not really speculative

Readings: John Wray

Last week was pretty damn trying, both personally and work-wise. Routine disruption made it even worse. There were a couple of days where things I usually do at certain time of the day did not get done, and for some reason it really became an issue by the end of the week. Yesterday I found a nice reading space by the National Gallery of Art and tried to catch up on both reading and writing.

wray I started John Wray’s Lost Time Accidents a week or so ago and then realized I could only read it on days when I had stretches of uninterrupted time. It is a novel that I guess would be described as ‘literary genre’. In this case, it is a genre novel both because it is a historical novel and because it speculates on the nature of time. Charles Yu wrote a review of it for the Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review, and I am glad that NYT chose a sci-fi author to do the review of what is not a strictly sci-fi novel. He is pretty on point in his review – it is a complex novel, and by virtue of being extremely sprawling, its complexity does not always work, but I am enjoying the novel’s messiness and detail (besides, it is far from a plodding read). I am a sucker for long historical novels with weird things in them, particularly if they include elements from both history of science and science fiction. There is also a fictionalized version of a sci-fi writer named Orson Card Tolliver who might be an amalgam of Ron L. Hubbard and Andrew Offutt.

It’s unusual for me to stretch my reading of a fiction book over a number of weeks. I think the last time I did this was with Nicola Griffith’s Hild (for much the same reason, I needed uninterrupted time to pay attention). I am now more than a halfway through, and unless it really goes down south, I recommend this one if you are a fan of big books full of family sagas, physicists, possibly time-traveling Nazis, and narratives that attempt to cover both decades and infinities.

 

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Murakami-sensei and his wacky cups

tazakienglishThe world doesn’t really need another review of Murakami’s latest novel. Which is why I’m only going to say that I read it and really enjoyed it. I’m quite excited to go to the store tomorrow morning and look at the finished book (I read a galley that barely had a cover).

Murakami can really do no wrong. There is a recent article in the Salon saying that he can even do things that are expressly forbidden in creative writing courses and still be awesome. What this basically means is Murakami has reached that particular sensei-level where he can do whatever the fuck he wants. It’s like pottery masters who at some point in their careers start creating these wacky pieces, cups bent all out of shape, vases that can’t really stand up. This is why he can produce ridiculous three-volume (in Japanese, anyway) books like 1Q84 to great hype and critical acclaim (though to be honest, I do not really remember what kind of acclaim accompanied 1Q84).

tazakijapaneseIncidentally, 1Q84 is still sitting on my shelf largely unread. Maybe I’m a Murakami minimalist. Maybe my favorites are his smaller, less weird creations. Which is why Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki worked so well for me. Its rather hard to describe what this book felt like. Aesthetically, it was very… Japanese. Kawabata-esque, even. It felt almost un-Murakami-like, but then again, Murakami is one of those writers you can’t pigeon-hole. It’s wacky cups one day, classical vases the next. It takes a true master to make both beautiful.

I leave you with Patti Smith’s review, which really sums it all up quite nicely.

Blurbs: Cantero, Joyce, and Park

This past week has been pretty good in terms of input/output. Some library books were adopted temporarily, but more importantly, I managed to take some pieces of my permanent collection to the staff break room to wait for the next owner. This happens so rarely, it should be a national holiday. I have a couple of actual reviews lined up for next week, but here’s some stuff that is not going to be reviewed at great length, yet is worth mentioning.

canteroEdgar Cantero, The Supernatural Enhancements

Writing pro-tip: diaries, letters, scraps of paper, and audio transcripts add at least +3 creepiness to any story. Remember House of Leaves? I don’t, because it was terrifying and I repressed all memories of it.  Cantero’s book has a weird, possibly haunted, house, a narrator who talks like ‘he read too much Lovecraft’, and a mute girl who audio and video records everything that’s going on in the house. Whether you will enjoy it or not depends entirely on whether you like non-traditional narrative forms. This is out on August 12, but I suspect I will sell a lot of copies closer to Halloween.

ghostjoyceGraham Joyce, The Ghost In The Electric Blue Suit

I have a conflicted relationship with Joyce’s books. I like them, but I feel that he toes the line between the realistic and the fantastic, and always errs on the side of the realistic. Everything seems to have a psychological explanation (as in, ‘it’s all in your head’). I was not a big fan of his Some Kind of Fairy Tale, but I decided to give The Ghost In The Electric Blue Suit a chance. I mostly liked it, but I am starting to think that Joyce and I are simply not a good writer/reader pairing after all. I liked the setting, I liked the resolution for David, but I also disliked most of Terri/Colin storyline. In fact, I did not like any of his main women characters, for reasons not entirely clear.

vanishedPaul Park, All Those Vanished Engines

How can we live… when memory tells us one thing, reality another, and imagination a third? 

