Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

I've been a fan of David Mitchell since I first read Cloud Atlas in 2009. I know that his structural gimmicks don't work for everyone, but they work entirely for me. I love mosaic books in which shorter works interact with each other; Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, etc. Nearly all of Mitchell's books work that way, and they work with each other. The novels interact in ways that, if they work for you, really enhance the reading experience, and if they don't, smack of fan service. It all really works for me. 

The various strands of Utopia Avenue form a more straightforward story than Mitchell usually employs. The book is structured around the discography of the titular band, going through the albums side by side, song by song, with each chapter consisting of the time in which the song was written with the song's writer as the perspective character. The band has three primary songwriters, one woman and two men, keys, bassist, and guitarist respectively, though both the drummer and manager get a writing credit on a song. The weird connections come through references to Mitchell's previous books.

Jasper de Zoet, the guitarist for Utopia Avenue is the descendant of the protagonist of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and he is carrying a traveler around in his head that has tormented him since his youth. This strand is in that genre of horror that doubles as an exploration of mental health issues and carries the novel into territory that overlaps with Thousand Autumns, The Bone Clocks and Slade House.

This might or might not work for someone who hadn't read Mitchell before, but I found it enchanting, and the ending incredibly moving. Mitchell's prose is always excellent. There are several of his books I like more, but this was very good indeed.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

This is my seventh book (and sixth novel) by Walter Mosley, who has cemented himself on my favorite authors list. This is up there for me a little ahead of the first couple of his Leonid McGill books. Those are heart of darkness style noir as PI McGill tries to redeem himself and go into (relatively) legitimate business as he solves cases. Another Mosley novel I loved, The Man In My Basement wasn't a crime novel per se, but in the deeply weird (but not supernatural) scenario of that book, among other things, a black man must make heads or tails of white man's bizarre idea of how to rid himself of guilt. In all of those books, class and race form much of the backdrop against which the ethical dilemmas take place. In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, that backdrop is even bleaker and starker and the ethical questions are asked more explicitly.

It's a mosaic of interrelated stories about Socrates Fortlow, a man in his late fifties who spent over half his life in prison. Originally from Indiana, he is attempting to rebuild his life in the Watts neighborhood in LA. He begins in abject poverty that gradually becomes marginally less abject over the course of the book. Socrates has no illusions about his own guilt. He was guilty of the rape and murders that put him in jail and does not pretend he was not. Like his namesake, he asks questions of those around him. The main ethical point seems to be that he can't undo what he did, but he can, within the limits of his situation attempt to do good. This takes many forms over the course of the book, but the main one is trying to keep a younger man from falling into the same pattern he did. 

I think a lot about the degree to which individual choice and societal pressure act on a person; in existentialist (specifically De Beauvoir's) terms, how much is a person an object and how much a subject. I don't know to what degree Mosley was thinking in those terms, but he certainly was thinking about that problem as he wrote Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. This is no treacly, leave-the-world-better-than-you-found-it existentialism light, though. Fortlow is firmly bound by his status as a black ex-con trying to make it through post prison life. Mosley doesn't flinch from the bleak implications of that status. But in Fortlow's insistence on trying to find ways to do good in that context, a more authentic version of the make-the-changes-you-can-in-the-context-you're-in trope emerges.

The book works perfectly as a compelling group of interrelated stories and as philosophical rumination on guilt and redemption. The ethical discussions are not preachy; rather they apply the Socratic method to the question of how to live in a context that makes the question seem absurd. The stories could stand on their own, or at least most of them could, but they truly make a compelling and unified whole. A stellar book. In a group of three with Circe by Madeline Miller and Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand as the best things I've read for the first time this year.

Canon Worthy

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand's obsession with outsider art might find it's apex in Cass Neary, the aging punk photographer from Generation Loss and its sequels, or in Curious Toys her historical serial killer thriller which featured Henry Darger as a secondary character. Or here. Artists of all types populate her work from the band Wylding Hall from the folk band in Wylding Hall to the Xtian singer and cyberpunk adjacent art in Glimmering. This, which is, at least in part, her take on the La Belle Dame sans Merci trope continues her obsession with artists bohemian and otherwise and the source of their inspiration. Here those themes are in service of an excellent literary horror/fantasy thriller.

