The Books of September-December 2015

Well, the reading’s been a bit slow. I had an intense semester, and Mrs. Jiwaku was in the last trimester of pregnancy… and then the baby came. All things considered, I guess I read a fair bit, but it doesn’t feel like a lot. Not as much as I usually read. Then again, it’s been a productive few months, and time with the baby is good. Anyway, here’s what I’ve read since September.


cadiganteaPat Cadigan‘s Tea From an Empty Cup is the first of her novels I’ve read—like a lot of people, my first encounter with her was in Bruce Sterling’s cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades, and since then I’ve mainly known her through her short fiction. (And, of course, having hung out at Launch Pad 2009.) I count her as a friend, which I suppose is a disclaimer to what I’ll say here.

A lot of people who discuss this book online get hung up on the ambiguity of the ending. I dig unapologetically ambiguous endings: I think sometimes the ambiguity is the point. (If you ask me whether the governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is really seeing ghosts, or insane and a murderer, my answer is, “Yes.” The ambiguity is a carefully designed, purposeful feature of the text.)

The thing is, Pat’s hip enough to know that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. This journey is a detective story, carefully built to feel a bit like something you’d have read in Analog or F&SF or Galaxy back in the old days, despite its cyberpunk (or, perhaps, post-cyberpunk? Neo-cyberpunk?) skin. Japan’s gone (which reminds me of a bizarre novel by Somtow Sucharitkul I read earlier this year, when we were leaving Vietnam), but an Artificial Reality (A.R., but basically what we all call V.R. now) Japan exists, sort of, maybe, probably. (Only Japanese people are allowed in, and the Japanese character whose P.O.V. is immersed in A.R. so its hard to say what’s real.) Like The Incrementalists, this cool idea ends up being more a skeleton key into other mysteries and ideas and characters than a crucial mystery in itself.

The book could be read as a thoughtful post-cyberpunk meditation on human physicality (and the physicality even of mind); as an interrogation of the Japanophilia/Japanophobia that ran through so much of cyberpunk, and American culture generally in the 80s and early 90s; a playful homage to older SF storytelling techniques and style; or as a riddle that begins in the title, and which ends (or doesn’t) on the last page of the book. It’s a dense, complex text: Cadigan expects you to pay attention. And yet it’s not a very long book. I think I’d need to read it again to digest it properly—a fair number of things went over my head!—and usually I’m not a but it was an interesting enough read that I’d be willing to dive in again sometime… probably after I make my way through her other novels first, though.

Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet was a quick read, and nothing too terribly ambitious… which is refreshing, sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I love ambitious books, but once in a while, it’s fun to see a satirical novel where an author plays a little pocketball (as they call it where I live) with a few unusual and awkwardly clashing characters:


lethemloveThe result is a little mixed, I suppose: though some of the characters come off as a bit more cartoonish than I actually like, the book somehow held together just enough to be a fun read. It’s also a good metaphorical exploration of why a guy like me doesn’t belong in an indie rock band.

I should add that I haven’t read Lethem’s more widely-acclaimed novels, just the short story collection Wall of the Sky, Wall of the Eye (which I discussed here last year) so the complaints about the novel that I’ve seen online look to me a bit like people wishing Lethem had rewritten some previous book instead of trying something different. I guess some people prefer authors to stick to one style or approach, but I like seeing them change things up and try a new tack, and I think there’s value in that, even when I think their earlier work was better. I guess I should read some more of Lethem’s novels and see what I think of them…

Unpleasant Tales by Brendan Connell is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of amusingly unpleasant little tales. Some are more memorable than others, and the book has a few persistent typos that are annoying (breathe, not breath, sticks out in my memory) but the best of these stories are twisted and bizarre in a really good way. Best line? It’s in “Virgin Hearts”:

connellunpleasantThe two were linked by one of those bizarre and miasmatic connections which keep the world well-supplied with oafs.

We’ve all met that couple, right?

