Word of Mouth

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time trawling through city library’s LP collection. At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual it was that the collection included so many of jazz records, including albums from such a wide range of artists. The CD collection was really good, too, but I didn’t have a CD player, and was dependent on my buddy Mike to dub CDs for me so I could listen to them (which he generously did, but I tried to avoid doing it too often to avoid abusing his generosity).

LPs, on the other hand, I could listen to without problem, because I had an old 70s stereo with a built in turntable in my room, so I constantly signed out new LPs and listened, and anything I liked, I dubbed to tape so I could listen to it over and over (and over). 

It was somewhere in this process that I stumbled onto Jaco Pastorius’ album Word of Mouth. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I’m not sure why I even picked it out of the collection, except that maybe I looked at the personnel on the album and saw some familiar names—Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Tom Scott, Peter Erskine, and Jack DeJohnette were all familiar names—but I do know that I was stunned when I first listened to it.

It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. I ever remember being so excited that I rushed to show it to my friend Mike, who listened to it with me during a drive around the city and, like me, struggled for the vocabulary to describe it. (He pointed out that parts of it soundedx like TV orchestra arrangements for 70s TV shows, which isn’t totally wrong—there’s some of that in its musical DNA, or at least I hear that—but even as a teenager, that struck me as woefully insufficient to describe what we were hearing.)

I bought a copy on CD when, years later, I worked in a music shop, and if I remember right, another Michael—the guitarist who managed inventory in the back room—commented on it. He wasn’t really a jazz guy, so much: more of a maker of spectral guitar soundscapes, but Pastorius is that kind of a musician: his bass playing was so legendary that people who weren’t into jazz at all knew him by name.

I’ve revisited that CD many times over the years—of course, along with Pastorius’ other work, which I immediately checked out after discovering Word of Mouth, and some of which I also got on CD—but it sounded different to me a couple of years ago, especially after learning more about Pastorius’ life and death.

Continue reading

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

This entry is part 43 of 49 in the series 2022 Reads

Mira Jacob is new to me, but when I searched on Libby for graphic novels at my local library, Good Talk came up and I figured I’d give it a shot. 

The book is a graphic novel, but the focus isn’t really the art. That’s not to disparage it: it’s just that this is a cut-and-paste comic, with specific drawings of the characters repeated many times throughout, something familiar from early webcomics. This is fine, though there were a few places where apparent bystanders got recycled into scenes later on, and I found myself wondering, “Wait, is that the same guy, or just another stranger?” Still, overall, there’s enough variety and the repetitions even take on a certain significant: we can quickly identify young Mira, older Mira, contemporary Mira, and of course the different age-variants of other characters in the story. Most of the time, the cut and paste drawings appear over photos. 

Continue reading

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems by Michael Ondaatje

This entry is part 42 of 49 in the series 2022 Reads

Long ago, a friend in Montreal with whom I’ve lost touch gave me a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a favorite author. I read it and enjoyed it, though it didn’t turn me into a fan. Still, I kept it since it was a gift from a friend. I no longer have the book—it was donated to a symphony booksale fundraiser in my hometown, when my mother moved house recently—but I have a different copy here, collected in a sort of not-quite omnibus of Ondaatje’s earlier work. The omnibus, from 1997, contains The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Running in the Family, In the Skin of a Lion, and The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. For whatever reason, which means it’s not everything by Ondaatje up to that time, but it is a lot of his earlier work.

The cover of the omnibus isn’t the one above: it’s the boring one to the right. 

I have so many books here, and have struggled to read much for the last few years, so I’ve been looking at books of verse as a way to get back into the swing of things. They’re easier to pick up and put down and then come back to, and yet they’re also really demanding in the moment. I dunno, I figured it might help. 

Continue reading

Embassytown by China Miéville

This entry is part 48 of 49 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts get published with some lag. I’m trying to be more punctual, though, and this one’s very recent.

