I’ve read less than I expected to, just because I’ve been busy for a number of reasons, but I’ve still managed to dig into some really interesting books over the last few months. So interesting that it took me over 5000 words to sum it up!
- It’s sad I didn’t read Moorcock instead of all those clunky Forgotten Realms novels I tore through in middle school. It’s a classic text, albeit a rather heavily dated one and, I suspect, like so many books one you have to come to at the right age.
Which isn’t quite to say I disliked it, but neither did I fall in love with it nthe way I did Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories (another series to which I want to return soon). Still, I can see why Moorcock was so influential at the time, and certainly his influence is still being felt in genre fiction today. I don’t know if calling it the Breaking Bad of high fantasy is fair or not, but that’s the impression I got–that if that wasn’t exactly what it is, that’s how it was intended to seem.
I feel like maybe I’d have been better served starting with the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books earlier; Elric feels more, I don’t know, mid-to-late-teen. A quick read, though, and structurally the book was surprisingly simple, with more familiar tropes than I expected. (Damsel in Distress, Faustian Pact, the Handy Sidekick.) “Thing” crying out “Frank” as it dies, though… that’s the weirdest moment of the book. Even weirder than the Freudian crawl back into the womb near the end. I could continue on with the series, or not; we’ll see if I get around to them, but I’m less excited about Elric’s story than I am about the Fritz Leiber collections I started reading back in 2014, and which I always want to get back around to. I feel like I could probably absorb most of the fun here in secondary remixes, like China Miéville’s Bas Lag books, in which I feel a strong presence of Melniboné.
Premendra Mitra’s Mosquito and Other Stories:
These stories feel a bit like those adventure serials that so dominated the cinemas a couple of generations ago, I suppose, which makes sense given that Mitra, aside from being a poet and author of genre fiction (apparently he wrote detective stories and SF!), was also involved in the early film industry in India as a broadcaster, screenwriter, and director. I’d love to track down some of his juvnile-aimed SF, if any exists in English translation. (Wikipedia lists English titles for the Bengali SF books, but I don’t think they’re titles of translations, unfortunately.)
I’m curious about the basis of selection used here, since there were a couple—especially the third-last one in the book, “Fly”—that weren’t quite as fun as the others. But that’s subjective, and it could just be that one tires of tall tales read in sequence. After taking a break and coming back to it, even “Fly” was entertaining enough, if a bit more ridiculous and baffling than the rest. Even so, overall I found it very fun collection of tall tales, and something I’d feel comfortable giving to a kid or an adult.
If only the recent biopic of Yi had been based on that version of the story. Anyway, I’m glad the library at work had a copy, because the book is both incredibly expensive, and—for the purposes of a casual reader—heavily padded. History majors might appreciate having an introduction as long as the text, highlighting what is and isn’t fantastical, as well as providing historical notes1 A bilingual reader might appreciate having both an English and a Hangeul text. But to me, it’s the main translation of the text that’s useful, and that’s a scant sixty or seventy pages. Personally, I wish that Lee’s introduction had done less in terms of highlighting specific episodes, and more in terms of discussing differences between various versions of the text. It was, after all, circulated in China as well as in Korea.
That said, there are some interesting insights in the text, particularly in terms of how the Japanese treated prisoners in accordance with their scholarly achievement: Confucian scholars and others versed in Chinese poetry got treated well; those who were illiterate, not so well. It’s an interesting thing to consider, the idea of a transnational hierarchy toward the apex of which, just beneath royalty, one finds scholars. Still, this is definitely a book one should get through interlibrary loan, if at all possible. If you’re interested, I discussed this book more here.
