Something a little different this time: I’ve published a Twine story! Twine is a program that lets you write choose-your-own-adventure-type texts, but using hyperlinks instead of page turns.
“Can I Talk to You?” is a short, interactive story about having a conversation with a friend who really needs someone to talk to right now. Your friend has asked you to come over to her place to “talk,” and you are terrified. You don’t know how to talk about serious topics, you’re just a shut-in who spends all your time writing fantasy novels, what could you possibly offer? Then your friend informs you she found a magic sword.
Includes four possible endings, multiple beverage choices, and lots of dialogue! You can download or play it in-browser on itch.io for free, or you can name your price if you want to kick some money my way.
The Gold Coast is the second book in the Three Californias Triptych, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The triptych portrays three visions of a future Orange County: the first, The Wild Shore, post-apocalyptic; the second, The Gold Coast, dystopian; and the third, Pacific Edge, utopian. I’m simplifying, but that’s the basic idea. For the most part, characters don’t carry over from one book to the next—you could pick this book up by itself no problem. I’ll talk more about the effect of reading it together with the others later, but suffice it to say it makes an excellent stand-alone novel.
The two major plotlines of the book follow Jim McPherson and his father Dennis McPherson. Dennis is an engineer working for Laguna Space Research, a defense contractor. It’s 2027 but the Cold War never ended. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set their clock “one second to midnight man, set there for twenty years.” Jim is a part-time English teacher at a junior college, making ends meet by doing some clerical work at a real estate office too. He’s enchanted by the history of Orange County, the orange groves long ago torn out to make room for condos and freeways, which have so devoured the landscape recently that he and his friends refer to the county as “autopia,” and it’s residential areas as “condomundo.” He’s dissatisfied with the state of the world and the state of his own life, but doesn’t know what to do about either. So the two major plot-lines are 1. Dennis McPherson’s efforts to land a contract for a new missile defense system, and the hell of bureaucracy and inter-departmental rivalries which get in his way; and 2. Jim McPherson’s growing involvement in efforts to sabotage defense contractors in Orange County. These two plotlines will of course have to converge at some point.
That said, this isn’t a book driven by plotlines, and the two I just described aren’t exactly the focus. Where other novels direct their energy forward in chains of causal events, Gold Coast directs its energy outwards. More than anything characters drive the novel, representing a broad section of the young people of Orange County. Steadily, steadily, the world reveals itself through their different viewpoints, through the maneuvers of their daily lives. Jim is a prototypical lost young man, but the pitfalls of this trope (e.g. telling a story ostensibly about social issues by centering a middle class straight cis white man, most protected from the consequences of those issues) are avoided by the fact that the book takes on so many different viewpoints. Each chapter follows a specific character, and Jim’s chapters are just one tributary of the novel’s expansive river basin. The book almost feels like a sitcom at times, especially since so many of the viewpoint characters are part of the same friend group. So Jim’s aimlessness isn’t valorized or held up as some universal experience, it’s just one life cast among the lives of drug dealers, ambulance drivers, surfers, revolutionaries, art teachers. The one glaring failure is the lack of women. Sure, they’re around, but only one of them is given her own chapters. Oddly enough, it’s Jim’s mother. So while Robinson is admirable for including chapters following her life, which is indeed an expansive and realized life entirely separate from her son or her husband, he’s worth criticizing for otherwise showing Orange County entirely through male inhabitants.
Michael DeForge’s characteristically busy panels full of simple, abstracted forms fit the world of Familiar Face, his latest comic, perfectly. This is a world in unending flux. Every day there are updates, patches, optimizations, altering everything from the subway map of the city to people’s physical bodies. The changes are sometimes drastic and always immediate—no gradualism. One day the narrator character wakes up and finds her body has shrunk, another day the layout of her apartment building has totally shifted, and she’s surrounded by new, unknown neighbors. All these changes are for the benefit of the inhabitants of this world, supposedly, though from the outside they seem totally arbitrary.
