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Readings: Álvaro Enrigue

Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is one of the strangest and best books I’ve ever read. It is a book from which I need to recover. The urge to go on vacation just so I can digest is quite strong.

The book takes place during a single tennis game. It’s not even, strictly speaking, tennis, but pallacorda, the original tennis, as it were. It is only somewhat similar to the tennis we know now. Don’t worry, you will find out more if you read the book (and you might find yourself on the internets way past your bedtime looking up things like jeu à dedans court design even if you care not at all about tennis or its origins).

suddendeathThis might sound boring, except you get so caught up in Enrigue’s masterful blow-by-blow commentary that you are sucked into the book before you know it. Besides, consider that the tennis game in question is the game between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. They are also doing it with a ball made with Anne Boleyn’s hair (shorn off her head before she lost it to the sword). But how did they come to possess such a thing and why are they playing at all? They both seem to be dreadfully hungover and not at all in the mood.

To tell you this, Enrigue takes you on a dizzying tour of what seems like an impossible array of subjects: history of tennis and art, succession of Popes and cardinals, colonization of the Americas, to name just a few. At times it turns meta and breaks the fourth wall in a manner that should feel jarring, yet you go with it. The book is a mad mix of breathtaking game scenes, history bits, quotes, some well-done smut, and even a film script. At times, it made my head spin as it switched from the game court to Central America to Spain to Rome and back to the court. It made me want to learn, to create, to finally learn Spanish for the first time in my life (amazingly, I never expressed any interest in doing so and mostly stuck to languages nobody speaks). It is possibly the most alive and physical book I have ever read.

At one point, the book refers to the scene in Don Quixote where Altisidora has a vision of devils playing with rackets of fire, using bad books as balls. Sudden Death is definitely one of the books that is never going to be subjected to such treatment in the devils’ tennis court.

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Readings: Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

I started my vacation with a glass of wine, some Beatles’ songs (a break from Hamilton on never-ending loop), and a reread of Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive. I was working on the book floor for two days before Christmas, and in that time, I sold this book to two people, one friend and one customer. If I could sell it to everyone who came in through the door, I would.

When I was just coming out, my friend told me to read McBee’s column in the Rumpus called ‘Self-Made Man’. McBee writes a lot about masculinity and what it means to be a man, something that has always been my interest in and out of the context of trans experience. I pay a lot of attention to how men behave and think and how they are made to behave and think.

DEUG7991Thoughts on masculinity aside, McBee is a powerful writer. His sentences are so vivid, it’s like he is writing directly on your eyeballs, or perhaps directly on your brain. I read Man Alive in one sitting, unable to move, unable to leave the couch. I am glad it’s fairly short, because my bladder would not have been able to last for more than 170 pages.

At the time (I read Man Alive early in 2014, before its publication), I was still not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I was not yet on T, and while I wanted to be on T, I also didn’t know if I would like the change. It wasn’t the idea of sticking myself with needles, or being on hormones for the rest of my life. I was just always a fan of status quo and did not like to change anything, even if said change was going to save my life.

I found the same kind of uncertainty in the pages of McBee’s book, and I found answers. There were trans memoirs that helped me realize I was trans. There were trans memoirs that helped me come out. And then there was Man Alive, which described precisely how I felt and finally placed me where I wanted to be in the space-time continuum that my clusterfuck of life had become at that point. McBee and I came from different backgrounds and had different families, and our reasons for postponing our transitions were different, but there was a similarity of thought and feeling somewhere in both our cores.

…and I knew there wouldn’t be a divine intervention, no right time, no sign that testosterone would make me a good man, no test to confirm that I would be happier, or more whole.

After I came out to my closest friends, I remember crying a few times when my heart was full of both pain and hope: the time when I saw myself in a mirror wearing a binder, and it looked so right; the time when I realized I had to leave my family and live as someone I had always been on the inside; and the time when I read Man Alive and knew I had made the right choice, even if it took me more than thirty years.

In the meantime, the twin man in the mirror was growing more solid while my current, softer face became more and more transparent. I knew which body was a ghost.

Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

My very brief love letter to Stoner by John Williams

Now that my best of 2015 list is out, it is time to tell what my non-2015 favorite book of the year was.

FTGF9510Stoner by John Williams was for years a shameful hole in my reading list. It is no more. And that is truly the best book I’ve read this year. It is a quiet book. It seems so plain and unassuming that it should be boring, and yet it’s not. It is beautiful and thoughtful. It is a great book for anyone regardless of reading taste.

