Readings: Bakewell, Aziz

I feel like I am finally getting my life back. Might even go running today, if all goes well.

existentialistAfter fairly reading-deprived March, I now seem to be devouring books at a steady clip. I have belatedly dived into Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, which is very very good if you are looking for non-fiction. I find myself drawn to these types of ‘group biographies’, wherein a certain time period or theme is explored through lives of several people. In this case, philosophy and existentialism in particular are explored through lives of people who started the whole wonderful mess: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, and a whole host of others. Bakewell does a fantastic job connecting both philosophy and biography elements of the book, so the volume is both a great intro to existentialism and a fascinating look at some interesting lives.

I also finished The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translation by Elisabeth Jaquette). I have woefully enormous gaps when it comes to Middle Eastern literature, so this is filling some of those. The easy description of it would be 1984 mixed with Arab Spring. This is the kind of book reviewers would describe as ‘chilling’, I suppose. It is firmly in the ‘disturbingly true dystopia’ camp. Something called the Gate appears after a failed uprising. The Gate controls all of citizens’ lives, including their access to doctors and healthcare. One must submit applications to have life-saving surgery (which obviously means one does not get said surgery in time to save life). Mind you, the Gate is never open, and so the action takes place almost entirely in the queue that forms in front of it. It is a rather grim little book, but worth reading. Out May 24th.


New books I care about, 9.28.2015

The new releases and embargoes pile in the receiving was so tall today that at one point it simply gave up, collapsed, and had to be propped up by a handtruck. September and October are normally heavy on new books, but this year the avalanche of frontlist (read: new stuff) is approaching ridiculous.

Here are a few awesome (or hopefully awesome) books that are out tomorrow:

IMG_0667Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. I had to take my own cover photo because I couldn’t find the one that adequately reflects the shiny. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t read this one months ago when I got it, so I am halfway through this on the eve of its release.

I see Gold Fame Citrus as a sort of a sister book to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Water Knife. It has a similar dystopian setting, but it explores the environmental theme in a different way. The novel is about two survivors living some time in the near future in the completely dry Southwest (survive on ration cola kind of dry). They come across a little baby girl, which sends them on the path of possibly finding a better place and life for their new family.

I’m finding it almost painfully beautiful. Watkins’s descriptions are masterful. I remember Battleborn, her short story collection, gave me a certain shortness of breath, and her novel is even more exquisite.

It also makes me really thirsty.

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is also out tomorrow. You might remember that I have a conflicted love/hate relationship with Atwood. At this point, it’s more love than hate, particularly after her last story collection, so I am duly excited about the new novel.

There is also the new Jim Butcher, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, which is a start of a new fantasy series. I have not had an urge to pick it up mostly because fantasy, and steampunk in particular, have somehow slipped far down on my ‘want to read’ scale, but the book exists in case I want something with airships and pirates. There are apparently talking cats (and I also have a love/hate relationship with those).

And finally, this misleadingly titled gem is out tomorrow:


‘Renascent barbarism’: J. G. Ballard, High-rise

highriseJ. G. Ballard normally gets shoved into the regular fiction section, and I occasionally go and rescue his stuff from there (or at least double-section it in speculative fiction as well). Dystopian post-apocalyptic novels are his thing. High-rise is not specifically post-apocalyptic, and it is dystopian in a very circumscribed way — the world is falling apart, but it’s a world consisting of just one building.

In a sense, the book seems like the product of its time (it was first published in 1975). The idea that people will go insane if a bunch of them live in a high-rise building without any need for outside world does not really seem all that threatening in the present day. There are plenty of people living in tall buildings without resorting to eating each other’s dogs. The subject of people confined together and left to their own devices is still around (see Under the Dome), but the ensuing madness usually has some kind of external reason, whereas in High-rise it just arises from within, due entirely to the psychological effect of living in this microcosm. As far as we can tell, the world outside the high-rise is chugging on just fine. Several residents do leave. A handful more would like to leave but seem psychologically unable to do so. And the majority seems perfectly happy to stick around and engage in elevator battles and poolside skirmishes.

High-rise is still a fascinating read. You know it’s not going to end well, but the morbid part of you want to stick around and watch. The tone of the novel is rather dispassionate, as if someone were simply reporting on the disintegration and decay, listing things that are destroyed and describing pieces of rubbish. The people either dully observe what is happening around them, or get seized by some primal desire to assert themselves on this battlefield either by violence or by senseless destruction of their environment. Their decline as humans is evident from the start when the first targets of their complaints and hostility turn out to be children and animals. Empathy is gone. People leaves partners on a whim and sleep around. By the end of the novel, most of them don’t seem human at all: there are no meaningful conversations or interactions. Most characters seem to lose their power of speech entirely.

