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.
“It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten.”
– Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
That’s one of the books I finished recently. It’s pretty good if you like your modern novels on the short, impressionistic, and ultimately sad and depressing side. In fact if that’s what you like, it’s better than pretty good.
Now if only it had a wizard or some astronauts in it…
Here’s what I read over my vacation. It would have been twelve books, but I’m still reading The Orange Eats Creeps, but it’s okay since that book’s like prose no-wave. I sometimes kick myself for not putting up more content here, but other than a weekly writing status report, which I suspect no one wants to read, I can’t think of anything to write for regular content. So monthly book reports it is.
The Drowning Girl – Caitlin R. Kiernan (2012): An impressionistic ghost story that might not be a ghost story, but more along the lines of a Blackwood story where someone encounters something and the something is unfathomable. Here we have a schizophrenic young woman encountering the unknown in the person of another woman, who may be a ghost, or a mermaid, or a wolf dressed in the skin of a girl. Atmospheric and weird in the best way.
Smonk – Tom Franklin (2006): Violent over the top Southern-fried Western populated by mutant cartoon characters armed with guns and high explosives. If you like your violence tobacco-splattered and foul-mouthed, you’ll probably like this.
The Dinner – Herman Koch (2013): Two brothers and their wives get together for dinner and attempt to come to terms with the fact that their sons committed a horrible crime that’s been caught on camera and broadcast around the nation. As the man-hunt remains ongoing each family prepares to do all it can to protect itself, including murder. A somewhat enjoyable book with an unreliable narrator, but I couldn’t help but feel that Koch required pages to tell you what Simenon would only have needed a paragraph and a few ellipses to do.
Missing out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – Adam Phillips (2012): One problem I have with nonfiction is that too often it reads like it would have made for a better article than a book, and that’s the case here. Some nice nuggets buried throughout such as: “We know more about the experiences we haven’t had than about the experiences we have had.” And Phillips then goes on to critique this omniscience and poke holes in it, but often I found the conclusions drowned beneath the erudition.
Killing Rage: Ending Racism – bell hooks (1995): Essays and analysis on racism in America. A counter-point to the Terkel book I read last month. I started it right after that book, but its density slowed me down and I ended up reading it a bit at a time week by week. I’ve recommended it to friends since then. Most people should read this.
Junky – William S. Burroughs (1953): I forgot how great this book was. Yeah. Burroughs was a criminal psychopath. There’s no denying that. But when writing white-hot, as he is here, his prose throws sparks off the page.
Resume with Monsters – William Browning Spencer (1995): Protag works a series of dead-end jobs while trying to get back together with the woman who left him (for good reason) and battle Cthulhu and assorted other Old Ones hiding out behind the facade of corporate America. If you’ve ever worked a shit job and had to suffer through horrible HR presentations than you’ll be simpatico to this book.
The End of Everything – Megan Abbott (2011): This was an amazing book, part detective, part coming of age novel, all riveting, creepy, and startling. A girl’s best friend is kidnapped the summer before they’re both set to begin high school, and sets in motion events that can only lead to an end of innocence and childhood. The brilliant thing in this book is the way the jaded PI trope gets upended by a girl playing detective who’s a complete innocent encountering a wider world of adulthood mystery.
I Have The Right To Destroy Myself – Young-Ha Kim (2007): A Korean novel from the mid-90s where all the women exist to commit suicide and the guys make art and dream about cars. I don’t know what to make of this book. It’s narrator is a bit Holden Caulfield-esque – if Holden was a serial killer going around Seoul convincing alienated twenty-somethings to kill themselves. And that’s what the novel sort of exudes and revels in: twenty-somethingness that mistakes a shallow morbid lack of empathy for profundity.
Storm Kings – Lee Sandlin (2013): Two-fisted tales of meteorology! This is a fascinating account of the oft-contentious history of American meteorology and storm chasing from the Colonial Era (Ben Franklin and his kite) to the modern day. The chapter titled “The Finger of God” is worth reading, even if it’s just in the bookstore.
