Pre-Clarion Readings, Part the Next…

I posted quite a while back after I’d read Maureen McHugh’s Half the Day is Night, that I was trying to get through some more books by some of my soon-to-be-teachers. I had a goal of reading two books by each teacher, minimum, by the time I arrive in Seattle, but it’s looking more and more unlikely. McHugh’s not a problem, as I think I’ve read about half of her published body of work — some of Mothers & Other Monsters, Mission Child, and Necropolis (though much of that first book mentioned is available online, and I spent a chunk of my day today on reading the stories linked from that page).

Anyway, I’ve progressed a little bit toward my goal, which is nice; I know the last two weeks before the Workshop, I won’t be reading much aside from students’ final projects in my various English Composition and Media English classes. Still, I have a few more books on the way, for that last week before the exams start, and I have a little pile to work my way through, along with some research texts. Here I’ll just list off the research books, and discuss what I’ve read already cursorily, as well as mention what’s in the rest of my stack.

I finished Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep the other day, and after I did, I took a deep breath. It was just such a big book, with so much going on. If you’ve ever heard Iannis Xenakis’ piece Metastasis, well, the book seemed to me like a very extended version of the first few minutes of that piece — so much crescendo, so much widening scope, so much going on down in the microdetail level. I thought the notion that Galactic civilization was dependent on a kind of internet-like structure was fascinating but a little, I don’t know, too familiar. I was also half-and-half about the Tines on a critical level, but as a reader, they were just cool and fun and really good in terms of a comparative species. I found a lot of comparison going on between humans in the Beyond and the Tines immersed in all this human knowledge all of a sudden. The Powers were interesting, and the Blight was fascinating too. Big, huge space opera but with brains. I liked it, and I was almost tempted to crack open A Deepness in the Sky immediately, but that’s another 600 pages and I have a feeling I might go for Across Realtime instead, if I have the time for another Vinge work before I fly, just in order to make sure I’ve read something quite different by the guy.

I’m about 3/4 of the way through Paul Park’s If Lions Could Speak and Other Stories, and finding that the blurb by Gene Wolfe isn’t quite right; Park actually does remind me of Borges, a little, sometimes (even though he himself said that he finds Borges doesn’t usually deliver what he promises), sometimes of a tamer, more artful James Morrow, and sometimes his stories remind me of The Twilight Zone, or of, I don’t know, of people who feel familiar to me. The story, “Self Portrait, With Melanoma, Final Draft” actually kind of reminded me of what might have been a fictional dream of a character in a Barry Hannah story I once read about a creative-writing prof. This is, of course, none of it really criticism as much as reflections. The man has a hell of a way with putting together stories. I can, however, feel something that he himself has said, which is that he comes at the genre from without, not as someone who grew up reading it. I don’t mind it, of course, since I’m in a similar position. This far I think “The Tourist”, “Get a Grip”, and “Tachychardia” are the most striking. (I read “The Breakthrough” aloud to my girlfriend, without any idea what it was about, and she seemed to enjoy it, perhaps even moreso because of her medical background. But she found it pretty disturbing, like I did.) And”Untitled 4″ reminded me of a plotline I’ve been thinking about playing with ever since a co-worker told me about a meeting that involved both Stalin and Gorky. (It also reminds me of an essay on poetry I once wrote, where one of the futures of poetry is that it gets popularized by the state as a form of pop-culture self-therapy. The ruination of verse, that would be.) All in all, an enviable book.

The stories I’ve read from Maureen McHugh’s Mothers & Other Monsters have been a revelation. In some ways, I see now that the way that she depicts normal, everyday life is part of what gives her such an edge when she writes about future cultures and worlds. “Ancestor Money” had me nodding my head, with it’s rather imaginatively odd afterlife — it made me feel a little ashamed about parts of the ghost-story novel on my hard drive) — and “Frankenstein’s Daughter” and “Eight-Legged Story” are mostly so strong because they’re not really about science or tech things, they’re about families and being human in a family, which means being human in a difficult structure and situation, which, again, is what made so many of the characters so fascinating in China Mountain Zhang. I shall definitely have to pick up this book, and McHugh’s Necropolis, when I get the chance.

That’s it for what I’ve read lately. I think tonight, once I’ve finished some work I need to do for school, and some editing work, I’ll finish off the Park collection and start in on Nalo Hopkinson.

