Books April 2014
It’s the end of the month. Here’s what I read. Surprisingly I read some recent books. As always if you’ve got an opinion on any of them please share.
Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (2013)
An enjoyable space opera about the sole remaining “zombie” soldier of a destroyed AI-controlled ship searching for revenge in a far-flung interstellar empire. Yeah. I had some issues with it, but they’re more or less fashion quibbles than any actual criticisms. At least any criticisms I have shouldn’t outweigh anyone’s desire to read this book. Maybe it’ll hit all your buttons where it only hit half a dozen or so of mine. That’s all right. Folks might enjoy the stuff I didn’t like the immersive world-building and slow boil plot.
Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer (2014)
One of my most anticipated reads this is the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy that should prove to be exciting and expectation defying. It’s a short, dense read, with a clinical prose style reminiscent of JG Ballard riffing on the Strugartsky Brother’s Roadside Picnic. The novel tells the story of the twelfth expedition into Area X, a strange wilderness that does not yield its secrets easily and place that has caused the deaths of nearly all the earlier expeditions that have traveled into it. The next book’s out in a week, and I’m looking forward to it.
Beowulf – Seamus Heaney, translator (2000)
I saw that JRR Tolkien’s translation’s soon to be published, and that reminded me that I had a copy of this sitting here at home on a shelf. In high school I read Grendel before Beowulf, so my allegiance is always with the monster, but one thing I forget is how much of this book deals with not-Beowulf stuff, like the intercine feuding between the Danes and all that. The left hand pages has the Old English, which if you read aloud sounds like black magic – at least that’s what my wife told me when she told me to stop. She didn’t like the way the cats were paying attention.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brene Brown (2012)
Yeah, one of those inspirational self-help books, it left me ambivalent. I had to translate every other sentence into Grump and found Brown’s weird fixation on cool vs. uncool and the hurts of middle school to be off-putting (she tosses out the stale canard that people are only negative and cynical to be cool). Other than that it was okay. At least some of it was. The rest of it I still have to puzzle through. Not that I reject her premises, but I find them overly simplistic.
The Dazzle of Day – Molly Gloss (1992)
I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and that got me thinking about writers that evoke the landscape in their work, and that got me thinking about Molly Gloss. I loved Gloss’s Wild Life a few years back, and a friend had just given me this book on his recent trip to Seoul (thanks, Gord!) so I decided to give it a try. And I absolutely adored this book. It’s a science fiction novel about Quaker colonists on board a generation ship. The plot’s oblique and the big question’s whether or not to settle on a recently discovered habitable planet, but the true drama and conflict lies in the very real relationships between the characters (will she or won’t she patch things up with her ex-husband, will he or won’t he assist his ailing father) and the society they’ve made for themselves in the near 200 years they’ve been traveling on board the ship. Fans of Ursula K. LeGuin will enjoy. Others might find it too focused on mundane details, but I loved it. It’s richly detailed and naturalistic, while also being speculative. However if you’re looking for big idea SF you should probably look elsewhere.
The Free-Lance Pallbearers – Ismael Reed (1966)
Imagine Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings mashed up with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song with a Sauron that’s a Polish used car-salesman turned Fascist dictator that rules HARRY SAM (the Mordor of this novel) from atop a toilet. It’s very much a 60s novel with the anarchic energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Folks might enjoy it – or think it’s utterly offensive and a piece of trash. I enjoyed it.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey – Zachary Mason (2010)
This book takes the works of Homer and reimagines them in forty-four different ways. There’s the story of Odysseus the wizard who upon learning of Achilles’ death builds a golem to fight beside the Greeks beneath the walls of Troy; the story of Odysseus the deserter who travels for ten years as a bard telling stories of his heroism; another story depicts a strange Mr. O who sits in a sanatorium for aging soldiers; or a stranger one where it’s revealed that both the Iliad and the Odyssey are mistranslated depictions of ancient chess matches. Some are vignettes, some more elaborate, and not all of them focus on Odysseus. Overall this is a great little book, for lit and fantasy fans. It reminded me a lot of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial.
A Short Stay in Hell – Steven L. Peck (2012)
I read this book for our local wine & cheese book club (expats are seriously weird when it comes to making clubs). I hated it and thought it insipid. Basically it takes Borges’ “Library of Babel” story and depicts it in an as literal fashion as possible for a 100 or so pages. But I was keen to hear what other folks thought of it. Most of them liked it and the person who recommended it connected with the book in a way I didn’t – so that was cool to hear. It could be that this was someone’s Gateway Book and it’s always bad form to shit on someone’s Gateway Book. Still, I don’t recommend it.
