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November-December Books

It looks like it’s been slower around here than it actually has been, in terms of books: I’ve just been reading some big ones, is all. I’ll put ’em beneath the cut, to save space.

Wajuppa Tossa’s translation of Phadaeng Nang Ai is fascinating in a few ways, though some of that is due to the material with which Tossa surrounds the poem. My curiosity was piqued by the mention of the translation in Bryan Thao Worra’s Demonstra, and since I was working on a story about nagas in the Mekong, I figured I’d check it out. For that purpose, it actually wasn’t particularly useful, I don’t think, but I’m still glad I read it. I discussed it more here.

I’ve already praised The Cunning Man’s Handbook, by Jim Baker (see also here and here), but I wasn’t particularly far into the book then. Still, what I said then is pretty representative of opinion having finished the tome: it’s a great, massive, excellent book, and for anyone interested in the weirdness of English folk magic of the sort actually practiced by real historical people from about the time of the Renaissance until the turn of the 20th century–as opposed to the invented New Ageified wicca stuff that has nothing to do with actual historical practice–it’s basically indispensable. But it’s also massive: It’s at least two or three times longer than any other book on this month’s list, and dominated my reading in November.

John Crowley’s Little, Big is an odd beast. I should be fair and say that I listened to the audiobook available on Audible, and mostly these days audiobooks go with doing the dishes, a chore I’ve always hated… but that said, this didn’t really affect my appreciation of most of the other audiobooks I’ve listened through doing the same task.

But I’ll also say that, about two-thirds of the way through, gears shifted and it got a lot more interesting to me: suddenly things were paying off that had been set up much earlier, and it felt like there was some forward movement. (Right around the time Hawksquill starts to figure out who Eigenblick really is.) Maybe it all works better on the page than in the ear, but it felt like a long wait for things to really start paying off… and yet, that being the kind of game I play in fiction all the time–subverted expectations, delayed payoff, that kind of thing–I’m not sure why it bothers me.

I think it’s probably something to do with the proportion of payoff and how it’s paid out: it seemed to me it was about four or five hours from the end that serious payoff started to happen, and that, to me, seems somewhat lopsided. I appreciate the ending–there’s an audacity to it, especially if my reading of the ending is tenable in terms of time-reversal experienced by those who migrate one layer in, and the erasure of memory, and so on. There’s beautiful writing, too, of course. But the story, the structure of the story, bothered me, and it was only stubbornness to see why people love the book so much that carried me far enough to actually see the payoff begin.

The thing is, I’ve been hesitant to say that, less because so many people love the book so much, than because it sounds uncomfortably close to the stupider sorts of criticisms I’ve seen of the book. As with a lot of very popular books, one can find reams of really thoughtless praise, and really thoughtless criticism as well. The most common complaint is something along the lines of Crowley writing pretty, except “nothing happens.” I’m not mouthing that sort of stupidity: I can perfectly well read a book without explosions and gunfights, thank you very much, and no, rocket launchers don’t always make things better or more exciting.

Rather, I’m suggesting there’s something out of kilter with how the mechanics of the narrative play out; I suspect even Crowley intuited this, since it is arguably represented in the orrery in the attic of Edgewood, which seems built to be driven powerfully enough to turn the lights on, but only seems to actually switch on near the end of the book. And of course, if the orrery can be taken as a metaphor not only for what’s happening in the story, but for the forces driving the narrative as a text, well, then Crowley did it on purpose, and I’m not sure I can fault him so much just because that particular decision seems unbalanced to me. (Not, at least, given my own constant call for exploration beyond the generic narrative structures we’ve all come to take for granted.)

Maybe it’s something else altogether that I have’t picked out consciously. Maybe I’m just not crazy about Crowley’s reading. I don’t know. But having reached the end, I know my first response–that it was simply a bad book, recommended to me by people who had bad taste–is unfair. Not every book should appeal to me… that is, not every book should be written in a way that appeals to me. I can see lots of things in it that were interesting. I also wanted to punch several of the characters in the face (and, indeed, to punch the book in the face, at times) but even that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (I’ve felt the same way about shorter books and praised them in the end.)

