Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Saturday, June 5, 2021
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.
Saturday, May 29, 2021
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
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.
*It's been a long time for the Earthsea books, so a reread could change this.
Tuesday, May 25, 2021
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.
Friday, May 21, 2021
Saturday, May 15, 2021
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.
I have have been reading through a copy of the 1892 death bed edition of Leaves of Grass off and on for years. I started at the beginning several times, but have ultimately decided just to pick back up where I left off no matter how many months have passed since I last picked it up. There are passages I absolutely love in there, but there are also large stretches where the seemingly endless lists make my eyes glaze over. But when I push through even some of those are amazing. There are also many things I didn't get about the poems because of lack of context.
I chose this biography of Whitman because it promised to delve into the historical context of his life as much as his life, and on that front it very much succeeded. Like Whitman's poems, sometimes it can be too much detail, but it did exactly what I needed it to. And reading this shortly after reading The Metaphysical Club gave me a lot more insight into 19th Century America than they would have done alone.
I think Whitman gets read like the Bible a lot of times. That is, it can provide a borderline ecstatic experience and it can be turned to mean whatever you want it to. I had a picture of Whitman as the 19th Century version of a progressive. The reality, as much as it can be determined from the record is much more complicated. He had many progressive impulses, but was also very conservative in other ways, even by the standard of his time. In his own words, he contained multitudes. The book helps navigate those multitudes. It emphasized how much Whitman wanted to encompass all America and how much he was disappointed that the masses were relatively uninterested in his poems. It highlighted how slick a salesman of his work he could be.
I'm currently reading the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass and already can tell a difference in the experience. I'll keep hacking away at the death bed version for the next few years, I suspect,
Highly recommended, though you'll have to have patience for a lot of detail.
After revisiting Chappell's masterpiece I Am One Of You Forever recently, I wanted to get into some of the unread books of his I've had on the shelf for years (a decade?) after picking them up used. I'm very glad I started with this collection of short stories. All of them least good, though there were a few that didn't really work quite as well for me as the others, and there were a few stunners. The first few were detailed stories about real historical figures that were true to their lives (as well as I could tell by a quick google), but filled in the edges of the story with the fantastic and horror. These were a huge change in voice from I Am One Of You Forever, but it only took a few pages for me to adjust. They were a pleasure to read. Then it transitions to fiction that is not tied to that history, including several stories that were in that tall tale mode that I loved so much.
Some of these, especially The Snow That Is Nothing In The Triangle, Adder, and Mankind Travels Through A Forest of Symbols are up there with the Elizabeth Hand, China Mieville, and Peter Beagle stories I read last year. Some of the best I've read for the first time in years.
Linnaeus Forgets- In this story, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who is credited with formalizing the binomial nomenclature, and receives a mysterious plant. Something incredible happens that I won't spoil, but this really set the tone for the first half of the collection and was a wonderful story
Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy
Ladies From Lapland- This is one of the ones that didn't quite work for me. It concerns the French mathematician and explorer Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who set out for the North Pole to try to prove the world was not perfectly round. On the journey though, he was useless for the scientific purpose of the journey because of his dalliances with the ladies from the title. This seems to be based at least in part on Voltaire's real life criticism of Maurpertuis, and he really doesn't come across well in the story. It's probably the least fantastical story in the bunch. It's incredibly well researched and written, it just wasn't as much to my taste.
The Snow That Is Nothing in the Triangle- Based on the real life of mathematician Karl Wilhelm Feurbach, brother of the theological philosopher and discoverer of a theorem about circles and triangles that is named after him. He was mentally ill, and Chappell does a wonderful job weaving details from his life into a truly horrifying and beautiful story. The best of the historically based stories in the book. One of those where there could be supernatural horror, or it could be that mental illness wins sometimes. A profound reading experience.
Barcarole- This is about the composer Offenbach and a melody that haunted him his whole life, and how he met a dying doppelganger of himself. This one skirted the line of being to cutesy, but there were little details that made it work.
Weird Tales- The lives of HP Lovecraft and Hart Crane converge in a Lovecraftian tale that is very smart about both their bodies of work. If you like poetry and mythos tales, this is near perfect.
The Somewhere Doors- This is a science fiction/fantasy story about a science fiction author who struggles to fit the mold of a pulp writer. A writer coming to terms with his destiny doesn't always work, but it does here.
The Adder- This was one of my favorites from the collection. A pair of southern booksellers, and uncle and nephew discover an original copy of the Necronomicon. It's also about the poetry of Milton, and this works way better than that description would indicate. So funny!
Ember- One of two stories that have the theme of men's brutality to women, and the more effective one, at least to my taste. An Appalachian revenge tale of sorts from the perspective of the one upon whom vengeance is wreaked.
Duet- A country star tells a story of grief that explains the power of his singing.
Miss Prue- A recent ghost pays a visit to the woman he courted during his life.
Mankind Journeys Through Forests of Symbols- Another tall tale that is maybe my favorite in the collection, with the possible exceptions of The Adder and The Snow That is Nothing in the Triangle. The story opens with a miles long tangible dream blocking a highway. A rural sheriff has to deal with the situation, and it gets wilder from there. Hilarious.