The science is a little… well, science-fictional speculation can become dated, and rather quickly. (When I briefly studied with him, Vernor Vinge actually talked about “future-proofing” an SFnal text, that is, about the necessity of thinking about how SFnal speculation becoming dated, and actively trying to extend the shelf-life of a narrative.) But that didn’t hurt the story: instead, I just found myself editing the book in my own imagination: here’s what the scientists got wrong, here’s why their equipment failed to get such a nonsensical result, and so on. But Lem is a master storyteller, one I feel should be much closer to the center of the Anglo-SF canon. He ran the gamut in styles and approaches, and his stories, even the jokey fun stuff in The Cyberiad, was so often utterly profound.
The profundity in Solaris seems to proceed from the fact that the book is, ultimately, about the completely fucked-up nature of human relationships. Solaris really is like nothing so much as Woman in the minds of that subset of ment who are obsessed with “understanding Women.” Large chunks of the story read like a drug-trip metaphorization of the horrors of a broken, sick relationship… not with the famous memory-figures the planet’s sea extrudes into the station to haunt them, mind you—those are only mind-forms, after all, second-order effects; living ghosts haunting the men on board the ship—but with the planet itself. Solaris and the scientists have a broken relationship because the scientists are so busy insisting on understanding Solaris that they fail to realize how poorly they understand themselves. I feel a weird, invisible connection between this book and the much later book Mary Frances Wack wrote about love-sickness in Medieval Europe… both being focused on how insane men can get when they encounter some object of their desires and obsessions which they cannot control, regardless of how they try.
It’s a fascinating, weird, haunting book. Much more interesting than either of the film versions, not that I disliked either. Reading this reaffirms for me the pivotal importance of Lem in the SF literature canon, and as an author whose work deserves to be read centuries from now, as we read authors from centuries ago… something I don’t often suggest about SF authors, for a whole host of reasons.
Nikolai Gogol’s “The Viy” is a novella, not a novel, but it’s worthy of note: again, it’s a lot better than the (laughably bad) movie, especially if you’re curious about old Russian horror stories. I got a kick out of it, to be sure. It’s available in the public domain, over at the University of Adelaide. (And there’s more Gogol too, if you like “The Viy.”)
But while I’m now fascinated by the idea of adapting “Sacrifice” to a rural Korean Lovecraftian short film, I think my favorite story of the volume is the title story, “Night Voices, Night Journeys,” by Inoue Masahiko (translated by Edward Lipsett), for the sheer ballsiness of its pairing of beguiling eroticism with stomach-turning horror, topping with a brilliant and entertaining twist. Reminiscent of older groundbreaking texts in Korea, the book closes out with an essay about Lovecraftian comics, and some appendices detailing Cthulhu Mythos manga and fiction in Japanese.
I have two more of the three remaining volumes on hand, and plan on getting to them before the summer is over!
One thing that’s fascinating is the differences in reactions between the Bostonians and the Londoners: in London, doctors were skeptical, but the royal family–several of its members having suffered through the speckled monster, or lost loved ones to it–were curious and open to testing it. In Boston, Boylston found his fellow doctors horrified, the local government oppressively opposed, and the mob pretty much ready to kill him to stop the inoculations. (Cotton Mather–yeah, that Cotton Mather–actually encouraged him to the practice… but was unwilling to publicly side with him when push came to mob-scale shove… which, well… it brings to mind this particular bit from William S. Burroughs’ “Words of Advice for Young People.”)
It does bear noting that this book actually straddles genres: it’s one of those newfangled histories that takes (slight) creative liberties with history, for the sake of narrative interest, and tells the events in a form much like narrative fiction. It’s a little too fabulated to be pure history, and a little too rigorous to be considered historical fiction. For those who care–and you should, at least a little, if you’re reading the book for the history–the mini-essays in the back that sort fact from fancy are invaluable, especially when it comes to the way the two narratives intertwine at the end. That said, I rather admire how Carrell weaves possible or probable events out of later writings by characters, as well as by inference. Those mini-essays are fascinating not just for the historical insights they provide, but also for the way they illustrate Carrell’s methodical process of consideration, inference, and imagining when she set out to fill in the historical blanks.