As I said, DeForge’s art style is a perfect match. It doesn’t let your eyes sit still, and rarely explains itself. The narrator has a … cat? dog? A very angular spindly little creature which shows up in some panels depicting her apartment, never mentioned in the narrating text which runs over most of the graphic novel. That narrative text keeps the reader on track, helping them identify certain things (e.g. this text description of subway tracks is paired with a drawing of these veiny tubules, so those must be subway tracks), but on other matters the reader is left to strain at comprehension on their own. Is this squiggly blue bit here a car? A person? A dog? You’re as bewildered as the narrator, as anyone in this world, and often the panels are crammed full of this visual information, all in vibrant colors. Now, lots of what I’ve said here could be applied to other works by DeForge, but Familiar Face goes a step further by frequently changing the design of the main character. The one concession to the reader is that characters retain their color scheme, but that’s it—the changes go unremarked by the narrator, forcing the reader to keep pace. I remember at one point reading along and stopping short when I realized that the little four-legged creature I’d been following for a couple pages was, in fact, the narrator!Read More »
If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. The organizing principle of Dead Astronauts is not chronology, nor non-linear chronology (a book told out of order still postures itself against a fixed, correct order which the reader can construct in their mind.) The organizing principle is ecology, iteration, echoes. I had a dream recently where someone told me they “experience things cumulatively,” which I find to be an oddly apt description of this novel. You experience this book cumulatively. The book takes place in the world of Borne, but it may as well not, because aside from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape and the similarly surreal lifeforms that populate it, the way the world behaves is just totally different, starting with the timeline-hopping Dead Astronauts.
The second chapter of the book, and also the longest, follows these titular characters, “the three.” If not for this section, the book wouldn’t have anything close to a main plot, just lots of small stories filling in the histories of different places, the backstories of different characters. So, what is the narrative? “The three,” Grayson, Chen, and Moss, are on a seemingly futile mission to reclaim the City from the Company, a mission they’ve repeatedly undertaken across multiple alternate timelines, facing different variations of the same archetypal characters each time, often (always?) ending in failure.
But … why? This chapter was probably my least favorite—the parts of it that I liked most were the parts delving into the astronauts’ pasts, while the actual narrative through-line, this mission, just wasn’t all that compelling. What are they reclaiming the city for? What would they do once its reclaimed? The thing Grayson Chen and Moss seem to care about most is each other, not the City. Grayson and Moss may have personal reasons to want to exact vengeance on the Company, but … enh, that’s more my own speculation than anything the text explores. And unlike in the Area X trilogy, the hollowness of the mission isn’t developed and spotlighted as a theme, it just feels like flat writing.
Once the title characters get out of the way, other chapters shine a lot brighter, like that of Charlie X, a scientist at the Company with a fast deteriorating memory, or the chapter for the Dark Bird, a deadly, tortured creation of the Company. These chapters are much less narrative-focused, more non-linear and experimental (granted, even the Dead Astronauts section is far more experimental than something like, say, Borne—it’s a testament to how wild this book is that that chapter seems conventional in contrast to everything else.) Probably my favorite chapter was “Can’t Forget,” a vigorous, hateful 60 pages narrated by the Blue Fox, describing an ancestral memory of humankind’s assault on foxes, through fur-trapping and climate change up to the Company’s experiments on and exploitation of the Blue Fox as a biological reconnaissance tool. I could write a post about that chapter in itself—the use of huge walls of repeated text, the effect of actually reading through it, the defiant and truly inhuman voice VanderMeer achieves. There are a few single sentences in the chapter that floored me, simple phrases that land with explosive impact because of how the text builds up to them.
Truly, VanderMeer’s prose is great throughout the whole book, it’s as inventive as the novel’s overall structure. He gives lots of focus to the materiality of words, their sound, their weight when repeated over and over, with less emphasis on strict semantic meaning. Characters stutter out series of rhyming words, text appears in blocks with big vacuums of white space in between. Just as this world is full of characters whose striking, mythological stature transcends a more realist, psychological approach, the language often strives for force, vitality, in order to transcend the mere conveyance of information.
If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. And because of its non-linear nature, because the narrative is more a decentralized history than a single plot, it beckons to be reread, reread in pieces, in sections, out of order or over and over again. If you like VanderMeer’s more experimental stuff, definitely check this out. There is little out there like it.
So Much for that Winter is a collection of two novellas by Dorthe Nors, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days.” Both are about break-ups to varying extents, and both take highly lineated forms. Every sentence in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” get its own line, with scarce use of pronouns or compound sentences, meaning most of the novella looks like this:
Minna introduces herself.
Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.
“Days”, on the other hand, often breaks sentences across multiple lines. It is made up of numbered lists, with each list composing one day, so it looks like this:
1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.
As I said, both novellas are about break-ups, but “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is a little more explicitly about a break-up. Minna is a composer who is in love with Lars, and a few pages into the novella Lars dumps her via text. Also, Minna needs rehearsal space, and she was supposed to get a space through a friend of Lars’s, but that’s a no-go now. So Minna tries to go about her life, tries to get over Lars, tries to keep composing, and eventually goes on a vacation to Bornholm which takes up the last third or so of the story.
