Thursday, February 27, 2020

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

I have seen Rankin’s books in stores, but, despite going down a crime fiction spiral over the past few years, had never read any of his work. But last year I heard an interview with him on the Bookin’ podcast and was intrigued enough to pick up a few used copies of his novels. Knots and Crosses is the first of those novels I’ve actually read, and the first in his decades-long running series featuring Detective Sergeant John Rebus of Edinborough.

As the novel opens, Rebus receives a string of cryptic notes both at work and at home. During this same time a series of young girls are kidnapped and murdered and all of Edinborough is getting nervous. His brother is involved in some type of shady business, and a crime reporter is chasing them both, assuming they are in it together. Rebus begins a relationship with the officer who is in charge of press for the investigations of the murders. His past is murky, to the reader, and even to himself. Gradually everything comes together in an incredibly effective thriller.

I will certainly be reading more Rankin. On this small sample size, he creates well rounded believable characters. One of his goals was to explore the seedier, non-tourist side of Edinborough. Having never been there, I can’t speak to its accuracy, but the novel feels settled in a very specific place. And the prose is excellent. It isn’t the pared to bone brilliance of Elmore Leonard. Nor is it as lushly descriptive as James Lee Burke. But it is a pleasure to read on a sentence to sentence level. The novel is vibrant and thrilling. I’m planning on reading the sequel very soon.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 16/75

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In which I read a crime novel in traffic, attend the NC Book Festival, get lost in an area with which I’m familiar and break a New Year’s resolution.

A couple friends of mine run the annual North Carolina Book Festival, and I can’t think of a better excuse to visit Raleigh. Because snow was expected there Thursday evening, I left Charleston at 11:30AM to beat the weather. But I ended up driving through slush around 6:30 anyway because of a five-tow-truck wreck which left me in park around mile 38 for well over an hour. When these things happen, I’m always torn between irritation at the delay and the understanding that someone else is having one of the worst days of their lives and I need to chill the hell out. My better angels mostly won out in this instance and I passed the time reading a George Pelecanos paperback. I managed to get to my other friends’ house in Cary around 7:20 or so. The roads were slushy enough by then that I had to ignore how lovely the trees looked to avoid crashing myself. Fortunately, the roads had cleared by lunchtime the next day.

Kim Stanley Robinson kicked off the Festival Friday evening with a reading from Red Moon. Around a decade ago I read his Mars Trilogy with great enjoyment, especially the first two volumes. Red Moon is not the first of a moon trilogy, though; it’s about a Chinese settlement on the moon. The excerpt he read was very funny. The next day I attended a panel consisting of him, Mur Lafferty and John Kessel. Kessel’s short stories are excellent. I have several of his books on the shelf and this has prompted me to finally move a couple into the read very soon queue. A friend bought a copy of the Lafferty book they had there, a closed room mystery in space, and read two thirds or so of it while I was at the rest of the festival events. He spoke highly enough of it, that I will either get it from the library or buy a copy next year after my book buying hiatus ends. Over this panel and his talk the night before, Robinson made quite an impression. One of the things I think about way too much is the place of ideology. Robinson, quoting someone, said that ideology is a necessary part of cognition, and that we have to embrace it, because we are incapable of processing the world in its entirety. I know that my skepticism toward ideology is itself an ideology, so I’ve on some level confirmed his statement. I’m still leery, though. This panel had the only instance that I saw of the obnoxious audience member who, rather than asking a question talks at length, making the event about him. Don’t ever be that guy, and if you catch me doing it, please slap me.

I’m not buying books this year; I’ve read 65% of my books and I’m trying to play a little catch up. My goal is 110 books, 75 of which have to be books that I owned at the beginning of January. The other 35 can be library books, rereads, or one of the exceptions I built in. The first exception was to buy two books at the festival. The next will be this summer when I buy Gene Wolfe’s final posthumous novel. And once I hit that 75 mark, I’ll reward myself by buying the new Susanna Clarke novel out this fall. I broke that book buying ban slightly by buying three books at the festival rather than two, but I’m not too mad at myself about it. I’m going to try to stick to the other two as the only other exceptions.

