‘Rendezvous with Rama’ by Arthur C. Clarke

Considering my abiding love of all science fiction, I’m honestly surprised that I’ve only now gotten around to Arthur C. Clarke. Having read many of the greats from that Golden Age (Bradbury and Heinlein remain firm favorites), I decided to get my latest fix satisfied with Rendezvous with Rama. Released in 1973, this book has been celebrated as one of Clarke’s best, having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. While I wouldn’t rate it as one of my all-time favorites, I did find lots to enjoy as Clarke did an excellent job of building suspense in this novel of first contact.

My groovy cover of Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke; Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

During the late 21st Century, scientists have developed Spaceguard, a long-range security system for the detection of asteroids or comets that could collide with Earth. In the year 2131, a large object is detected that is thought to be a possible asteroid. Upon closer inspection, the object is discovered to be unnatural in origin. A large metal cylinder miles long is traveling at such an incredible speed that only one ship is close enough to intercept it. Christened with the name Rama, the crew of the spaceship Endeavour is charged with exploring the interior of the mysterious object.

Rendezvous with Rama often feels as though it is a product of two different waves within the sci-fi genre. Published in the 1970’s, the New Wave had already arrived, yet Clarke’s writing is firmly grounded in the Golden Age of the 50’s and 60’s. While I was impressed with his grasp of physics and astronomy, I found his characterizations a bit lacking. Outside of a couple of characters, most are identifiable only from their profession (astronomer, doctor, etc.). Commander Norton actually gets the most development, which I still considered to be minimal. The prose is quite straightforward, definitely much removed from the poetic words of writers such as Bradbury. While there are some interesting discussions on the religious meanings of these events, Clarke keeps this work mostly rational. I would even go so far to say that there isn’t necessarily a plot in this novel, but an interconnected series of observations as the crew explore the vast cities of Rama and overcome several technical problems. Clarke’s grasp of the environmental complications within such a structure, complete with a frozen crystalline lake, is quite impressive. While this book goes quite heavy on the science aspect, Clarke does keep it all in layman’s terms so I didn’t feel lost at any point in my reading.

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Thank you for not blinding me with……

Rendezvous with Rama is a quintessential “let’s go explore this big dumb object” novel. It excels at achieving a sense of wonder in the reader, and as more of the interior is revealed, I found myself wanting so much more. The descriptions of Rama, aided by the clarity of the prose, kept me reading. The design of the metal cities with their strange inhabitants is quite meticulous. The sheer scale of the object is described in a way to make the reader feel insignificant, so despite being a short work, it feels epic. In fact, Rendezvous with Rama is probably the only novel I’ve ever read that gave me a sense of vertigo.

“….an element of total uncertainty had entered human affairs, and uncertainty was one thing that neither scientists nor politicians could tolerate.”

The novel is also humbling as it weaves a classic storyline of just how dangerous humanity can be. There is much debate on whether or not Rama should be destroyed, just in case there are undisclosed hostile intentions. However, Rama never appears interested in humanity, making no attempts at communication. It continues its journey around the sun and moves on. After being the center of the universe throughout history, humans are reduced to a footnote, a disruption to an already inflated ego. While they can investigate and hypothesize, they cannot match Rama’s feats of engineering. Thus, Clarke explores a fallibility of mankind: destroy what is not understood. In this future, the United Nations has now expanded to cover multiple worlds. While there are fewer representatives (one for each world), bickering and disagreement run rampant. Some things never change. Commander Norton and his crew, on the other hand, represent the best of humanity, making the decision to preserve and better understand this mysterious structure. Some brief discussions are also held on humanity’s higher purpose as represented by this first contact.

I can definitely see this story being made into a big-budget film. The spectacular views Clarke offers, combined with today’s technology, could make this story into a visually spectacular movie. There’s been some discussion over the years, and I was surprised to learn this has been expanded into several books as well as a computer game in the style of Myst.

Arthur C. Clarke, Author Who Saw Science Fiction Become Real, Dies at 90 -  The New York Times
Arthur C. Clarke; Photo Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe

Rendezvous with Rama has its share of faults, with the lack of in-depth characterization being most prevalent. For readers that like to have all their questions answered neatly by the last page, I can tell you that doesn’t happen. I was left with far more questions than answers, which probably get answered in later installments of this series, which Clarke co-wrote with author Gentry Lee. The novel also has a scene that is quite sexist, where one of the characters muses on the lack of female space explorers due to the effects of lack of gravity on women’s breasts. Seriously? While classic science fiction typically is male-dominated, I was surprised by a half page exploration of “space boobs” in a novel published in 1973. That aspect of the earlier age should have been avoided. We really have come a long way.

