Welcome to 2015, here’s what I read the last month in 2014.
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho (1988)
A reread for a book club that I’m no longer a member of*. I enjoyed the first half or so of this book, but the latter parts descended into a turgid midden-heap of woo-tinged solipsism especially the points where Santiago must “become the wind”. Also, you have to admit the existential crises that Santiago encountered are all pretty light weight. So find and read the book that adds in some stiffer existential crises and excises out half the woo, before you quit your job and set off to live your dream of being a professional mountain climber.
Lock In – John Scalzi (2014)
John Scalzi’s probably one of the best writers at the moment for taking an SFnal idea, presenting it clearly, and joining it to a simple forward moving plot. In this novel we have a near future America dealing with the aftereffects of a neurological disease that leaves its victims paralyzed, but mentally sound, and the subsequent rise of robotics that allows them to enter into society. There’s a lot of walking around and ‘splaining punctuated by gunfights or attacks to move the plot alone, and I’m not much of a fan of cop shows, which in this case is making a bug out of what’s likely a feature for other people, but an enjoyable read overall.
Elysium – Jennifer Marie Brissett (2014)
An AI seeks to understand itself and the story of how it lost its mate.
Possibly one of the more ambitious debut novels I’ve read, at least in SFF. Elysium proceeds from fragmentation to unity over a constantly shifting pattern of times and places. It avoids confusion by having similar characters and circumstances appear over and over again, so that there’s a layering effect to provide stability for the experience. It’s a bit like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style mixed with a Michael Moorcock Eternal Champion novel. This is the novel that I wish Ancillary Justice was: playful and fast-moving while abrupt and ambitious in its development. There’s a lot to grasp here, and a lot left unexplained, or at least a lot left for the reader to figure out on their own, but the journey is worth it.
Good on Aqueduct Press for publishing this and giving genre a place for more experimental work to find a home.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (1857)
What a crazy book! For much of it I had hopes that Jane would take an axe to all the other characters and run off with a pirate, but despite that not happening, the ending was satisfying (yes, I know all about the Jane Slayre book).
Here’s a story: I’ve got this acquaintance that’s in a writing group. One day one of the members, a woman, turned in a story for critique that riffed on something in Jane Eyre. Every other woman at the table got the reference and got the riff right away, while every man at the table was lost and confused, because they had never read Jane Eyre. And so the decision to read it. Now Neil Gaiman’s work now makes sense to me!
But yeah, Jane’s your hapless orphan left to be raised by cruel relatives, who she totally tells off while still 10 years old, and out of revenge they send her to a horrible boarding school where life is strict and cruel, but Jane flourishes and survives to the age of 18 despite the cholera/typhoidfever/tuberculosis epidemics, at which time she sets out to find her place in the world by answering an ad for a governess on Craigslist. Boy, could I relate to all that! Once employed and nurturing a french opera singer’s abandoned child, she meets her employer, Mr. Rochester, who’s cut whole cloth from one of Lord Byron’s old suits, and which means he looks like Gabriel Byrne because I too watched Ken Russel’s Gothic. I won’t spoil the rest of it for you, but if you’ve ever seen Nicholas Cage screaming about how he lost his hand in between making pizzas, well, let’s just say that’s the direction we’re heading in.
Anyways, apologies for the above, that second cup of tea kicked in. I think my point’s that Jane Eyre‘s a gendered book that women read and men don’t, unless forced to for class. Yes, I’m sure you will tell me I’m wrong in the comments.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I read 78 books in 2014.
* I joined the book club to get recommendations from outside my comfort zone. Unfortunately, the median age of members is 24, and an unread 24 at that. All they recommend are the books they should have read in college. And the fact that I have an opinion about what people should have already read, plus finding a few of the recent regulars annoying as hell, makes me realize the problem’s less them and more me, so, yeah, goodbye book club, you were fun for a bit.
A bit all over the place, and I like it so.
A reminder, this is all stuff read this past year – not published.
1. Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates: A psychological thriller that’s Dead Poet’s Society at an all-women’s school circa 1975, except Charles Manson and Squeaky Fromm fill in the Robin Williams role. An ugly book, but a great read.
2. The Long Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan: A collection of Brennan’s New Yorker pieces spanning four decades that shows Brennan’s eye for detail and perceptive wit while creating a portrait of a long vanished city.
3. The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss: Quakers in SPAAACE!!! The crew of a generation ship faces conflict and peril as they seek a new home. Gloss is a fascinating writer that’s able to craft stories around domestic events and interactions within a landscape, even if that landscape is an artificial world.
4. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: The first book in The Southern Reach trilogy and my favorite. On the surface it’s a simple enough horror novel, a research team in a strange place is slowly destroyed by forces they don’t understand, but there’s something else going on, something that touches more on the emotion of awe than horror.
5. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason: A fascinating collection of stories that take Odysseus and recasts him in an assortment of stories, some straightforward, some post-modern, all interesting.
6. Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano: This collection is the first Bolano I’ve read, and it knocked my socks off. Cynical, playful, fascinating, and cruel, this is the book I’ve been foisting on to people, saying, “You have to read this!” Probably has my current favorite short story in it, “Henry Simon LePrinc”.
7. Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick: A government agent is sent to a world on the brink of a recurring natural disaster (in this case massive flooding), his mission: bring a fugitive “wizard” to justice. Short and straight forward science fiction in a weird world.
8. Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat: Part memoir, part essay collection, Danticat writes about her experiences as an immigrant living in the USA and walking the borderlands between her ancestral country, Haiti, and her current home.
9. Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyuki Miyabe: What it says on the cover: ghost stories set in Old Edo, but what makes Miyabe’s stories work is how they occur amid elaborate social connections and responsibilities, and not just tell some spooky story.
10. Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack: A portrait of a futuristic New York City that’s now in our past, yet still recognizable any time you watch a news report. A tough read, but a rewarding one.
11. The End of Everything by Megan Abbott: It’s the summer before high school begins and Lizzie and Evie are inseparable. Until the day Evie is kidnapped, and Lizzie finds her world torn apart. This is a great book: a coming of age story, a deconstruction of the detective novel, and a thriller. Well worth tracking down.
12. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Is this science fiction? Is it not science fiction? I come down on the Yes-it-is side. A young woman, floundering about in college, recounts the strange events of her childhood that have left her with two siblings that have disappeared. I won’t say much more than that.
Lists from past years:
The Room in the Dragon Volant – Sheridan Le Fanu (1872):
A short novel about a young Englishman vacationing in France who falls in love with a countess and finds himself caught up in an adventure. Things aren’t all that they seem, and the story proceeds through strange turns involving stupefying narcotics, haunted hotel rooms, and premature burial. A fun read. Sort of a Gothic proto-spy novel.
Monsieur Maurice – Amelia B. Edwards (1873):
A novelette told from the POV of an old woman remembering a strange occurrence from her youth when her father served as the jailor for a mysterious prisoner. There’s a ghost in it, but its aspect is minor. More of the story involves the prisoner and the mystery surrounding his incarceration. Edwards also had a career as a travel writer most particularly of her trips to Egypt and down the Nile.
Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer (2014):
The third novel in the Southern Reach trilogy and a satisfying conclusion to the series even if some mysteries remain unexplained. One thing I noticed, and I’ve noticed this in a few books now, is that there’s been this twist to the Hero’s Journey. So instead of there being a broken world and the hero going on a quest to fix it, the shift is there’s a broken world and the hero goes on a quest to learn the skills or gain the knowledge necessary to live in it. It’s not a major shift, but a noticeable one.
Sunshine Patriots – Bill Campbell (2004):
A subversive anti-war, Mil SF novel that reads like the Warhammer 40K novel you always wished Ishmael Reed had written. Set in a universe where corporations own star systems, SP tells the story of one Aaron “the Berber” Barber and his platoon of Screaming Ospreys as they attempt to put down an insurrection on the planet Elysia. This book is flat out nuts. It’s grisly and bitter, and sometimes a mess of oblique plotting, but it’s a fun ride for all that. You have to laugh when cyborgs in the middle of a firefight get marketing calls from internet service providers.
Cave & Julia – M. John Harrison (2014):
A journalist gets involved with a former actress whose brother disappeared in a tragic accident amid the ruins of a nonhuman civilization. Fans of Ballard’s Vermillion Sands will likely enjoy this.
The 4th Domain – M. John Harrison (2014):
A rather feckless young man, Shaw, gets embroiled in a struggle between cultists in modern day London. Recalls Machen and Aickman in its approach to the weird in the everyday, and anyone who has ever spent more than twenty minutes cornered by a conspiracy theorist unloading their memes will feel some kinship to Shaw as he learns about the 4th Domain.
At some point I should write about the books I stop reading. More often the problem’s not in them, but in my being particular. There are some things that are perfectly fine that I don’t like, and pretending they’re rubbish isn’t really useful.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (2013): Growing up, Rosemary Cooke had a brother and a sister, but now as a twenty-something college student she has neither, and it’s the unraveling of the why and what happened that makes up much of this novel. It’s a great read, and the secret’s not withheld for more than a 100 pages, so it’s not one of those books where you wish someone would just stop for a second and tell you what the big secret is.
Jump-Off Creek – Molly Gloss (1989): I loved this book. It’s a Western about a widow that heads out to the Pacific Northwest and becomes a homesteader. Gloss can really dig in and excavate the present moment her character’s experience. I got weepy when she read the letters from her mom.
Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone – Stefan Kiesbye (2012): Another short novel that reads like comic strips straight from Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey. The difference being that the asshole quotient has been turned way up to eleven. There’s a lesson here. In a book where everyone behaves like an a-hole, the reader will know people will do horrible things at any time because they’re a-holes, and that will rob the story of any and all tension. Overall a decent book, but at the end I couldn’t muster more than a shrug. People are a-holes. Thanks for reminding me.
A Year In Marrakesh – Peter Mayne (1953): Expat Englishman in 1950s Marrakesh that decently articulates the fact that often the worst thing an expat can encounter is another expat. Also less than 200 pages and I felt like I lived more here in these pages than I did in plenty of other books that have longer page counts.
Authority – Jeff VanderMeer (2014): The second book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, in Authority the Ballard meets the Strugatsky brothers of the first book shifts over to a weird spy thriller reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem in His Master’s Voice and Chain of Chance.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden – Joanne Greenburg (1964): Autobiographical novel about a precocious 16 year-old girl with a mental disorder in 1950s USA. Fascinating and heartbreaking. The main character constructs an elaborate fantasy world she uses as a coping mechanism against the real world, only to wind up tormented by her own creation.
The Other Side – Alfred Kubin (1908): A Gothic fantasy novel by expressionist illustrator Alfred Kubin, it influenced both Kafka and Peake, as well as provided a satire of all reactionary, idealistic utopias where one wealthy genius (or “man of ego”), heaves off to some isolated spot with his followers and impresses his will completely upon them to disastrous results. The kind of book you either love or hate. I loved it, but I enjoy a good, long slow train ride to decay and dissolution.
Trickster Travels: The Search for Leo Africanus – Natalie Zemon Davis (2006): Leo Africanus was a 16th Century Moroccan diplomat that was captured by Christian pirates and given to the Pope as a “gift”. In Italy, Africanus converted to Christianity and wrote several books on African geography while serving as a translator of Arabic texts, and then German soldiers sacked Rome and he fled back to North Africa and became a Muslim again. A fascinating book about a man trying to navigate between two hostile ideological movements while respecting them both.
Dinner at Deviant’s Palace – Tim Powers (1985): The myth of Orpheus set in a post-apocalyptic LA where an alien parasite has set itself up as the messiah. Fun and colorful.
The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future – Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2014): A book from the 24th century outlining the collapse of Western Civilization in the 21st century due to an inability to apply the scientific knowledge we have regarding global warming because of our faith in free market capitalism. It’s a short book, and worth the read.
Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys (1938): Modernist novel about a woman returning to Paris after a suicide attempt. She’s a lost soul, drinking too much and spiraling down, and the story’s told in disjointed stream-of-consciousness fashion. There’s a husband that left her, a dead baby, and a series of mistakes and bad decisions hovering around her like a cloud. While the final tragedy is kept off stage, by the novel’s end you know nothing’s going to be right again.
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms – Amy Stewart (2004): Not just the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of earthworms, but the only book I’ve ever read on the subject of earthworms.
I realized my favorite thing about living in South Korea. And I don’t even think it’s a South Korean thing, as a hold over to being a country not the size of the USA thing. Like if I lived in Ireland or Italy, I suspect I’d encounter the same thing. It was also what made me like living in Queens, NY. I know, Queens!
Anyway, what I like is that the city where I live, Pohang, retains the quality where a single pedestrian who is probably elderly determines how the city is designed. It’s like if you took Betty White and made her a metric unit that measured urban accessibility. Okay, maybe not Betty White, maybe Jane Jacobs, but you get the idea.
Pohang is a kilojacobs city in that every neighborhood is self-sufficient. Within an easy walk of my house I have access to hardware stores, stationary stores, delis, grocery stores, a traditional market, and restaurants. It was something Joe Mitchell talked about in post-war New York where every neighborhood was a self-contained village. This single pedestrian is accommodated in other ways as well: lots of parks with places to sit down, a robust bus system, and cheap taxis. This is vastly different from the USA where the unit of urban measure is a family with an automobile, and therefore things can be spread out, the supermarket here, the school there, and your entertainment way over there. Public transportation is treated as a charity to be given to the unfortunate, and not as a tie that binds the city together.
Now, I am talking about a small city. I have no idea how Seoul compares, although even there I think it would conform to the model of Queens, NY as opposed to Detroit, MI. And like I said I don’t think this is necessarily a Korean thing, some kind of “Wow. Confucianism dictates that you treat your elders with so much respect!” bull shit, as it is related to country-size. The USA has “Settling This Vast Empty Land” as a foundational myth, and it shows in most of our cities.
Fortunately for me, Korea’s foundational myths don’t seem to effect urban planning all that much.