What I’ve Been Reading, January 2016

Here I go again, with a Victorian novel, a sci-fi novella, and a dramatic play.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – The last book I read for my Dickens class, and the last book that Dickens completed. The plot is hard to pin down. The “mutual friend” described in the title is definitely a big part of it, but he’s not the only part, or even the biggest part. There’s the typical Dickens ensemble of characters that ranges from villains to saints and paupers to aristocrats, but they’re not all connected by a common plot. They are connected through themes, the big ones being death and wealth. The mutual friend is the heir to a fortune, and he fakes his own death to live a humbler life—which really ties the two big themes directly together. More than that, it’s difficult to say. I imagine each reader gets a different impression of what the most noteworthy aspect of this book is, and there’s a lot to choose from.

If you like Dickens though, you’ll love this book. The writing is complex and entertaining, and the characters and their relationships are a constant source of fascination. It’s a recombination of many of Dickens’ tried and true motifs, characters, and plots, but a perfection of them that kept me engaged enough to read through the last two hundred pages in a day.

“The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” by Aliette de Bodard – This novella, which I read in the October/November issue of Asimov’s, is set in Bodard’s Xuya universe—a world where China discovered the Americas first, and Southeast Asian cultures goes on to be much more influential. In this novella, it is the space age, and the Dai Viet Empire is facing threats from the Nam Federation. To counter these threats they desperately need to find the Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a space station to which the rebellious princess and heiress fled thirty years ago, and which disappeared without a trace.

The novella is similar to Our Mutual Friend in the way all the characters are tied together by themes, if not plot. That’s not entirely true, because the characters converge much more tightly in “Citadel” than they do in Our Mutual Friend, but that convergence isn’t really crucial or meaningful, it’s just useful for keeping things focused in a short novel. The recurring struggle of these characters is retrieving something that’s lost. The empress wants to reunite with her daughter, who she last saw when she was trying to attack the citadel. An engineer attempts to build a portal into the citadel so she can see her mother again, who was onboard the citadel when it disappeared. The younger princess feels disconnected from her daughter, who was turned into a mindship to be used by the empire.

Though the story opens strong with a fantastically large and interesting world, the characters, and their relationships and struggles, are what ended up engaging me the most. For them, “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” is worth reading. Currently it’s only available in the issue of Asimov’s in which it was published, but I’m guessing it will be published by itself some time down the line.

Oleanna by David Mamet – Oleanna is a short, two-person play by David Mamet. The characters are a college professor and a student of his. The first act is dominated by the professor spouting long philosophical lines about the failures of higher education, under the pretense of helping his student understand the class. The second act flips things around, as the audience discovers that the student has used sexual harassment claims to threaten the tenure of her teacher.

The play is fascinating. It changed my mind many times throughout reading it, but not because of ambiguity or a withholding of information—just because the characters and the questions raised are so challenging, and so well-explored. It even has a sound, decisive conclusion without crowning a victor, without establishing a right and a wrong. It’s a play that I’m definitely going to re-read, and watch the first chance I get. The only problem is that both the characters seem to be empty, sterile Mamet puppets, mere vehicles for the clashing ideas without much other content (the professor has a house, a wife, and kids, but that’s about all we get. I’m not even sure what the class was really about, or what degree the student wanted to get.) There were times when the lack of personality made me feel distant, and less engaged. I don’t know that the play would be improved with the inclusion of more character development though. Part of why it’s effective is how bare-bones it is. Plus, I didn’t see two flesh and blood actors performing it, so maybe it’s a problem exclusive to the written form of the play.

Regardless of that minor quibble, I highly recommend reading or watching Oleanna.

EDIT: Ennh, or not. At the time I read this I didn’t see it as an attack on political correctness and a denunciation of assault allegations, as one work in a long line of bullshit campus plays and novels. I mainly read it as an exploration of student-teacher power dynamics existing in a vacuum, and I dunno, if you can read it like that maybe you can enjoy it. But I think it pretty clearly was not written in a vacuum, and it’s just another fuckin campus play. As I said in the above review, I actually empathized with the student, which the text is like, not trying to get the audience to do? I’ve never reread or watched Oleanna, and I don’t intend to.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. I also read Foundation’s Edge and Don Quixote. I thought Foundation’s Edge was alright, but I didn’t talk about it here because I wouldn’t recommend it. The only reason that I’m mentioning it at all is that I mentioned it last post, and I want to clarify that I’m not going to write about it in one of these. You know, in case you’ve just been on god damn tenterhooks since my last What I’ve Been Reading post. Don Quixote I’ll probably write about in a separate review, because there’s a lot to write about.

I have no idea what I’ll review next. Probably it’ll be words.

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