I was bummed that I missed most of the conversation between (and maybe readings by) Tupelo Hassman and Belle Boggs. The books they discussed both deal with Evangelical culture, and as an ex-evangelical that is a conversation in which I’m very interested. The first book I bought was Boggs’ The Gulf as the premise is too perfectly in my wheelhouse. It’s apparently a comic novel about a low residency writing school for evangelicals that is at least partly a scam. I am hoping to read it in the next week or so, and will report back. During the part of the Q and A someone asked about the reaction to their books from evangelicals and they said that it had been largely more positive than they expected. I don’t like it when books condescend to believers, even though I’m no longer one myself. I found Tom Perrota’s The Abstinence Teacher unbearable in this regard. Based on what I heard of the conversation, though, I suspect that won’t be a problem.

After a break in which I got my copy of The Gulf signed, Andre Perry did a reading and had a conversation with Darell Stover, jazz expert and NCSU professor. The essay Perry read from his book was powerful; describing his experience attending a Kendrick Lamar concert in Iowa. He was one of the only African American men in the crowd and the almost completely white audience was cheerfully singing along and seemingly unblinkingly using the n-word in the process. It was a great essay, as was the subsequent conversation. They talked about Perry’s life growing up in DC, his time in San Francisco and in Iowa where he currently lives. I did not buy the book, but I will be InterLibrary Loaning it soon. In their discussion of Perry’s time in arty bohemian San Francisco (in the brief post-dotcom bubble burst when it was relatively affordable to live in the downtown), Stover mentioned Samuel Delany’s memoir about his similar time in New York. I got a chance to talk briefly with Stover afterwards about Delany and how Dhalgren has really stuck with me over the couple weeks since I finished it.

After another break, Katya Apekina and Jeff Jackson took the stage to discuss (primarily) Apekina’s book, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish. I had listened to an interview with Apekina on my friend Jason’s Bookin’ podcast, and this was one of the books I planned to buy coming into the Festival. Jason described it as Nabokovian, which immediately made me pay attention. The book is told in multiple voices and unreliable narrators. After her reading and Jackson’s assertion that the ending really worked for him, along with Jason’s recommendation, I am looking forward to reading the book soon. I also want to read Jackson’s Kill all Monsters, but that may be a little further down the road.

I skipped the final Friday session to spend time with friends, and came back the next day for the sendoff event, which consisted of readings without a Q and A. Daniel Wallace (whose Big Fish I really loved) read an excerpt from a nonfiction book he’s writing about a friend who is dead. In the section he read, he recreates, from notes his friend made, the way his friend discovered another friend’s murderer. JP Gritton came next. I bought his book Wyoming, which Jason described as resembling both No Country For Old Men and East of Eden. He read a personal essay that was very moving and funny. Next, Randall O’Wain read an excerpt about his late brother from his collection of interrelated memoir essays that was incredible. I ordered it through my library today. Then Mesha Maron read a very good selection about musicians from her novel Sugar Run, which I fully intend to read. Finally, Jake Xerxes Fussell, a folklorist and blues singer/guitarist performed a handful of songs to bring the Festival to a close.

I’m glad that I gave myself the limit of two books. Even though I broke that by getting three, were the limit not in place, I would have likely gotten six or seven. I focused on the fiction room and missed the poetry readings. I do love poetry, but I love fiction more. Still I would have liked to work a session or two of the readings in. Hopefully next year. The event was really a lot of fun, and more importantly gave me an excuse to spend some quality time with some friends I’ve really missed since moving to Charleston. And I even managed to get lost as I was trying to leave Raleigh, circling the entire beltline before I realized my mistake. And so my trip back was also a little longer than it should have been, though it was thankfully free of standstill traffic. And when I got back to Charleston I slept for nine hours.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Shame the Devil by George Pelecanos