I’ve had the audiobook for Embassytown in my Audible account for quite a long time now, but I’ve been off audiobooks for quite a long time. These days, I’ve driving more than I used to, so I’ve had the chance to listen to a few. I’m not sure this is the best medium for the novel—it has a lot of neologisms, and I didn’t catch the implied meaning of a few of them—but the performance on the audiobook is pretty great, and perhaps made up for it.

This is a novel about imperialism and power. It’s a novel about language and how it changes in translation, and when its abused—and how its translation and abuse alike change us. It’s about subjugation, addiction, about bad luck and loss and destruction. It’s also a novel about catastrophic change and how people respond to it. 

There are so many ways to read it, in other words, and that makes for challenging listening when the story keeps going and going and going as you listen. (It’s also hard to p[ause and reflect when you’re driving.) On one level, I wished that I had read it, as a printed book, because I feel like I would’ve had more opportunity to reflect on the narrative’s eerie parallels with our own world: some of those are historical (the opium wars come to mind) and some are more contemporary: the opioid epidemic, the explosion of “fake news” and our addiction to it, the triumph of linguistic bullshit and deceit as a replacement for… like, any speaking of truth at all, sometimes it seems like. All that stuff was in the air when Embassytown was published, and well on the way to becoming problems, but they all seem to have accelerated and worsened, and it’s hard not to see the destruction wrought as rather like the destruction that comes with what even my American friends are now referring to as “late Capitalism” generally.  

I imagine it’s inevitable that people made comparisons to other linguistics-focused SF, like Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 and Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (which I read not long ago), among others. Still, the the oddness of the extraterrestrial tongue Language and how it works in this book is quite profound—it is just as alien as its speakers, and their relationship with Language (as they call the medium of their communication) is hard to wrap one’s brain around. 

And yet in many ways the power dynamics are familiar, and the plot—which results from the unintended and impossibly-to-anticipate consequences of a blunt power-grab—feels like an echo of so many similar episodes in human history, sadly including our own. On some level, this is a… wait, do we call a tale “cautionary” when it warns of what we’re already experiencing? Some of the neologisms even seem to map onto our own world’s ongoing malaise: “floaking” is one term that gets used a lot, and which feels to me a lot like “slacking”: I assume it’s a portmanteau of “floating” and “slacking” actually. I found this passage defining it quoted online: 

As an immerser I progressed to the ranks I aspired to–those that granted me a certain cachet and income while keeping me from fundamental responsibilities. This is what I excel at: the life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah that we call floaking.

Immersers, I think, created the term. Everyone has some floaker in them. There’s a devil on your shoulder. Not everyone crewing aspires to master the technique–there are those who want to captain or explore–but for most, floaking is indispensible. Some people think it mere indolence but it’s a more active and nuanced technique than that. Floakers aren’t afraid of effort: many crew work hard to get shipboard in the first place. I did.

Another thing that made it a challenging listen is that the text is deliberately elusive when it comes to so many things. Maybe I missed a few passages, but I felt like I never got a really good look at Embassytown itself—what remains in my memory is more the impression of halls within buildings, chambers where official meetings occurred, and the like; and yet I got a very clear feel for what Embassytown was. (It felt very much like a science-fictional version of the Thirteen Factories in Guangdong (then Canton) during the 19th century.) Scenes outside the city are vivid, but Embassytown remained fuzzy and vague and far away as a setting for me. This felt right, though: the narrator is after all speaking of a place that (as we watch) is in many ways completely destroyed by the events in the book. 

Likewise, the appearance of the Arieki—the main alien species in the book—is never really nailed down: Miéville hints a lot about them through the descriptions of their actions—eye corals swiveling, fanwings and giftwings being lifted (or, sometimes, torn from their bodies in combat or as self-mutilation), two mouths (the “cut” and the “turn”), and more. Unless I missed a reference, it was quite late in the book that I learned they had “hooves”—or at least, that hoofprints are a normal thing to be seen where they have been in large numbers. (Maybe their bio-battery creatures have hooves, I don’t know.) I loved this: the composite of all those details is bewildering and strange, and it feels like it almost emulates the experience of looking at alien creatures whose very appearance is difficult to wrap one’s head around. Some people have made attempts at depicting them, as one blogger noted with a roundup of artists’ depictions, but I preferred the Arieki being a shifting, bewildering composite of seemingly-incompatible part composed primarily of words amnd concepts… an apt alien for a book that is so deeply concerned with the way humans could, or might, interact with an alien language. 