“Minna” is a very humorous novella, reveling in awkward encounters and embarrassing moments. It honestly reads a bit like chick lit, just in an unusual form—a form which does, in fact, accentuate its dry, pithy humor at times, while also allowing some more poignant, meditative moments at others. Overall I quite enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel a very strong connection to the main character. Maybe it’s the form, making even the most sincere moments seem a bit flip in their delivery. Or maybe it’s the pacing, the constant release of tension from each line break, each period, preventing total immersion. Or maybe I just don’t care that much about break-ups? I also found it strange (and this is kind of a problem with “Days” as well) that the main character appears to have no job. Is she really making a living off of her “paper sonatas”? It’s a touch odd, in a book focused on everyday life, that monetary concerns/financial anxiety basically never come up. Maybe that’s just how people are in Denmark, IDK.Read More »
Death’s End is the conclusion to the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Spoilers for the first two books, which I reviewed here. Death’s End more or less picks up where The Dark Forest left off, with Trisolaris in an uneasy cold war with the Earth, and Luo Ji sitting with his finger on the button. I say “more or less” because the book actually does take some time to go back to the “Crisis Era,” describing a failed espionage project, and introducing us to the book’s main character, Cheng Xin. This brief episode at the beginning, where we see a human brain sent out to the Trisolaran fleet, is the last bit of set-up Liu needs—after a book and a half of waiting for the fleet to arrive, we finally have a book where, start-to-finish, humanity is dealing with immediate existential threats, or suffering immediate damages. With the exception of these few chapters of anticipation at the beginning, the whole book is falling dominoes.
And the scope of the book is truly phenomenal, full of so many historical episodes across different eras of human existence. I say “historical” because that’s really the only way to describe it, even though it’s a history of the future. Cheng Xin is the main character, as she lives through many different epochs by undergoing “hibernation” for long periods of time, but human civilization is the protagonist. It is humanity that is at stake, humanity that must act, humanity broken and humanity triumphant. And so many of these episodes are captivating little stories in themselves—a war crimes trial of the survivors of the Doomsday Battle, the horror of mass-resettlement to Australia, and three intriguing and cryptically coded fairytales which form a strange, imagistic core to the book much in the way the game Three-Body did to the first novel. This serial nature is also similar to the first novel, but here, each episode has two previous books’ worth of material to build on, bringing all that unstoppable momentum crashing forward on and on. It makes for a solid read.
I also greatly enjoyed the book on a thematic level. It covers a lot of ground, and a lot of different sci-fi concepts, but above all it is a profoundly sorrowful book, a book about death—of people, of civilizations, of the universe. It is pre-apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and intra-apocalyptic all at once. It also manages to leverage some basic observations about the universe, along with some of Liu’s own postulations, to reach terrifying conclusions about the fate of all things, similar to the ominous overtones of the first book. The idea of the “Dark Forest” is already harrowing enough, but Death’s End promises even more terrifying ideas about the nature of space and cosmic intelligence, about the utter insignificance of our place in existence, and it delivers on those promises in spades.
If you enjoyed the first two books, definitely read this one. If you enjoyed the first one but not so much the second, I’d still highly recommend Death’s End. While it’s a lot longer, not nearly as compact as The Three-Body Problem, it still feels like a return to form, in the ways I’ve mentioned above. And if you haven’t read any of the trilogy, I highly recommend all of it. As a whole, it present a dark and captivating vision of galactic civilizations, and humanity’s future among the stars.
Some blog housekeeping: No more “What I’ve Been Reading” posts! Only individual reviews from now on! Basically, the “What I’ve Been Reading” posts made sense when I first started doing them because the reviews were quite short, and they were a quick way to throw in a bunch of reviews in the middle of some other series of blog posts. However, now I tend to write longer reviews, and if I feel like I can only write a paragraph about a book, I just don’t write anything. Also, for the foreseeable future book reviews and other kinds of reviews will be the only thing going up on this site, so I have no need to condense them and make way for other posts. Also, no more “Recommendation Dump” posts. Just gonna atomize everything.
I mean, probably. Maybe I’ll still bundle reviews together from time to time. Who knows. But that’s why this review is its own post, even though its not super long, and that’s how it’ll be from now on.
Acceptance is the final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the rest of which I reviewed a while ago, here and here. Spoiler warning for those books, I guess?