I’ve probably said enough about Lee Morgan’s Dr. Johnson’s ‘Own Dear Master’: The Life of Henry Thrale to register my disappointment in this biography of one of London’s worst brewers ever, but I will add that, at the very least, it got me curious about Hester Thrale–and of course about Samuel Johnson, a figure about whom I know too little.

Nick Mamatas’ Bullettime is by far the oddest book I’ve read lately. Mamatas plays an interesting game with his character(s)–many of whom are the same character instantiated in different possible worldlines, plus the singular essential-self consciousness of that same character observing from a place outside of spacetime called “The Ylem.”

On a straightforward level, it’s about school shootings (completed and aborted), the life of the school loser, hopeless lust, substance abuse, the horror of school, violent revenge, and the idea of “just getting over it”: where an author like Neil Gaiman panders to the adult survivor of twee childhood nerdhood, Nick Mamatas beats you in the face with the ugly truth hidden inside it: just because you were a victim, doesn’t mean you didn’t suck back then too, in your own awful way. But you sucked in a system that sucked: over and over, it comes back to the prison-like setting of school. In some sense, Mamatas seems to be making a strong argument for the kind of things someone like Robert Epstein or John Taylor Gatto argues: that schools are profoundly screwed-up institutions, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they produce screwed-up people.

Still, great fiction is never so straightforwardly programmatic, nor is Bullettime driven by any agenda as simple as advocating unschooling. Rather, Mamatas seems to be playing a game of cat-and-mouse with reader sympathy, and how readers will assign culpability. We want to root for the protagonist, Dave Holbrook. But he’s also an obnoxious, Robotussin-abusing loser that is just as often nauseating as he is sympathetic. Erin, who is really Eris, the goddess of discord, is more interesting, but also pretty much a cynical, evil manipulator… who is at the same just acting within her nature. This is true of pretty much everyone in the book: Dave’s parents, the racist faculty at Dave’s school, the bullies who make his life a miserable hell, the grad schooler who appears near the end–they’re all is basically flawed, but also in the grip of some thing or system bigger than themselves, that brings out the worst in them.

Oh, and while Mamatas doesn’t seem to be advancing any sort of moral argument against schooling, the crapsack world of an American public high school as depicted in his novel surely resonates with the kinds of things discussed in the next book on my list. Anyway, I recommend Bullettime highly.

That next book is Robert Epstein’s Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence, which is a slightly uneven book, and one that is, I think, titled to sell to concerned parents who’re already interested in unschooling and the like. It’s perhaps a book Mamatas would wince to see held up beside his, and fairly: he’s doesn’t seem to be motivated by the same sort of earnest political agenda that drives Epstein, and there are some arguments in Epstein’s book that are, well, less convincing than others. (While Epstein decries war generally, he also talks about the functionality of teenagers as “child soldiers” on the battlefield; he doesn’t talk much about whether experiencing war in one’s formative years might screw someone up worse than experiencing it as an adult, though. He also holds up Joan of Arc as an example of a teenager who did amazing things, which is true: she also suffered from what we’d probably call schizophrenia today, and lived in a society where a schizophrenic’s visions could be taken as divine messages. There’s a whole chapter that cites Biblical support for the emancipation of teenagers, too, which… well, the Bible can be called to support anything, if you want it to.)

Still, I have a lot of sympathy for Epstein’s argument. I’ve long been struck by how arbitrary the age of majority is — ever since I noticed it was a year older in my home province than it was in the next province over, and especially after I noticed just how stupidly irresponsible people over that age are on a daily basis. Epstein’s argument, if you boil it down to its simplest form, is that we need to rethink the idea of the age of majority, instead demanding individuals demonstrate competency to be enfranchised to various freedoms in society. (In other words, a fifteen year old might actually be better equipped to drive safely than a fifty-year-old, and probably is better-equipped to drive than most 70-year-olds.) Some people are more intelligent than others, some more gifted than others, and arbitrary age markers are a stupid solution to sorting who deserves freedoms and responsibilities… especially given the kind of laughable double-standards we have.

(When a teenager crashes his car, he’s an asshole teenager; when an adult does, he’s just an asshole.)

