history

Readings: Vowell, Liu

Personal kerfuffle in my life still has not settled, and so there was little time for reading and writing, and even things like Twitter and other social interaction have fallen by the wayside. I need this month to be over, out like a lamb or however it would like to go.

I have re-read Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Rather, I re-listened to it, because her audiobooks are narrated by herself and a crew of various star guests (like Nick Offerman as George Washington), which makes them more like audio play productions. It is excellent.

three bodyOther reads were on the speculative fiction side, the first one being Third Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It got a lot of buzz and love last year, but it happened during the time when I briefly fell out of love with hard sci-fi. Third Body Problem reads like science fiction from the Golden Age, eager to cram all of the science and ideas inside. It reads stilted, emotions plainly explained, all character motivations delineated, everything over-described. And therein lies my beef with Third Body Problem. It’s not that I need a pure ‘show don’t tell’ approach, but I need my science fiction to be more of a novel and less of a guidebook. I don’t think it’s translation. Perhaps this is just Cixin Liu’s style. Sadly, I will never know, Chinese being one of languages I am not going to master in this lifetime.

And yet it is not a terrible book. In fact, it is rather smart in its ideas and connections. I wanted to keep reading despite being annoyed by the style, and I do not regret finishing it (that’s the kind of blurb you want for your novel, ‘did not regret finishing’). I might even read the second one (The Dark Forest), if only to see how different it is with a different translator.

And now I am off to finish Rob Spillman’s memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, a book that feels familiar even though his life is quite different from mine. Next after that, Joe Hill’s Fireman, out in May. Quite excited about this one.

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What to read while you wait for the next Game of Thrones book

If you are waiting for the next Song of Ice and Fire installment, I could recommend a whole slew of fantasy that is just as great and just as thick (and so will occupy you for some time). In fact, I normally do that when people come in looking for something in a similar epic vein. But here’s what you should really be reading:

plantagenets

I’m serious. This is a great example of incredibly absorbing history. Chapters end with cliffhangers. Backstabbing and power plays abound. Nobody is taking regular baths. It’s one of rare non-fiction books that I read in just a couple of sittings. I also just finished Jones’s next book, Wars Of The Roses (out October 14th). It’s a little bit less easy to digest than The Plantagenets, but not due to any fault of the author. It’s simply a messier time period (and you thought that weren’t possible). There are so many nobles fighting each other (plus there is usually more than one person who considers himself king), that it’s like a game of chess with many players, and all the players are cheating.

I seem to be on a non-fiction kick at the moment, so non-fiction is what you get. Don’t worry, my genre TBR pile is growing and will eventually drop something into my lap.

‘Body of a myth’: Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank

PreparingtheGhostMech.inddI don’t generally review non-fiction, but Preparing the Ghost was so odd, so delightfully peculiar, so genre-bending, that I have to talk about it. At its most basic, it’s a story of Harvey Moses, who, in 1874, obtained a dead giant squid from some fishermen and paid them to deliver it to his house. He then draped the squid over his bathtub and got a local photographer to take the first known photo of what until then had been largely considered to be a mythical creature.

This by itself is a kind of story so Lovecraftian and unsettling that it’s enough to give you strange tentacle-filled dreams. But Frank makes it even stranger. His book is a collection of odd facts and, at first, seemingly unrelated connections between events, objects, and people. You learn quite a bit about the giant squid and people who search for it, but you also learn about how calamari came to be an item on American menus, how ice cream gained popularity, and where latex comes from (no, not from a squid). There is an entire part on how much St. John’s changed since Harvey’s time. The book made me look up trips to St. John’s simply so I could take it there and read it while munching on fish and brewis (just one of the words you learn from the book) and gazing at the sea.

Preparing the Ghost is itself like an antique photograph — vaguely disturbing and fascinating, with a complex story behind a single image. I could say that this book is simply a collection of bizarre historical facts, but it is much more than that. It is part history and memoir, but it is also a philosophical study. There is a section on pain and empathy. There are reflections on migration, home, and belonging. There is also a sense of impermanence throughout the little volume. Grandparents die, towns change, squid specimens disintegrate, myths get destroyed.

Preparing the Ghost is, most of all, a study of myth-making and myth-destroying. It is an autopsy report of sorts for the giant squid and its place in our imagination. The fact that the squid was dead and that there was now a photo of it did not make the giant squid any less mythical. Frank’s own obsession with the animal and people who hunted it becomes most apparent towards the end, when the book turns on itself, becomes meta-fictional, with the author questioning his own descriptions of what transpired when Harvey obtained the squid. Frank writes his own myths and, in turn, inspires a whole new wave of obsession (myself included).

I leave you with notes I took while reading this book, because I no longer have sentences that can convey what this book is:

– spaghettical

– campanulate

– ‘while real, can best be captured in theory’

– ‘Newfoundland saw its first road in 1825’

– squid-skinning machine

– tenacious ejaculatory apparati

– auks

– Giant-Squid Erotica

– scapulimancy

– suicidal Newfoundlands

I also leave you with this page from my notes:

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