I knew of George Pelecanos long before I read him. He, along with Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, was one of the crime novelists who worked on The Wire. I loved novels by both Lehane and Price, so I finally gave Pelecanos a shot a couple years ago. I read Shoedog and the first three volumes of his DC Quartet, of which Shame the Devil is the closer. Shoedog, a standalone novel (with minor characters that show up in the Quartet), and The Sweet Forever, the third in the series, were both great novels. The Big Blowdown and King Suckerman were also very good. Shoedog feels like an homage to the Beats mixed with noir. In the DC Quartet Pelecanos is attempting to provide a history of DC. To give DC to the world like Joyce did Dublin, Ellroy did LA, Lehane did Boston and so many writers have tried to do for New York. The Big Blowdown is set in the 40’s and reads like a classic noir of that era. King Suckerman moves to the 70’s, The Sweet Forever to the 80’s, and Shame the Devil the 90’s. Different characters play different roles of varying sizes in the books. Each could stand alone, but together they add up to a great history of several families whose stories intertwine over the decades, aging with the city. Whether they capture DC, I’ll leave to people who know the city well; I will say that to these outside eyes they do have a consistent sense of place.

Shame the Devil begins with a crime gone horribly wrong in the early 90’s. What should have been a quick robbery of a pizza shop goes sideways; four people were killed in the shop, a policeman who happened on the scene was permanently disabled (after killing one of the criminals), and the young son of Dimitri Karras (a character who appeared in the previous novels) was hit and killed by the getaway car. The story picks up several years later and follows the support group comprised of the family members of those killed in the robbery. The robbery remains unsolved and is occasionally brought up in the consciousness of the city. But as time has passed, the criminals feel comfortable enough to return to town with revenge for the killing of the brother in mind. Private detective and bartender Nick Stefanos (the subject of a previous trilogy by Pelecanos and a character in the earlier Quartet books) investigates a separate case in which he stumbles across the killers. In the early going, Shame the Devil is more a novel about grief as the members of the support group begin to get their lives back on track after years of work. The third act turns the action back up and brings the book and series to a close in good noir fashion.

Ellroy’s LA Quartet comes to mind, but I think I prefer these (with the caveat I have not yet read White Jazz). The Big Nowhere is a masterpiece, but so is The Sweet Forever. Ellroy may be the slightly better prose writer, but his nihilism is unrelenting, whereas Pelecanos does let a little light and ambiguity in (which is not to say these aren’t bleak books). I didn’t like Shame the Devil as well as its predecessors, but it is very good, and a fitting ending to the series. I have quite a few other Pelecanos novels on the shelf, and I’m very much looking forward to them. So far Pelecanos has created a believable city and cast of characters that, while they work splendidly in their own right, form a meta-novel of sorts. I’m looking forward to the other installments of that bigger work. I may go for one of the later standalone books next, or go back and read the Nick Stefanos trilogy. At any rate, Pelecanos is high on my list of crime writers and sits comfortably on the same shelf as Leonard, Ellroy, Gran, Lehane, Price and Hand.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 15/75

Friday, February 21, 2020

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (updated review)

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.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

I’ll admit to being mixed on this. On paper it sounds like it should be right in my wheelhouse. I’ve read four other novels by Delany. Whether they were scifi or mainstream I’ve at least enjoyed them all. Nova and Dark Reflections are both great. Babel-17 is an all timer. I also enjoy, for lack of a better term, big difficult novels that take some sorting out, and this is famously among their ranks. And it does live up to that billing, not so much in what happens as in what it means. I often describe my favorite writing as existing in the place where pretentious literary fiction crashes into genre fiction. Again, this fits the bill. There is a lot of poetry and a lot about the process of writing poetry; at random moments paragraphs of prose poetry break the flow of the story, such as it is. This is what I liked best about the book. In 1974 it predicted/predated the current conversation around race and gender to a scary degree. Writers I love praise the book highly: Elizabeth Hand, William Gibson, and Jonathan Lethem to name a few. The only part that in descriptions of the book that gave me pause were the accounts of the frankly pornographic sections, which fall outside of my reading interests (while these were important to the themes of the book, they were extreme). But there are other writers I love (Caitlin Kiernan and, less often, Elizabeth Hand, for example) who veer into erotica at times but whose work I still really love on other grounds. Given my appreciation for the other Delany books I’ve read, I figured I could get past this aspect of the book. And for the most part I could, though if I reread this there will be some strategic page skipping.** The poetic sections, the meditations on art, and, above all, the setting of the city of Bellona were often powerful and moving. But there were also tiring sections. The highs were high but I was not as enamored of the book as I had hoped to be.

