What I’ve Been Reading, October 2018

It’s October, and for the past couple years I’ve taken this month as an opportunity to read some spookier pieces than I normally would. So while this post is only mildly spooky (featuring a flying bear, murder, and an enormous black cat), later this month I’m hoping to put out a 100% haunted “What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018” post, probably talking about The Grip of It and Universal Harvester and House of Leaves (if the library patron who has it now ever returns it), so look forward to that. In the mean time, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer — Wow this book is great.

Borne takes place in an unnamed city, which, along with the rest of the world, has been radically changed by civilization-ending climate change. The only power-structure in place is that of Mord, a colossal flying bear which protects the building of an old bioengineering company (always referred to as “the company”), and the Magician, an old employee of the company who is steadily taking control of various parts of the city. In the shadow of Borne, scavenging humans and escaped bioengineering experiments carve out an existence. One such scavenger is Rachel, the narrator of the book, who scavenges for her partner Wick, another ex-employee of the company. On one perilous scavenging excursion, Rachel finds an odd piece of biotech which looks a bit like a sea anemone, and she takes it back to her home and names it Borne.

Borne soon grows, and eventually begins to talk, revealing his powers of shapeshifting and his unnerving lack of waste—he only ever absorbs things, never excretes any waste. It’s hard to pin down the plot of the book to a specific archetype, because it plays off lots of them. It’s a coming of age story, and a kind of parenting story, and a kind of E.T.-esque story. So it’s peak VanderMeer, in it’s ineffability.

Plot, characters, and setting are all fantastic. It’s absorbing watching Borne grow up, and then more and more riveting as tension builds in the city. Rachel and Wick both have a lot of depth, and Borne is just totally endearing and adorable. I want one! (not really but a little bit.) As for the setting, it’s about ten times as fascinating and lived-in as I was able to articulate in my summary of the book. And I love the fact that our viewpoint character really isn’t anyone special. She’s not trying to defeat Mord or undo the effects of climate change, she’s just trying to survive. Even as the big conflict of the book builds, survival is still the main motivating factor, which made for a very relatable book. Me personally, when the apocalypse comes, I’m sure I’ll die—but if I don’t, I’m equally sure I’ll be eating lizards and bugs, hiding out somewhere far away from the action, only hearing the rockets fly from a distance.

In addition to all that, the book is able to delve into themes of climate change in a way that is very subtle, yet ever-present. Essentially, it’s all hiding in plain sight. VanderMeer never stops to explain the chain of events that led to this state of affairs, but it doesn’t need explaining. And there are so many little moments, details, lines that could just be the observations of Rachel, or could tell us a lot about the way humanity will have to deal with what it’s wrought—like when Rachel comments that she feels like she and Wick are in a continuous state of losing things, and so must’ve not realized what a great wealth they had before they started to lose it. There’s also a continuous development of the idea of destruction vs. transformation, trying to return to the old vs. becoming something new (a common theme, too, in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.)

And then there’s Mord. It might sound kind of silly, this blimp-sized (or larger than a blimp?) bear that flies over the city, just that image feels ridiculous, but it’s treated totally straight-faced in the book. The novel definitely has a sense of humor, and Borne is a very playful, goofy character, but there’s nothing funny about Mord. And because of that, it is the very absurdity of the image of a giant flying bear, the silliness of it, which makes it so fucking terrifying—and a perfect representation of the incomprehensible, absurd beast of climate change, which hovers over all of us.

I could probably write a whole essay on it, there’s so much to unpack, but it’s also a completely accessible book. Read it and also stop eating meat jackasses.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov — The Master and Margarita is an urban fantasy bible fiction devil-comes-to-town romp of a novel, written in Stalinist Russia and published in 1967, a few decades after the author’s death. Supposedly it tells the story of a failed novelist (the Master) and his lover (Margarita), as the two work their way back together—though the main focus of the story, the group of characters who really hog the spotlight, is the devil and his entourage, composed of Koroviev the “ex-choirmaster,” Azazello the probably actually Azazel, Hella the succubus vampire redhead, and, my favorite, Behemoth the enormous gun-toting black cat. This crew shows up in Moscow and get up to all sorts of trouble, including putting on a spectacular magic show, taking over an apartment, and generally playing havoc with the Moscow literary scene. Also, interspersed throughout all this are sections of the Master’s failed novel, which is a retelling of the trial and execution of Christ, focusing on the internal torment of Pontius Pilate.

The words that come up when I think of this book are “wild” and “fun” and “hilarious.” For the most part, there’s not much of an enthralling story, and none of the characters are terribly deep. They’re all very interesting and memorable, in the way cartoon characters are memorable, in the way Dickensian characters are memorable, and it’s fun to watch the clash of the devil’s entourage, who are all generally evil, and the citizens of Moscow, who are (almost) all evil and incompetent buffoons. It’s also neat to see our two good characters, the Master and Margarita, navigate this world of depravity. Really though, the story mainly unfolds in episodes of mayhem, with little connection between them.

Except when it comes to the sections of the Master’s novel, which I found genuinely enthralling, with wonderfully drawn characters with rich internal struggles.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this is a very expansive book, which meanders in finding its beginning, and severely stutters in finding its ending. At times it feels aimless, with scarcely any hint at what characters are trying to accomplish or what’s at stake. But at the same time, what would I cut? I enjoyed it all, didn’t I? I burst out laughing several times throughout the whole thing, didn’t I? Yes.