The closer you look at it, the more this double-standard is apparent everywhere. It’s something I have felt was in play most of my life: I remember being bewildered when adults talked about “adult role models” for teenagers, because I had none. (And no, I’m not misremembering. I did imitate specific musicians, and I thought Miles Davis was amazingly cool, that Coltrane was an incredible genius… but I had no desire to go out and shoot heroin or snort coke because they’d done so.) My sense is that teenagers use the “role model” narrative as a handy excuse when they get in trouble for breaking rules: “well, Tupac does it…”  That, or else the individuals who have role models are just the same people who’ll pay attention to (and imitate) media stars as adults… we’ve all met those people, too.

Anyway, the deeper point of Epstein’s book is essentially a more radical version of the unschooling mainline, where schooling is held up as a mechanism which enforces the extended infantilization and suppression of children’s natural curiosity and, essentially, “dumbs us down” (as John Taylor Gatto famously put it in the title essay/speech of his most famous book). For Gatto, schooling is an extension of the replacement of community (natural, organic, forced to work through its internal conflicts) with networks (formal, superficial, and lacking the depth to nourish a human need), and in that context, school is the primary ending of pointlessness and meaninglessness in the lives of young people. For Epstein, schooling is more just one mechanism (albeit a major one) in a culture-wide, pervasive assault on young people. As an academic friend of mine put it after perusing the Epstein book, “This guy’s a real True Believer, huh?” The book does come off a little wide-eyed and over-eager at times–and also eager to assume that schooling is the root cause of a lot of problems, rather than just human stupidity in an industrialized setting–and Epstein’s willingness to cite people like Dubya and Newt Gingrich as examples or commentators that support his cause (strange bedfellows, really), ought to give any reader pause: I cannot help but suspect Gingrich really would want nothing to do with Epstein’s program… unless it was sure to produce uneducated voters are more easily hoodwinked, not to mention more easily railroaded in to precariat positions in the workforce.

Epstein writes of how, “A century ago, we rescued young people from the factories and the streets; now we need to rescue them from the schools.” Mamatas doesn’t self-present as being on that kind of mission at all–he critiques, he satirizes, he attacks, and he paints vividly the horror of high school in America; Epstein, true believer that he might be, definitely is on a mission, and if his idealism might sometimes be more than I think is reasonable, it’s still interesting to check out the books side by side.

I also read Islington Crocodiles by Paul Meloy, a book that had sat on my shelf for ages back in Bucheon. It was published by TTA Press (publisher of the famed Interzone magazine) in 2008, though my copy’s a 2009 reprint. Hell of a book, this, and I’m sad to hear it’s out of print–: edgy, dark, and weird. I’d be hard-pressed to categorize the stories into a specific speculative fiction subgenre, though a kind of shadowy, terrified brutality seems to run through them all… darker and more venomous than what I usually think of as the New Weird, but somewhere in that territory. Sort of the New Weird, freebasing on the collective Jungian Shadow of the Western world, maybe. There’s a reason that TTA Press borrowed the title of one of his stories for a magazine (Black Static): they’re that good, and indeed, feel as if they’re in a genre of their own. (Enviable, that.) I am kicking myself for having taken so long to get around to it, but I’m glad I finally did.

While I haven’t seen any interviews, I’d be surprised if Meloy wasn’t consciously influenced by Lovecraft: his approach to the fantastical is seems to run at a similar angle, though this is far from “Lovecraftian”; or, rather, it’s far from the kind of thing usually passed off as Lovecraftian. (Most authors that the critters and places and gods and specific characters and write stories using them; Meloy’s stories look more like what happens if you strip off the meat and just use the bones of the Lovecraftian fantastical mode, piling on new synthetic, vat-grown meat and flooding the veins with some solution that’s half blood and half pure diesel fuel. He has his own sort of Dreamlands-like setting, though it’s not like Lovecraft’s at all, and there’s a bizarre juxtaposition of magic, science, and interdimensional alien horror gnawing away at the tethers of reality and encroaching on our world. (I’ll ignore his stuffing “God” into the title novella because I took that as a flawed explanation of what’s going on offered by a character, rather than a definitive explanation: the world of these stories is just too bizarrely alien for anything so pedestrian as the Judeo-Christian deity to have a place in it.)