The protagonist, who does not know his name, enters the city of Bellona in the early pages of the book. Bellona is somewhere in the middle of America, but separated from the rest of the country by some type of localized event, perhaps magical, or apocalyptic, or both in nature. Reports are that the rest of the country is doing relatively well. But in Bellona there is chaos. No law. Time doesn’t seem to matter. There are gangs that would be at home in Escape From New York or Blade Runner 2049. The protagonist is given the nickname The Kid and he becomes a matter of fascination for the residents of the city across the entire social strata. He receives a notebook early on and writes his poetry on the pages and margins left blank by its previous user. The city is a place where marginalized people find some confusing type of acceptance.

Dhalgren is not the kind of book you can spoil, really. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of sex, a lot of musing on art, on race, on gender, on chaos, and on the nature of society. The poetic sections are spectacular. The reader is put in the middle of all this and told over and over more or less explicitly that it’s on them to sort out what’s important. William Gibson called it a “riddle never meant to be solved” in his introduction. I certainly didn’t understand it, and I can take more than a little solace in the knowledge that Gibson didn’t either. I wasn’t as taken with the book as he was, but parts of it that are really sticking with me. I suspect that rereading it would yield more insight, and there’s a good chance I’ll read this again at some point.

Recommended if that description didn't put you off it. (with a heavy content warning, though I would much more strongly recommend his novels Nova and Babel-17).

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 14/75

*A subgoal of my attempt to read books I already own but haven’t read is to get through a few of these big daunting titles (this, House of Leaves and Gravity’s Rainbow) that have been on the shelf a long time. For an idea of how long, I’m pretty sure I bought my copy of this at Borders.

**Not saying that anyone who enjoys erotica shouldn’t, it’s just not my genre.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Even though I no longer buy the whole argument of CS Lewis’s essay The Weight of Glory, I love the way it’s written to evoke a sense of awe and wonder, “Do you think I’m trying to weave a spell?” he asks before saying he’s trying to use the spell to shatter the enchantment of “worldliness.” Wylding Hall does not share Lewis’s purpose, but it is purposely weaving a spell. Its wonder is more pagan and wild, but it is as full of wonder. Julian Blake, whose disappearance forms the central mystery of the novel/novella, talks at one point of wanting his music to “ensorcell” its listeners, and clearly Hand wants to do the same with the book. I don’t usually like to quote the blurbs on a book, but got it right when they said the “pagan elements [are] utilized for their creepy and mythopoeic presence than for outright horror.” That mythopoeic presence is one of the things I love in fiction, and it is on full display here. Wylding Hall was the first Elizabeth Hand novel I read (about a year ago), and now that I’ve read five other of her books, I wanted to circle around and revisit this. This mythopoeic feeling is present in all of her work I’ve read, even the ones that were not strictly speaking fantasy or horror. It is likely the primary thing among the many that draw me to her work.

Wylding Hall is folk horror, both in the sense that it has serious Wicker Man vibes, and in that the action of the story happens during the recording of a classic (fictional) folk album in the 1970’s. The band is Windhollow Faire. In the wake of their first album and the suicide of their original female vocalist their manager rents a remote crumbling mansion in the British countryside for them to get away and write and record their next album. That eventual album was named for the mansion, Wylding Hall. 

Another of my favorite things in fiction is the mosaic novel. Letters from various characters, or interrelated novellas, story suites or other interwoven texts that comment on each other and add up to a picture of what happened. The oral history is a perfect vehicle for this type of storytelling. In the 2010’s Wylding Hall has taken on near mythical status, both because major musicians cite it as an influence, and that the primary songwriter and guitarist disappeared while it was recorded. The band is brought together for an oral history of the making of the album. It seems as if it will be both a documentary and a written piece of some kind. As the members of the band, their manager, a rock critic and a girlfriend alternate telling their memories of what happened. The mansion was built over many years, and there are secrets and horrors there. There’s a library full of grimoires and ancient texts. There’s a room full of dead birds. There’s a dark forest, and there’s the mystery woman, if she is a woman, who seems to be the one who stole Julian away. To avoid spoilers I won’t say more except that coming back to this after reading the others only enhanced my enjoyment of it. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Subtle, beautiful, and eerie.


