Wednesday, March 31, 2021

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been on a Kazuo Ishiguro kick recently spurred by the release of his new, and very good, science fiction novel, Klara and the Sun. I recently recommended his debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, which I've only come to like more on further reflection. An Artist of The Floating World was Ishiguro's follow up to that, and it is an excellent one.

Ishiguro's mastery of subtlety is well on display here. Again there is an unreliable narrator. Again the characters are often talking around what they mean in heartbreaking ways. The narrator, Masuji Ono, is an an old artist in post-WWII Japan. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he is reckoning with his actions during the war, specifically his move from a place among bohemian artists to essentially pumping out war propaganda. I have read books that talk about regret and reckoning with one's own complicity in the crimes of the times, and I have read books in which characters are reckoning with their lack of impact, but I have rarely read books that sit in the paradox of both at the same time. It's a powerful tension.

As in Pale View of Hills, the war looms in the background of the book. Like the previous novel, there are themes of authenticity and wondering about how to continue living that are not far off from the Existentialists. With the war came American influence, both in the dropping of the bomb and in the subsequent western influence on Japan. In both of Ishiguro's first two novels, the struggle between those American influences and Japanese culture, and the changing mores of the younger generation drive a lot of character motivation. 

Another meditative, masterful novel. I expect I'll eventually read all of Ishiguro's books. Next up is a reread of The Remains of the Day for the first time in around a decade. Ishiguro saw that novel, one of his most famous, as a rewrite of this one in a British context. I look forward to returning to it with that in mind.

Highly recommended (though with reflection and a reread it could go up to Canon Worthy)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

The interview Ishiguro did for this book with Neil Gaiman pushed me to read more of his work. Last week I read (and loved) A Pale View of Hills, his debut novel. After further reflection and listening to a couple episodes of The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast where they discuss it, I like it even more than I did at first. This one, Ishiguro's latest, will take a similar amount of time to fully process, but I do have initial thoughts.

It is a near future science fiction novel narrated by an AF or Artificial Friend, the Klara of the title. I love the science fictional tool of a narrator whose vocabulary/experience is limited and so descriptions of mundane things become otherworldly. Gene Wolfe is masterful at this, as is Ishiguro here. These AFs are essentially AIs embedded in robot dolls that are able to move and provide a level of companionship for children as they grow. Klara has feelings and is quite perceptive. The first chapter takes place in her store, but eventually she is purchased by a family for a girl named Josie, who is quite ill. I don't want to get into the plot mechanics too much so as to avoid spoilers, so I won't summarize further.

As with A Pale View of Hills, so much of this novel's meaning lies in the subtext. The limited vocabulary of the protagonist makes for a different type of unreliable narrator. Honestly, I'm going to need a reread to fully understand her visual perception as described. But as the novel progresses a world is revealed in which CRISPR-like gene manipulation has created a separate class of people who have genetic advantages. Between the advances in AI and the "Lifted" people, two new prejudices have been folded into an already existing xenophobia. There are hints that one character has joined an alt-right enclave that is as opposed to non-white people coming into their space as they are about the genetic and AI advances. It's very subtle, though. 

The main narrative is, unsurprisingly for Ishiguro, one of deep grief. The mother's grief over her daughter who has died, and around the illness of her remaining daughter. And Klara herself, AI, though she is, reveals this elliptically. One of the most haunting aspects of the book is the solar powered Klara's invention of a sun centered religion of sorts. Her prayers to the Sun on behalf of Josie are heartbreaking. Most AI narratives are asking questions about what makes us human, but Ishiguro's use of religion as a marker is brilliant. As is planned obsolescence as a stand in for death.

After hearing him discuss this novel with Gaiman, I got the sense that I might be diving in and reading all his books. Reading this and Pale View of the Hills only confirmed it. I'm reading An Artist of the Floating World, his second novel, now. More to come, I'm sure.

Highly Recommended

Friday, March 19, 2021

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (2021 Reread)

Not much to add this time through (2021 annual reread), except that, even though I'm an easy cry, this is an incredibly moving book. Like I said two years ago; beautiful and brutal.

2020 update- Wild Seed is one of my annual rereads and when I first thought of building this blog around my personal canon, this was one of the books automatically in. I’ve lightly edited and pasted my 2019 review below. It sums up a lot of my feelings about the book well.

