Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

I picked up a remaindered copy of this a couple of years ago on the strength of the title. My opinion on the title is mixed having read it. On the one hand it is very catchy, and does fit the courage of the librarians in question. On the other hand, it implies a different style of writing. Maybe something along the lines of Sarah Vowell’s funny prose style. In reality it’s a fairly straightforward journalistic history. So the title is the reason I bought the book, but it is also a little misleading. That said, the book is well worth reading.

The story of the librarian’s bravery is mainly confined to the final quarter of the book, and it is an exciting read. The earlier portions are perhaps slightly less exciting  but are incredibly informative. I hate to admit it, but I knew zero about the city of Timbuktu or the country of Mali before reading this. Timbuktu, was largely a metaphor for a place very far away when I was growing up. One of the strands of this book is a crash course in the history of both. I knew that Islamic and African scholarship flourished in roughly the 13th century and for some time afterwards. I didn’t know that Timbuktu was the heart of that flourishing. Another strand of the early part of the book concerned the lecturer librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and his decades long work collecting the manuscripts that demonstrate that scholarship so clearly. A third strand was the author’s journalistic account of his time spent in Mali.

One of the most fascinating things about this book is the way it illustrates that a struggle between a moderate form of Islam and the extremist version has been ongoing for centuries. The manuscripts were often hidden by families as various jihadi groups over the years had threatened them. In my experience, so many people treat Islam as a monolithic entity. This book is a very good counter to that misconception and is worth recommending on that basis alone. The most exciting part of the book comes in the last act when Al Qaeda, in conjunction with other groups, became the most recent threat to the intellectual history of the city. This is not an outlier, but the most recent flareup of a long ongoing conflict. Haidara and his colleagues smuggled hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out under the nose of the jihadis. It’s an exciting story.

Overall I both enjoyed the book and found it incredibly informative. By the ending of the book, my frustration at the title not matching the book had mostly ebbed. The final quarter of the book is indeed filled with some badassery from librarians. And it makes me want to read a more thorough history of Timbuktu.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 34/75

Friday, May 15, 2020

Looking for Jake by China Mievile

After finishing Looking For Jake, my opinion of Mieville, already revised up after reading This Census Taker and rereading Kraken, has only gone up further. He is as good or better at short length as he is at longer. I’ve had Looking For Jake on the shelf for years, but for some reason had put off reading it. I think I had a vague sense that it was YA, but that wouldn’t have necessarily put me off. I really wish I’d read this sooner. There are no bad stories, and a few all timers.

The stand outs were: The Ball Room, a gothic ghost story transposed to a children’s ball pit in the play room of an Ikea-like store. This is an incredibly effective horror story. Reports of Certain Events in London, in which China Mieville receives a package of incomplete documents intended for a Charles Melville. The society to which those papers pertain study a fantastical invasion that’s been happening for centuries. It’s structured similarly to Call of Cthulhu and is one of the best stories in that vein I’ve read. Details, in which a young man learns a different way of seeing the world. This might be my favorite in the collection. And finally, The Tain, which is the most unique take on vampires I’ve read, with the exception of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers. A forward to the standalone edition of that last one is where M John Harrison coined the term The New Weird to describe the work that Mieville, Vandermeer, KJ Bishop and a few others were doing.

The other stories were all very good as well. Most of the stories contain enough worldbuilding for a much longer work. The writing is excellent. There is an eeriness to them that is entirely effective; a sense of the numinous. Literary horrror/dark fantasy at its finest with a couple forays into kafka-esque scifi..

Highly Recommeneded for the collection, with my rating for the individual stories below.

Looking for Jake- Recommended
Foundation- Highly Recommended
The Ball Room- Canon Worthy
Reports of Certain Events in London- Canon Worthy
Familiar- Highly Recommended
Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia- Recommended
Details- Canon Worthy
Go Between- Highly Recommended
Different Skies- Recommended
An End To Hunger- Highly Recommended
‘Tis The Season- Highly Recommended
Jack- Highly Recommended (especially if you’ve read Perdido Street Station)
On the Way to the Front- Recommended
The Tain- Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 33/75

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues won the Edgar Award for best novel when it came out. I haven’t read the competition, but it seems well earned. Burke’s prose style is one of the best going regardless of genre. This carries a lot of darkness with flawed characters, an interesting moralistic streak and some good insight into the process of grief. This is the third Dave Robicheaux novel. I read a couple of his earlier novels before the crime novels (The Lost Get Back Boogie and Lay Down My Sword and Shield), and while he adopted crime tropes his writing style remained very much the same once he moved into the genre.