Library Books, Rereads Etc. 2020 2/35

Friday, February 14, 2020

God's Country by Percival Everett

Someone recommended this, or at least Percival Everett, to me around a decade ago and I picked up a copy around then. I suspect now it was around the time I first read True Grit and Blood Meridian, both great western novels in their own rights and ways. I really wish I had gotten around to reading this sooner. This is an astonishingly angry novel and yet at the same time it is often very funny. It’s a brutal revisionist western disguised as a folksy tall tale one.

Curt Marder is a white farm owner who, in the opening scene has just stood by watching from a distance as his house and property burned, his livestock and dog killed, and his wife kidnapped by white outlaws disguised as Native Americans. There is a running joke in the first couple of chapters in which both he and the people he tells about the tragedy are far more impressed/horrified by the death of the dog than by the kidnapping of the wife. This is a great example of how the humor in the book works. It points out and mocks the tendency towards pearl clutching at animal deaths in fiction while violence towards people leaves people unfazed. It’s a statement about women’s place in society of the time. It’s the first sign of how morally blind he is. And this is a text that has morality very much on its mind. The humor throughout does this, but around increasingly difficult things to laugh about. But the laughs do come as do the bitter realizations, often simultaneously.

Most tall tale style westerns have unreliable narrators, and most are commenting in some way about the myth of the west. But that unreliability here is wielded here with a perfect blend of hilarity and vicious satire as effectively as I’ve ever seen it. Curt Marder’s voice is pitch perfect. Self aggrandizing and sure of itself, while over and over again showing him in the worst possible light as he makes the worst possible decision every time. His interactions with Bubba, the black tracker he hires to help him find his wife, and the Native Americans they encounter is cringe inducing. He sees himself as superior and is consistently surprised when people rightly see he is not. He is very much a stand in for white America and the way it has treated various peoples over the years. The novel simultaneously entertains at a high level and forces consideration of America’s biggest national sins. It is a difficult task to balance those tones and Everett does it perfectly.

Canon Worthy. I will be reading this again, and reading more of Everett’s work.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 13/75

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Agency by Willian Gibson

Gibson’s previous book, The Peripheral is probably my favorite of his (with the caveat that I still need to read his second trilogy, beginning with Idoru, and the short story collection to be a completist). I loved that it mixed elements of the cyberpunk and ability to see the effects of technology that are his calling card with a rural noir story (think Justified or Winter’s Bone). The conceit is that there is a far future, in the 2130’s, that has gone through a complex apocalypse called The Jackpot. They have advanced technology, but the population of the world has been thinned to a fraction of its current numbers and the west is ruled by a hereditary kleptocracy comprised mostly of Russian billionaires. Their advanced technology allows them to establish contact with people in the past, but once they do, there is a branching timeline,called a stub, and time passes in both the original timeline and in the stub at an equal rate. In The Peripheral that past was also in our future. Agency could be read on its own, but having read the first book will save a lot of work teasing out what’s happening. And as characters from The Peripheral, particularly in that future timeline, appear here it would save some spoilers from that earlier book.

The stub, or past timeline, that forms half of this story, is actually in our past. It was established in 2015, and even though communication is more difficult with a more distant stub, there are huge changes. Brexit and Trump didn’t happen in this timeline. If I were going to pick a nit with the book, it’s this aspect. Gibson does not make that world a utopia (there is an impending nuclear crisis), but it is a little bit more on the nose than he usually gets. Though, I have to admit I liked the crack about there being a fully functioning state department in that timeline. That said, this is an incredibly effective thriller. Gibson uses short alternating chapters to keep the tension high in both timelines. All three really, since some characters from the stub in The Peripheral show up to help.