Despite the problems in the writing, I overall enjoyed Rendezvous with Rama. As a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, the novel raises some interesting questions. I appreciated the religious undertones, and I would have loved to have seen those deeply philosophical questions addressed further. Part of me prefers there to be some mystery behind Rama, so I wasn’t upset necessarily with the ending, although it was quite abrupt. While a clear climax is lacking with characters that I’m not going to remember, I love the sense of wonder Clarke stirred in the majesty of the larger universe.

“With Rama, surprise was the only certainty.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

A New Classics Club Spin: Failure Is Not an Option (Updated)

Update 7/18/21: The Spin Number is 6, which means I will read Wilkie Collins for the first time!

Time for another spin! The last one did not go well, as The Brothers Karamazov once again remains unfinished. Hopefully, this spin will be a successful one. The idea is to select 20 random books from your Classics Club List and post them before Sunday, July 18. Then, a number will be chosen which reveals the title that must be read by August 22. Without further ado, here are my selections:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  3. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  4. Jayne Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  5. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  6. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  7. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  8. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  9. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  11. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  12. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  13. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  14. The Last Man by Mary Shelley
  15. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  16. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  17. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  18. Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

I’ll update this Sunday when the number is revealed. Failure is not an option!

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‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ by Ruth Hogan

I tend to struggle when it comes to choosing which books to bring along on vacation. After agonizing for what feels like an eternity, I end up hauling five or six with me, so that way I can have a much more manageable struggle once I arrive at my destination. Please tell me I’m not the only reader with this issue as I already have too many as it is (books AND issues). Ironically, Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things was an impulsive selection when I saw it collecting dust on my shelves. I remember purchasing it due to its intriguing premise and the lovely artwork on the front cover. This book turned out to be way different than my usual reading, but I think in this case that was a good thing as I found much to enjoy in this quite charming novel.

The Keeper of Lost Things (2017) by Ruth Hogan was the perfect vacation read; Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

As the keeper of lost things, short story writer Anthony Peardew has made it his life’s mission to collect lost objects with the hope of reuniting some of them with their owners. Forty years ago, Anthony lost a beloved keepsake given to him by his fiancée. Tragedy struck that same day when she died in a horrific accident. Brokenhearted and torn with guilt, Anthony sought redemption by rescuing lost objects, such as buttons, puzzle pieces, and a menagerie of other misplaced items, and cataloguing them in his study in the hopes that these missing treasures might someday find a way back to whoever lost them. This new obsession also helped his literary career, as he would write stories about these lost items. As Anthony approaches the end of his life and realizes that he is running out of time, he turns over the care of his home and collected treasures to his assistant Laura. In many ways, Laura is another of Anthony’s lost things. Recovering from a bad divorce, Laura struggles to put her own life back together when she becomes the new keeper of lost things.

“When he had started gathering lost things all those years ago, he hadn’t really had a plan. He just wanted to keep them safe in case one day they could be reunited with the people who had lost them. Over the years he has filled his drawers and shelves with fragments of other people’s lives, and somehow they had helped to mend his-so cruelly shattered-and make it whole again.”

Although Laura feels overwhelmed in her new undertaking as keeper, she is not without assistance. Shortly after taking on her new responsibilities, she befriends a teenage girl named Sunshine, who has a rather unique outlook on life. While Sunshine struggles to sometimes be understood, she does have a rather special ability of getting visions from the lost objects. She has also learned another new skill, making “the lovely cup of tea” as she always says. Another new friend is the handsome and kind Freddy, who works as the gardener on the estate. Laura is quite smitten with the young man, but she knows that it is just a dream, as he is way out of her league. Could romance be in the air?

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This story goes great with a nice cup of tea!

As a reader who is enamored with stories told within stories, I can appreciate how this book contained a multitude. Throughout the novel, we are treated to random flashbacks into the history of some of the missing treasures. These short stories range all over the emotional scale, from sad to quite tragic. There is also a secondary main story, told every few chapters, about the friendship between a book publisher who goes by “Bomber” and his assistant Eunice. Often, this story was more fascinating to me than the main story surrounding Laura’s journey. Hogan keeps you reading as you want to know how these two worlds come together. When they finally do, the answer is so obvious that Sunshine would probably shake her head at you for not picking up on the obvious clue.