There are three major narrative threads in Acceptance, which the book alternates between by chapter—the lighthouse keeper, the Director, and Ghost Bird & Control. The Lighthouse Keeper’s story occurs before Area X has taken over the coast, though it soon becomes clear that Area X’s arrival is impending. The Director is the director from Annihilation, and her narrative takes place before the events of that book, showing the lead up to that expedition. Ghost Bird and Control (the book also alternates between them by chapter, though their stories form one continuous narrative) are entering Area X and trying to find the Biologist, their story picking up right where Authority ended.
All of these component parts are great. The Director chapters are reminiscent of Authority, getting into the oppressive, decadent world of the Southern Reach agency, a long slow burn with the “12th expedition” looming on the horizon. The Ghost Bird and Control chapters are more like Annihilation, though a bit faster, punchier—a return to Area X, with new revelations, new menacing phenomena, and a steady drive toward a mysterious objective. And the lighthouse keeper chapters feel completely new, with Saul Evans (the lighthouse keeper) being maybe the most normal character in the whole trilogy? I came to quite enjoy these chapters, settling into the small coastal town setting, getting to know Saul, and slowly seeing the gruesome shadow of apocalypse fall across everything.
However. The sum is less than the parts. Authority, the previous book in the series, was a very slow book, but I came to enjoy it, its immersive quality and careful consideration. The Director and Lighthouse Keeper chapters are, likewise, fairly slow, the characters don’t have big objectives, and they present worlds you really want to sit with. By contrast, the Ghost Bird and Control chapters are maybe the most action packed of the trilogy—if the books have been building up to anything it is these chapters, and you just want to keep reading, keep pushing deeper into Area X and closer to their goal. So the faster chapters break the immersive, slow-burn pacing of the slower chapters, and the slower chapters wreck the momentum of the faster ones.Read More »
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu — This book made waves a few years ago when it was first translated into English, and became the first Asian novel ever to win the Hugo for best novel. I’ve been meaning to read it for awhile, attracted to it because it is 1) a work in translation, 2) hard SF that takes after the golden age works of Clarke and Asimov, and 3) an exemplar of the thriving Chinese science fiction tradition. As well, I’ve recently become attracted to stories where humanity has to undertake massive, global projects to prevent existential threats—one such story being Liu Cixin’s “Sea of Dreams”, translated by John Chu. In that novelette, I was captivated by Liu’s titanic vision and cool, sharp prose. On all of these expectations, The Three-Body Problem delivered in spades.
The Three-Body Problem is a book about first contact, and the ever widening implications of that contact. It takes place in three major narrative strands: the Red Coast Base, a secretive military facility established in Inner Mongolia during the cultural revolution sporting an enormous antenna; the presentish, as various scientists are suffering strange fates or spiraling downward in existential depression; and, also occurring in the presentish, the VR landscape of a surreal game titled Three Body.Read More »
Ah summer break is here at last, the summer break that will never end because I’ve graduated now, Forever Summer—and I’ve been reading a ton of books!
Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley — Kid Gloves is the latest graphic novel memoir from Knisley, describing her experience of pregnancy, and everything leading up to it. What’s great is that, in addition to the conception-to-birth pregnancy narrative that we’re all fairly familiar with, Knisley also describes the process of trying to get pregnant, of having miscarriages, and, crucially, her internal state through all of this. Kid Gloves is a very vulnerable, honest book, which spends a great deal of time getting across how Lucy feels about the pregnancy at various stages. Just viewed externally, pregnancy is a pretty dramatic process, but (as Knisley discusses in the book) the experience of the person actually carrying the child is often sidelined in mainstream pregnancy narratives. Not so here.
In addition to her own narrative, Knisley adds in interstitial bits of pregnancy research, trying to debunk some of the misconceptions around pregnancy, and shed light on some lesser known truths. Sometimes this research feels very integral to the personal narrative (the section focusing on miscarriage myths, for instance, spends a lot of time trying to assuage the irrational guilt women who have miscarried often feel), while other sections of research feel kind of inconsequential. Like, pregnancy superstitions or the medicalization of labor might be interesting, but they seem disconnected from the rest of the book in places. Something New had sections like that too, but overall the tone of that book was a lot lighter, so it all felt of a piece.Read More »
How have I not talked about Evan Dahm before? Evan Dahm is one of those creators I just can’t get enough of. I’ve read all his graphic novels at least twice, and that includes this, his latest completed graphic novel, Island Book.