I do want to add that on this reread I really wrestled with the power dynamic between Doro and Ayanwu. Theirs is on the most defining level a master slave relationship. It is troubling, then, when Butler gets as close to a “happy ending” as that dynamic, and the dystopia that is the endpoint of events set in motion in the book, can possibly allow. Over and over in her books, Butler is incredibly insightful into the psychology of slavery, of being on the powerless end of the relationship. This is true of all her books, but it is hard to see the ending as anything other than a defeat. It is no less powerful a book for that.

As I said last year, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Annual Reread  2020 1/8

Rereads, Library Books, Etc 2020 3/35

My 2019 Review Lightly Edited:

I’ll start by saying Wild Seed is one of my favorite books; I reread it once a year. It’s the first Butler book I read, and it is not a bad place to start. Certainly if I thought I could only convince someone to read one Butler book, it would be this one.

It is the first book of Butler's Patternmaster series chronologically. It was written after the later books in the series, though. It could be read as a standalone. But the brilliance of what she pulled off here can only be fully grasped in the context of the later books. Her first published novel, Patternmaster, was a far future dystopia in which three groups of people existed: a web (pattern) of connected psychics controlled by the strongest of those (the Patternmaster), mutes (regular humans with no psychic ability), and Clayarks (centaurish bearers of a disease that will turn mutes or psychics into Clayarks). It is easily the weakest of the series. That’s not to say it’s not good. It is. In the prequels, though, she reverse engineered what it would have taken to get to that dystopia and those books are ingenious. Each is a different subgenre. Mind of My Mind establishes the origin of the pattern in 1980’s California. It’s a near future scifi with some elements of a mainstream approach to character. It’s very good. Clay’s Ark, which talks about how the Clayark virus hit earth combines pandemic disease from outer space thriller and home invasion horror against a sort of Mad Max background. It’s great. She always plays fair and doesn’t change anything implied by Patternmaster. Each book ends with a bittersweet bleak ending. But the knowledge of what they are setting up gives them a harder edge than they would have in isolation.

Then came Wild Seed, the best of the series. It reads like a literary fantasy novel beginning in Africa and travelling to antebellum slave-holding America. It feels like folklore, like myth with elements of superhero comics and slave narratives. By this point Butler’s prose was flawless. She was really in control of her themes of slavery, gender and the power dynamics that come from those. But she is never didactic here (the main flaw of her more famous Parable of the Sower, in my mind). These themes all emerge from the story. That story pits two long lived people against each other in a variety of capacities. The dominant one is master/slave. The backdrop of that power struggle is pure scifi; a centuries long genetics experiment.

Anyanwu is 300 years old at the beginning of the story. She’s a shapechanger and can heal herself. She presents as an old woman to reduce the scrutiny and fear of her people, who revere her as a healer and fear her as a witch. Doro is unbelievably ancient. When he dies he jumps to the nearest body and lives through them. Over the centuries, he has cultivated people who have abilities trying to create a species of psychics; he has bred them like cattle, and unsurprisingly is drawn into the slave trade. He is originally from Africa, but is making America the center of his efforts. He manages to coerce Anyanwu into his fold; she is the only person he’s discovered over the years who has the potential to be as long-lived as he. He threatens, cajoles, seduces. He sees people as valuable seed, values them for their potential to forward his genetic goals and kills them when they rebel or go crazy. She sees them as people, values them as family and attempts to heal them. She is “wild seed.” Her genetic mutations happened outside of his control.

Their long struggle forms the narrative of the novel, and it is a great one. I’ve only got a couple more Butler novels before I’ve read them all. She is among my favorite writers, and to my mind, this is her greatest book. Beautiful and brutal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I read Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad back in 2011. I don’t remember it well, though I intend to revisit it soon. I love books that are oddly structured or that consist of stories that can stand on their own but when put together add up to more. I usually think of such story suites as a science fiction trope, but given books like Winesburg Ohio, Dubliners or Nazi Literature in the Americas (or on a larger scale 2666) there’s a lot of precedent for it in mainstream fiction as well. What I do remember about Goon Squad was that it worked wonderfully as a connected sequence. That metafictional impulse is on display in The Keep as well, and I’m glad that I’ve finally returned to Egan’s work.

