For a while, I was posting reviews of everything I’d read, one by one, but has become somewhat burdensome. Still, I figure a small summary might be justifiable, so, here’s a breakdown on some recent readings:
I have not yet read a more disturbing or more magisterial graphic novel than From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Seriously, this was several weeks of reading for me, in part because of the (highly recommendable) annotations in the back of the book. It’s dark, but not because it’s aboutJack the Ripper, because in reality it isn’t just about Jack the Ripper: it’s about the genesis of the twentieth century in London at the time when Jack the Ripper was preying on street women. The London of this book is dark, awful, and yet also weirdly familiar, drained of the occult as it has since become. Well worth your time, but don’t be surprised if the book crawls into your brain and dos weird things to it.
Stephanie Ye is a Singapore writer, and her The Billion Shop is a small collection of linked short stories from the Babette’s Feast line published by Math Paper Press. (I picked it up when Jason Erik Lundberg brought me to check out a wonderful little bookstore in Singapore called Books Actually.) The stories are quiet and thoughtful, though they end up linking in surprising ways, combining into an enjoyable little book.
Zendegi by Greg Egan. A wonderfully human book, and also kind of a nice, smart takedown of the goofy extropians who see the Singularity as a solution to our here-and-now problems. The book this most reminded me of from Egan’s previous works was Teranesia, which to me is a good thing.
I read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal because I was curious what a 1970s bestselling thriller focused on political assassination would read like. I wasn’t blown away by the prose, but I found it interesting what things from the book people seemed to always remember and reminisce about, like the passport fraud technique Forsyth unveiled. There is a section toward the end, though, where it feels lie Forsyth is subtly undercutting his assassin-anti-hero: he ends up coming off in part as a lumpen-bourgeois tourist (especially on his drive up through Southern France, which for pages on end reads like a travel memoir of good food and nice scenery) and his reasons for getting into the assassination business end up seeming to boil down simply to money. (He complains silently to himself about the price of a coffee, and then it is revealed he became a professional killer because working in an office simply didn’t agree with him.) He even comes close to flubbing his operation because he tries to pass for gay without much idea of how gay men operate… so it does feel like toward the end of the book, Forsyth is hammering on the protagonist a little. And after all, we all know going into the book that the guy will fail to kill de Gaulle, and is likely to die in the attempt. For those curious, though, I think the movie is pretty faithful to the book, but less time-consuming.
That said, I feel like I learned a lot about what might attract people to a book like this. The feeling of learning real-world, privileged, secret information is one thing. The thrill of feeling like an insider. The power of a protagonist that, instead of being fully-realized, is actually more of a cipher. (Forsyth amusingly commented in interviews about how shocked he was that so many women were crazy about The Jackal, even though he murders a woman after having sex with her in the book.) When the character’s true nature begins to be revealed, it’s very. very odd and funny: you realize just how little you knew of the character al the way along, but you also realize it’s the first time you’re noticing it.
A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne is an odd example of expat fiction, a territory fraught with bigoted and stupid books. Happily, Mayne’s is really much more kind, more respectful, and very curious about the people of Marrakesh in this apparent memoir of his stay there while trying to write a novel–familiar territory for me in Vietnam doing the same thing, though 1950s Marrakesh is, well and truly, a whole different (and distant) world from 50s London, unlike Vietnam and Korea or Canada. Not that it doesn’t have plenty of bewildering episodes, but the amusing, weird locals aren’t depicted as clowns; Mayne depicts them with a certain degree of respect, seeming to perceive accurately that he is the outsider, his expectations the ones that are abnormal in this setting. There are some wonderfully funny moments, such as a dinner party where everyone gets stoned on hashish in baked goods–but no wine, of course!–and when Mayne finds himself with a “fiancée” of his own the next morning… or the surprising and fascinating encounter Mayne has with English travelers, indeed, acquaintances from back home, near the end of the book. My favorite scene is when he is walking with a Chinese local–well, more local than Mayne, though still perceived as an outsider by the local Moorish people–and they talk about writing and what motivates it, and living abroad and what motivates that. A very interesting and odd book, in that genre of books I’m starting to explore now that I’ll called “Expat Writing.”
A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem. A very Borgesian book–for it is made up exclusively of reviews for nonexistent books, save the introduction, which is a review of the book itself–this was really more of a springboard for Lem to riff on ideas that amused him. Some are more interesting and fruitful than others, and the book is one I think probably shouldn’t be read straight through directly, as the form gets a little dry after a while. However, two of the “reviews” in this text actually read as eerily prescient of the ideas in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which I’m reading right now. Still, I don’t think this is great place to start in reading Lem: I would much sooner recommend the book I finished off soon after we got to Saigon, his The Cyberiad, which is basically a set of robotic fairytales for some future age, and a wonderful, wonderful book. If more people read Lem and took him as a model, SF would be better and richer for it.
Arthur Machen’s “The White People” is a bizarre, creepy little tale that does exactly what I recently argued needs to be done with the supernatural: it remystifies it, just as he did in “The Great God Pan,” another Machen classic.
I started reading Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud simply because I enjoyed his Understanding Comics so very much. Little did I know it would reawaken my very old interest in drawing and sketching. It’s a great, comprehensive introduction to the mental game of comics-making, and very worth your while whether you want to make comics or just want to understand them better. (I also think it’s good reading for a filmmaker, and actually picked up the book to foist it onto Mrs. Jiwaku.)
Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro was not my thing, though I did give it a try… Those who like Kelly Link’s fiction will probably enjoy it more than (generally) I did. I’ve been trying to read Link’s Magic for Beginners, trying to see what so many writers I know who adore her work like about it, but unfortunately so far I feel like the guy at the party who doesn’t get a shared in-joke.
I’m also currently reading The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti, which is about the darkest thing I have on hand. Dark, and penned by an author that is both intelligently aware of his own subjective limitations, but also smart enough to smell that something is fishy in the state of human consciousness. Not for everyone, but a pretty interesting book for those equipped to read and appreciate it. (I’m also reading his Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, which would be is less difficult for most people to handle, I think.)
For whose who are interested, there are links for all these books over at my Librarything shelf for the set of books I’ve read in 2013. Which I’m sad to say so far is only 22 books, but I’m picking up speed as I go…