The books in my stack include:

  • Brown Girl in the Ring (Nalo Hopkinson)
  • Breathmoss and other exhalations (Ian R. McLeod)
  • The Dark: New Ghost Stories (ed. Ellen Datlow)
  • The Light Ages (Ian R. McLeod)
  • Across Realtime (Vernor Vinge)
  • Mission Child (Maureen McHugh)
  • A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge)

plus the following due here in a couple of weeks:

  • The Midnight Robber (Nalo Hopkinson)
  • Three Marys (Paul Park)

I would have loved to get my hands on Paul Pakr’s Celestis but the only place to order it would be Amazon, who’re famous for slow shipping over here, so I’ll try get it while in the States instead.

As for nonfiction research books, I have the following on my stack (about half of which I’ve read before and am just skimming to refresh my memory):

  • To Change China: Western Advisors to China (Jonathan D. Spence)
  • The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (Hugh Thomas)
  • 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Gavin Menzies) — yes, discredited humbug, but still interesting to me and helpful for my alternate history
  • A scholarly book on Korean Folklore put out by UNESCO and Si-sa-yong-o-sa and Pace Research, and a collection of Korean folktales.
  • Attack on Christendom (Soren Kierkegaard)
  • God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (Jonathan D. Spence)
  • A couple of books on alternative economics.
  • Darwin Among the Machines (George Dyson)
  • A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (John Steele Gordon)
  • The Victorians (A.N. Wilson)

They’re stacked on my kitchen table, anyway. As for getting to them, that’s another question entirely.

I also have a book by Matthew Fox on order, as I’m thinking about writing something that will involve the future history of the Catholic Church, and need to get at least one bizarre vision of the future Church besides my own. (Was hoping for a book by Bishop Spong, the controversial Episcopal Bishop, but the order time was going to just be toooooo long.) Also have Blish’s A Case of Conscience on order, for the same purposes as the Fox book, and, oooh, the new Bruce Sterling and some other goodies, but, like with many of my other books — including my long-awaited River of Gods, and Susan Petrey’s Gifts of Blood, which I received in the mail the other day from Debbie and Paul in Oregon (if you read this, take heart! my letter’s coming! really!) — I suspect more and more that they’re going to have to wait until sometime after my return to Korea in August.

But there’s one other book I’m almost finished, which is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. You know, it’s a pretty useful book. I’m kind of kicking myself for not reading it years ago, but, on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve have benefitted as much from it then as I may be doing now. The weird thing is, it’s a pleasure to read. If it weren’t, I’d be enjoying some other piece of fiction on the side instead, but Gardner’s got some sensible things to say, and I like how he says them too. (Even when I disagree, it’s interesting.)

Looking at the list of books above, and then thinking about all the grading and editing I’ll have to do in the next few weeks… oh boy. Time to go get some PowerPoint presentations prepared.

15 thoughts on “Pre-Clarion Readings, Part the Next…

  1. I’m a great fan of Blish’s. His Black Easter/Day after judgement might be interesting to you for their look at Catholism in the near future.
    On the same subject, isn’t ‘A Canticle for Lebowitz’ about the Catholic Church?

    To be honest, I haven’t looked at much of your blog yet but am looking forward to doing so soon.

  2. I’ll have to look into the Blish. Looking at my stack of books, I have a feeling I’ll look into him later, when I start my Futuristic Mutated Catholic Space Opera thing in earnest.

    Liebowitz is another book I’ve had for years, even here in Korea, but never gotten far with. I think it was some kind of futuristic monastic thing but I have no idea whether it’s got anything to do with the RCC or not.

    I’m looking forward to more interesting comments. Don’t be put off when my blog goes quiet for two months, though… that’ll be happening soon, whilst I grade final projects and attend the Clarion workshop. Please do subscribe to the RSS feed at Newsgator or Bloglines or whatever RSS aggregator you use, and check back. Or tromp about the archives, if you like.

  3. Hello Gord,

    The book mentioned by ‘kwandongbrian” has lonmg been on my to-read list.

    In a similar vein, you might try Father Elijah: An Apocalypse. However, in the case of this book, the truth is really stranger than fiction; Sancta Mater Ecclesia, as she “bleeds from many wounds,” remains true to her 2000-year-old Magisterium.