Island Book tells the story of Sola, a girl living on an island in a vast, unexplored ocean. Many inhabitants of the island believe she is cursed, because of her strange connection to a giant creature simply called “the monster” which lives in the ocean, and which devastated the island when it attacked years ago. So one night Sola steals a boat and sets off into the ocean, hoping to discover the mystery of the monster, and why it seems drawn to her, for herself. She soon learns that there are other islands out there, populated by different peoples, some of whom join her in her quest to find the monster.
By different “peoples,” I mean different fantasy races. If you’re familiar with Evan Dahm’s work, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I believe he refers to them as “kinds” rather than species or races. Basically there’s no humans or elves or dwarves (though Sola’s island’s islanders are fairly close to human.) The character/kind design is an outgrowth of the island they live on—or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, this means all the islands are incredibly uh guess what insular, on a design level. Motifs of shape and color are repeated in the look of the land, the island’s ships, and the islanders themselves. For instance, “Fortress Island” is inhabited by these big, hulking turtle people, with ships that look like ironclads. Likewise, the cultures of the islands harmonize with their iconography, and the whole color palette of the book changes from island to island.Read More »
Agggh! This book has sat on the floor of my bedroom since September of last year—basically for my entire senior year thus far—going unread! I made one cursory pass at it sometime during the fall semester, wasn’t really hooked by it, was kind of put off by the art style, and then abandoned it. Well, good thing I didn’t just return it to the library, because now I have read it, and it’s fantastic. (SIDENOTE: I am not a monster. Although my honors student status allows me to check out books for the entire school year without having to renew them, I normally don’t do so unless the book a. is incredibly obscure and clearly not in any demand or b. has multiple copies available. Radtke’s book [probably because she got her MFA here] has multiple copies at the UI library.)
Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic novel memoir mainly focusing on a period of Kristen’s life starting with her undergrad career and ending shortly after leaving graduate school and moving to Louisville, Kentucky—the “stuck in them 20-somethings” period of life, to borrow a phrase from SZA. As the book moves between major decisions and life events in these years—moves, break-ups, illnesses—Radtke returns again and again to the themes of loss, deterioration, decay, the desire for something more, something new—and the way all these things conflict within her. Is it possible to hold onto the old and gain new relationships, new experiences? Is it possible to hold onto anything at all, when everything is so transitory? What is the value of preserving a ruin versus letting it fall into rot? The strongest through-line of the book is ruins. The urban decay of Gary, Indiana, the devastation of the Peshtigo fire, the volcanic destruction of a town in Iceland, even the mold and water damage in Kristen’s sad college apartment. These images hold the book together, link one event with another, and keep the book feeling cohesive despite the lack of any straight-shot plotline throughout the whole story.
I think one of the things that initially put me off about the book was Kristen and her boyfriend Andrew acting like such creeps (“Really, you can’t say the word ‘yes’ without invoking James Joyce,” Andrew opines at one point), and being unsure whether or not I was supposed to relate to them and feel like their grody behavior was romantic. Because I know these students, anyone getting a liberal arts education knows these students, and they’re the kind of students who I don’t care to be around because I can’t connect with them through their wall of irony and aggressively performed insightfulness. That said, it pretty quickly becomes clear that no, Radtke is not trying to romanticize (for example) the way these two descend on Gary, Indiana in the most exploitative, ruin-pornographer manner. It also becomes clear that a lot of their pretension and surety about the world is covering deep insecurities and internal tensions, which allowed me to relate to them in a way I’m sure I could never, I’m sure they would never let me, if I met them when they were that age at UIowa.Read More »
Been a while since I did one of these, I guess because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. Anyway, here’s what all I’ve been reading the past few months (my god it’s been four months since I read Heavy where did the time go I’m about to graduate aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.) Also, I recently read Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, which I had a lot to say about, so that’ll be posted as its own review a few days from now.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon — As the subtitle describes it, Heavy is “an American memoir,” following Kiese Laymon from his childhood up to his early adulthood, returning again and again to themes of abuse, education, body image, racism, and America.
Incredibly, even with these heavy themes, whenever I started listening to this book, I just couldn’t stop. I even listened to it on my airplane ride from Cedar Rapids to Atlanta! Let me tell you, on airplanes I only ever listen to podcasts, or music. Stuff that does not require a lot of cerebral commitment. But when I ran out of saved podcasts, I started listening to Heavy, and the hours just flew by.