There is an historical set of characters including some of the pre-Raphaelites and the poet Swinbourne. There's a fictional artist who seems to be based on Richard Dadd. There's two generations of artists named Comstock and several bohemian types in the present day, including one writing a history of the Tristan and Iseult legend in all its incarnations through history. Behind it all there is a mysterious woman who functions as model, muse and predator for generations of artists. 

There is a density of literary and historical reference here that ensures I missed a fair amount, but I got enough to realize that it doesn't entirely matter. Hand's prose and command of character motivation and structure make it compelling. The references I got only enhanced my enjoyment and sent me on several google dives to catch myself up on some things. The books that I found myself thinking of most while reading it were The Course of the Heart by John Harrison, mainly in mood and theme, and with The Stress of Her Regard/Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, his take on murderous muses and how that drives art. But as much as I love those books, I think I like this one more.

Hand proves over and over she's a master in every genre she works in. This is a profound meditation on mortality and art. It's an equally exciting story with a climax that I absolutely did not see coming. It's horror and fantasy and capital L literature. I don't think it's recency bias to say this is among her best if it's not her actual best. I realized last year while reading one of her story collections she is my favorite living writer, and this only reconfirms that. I'll be returning to this many times, I suspect.

Canon Worthy

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin

The family doctor gave me the Earthsea books when I was a kid because I loved Narnia. I was not ready for them at the time; they really freaked me out. I returned to them later, or at least some of them, with enjoyment, but I still remember that feeling from that early encounter. Decades later I read The Dispossessed, Le Guin's excellent entry in the political science in space subgenre of SF. Last year I finally got around to reading her classic exploration of gender, Left Hand of Darkness. I liked all of these a lot, but Lathe of Heaven is easily my favorite thing I've read by her so far.*

This is her take on a Phillip K Dick style, loss of reality novel, and it is spectacular. It concerns a man named George Orr, living in 2002 (the near future at the time of publication) whose dreams are effective; that is, they actually reshape reality, going as far back into the past as necessary to make the change. He is referred to William Haber, a psychiatrist who comes to believe that Orr's dreams have this power, and then through hypnosis attempts to use Orr to reshape the world. A wave of alternate histories ensue that achieve that effect that happens in most PKD books where the very concept of reality is melted, especially when Le Guin floats the idea that there could be other effective dreamers. 

This could have been as far as it went and I would have loved the novel; I'm a sucker for reality bending scifi that doubles as a study of madness/mental illness. Especially when it's packaged in a suspenseful story with excellent prose. But in Haber and Orr, Le Guin is able to explore an interesting set of ethical questions: How much history should they change? What cost is acceptable? What is lost? 

"The end justfies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means." In this line Le Guin gets at questions adjacent to those of both the Existentialists and the Pragmatists. It complicates and cuts to the bottom line of ethical decision making. What one chooses to do is what matters. It doesn't negate intent, but it does make it subservient to actions. I will be contemplating this line for weeks.

That such an vital question is embedded in such a well crafted, exciting and heartbreaking story makes this a novel I will return to many times, I suspect.

Canon Worthy

*It's been a long time for the Earthsea books, so a reread could change this.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

White Houses by Amy Bloom

I bought a copy of this shortly after it came out in hardback because I'd just moved to Charleston and it was a book club selection and I thought a book club in my new home would be fun. Unfortunately I didn't sign up in time for the actual book club meeting (they had it at a restaurant and therefore had limited seating), and I put off reading the book, to the extent that I didn't even read the description on the jacket. I think I put it off because I had subconsciously related it to a book by another author, who shall remain nameless as I don't want to be mean about it, whose book of short stories, a selection for my book club back in Raleigh, I did not finish, I did not like, and whose work I don't plan to revisit. But it turns out to be an historical romance novel about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock.