Alma- Another story that didn't work quite as well for me, though it is very well written. It's a parable of sorts set in a dystopian future or past that talks about how men subjugate women while not understanding them at all. I see what he was getting at, but it didn't quite land as well as most of the others for me.
After Revelation- A dystopian tale that I will have to read again, as I don't think I quite got it fully on first pass. Interesting story and good writing, though.
Overall Collection: Highly Recommended.
Saturday, May 8, 2021
The youth gang crime subgenre is not one that I'm usually interested in. My first glimpse of it was as a young kid reading the cautionary tale/disguised religious tract/testimonial The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson depicting the life and conversion of a gang member named Nicky Cruz. If decades old memory serves, it was just salacious enough to keep the interest while having a very heavy handed last act about converting to Christianity. At some point in school I read The Outsiders by SE Hinton, but I remember absolutely nothing about it other than the term "greaser" and that it was about rival youth gangs getting into racially motivated trouble. The Wanderers is a deliberately profane entry in that genre, one that I mostly enjoyed.
A college professor recommended Price's Lush Life to me back when it came out because I had praised Elmore Leonard's dialog, and the professor said Price's was as good. Lush Life is a great crime novel, and Price's ear for dialog was not exaggerated. I also read Samaritan around that time, and enjoyed it as well, if not quite as much. Later, when I realized that Price, along with Lehane and Pelecanos, was part of the writing room for The Wire, and I picked up several of his books, including this, his debut, which have sat on the shelf unread for years.
It seems that at least part of Price's point in this book is to de-sanitize the youth gang genre (based on my limited exposure to it). The racism that drives a lot of the gang activity is on full display. The coming of age sexual experiences are borderline pornographic. This is clearly an attempt at portraying the time and characters honestly, but will likely put some readers off. But if you have the stomach for that, it is an incredibly affecting work about some kids growing up in a very difficult situations.
The book has an undeniable energy. The dialog is very good. There are several absolutely chilling sections. I didn't like this as well as Lush Life or Samaritan, but, especially considering it was his first novel and published when he was 24, it's very impressive.
Recommended (with a heavy content warning), but read Lush Life first.
I've been meaning to read some Kate Wilhelm for some time; I've heard good things on podcasts and such and Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite writers, was a fan. I've had this mass market paperback of one of her early scifi novels on the shelf for some time, along with a few of her later mystery novels. I'm glad I encountered the book that way rather than having it specifically recommended because all the promotional material spoils what the central scifi concept is, which is left as a mystery for the first quarter or so of the book. To be fair, any discussion of the book will likely have to tip that off, though I will put a spoiler warning for anyone who wants to go in blind.
The book opens as a shadowy (former) government agent manipulates a college history professor and recent bestselling pop science author, Lyle Taney, into quitting her job to take an assignment writing a book about eagles and doing her research in a house in the Pacific Northwest on the coast. He is attempting to get her to discover the identity of a reclusive neighbor who has a valuable secret.
Spoiler in this paragraph:
Lyle gets drawn into the lives of the neighbors, who turn out to have discovered a way to perpetual health and long life, the secret the former agent is after. At this point the book becomes a cold war thriller of sorts as Soviet scientist have made a similar discovery and the heretofore independent group is faced with a choice of distributing the inoculation in the West as well so as to avert nuclear war under the assumption that one of the superpowers will likely strike before the other has time to inoculate their population against nuclear radiation.
I'm not sure I entirely buy Lyle's initial motivation, but once the story is set in motion it's a very interesting and propulsive near future/present day (for the early eighties) scifi cold war thriller. It's very concerned with the ethics of the idea of mutually assured destruction. The central scifi conceit answers that in a way that is not especially comforting, but not without hope.
I suspect this is not a bad entry point to Wilhelm's work, as I want to read more at this point.
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
This is a very good group biography that doubles as a primer to a philosphy, like At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell or The Life You Save May Be Your Own about the Existentialists and mid-20th Century Catholic writers respectively. It documents thoroughly the milieu which gave birth to pragmatism. In that sense it is a powerful intellectual history that fills in some gaps of my understanding of that century.
I hadn't really considered Pragmatism as a philosophy before, so I appreciate that the bulk of the book is about the conditions that gave rise to it. Like the Existentialists and WWII, the trauma of the Civil War was a huge factor. As was Transcendentalism. And the rise of evolutionary theory, both in terms of its acceptance as science and various reactions to the pseudoscientific ways it was applied to society. Probability theory played a huge role. The battle between the rise of capitalism proper and the original progressive movement factored in. Racial ideas were woven throughout, as were religious ideas. I've long rejected, or at least tried to reject, easy explanations, or "the dogma of simple causation" in the words of a an article by someone with the last name Shera I read in grad school. Menand does a great job of providing many possible antecedents. Against this melange of ideas, an attempt to reach for what works versus what suits an ideal is very tempting. Menand is not uncritical of pragmatism, which I appreciate, but he does an impressive job of showing its appeal.
The book primarily focuses on the lives and works of Charles Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James and Thomas Dewey, though as my last paragraph hints, it includes much of what they were reacting to and against. It was a very satisfying reading experience in that sense; it contextualizes their ideas even as it summarizes them. And many of the conversations that were happening then: race, class, the relative importance of the individual versus the collective, the problems with capitalism and more were happening then as well. All through a different lens, as that age was starkly different from ours, but I've had conversations about most of these things just in the last couple months before reading this. This argues against Holmes's (at least I think it was Holmes quoted near the end of the book) that books over 20 years old are useless in terms of keeping up with the conversation. That The Metaphysical Club itself is about that old and felt so fresh does as well. It will take at least a second reading to understand, but even though I don't fully get all that it contains, it has been a remarkable spur to thought and is invaluable to understanding a period of time I've read about from different angles before.