(I mentioned the book earlier, here.)
I am also grateful for the introduction the book has provided to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a fascinating historical figure who I need to know more about. She’s very, very pertinent to my novel project, but she’s also fascinating in her own right, which leads to the next text:
The Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu (a book I got from Project Gutenberg) is also fascinating reading, if you’re interested in what a bright, thoughtful, horribly scarred Englishwoman–her life turned upside-down. She ended up going about the rest of her life in a veil, to hide the ravages wrought upon her face by smallpox. The ravages upon her life were another story: she had been admired by the king, though he lost interest when she lost her looks, but worse, while she was ill a satire she’d written of the court had been circulated, insulting the Princess. Soon after, her husband–to whom she was quite unhappily married, despite having wed him in a love match hotly forbidden by her father–was appointed Ambassador to Turkey at Istanbul. This blog post has a pretty good summary of her life story.
As one essay I read about her suggests, to read Mary Wortley Montagu’s writing is to be reminded that feminist progress is neither teleological, nor smooth. Montagu strikes one as someone who could have been alive, if not today, then rather easily in the 1960s. Her rhetoric, her sense of humor, her bluntness, and even her biography (leaving her loveless marriage with an annoying husband to go be a “gay divorcée” in Europe) all smack of the utterly modern, though her prose itself is perfectly early Georgian London.
Also, one has to dig the woman who, when Alexander Pope confessed his love to her, responded by bursting into laughter.
Confession time: I haven’t read all of the letters in the book, but while I plan on doing so, now still seems like a good time to mention them as worth checking out, since it’ll probably take some time before I get through them all.
Actually, her “failed” but “not a failure” attempt could be paralleled with Jodorowsky’s Dune, except… well, she’s not a total loon like Jodorowsky, so it’s a less interesting sort of account of a failure (to me). But Pini’s account of the attempt is also briefer, and speaks to an interest I’ve developed in how artists and creative types deal with setbacks and failures. Pini’s take-home lesson seems to be that you learn by doing, even when the doing doesn’t pan out in a completed project… and that you need to tell your story, if you really want to achieve anything.
You can read Law & Chaos free online at her website. (Just as you can read all of the original Elfquest series–but not the new one–free online. Not that I have: I read some as a kid, but never became a huge fan–I was souring on elves and magic around the time I ran across it, and yeah, even though I know they’re actually free-lovin’ aliens from another world, the elf thing turned me off. I am slightly curious what I’d think of them now, but I haven’t gotten around to it.)
As you might have gathered from the bits I’ve quoted over the m
What interests me about Zhang Dai is how he handled the collapse of his world: the failure of the Ming Dynasty, in other words. Zhang Dai spent a good part of his life learning to be part of the system, finding his place in the system, enjoying the privilege he was accorded within the system, and glorifying the system… until that system basically fell apart at the seams. How he dealt with that is fascinating, especially if you’re curious about how the intellectual elite in China constructed history, and understood their place in it… and how, contrary to what you might imagine, a brilliant iconoclast could find a place in it (at least, in times of plenty) and how, during a time of turmoil, he managed to carve himself a place instead in his culture’s enduring memory.
Another book on Chinese history I read was Jerome Chen’s Yuan Shih-k’ai, which is a biography for the Chinese revolution-era Prime Minister of China. Chen is pretty hostile to Yuan, but he doesn’t seem to be unusual in that: so is pretty much everyone as far as I can tell. In this book, at least, Yuan comes off looking like perhaps the worst leader ever to take the reins of China: a failed diplomat, a failed leader, a failed strongman, and he didn’t really even manage to last very long. But there are some amusing anecdotes throughout, which I collected into a recent post.
Oh, and one more think: Raskin set up a website called RamenAdvice.com to dispense advice based on the writings of Ando; someone else has set up shop at that URL since Raskin shut down, but you can see the archives over on the Wayback Machine.
