January Books and General Ramble
It’s been a bit.
I went back to the USA for my vacation and played this game where whenever one of my friends posted a picture of whatever beach they were on in Thailand, I posted back a picture of an iced-over parking lot and maybe a snowdrift. It kept me warm, as one’s bitterness should. No, I kid. It was a great trip, and much too short.
Anyway, lots of time was spent on planes or in transit to other places, so books and what not got read. I may as well start with that one over there, Vernon Lee’s The Virgin of the Seven Daggers (2008). First off, great cover. When I saw it in the bookshop I knew I had to buy it, although I knew absolutely nothing about the author. It turned out to be a great impulse buy. The stories were pretty much all incredible, a bit weird fantasy mixed with 19th century historic novels and art criticism. So, yeah, if you see a copy on your local bookstore’s remainder table (or just want to do the Project Gutenberg thing), don’t hesitate! but buy the shit straight up!
Bury Me Deep – Megan Abbott (2009)
I loved this book. It’s based on a true crime case from the 1930s when a woman was found in the LA train station carrying around a suitcase containing the dismembered bodies of her two roommates. This book takes that incident and uses it to spill out a story about a young nurse abandoned by her junkie husband in Arizona and the friendship she forges with two other women, both of whom are bit too free and independent by what’s socially acceptable, and the chaos that ensues when the nurse falls for a local criminal/politician. Seriously, if you like Noir this book is pretty wonderful.
Open City – Teju Cole (2011)
A listless and over-educated 20-something male wanders around various cities and has conversations with people while musing on history and memory. You sort of have to stick with it, and even then the reveal might have you throwing the book across the room. I liked it, but I can’t rave about it. Still, it’s the kind of book that sticks with you, not least because it leaves a slightly sour taste in your mouth.
2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love – Rachel Aaron (2012)
Aaron outlines how she’s been able to write 10K a day and crank out novels. What was interesting was that I read this not long after I read this piece by Kazuo Ishiguro about how he wrote The Remains of the Day, and what struck me was how both Aaron and Ishiguro were saying they same thing. The difference being that Aaron has to publish at least one book a year to cling to the claim of being a “professional writer”, while Ishiguro can publish one book every five years and have each be heralded as a literary event.
I then made the mistake of trying to read one of Aaron’s novels, and the less said about the attempt the better.
Lying Awake – Mark Salzman (2000)
I heard about this book from watching one of Robert Sapolsky’s lectures on youtube, and then while spending a couple of days in Province Town (and sweet chef boyardee, do I ever recommend going to Province Town in the middle of January) I stopped by the local bookshop and found it on the “Staff Picks” table and bought it.
The plot’s about a cloistered nun who has some notoriety after writing an account of her visions of God, but who then learns these were likely the result of a brain tumor, and the crisis of faith that then ensues. It’s a real slim book, and Salzman doesn’t linger on things, which is good, because I think the idea would break down if too much weight were put on it. As it is, the book works quite well, and if it sounds at all interesting, then I recommend you track it down.
The Memory of Water – Emmi Itaranta (2014)
A dystopian novel set in Northern Europe after the collapse of civilization and dealing with a world where fresh water is a scarce resource. My reaction to this one was a bit odd. I didn’t much care for the plot or prose style, but I liked the main characters, a pair of friends, and the narrator’s devotion to her job as a Tea Master and how everything she experienced was filtered through that fact. In that way, yeah, I recommend the book. The characters are pretty great, but some of the other bits? They sort of read like a road you’ve already traveled.
The Romance of Tristan and Iseult – M. Joseph Bedier (1900)
I never knew the story of Tristan and Iseult; I simply knew of it, so reading this was a neat experience. Bedier did much of the rendering while others (such as likely colossal asshole Hilaire Belloc) did the translating, and overall it’s a satisfying and exciting read with magic potions, curses, dragons, and knights who don’t have names, just articles in front of titles, like The Morholt. Another bit that sticks out is when King Mark first suspects Iseult of infidelity, he’s all ready to have her executed when a mob of lepers shows up and convinces him that no, killing her would be too good, and she should be given over to the lepers to be “used in common”. Shit like that makes you have to cringe, but if you enjoy the McMedieval Mythic Feudalism give this a read.
Hell, who am I kidding? You probably already have!
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.