Holmes's approach to law (to the best of my understanding based on this book), that legal decisions come before legal principles, that law is essentially judicial behavior, reminded me of an idea I first encountered in Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks, that people don't reason their way to their beliefs, they generally manufacture reasons for what they believe instinctually. This doesn't encompass all of pragmatism, of course, but it seems axiomatic to it. And while it may be somewhat off-putting, I have a hard time arguing against it.
All in all a very good history of ideas that I will be returning to, probably in the next couple of years.
I have been slammed at work lately and hadn't had the energy to post about the books I've been reading, but I wanted to write a catch up post of what I've read since rereading Remains of the Day:
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer- Vandermeer rarely does the same thing twice, though there is a commonality in environmental themes, deep weirdness/surreality and good prose. His most recent is a eco-thriller in the foreground with societal collapse going on in the background. Despite its differences from 2019's Dead Astronauts (it is largely plotless while this has a propulsive plot), I felt the same after reading both: deeply disturbed at humanity's chances of long term survival, but strangely comforted that the world and some type of life will likely succeed us.
Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood- One of my annual rereads. A farce about the movie industry set against the rise of fascism before WWII that is also a great fictional restatement of Camus's idea that the only philosophical question that matters is "Why keep living?" It manages to be hilarious and incredibly moving without being jarring in its tonal shifts.
I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell- I read this in 2003 and remember loving it. But this time it was revelatory. A series of interconnected stories that deal with family and coming, not quite of age, but to an understanding of death. It is hilarious. It's part tall tale, part magical realism/fantasy, and part family saga all rendered in one of the best voices/prose styles I've encountered. This is rotating into my yearly reread pile and is easily canon.
North by Seamus Heaney- Heaney is solidly among my favorite poets now. This is up there with Station Island and Wintering Out. Up there with Auden, Yeats, Jeffers and Anne Porter.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter- Another book that I hadn't read in at least a decade. Fairy tales with all the darkness, danger and sex added back in from the sanitized versions. A great collection, and a clear forerunner of Kelly Link, Jeff Vandermeer, etc; IE literary fantasy, probably my favorite genre.
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro- Ishiguro's take on the detective novel is to tell a story of the life of a detective. He is firmly among my favorite writers, but this is the only one of his novels that hasn't completely worked for me so far. I only have his story collection and The Unconsoled (which some consider his best) left to go completist with him.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl- I've had this one on the shelf for a few years and hadn't gotten to it until this past weekend. But it is one of those rare scifi novels that won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, which is generally a good marker for great books, and this is a great one.
It alternates chapters as the narrator, Robinette Broadhead, relates both his current therapy sessions on Earth and his past on the Asteroid called Gateway. Humanity has discovered a trove of mysterious alien ships that were abandoned there, and humans can go light years away and bring salvage back. This is good, because the situation on Earth is grim. There is a palpable sense of dread throughout the book.
Despite that hard scifi premise, it's essentially a human story about grief and regret. Bob is a fully realized character and it is his emotion that carries the novel against that background. I don't know what it was up against for those awards, but it certainly was worthy of them.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt-I've read all three of Donna Tartt's novels and loved them. Despite the difference in genre between the three, she has consistently great prose, and has a combination of hifalutin and pulp that works perfectly for me.
It had been a decade or so since I last read this, her debut, and it is even better than I remembered. A young man from poorer means goes to a relatively exclusive college and falls in with small tight knit group of privileged students who all study classical greek under the same professor. Very early on, the reader learns that one of the members of the group was murdered by the rest of them resulting not in a whodunnit but a whydunnit which proves as suspenseful as most anything I've read. Her characters are fully realized, and the prose and voice of the novel works. It's a nearly perfect book, for my tastes at least.
Sunday, April 11, 2021
Saturday, April 10, 2021
I remember liking A Visit From the Goon Squad both in terms of story and structure, but I don't remember the particulars well, but I'll be revisiting it later this year, I'm sure, after reading The Keep and Manhattan Beach, The latter two are as different from each other as from Goon Squad, and both great. I knew from a couple of online friends that this was crime adjacent, but, despite that heads up but I wasn't quite prepared for the genre shift. There are several writers I love that never do exactly the same thing twice. I'm thinking of Jeff Vandermeer and Jonathan Lethem in particular, (and Ishiguro in genre if not in mood) but I have to add Egan to that category.
This is a genre mashup of the highest order. It's a noirish gangster story. It's a life during wartime historical novel. It's almost, but not quite a romance. It's woman making her way through a male dominated world novel. It's an underwater adventure novel (briefly). And all of these are pulled off.
The novel opens with Anna Kerrigan, then 12, visiting a gangster with her father. Her father is a go between for gangsters, politicians and union bosses. The exact nature of his involvement is initially unclear. The book jumps forward to Anna's late teens/early twenties, during WWII. Her father has disappeared years earlier. She was then working in a factory making battleship parts and longing to learn to dive. She runs into the gangster again. I won't give any other plot points, but the novel plays out perfectly.