There’s one other thing of note in the audiobook version: when characters’ names are given in fractional notation, like this: 

… in the audiobook, you hear the two parts of the name simultaneously. This is definitely a challenge at first, though since the text only ever presents a limited number of names in this way, I eventually figured out how to catch parts of the fractional names, just enough to be able to know who was being discussed. This, I think, was very cool: it game me a little bit of the experience of those within the novel, many of whom learned to listen to (and understand) the simultaneous two-voiced speech of both the Ambassadors and of the Arieki.

I enjoyed the book very much. I only wish I’d gotten to it sooner! 


The Planetbreaker’s Son by Nick Mamatas

This entry is part 41 of 49 in the series 2022 Reads

As with earlier posts in this series, I’m publishing this some time after reading the book. 

The Planetbreaker’s Son is another of the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. As I’ve said before, that series hasn’t let me down before. 

Mamatas’ contribution to the series contains the usual mix of fiction and nonfiction plus an interview by Terry Bisson. 

“The Planetbreaker’s Son” is a wild story of life, well, “life,” in a post-Singularity spaceship with a bunch of digital personalities: some uploaded, some rebuilt simulacra based on the memories of the uploaded, and some generated onboard. Except it’s really about family and all the pains and challenges that come with having one, being part of one—as a parent, as someone’s kid. Despite having characters named after Titans (Kronos, Rhea) who have retired to the interior of a simulated black hole (but who are so old they remember life on Earth), and a lot of surreal imagery around the breaking of planets, it’s on the level where it’s a story of family that the story shines brightest. I always find it fascinating to read about childhood and parenthood by writers who are also doing the work of being a parent: what comes to the fore or gets emphasized is always interesting to me, and in this story it was the eponymous planetbreaker’s son—caught between two ages, struggling to figure out what growing up was like as a “real” kid back when people had bodies made of meat a bone, reappears split between a young child and a teenager. It’s a powerful image, embodying one of the enduring dilemmas of how one feels and thinks about one’s kid while also recognizing how that child is changing and growing as time passes. I found the story striking, strange, and fascinating in the best way. 

“The Term Paper Artist” is an essay I’ve read before. Mamatas apparently really did write papers for cash… but as he explains, the students he wrote for were not just screwing themselves: they were also being screwed by the universities that took their tuition fees while failing to give them anything in return—certainly not a proper education. Despite having read this back when it was first published online, it was only in rereading it that I realized one part of the essay discusses precisely the same problem that Gerald Graff brings up about academic writing education: that profs are eager to complain about terrible student writing, but most of them do very little to teach how academic writing works to the bumbling undergrads whose work they so energetically criticize. (Mamatas makes the point that you need to read examples of a given type of text if you’re to be able to write them yourself.) 1 

The interview with Bisson is what you’d expect, but in a good way. 

The book closes with “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” a bizarre and very Nick Mamatas story set in Jeffrey Thomas’ “Punktown” setting. I don’t know anything about Thomas or Punktown, but “Ring, Ring…” is wild and dark and absurd story of cosmic horror and malfunctioning occult devices in a surreal nightmare world. It reminds me a lot of some of the earlier Lovecraftian stories by Mamatas I’ve read in the past. 

  1. A friend of mine tells me that these days, there are a few websites students can visit to download term papers about as coherent as a typical TEFL undergrad writes, so I suppose this work, like so many other kinds, will be replaced by machines… and, in short order, we’ll probably have to either stop using term papers for evaluating students, or develop ways of cheatproofing the process. Which I’ve done, but it’s so onerous I don’t think many will be willing.