Jack Glass – Adam Roberts (2012): Fantomas of the spaceways that sometimes downgrades to fan fiction for equations. I preferred the former more than the latter.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence – Jack Womack (1993): The Diary of Anne Frank meets Clockwork Orange by way of Gossip Girl set in a dystopian USA that looks more familiar than it should. At the end you either feel sad for Lola, its protagonist, or glad that she’s adapted to her changing environment. Worth tracking down.
I wanted to make July all about reading nonfiction, but that didn’t happen. Some fiction squeaked in. Plus I started more books than I finished, because nonfiction, so now I’m reading nonfiction in between and around fiction. An essay here, an essay there.
On a similar note, August was supposed to be all about Epic Fantasy but I picked up the first 700+ page book in the pile and cracked; my resolve fled and I said, “Fuck no!” Instead August is going to be all about stand alone genre novels. That’s what I’m writing, so that’s what I’m reading. Fuck Epic Fantasy.
On to the books:
I can’t believe I hadn’t read Terkel until now. This book was great. I feel like Terkel should be our (USian) default historian, like most citizens should read his stuff and be familiar with it even if you don’t agree with it. And there’s lots here. The whole book is interviews about race relations in and around Chicago from the 50s on into the 80s. A document of lives lived through the death of Emmett Till, the housing protests, Affirmative Action, the closing of the steel mills, and the rise of the Nation of Islam. Like I said, agree or disagree with the speakers here but at least have the conversation to happen. Here’s the quote the book ends on from a mixed race man named Leo:
“I have faith we can mature. Stranger things have happened. Maybe America, maybe the world is in its adolescence. Maybe we’re driving home from the prom, drunk, and nobody knows whether we’re going to survive or not. Maybe we’ll survive and maybe we’ll be a pretty smart old person, well-adjusted and mellow.”
I did blather some about Eiseley before and this book is as good as any other to jump into his stuff with. The titular essay is probably his most famous. It’s about encountering a man on a beach that throws dying star fishes back into the sea. But the essay I loved was called “How Natural is ‘Natural’?”. That one read like pure Arthur Machen mixed with Edward Abbey or Henry Thoreau.
“I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor, trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light.
I have said this is not an illusion. It is when one sees in this manner, or a sense of strangeness halts one on a busy street to verify the appearance of one’s fellows, that one knows a terrible new sense has opened a faint crack in the absolute.”
Cosmic vastnesses indeed!
So, yeah. This book was why I didn’t finish more nonfiction this month. I was part way through bell hooks’s Killing Rage and Adam Phillips’s Missing Out when this book came along in the mail and I said, oh hey, let me read one of these stories and see what they’re all about. And that led to me reading another one and another one and another one.
These stories are pretty damn f’n great y’all.
Okay, so the only other Japanese ghost stories I’ve read are by Lafcadio Hearn and his wife Koizumi Setsu (and when people talk about Hearn’s Japanese work I think they should mention how it was a team effort between him and his wife), and also the work of Edogawa Rampo.
Miyabe’s are different from both of those.
Hearn and Setsu’s were all about the Japaneseness of the stories, because Hearn’s readers wanted exoticism. Rampo’s work took Poe and the conte cruel and mashed them up with their Japanese equivalents to give you such creep fests as “The Human Chair” and other nutty stuff.
In comparison to those Miyabe’s stories are more grounded in the everyday and mundane. They’re all about the marketplace and the ties of association between merchants in 18th and 19th centuries Edo. Each involves either an apprentice or bonded servant entering a situation where they encounter a ghost or demon. Their stories are intersecting other stories and that sense of indebtedness from one person to another is carried over between the living and the dead. Yeah, there’s nothing here that’s going to make me have to get off a crowded train like reading Rampo’s “The Caterpillar” did, but that’s not a bad thing. For a collision of the mundane and the fantastic these stories are perfect. Check them out.