This is one of those books that often falls into the category of women’s contemporary literature, or “Chick Lit” as it is more commonly known. I’ve always hated that term. As a male reader, I can appreciate the sentimental and romantic nature of a book such as this one. During my research of Hogan and her novel, I discovered a new term called “Up Lit,” referring to literature that is meant to be uplifting and evoke empathy. I would have to wholeheartedly agree that this book definitely qualifies as one that motivates its readers to love and to cherish every moment.

Since this was my first foray into a work by Ruth Hogan, I decided to research her background. I was impressed to discover that The Keeper of Lost Things was her first novel. Since its publication, she has written a couple of more books which I may read in the future. Her own success is an inspiration within itself, as this authoress was older when her first book was published. Aspiring writers should take heed that it is never too late.

An Interview with Ruth Hogan
Author Ruth Hogan; Photo Credit: Ben Crocker

While I enjoyed this charming novel, I did have some issues. I felt the romance between Laura and Freddy was unnecessary. Before you get out your pitchforks, here me out. As one of the biggest Janeites on this continent, I love romance. However, I just wasn’t feeling the chemistry between these two. It just felt like Hogan included it to satisfy her readers. We are treated to a scene where Laura’s evil ex-husband stops by for a visit. This superfluous scene was written to demonstrate two things: 1) that Vince is an asshole (already knew that) and 2) Freddy is a great guy (already knew that too). I was much more fascinated by the growing friendship between Eunice and Bomber in the flashbacks. Their relationship felt genuine and more emotionally satisfying. Meanwhile, the best character of this novel, Sunshine, starts out strong but then becomes downsized to comic relief in the later chapters of the book. She was above and beyond the saving grace of this book, and I wouldn’t mind a return for her character in a later novel from Hogan.

The final pages of The Keeper of Lost Things manage to bring all of the plot threads together quite neatly, perhaps a little too neatly for some readers. Hogan provides a satisfying ending while keeping the future up in the air, as it is meant to be. This experience is a charming and gently moving journey into finding oneself and exploring the hidden meaning behind seemingly random items. Never forget that each person is composed of a series of stories, not all of them pretty. But behind all that feel lost, there is that hope of being found. If you are searching for an uplifting work of fiction, then pour yourself a lovely cup of tea and spend some time getting lost in this story.

“But if you can make just one person happy, mend one broken heart by restoring to them what they have lost, then it will have all been worthwhile.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ by Truman Capote

One of the questions I often find myself pondering (and I ponder many), concern what authors I wish I could go back in time to meet. While classic writers such as Austen and Dickens make the list, I would have to include Truman Capote as well. I can only imagine that the creator of the fabulous Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s would have a rather larger-than-life presence. While I had considered In Cold Blood as my next read by this author, I eventually settled on Other Voices, Other Rooms for two reasons. First, I was curious to examine Capote’s first published novel, which is described as “Southern Gothic.” Also, the protagonist is named Joel, a temptation I could hardly resist. While I knew that this book would have Capote’s penchant for memorable characters, what I was not prepared for was just how different this work would be from the later Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Capote’s writing is quite surreal and intoxicating, taking the reader to a world of decaying mansions filled with haunted characters. Capote has accomplished something quite extraordinary in creating a world that felt like a nightmare composed of the likes of Mervyn Peake and Shirley Jackson. Make no mistake that this will be a book that will linger in the mind, long after the final sentences have been read.

Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) by Truman Capote, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Following the death of his mother, 13-year-old Joel Knox is sent to live with the father he never met at Skully’s Landing, a vast house in the middle of a giant plantation in Mississippi. While his father is nowhere to be found, Joel meets the other strange residents of Skully’s Landing. He soon discovers that his overbearing stepmother Amy has a penchant for killing birds. Meanwhile, her cousin Randolph is innocent, yet not-so-innocent at the same time. Joel also meets some other interesting characters, such as the housemaid, Zoo, who has suffered a horrible trauma and dreams of traveling to Washington to see the snow. Her ancient grandfather goes by the name of Jesus Fever (no shortage of great names). Idabel Thompkins is a tomboy who does not appear affected by the strange residents of Skully’s Landing and probably the closest Joel achieves as to having a real friend.

