I’ve been reading a fair bit this year, as far as my standards go. More than usual, anyway. This is everything so far, though, of course, a few of those I gave up on and didn’t finish:
I’ve been feeling a little disappointed lately in how so much of the SFF world online is so busy talking about scandals and outrages that we never seem to talk about the books anymore. Short stories, too, but, well, that’s for another post. So I figured: do my bit. Post about what I’ve read lately.
Part of why I stopped was because–on some very bad advice, from someone who eventually turned out to be quite the troll–I got it into my head that I ought to post reviews of individual books as I finished them. This is not necessary, or a good idea, unless the book really, really, really calls for it.
So, anyway, this time around, it’s going to be a bit heavy, since I’m commenting o books I’ve read in the last few months or so. I’ll try do this more often, so my lists are shorter in future.
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. The original novella was interesting, but the expanded novel… well, the Sleepless kind of struck me as being an unconvincing genius subpopulation. Interestingly, though, they pretty much fit the same pattern of aspirational life-planning as other “model minority” groups in the United States: obsessed with social position and wealth (prone to becoming doctors, lawyers, and engineers), but politically fairly unreflective, uncritical of (our real world’s) mainstream measures of success, and even easily manipulated by conniving thugs.
As both my wife and one of my other Korean SF-fandom friends commented, “That’s most Korean parents’ dream come true!” and that makes me wonder whether Beggars (the novella) has even been translated to Korea. It’d probably make more sense in a Korean context, where those Randian sorts of values are pretty much the mainstream.
But as for me, I suspect that, lacking any real admiration for Ayn Rand or her ideas, this novel was never really going to work all that well for me: it’s basically a sort of critical investigation of Randian ideas. For me, the flaws were self-evident from the start… and I couldn’t help but wonder why they weren’t to the supposedly genius Sleepless, too. I would pass it on to any teenager whom I thought was uncritically enamored of Rand, sure, but lacking that as starting point, I found the book’s rejection of Rand too gentle by far!
Transfigurations by Michael Bishop. A weird, weird, book, also an expansion of a novella, which was in fact a kind of bizarre, extended anthropology paper on a cannibalistic rite practiced by aliens on an strange and distant world. Interesting book, and a quick read. This one was sent to me by a friend back in Texas–I think it was Marvin or Adam–and it took me eleven or twelve years to yet around to it. But it was really good… so why is it I feel like it’d never get published today?
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Genius, this stuff. This was a reread, but the first time I read it, as a kid, a lot went over my head. The more you know about early Georgian England, the South Sea Bubble, the gin craze, and all the rest of the stuff I’ve been researching, the more you’ll get out of it. Structurally very clever. I have more comments about it forthcoming in a series of posts about the South Sea Bubble, so stay tuned for more. I got mine from Project Gutenberg, but be careful: some editions aren’t the whole thing.
Blindsight by Peter Watts. More absolute genius. I can explain why it took me this long to read it, but basically, Peter Watts is the hard SF Thomas Ligotti; which is to say, he’s just as hip to the probably-illusory nature of identity and consciousness, but instead of letting it get him down, he turns that idea inside out and lets us look at ourselves, and the universe, through the funhouse lenses and mirrors. Nightmare-inducing,wild, wonderful novel. Available under a Creative Commons license, too, like so much of Watts’ work. You can grab it from his site, or from freebie sites like Manybooks.net. Though, you know, a work like this deserves to be bought and supported. (And yeah, I bought it in hardback, expecting as much, years ago.) I’m excited to read the sidequel that just came out, though I’m holding off till when I won’t have a pile of paper books to work through. Soon!
Aphrodite by Yamada Masaki, trans. Daniel Jackson. This is a translation of an older Japanese SF novel published by Kurodahan a few years ago. I suppose I’d call it a kind of quiet personal narrative, not exactly a bildungsroman and not exactly not one. There’s a high-tech artificial island, and the novel is in three parts, each one a snapshot of a moment in the life of one guy’s relationship with that island. This is the first novel I’ve read by Yamada Masaki.