I was so excited about this book (the inclusion of ‘so’ should indicate that things are about to head in a disappointing direction). David Mitchell was mentioned on the dust jacket, ‘combined narrative of interlocking parts’ was promised. Some meta-fiction was in sight after a few pages, when the story that started rather ordinarily suddenly took the turn for the ‘weird shit happening in both space and time’ (I can see how they linked this to David Mitchell). The first part was interesting, but then the book became a jumble of faces, names, and familial histories. In short, information overload. My mind had trouble extracting meaning because it was not clear what details might be meaningful. The book just seemed unnecessarily complex. I really wanted to like it. Or even finish it. But I could not. Partly because of it all being too much, and partly because Park’s writing style seemed to have a mesmerizing effect on me. My eyes would just glide across the page, but my brain would not engage. Maybe it was something about adjectives. Maybe it was some sentence structure he particularly liked to use.

Your mileage may vary. If you like alternate history, looping complex narratives with shared characters, and like to ponder whether stories have lives of their own and things like that, you can try it and see if you (maybe) like it.

Apiology in novel form: The Bees by Laline Paull

I recently had a discussion with a friend about non-humanoid protagonists in novels. Our conclusion was that it’s hard to do well (shocking, I know). I read Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams a while ago and thought it was great. It’s full of cats. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is another good one, and everyone in it is a dragon. Well, dragons are tricky because they are mythical creatures and have always been thought to have a peculiar mindset (though I suppose the same thing can be said about cats).

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The cover is shiny!

Almost every character in The Bees is, well, a honey bee. There are some spiders and wasps. There are a few humans, but only for a couple of pages. The novel begins with Flora, a worker bee and our protagonist, emerging from her cell. Flora is a humble sanitation worker, destined for the life of cleaning and service. But she is not like other bees. For one, she is not mute, like the rest of her worker kin. And so she catches an eye of one of Sage priestesses, who then allows her to step beyond her caste boundaries and work in the Nursery. Flora is both the strongest and weakest part of The Bees. She is that kickass female protagonist you want in your fiction: she rises above her humble origins, she defies authority, she ventures outside, and she performs feats not expected from a bee worker. Therein lies her weakness: she is not like other bees (‘You are unnatural’), but at the same time her otherness seems just a device to show the reader what’s going on in the hive. Of course she has to be ‘unnatural’ to be able to go everywhere and do different things. We have only one POV, and it’s Flora’s. There is something wrong and shady going on in the hive, but we can know only as much as Flora knows.

The single POV is not necessarily a problem. You don’t need an omniscient narrator to enjoy the mystery or whatever evil plot is hatching (ha!) in the hive. But The Bees also suffers from the problem of uneven tension. There are moments when things are really happening to advance the story arc, but for the most part the book can be described as ‘the year in the life of bees as seen from the point of view of one bee’. I had the same feeling about The Bees as I did about The Martian by Andy Weir: great thought experiment, not a great novel (though The Martian is ahead in points for story arc coherence). In this case, Paull’s imagination gets carried away with the need to describe yet another life stage of a bee in the form of a novel. Here’s what happens to drones before the winter. Here’s how we survive the winter. Here’s how we feed larvae. All this makes The Bees a rather clunky and disjointed read.

My biggest disappointment with The Bees, however, was that the story was completely predictable. I could have told you how it would end after reading the dust jacket. So the most I can say about this book is that it is imaginative (major props for trying to build a world based pretty much entirely on scent and taste), but not when it comes to actual storytelling.

By the way, if you really want to get into the head of a non-humanoid mind, read Vernor Vinge. His aliens are amazing. A Deepness in the Sky has spider-like aliens, and their POVs feel decidedly non-human.

Maybe I’m just partial to arachnids.

Short Story Sunday, 5.18.14: the non-speculative edition

I consumed two short story collections in the past couple of days.

1) American Innovations by Rivka Galchen. It’s a fun one. First of all, the cover:

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Makes me go ‘what the hell is going on here’ every time I see it.

Second, the stories themselves. They are quirky, smart, and weird. They are not really genre, but they are something genre-readers would enjoy, I think. In one of them, for example, a man asks the narrator to kill him to demonstrate a time travel paradox. As always with collections, there were a couple of stories that fell flat, but overall it was very good.

2) The second collection was not just good, it was brilliant. Oh Lydia Davis, how I love you. Actually, what I love are your really short stories (three sentences short, one paragraph short) and your really long ones (well, by ‘really long’, I mean 10 pages).

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Davis’s stories really remind me of Chekhov’s stories. It’s the brevity, I think, but there is also something Old World-like in her descriptions and observations, something that makes me very nostalgic.

Reading update: non-genre/non-fiction edition

I don’t read just genre. I suspect a lot of genre readers are the same (though I’m curious about reading habits, so comment away). I also work in a book store where the customer base is mostly the new general fiction/non-fiction crowd. This means I kinda need to know what I’m selling. I read the NYT Book Review and occasional frontlist* titles for this reason (well, aside from the fact that there is some good stuff in the mainstream too).