What I really liked about this book is that there’s a great, pressing, urgent epic unfolding in the background, which Meloy uses to infuse the stories of these individual characters with conflict and drive, but often the stories themselves very personal: it’s about people trying to understand what the hell is going on, or survive, or get things done in the immediate sense, rather than necessarily always being caught up in the grand epic battles. A sort of sciento-magical bizarre cosmology underlying the whole thing: laughter and comedy and hope play an important role in the fight against entropy, and the post-apocalyptic English landscape of the world in which these stories take place is littered with “bombsites” and crapsack ghetto-like cityscapes. (RPGers take note: this world would make a prime setting for a killer New Weird-esque RPG, whether you used it as a homebrew setting for some version of the White Wolf Mage franchise (the RPG setting that came to mind immediately for me: Ascension or Awakening, I imagine both would work) or else invented your own whole new rulesystem. The conflict-as-backdrop approach that Meloy uses is particularly RPG-friendly: it’s terribly easy to imagine any number of stories playing out in the world of Islington Crocodiles.)

I originally ordered the book in 2009 or 2010 on the strength of the title story, which I originally read in Interzone 208, and honestly I was not at all disappointed: in fact, the other stories in the collection are even more compelling and bizarre than the title novella, in my opinion. I tore through this collection in a mere couple of days. I rarely feel the urge to do that, but the stories here are all linked–were Meloy not an English-language writer, Islington Crocodiles might well have been termed (and marketed as) a “mosaic novel” actually, and most of it is indeed more of a mosaic–different fragments of the same world, shattered and affixed to a wall, edges still sharp–than it is a collection of individual short stories. It’s a great, mean, long-fanged, blood-hungry, muscular beast of a book. Highly recommended. Meloy’s apparently published a follow-up, which I’ll be tracking down when I get the chance, because this first one was an enormously impressive, odd, and troubling book.

Somtow Sucharitkul’s Starship and Haiku is a truly odd little novel, and I can’t help but wonder whether it would actually get published today, in the same way that, say, Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” was possible in 1956 (in the form we have it now) but would never have been spliced together that way in a studio today. The book is short, and it’s set in a very odd future. In it, Japan is sort of the main survivor of some kind of massive war, but has been reduced to a culture-wide obsession with suicide (that bit I suppose is weirdly prescient, given this was mostly written in the late 70s, before Japan’s suicide rate really got bad, though to be clear), which isn;t as crazy as it sounds: this obsession is clearly linked to the fact that the end of the world is due, and in fact has effectively already arrived on much of planet Earth. One of the places where it has arrived is America, which we glimpse only briefly glimpsed, and mainly only in Hawaii. From what we see, the rest of the world outside Japan has been reduced to a completely ruined third-world crapsack riddled with deformed, dying mutants, and… well, it’s not pretty.

The novel also features telepathic whales who are also vaguely exotic, and vaguely Japanese-ish in their thinking, and… well, that’s the first third of the book. We follow a Japanese-American who emigrates back to Japan, struggles to adapt to the culture, but we also follow a Japanese princess who is struggling with both personal issues, and with all hell breaking loose in Japan. There are elements in this book of things I’d played with integrating into a novel I was working on a few years ago, and it was fun to see them play out in a different setting. (I was doing it in an autocratic Southeast Asian setting, while Sucharitkul set his neo-feudal throwback nutballs in Japan instead.)

Sucharitkul somehow manages to mix a very literary approach with a brazenly pulp sensibility: there are things that Japanese characters say about Japan that sound like something, say, Tarantino might have a Japanese character say, and yet there’s also some very striking prose in the book. I would quote some, but I finished the book and tucked it into a box being shipped to Korea (so I wouldn’t have to carry it in my luggage), so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The Locus Award-winning Patterns by Pat Cadigan was a fun book full of solid stories, which Mrs. Jiwaku actually go to before I did. She recommended it highly, saying, “Now I know why Cat Padigan is famous,” and having read it, I agree…  I liked the reversal so much I’ve started referring to Pat that way in my head, “Cat Padigan this, Cat Padigan that.” Pat’s stories run like nasty little machines, tick, tick, tick, towards that final end… often with characters getting chewed up and spit out, but not always the characters you necessarily expect, and only sometimes is it the character you were rooting for that ends up becoming mincemeat. And yet they don’t feel mechanical: they just feel like the way things go.

