Tag Archives: book reviews

Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow

A couple months ago, Wired magazine came out with a truly dreadful article on the history of science fiction — one that suggested diversity is new to SF. I wrote my own response to that, and in the comments another blogger suggested the author Leigh Brackett, who wrote in the 1950s but is now largely forgotten. (Thank you!)

I checked the library and found her novel The Long Tomorrow. It was part of an anthology of the best works of the 1950s, and I accidentally started reading it halfway in. And that didn’t spoil it one little bit. On the contrary — it heightened the suspense, because I knew where the characters were headed, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what would happen when they got there.

It’s an amazing postapocalyptic novel set in a rural New Mennonite town. In the novel’s history, nuclear war took out all the cities, which in turn demolished our technology. Mennonites survived, because they only used technology they could make themselves. And New Mennonites, and others, copied their culture because it made practical sense. This is a well-thought-out scenario, and the New Mennonite communities and surrounding countryside are richly drawn. Brackett really takes her time to let you get to know the people.

The people in this world are terrified that nuclear war might return, and this fear has extended to technology and cities. They’ve built a cultural narrative that says the cities were destroyed because God didn’t like them, and they punish anyone who might remotely appear to be bringing them back with stonings and fire.

And then, of course, the main character and his friend, Len and Esau, find ancient technology and go looking for a fabled city. They are two teenage boys brought up in a strict Biblical tradition who now question their community, but for slightly different reasons.

The story of Len and Esau is a coming-of-age tale, a story about growing up, a story about discovering and understanding the world they live in, and an exploration of a complicated moral problem.

I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, but this one stands out because of its depth and breadth, the strong characterization, and the way it makes you think. It’s one of those books that will stick with me for years.

Off to see what else she’s written . . .

P.S. Here’s a link to a more in-depth but more spoilery review by author Nicola Griffith. She points out the limitations in a novel that’s a product of the age, but all in all likes it even more than me.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

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The House With a Clock in Its Walls

This book by John Bellairs scared the dickens out of me when I was a child, so I’ve been hunting for a while now. Only I had forgotten the author’s name and got the title mixed up with  Bell, Book, and Candle, maybe because it has  books and lights and noisy things in it, or maybe because the same author wrote The Bell, The Book, and the Spellbinder. But it was one of the books from childhood that I remember deeply.

Then one day I went to a new library branch and the book jumped out at me. The House With a Clock in its Walls. And I’ve just finished it. Sometimes when you reread a book you loved as a child, by the time you reach adulthood you’ve grown so much that the book is now dull. But this one did not disappoint.

This is a deeply scary book. Not just because of the clock hidden somewhere in the walls of a creepy old house, not just because it’s a doomsday clock set to end the world, and not just because the illustrations were done by Edward Gorey. It’s scary mainly because the main character, a boy named Lewis, made a serious ethical mistake, and he nurses his fear and guilt through much of the book.

I bet every child can identify.

Bellairs is quite gentle on Lewis, and on the reader as well. He’s careful to mention that Lewis’ uncle would understand, and he’s also considerate enough to mention that Lewis will make it to adulthood. Bellairs is also kind to all the characters in the book. (Well, the living ones, at any rate.) Even the bully.

And the prose is lovely – expressive, surprising, and smooth. Here’s a short excerpt:

Lewis got up, wiped his hands on his trousers, and tugged at the enormous cardboard suitcase that hung out over the edge of the metal rack. Lewis’ father had brought the suitcase in London at the end of World War II. It was covered with ripped and faded Cunard Line stickers. Lewis pulled hard, and the suitcase lurched down onto his head. He staggered back across the aisle with the suitcase held perilously in the air; then he sat down suddenly, and the suitcase landed in his lap with a whump.

“Oh, come on! Don’t kill yourself before I have a chance to meet you!”

There in the aisle stood a man with a bushy red beard that was streaked in several places with white.”

All in all, it’s a hard read but a good one. I’m glad to have read it. (Twice.)

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Jan 28, 2010

Our book group just finished the incredible book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’ve set a timer to allot myself ten minutes to talk about this book, and now I hardly know where to begin. I’ll have to do a bulleted list of teasers.

    • It is a work of fantasy. It is also hardcore realism – the footnotes chronicle the rule of Trujillo between 1930 and 1961 in the Dominican Republic, which was so awful it’s probably impossible for most people to get through. This reality is transformed into fantasy, through Junot Diaz’s discussion of a curse called “{C}

      fukú” and its counterspell “zafa,” and through his strong narrative voice, his gallows humor, his underlying love of the people whose lives he chronicles.

 

    • Oscar Wao as a character won me over. He exists in the intersection of oppressions – he is a Dominican immigrant / refugee in the U.S. and also a nerd and overweight. The Dominicans in his community won’t acknowledge him as their own because he is a nerd. The nerds are embarrassed because he’s overweight. And yet . . . he’s wondrous. Alas, I don’t have an hour to explain why. Except to mention that Diaz has performed an act of powerful zafa to make white geekdom claim a Dominican as their own.

 

    • The book uses three or more languages: New Jersey English, Dominican Spanish, and geek language (especially Tolkein & D&D). Not too many readers will have a handle on all three, which means no matter who reads it is going to be lost to some extent, and will just have to get over it.

 

I am somewhat bemused by the quote on the back of the book from The New York Times Book Review: “Like Raymond Carver, [he] wrings the heart with finely calibrated restraint.”

Firstly, I would not call his writing “restraint.” One of my fellow bookgroupers was disturbed by how loud his voice was, whereas I, being secretly a loud person myself, loved it.

And secondly, I was amused to see a loud work of fantasy described in terms of a minimalist author. An example of how the literary world, confronted with a genre text, tries to assimilate it.