I’ve said it before here, I’m a sucker for Catholic novelists. Walker Percy was another writer I loved and I think his work makes for an interesting comparison to Burke’s. Both are rooted in a very strong sense of place, both in New Orleans. I don’t know how that would play to a New Orleanian, but from the outside it seems authentic. They both write great prose and have some really good insight. Percy tended to bring a low key almost hidden Catholic perspective into examinations of existentialist themes (IE how to navigate a normal Wednesday afternoon), whereas Burke’s Catholicism is closer to the surface and seems in large part paired with a 12-step program sense of trying to break a cycle of alcoholism and grief. Both deal with the darkness of the world, Percy in existentialist and semiotic/linguistic terms, Burke in noir. Both take on race in the south head on. These accounts may read jarringly to readers 30-50 years on, but I feel safe in saying that both had their hearts in the right place for the most part. Neither seems to have much use for Catholic proscriptions against extramarital sex, though both seem uncomfortable with homosexuality. I’m most uncomfortable with the women in their books. I would certainly not want to be a female character in a Burke novel. Percy’s at least had a higher survival rate. All of these things are wrapped up with their religious beliefs. No longer sharing the faith (I was never Catholic, but was once devout), I still love their work as I’m fascinated by people working out their religion in fiction, even if I’m uncomfortable with aspects of their ideologies.

At the opening of Black Cherry Blues, Robicheaux has a dream in which he relives the death of his wife from the previous novel. She died at the hands of some criminals who were after him. He feels deep guilt and grief about this. Shortly afterwards, he runs into an old college roommate, Dixie Lee Pugh, a troubled former Rockabilly star who seems to have been modeled at least partially on Jerry Lee Lewis. Soon Dixie Lee pulls Robicheaux into his problems. Robicheaux ends up accused of murder. Out on bail he follows Dixie Lee up to Montana to try to clear his name and gets pulled further into conflict with some heavy duty (at least in their own minds) criminals. To say more could spoil the book.

Burke’s style and his approach to the heart of noir darkness are compelling. While he is a much more lush prose writer than Elmore Leonard, he has a similarly good ear for dialog, and a similar approach to character driven action. His plots are believable. In my post on the last Burke novel I mentioned how his protagonists seem to be driven, at least in part, by the need to be told that they are good. Told that despite their rage, their violence and their failings that they are at core decent humans. In this book that was more explicit than previous. Here he posits the idea that in order for a person to be good, someone else has to believe they are or are capable of being so. I’m pondering the degree to which I agree with that, but as motivation for a character fighting his most dangerous urges in violent situations it makes for compelling motivation and plot. I think I still like the Hackberry Holland books I’ve read more than the Robicheaux, but I would recommend both to anyone interested in religiously tinged dark crime noir. It’s a toss up between this one and The Neon Rain for which of the three Robicheaux books I’ve read I like best. I see why this won awards.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 32/75

Monday, May 11, 2020

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I first encountered Ursula K Le Guin as a young kid. I read the Narnia books over and over and when our family doctor found that out, he loaned me A Wizard of Earthsea. I was in no way ready for it and it really freaked me out. But I still remember bits of it thirty some odd years later, so it must have had something. I hope to reread it and maybe the sequels later this year. More recently (2-4 years ago), I read Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, her answer to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I picked up a copy of Left Hand of Darkness, her most acclaimed work, around then and have finally gotten around to reading it. It is an ur-text for feminist themed science fiction and is a classic worthy of its reputation.

It is the only one of her Hainish novels I’ve read so far, but that series of stand alone novels is set in a universe in which there are many worlds, including Earth (or Terra), all inhabited by humans descended from a common set of ancestors. Many of them have joined together in a confederation of planets called the Ekumen. Genli Ai, born on Terra, is a representative of the Ekumen sent to a planet called Gethen by its inhabitants, and Winter by the Ekumen due to perpetual winter. There are several nations there, and the primary action takes place in the largest two, Karhyde and Orgoreyn. The humans on Gethen are biologically androgynous. They have no primary sexual characteristics outside of a brief period each month when they can become either for procreative purposes. Any person can either sire or bear a child.

Like a lot of scifi novels of the 60’s and 70’s, there’s a lot of focus on political intrigue, primarily between Karhyde and Orgoreyn. And a main concern of the novel is examining the effects of true androgyny on the politics of the place. Ai’s main ally in Karhyde, where he spends the first couple years of this time on Gethen, is Estraven, himself an exile. (Even though all humans born on Gethen are androgynous Le Guin uses masculine pronouns for them.) Both Ai and Estraven end up in Orgoreyn. Ai’s goal is to try to get the planet of Gethen into the Ekumen. The book is part scifi, part gender studies, part survivalist thriller, part political thriller, and, once I got on its wavelength (which took a couple tries) absolutely compelling.