Overall this was a great historical novel that belongs on the same shelf at Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Carter Beats the Devil or Underworld.
Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy
Tuesday, April 6, 2021
The adjective brave gets thrown around too freely in descriptions of novels, so I try not to use it. That said, Isabel Allende published The House of the Spirits less than a decade into the Pinochet regime. Considering that the final quarter or fifth of this book is a fictionalization of that regime's brutal rise to power, she clears the bravery bar by some distance. All fiction comes from a point of view, even if that point of view is neutral. Still, I don't care for work that gets too didactic, even if I agree with the bulk of the sermon. But I do love generational fantasy novels, and this fits the bill.
The language (at least in translation) is excellent. I love that she pokes fun at Garcia Marquez and 100 Years of Solitude by pointing out (multiple times) that naming every generation of a family the same thing is needlessly confusing. I love that even though there is an evil businessman, and Esteban Trueba is truly an evil business man, that Allede doesn't A) pretend he's not evil and B) pretend he's not a person. This archetype can get tiresome but she makes him very real. I love the little details like the fact that he's a conservative ideologue who can't distinguish between the liberals, the socialists and the revolutionaries, which is incredibly true to life. And in the end, even he has to admit that military regime he helped install is a terrible thing.
And by giving three generations of women, Clara, Blanca and Alba tell the story Allende manages to show bot the brutality of the patrician class there and a sense of some of what was lost when the junta took over. But the novel is also celebratory and funny at times. This generational and fantastical approach is the main thing that keeps the ending from being didactic, but it also makes the condemnation of the Pinochet regime far more powerful giving a long context. That generational style of storytelling is powerful.
This is, to be sure, an incredibly tough read, especially in the final act. But it is an incredible novel. I will be reading it again, I'm sure and I'll likely track down more of her work.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
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
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.
Friday, March 19, 2021
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
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 themillions.com?) 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
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.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
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
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.
Monday, February 8, 2021
I stand by my review of Piranesi, pasted below with minor edits, from last year. The awe-filled mood that this creates is perfect. I said rereading would be the tell if this surpassed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in my estimation. And I think it did. At any rate, Clarke has cemented her place among my top tier writers.
As with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Clarke has once again found the perfect narrator for her book. I couldn’t imagine someone narrating Strange and Norrell other than Simon Prebble. And as for Piranesi, I’m very glad that I read the physical copy last year. I’m equally glad I listened to it this time as Chiwatel Ejiofor is spot on as Piranesi.
This type of material can be used to great horrific effect. In Piranesi, though, Clarke is able to convey the damage done to the lives of some of the characters yet maintain the awe and deep sense of silence that is at the heart of this novel. There is horror, but there is hope as well. Just perfect. This may end up as one of my yearly rereads.
2020 (first reading):
Susanna Clarke’s Jane Austen-era historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel is one of my favorite books. I’ve given it away 10 or 12 times over the years as I’ve found used or remaindered copies. Clarke has had some real health problems in the interim sixteen years since that book’s publication, and was unable to do the historical research required for a follow up. Fortunately, she got well enough to write recently. Piranesi, while it couldn’t be more different from Strange and Norrell in some ways, is equally good, maybe even better (or at least closer to the center of my taste). It was worth every second of the decade and a half wait. The closest I can come to describing it is that it is almost as if CS Lewis wrote House of Leaves. That is an apt, if jarring and somewhat reductive comparison.
The title character got his nickname from the Other, the only other living human in his world. The name is a reference to the Italian print maker obsessed with Labyrinths. Piranesi lives in a house that is also a world. There are a seemingly endless series of connected classical buildings. There are four distinct seas complete with their own tidal systems in the lower halls and rain and fog in the upper. Piranesi does not know his true identity, and lives a sort of contemplative life cataloging the statues that line the halls and fishing in the lower seas to feed himself. He understands some things that clearly come from our world, but the house is the only reality he knows. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory.
Clarke builds an incredibly evocative mythic atmosphere. It is both contemplative and awe inspiring. The statues in the halls have significance, but are often ambiguous (though at least in one case, a clear reference which doubles as a subtle clue to what is happening). When I first heard the book described, I expected more horror than is present. There is horror, but it is not the primary mood. As Piranesi gradually discovers what is happening Clarke generates real tension without damaging the wonder of the House that is Piranesi’s world. And, as David Mitchell’s blurb says, the ending is pitch perfect. I would never have anticipated this as a followup to Strange and Norrell, but as I’ve sat with it for a couple of days I really think I may like it more. Rereading will be the tell.
This is my fourth Walter Mosley book and I am in for many more. I had previously read Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in the Easy Rawlins series, and the weird and compelling The Man in My Basement. I also recently read his writing manual, This Year You Write Your Novel. The Man in My Basement is one I’ll be reading several more times, I’m sure. I’ll also be reading more of the Rawlins books. But first, I suspect I’ll be going forward with more books featuring the private detective, Leonid McGill, of which this is the first. As much as I enjoyed Devil, this and The Man In My Basement are what really pushed me over the edge with him.