Lake of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe (1993)
Gene Wolfe puzzles me. He’s an extremely unseductive author in a lot of ways. The plot of this book involves a lot of walking around and I feel like it relies too much on the fact that I was raised catholic for it to make sense. But I keep coming back to his work, because I believe there’s a lot there. It’s another generation ship novel, but one with a more baroque society than that shown in The Dazzle of Day. These books swing closer to the Fritz Leiber style, although they never quite embrace the madcap. But if you want dungeon-crawling science fantasy set aboard a star ship so large it contains warring cities, these might be your books.
The Black Spider – Jeremias Gotthelf (1842)
A Horror novella written by a conservative 19th century pastor. Some of it’s as you would expect: the evil is caused by willful women, and people are only safe so long as they think like their forefathers, but it’s also a pioneering horror novel about a doomed village. When the grisly stuff starts to happen and the Devil’s curse begins to enact itself Gotthelf pulls out the stops and provides some gross-out chills.
Train Dreams – Denis Johnson (2002)
Another novella, this one about a labourer living in the Pacific north-west in the first decades of the 20th century. It’s taut and moody, laced throughout with vivid depictions of the landscape but light on plot. If anything it’s a long extended character study of one man’s defeat and slow rebirth in the wake of personal tragedy. Whether one feels charitable or not towards the man is another matter. The last image in the novel is truly a great one. For western fans and fans of refined, gem-like prose.
And lastly here’s a fun blog-post by Rahul Kanakia about reading books as a replacement for doing the things you want to do in life.
The Books We Don’t Read
This isn’t going to be another Hugo post. But I won’t say that the Hugo announcement didn’t get me thinking more a bit about this. This stuff had been on my mind for a while now. For one reason I recently read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a book some folks are claiming is the best/most ground-breaking novel they’ve read in recent years. A claim I don’t at all agree with. My reaction’s similar to this one. In a nutshell I thought it bland. It would have been better if it had had 50 – 100 pages cut from it. This would have kept the descriptions from miring the plot’s impetus. This is my usual complaint with most contemporary genre novels. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is 225 pages. Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day is 256 pages. Personally I blame Iain M. Banks.
But… I read it, and that’s the thing.
The fact that I finish a book is a recommendation of that book. The fact that I’m compelled to critique it isn’t a reason not to read it. I might have issue with it, like I did with last month’s On Such A Full Sea or with Ancillary Justice now, but the critique doesn’t make the book not worth reading. Ancillary Justice is an entertaining Space Opera. I’ll blather more about it at the end of the month, as I will about Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (which I loved and think everyone should read, really).
The problem’s that the conversation’s going to be one-sided.
We’ll talk about the books we read. We’ll engage with them and pick them apart. This may be because we don’t like the book, or had issue with it. But we’re having a conversation with it. Read the book and let’s argue about it! What we can’t do is talk about books we don’t read. And for all sorts of reasons there are plenty of books I don’t read.
There’s the obvious time constraint for one, knowledge for another, and a host of subjective reasons (I’m not the biggest fan of close reactive 1st person), but more importantly I’m not going to read works by authors I don’t respect or who I don’t think are particularly good writers. Nor am I really going to engage with many living writers whose politics are so much different than mine. So Ann Leckie’s on my radar because we’re both in that section of the genre ocean, but Larry Correia isn’t. I’ll dismiss Brad Torgerson as a bad writer, but by doing so I’m never going to engage with his work. And that silence there bothers me, because it’s willful on my part. It’s not that there’s no sound there. It’d that I’m choosing to reject it. That’s part of the problem.
Say there’s a disagreement between two people. One person you disagree with and reject outright as wrong. The other person you agree with, but wish spoke better, for whatever quality of better you want to apply. Now, when you ignore the person you disagree with because they’re wrong, but quibble with the person you do agree with, what purpose are you serving? Because what you might be doing is adding to the noise around the person you agree with without altering the message from the other side.
And those are some of the questions: Do you cheer louder for books you’re not enthusiastic about, simply to shout down the other side? Do you read books by authors you don’t like to prevent yourself from thinking there’s only silence on the other side? And then what about those hateful authors? Are you obligated to read them? Or is politicizing one’s reading time ultimately a waste of time? I don’t agree that’s true, but most people aren’t trying to read over a hundred books this year, and I’m not about to make any claims regarding how other people should spend their time.
I do my best to read widely. Not the easiest or cheapest thing to do outside the anglophone sphere when you’re a klutz and can’t seem to keep an e-reader from self-destructing, not to mention having a full-time job, writing my own stuff, and pursuing a graduate degree. But I try. The question is should I try and read books I’m fairly confident I’m not going to like.
Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind.
The Forgotten Heroines of Pre-Code Comics
If you like pictures like these, and who wouldn’t, you might want to check out Saladin Ahmed’s tumblr where he’s been posting stuff he’s dug up from the Digital Comics Museum. Go there. Check it out!