It is well structured. The bulk of the book are first person reports/journals kept by Ai and Estraven, sprinkled with folk tales from various places on Gethen. The folk tales give the reader enough knowledge of the customs and politics of the world without excessive infodump, and are interesting as short pieces in their own right. The alternating narratives of the two main characters, one Terran, one Gethen, allow Le Guin to examine the effects of gender on a range of issues without getting didactic. The way the two characters view each other is fascinating. And the intrigue and survivalist framework allows the book to move along without getting bogged down.

I need to ponder the book and likely reread it a couple times before I’m willing to make stronger statements about everything it is saying. But I can give it a full throated recommendation. I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it.

Highly Recommended.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 31/75

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

A friend gave me a copy of Fever Dream as a going away present when I moved from Raleigh to Charleston two years ago. I’m ashamed to say it’s taken until now to get to it, not only because it was rude to my friend, but also because he was dead on about it being exactly in my wheelhouse. It’s very much in that literary horror/weird fiction vein that has become one of my, if not my favorite genre lately.

A woman, Amanda, lies on her sickbed, possibly her deathbed. A child named David is interrogating her. It’s not clear if he is a ghost, or if he’s in the room, but he’s walking her through her memories of how she, and her daughter became ill. The atmosphere is oppressive and even as a non-parent I could feel how this tapped into primal fears for the safety of one’s child. There is a mysterious disease and some strange healing magic that may be worse than the cure. The best part, though, is the almost suffocating atmosphere of the piece. This is what has lingered in my mind in the days since I finished it. A very effective short horror novel.

Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 30/75

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Filmes Together by Adam Nayman

I talk about my obsession with the films of the Coen Brothers way too much. I genuinely like every movie they’ve made except for The Ladykillers, and even it has its moments. In cases like Burn After Reading or A Serious Man I’ve grown to love them on rewatching after initial disappointment. I even like ones with mixed critical response like Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty. Miller’s Crossing has been my favorite of theirs for a long time, but the essay in this book about No Country For Old Men has me questioning that.

Adam Nayman, who I first encountered as a podcast guest on one of The Ringer movie podcasts promoting this book, has a lot of insight into the films and clearly loves them. This book would be worth the cover price if it were just his longform essays on each movie with shorter essays talking about where they were in their careers when they made them. These latter cover 3-4 movies a piece. But there are also interviews with Carter Burwell who writes their scores, Barry Sonnenfeld and Roger Deakens who have been their primary Directors of Photography as well as their set and costume designers, their storyboarder and pull quotes from actors they’ve worked with multiple times. It’s in a coffee table format so there are many screenshots, behind the scenes photos and art based on the films. It’s a great object as well as an interesting read (assuming you’re interested in their movies). Nayman’s essays touch on many themes, but the two points that I’ve been thinking about most involve No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis.

About the former he posits that one small change that they make in Carla Jean Moss’s dialog changes the meaning of the film and makes the film their own. In the book she is fairly acquiescent when Chigurh confronts her with a coin flip for her life. But in the movie, she refuses to see him as an agent of fate saying, "The coin don't have no say. It's just you." This has made me rethink the film. It was already in my top 2-5 Coen films depending on the day I’m asked, but it actually makes me like the film more. After my most recent reread of the Cormac McCarthy novel, I had already decided it was one of the few times I actually liked the movie more than the book. Further thought might push it past Miller’s Crossing.

I’ve been a little bit of a heretic about Inside Llewyn Davis; it’s among their most well respected works, yet it’s very low on my list. This could be in part that it’s one of the ones I’ve watched the fewest times (3-4 tops). But among all the other things it is, Nayman says, it is about someone who was part of an artistic partnership before his counterpart died. In the context of the Odysseyan loop they’ve created here, they are considering what artistic life might be like without the other. I’m looking forward to seeing this again soon. With the exception of The Ladykillers, every time I’ve been disappointed with a Coens’ film, multiple rewatches have fixed that. I suspect this will be no different.

I would have liked a little more consideration of their themes of uncertainty. Nayman definitely touches on this, particularly in the essays on A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There but in other places as well, but I see that as the key to their work.I would have loved to read his essay on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which dropped on Netflix not long after the publication of the book (probably available on The Ringer and I should just Google it). But even where I disagreed with him I found the essays consistently engaging, and he really delivered on the promise of the title in the myriad connections he made between the films.

Highly Recommended if you’re a Coens fan.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 29/75