In any case, even my ‘new and popular’ reading is skewed. My latest new find was Strange Bodies, and let’s be honest, it’s genre.  That aside, here’s some stuff I’ve been reading that is either non-fiction or non-genre.

0315141051This books is heartbreaking and amazing. It examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the lives of two gay men. From the introduction: ‘The experience of the AIDS epidemic was in critical ways dissimilar for the white gay community and the black gay one, and that distinction is one of the major themes of this book.’ Hold Tight Gently, through its historical look at the epidemic, also aims to show why AIDS and AIDS activism should remain top priorities for the gay community.

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Ah, The Luminaries. Will I ever get through it? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

Siege 13 is an interesting short story collection by a Hungarian writer Tamas Dobozy. Budapest at the end of WWII.

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I’m reading this book with a specific question in mind, the question being ‘should I send this to my mother?’

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Science! Brain! Psychopaths!

Other random things I’ve adopted over the past few days:

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Geoff Dyer is published in the neat ‘two-sided’ format. Mental Biology is once again about brain (there is a method to my reading madness), and The Word Exchange is, oddly enough, a novel about memes (read: probably genre).

On the more familiar genre front, I am making my speedy way through Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (so far so awesome) and eyeing a re-read of Sanderson’s Way of Kings, followed by Words of Radiance.

* from the freedictionary, Frontlist: a publisher’s sales list of newly or recently published books, esp. those of popular appeal.

Blurbs! I consume Griffith, McIntosh, Chu, and Saunders

It’s time for blurbs! In the past two weeks, diverse literature has been consumed, and here are the results:

hildNicola Griffith, Hild

If any book could kick my ass harder in the history department, it’s this one. Turns out, I know very little about 7th century Britain. I obviously know very little about Hild, but that’s the case for everybody, because the only mention of her is in a couple of pages by the Venerable Bede in his writings on Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity. This is why this book is an amazing feat of research. Keep in mind that Hild is, of course, fiction, but it’s the kind of fiction that makes you want to dive into some history books.

I found it hard to read this one in small chunks. It’s partly my personal problem: I have a rather shoddy memory for characters and plot in general, so if enough time passes between readings, I am liable to forget who is who. The fact that a lot of people in this book have similar-sounding Anglo-Saxon names does not help. I did find myself with a few uninterrupted hours on Saturday, and binged on this book until I finished it.

If I were to describe Hild in a few words, I’d say that it has heft. It has some kind of palpable substance to it that I cannot quite express in words. It is much like a slow roast — dense, substantial, and deeply satisfying. In fact, I almost found myself too intimidated by this book to write any kind of review, so this blurb is all you get.

minuseightyWill McIntosh, Love Minus Eighty

Ok, I admit it, I picked this one up based entirely on the cover, because the ‘love’ part did not do it for me. It never really does. I’m not big on romance in my books. But it turned out to be a great book! Romance is not really the point of it at all. The point is how money or lack thereof divides society, and how this kind of division coupled with technology can lead to questionable, morality-wise, arrangements. Here we have cryogenics, and people can get frozen in case they suffer a gruesome and terrible accident that leaves them with no working internal organs. Unfreezing, however, is trickier because it costs a lot of money. But say you are a very pretty young woman, and maybe someone will pay money to revive you just so you can be their wife. And so the ‘Bridesicle’ business is born. This sounds awful (chilling? ha!), but what’s truly awful is that you can totally see some corporation thinking this could be a viable business model if such technology were available. In any case, Love Minus Eighty is a great example of thought-provoking sci-fi that is essentially about human relationships, societal structure, and technology, all tied together.

taoWesley Chu, Lives of Tao

This seemed very John Adams-esque to me when I read the blurb on the back. Roen Tan, who is essentially a walking fat geek stereotype (though he does seem to have a job) wakes up one day to find out that an near-immortal alien intelligence has taken up residence in his mind. And this alien needs him to be trained to be a covert operative proficient in all forms of combat like, yesterday. Hilarity ensues. Sort of. It was a rather fun read, but it started flagging halfway through. The devil was really in the details, and those started bugging me after a while. I kept finding little inconsistencies and things that simply did not make much sense. I file this under ‘decent debut, but hope it gets better’.

The cover is brilliant, by the way.

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George Saunders, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

It’s a very brief book, much like the reign of Phil described in it (come on, it’s not a spoiler, you can tell the reign will end from the title). The premise is so whacky that you aren’t really sure how it might work, but Saunders, of course, pulls it off brilliantly. The country of Inner Honer has space for only one person, so people have to hang out in the Short-Term Residency Zone while waiting for their turn to live in their country. It all goes well till one Inner Honerite accidentally falls into the neighboring country of Outer Honer. Orwellian tragicomedy ensues (it is compared to Animal Farm on the back cover, and the comparison is quite appropriate).

I love George Saunders, and I did enjoy this novella. It has perhaps too much cluebatting in it for my taste, which is often the shortcoming of books that are so obviously written as metaphors. Still, if you have never read him, you should — his stuff is truly weird, but always very smart and well-done.