I am not going to say that I wish I had read it sooner. I read Stoner in one day, lounging in an unexpected 68-degree December weather in the park. It was the best day. Maybe I’ve been waiting for that day so I could have this perfect reading experience.

‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

God is dead: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing. 

I am a sucker for gods and religion in my SF books. Maybe it’s because these subjects remind me of reading myths. I loved the Greek mythology tome I had as a kid. The gods in it were wise, petty, mighty, vain, all of the above, occasionally at the same time. Those myths were great stories to start with, so it’s no surprise that I later transitioned to reading strange and speculative fiction.

three-parts-deadThree Parts Dead has organized religion, worship, faith, and gods in spades. At its most basic, it is a mystery novel. It begins with the death of Kos Everburning, the god who keeps the city of Alt Coulumb running. His death is discovered during the watch of a novice priest Abelard. It later appears that Kos’s death might have involved some foul play.

Enter Tara Abernathy, a necromancer recently graduated from the Hidden Schools. She arrives in the city with her boss, Elayne Kevarian, and the two attempt to solve this case with the help of chain-smoking Abelard, a vampire, a servant of Justice (see: police officer), and even some gargoyles.

Gladstone writes a great tale, bringing all these characters together and feeding the reader details and tidbits that become important later, which makes Three Parts Dead a lot of fun to read. What he also does, however, is build a fascinating world and set out some interesting rules. Rules, for example, that govern humans’ relationship with their god. In essence, gods are business people. They operate by contract. You provide worship, they provide power (as my late teacher of Irish used to say, ‘there are no nice goddesses, only successfully propitiated ones’). And so gods can die by owing more power than they could provide. Something drained Kos of power and left him a lifeless husk.

But wait, not all is lost. You can, in fact, bring the god back to life. Or some semblance of life. It probably won’t be the same god, but it will be good enough for government work, as it were (Justice, in fact, used to be Seril, a goddess that had died in God Wars). Hence the summoning of Kevarian and Tara, both necromancers.

Gladstone’s worldbuilding offers many other cool things to the reader. The idea of Craft is fascinating. It sounds like ordinary magic, but its origin is quite interesting. It’s ‘half art, half science’, and it was born from ‘the awe at how well divine hands has made a thing, and the insatiable need to improve on that design’. It almost sounds like the origin of alchemy, an attempt by humans to improve on nature. The expression of Craft itself seems almost Harry Potter-like, theatrical. It’s not always clear how the Craft works, but it seems the kind of magic you want to have (you know, the kind that comes with the ability to levitate objects).

The characters, the rules, and the world make Three Parts Dead much more than just a SFnal mystery novel (as Abelard says, ‘could we please not talk about God as if He were a corpse on the floor?’). I already have Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand, and Full Fathom Five, Gladstone’s newest book, will definitely end up in my hands as well.

Reading update: book juxtaposition

I am finishing up my review of Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (while eyeing his Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand), but in the meantime, here’s some reading news that is not news about me reading short stories:

wonderbookI’m still making my way through Wonderbook, and I am still mightily impressed. If you are a creative type of any variety, you should get this. It’s incredibly useful if you like to put words down on a page, but if painting or music or some other thing is more your speed, the art itself is worth it just for inspiration. I’ve been writing and drawing again, mostly thanks to Jeff VanderMeer.

I am also re-reading The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan. It’s probably my favorite Kiernan book, but it invariably gives me very strange dreams (stranger than usual), disturbs me, unsettles me, and, going with the theme in the book, haunts me. Also, there is a transgender character. It is amazing, and I am savoring each sentence.

In a rather odd juxtaposition to The Drowning Girl, I am also reading Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett. I have mentioned my conflicted relationship with humorous genre fiction before, and that I only read Pratchett when I really feel like it. Maybe I just needed funny this week to counteract all the shitty things that are happening (see #Ferguson in your latest Twitter feed). There is a delightful Discworld reading chart on io9, and I am sort of using it to re-read or fill my gaps in different story arcs.  I like the witches, but I am pretty sure I have only read Wyrd Sisters and Carpe Jugulum in that storyline.

Perhaps it is also time to do an ‘upcoming releases’ post. We’re heading into a pretty busy fall, and there are some truly cool things about to be released into the reading wilds.