The roar of war, tragedy, and catastrophe can be heard throughout the world today. But the experience of Lord Rumford, an eminent scientist and adventurer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, illuminates our predicament. When the elector of Bavaria invited Rumford to Munich, he arrived to find a city full of beggars and thieves, and he sought a remedy. Instead of preaching morality, he set about feeding he people—and morality followed, as a result of eradicating hunger. May we not dream, however naively, of furthering the cause of peace and social justice by reintroducing in the schools an enlightened form of culinary instruction? (page 120)
Well, that’s all well and good, but for my wife and I to eat at his buddy’s restaurant would cost a minimum of $200, without drinks. You’re not gonna achieve world peace that way, and this rather brings up the real question that This avoids addressing: the theme of cook or chef as artisanal craftsperson makes it sound all rustic and traditionnel but in fact the innovations and the artisans of the culinary world, they’re beyond the reach of most people—most especially the people most subject to all the war, tragedy, and catastrophe. Let’s be frank: fancy food is the domain of the privileged, and it’s not going to create world peace. Peace does come from a full belly… but not from a new kind of chocolate mousse, and though This seems vaguely aware that our world’s dietary habits are ecologically and practically unsustainable, he only vaguely touches upon it… and by necessity misses the boat he’d need to catch in order to talk credibly about what “we” will be eating tomorrow, though it is a fascination of his. He claims we will be eating tomorrow what we invent today, but that, too, is the province of the rich. Most of us, tomorrow, will be eating whatever survives today. (Not, for example, the Gros Michel banana.)
I discussed my disappointment with the book at greater length in a recent post, which you can read here.
Hamel, the aforementioned castaway, wasn’t the first Westerner to end up in Korea, mind: they actually encounter one Dutch pirate who was in Korea a full generation earlier (a fellow by the name of Jan Jansen Weltevree), and who basically settled in Korea and worked in munitions manufacture for the king. But Hamel and his friends escaped to Japan, and were able to carry their tale back to the Netherlands.
Escaped, note: they were essentially living under military arrest and their situation has been summed as living in enslavement, though according to Hamel the conditions varied wildly depending on who was in charge of them at any given time.
The original Hamel text would have been merely interesting, but Ledyard’s research uncovers many of the things that Hamel and his fellow Dutchmen didn’t know or realize at the time, as well as some of the geopolitical context that the Dutch only half-understood. A great deal of politicking left behind the curtain in Hamel’s account gets at least exposed by Ledyard’s investigation, and he also manages to consider the possible connection between the Joseon world experienced by Hamel and Korea today.
Indeed, it is in his consideration of that question that the book is most insightful: he notes that accounts of both China and Japan reached Europe when those nations had reached a high-water mark of cultural and political robustness. whereas Korea only opened up to the West and began being written about by Westerners much at all in the late 19th-century, when things were rather more in a state of disrepair. Ledyard raises a fair question when he asks whether China would have been perceived as mighty by the West if the first accounts given to Europeans dated to during the Taiping Rebellion (as early Western accounts of Korea date to the later 19th century, roughly around the Donghak Rebellion and the collapse of the Joseon Dynasty.)
I’ve mentioned that a baby is on the way. The process is bewildering, even more so when most of the medical consultations are in a language you’re not fluent in. (Thank goodness they’re in Mrs. Jiwaku’s first language, though!)
So, I’ve ODed on pregnancy and parenting books lately.
On the Go…
Since I’m one of those people that usually has ten books on the go all at once, I won’t belabour this post by getting into everything I’ve read half of so far. If you’re curious, there’s a “Currently Reading” section in the sidebar that can enlighten you, and yes, everything that displays there is something I’m currently reading, though there are also books I dip into occasionally that aren’t listed there, too. Um, anyway… I expect to get a fair amount of reading (and writing!) done this summer. I hope to, anyway!
Though some of the notes I found somewhat untrustworthy. See here.↩