This book is the most autobiographical out of all of Capote’s writings, heavily influenced by his own youth growing up in the deep south. It is also a reflection of how the author came to terms with his sexuality. I love this early description of Joel, as seen through the eyes of a local trucker:

“Radclif eyed the boy over the rim of his beer glass, not caring much for the looks of him. He had his notions of what a “real” boy should look like, and this kid somehow offended them. He was too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned; each of his features was shaped with a sensitive accuracy, and a girlish tenderness softened his eyes, which were brown and very large. His brown hair, cut short, was streaked with pure yellow strands. A kind of tired, imploring expression marked his thin face, and there was an unyouthful sag about his shoulders.”

Truman Capote with his dog in 1950
Truman Capote with his dog in 1950
 Mondadori / Getty Images

Joel is immediately established as an outsider, and several passages demonstrate his difficulties with fitting in with his new family surrounding him. He impulsively lies about his upbringing and is often afraid to embrace his true self. In order to find respite from the crazy world around him, he often retreats into his mind with imagined versions of people from his past, the “other voices, other rooms” where the book gets its title. While Joel does eventually meet his father, this is not the point. Rather, it is about Joel finding himself. This is a true coming-of-age story as Joel tries to come to terms with his identity among the insane and bizarre inhabitants of Skully’s Landing.

Capote’s greatest achievement in the creation of this work is the unmistakable sense of place. Every page seems soaked with atmosphere, and I found myself easily transported into this world:

They followed the remnants of a road down which once had spun the wheels of lacquered carriages carrying verbena-scented ladies who twittered like linnets in the shade of parasols, and leathery cotton rich gentlemen gruffing at each other through a violet haze of Havana smoke, and their children, prim little girls with mint crushed in their handkerchiefs, and boys with mean blackberry eyes, little boys who sent their sisters screaming with tales of roaring tigers.

…Anchored off shore was a bent, man-shaped tree with moss streaming from its crown like scarecrow hair; sunset birds, hullabalooing around this island roost, detonated the desolate scene with cheerless cries, and only catfish bubbles ruffled the level eel-like slickness of the pond…

Capote creates a phantasmagorical world with consummate virtuosity; and yet, although highly symbolic, the writing remains grounded in Joel’s experience and never spills over into self-indulgence or empty filler. Beneath the surface, there remains a real poignancy, and the constant theme is one of human loneliness and alienation. Towards the end of the book, Joel meets a fairground dwarf named Miss Wistera. “They said I need not play alone,” she tells him.

“There are other little people, they said, go out and find them, they live in flowers. Many the petal I’ve peeled but lilac is lilac and no one lives in any rose I ever saw; a spot of grease is all a wishbone leaves, and there is only candy in a Christmas stocking.”

Joel finding his father was never the most interesting part of this book, nor even the point, for that matter. Joel learns that he will always be an outsider. Rather than run away from this revelation, he should choose to embrace it, to which he does in the final page. This isn’t a book for everyone, as it’s often dark, confusing, and far away from the more polished Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, I related to this one a lot and found it to be much more than a sexual coming-of-age novel, but instead to be about the importance of embracing your true self, in whatever form that may be. Other Voices, Other Rooms is truly a work of “Gothic splendor” with a beautiful heart of gold at its center.

“They can romanticize us so, mirrors, and that is their secret: what a subtle torture it would be to destroy all the mirrors in the world: where then could we look for reassurance of our identities? I tell you, my dear, Narcissus was so egotist…he was merely another of us who, in our unshatterable isolation, recognized, on seeing his reflection, the beautiful comrade, the only inseparable love…poor Narcissus, possibly the only human who was ever honest on this point.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

‘Human Acts’ and ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang

Once in a great while, an event occurs on this blog that is so incredibly stellar that it defies belief. Prepare to be awestruck! Not only is this another double book review, but both books are by the same author! I fell in love with the writing of Han Kang after reading her modernist masterpiece The Vegetarian. My world was shattered as I tried to make sense out of this exquisitely complex work. In essence, this is the story of an average housewife who makes the sudden decision to renounce meat and is then subjected to violent ridicule by her family. But it is also a story about authoritarian control, desire, and if it’s possible to live without violence. The writing is beautiful in this dark and disturbing tale, so I highly recommend you read it, or anything by Kang. Why did it take me this long to return to this writer? I was so enthralled with the writing of Human Acts that I immediately checked out The White Book from the library. Both of these novels are beautiful explorations of trauma on both a cultural level and on a personal one.