McGill lives in what feels like one long ethical dilemma more than a series of them. He’s an amateur boxer who could have gone pro, in a marriage that is not exactly working but weirdly calibrated to keep him in it, and trying to get away from a past of skirting the morally dubious to outright wrong side of the PI profession he once trafficked in. There is “the one honest cop” in New York who has vowed to put him behind bars and the swank office building, in which his business punches above its weight, is trying to find a reason to kick him out. Then the people he’s investigating start getting murdered.
This seems like pretty standard noir fare, but Mosley’s command of language and mood make this something special. The bone deep weariness and inability to find a way out of the ethical morass he’s trudging through really made this sing for me. Each character seems believable and acts in a believable way. An online friend described the mood of the McGill books as a “surreal purgatory,” which description seems apt. I suspect I’ll read through these (and maybe the Socrates Fortlaw books) and the standalone The Fortunate Son first, but I may end up reading most, if not all, of Mosley’s work.
On the border between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy.
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Jeffrey Ford is a writer who writers and reviewers I love speak about in hushed tones, the kind usually reserved for the likes of Kelly Link, Ted Chiang or Gene Wolfe. I had not read anything by him before this, but I doubt this will be the last. That it took a sequel to Moby Dick to get me to take the plunge with him, is, I know, extremely on brand. Moby Dick is my favorite novel, one that I read every year. I’ve maintained in recent years that it has a lot of the structure and feel of a fantasy horror novel. No doubt though, it is a precursor to the big difficult novels of the 20th century as well. And I’m not sure what anyone would hope to accomplish by writing a sequel to it that went for a similar approach. Ford very wisely takes this in a very different, much pulpier direction; this is a delight of a very different sort; fun and propulsive without all the digressions of Moby Dick. And yet it has significant philosophical and political heft.
You could almost call it pulp metafiction. Ahab, again, is an obsessive character encountered by the narrator. The narrator in this case is one Alex Harrow, a reporter (read: person who makes up fantastical stories out of whole cloth) for a tabloid called The Gorgon’s Mirror in New York. After the events of Moby Dick, Ishmael worked as a copy editor for the Mirror while writing his novel. Like Harrow, Ishmael was a little fast and loose with the truth. Ahab survived after all, as did Dagoo (who resents his name having been changed in the book from Madi). After an implied Odyssean journey back to America, Ahab shows up in pursuit of Ishmael so that he can find his son. What follows is part fantasy bordering on horror and part Gangs of New York and part theory of fiction and ideology (though this part never drags down the narrative voice or pace). Ahab’s son has taken up with a gang led by a magical and nefarious gangster called Malabaster. On one level the book is this pulp story from the perspective of a delightful unreliable narrator in which a small band of characters all with different, believable motivations make a tenuous alliance to go after Malabaster.
The magic system is rooted in the power of language and of narrative. In this sense the book, without going on tedious tangents, is very much about the danger of ideology (specifically nativist ideology) and how the war for people’s minds is fought on that ground. Set, as it is, in the 1850s Ford makes masterful use of the rabid nativism that was happening at the time. As I said in my review of Redburn, you could copy paste a lot of what was being said about catholics at the time and just say muslim instead, and other than a few anachronistic phrasings the same message wouldn’t seem out of place in some contemporary outlets. And in Madi (nee Dagoo), Ford illustrates a lot of the ways things haven’t changed a century and change later. By making the enemy the embodiment of nativist ideology Ford makes a powerful statement. If I had to ding the book for anything, it’s that it’s more pointed in its political message than I usually prefer. That said, if there was ever a time to write an anti-nativist novel it’s now.
But the book is not sermonizing. It is, first and foremost, a rollicking pulp journey rendered in excellent prose. If this is representative, Ford deserves those hushed tones that people use when discussing him. This isn’t going to replace Moby Dick on my yearly reread list, but it’s definitely in the reread a couple more times (at least) pile.
Owned But Previously Unread 2021 Number 5
Saturday, January 30, 2021
I went into Reburn thinking I’d like it, but it exceeded my expectations. It’s no Moby Dick or The Confidence Man, but few books are. Here I see glimmerings of what will come in Moby Dick, but yet it is it’s own work.
It is narrated by Wellingborough Redburn, a greenhorn if there ever were one. His family has fallen on hard times, and, lacking better options, he takes a berth as a boy (referring to his rank as well his age) on a ship called the Highlander bound across the Atlantic to Liverpool England. Though he is poor, he has no idea how to function aboard ship. He is a pious young man. The early stages of the book are both his maturing/learning the ropes of sailing and a very funny satire that pulls the rug from under that piety and represents the skewering of society that Melville’s later books would perfect. It is not as boisterously multicultural as Moby Dick, nor as harsh on slavery as The Confidence Man. It is not as funny or openly proto-existentialist as those either, but it does represent an early instantiation of those themes.
Near the end, Melville takes a strong stance against the anti-immigration movement of his day; on the return voyage from Liverpool, the Highlander takes on a large number of Irish emigrants. The anti-Catholic immigration rhetoric of the 1840’s and 50s is a copy/paste away from fitting into current attitudes toward muslim and hispanic refugees. For whatever casual racism of the day that lingers in his language, Melville really understood these things, an insight that reading Typee gave me. I’m not arguing that Melville was “ahead of his time.” I have used that formation before, I know, but I’ve come to think it’s rooted in an wrongheaded view that progress is inevitable and easily understood. That said, Melville was on the right side of a lot of issues of his day.