You know it’s going downhill, and that’s precisely the problem. Near the end of the novel, one of the characters observes that ‘almost everything that could happen had already taken place.’ And that’s it. It took me a while to finish this book because the ‘demented inventory’ of destruction, wanton acts of violence, and just sheer inhumanity (or maybe humanity?) were all that I was going to get out of this book. Ballard is a great writer, and his style does convey the degradation of the high-rise society, but after a while it gets tiresome, and you want something more, something more to the story. There are too many people, often identified just by their floor number and last name, but none of them seem to matter, and so you find yourself empathizing with the dogs. By the time you get to the end, you’re pretty much entirely desensitized to anything that might happen to humans in the building, and the novel itself seems like a psychological experiment of a kind no longer approved by ethics boards.

Blurbs, the gritty edition! I consume Abercrombie, Sternbergh, and Hurley

half-a-kingJoe Abercrombie’s new book is marketed as YA, I hear. In Abercrombie’s world, it seems the only difference is that there isn’t as much swearing. The first 30 pages seemed ordinary enough that I was starting to worry a bit, but no, Abercrombie did not disappoint in the matter of plot twists and well, plotting. Half a King could be the perfect gateway drug to fantasy for some unsuspecting teenager. It reminded me of my first foray into fantasy with Tad Williams’s Dragonbone Chair (I’m not counting Tolkien, oddly enough, as I got into him much later), though it is definitely grittier. You will have to wait a few months for this one, as it is not out till July.

shovelreadyShovel Ready wins the award for the Largest Number of One-Word Sentences in a Novel. It might also be the only book written about a garbageman, albeit a former one. Great narrator, fun read, but I can’t say it really stayed with me. I think it’s really my current overload with dystopian settings, though I did enjoy snappy narration (and I am normally not a fan of one-word sentences and one-sentence paragraphs) and noirish elements. It would probably be quite excellent as an audio book.

I came home one night after an absolutely exhausting work week. I got some bourbon (Bulleit, if you are wondering), and looked through my books. I picked up a couple of books: one turned out to be too depressing, another one turned out to be a lackluster version of something I had read years ago. Then I realized I’ve had God’s War sitting on my shelf ever since it came out, and I never got around to reading it.

godswarIn short: guys, it is not perfect, but it is complex and smart. It has kick-ass women. Oh, and everything runs on bugs. This includes all tech. Which makes certain kind of sense: there are a lot of insects, why not use them to produce fuel, or to heal (we are starting a bit smaller, see here about bacteria that can repair its own radiation damage). The book is also an interesting mix of both sci-fi (tech) and fantasy (people who have affinity for manipulating bugs are called magicians). Besides the world-building, what makes God’s War an example of great speculative fiction is its hard look at gender, religion, and the necessity (or lack thereof) of war.

Review: All The Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl

Published: April 2011

Where I got it: The Library

This review was originally written for Worlds Without End’s Grand Master Reading Challenge (GMRC).

I think it’s a little strange to start reading Frederik Pohl with his latest book, All the Lives He Led.  After all, the man has been writing award-winning sci-fi since way before I was born. And after reading this book, I realize this is also not perhaps the best introduction to Pohl’s work, because unless you know about Frederik Pohl’s track record and are determined to read more of him, this book alone would not inspire you to do so.

The main character is Brad Sheridan — born into a well-to-do family, his fortunes change with the eruption of a super-volcano in Yellowstone that covers half of United States with ash. Brad’s family loses their fortune and moves to a refugee camp on Staten Island. Brad grows up committing petty crimes and getting mixed up in shady deals. He then signs up as an Indentured person and moves first to Egypt, then to Pompeii, to work at what is now a tourist theme park, complete with Roman currency, people selling Roman wine and food, and the city rebuilt via virtual reality.

At its core, the story is a thriller set in a dystopia– terrorism is common world-wide, with attacks happening virtually every day; people start dying of a mysterious disease nicknamed Pompeii Flu; Brad’s girlfriend, a mysterious and beautiful woman named Gerda, disappears without a trace; his coworker is found dead. And yet despite all these things happening, the story just seemed rather boring. Perhaps it is because Pohl’s writing seems ill-suited to the thriller genre and does not convey a sense of suspense and mystery. Perhaps it is the characters. Brad is extremely difficult to sympathize with. He is not likeable or smart — he is a pretty crude (for lack of a better word) guy, especially in the way he talks about women. He is also, despite having grown up in a rough environment, somewhat lacking in street smarts — he talks about things he probably shouldn’t talk about, fails to observe the fairly obvious.  His pining for Gerda does not elicit any sympathy either and actually starts grating on reader’s nerves after a while. The problem also is that Brad is one of those main characters who has things happening to him rather than making things happen. This, unfortunately, makes for a very shallow story — there is a multitude of events and characters, but the only way we know what is happening is to read about Brad’s reactions to all these events.

This is obviously a work of a writer with many novels under his belt, because even despite the unsympathetic character and at times slow action, you keep reading, because the narrative is just so smooth. It is a good read, but it does not read like Pohl’s best work.

This one gets 2 denarii out of 5 from me. Never fear, I will read Pohl’s other stuff (a copy of Gateway is on my nightstand).