Other stories that stand out are “We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars,” “The Putrimaniac,” “The Maker of Fine Instruments” (which is sort of a Frankenstein riff on “The Music of Erich Zann”) and “The Nanny Goat,” which feels halfway between an old misogynistic fairy tale and a modern (and also misogynistic) Hammer Horror film short.1

I also read a short novel (or longish novella) in draft for a friend of mine, the highly-productive Joe Milan. (It’s the second of his longer works I’ve read this year, which means he’s been pretty productive! Good for you Joe!) It’s a kind of satirical spy novel type thing set in South Korea in the 90s. Rough draft, so my comments are for him only, but you should check him out. (He’s got a free collection of short work on his website.)

81ad4f8f2728fc0597833795467444341587343I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Long story short, I really liked this book, and was a little bit surprised about it. I actually really regretted taking so long to get around to it, and was impressed. I’ll have to read more Matheson: while I have seen a number of films and TV shows based on his work 2, the only other piece of Matheson’s writing I’ve experienced as a text was a short story he’d co-written with his son, “Where There’s a Will,” which was great.

Anyway, the book was brilliant, but shattering and horrible and excellent. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of “Our Lady of Darkness,” the bizarre and terrifying Fritz Leiber story that Tor long ago paired with”Conjure Wife,” in fact, in that both books bear the clear mark of their authors’ emotional and psychological struggles; they’re both books that vividly reflect authentic and deep pain.

chestertonG.K. Chesterton‘s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare
is also a kind of jolly spies vs. terrorists novel, this one from the Edwardian era (published in 1908, I believe) and set in England, at least at the beginning. It’s hilarious, filled with funny reversals and surprises, and I had a lot of fun reading it, even if I kind of wish I’d stopped ten pages before the end: Chesterton seems to be building up to a truly Machenesque ending—and maybe he actually went through with it, and I just missed it—but then there’s some stuff about the God of the Christians and a bit of “And it was all a dream!” Strangely, I felt as if it could, at any moment, have turned into someone’s Changeling: The Dreaming campaign, but in a good way.

Still, despite the disappointment of the ending, most of the book was enormously entertaining (provided I was in the mood for it) and felt sort of like the anti-The Day of the Jackal, in that it’s all about underground terrorist plots, but doesn’t take them all seriously, instead taking characters and situations and humor and dialog seriously. (The Day of the Jackal takes the terrorism plot seriously, but falls down on characters and humor and in painting situations vividly… well, except of course the brief moment when it becomes all about the wonders of a touristic drive through the scenic European countryside, on the way to shoot the French head of a state… no really. See my review of the book here.) This is the first time I’ve read Chesterton, and it won’t be the last. If you’re interested, it’s in the public domain, and you can get it from Project Gutenberg, among other places.

martianaudiobookI’ve been listening to Andy Weir’s The Martian as an audiobook. I actually started listening before I saw the film, but then, well… I got busy. That, and having a baby around, I find, slows down my consumption of audiobooks. Anyway, I checked it out because Mike Brotherton mentioned the novel on Facebook quite a while ago, and got me curious. The book is about 30% smarter than the movie was, and it’s very much in the tradition of Hal Clement in that respect: gritty science to spare, even if not much in the way of character. (Not that we ought to expect much of that: the guy is reporting his own story, after all, so he’s not necessarily going to get into deep exposition about himself.)

So it’s not a book you read for character development or emotional depth: it’s a book you read kind of the way one plays a puzzle game, with a fiendish set of rules for the character, and the puzzle is difficult enough you watch someone else work it out. (In fact, some of the changes made in the film make sense in terms of cinematic adaptation, but others are just insulting in the way typical of Hollywood’s assumptions about its audiences.)

I can understand why some people found the book a little boring, mind you, and I have sympathy for the reviewer who found the film at least conveyed more splendour and more of the ineffable about being the lone person on an alien world: if you’re reading for character (which I’d argue is a bit like watching Mary Poppins for the action) book is bound to bore you: one needs to be reading it for the puzzle-game thrill of using applied science to figure out insanely difficult problems. The adjective that reviewer uses to describe the narrator of the book, “chipper,” is pretty appropriate, and I’m a little bit allergic to chipper myself, though for me the crazy science is enough of a draw that I can overlook it. (That said, if science and the puzzle-game stuff interests you very much at all, then you might know too much about the science of Mars, and the mistakes and goofed science may jar you, as they did at least one friend of mine, who specifically complained about the film and book’s failure to acknowledge that Martian dust is toxic no matter what you do to it.) Still, I think it’s pretty entertaining and plays the kinds of narrative puzzle-games with science that will interest a lot of readers.