Human Acts (2014) and The White Book (2016) by Han Kang, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

In Human Acts, Kang takes her theme on violence and amplifies it, chronicling pages upon pages of the horror that resulted from the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. This is one of the darkest periods in the history of South Korea. Rather than view the event from an historical perspective, the novel operates as a series of short stories told from the POV of different characters. At the center of these vignettes is a teenage boy named Dong-ho, who dies in the massacre. Human Acts spans the next thirty years, following those that interacted with Dong-ho, some personally, others peripherally. If you’re like me, sometimes you feel overwhelmed by historical dramas, particularly as I knew nothing about the Gwangju Uprising before starting this book. Fear not fellow readers, as translator Deborah Smith provides a brief but informative account of the sociopolitical context surrounding the uprising in her introduction.

While I found The Vegetarian to be an intense read, I thought Human Acts was much more so. Kang’s writing is very succinct and sparing, yet she evokes so many powerful emotions, particularly on capturing the generational nature of trauma. Interestingly, the riots themselves are not the focus of the novel, but instead, provide a view on how one particular life is shattered. Kang’s focus on the quieter moments in between the gunfire that Kang focuses on; the decaying bodies, the rotting flesh, the anguish of not knowing what happened to a loved one. I felt such a visceral ache while reading this book, a feeling that doesn’t happen often in my reading. One of my favorite chapters focused on the spirit of Dong-ho’s friend who is also killed in the uprising. I had to put the book down for a while after finishing that chapter.

Human Acts examines grief, survivor’s guilt, and man’s inhumanity to man all on a universal scale while still making it feel very personal and intimate. It’s a difficult read at times due to the graphic nature of the subject, but I highly recommend you read it, and I found it to be a book the really captures the effects of trauma. Despite the intense view of the cruel side of humanity, Kang runs a thread of hope throughout the narrative. This is one of those books that is beautiful in its sadness.

“How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies? Do they really flutter away like some kind of birds? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?”

It may seem like total madness on my part to immediately jump into another trauma narrative. However, Kang’s The White Book was a very different experience for me. Part novel, part memoir, part poetry collection, this is her most experimental work so far. While I didn’t find it quite as emotionally engaging as The Vegetarian and Human Acts, I still found a lot to love about this work.

Structure goes out the window with this book. Told as a series of vignettes, each capturing a single moment, this is the narrator’s processing of thoughts and feelings relating to her older sister’s death, which occurred just shortly after her sister’s birth. These musings on life and death are seen largely through the lens of white-based imagery, such as snow, ice, bandages, etc. White here symbolizes rebirth and healing, but also the absence in her heart that the narrator feels. Passages are kept sparse, and there are huge spaces of white in the writing. There’s this feeling of disconnection with the world, as though the narrator is adrift in a snowstorm. Snow is referenced often, blanketing the landscape and obscuring everything it touches. Reflections on white birds and bandages also reflect the search for hope and healing.

This book also plays with structure by shifting between first and third-person perspectives, dancing between the narrator’s actual life, and an imagined one of the life her sister never had. While I’ve had issues in past with shifting POV styles in a story, I found it to be highly effective here. In this case, it was highly reflective of the narrator’s fragmented sense of self, trying to live her own life but also carrying around guilt over her sister’s death. In a sense, she is trying to take ownership of her own life, as her parents would never have had her had they not lost the sister as a newborn. This book is also notable for being the most autobiographical of the three Kang novels I’ve read.

The White Book is first and foremost an exploration of language’s ability to help us navigate our way through grief and pain. The writer’s intention is made clear from the onset: “If I sift those words through myself, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string. Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?” Beautiful language concealing very real pain.

Both of these books are successful because of the stunning use of language. Translator Deborah Smith had a difficult task ahead of her in trying to adapt the writing to English while losing none of its beauty. I’m pleased to say she succeeded admirably. Not a word feels out of place as striking images evoke powerful emotions. As I hope their collaboration continues, I will not wait as long to read the next novel from the soul of Han Kang as translated by the mind of Deborah Smith.

“Looking at herself in the mirror, she never forgot that death was hovering behind that face. Faint yet tenacious, like black writing bleeding through thin paper.” […] “This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now. My life means yours is impossible.”

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.