I am so glad I finally got to this. This is a good mix of following the record and being willing to make up the interstitial things. The most delightful invention came as Hick, as Hickock was called, tells of her past. On her way from small town Wisconsin to a career as a journalist there was a detour as she spent a short time (a few weeks? a few months?) in a circus where she learned to type. This felt like a stealth homage to carnivalesque works like Geek Love or Nights at the Circus. If I hadn't been won over already, I would have been at that point. She also invents a cousin of Elanor's to allow for a blackmail subplot. But for the most part it's a fictional autobiography.

I'm not sure how much it reflects Hickok's actual writing style, but the narrative voice here is absolutely convincing. A little world weariness/cynicism a la His Girl Friday that is undercut by the clear strength of emotion between Hick and Eleanor. I've read about this time period in a couple of biographies, including No Ordinary Time which covered both FDR and Eleanor. Bloom captures the excitement of being near a president in office without ever making FDR the focus of the book. There are great barbs about figures of the time and it really captures a believable dynamic of living in the shadow of someone who was both a great president and a great con man (to paraphrase the book), while keeping the focus on Hick's life story and the love story between her and the first lady. I'm kicking myself for not reading this sooner; it's excellent.

Highly Recommended.


Friday, May 21, 2021

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

I wasn't in the right frame of mind the first couple times I started this one, but I'm glad that I returned to it. Last year I read Hopkinson's excellent science fiction novel Midnight Robber. This is in a very different, equally nonrealist mode, but is equally good. I finished it last night, but the more I sat with it today, the more I liked it. I love the technique of using real historical figures as characters and filling in the gaps of the story with the fantastical. And this plays interestingly with structure. And it's all in service of a moving story. 

It opens on a plantation in St Domingue, as Mer, a slave and doctor/healer and her paramour, another slave, help a third slave woman to deliver a child that I'd stillborn. A hundred years later in France, 
Jeanne Duval, the real life mistress of Charles Baudelaire, participates in a sex magic ritual. Between the sorrow of the St. Domingue slaves and that ritual a goddess who is detached from time is born. The lives of the St Domingue characters, the Paris characters, and as the novel progresses an additional set of characters in ancient Egypt centering around the Catholic Saint Thais, weave together to form a narrative about striving from freedom from various societal forces that has an incredible impact.

The sheer amount of historical research and imagination that went into The Salt Roads would alone make it well worth reading, but Hopkinson's prose and the use of several first person narrators,  including the young goddess Lasiren learning about her power and purpose, and a few strategically places third person passages make this something special. I'm still sorting through what Lasiren's relationship to the other gods is. It's the type of book that will clearly reward rereading down the road. 

Highly Recommended/ Canon Worthy

Content warning: lots of sex and it deals with heavy themes.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

I read Charles Yu's first novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe back in 2011 and really enjoyed it at the time, though it is sorely overdue a reread. This one was immediately on my radar when it came out last year, but I wasn't buying new books in 2020. I finally got to it this past week, and in the interim it won the National Book Award. 

I love a gimmick in a novel if it fits the material, and this gimmick fits perfectly. A novel about the precise boundaries of Asian success in Hollywood in the form of a screenplay more  by someone who has spent years in writers rooms for television shows. I was expecting a funnier version of satire, but I really loved the direction it went instead. Not that it isn't funny at times; it is. The entire story is set in a Chinatown and more specifically in a set of high rises over a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The main character is Willis Wu, grew up there and is now typecast as Generic Asian Man, mostly doing bit and background parts in a crime show called Black and White, though he longs to be Kung Fu Guy. 

But the book shifts from satire to a moving account of Asian life in America. Sometimes didactic fiction bothers me, but once I started thinking of this more as a parable, I got past any qualms I had about it. It feels like an essential account of the, or at least an, Asian American experience, especially given the turn national attitudes have taken in the past couple of years. 

Highly Recommended