Life is so rich and full these day. There is so much to look forward to, so much here and now, and also ahead..." (p. 161)
"But the discipline this time must be...to make every effort to live in eternity's light, not in time. If I begin to think of how little time we shall have...panic sets in...To live in eternity means to live in the moment, the moment unalloyed--to allow feeling to the limit of what can be felt, to hold nothing back..."(p. 190)
"These mornings when I brush my hair before going down to get breakfast I have to face wrinkles, the first sign of old age. It's not easy to accept, but I remind myself that they do not really diminish the beauty of an old face." (p. 306)
There are, of course, lots of biographies of Sarton. I found a couple of short ones online that were informative. This one from the Unitarian Universalist church, and this one from The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life


Friday, February 10, 2017

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty


This memoir by Carolyn G. Heilbrun was written 20 years ago and that was when I read it for the first time. I loved it then and so, when my book group agreed to have a thematic meeting on aging gracefully, I immediately thought of re-reading this book. Strangely enough, it did not resonate with me this time around to the same extent, even though I am now the age she was when she wrote it. Still, it is a lovely book with some great insights, and she is such a good writer that it is a pleasure to read.
The passages that spoke to me were often not about aging per se, but about the world in general, and it is staggering how pertinent to our present times her observations were:
"My sixties covered a period of pronounced meanness in the United States and in the world, meanness arising from a sense of righteousness and the need to punish, preferably with violence, those who do not share one's beliefs. For the first time in my life, I became fearful of institutionalized religion...I became awakened, sadly, to policies determined to transpose the symptoms of our societal failures into its causes: the poor, that is, were to be blamed for the failures of a mean-spirited nation that condemned them to poverty...What might be called political sadness arises...as an indirect response to organized and publicly condoned selfishness and revenge..."
And this on reading:
"True sadness which is not nostalgia can...be dispelled by reading...Lifelong readers continue to read, finding in books...the means to enjoy life or to endure it."
She does indeed talk about aging and quotes (indirectly) from Montaigne on the subject:
"Above all, now that I feel my life to be brief in time, do I seek to extend it in weight. I try to delay the velocity of its flight by the velocity with which I grasp it; and to compensate for the speed of its collapse by the zest which I throw into it. The shorter my hold on life, the deeper and fuller do I seek to rend it. Others feel the sweetness of contentment and well-being; I feel it just as much as they do, but not by letting it just slip away."
She also talks about outliving our time, when there is no further point in continuing. She had given herself permission to commit suicide at the age of 70 but now says, "I find it powerfully reassuring now to think of life as borrowed time. Each day one can say to oneself: I can always die; do I choose death or life? I daily choose life the more earnesly becasue it is a choice."  She goes on to caution against "...indifference's seduction; however often apathy assaults me in these last decades, I know it to be dangerous."
She, like others I have read on the subject, encourages focus on the present, eschewing time spent on memories. "Every time those of us in our last decades allow a memory to occur, we forget to look at what is in front of us." Among other things, she writes chapters on downsizing, her love of all things English, on not wearing dresses, on sadness, on listening to the young(er), on family and husbands, on sex and romance, and on technology. Here is a review from The New York Times, and a collection of quotes from the book in GoodReads. Well worth the read.
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, born in 1926, was an academic at Columbia University and the first woman to receive tenure there in the English department. She was a prolific author of academic and non-fiction works on topics often related to feminism. Under her pen name, Amanda Cross, she also wrote a series of mysteries with a woman professor as the protagonist. She committed suicide in 2003.  There is a fabulous obituary in the New York Times, and an interview with her in the New York Times Magazine a decade before she died. There is a list of her books and more information about her also in this article from Wikipedia.