The story begins as a pastiche of a gothic family melodrama/horror story. And it works incredibly well as that. For a while there were tics about the narrative voice that bugged me, but eventually I realized what was happening and came to love it. The gothic tale is being written by a prisoner, named Ray, who is in a prison writing group. If this were set in an MFA workshop, I think I would have rolled my eyes at that point, but the fact that the narrator is in a group of people at least one of whom is a legitimate threat to his safety adds stakes that make that part of the story compelling. The final section is narrated by the woman who is leading the workshop in the prison. 

Gene Wolfe once said something to the effect that the narrative voice should match that of the story, and Egan did that masterfully here. You believe that Ray wrote both the gothic novel and the prison one. There was a bit in there about hatred of adverbs that brought Elmore Leonard to mind, though the writing style isn’t as pared down as his. I read in a review (maybe on that one reviewer appreciated the way Egan was able to bring an emotional weight to metafiction that is often lost in the ironic distance a writer risks in the use of such techniques. I couldn’t agree more (though I think more writers than just Egan and Vollmann can pull this off, though they certainly do. I suspect the reviewer hadn’t read genre masters like Jeff Vandermeer or Caitlin Kiernan etc who accomplish that feat regularly). This was metafiction as compelling page turner with emotional weight. For all the textual tricks it never disappears into too-clever-by-half navel gazing. It’s also smart/prescient (set in a time of blackberries, not smartphones and radar dishes not 5G networks) about how people get addicted to their constant connection with an illusory digital world. The importance of silence, imagination and how the latter is hard to foster without the other is a major theme. 

This is an excellent book and I look forward to reading more by her and to that revisit of Goon Squad.

Highly Recommended (though a reread could bump it up to Canon Worthy)

Monday, March 15, 2021

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Back in 2013 I attended a reading by James McBride at the North Carolina Literary Festival. I had never heard of him before. But I got a signed copy of The Good Lord Bird and was blown away by it. It was an incredibly funny historical novel about a much larger than life version of the abolitionist John Brown narrated by a young boy named Onion who is disguised as a girl for the bulk of the novel. Like the great comic novels it had very heavy themes: slavery and the history of race in America most prominently. And yet its light touch made the whole thing completely enjoyable while still forcing the reader to confront those issues. I later read his memoir, The Color of Water and his biography of James Brown, both of which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as The Good Lord Bird. Deacon King Kong, while set in a completely different time and place, 1969 New York, is equally funny and equally concerned with the same heavy themes as the previous novel, and pulls the balance off as well as its predecessor.

Deacon King Kong is equal parts a crime novel, a comic novel and a social novel that examines the life of a community. It pulls off all three genres and makes it look easy. The deacon whose behind-his-back nickname provides the book’s title, is more commonly known to the residents of the project he lives in as Sportcoat. In the first two pages Sportcoat gets drunk and shoots a drug dealer called Deems who he used to coach in baseball, but who has embraced a violent life of crime. Deems survives, but just. This event galvanizes the community, a group comprised largely of aging transplants from various southern cities. In an interview around a decade or so ago, Dennis Lehane said (I’m paraphrasing)  that the great social novels of the past had largely moved over to the crime genre after postmodernism and the Updike/Roth brand of mainstream literary novels had taken over. This seems true of Lehane’s work as well as his fellow The Wire writers’ room compatriots like Richard Price and George Pelecanos. The Wire isn’t a bad comparison point for the crime elements of this novel. The machinations of drug dealers both on the lower and higher ends of the hierarchy, investigating cops, smugglers at the docks and the bystanders of various degrees of innocence are all present in both, though the community of bystanders takes a much larger role here. And Deacon King Kong celebrates the city of New York even as it criticizes in a similar way to The Wire’s treatment of Baltimore. The ways that racism is baked into the system and the lives that people build within that system, the little ways that find some joy in the midst of the situation they’re in is incredibly moving.

