Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The man upstairs.

So, due to a confluence of events (new job, longer commute, started an evening class) posting here has been pretty light. Which, eh. I'm still reading, I just don't think anyone wants to read a review of a feminist historiography published in the early 80s.

But! Here's this delightful, odd little book by Alan Lightman, the author of Einstein's Dreams and the first person to hold a faculty appointment at MIT in the humanities and the sciences.

Which is sort of like a unicorn. It's rare enough to find an English major who doesn't have to count on their fingers, much less one who is a physicist.

Mr. g is a disarming, bouncy retelling of the creation of the world (and the universe, and everything). Sure, God's there, but he's also got a cranky aunt and daffy uncle noodling around in the Void, and when Satan and two minions show up, God seems baffled to see them.

Why does God create the universe? Out of boredom, pretty much, which may strike readers as irreverent, but Lightman isn't interested in retelling the creation myth with mystical choirs moaning in the background. Instead, Mr. g playfully explores the physics that govern the universe(s). Lightman's Mr. g is more curious watchmaker than angry, bearded hurler of lightning bolts. Occasionally poignant and sometimes befuddling, this happy little meditation on creation is quite unlike anything I've read in the past year.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Queen of Creep

Dang, Daphne du Maurier, you make a reader want to sleep with the lights on.

The Doll: The Lost Short Stories is a collection of short stories that du Maurier (best known for her novel Rebecca) wrote in her twenties. Although a few were published in the 30s, they were never issued in a book form (hence the "lost").

The thirteen stories of The Doll reveal du Maurier's prodigious talent for subtle, unsettling suspense. In "The East Wind", the arrival of a trading ship and its exotic sailors to the isolated island of St. Hilda's fatally disrupts the quiet life of the islanders.

"And Now to God the Father" is an acidic examination of hypocrisy and hubris in the Church. "A Difference in Temperament" is an examination of what I like to call the nothing fight. "Frustration" reads like "The Gift of the Maegi," shorn of all sentimentality and sweetness. "Picadilly" is an interview with a callous young prostitute. "Tame Cat" is a horribly depressing episode of maternal dysfunction. In "Mazie," another shabby prostitute confronts an illness. "Nothing Hurts for Long" is set at the precipice of a failing relationship. In "Week-End," an infatuation runs its course during a short holiday. "The Happy Valley" is a surrealistic little ghost tale, and "And His Letters Grow Colder" is an epistolary short story of an affair that has run its course.

The titular short story, "The Doll," and "The Limpet," the last story in the collection, are the most unsettling. "The Limpet" delivers a pitch-perfect portrait of a quietly sociopathic and manipulative woman who insinuates herself into the lives of those upon whom she fixates. "The Doll" is a bizarre little vignette of a troubled, enchanting artist in love with a mechanical man - all the more unusual for having been first published in 1937.

Daphe du Maurier's talent has always been astonishing, but this collection is all the more remarkable for having been written before her reputation as an author was really established.