Part of the engrossing pull of this book may have to do with how novel-like it is. It’s composed primarily of scenes, scenes that are fully fleshed out with long stretches of vivid dialog, and intriguing, instantly identifiable characters. And the narrative voice shifts to fit the different phases of Kiese’s life. There’s no sense of retrospective distance between the narrator and the events he’s describing, and the result is that as a reader you can be fully immersed in these remembered moments as they play out. That said, Laymon still manages to address more abstract ideas—the book is not just a series of things that happened, it does also pull revelations out of those events, which steadily accumulate and build on one another throughout the book. As I said, it is novel-like, and the novel that it is like is a novel which expertly joins theme with narrative, emotions with ideas, character with critique.Read More »
You ever just have a run of really good books? Like, every book you pick up you just enjoy straight away, and love reading it all the way through? That’s what I’ve had these past few weeks. This is what I’ve been reading:
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin — This book follows George Orr, a thoroughly average, inoffensive man living in early 2000s Portland, Oregon (the future at the time Le Guin wrote it.) George Orr is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that, sometimes, his dreams change the world. When he wakes up from these “effective” dreams, he’s the only who remembers the old world—although he also has new memories from this new world—and otherwise, the new world marches on without missing a beat. When Orr is referred to the psychiatrist William Haber, he tries to get cured of this ability, but soon realizes that Haber is only taking advantage of his effective dreams to try and make a better world as he sees fit—and each attempt only creates a more dystopic reality.
The pacing in the book is terrific, with Haber growing more powerful in each new iteration of the world, and circumstances getting more dire for all of humanity. As well, it lets Le Guin really show off her world-building chops, with all these slightly different futures for Portland and for the whole Earth. The book is largely driven by dialogue, but what prose there is is that clean, cut-glass writing you’d expect from Le Guin. This allows her to establish these new altered worlds quickly, with just a few prominent images to pull the reader in.
What I loved most about this book is the themes it’s dealing with. The idea that the world’s woes can be solved by rational solutions, that these can be applied universally without nuance, is completely dismantled—or rather, Le Guin shows what happens when these rational ideals have to face up against the illogic of humanity, of Orr’s dreams. Nowhere did this theme his harder for me than when Haber tries to solve the war in the near east by telling Orr to dream of a world with no more war. The results are, of course, not perfect, and in fact far more frightening. Haber is the perfect image of the bloodless Rational™ Liberal thinker, who believes there is war in the Middle East because middle easterners are foolish religious zealots, and iF onLy tHey CoUld See tHE lIgHT of ReAsoN TheRe wOulD Be No wAR, and by golly I am the man to fix the Middle East’s problems. Le Guin’s stroke of brilliance is that when this rationality meets Orr’s unconscious mind, the result is not a bunch of humans who suddenly love each other, because in a sense humans were never really the problem—the result is unfathomable monsters.Read More »
Okay, so I intended for this post to go up in October, but it took me awhile to finish House of Leaves, and honestly, whatever—Spooktober can live on in our hearts year round. So yeah. Here’s a ton of spooky stuff that I’ve been reading.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle — Universal Harvester begins with Jeremy, a VHS rental store clerk in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, when customers begin returning tapes and complaining that something has been taped over part of them. When Jeremy inspects the tapes, he finds odd, lingering shots of a farmhouse spliced into the middle of the movies—and the inserted footage only becomes more and more disturbing.
But that’s just where the book begins. As it progresses, the narrative winds its way through various small Iowa towns, backward and forward in time, sometimes leaning more toward horror, sometimes more toward the mundane (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected.) Overall the book is very atmospheric, but it isn’t an atmosphere of constant dread. It’s a portrait of the midwest that is loving without being provincial, critical without falling back on the old clichés we all know about middle America and rural communities. That’s really what struck me about the book—its quiet, steady chronicling of the lives of characters dealing with loss, struggling to find home, caught between staying and leaving. It’s a book without climaxes, no do-or-die moments, just endless process, a book about living.
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.Read More »
Something New is a graphic novel memoir by graphic novel memoirist Lucy Knisley. Although I’ve read all of Knisley’s travelogues and her terrific culinary memoir Relish (check it out, it’s got recipes!), I put off reading Something New because I knew it was about Knisley’s wedding and weddings in general, and I didn’t think it would hold my interest. I just feel very detached from weddings. I don’t have the kind of money to throw a wedding. I don’t have any attachment to the religious or cultural aspects of it. I don’t have friends who have been married. I don’t foresee myself being married anytime soon (ever?) I’ve been to tons of weddings, but only as an observer, never as part of the groomsmen party (or the bridal party, for that matter.) So even stories of really crazy disaster weddings don’t really connect to me. Like, okay. You did a weird thing with more money than I can ever imagine myself having in accordance with ancient ceremonies, and you put doilies all over it, and then it rained. Like … cool, fun story.
