Saturday, May 29, 2021

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand

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

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

There is a density of literary and historical reference here that ensures I missed a fair amount, but I got enough to realize that it doesn't entirely matter.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

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

Canon Worthy

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin

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

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

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

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

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

Canon Worthy

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

White Houses by Amy Bloom

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

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

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

Highly Recommended.

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

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

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

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

Highly Recommended/ Canon Worthy

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

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

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

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

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

Highly Recommended

Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography by David S. Reynolds

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.

More Shapes Than One: Stories by Fred Chappell

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.

Canon Worthy

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.

Highly Recommended

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.

Canon Worthy

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.

Highly Recommended

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!

Canon Worthy

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. 

Highly Recommended

Duet- A country star tells a story of grief that explains the power of his singing. 

Highly Recommended

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.

Canon Worthy 

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 Wanderers by Richard Price

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. 

Welcome Chaos by Kate Wilhelm

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. 

End spoiler:

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

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

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.

Highly Recommended.

Catch Up Post

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.

Highly Recommended

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.

Canon Worthy

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.

Canon Worthy

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.

Recommended (mildly)

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.

Canon Worthy

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.

Canon Worthy