Some of this is clearly rooted in his autobiography. It is an excellent coming of age story mixed with an equally effective seafaring adventure. While it’s clearly not as good as Moby Dick, it is very good, and I can see how this would be a bestseller. And the things that made Melville’s later work so special are here as well, if not quite so well developed. I will be rereading this, I’m sure. And I’m even more looking forward to White-Jacket and Pierre now.
Owned But Previously Unread 2021
Friday, January 22, 2021
One of the highest compliments I can give this book is that it reminded me my favorite novels, Till We Have Faces, to mind. That’s unfair, as the books are vastly different in point of view and theme. But I haven’t read any literary retelling of myth that came close to holding up to Faces until this. It is outstanding.
It is narrated by the titular demigoddess/witch. It starts with her early life in the court of her father the Titan Helios and carries it past her affair with Odysseus. Along the way it hits the myths of Daedalus and Icarus, Scylla and Charybdis and others.
One thing I loved about it is how it reframes Circe's turning of sailors into pigs as a defensive move. This was like seeing Noah and realizing that if I had seen EVERYONE in the world die, I might want to get drunk to blunt the PTSD too. Something that was obvious once I saw it, but that I had missed every previous time I'd thought about it.
I don’t have much to say about this other than it was a transcendent reading experience that will stick with me for a while. The prose is perfect, as is the mood of loneliness it evokes. I will be reading this many more times, I’m sure. And anything else Miller writes.
This is the first book I’ve read by Connolly. I had a copy of one of his YA books on the shelf for a while, but then traded it in without reading it. Recently, though, I heard Connolly described as obsessed with James Lee Burke and his work being similar, but with a cosmic horror twist. Over the past few years Burke has become a favorite crime writer. His prose style is as good as anyone. And gradually I’ve become a horror fan over the same span. So, naturally I had to try Connolly out. He is best known for a series of books featuring a detective called Charlie Parker, though I was advised to start with the second book. But this is a relatively standalone novel, and I found it at a used book store. I say relatively, because Parker does make a couple of cameos, but has little to do with the main action of the book. But this was actually a great place to start.
The book opens with the dream of a man named Moloch who is remembering events that happened on an island called Sanctuary in colonial times. Brutal events, as if he were the one commiting them. The action moves then to the island itself. The lone policeman who lives there is a giant (7’2”), whose family has been there for generations. He knows the history, both mythic and mundane, of the place and something of a keeper. Since the events recalled in Moloch’s dream, the island is alive with the presence of the dead, who tend to settle scores with any who take innocent life. There is a woman there who is hiding with her child, and seeing the giant policeman. Moloch is a criminal who escapes prison, and he and his colleagues are not the only characters who live up to the book's title, but they fit it very well. Eerie things begin to happen on the island which escalate even as Moloch and company head toward the island. And the conclusion is perfect.
The novel is completely effective as both a bleak crime novel and an eerie gothic horror one. The prose is excellent at evoking a choking horror mood. It does resemble Burke’s in that sense, though there are very few authors in any genre who can live up to that. Still it’s perfect for the story being told. Like the best horror and crime, the bleakness is as much a product of the people as the supernatural elements. Once the stage is set, the book is a tension machine. This gets brutal at times, but was an excellent first book to read. I will be reading many more, starting with that second Charlie Parker novel.
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
I’m on record as saying that Elizabeth Hand became my favorite living writer last year. I just realized that was true halfway through a story in her first collection Last Summer at Mars Hill. Those were largely horror adjacent literary fantasy stories. I also read her novel Glimmering last year, her big swing for the fences novel which is a masterpiece. Both were on my best books read for the first time in 2020 list. In recent years she’s been writing more crime than anything, and 2019’s Curious Toys and Generation Loss, the first Cass Neary book are some of her best work. The next two Cass Neary books were also very good. So I was primed to really enjoy this. I did enjoy it, if not quite so well as the rest of her crime novels.
The Book of Lamps and Banners picks up in the aftermath of the previous book with Cass Neary stranded in London. She runs into Gryffin Haselton, a rare book dealer who was a character in Generation Loss. He has in his possession the titular book, which is beyond rare. He is poised to sell it to a tech billionaire who views the book as a primitive code that can alter the minds of readers, even if they don’t understand the language. She is working on an app that does similar things. This allows for a low burn scifi element that is absent from the other books. But the middleman in the transaction is murdered, the book stolen, and thus begins Neary’s trip through another harrowing, case is the wrong word, but a series of events. There are white nationalists, murderers and aging British singers. Neary’s aging punk world weariness and borderline nihilism makes her one of the most compelling characters in contemporary fiction. Her world has been moved forward in time, so that these events happened just before the pandemic hit.
That said, I felt like the, admittedly mild, sf elements of a dangerous app conceived to help assuage PTSD but instead triggering it, falling into the hands of dangerous neonazis sat oddly in a Cass Neary book. I like both the noir novel and the sf novel well enough to recommend this, but it did bring it down a notch or so from the previous books for my money. I almost wish they were two separate books. But I still recommend it. Start with Generation Loss, though. If this is the end of the Neary series, I like where Cass ended up, though I would read another without hesitation.