So what’s missing? Why doesn’t the book blow me away? I think what it lacks is the kind of speculative science that you see in other hard SF: any of Greg Egan’s novels, read side by side with this, would instructive, but Schild’s Ladder is the one I’d reach for to make my point. Of course, that’s what makes a Greg Egan book unfilmable, and put Weir’s book on the big screen in record time. Once you’ve had your mind blown, it’s hard to settle for it being merely titillated.

Comics & Graphic Novels

pekarhaspielquitterIt was baffling to find not one, but two, Harvey Pekar graphic novels in the local secondhand shop here in podunk Jochiwon. (There’s really only one second-hand shop in the town, it’s that podunk.) The one I got around to reading this year was The Quitter, with art by Dean Haspiel. If you’ve read Pekar’s American Splendor, you know it’s autobiographical, and The Quitter is too. It deals with Pekar’s youth: his struggle with follow-through, how he relied on beating the crap out of people to establish an identity for himself, and his various career and educational struggles.

It’s good, if you like that kind of thing, and the art very well matches the style and feel of the story, though the ending struck me as odd: a mix of rushed (in the last ten pages or so) and bizarrely focused on Pekar’s current (as of 2006) financial concerns. Then again, my wife really liked the ending: she felt it was sort of a way of Pekar not just revealing himself—his main subject—unflinchingly, but also that it signaled a kind of refusal to stoop to warping the facts to fit some comforting prefab narrative structure. There’s an argument for that, but I wonder if there wasn’t some other way of ending the story that would have been a little less jarring. Still, it’s worth a read.


0824839420.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_One of the book I’ve reviewed for Kyoto Journal is Japanese New York: Migrant Artists and Self-Reinvention on the World Stage by Olga Kanzaki Sooudi. While I’ve reserved most of my brainjuice for the official review, I can say that it was fascinating, and anyone interested in the expat experience—and the ways in which Japanese expats understand and construct it, sometimes just like a lot of Western expats, and sometimes very differently—should check it out.

The book is specifically about Japanese migrant artists to New York City, and how they construct the narratives of their migrant experiences, but it’s a book that offers a lot of food for through whether you’re interested in the history of Japanese migrants, or just something who is thinking about migrant/expatriate self-conception—how people who go abroad come to think about and understand their experiences, both positive and negative, as well as how they conceptualize the significance of decisions they make along a life-trajectory where decisions only partially determine outcomes.

Certainly it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of the narrative I have constructed for myself regarding my life abroad, as well as some insight into patterns I’ve seen among other non-Koreans here in Korea. Well worth looking at if that interests you.

HoundsHuntingHullHounds and Hunting in Ancient Greece by Denison Bingham Hull is an odd little reference book that I found in the stacks at work (among the English language cookbooks, for some reason), and decided to give a look. I had more to say about it the other day, though, in connection with RPG gaming specifically. You can see that here.

a61e2fee48f4e52596e6b476c67437641414141Finally, I’m not really sure what I think of Harold Bloom, but I find the idea of his having edited a massive pile of books in the Modern Critical Views series interesting, in part because he doesn’t hold forth much himself. I wasn’t all that impressed with MCV 103, the book about (and plainly titled) Modern Critical Views: Jonathan Swift.

The papers collected in the book are fine, and there are useful insights into Swift, the Augustan literary world, and of course Gulliver’s Travels specifically. (There’s attention paid to The Tale of a Tub as well, but I haven’t read that one, so I didn’t get much from those parts.) I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t researching Swift or Gulliver for some specific reason, as I now am. (But I’ll get into that some other time.)

Gaming Books:

I actually read a few things, but only completed one set of books: the core rulebooks for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. LotFP ended up on my radar back in 2012 or 2013, thanks to my friend Justin Howe mentioning it at some point, but for whatever reason, it took me until 2015 to follow up on that lead. In fact, the prompt was another gamer friend, Ahimsa Kerp—suggesting I try pitch an adventure to the game’s author when he announced a call for submissions.