But! I listened to a podcast with Knisley, where she talked about this book as well as her upcoming memoir Kid Gloves, which will detail her pregnancy and fraught-with-difficulties childbirth. I realized that Kid Gloves sounded like a book I would enjoy, as it would present an honest, warts-and-all portrait of pregnancy. And I thought, well, how can I read that book without first reading Something New? Maybe it too will be a different story of marriage than I’m used to seeing. So I checked it out from the ICPL, and dug in. And then I pulled on my socks and shoes and proceed to kick the crap out of myself for not having at least glanced at the first few pages of this book sooner.
The reason I include all this preamble is that, it turns out, many of my feelings toward weddings were exactly Lucy’s feelings, too, before she decided to get married (and even during the process.) And here’s the thing: the wedding itself isn’t all that different from most weddings. It’s not that different from the classical wedding story. However, it’s Lucy’s skepticism and willingness to present the cold, hard facts of marriage that make it such an engaging read. It’s a testament to Knisley’s storytelling that, as she describes her coming to understand why people love weddings, why they are so special, as she sheds some of her skepticism, so did I, to the point that when she finally arrives at the wedding itself, rather than seeing just a bunch of dresses and strings of light bulbs, I was genuinely touched by the emotional sincerity of the moment.
Knisley achieves this in a lot of ways, but mainly by taking her time. The first 70 pages of the book is a love story, detailing the serpentine path that her and her husband took over the course of several years to finally become engaged. Learning who the principal characters (as it were) of this story are in this way is what makes all the wedding planning (which is the majority of the book) engaging, it’s what gives it all depth. And she isn’t messing around with the other 230 pages either, which she uses to address themes that are universal in weddings and marriage, and show how they manifested in her own life. In this way, she’s both informative on weddings in general (with lots of interludes that include facts or statistics about weddings) and insightful in how these things affected her as an individual. One chapter that I found particularly interesting was the one in which she described her experience being bombarded with targeted ads, and how these ads changed her internet experience (and how her fiancé wasn’t targeted at all.)
As for Knisley’s art, she has a very clean, bright style that draws you forward effortlessly, and occasionally provides some great visual gags. She pairs the images and scenes she illustrates perfectly with her narration, underscoring or complimenting the mood, theme, or idea of her words with her drawings. Also, her depictions of food are mouthwatering (another reason to check out Relish.)
Towards the end of the book Knisley writes, “The strangest part I’ve found of being an adult is that I kept waiting for my life to feel the way other people’s lives felt, viewed by me, the outsider.” And although she goes on to explain that we each have to experience our own lives, our own adulthood, for ourselves, I think that with this book she has, in part, granted the reader the ability to look into her life, and the life of a bride-to-be, from the inside—failed DIY projects and all. This book was a terrific, substantial read, and I cannot wait for Kid Gloves.
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson — Man I went hard on this book. I essentially listened to the entirety of it over the course of a few days, which, even at 1.5x speed is quite a lot. The book is about a crew of “mistings”—sorcerers of a sort—plotting to overthrow The Final Empire, which is ruled by a god, the Lord Ruler. I’ve heard Sanderson describe it as a mix between a heist novel and epic fantasy, and it seems like those things don’t go together, but Sanderson really pulls it off.
Like any good heist story, the book has a broad cast of characters, each of whom specialize in one aspect of “allomancy”—a form of magic whose users derive their power from ingesting a specific metal or metal alloy. This power is mostly possessed by the nobility, and of course the Lord Ruler, as it is passed down hereditarily. While a system of eugenics has mostly kept the nobility from spreading this ability into the peasant class—the Skaa—some Skaa still end up being allomancers. Most allomancers can only use one metal, but there are some who are “mistborn,” who can use all the allomantic metals (there are ten, and a rumored eleventh, while burning all other metals, or even impure alloys, just makes allomancers sick.) This magic system lends itself well to the heist elements, and gives a very solid sense of progression to Vin, a mistborn and the main character of the book, as she masters the use of all these different metals. The magic also just has a wonderfully tactile feel to it, an almost steampunk-ish brassiness to the language of it—phrases like “Vin flared pewter” or “he rioted her fear” just leap off the page in a way that gives the magic a real sense of weight, even when it isn’t being used to cause some physical change. As the book goes along, and the reader comes to learn the different metals, the action scenes gain a beautiful fluidity, with Vin using a multitude of different metals—flaring tin to see better, then thrusting herself forward with steel and burning pewter to dampen the pain of the impact—and the reader understanding perfectly what all this means. “She burned tin” comes to mean as much as “she squinted,” though again, it has that wonderfully, gritty, imagistic heft to it.Read More »
A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post, but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.