I would like to move toward reading more books about nature, and specifically animals. I’ve long been a fan of Annie Dillard, and I loved H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. I feel that my knowledge of the world of nature is lacking. The press for Soul of an Octopus says it does for Octopuses (within the first few pages, Montgomery makes it clear this is the proper plural form) what the MacDonald did for falcons. I didn’t like this as much as Hawk, but it is a great introduction to Octopuses.
And it turns out that Octopuses are amazing. Montgomery is a well established naturalist, and she spent several years bonding with a series of octopuses that lived at the aquarium in her town. Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma each had a different personality. This is not as much memoir as H is for Hawk or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but as Montgomery chronicles her interactions, even friendship, with the octopuses and the other people who worked and hung out at the aquarium mixed with a popular level summary of the current state of scientific study of the creature, she builds a convincing case that octopuses have a much higher level of consciousness than we (certainly than I) expected. Each of the four octopuses she gets to know has a distinct personality. I immediately wanted to go to the aquarium!
This isn’t quite up there with Dillard or MacDonald for me, but I do recommend it without hesitation, and have plans to read more of Montgomery’s work.
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Caitlin Kiernan is firmly ensconced in my top tier of writers. Her gift for language, the mood of dread and wonder she consistently evokes, the mashup of cosmic horror with literary modernist techniques, and her frank and searing approach to writing about mental illness make her works indelible. Her sense of the darkness and cruelty of the world is as bone deep as McCarthy or Ellroy. She is endlessly creative. I’m not sure if its because they were the first things I read by her, but her previous Tinfoil Dossier books, Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters, were among my favorites of her work, the latter only challenged by The Drowning Girl or maybe The Red Tree (pending reread) at the top of the pile. Adding a John Le Carre by way of X-Files element really works. The Tindalos Asset is the most recent entry in that series, and it is worthy of its predecessors.
The novel opens with the Signalman, an aging agent who made a cameo in Black Helicopters and was the protagonist of Agents of Dreamland, shows up in the squalid apartment of Ellison Nicademo, a former assassin with a supernatural familiar who worked for the agency. Her life has spiraled since a truly grotesque failed attempt at killing the leader of a cult trying to raise the Ancient Gods. As with the previous books, the story is told achronologically, jumping from perspective to perspective and back and forth through the years and decades building to an apocalyptic ending.
Black Helicopters is still my favorite of hers, but this is excellent. As much as I enjoy her earlier work, the stuff she’s done lately is astounding. This could be an ending point for the series, but I would read as many of these as she writes. I cannot recommend these books enough.
Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy
Everything Else 2021 4/50
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
City of Saints and Madmen, the first Ambergris book was my introduction to Jeff Vandermeer. The second, Shriek: An Afterward cemented him as one of my favorite writers, and is among my favorite books. Finch is a fitting conclusion. They span many genres, from faux-history guidebook to decadent third person memoir to noir. There are many narrators, nearly all of them unreliable, and often conflicting.
City of Saints and Madmen was one of the first books (along with Fifth Head of Cerberus and Pale Fire by Nabokov) that put the story suite/mosaic novel/fractured narrative book among my favorite storytelling techniques. I got the most recent (prior to the omnibus version) edition. The first iteration had four novellas and the subtitle The Book of Ambergris. The later edition had an appendix that was as long as the first part that had 11 or so short stories. The conflicting unreliable narrators were an ingenious way to display aspects of the City of Ambergris, an alternate world fantasy city state with no real central government that at the time the novellas are set is in an early modern period technologically. For a time artists, particularly an opera composer called Voss Bender, exerted a relatively high degree of control, though that was fading and in the conflicts that followed, the House of Hoegbotton and Sons, a mercantile interest that has been on the rise for decades begins to take over. The atmosphere is fungal and filled with spores. The city is in a decadent period socially. The buildings themselves are being colonized by various fungi. An apparently native race, the Mushroom Dwellers, or Greycaps, a fungal based species, have reemerged after decades, maybe centuries of absence. Their presence and plans are a mystery that plays out over the course of the three books.