I’m sure someone with a greater background in Soviet literature or Soviet art would have more to say about the themes of this book, though I didn’t get any strong impressions, other than a general savage critique of elitism and uh … humans in general? But that’s par for the course with any satirical novel, so that didn’t strike me as too special. Good reading, but nothing out of the ordinary. What I will say is, I was intrigued by the way the novel managed to rebuke the state atheism of the Soviet Union without ever once getting on any soapbox. This balancing act, and the exploration of the necessity of evil and chaos in the world, was really engaging, and it may be worth a re-read to look at that in particular. Like, I mean, look:

“But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid.”

That’s a quote that’ll stick with me for a while, as I’m sure will the characters of Behemoth and Yeshua Ha-Nozri and Berlioz. Also, I cannot recommend highly enough the audiobook of it narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt. Rhind-Tutt’s character voices are phenomenal, wonderfully campy and snarly and whiny for the devil’s entourage, genuinely menacing and purring for the Devil (that is, when he isn’t pretending to be a foreigner), and more restrained though still very emotive for the Pilate sections.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud — Understanding Comics is an admirably ambitious breakdown of the history and art of comicmaking, the unique advantages and pitfalls of the medium, and a definition of what exactly comics is—all done in comic form. McCloud’s cartoony art style serves the lively, playful tone of the book well, and boils down complex ideas to very concise, clear visual examples.

Overall, the book abounds in frameworks—it is called Understanding Comics after all, not Making Comics (that’s actually literally another book by McCloud), so it really is designed to help anyone interested in comics—readers, writers, artists—get a better handle on the medium. I’ve found that when approaching any art form, as either a creator or a consumer, one of the most important steps toward improvement is learning how to talk about it, and this book has certainly provided me with a multitude of ways to talk about comics—and other forms of art too, since a lot of the concepts discussed can be applied to other narrative media or other visual media. Like earlier today I was thinking, I want this project to have a surface of space opera but the idiom of the Bible. And it doesn’t matter that you may have no idea what that means, because I know what it means, and being able to articulate it even just to myself is helpful, because it gives me a clearer idea of my vision and my means of getting there.

Now, the flipside of this, the flipside of any framework, is that they often tend to oversimplify, and I did find a few of McCloud’s ideas overly twee or cute or pettish. (His description of major trends in western literature I found particularly WTFy.) Useful in a pinch, sure—though still they inevitably exclude certain works or patterns, burying the things that don’t fit into clearly delineated boxes, or forcing things into boxes that they really have no business being in. Sometimes McCloud acknowledges the limitations of his theories—and I will say that he definitely makes sure to make reference to non-Western comics as examples or counterpoints whenever possible, so he certainly doesn’t fall down on that count—but sometimes he doesn’t.

All in all, this is the kind of book I can see myself going back to again and again, the kind of book I may want my own copy of instead of the one I read from library, so I can underline passages and scribble in the margins. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in comics, and medium-highly recommended reading for anyone else interested in any form of art.

In Defense of Murder by Tom Dennard — Full disclosure, Tom Dennard is a family friend, who sent me a copy of this, his latest book, free of charge, so you can come to your own conclusions about whether or not I’m biased.

In Defense of Murder is a somewhat fictionalized account of a real murder trial for which Dennard served as the defendant’s court-appointed lawyer. The action of the book unfolds, more or less, in three sections. The first is a recounting of the life of first-person narrator/author stand-in Tyler Tucker, mainly focusing on his college years and a trip through Europe. Although this first section sets up some important themes that will come back later in the book, it wasn’t until the second section that the book really pulled me in. The second phase of the book, really the heart of it, is a third-person multi-generational narrative of the Jennings family, leading right up to the story of Tommy Jennings and Calvin Livingston, who will be the focus of the trial (and until the last second, it’s unclear which one will be the victim and which one will be the suspected murderer.)

In this section of the book Dennard’s storytelling chops really shine, as he draws out the lives of these rural poor southerners living in Georgia and Florida, some improving their lot and others sinking miserably, with the world steadily changing around them, bringing us up to the present-day of the story, 1973. Dennard does a great job fleshing out the taboos and prejudices of the Deep South in that time, in a way that feels very honest—not trying to make excuses for the hateful views of any characters, and not shying away from the common attitudes of the day.

The final section of the book returns us to the perspective of Tyler Tucker, as he prepares for and then undergoes the trial. The trial scenes provide a fantastically engrossing close to the book, laid out in thorough, deliberate detail, from the jury selection to the closing arguments. The steady, careful representation of this sequence lends it a lot of weight and realism, building tension up to the final verdict.

The ending threw me a bit, complicating some of the major themes of the book, though Dennard does provide some nice reflective scenes at the very end, allowing the reader a brief moment to process things after the nearly non-stop tension of the trial. It’s not as much reflection as I would’ve liked, but I’d still say the book sticks the landing overall.

I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in true crime or stories of southern family drama. Imagine In Cold Blood but written by someone much closer to the actual case, without the bullshit claim that the novel is “non-fiction”, and set in the South. If that sounds interesting to you, you should absolutely give this book a read.

Catch you on the spooky side!

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