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. This is probably one of the books I’ve had in my possession longest: I bought it in a shop in Vancouver a day or two before I left Canada for Korea in 2001. Over a decade, it’s been waiting. Well, not exactly: I’ve picked it up, found the first bit amusing, then put it down again, time and again. This time, I kept going.
The result? A hell of a good time. I need to read more of this kind of book: Kureishi’s sense of humor is fantastic, and so is his ability to simultaneously skewer a character for flaws that are more or less obvious, and at the same time humanize that character in a way that draws one in, elicits sympathy, and sometimes even admiration. There are moments of shock, and horror, but mostly the book is knee-slappingly funny, in that way that only a really intelligent writer can pull off. A very, very good debut novel, in other words.
Basically the book is a kuntzlerroman–the story of he maturation of an artist into an adult. In this case, the artist is a young man in 1970s London, half-Indian (and nobody lets him forget it) and kind of a permanent emigrant… but not from India. He’s an emigrant from the suburbs to London, from the outside into the world of drama, from ignorance to a kind of uneasy understanding. Lots of gloriously 1970s London stuff, and 1970s suburb-of-London stuff in here. Not that I was there, but the book made me feel I was. (Though, man, was suburban London ridiculously racist in the 70s. I had no idea.) But it’s also about becoming an artist, or being an artist, when you come from the middle-class: am I good enough? Will people realize I’m faking it? Where’s the proof I’m doing this art stuff right? Karim, the protagonist, moves from measuring his successes in sexual conquests, to something more interesting as the story progresses.
Anyway, there are passages I’d like to quote, but there’s so many of them that I’ll just leave off and just highly recommend this book. I loved it.
The Bass Saxophone by Josef Škvorecký, trans. Gian Castelli. A wonderful little book, and basically only two pieces of fiction in the whole thing. Škvorecký was a Czech-Canadian writer with deep roots in the Czech jazz scene back when Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain. You know from Swing Kids how jazz was verboten under the Nazis, right? Well, after the war, jazz was okay again… until it became. The introductory material discusses all of that in some detail, since it was a fascination of the author’s. The two pieces of fiction are “Emöke,” a gorgeously haunting piece about… well, kind of about love foiled by an asshole, and revenge, but mostly about haunting; and “The Bass Saxophone,” which is about all the things you might imagine, and a lot more: imagine saxophones are something dealt with in secret. (Yeah, they were: the Soviets tried to ban the instrument twice!)
After I read this, I was inspired to watch the 2008 film Stilyagi (Hipsters), about the Russian “stylster” scene that grew up around the same much-hated jazz music, and also the saxophone itself, and a wonderful message about the resistance of young, internationally-minded people to an idiotic government. (Timely, no?)
The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem. Maybe Škvorecký was a tough act to follow, but I found this collection a mixed bag. Some of the stories are really great, but some of them were a bit tedious or off-putting. It’s going into the pile of books I keep, for those stories that I did like–“The Happy Man” is bizarre and distressing, “Sleepy People” and “Five Fucks” refract fascinating anxieties about relationships and sex, and “The Hardened Criminals” is a clever, horrible tale of prison and the, er, “hardened” criminals used to build it. “How We Got In Town and Back Out Again” was also good. “Access Fantasy” wasn’t fun, and “Light and the Sufferer” had an interesting alien race, but the crack-dealer stuff dated it badly.
Ayam Curtain by June Yang and Joyce Chng. This is a bizarre, cool little book made up of stories focused on the thematic idea of alternate worlds–alternate Singapores–that are accessible to birds. (The title is a pun on the way “ayam” sounds like “iron” but actually is Malay word for “chicken.” At least, I believe it’s chicken–that’s how Indonesians use the word, anyway.) This concept alone convinced me to buy the book when I saw it: birds and alternate universes? Sure, cool. That’s weird. I like this kind of concept for an anthology.