  4. Joshua,

    I’d be curious to see what you have to say about the one story I’ve written in which Jesus is a character, “Soul Competency”. You can download it from this post, if you’re logged in.

    I’m curious, though I suspect it will probably not be your kind of thing.

  5. I wouldn’t call this story anti-Catholic by a long shot; dubious about the depth of most people’s convictions, yes, and skeptical about the veracity of history received from 2000 years ago, yes, but not-anti-Catholic or even anti-Christian. In fact, I’d count Kierkegaard as one of the inspirations for the story, now that I think about it.

  6. Well, what I’ve read includes only Either/Or and Attack on Christendom, which isn’t what it sounds like.

    Either/Or is a kind of book of philosophy-via-fiction. There is one narrator for Either and one for Or. The former is a kind of argument in favor of a life based on aesthetics instead of morals — and includes such wonderful pieces of writing as Seed Catalogue and The Seducer’s Diary. Yes, it’s a skewed version of a purely aesthetical life, but not a complete strawman. The latter, Or, is the collection of letters from a Christian fellow to his friend, the author of the texts comprising Either; the author of Or tries to convince his friend that he must change his ways, and that a good, worthwhile life can only be founded on moral principles. There arguments about the validity of marriage and of religion.

    My personal reaction was somewhat of a Neither/Nor but I still found it fascinating, and especially enjoyed that the whole thing had been pulled off in the voices of characters. However, I found Or to be quite ponderous and didn’t finish it. Still, it’s a bloody long book and I do intend to return to it someday, which must say something about it.

    Attack on Christendom is a collection of articles and letters by Kierkegaard published in magazines in Denmark toward the end of his life. He was an extremely devout Lutheran, but in a way quite different from most of his contemporaries: he felt that a state religion and the conceit of Denmark being a part of “Christendom” was something that was inherently bad and bound to pervert religion, to make it an extension of government, to water it down for the masses, and to pollute it with opportunism (as clerics were essentially government employees). Kierkegaard seems one of the first Christian philosophers outside of the early church who didn’t just make weak hand signals at how hard it is to be a true Christian — he came out and admitted that being a serious Christian and living a life anything like the mainstream were two deeply incompatible things, and that only by lethally compromising one (or having it lethally compromised through widespread public ignorance) could one convince oneself that both were being fulfilled.

    This latter book is much more episodic than but I must add that I did finish it, and rather quickly, too. Still, I’d tend to say you might prefer Either/Or, or at least Either, as an introduction to his work. That was the text that basically convinced me he was some kind of genius, despite my many disagreements with his ideas.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations. I vaguely remember touching on Kirkegaard in college, and in the last few years everything I’ve read either about him or of his writing makes me think I’d like to read more.

  8. Hey Gord, best of luck with the reading. I’m trying to make my way through a stack of books too. I recommend Nalo’s work – I’ve read both her novels and they’re great.

    I’m reading Paul Park’s _Princess of Roumania_ and Ian McLeod’s _The Light Ages_ at the moment. I’m tend to read multiple books at a time (not in the same sitting of course!).

    I’m a big fan of Maureen’s work, and have read a lot of her stuff already. I have to catch up on Vinge. I’m going to try and squeeze in his latest book, _Rainbow’s End_, if I can as the reviews are excellent. It requires Amazon to get it to me with enough time so I can give it my attention.

    Best of luck with the reading!

  9. I’m going to probably pick up the new Vinge while I’ve in Seattle, and read it on the plane ride back.

    I usually read multiple books concurrently, but these days my work is so heavy that I’m just doing one at a time.

    Glad to know we have another McHugh fan among us. How is A Princess of Roumania? I’m really looking forward to The Light Ages but worried I may not get to it before I leave.

  10. Hmmm, I’m not convinced by _Princess_, I’m afraid to admit. It’s hard to pinpoint why. There’s a lot of good going for it, and it’s well-written. I’ll have to finish it before I make up my mind one way or the other.

  11. Hi Gord, I finished the book. My problem is an issue of style: the multiple POV Park used in the book does not work for me. In fact it grated on my nerves at times. This is a personal preference – it probably won’t bother some people. I’m ploughing through short stories at the moment, for a break (McHugh, Vinge, McLeod, Park). And, shhhhh, I’m reading _Valiant_ by Holly Black who is one of Clarion East’s instructors. It’s a damn fine book so far.

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