A few of the stories definitely read as documents of the time they were written, especially “Pretty Boy Crossover,” but then, that’s how a lot of the SFF from the 80s and 90s reads these days. But even in those stories, Pat gets so much done with so little: the economy of these stories is rather breathtaking, as is their addictiveness: I tore through the whole collection with 24 hours of picking it up, something I almost never do with collections of short stories even when they’re all by the same author or even when they’re linked. I rarely read a whole book–of any size–in a single sitting, and the ones that are the exceptions are remarkable to me. I also liked the variety of the protagonists: I can’t think of any two protagonists who are particularly similar, and the range across which they fall is quite broad.

Probably the best story in the book, in my opinion, was the one new to the collection, “The Power and the Passion,” which is basically a vampire hunt story–the kind of thing I actually usually expect to hate, and usually do hate–except this one was written with the kind of protagonist who actually would end up hunting vampires. (I imagine Michael C. Hall being typecast in the role, though he’s too normal-looking for the part.) “Roadside Rescue” was wonderfully mean-spirited, and I got a kick out of “Heal,” even though it’s one of those stories that hangs on whether the final line makes you snicker black-heartedly. “Two” was a great story as well, basically a takedown of the powerchords fantasy of comic-book superherodom featuring a teenaged girl with superpowers you probably think you’d kill for, but which you’re probably much better off without. I also liked “Angel” a lot, and it weirdly had a lot in common with another aliens-on-Earth story I read a few months back, Jonathan Lethem’s “Light and the Sufferer” (in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye) though Cadigan’s “Angel” was more convincing and more affecting to me. Or maybe it came to mind because Cadigan also had a story about junkies, “My Brother’s Keeper” which, like the crack addicts in Lethem’s “Light and the Sufferer,” are a hopeless mess. Oh, and “Another One Hits the Road” is brilliant and, I imagine, would be considered “Weird” fiction today.

There were a couple of stories which, while well-written, weren’t exactly my thing–the main one that comes to mind was “It Was the Heat,” though maybe that’s in part because it’s depressing to read a book about the prodigious sensuality of New Orleans in a post-Katrina world; “Vengeance Is Yours” and “The Day the Martels Got the Cable,” likewise, were fine but not my thing–but the collection overall is pretty impressive. And hey, I’m only twenty-five years late to the party. Which means I was fifteen when this book came out. Geez. It’s a first collection, and Cadigan’s craft is on fine display here.

I’ve also been reading Stephen Howard’s Saxophone Manual: Choosing, Setting Up and Maintaining a Saxophone, but I doubt most of the people who visit this blog (or get this far into a post like this) will be much interested in that, so I’ll save my comments for a post devoted to that book alone, once I work my way through the whole thing. (Except to say that I’m quite impressed, and looking forward to being someplace I can get some of the basic gear necessary to try some of the maintenance procedures out on my own tenor sax…)

And I won’t get into the kids’ books, though I will say I get a kick out of the Winnie the Witch books. They’re fun, neat little dilemma-driven scenarios that don’t try to be more than they are, and manage to be cute, clever, and funny all at once. I mean, if you’re reading kids’ books. Which I won’t be anymore for a while, but while I had reason to be reading them, these were some of the more interesting ones available, complete with problem, consideration, experimentation, and solution. Clever and amusing, and, well, the kid I was reading them with never once turned to me baffled, the way she was when we read The Giving Tree. (Which I’d say is basically a glorification of screwed-up condependent relationships.)

I’m also partway through two other anthologies at the moment, worth mentioning now: one is Haikasoru’s Phantasm Japan (edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, and which I’m reviewing for Kyoto Journal) and the other is Fish Eats Lion, the Singaporean SFF anthology edited by Jason Erik Lundberg. Mostly it’s just been the rigmarole of packing and moving and unpacking and job-hunting that has slowed me down. (I’ve only finished one book this month, and it’s one that I was most of the way through at year’s end… a book mostly of interviews of Igor Stravinsky conducted by Robert Kraft titled Memories and Commentaries, incidentally.)

Is it too late to publish a year-end list? I keep lists going in draft posts, all year long, so I think I’ll publish it anyway, tomorrow, but in an excerpted post so only those interested will see the contents.

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