The collection contains contributions from many different authors, all of them either from Singapore, or somehow tied to that island city, and it’s split into two parts. The first part is all tiny flash pieces, not more than a few pages each, and if you read them too quickly, they flash in and out of your mind. Some are better than others, and I’ll confess that mostly due to their shortness–and the way I devoured the book–a lot of the stories flittered away fairly quickly after I read them. That said, most of them were interesting and odd, as long as you don’t mind (being non-Singaporean) having occasional references fly over your head. (Ba-dum-dum: tssss!)
Also, the book is short enough that if you do want to revisit any of those strange worlds uncovered in its pages, it’s easy to do so, and a lot of them are funny or enjoyable enough that a revisit would be fun. The latter part of the book is longer pieces of fiction, which get a bit chewier sometimes, and dig into Singaporean politics occasionally as well. Lots of great stuff in this–enough that I won’t name individual authors, because the list would get too long–but if you can get your hands on it, I think it’s worth picking up.
Also worth mentioning: the book in itself is a lovely object.
Governess by Ruth Brandon. Being a governess sucked. Actually, being a woman in the late 18th and 19th century (and early 20th) in general sucked, but it sucked even more if you’d had a taste of privilege, and then ended up being a governess. I have more to say about it, but I’ll just note that Brandon’s work is mostly good, if a bit skewed sometimes (she gives some of the governesses whose lives she recounts the benefit of the doubt and tends to assume they’re always telling the whole, unvarnished truth in their diaries unless there’s evidence to the contrary… well, except from Anna Leonowens, who pretty much lied about everything). That said, the lives covered in these pages are fascinating, if more than once also heartbreaking. Worth a look.
The Korean Popular Culture Reader edited by Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe. I read this for a review that apparently is forthcoming in the Kyoto Journal, so I’ll keep my comments very brief. There’s some good academic work here–and some of the pieces are really excellent, including the historical overview of “group sound rock” and the criticism of the way nationalists treat female athletes as Korean property, and so on. There were also a couple of poor papers.
Ultimately, though, I felt that overall the book was constrained with a certain degree by a distance from its mandated purpose (serving as a source of readings on the kind of Korean popular culture that attract students to Korean Studies classes today) and compromised by a kind of complicity with what we could call “Hallyu nationalism” (or “Korean Wave nationalism). Since I had to cut some of my comments to get the article down to size, I recently posted some observations on Hallyu Nationalism recently that ended up on the cutting room floor.
The Taiping Rebellion–History and Documents: Volume I: History by Franz Michael with Chung-li Chang. The shortest of the three-volume set, this is a kind of primer on the Taiping Rebellion. If you’ve read Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son, you probably can skip this unless you want to dig out every possible detail you can. (No cover image because my copy has no dustjacket, so it’d be an orange rectangle.)
Straight, No Chase: The Life and Music of Thelonious Monk by Leslie Gourse.The author passed away far too young, back in 2005, leaving behind a lot of great jazz writing I’m sure. This was my first encounter with her work, and her biography of Monk was really worth the read, though I should note that it lacks any kind of musical analysis at all, and there’s perhaps just a little overmuch interest in Monk’s mental health issues. That said, it’s also a very compassionate, thoughtful–but not quite hagiographic–discussion of Monk’s life. Maybe something better has been written since… I have one more Monk biography lined up to read soonish–but it’s still a great book if you love jazz, or happen to be curious about one of its most enigmatic and creatively unique figures.
What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. Great nonfiction book which is pretty much what the cover advertises. Marlantes approaches his own war experiences (going to, fighting in, and returning home from Vietnam) from a philosophical angle, and manages to really access some profound truths about human nature, about violence, about the lies we tell ourselves and how they mar our societies. Highly recommended.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. My first brush with Carson. She’s a very good writer, though I felt like I was supposed to be more impressed than I was. Probably some allusions went over my head. It’s inventive… sort of. But at bottom, it’s also recasting ancient myth as a kind of literary yaoi fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that in general, but personally yaoi fantasy ain’t really my schtick, is all… or, well, sexy love-and-loss stories in general. Still, I’ll be giving Carson another go sometime, on the strength of her verse itself: she weaves language in a way I can recognize as outstanding, even the sum total of these poems left me a little cold. But I probably won’t return to this particular volume.