The plot picks up in the stub’s 2017, as the protagonist, Verity Jane, is hired to beta test an experimental AI. The intent was to come up with something similar to the AI in her, a personalized Alexa on steroids. But the prototype, Eunice, has military training, and a mind of her own. The company that hired Verity Jane to test it wants it back. I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens. It is an excellent scifi thriller. The fact that when someone goes into a virtual world, it is an actual other world, whether the main timeline or one of the stubs makes the stakes seem higher. And the degree to which Eunice and some of the characters in the post-Jackpot timeline manipulate events, really raises the question of agency raised by the title far more subtly than the political stuff.

I prefer The Peripheral, and would recommend reading that first, but this is still recommended.

Library Books, Rereads, Etc. 2020 1/35

Monday, February 3, 2020

My Real Children by Jo Walton

I first read Jo Walton a few years ago when a couple of friends recommended Among Others, a nearly perfect novel combining a coming of age story with a story of fairies that might be real or might be imagined or hallucinated and a fierce love of books, mostly science fiction and fantasy. I picked up a copy of My Real Children and her collection of essays about rereading, What Makes This Book So Great, shortly afterward. The latter was a delight in and of itself and pushed me into finally reading Middlemarch and Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey and put a lot of others on my radar. So, in my quest to plow through books that I already own and haven’t read this year, I naturally wanted to read the only other book I have by Walton. Like Among Others, it was incredibly affecting. It’s been long enough that I don’t want to say for sure if I prefer one or the other, but this was brilliant.

In the first chapter, the main character, Patricia Cowan, is in a retirement home suffering from dementia, and remembers two versions of her life and gets the details of the two confused. In one her name is Trish and she has four children; in the other her name is Pat and she had three. The turning point was when she said yes to a proposal in one timeline and no in the other. The rest of the book is alternating chapters between her experiences in one and the other. Early on, it seems as if the novel is going to present one terrible life and one utopian one as a way to explore what a woman’s options were and are. And I don’t want to give that theme short shrift. It brings home powerfully what a bad marriage could do, and argues that women should be freed from its strictures as the only paradigm for life. But in the background two alternate histories (neither our own) play out, and the world that is good for Trish, is bad for nearly everyone else, and vice versa. This complication brings in themes of uncertainty that undermines the utopianism and culminates in a choice she has to make.

I was very moved by this book. I’m still thinking through the moral implications of the story, but I loved the book. The alternate histories are very subtly done, and both versions of Patricia are fully formed characters. In each world she has a fully realized family as well. This is a beautifully written, well crafted novel that I will almost certainly return to at some point.

I’m wavering between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Last year, after reading Middlemarch and having the top of my head taken off, realizing that Moby Dick had passed Pale Fire to become my favorite novel, reading Melville’s short stories and being convinced by The Jane Austen Book Club I needed to finish reading all of Austen’s novels, I thought it was high time to read more nineteenth century literature. If my book buying hiatus this year is lent, during the Fat Tuesday of late November and early December I traded in some books at Mr. K’s and got copies of the Austen I didn’t have, several more George Eliot and Mellville books, Jane Eyre and this one. I’m not sure what gave me the impression over the years that Wuthering Heights would be a slightly edgier Pride and Prejudice type book, but that’s the impression I had gotten. How wrong can a person be?

This is a cruel view of the world. It’s in stark contrast to the Austen I’ve read, wherein the lower classes seem happy in their state and the upper classes are where the real drama is. Heathcliff is resentful (rightfully so) of the way he was treated, and that eventually turned him into a monster. Everyone is weak, sanctimonious, cruel or some combination thereof. I found its view of human nature compelling. I was a little hesitant about how mean the book is until I realized it was essentially a psychological horror novel wrapped in a gothic melodrama. Once that clicked, I was able to enjoy the book for his oppressive atmosphere and its takedown of the society of the day. Where Pride and Prejudice gently mocks (which I enjoy), this swings a sledgehammer.

After Moby Dick and Middlemarch, this is probably my favorite among the (admittedly few) 19th Century novels I’ve read. I wish there were more Emily Bronte novels to read.

Canon Worthy.