But, while The Wire definitely has some jokes, Deacon King Kong is a full out comedy embedded in the crime story. The humor rises from the community and the way the characters who have known each other for so long interact. Sportcoat’s a tragicomic figure; his alcoholism has completely subsumed him in the aftermath of his wife’s death a couple years before the beginning of this story. He is in a lot of ways a pitiable character, but in McBride’s hands, the humor that is born out of that is stunning. There is a slapstick quality to some of it as well. A would-be assassin runs into such trouble taking out his targets that I was reminded of Patrolman Mancuso from A Confederacy of Dunces and Sportcoat himself seems like a drunken M. Hulot from Jaques Tati movies.

The beauty of the novel is in the way the crime, the humor and the social critique blossom out of the incredible cast of characters that form an absolutely convincing community. It would be easy for this to turn into a dour morality tale or for the comic tone to make a mockery of the more serious elements. But McBride’s masterful prose and grasp of character allows the novel to embrace both the ugliness and joy of life in equal measure. In its exploration of a community over a couple generations (and in its drunken tragicomedy) it reminded me a little of Wendell Berry’s Port Williams Membership novels. The ending is hopeful. Here someone might quibble that it is unreasonably so, but I think it’s more an expression of McBride’s humanistic approach to the religion of his characters, that both critiques the church’s role in supporting systemic racism and allows it’s characters to take some comfort in it. McBride doesn’t pretend it’s a simple situation. It works incredibly well for me. I will be rereading this at some point, and this has made me really want to revisit The Good Lord Bird as well.

Canon Worthy.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Back in 2009 I read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and really enjoyed them, and when I heard that Ishiguro had written a fantasy novel, 2016’s The Buried Giant, I read that shortly after its release. I remember them fondly and when Ishiguro won the Nobel in 2019, I thought, based on memories of those books that he was a good choice. I picked up a copy of A Pale View of Hills, his debut, at a library sale not long after I read Never Let Me Go, but hadn’t gotten around to it. After hearing an interview between him and Neil Gaiman last weekend about the release of his newest novel, I finally read this, and I’m kicking myself for not getting to it sooner. It is an excellent novel, especially considering it was his first.

What I remembered about the previous Ishiguro novels I’d read were the broadest possible plot outlines and the sense that he conveyed loss, shame and guilt as well as anyone I’d read. I need to go back and reread those, because, even in his debut he’s masterful at having characters never saying precisely what they mean and constant misdirection while still illuminating the trauma and loss they experience. I’m sure that his work will repay rereading.

The central events of A Pale View of Hills are the bombing of Nagasaki and the suicide of the narrator’s daughter. These are rarely mentioned directly, but it’s clear from early on that those are the substance of everything the narrator and other characters are not saying. The narrator, Etsuko, is a Japanese widow who lives in England after the death of her second husband. She is visited by her surviving daughter and is haunted by the memory of her eldest daughter who had killed herself shortly before the beginning of the book. The bulk of the novel recalls her first marriage to a Japanese man and her friendship with a woman who had a young child in post WWII Nagasaki, around the time of the Korean War. The ending could be taken in at least two different ways, especially as Ishiguro pointedly speaks of the unreliability of memory.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s meditative and gut wrenching, but never maudlin. It is a serious exploration of how memory and trauma interact and the ways people suppress and talk around the things that consume them. It’s also about change that happens between generations for good and ill. I’m going to read all of Ishiguro’s books, I think. Next up is his newest, Klara and the Sun and then either on to his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World or a reread of Remains of the Day.

Highly Recommended. Upon reflection, Canon Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unread 2021 9

Monday, March 8, 2021

Catching Up On a Month Of Reading

I took a hiatus from the blog, but not from reading. Here are mini reviews of what I’ve read since posting about Piranesi last month. I plan to pick back up with reviews soon!

Vladimir Nabokov by Jane Grayson- Recommended

This is a brief illustrated biography of one of my favorite writers, from a series of such biographies. If you are interested in an overview of Nabokov’s life, this is perfect!