Demonstra by Bryan Thao Worra. This is some weird, weird poetry: the author mixes the Lovecraftian (and more generally the fantastical, horrendous, and SFnal alike) with the complex and multifaceted mythology and menagerie of Laos. So: Lovecraftian nagas, an anime-inflected depiction of Hanuman, Southeast-Asian zombie-figures, cryptic mention of a mysterious Taoist akin to the Necronomicon: this is a book embarrassingly rich in the bizarre, especially in grinding together old-country and new-country concepts in jarring, bizarre ways.
I should throw out one caveat here: I’m not usually a big fan of genre poetry, despite the fact I sometimes write it myself. When it comes to poems, I’m into modernist verse, especially: Pound, Williams, HD, Cummings, Eliot… stylistic territory that genre poetry often avoids, for very explicable reasons. There’s a kind of inherent opacity in the work of those modernist poets that I find SF poetry tends to eschew, again for good reasons… except that I often find genre poetry works more like genre doggerel. The problem, I suppose, is me: I want that difficulty. I like it, and it’s conspiciously absent in a lot of “genre poetry.”
So one thing I appreciated about Worra’s verse is that, while he usually doesn’t get as opaque as the Pound of The Cantos or Eliot in Four Quartets (personal favorites of mine) he does use Lao vocabulary and phrases with the same liberality. This is a very good thing, not despite it being sometimes overwhelming, but because of it–you have to read these poems aloud to get their sound in your ear. It’s up to you whether you chase down the meanings in the appendix, or guess from context, or just read them like you read “ia ia pthagn…” of course, but the unfamiliar words shake loose the verse a little, in a way I appreciated. It took until my second read-through to really notice some of the arch humor and weirdness stood out more… but I find that’s true with a lot of poetry collections: you expect to be grabbed more the second time, or at least I do. There are more than enough gems among the book’s monster-blood-soaked offerings for me to recommend it to any geek who likes verse.
Also, it’s notable that the book is illustrated with a small selection of creepy black and white drawings by Vongduane Manivong, another Lao-American; her drawings are well-paired to the materials they’re set off against in the text.I wanted more of those. Which is why I’m kicking myself for not hearing about the fundraising drive on Kickstarter for the book: there was a deluxe edition on offer as a Kickstarter reward, with more creepy illustrations and tons of other research on Laotian mythology and creatures (though, I think, no more extra poems) beyond what made it into the standard edition’s biggest appendix. Still, some of the appendices that made it into the standard edition are also great, including one that contains the names of a bunch of Lovecraft Mythos beings in Lao script. (Dangerous in and of itself, but apparently that’s how they roll at Innsmouth Free Press.)
Anyway, see a sample for yourself: “Full Metal Hanuman” was previously published at Strange Horizons, and is one of the shining moments in the book. (So, for that matter, is “Stainless Steel Nak,” which you may have see in in the first issue of Lontar.) If you like that, I think you’ll enjoy the book.
The Monsters Between Us: Poems by Jason Wee. Another book I picked up in Singapore during my last visit there, when I made it to Books Actually (a shop introduced to me by Jason Erik Lundberg). There’s a mix of politics and queer semi-biography and more politics and weird monster stuff. I picked it up for the weird monster stuff, but that last sequence of poems–the fragmentary dialog of a repressive, torturous state and individual human beings fighting to resist, to be themselves, to be human–was pretty damned powerful. Again, if you can get your hands on it, and like verse, it’s worth a look.
Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss. Actually, this book includes contributions from a metric ton (or two) of artists and authors. It’s gorgeous. It’s thoughtful. It’s cool.
It’s more about ideas, and systems, and structures, and ways of thinking about things, and less about formulae and how-to, so far. I’m making my way through it very slowly. It’s a dedicated writing guide to the fantastical writer, but I think a lot of it is just as true for any writing.
I’m reading it very slowly, though. Which is fine. Wonderbook doesn’t mind.
Little, Big by John Crowley. (Audiobook). Well, here it is: a widely and wildly beloved fantasy novel accorded all the greatest honors–and, well, at least, many, many writers I’ve known have loved it. (Including some with terrible taste, but also many writers whose opinions I usually accord some respect: the grumpy and thoughtful Thomas Disch, no less.) So I’m sitting here wondering what it is I’m not seeing. I’ve seen some people pan the audiobook (which is read by Crowley himself), so maybe that’s why I’m not falling in love with this book.
One thing is that, frankly, I dislike a lot of the characters, but not in a way that makes me more interested in them. (Contrary to what some critics and writing instructors seem to think, intense dislike of a character can be a powerful mechanism of interest!) Actually, I’ll be very frank and note that the characters remind me (in a lot of ways) of the very same people who most ardently recommended the book to me. Unfortunately, those were people I ended up disliking in precisely the same way I dislike these characters–in a way that made them less interesting to me, not more. There’s some idosyncratic synergy there, I guess.
Still, that’s not all of it. There’s something else, that I can’t quite put my finger on. David Moles is one of the many who uses the word “twee” to explain this reaction, which is part of it, but not all of it. (But I’m heartened to discover in that thread that I’m not alone in not feeling the overwhelming love for the novel.) Crowley’s obviously a fine prose stylist, but… well, I guess I want to punch his book in the face. Not Crowley, who I’m sure is a lovely guy and would be a fun person to have a pint with… just his book. Or, well,I wanted to for hours and hours. It’s picked up a little, in the last hour of listening or so, so maybe I’ll like what follows. If not, though, I’mgoing to have to give up on it and move on. I keep listening to it, hoping I’ll like it more. But I don’t, and life is short.
What’s behind my reaction: Literary guilt by association? The audiobook? Twee? Generational thing? Irreconcilability of differences in personal disposition and temperament? Help me out here, folks? Somehow, this is the book I’m enjoying the least, and I’m saying the most about it.
But I will say that if it hadn’t been praised and praised and praised–if I didn’t know this was John Crowley’s constantly-praised Little, Big–I probably would have given up weeks ago. And given how refreshing I found it when, a few days ago, I went for a walk and listened to some music and had no idea who was in the band, or what to expect… and found suddenly I had to listen, and ask myself questions? And found I was listening in a way I haven’t in a long time? Come on, we all fall into it: “I ought to like this, oughtn’t I?” Listening with our own ears, though…
Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature by William R. Newman. Basically, a history not just of alchemy, but of the ancient landscape of ideas from which alchemy sprang, and in dialog with which alchemy evolved as a practice involving the perfection of nature. I’m not too far in, but it’s both interesting and slow going, heavy stuff. Lots of ideas about art, nature, science, and artificiality. It doesn’t seem to be for the casual reader–though are there casual readers who want to read about why everything you think you know about alchemy is actually wrong?–but if you’re interested in the cognitive and cultural roots of alchemy, and how we could have forgotten alchemy’s role in the development of science–indeed, its status as an important and early scientific practice that gave rise to loads of useful technology–and would like some historical perspectives on the very same ideas and debates about nature and conscious human artifice that continue even into the present day (GM foods? artificial intelligence?)–then this book is a good place to look. But, again: it’s not light reading.
Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark, From and About Japan, edited by Masumi Washington and Nick Mamatas. I’m reviewing this for the Kyoto Journal, but I’m not very far in yet. I’ll share an impression once I’m done, though I’ll probably be reserving most of my comments for the review.