For the omnibus, City of Saints and Madmen goes back to the “Book of Ambergris” edition reprinting the four novellas with the addition of one longish story from the appendix. I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about that. It weakens the book as work in itself; the interplay of those stories really adds a lot to one’s understanding of Ambergris and its history. But, as a prelude to the other two books, it really works. If you’re considering Ambergris as a single work, then these four set the stage well. (And I logged the shorter “Book of Ambergris” version on Goodreads as I didn’t read the rest of the Appendix this time. The book opens with Dradin in Love, the story of a monk who returns to Ambergris after a stint as a missionary in a jungle setting. He arrives during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, an annual event commemorating early Ambigrisian history. Some years violence erupts, and the Greycaps have something to do with this, though it’s not entirely clear from just this story what part that is. This is among the most violent on record. It’s an effective introduction to the city in addition to being a harrowing horror story written in a decadent style. Despite its third person narration, another of the stories reveals it to be a memoir written by Dradin himself. This starts the trend of the stories as actual published artifacts in the imagined world that continues throughout; the protagonist of Finch reads Shriek: An Afterward, for instance. The next novella purports to be a travel guide/brief introduction to the history of Ambergris, and this does a lot of the exposition heavy lifting in a way that is very enjoyable. It is written by a fringe historian named Duncan Shriek whose digressive footnotes keep this from being an infodump. Here the city’s founders are chronicled, the Monk Samuel Tonsure, whose journal is a key to the whole Ambergris cycle is introduced, and one of the central mysteries of the series The Silence is introduced. That last involves the complete disappearance of 25,000 citizens of the city. Many blame the Greycaps, many of whom were massacred by the early kings of Ambergris. That this history doesn’t feel like homework while setting the stage so well for the rest of the series is a remarkable accomplishment. The omnibus then inserts the story The Cage from the appendix. It’s the story of the first Hoegbotton to open a store called Hoegbotton and Sons in Ambergris and is a masterful weird tale. It stands alone, but introduces a major player, or at least the founder of an organization that is key to understanding the politics of the city. The Transformation of Martin Lake shows the bohemian artistic circle that formed around The New Art at a gallery owned by Janice Shriek, brother to Duncan Shriek who wrote the Hoegbotton Guide to Ambergris. The final novella is the only one I have hesitations about. It’s about an author in an asylum that thinks he’s made up Ambergris and the world it’s in. I do like it, but I might have preferred to see a couple more of the stories from the appendix in the omnibus instead. I hope that the longer edition of this gets released again, but as prelude, this really works, each tale a weird one despite what other genres are mixed in. But in aggregate they provide the beginnings of the history, politics and feel of the place. It does in part what the series as a whole does. Coming at Ambergris from a variety of angles, the city that emerges lives in the mind.
If I could only keep ten books, Shriek: An Afterword would be one of them (or maybe the omnibus for context, but Shriek is the big draw for me). This is the most Nabokovian work I’ve read that wasn’t by Nabokov. And yet, as a weird horror story and fantasy thriller it does things that Nabokov never did. There’s a character named Sirin; an author, editor and shadow player in the politics called Sirin who is obsessed with, among other things, literary games. Sirin was a pseudonym used by Nabokov when he was writing in Europe. If the language and structure didn’t give away the Nabokovian influence, this certainly did. Aside from the fantasy/horror elements he adds, Vandermeer is more overtly political than Nabokov. The latter struck an apolitical pose, though all his work was informed by a hatred for the Bolsheviks who drove his family out of his native Russia, and politics did intrude into the works, most intensely in Bend Sinister. Nabokov is an avatar for fiction as art for art's sake. Vandermeer is as obsessed with art, and makes the art the primary point. But in the background of these books the ways politics impinges on art becomes undeniable.
The book begins as if Janice Shriek, introduced in The Transformation of Martin Lake, is writing an afterword to her brother’s historical guide to Ambergris. Like Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, it cannot remain one thing though and becomes a family history and a chronicle of the first in what will eventually be revealed to be a series of Civil Wars between Hoegbotton and Sons and a rival mercantile operation trying to make inroads into Ambergris. The manuscript was found by Duncan, and he wrote responses to everything that Janice said about and their lives. Janice’s dissolute and debauched life runs parallel to her brothers rise to prominence as an historian obsessed with the Greycaps, the Silence and the city that exists under the city proper. His fall, in part, involves a decades long feud with a former student whom he slept with. It’s one of the few times the teacher/student relationship trope works, partly because the interplay between Duncan and Janice’s voices shows the ways in which he was deceiving himself as much as the school. War breaks out and everything changes. Duncan’s body becomes infested with fungus and he is gradually changing just as the city is. Both Shrieks become war reporters. The mystery of the Silence begins to come into focus even as war comes and goes and Janice and Duncan’s careers wane. This is a flat out masterpiece.
The third volume, Finch, is the most straightforward narratively, even as it adds another genre to the mix and another angle on the history of Ambergris and the prose becomes more fragmented. It is a straight noir that happens a century after the events of the two previous books. The Civil Wars had picked up again, a struggle that was made moot by the rising of the Greycaps to rule the city with fascist-like control. John Finch, not his real name, is a collaborator of sorts who works for the Greycaps. The book opens with a double murder, a human and a Greycap and his case is inseperable from the history of Ambergris. He’s caught between his cruel bosses, other collaborators called Partials (humans who have been colonized by fungi), forces from outside the city, and the revolutionaries who are fighting the Greycap regime. The city and its inhabitants are succumbing to the fungal spores that permeate the atmosphere. The deteriorating streets are as mean as any in Ellroy or Hammett. But like the other Ambergris books, it performs double duty as the history of an alternate world.
All in all, I can’t recommend the Ambergris books highly enough. I hope that City of Saints and Madmen gets a release in its fullest form at some point, but otherwise I have no hesitations here. These are the books that sold me on Vandermeer. The variety of genres and narrators at play reveal an alternate world as elaborate as any I’ve encountered. It’s political but not polemical. The narrative of colonization is subtle but powerful. It revels in art and language. It’s utterly compelling. Shriek at least is going on my yearly reread list. I’ve not read anything by Vandermeer that I didn’t at least like, but these (especially Shriek) and Dead Astronauts are his best for my money.
City of Saints and Madmen- Canon Worthy in this form, Canon in the more complete form. My final reread of 2020.
Shriek: An Afterward- Canon- Yearly Reread 2021 1/8, Rereads and Everything Else 2021 1/50
Finch- Canon- Rereads and Everything Else 2021 2/50