Dark Hollow by John Connolly- Recommended/Highly Recommended

The elevator pitch for John Connolly is James Lee Burke does supernatural horror. The supernatural elements are muted here, more or less a literalization of the metaphor of being haunted by grief. The crime story here is compelling. Connolly is bloodier minded than Burke, but the first person narration is in a similar mode. The first Connolly I read, Bad Men, is, I think, the better book, but I like the narrative voice here more. Burke's prose is better (but who this side of Nabokov and Melville writes prose as good as Burke's?), but Connolly's is very good.This is the second Charlie Parker crime novel (yes, his nickname is Bird, but no, the book never makes a big deal of the homage). I was advised to skip the first, and got the gist of it in flashbacks here. If you like crime and horror, I highly recommend this, and I look forward to more in this series. I understand the supernatural elements are cranked up in later volumes. Heavy content warning, but good stuff!

Known to Evil by Walter Mosley- Highly Recommended

The second Leonid McGill book is as good as the first and kept me up late at least one night. Looking forward to the rest of the series. I like Mosley more with each book. If you like dark, bleak crime noir, this is top shelf stuff!

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller- Canon Worthy

The story of Achilles as narrated by Patroclus. An amazing retelling of the Illiad. Madeline Miller is two for two. I like Circe quite a bit more, but this is fantastic!

X X by Rian Hughes- Recommended/Highly Recommended

It's as if Neal Stephenson and Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves) collaborated on a hard scifi thriller that doubles as a great art object and a dense philosophical argument.

It examines the idea of consciousness as a collection of ideas. It talks about the danger of ideologies that promise a paradise, earthly or otherwise, that justify any atrocity in the minds of their adherents (a favorite theme of mine). It has sentient memeplexes that represent the major ideas of this century and the previous two. It's, for mostly better but sometimes worse, a fierce defense of Enlightment ideals. It's a first contact scifi novel. And it is a mosaic of fonts, art, page manipulation, email exchanges, faux-wikipedia articles, transcripts of all kinds that make the book as object a delight to peruse. There's even an album that was created by the author's sister based on the  review in the book of an album that was recorded based on the signal that provide the inciting incident of the book (and it's really good!).

It was compared to Moby Dick in two of the blurbs, which immediately piqued my interest. In the sense that it is ambitious and long, sure, but that's the only connection.

Ultimately, I liked this, but not so well as I thought something so completely aimed at my interests (and compared to Moby Dick!) would. One, it's a little more hard scifi than my tastes generally run and I had to pause many times because of that. Two, while Hughes frames consciousness as essentially composed of ideas, I think he somehow manages to give short shrift to the fact ideologies are endemic to the human condition. Of course, ideologies are often dangerous,  but the Enlightenment rationalism that the book embodies is itself an ideology. I think a lot about this paradox of seeing the danger of ideology while understanding that vantage point is itself an ideology. I haven't reconciled that in my own thought and I'm still processing the presentation of that argument in the novel. You'd think that would endear the book to me, but it has a more mixed effect. That said, I agree with the quote in the picture I'll repost in the comments that says, essentially "Beware of ideologies."

But the book is thrilling and full of ideas (HA!) that require thought. And the scope broadens out to cosmic levels at the end; reminiscent of 2001 (the film) with a more concrete idea of what's happening. A tough read in some ways. I was a little mixed, but it is definitely worth wrestling through. 


Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard- Canon

One of the best books by one of my favorite writers. After slogging through XX I needed something that moved along more quickly. My fourth read of this. A perfect ending!


Lamb by Christopher Moore- Pass/Mildly Recommended

There were times I cackled delightedly during this and also times I rolled my eyes hard. More of the jokes hit for me than didn't. Don't know where that leaves me in terms or recommending it or not. I'm glad I read it.


The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado De Assis- Canon Worthy

A great novel from 1800s Brazil. I'm sure I missed a lot through translation, the passage of time and being unfamiliar with the culture. I'm certain there is a fair amount of satire on his day that I'm missing, especially around the slave trade. But despite that distance of culture and time, this is brilliant.

It's funny, clear-eyed, and often cruel. But that cruelty is part of the point. Bras Cubas is dead and telling his life's story in short chapters. It's an early example of the unreliable narrator revealing his own selfishness and cruelty (and presumably his country's, though a lot of that is lost to me) while appearing to not realize what he's doing.

It will take several more readings to understand it better, but on first pass I absolutely loved it!


Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley- Pass

The first Walter Mosley novel that I’ve read that didn’t work for me. I will continue to read him as everything else has been excellent. Up next by him (maybe a few books down the line) Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the first Socrates Fortlow book.