I was impressed: it struck me as having taken a lot of the best parts of what’s now generally just called OSR, and then infusing a Lovecraftian horror vibe into it. No monster book? (Well, there are some now, and more forthcoming, but still…) The concept is cool, and fun, and weird. Of course, it’s in the supplementary materials that this really comes through, at least going by the PDF modules I’ve read through (official and otherwise), like Better Than Any Man. I have a copy of A Red and Pleasant Land in my backpack, waiting to be read through 3, and a box of books on the way from Finland now. Which is a testament to the company’s products: reading just a few things excited me and got me wishing I had a regular (okay, occasional) gaming group to play with. It’ll probably take some time before that’s really possible on a regular basis, and I’m in the wrong town for it, but… well, a guy can dream, right?

KotECoreRulebookOn the opposite end of the spectrum is Kindred of the East, the old White Wolf World of Darkness Asian Vampires game. If you google the game line, you’ll find all kinds of accusations of racism, like this screed. Some of that is, I think, perhaps fair, even if some of it is pretty clueless. (Jade? Yes, jade: jade tributes, jade hell, jade was a big freakin’ deal in Northeast Asian cultures in the old days. Ranting about that is a bit like ranting about gold in a D&D setting.) Still there’s a fair bit that did leave me, well, not quite comfortable, either. (Not that I think all game content should be P.C.: I mean, LotFP excites me about the prospect of playing RPGs again, and if you don’t know what the connection is, well, google the company’s Carcosa book. 4 A fair amount of the book simply relied too heavily on kung-fu movie stereotypes and American preconceptions of Asia and Asians for it to be usable with people who actually live in a lot of Asia, if you see what I mean.

For one thing, most of the content is Japan- and China-based… well, sort of, meaning in the same general way that American “Chinese food” is “based on” Chinese food while actually resembling it almost not at all. (But hey, I like and even occasionally crave American Chinese food as much as the next person.) Still, I originally picked the original book up (and then a few supplements) thinking it’d be fun to try get a gaming group going in Korea, including both bilingual Koreans and expats playing together. That never quite happened, in part because I didn’t meet a lot of games in the oughts, and got busy writing fiction, but also, I guess, because I got the feeling that Koreans wouldn’t find the Kuei-jin all that intriguing, not without a lot of reworking… and that even expats might be nonplussed by the conception of Asia in the core rulebook. That first impression was formed back in 2003 or 2004, I think. (I remember having a copy of the core book in my bag and reading it during the long sound check wait for a gig with the band I left in 2004, and it was a gig we drove to, so yeah, that’s about right.)

Anyway, I picked it up again in 2015, thinking I might contact Onyx Path and inquire whether they were thinking of doing a 25th Anniversary edition of Kindred of the East, in which case I could offer my services in terms of joining their team to work on a few of the Asian settings and cultures, as well as a general sweeping out some of the more cheesy, stereotypical content. You know, help make it the kind of game I could happily run with actual Asian players? A game I could happily and proudly run for my half-Korean son someday, or teach him to run? That’d be nice.

I’m still mulling that over. We’ll see. Onyx Path may not be planning for a KotE20, and even if they are, that wouldn’t be due for publication until 2018, which, by the schedules I’ve seen, means they wouldn’t start work on it until 2017. There’s time for me to finish reading through the core book and some of the supplements and decide if I think it’s a feasible task. (If they’ll have me, that is.)

  1. The story ends up exploring misogyny, rather than just being misogynistic, at least that’s how I read it. Just saying.

  2. Sure, the disappointing recent adaptation of I Am Legend, but also What Dreams May Come—which I liked despite it being widely hated—as well as the 2009 flop The Box, Burn Witch Burn/Night of the Eagle (his screenplay based on a great Fritz Leiber story “Conjure Wife”), and the Poe adaptations for which he penned screenplays, and assorted episodes of The Twilight Zone, a show that I loved as a kid.

  3. I bought it from Amazon while it was briefly not available in hard copy from the publisher, because I didn’t want to miss out on the fuss.

  4. Or, well, the controversy is mentioned in this review, for example. Or this section of this extended, multi-part one.

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