The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.
The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.
That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:
“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.
Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »
Currently I’m catching up on all the issues of Asimov’s that I wasn’t reading while I was over in Spain, and other short stories. As far as books, I’m mostly reading them via audiobooks, but I am still reading them.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin — Boy am I late to this party. The Fifth Season is the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, which in itself holds two Hugo Awards for best novel and one Nebula Award for best novel, not to mention three nominations for each of those awards—and it may just clutch a third Hugo Award this August. So yeah, I am late as fuck to a hell of a party.
The accolades are earned. The Fifth Season takes place in a world (Earth?) periodically ravaged by tremendous apocalypses, called “Fifth Seasons” or simply “Seasons.” These global catastrophes usually originate from seismic activity, though grow out of control from there (e.g. an erupting volcano can cause years of winter, a fissure in the earth can release hallucinogenic gas causing a “season of madness” …) The only bulwarks against these Seasons are the orogenes, a subsection of humanity gifted with the ability to sense and quell tremors in the earth, among other things. This first book in the trilogy is split into three narrative strands, each focused on an orogene at a different point in their development, the oldest of which is actually living through a Season, trying to find her daughter.
I won’t talk much more about the story/stories of Fifth Season, because I think it’s the book’s weak point—in as much as healthiness is the weak point of a cake. Fifth Season isn’t really trying to tell a ripping yarn, at least not throughout all of the book. Later on, plot developments start to thicken, but the first half of the book is largely focused on exploration of the world, and of the interior of these characters. In this, Fifth Season excels.Read More »
I wrote this post before Ursula K. Le Guin passed, though it seems fitting now to open it with these words of hers, in response to the question, “What do you want to happen to your books after you die?”: “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.” Well, I’ve read a second-hand cheap paper edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, gotten angry with it, kind of loved it in a few moments, argued about it (in my head, with myself and with two different versions of Le Guin), and now, behold, an unreadable dissertation blog post. Hopefully, this is exactly as Le Guin would wish. Rest in peace.
The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books I’ve always felt silly for not having read—and likewise, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I’ve always etc. Not just because Left Hand is considered a classic, and Le Guin one of the greatest, most influential sci-fi/fantasy writers, but because it’s the kind of sci-fi and fantasy that really interests me. Sci-fi with a focus on society, on the world, on characters. Not to mention, the gender thing—I’ve always heard that Le Guin is a great feminist writer, someone who subverts and challenges our ideas about gender, and especially about women. And Left Hand is, of course, the gender book—or the book without gender. A world where the dominant sentient life-form has no biological sex—fantastic. I’m always interested in that kind of premise, I always like to see deconstructions and reconstructions of gender. Yet, I somehow never got around to reading it, I always had some other book or author I was more interested in. I finally decided to read the book when I got it in a white elephant gift exchange, and, for months, had the physical copy sitting about in my bedroom somewhere, staring at me.
So I read it. One less thing to feel silly about Francis, good job. After reading it, and kind of wondering what everyone else saw in it re: the discussion of gender, I read Le Guin’s essay on the book, “Is Gender Necessary?” Actually I read the “Redux” version, which was written over a decade later, with annotations from Le Guin clarifying and arguing with her past self. In some ways, the redux essay is a revisiting of a revisiting—Left Hand came out in 1969, “Is Gender Necessary” (henceforth to be referred to as IGN) in 1976, and the redux in 1988. Which would make this blog post a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a book, at least in some part.
I’ve struggled with how to write this post. It seems unfair to review the book as if its some kind of argument—in fact, Le Guin herself mentions this in “Redux,” when she writes that “critics of the book insisted upon talking about its ‘gender problems’ as if it were an essay not a novel.” That line instantly made me think of “Cat Person,” the Kristen Roupenian short story that made the rounds last year, and which was bizarrely referred to as an “article” or “essay” by some. These stories did not ask to be scrutinized as perfectly hygienic arguments about gender and sexuality. The idea that Left Hand is an incredible classic which strikes right to the heart of gender politics is external to the book. So I’ll do my best to separate the two, to review the book as just a book, before specifically going into why I found it lacking in terms of gender commentary.Read More »