Sunday, February 1, 2015

December-January Reads

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Value of Art by Michael Findlay
Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

and material from

The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman
Year's Best Weird Fiction Vol 1, ed. Laird Barron
Fungi ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia

There might be a couple other collections to add to the list, which I'll update as I remember.

2014's project of less straight white dudes was, I would like to think, a success. I was less focused on the project in November and December because, frankly, I had had enough. However, previous to this opening of the floodgates, I found the imposition of a limit to be paradoxically freeing. Rather than the interminable cycle of guilt in which I force myself to read Great White Dude Authors of note, those stalwarts of Great Lists and subsequently abandon them, I discovered -- to me -- new, rich, untapped areas of literature. Previously sparked interests in Afrofuturism or queer cyberpunk were fanned into healthy flames. The project moved beyond the liberal backpatting of reading outside my subject position and into a realm of new experiences to be internalized and reflected upon.

Politically speaking, I accomplished nothing more than a heightened sense of self-worth as I perceived something worthier and more value in my project. No, I believe the true value in 2014's project was an increase in my virtual stores of empathy. Thanks to a year of affect theory, the arcane branch of philosophy interested in the circulation and economy of emotions, I focused heavily on how these cultural objects affected me and how that change was perceived within and refracted without. Empathy, as philosophers and social scientists such as Steven Pinker have pointed out, is one of the great contributors to the establishment of this unparalleled age of (relative) peace from violence. The ability of empathy is not to simply think and feel like another, but rather, to consider that the other has had a lifetime of completely different experiences, though commonalities can be easily found thanks to the circulation of emotions, maybe not easily parsed, but understandable enough. That I contend is the true benefit of this project: a greater desire to comprehend the emotional lives of other people through cultural objects.

Obviously, reading literature is an imperfect way to consider the emotions of other people. Frankly, a better more immediate method would be to simply talk to other people. However, I see no harm in attempting both. If I'm going to engage with culural objects (an inevitability), then why not try to better myself through less politically suspect persons? Not everything I read was entirely without problematic elements, but I read less racist, sexist, homophobic shit than ever: a truer sign of success has yet to present itself.

2015's project is a different animal. My partner and I moved into a house, though not permanently. The great danger in moving somewhere with more space is that one tends to fill that space with more crap. I would like, in a larger sense, to pare down the immense amount of stuff my partner and I share. I won't be paring down books, unfortunately, because after the last two Great Purges, I have no desire to re-buy anything. Thus, I plan to work on the back catalogue, those ceaselessly calling sirens of literature that sleep under a blanket of dust on my shelves. The rules for 2015 are simple: I shall not purchase any books, I will only acquire them free (ARCs, gifts, etc). This forces me to read that which languishes unread, unloved.

Hopefully, this means 2015 is the year that I tackle some of the great beasts that have been waiting, such as Infinite Jest, JR, and Gravity's Rainbow, among others. I might even start Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (though I should know myself better than to aspire too high). I also want to finish the different series that I've read, including Katherine Ann Goonan's Nano Quartet, Octavia Butler's Patternist series, Connie Willis's WW2 time travel duo, among others.

It's already February 1st and I haven't purchased a single book. That, I believe, is a good omen of things to come. Here's to 2014; I'm glad to close the door on you.

As for the books read in January? Here are my thoughts in easily consumed bursts.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer was excellent, mostly. The first book, Annihilation was stunning, vivid, and fully realized, even as it was vague and purposefully opaque. Vandermeer is not a writer known for rich characterization, yet I found myself pleasantly drawn into the inner life of the unnamed narrator. The second book was, initially, a crushing disappointment; rather than continue with the science fiction trope of explorers in strange lands, Authority shifts to an office intrigue, light on the intrigue, heavy on the bureaucracy. I say initially because with time, I came to realize that the disappointment was in the tonal shift, not in the content. Sure, Authority could use a trim (but what doesn't?), though I enjoyed it in retrospect. The third was... interesting: not quite as successful as the first, but certainly an improvement on the second. I greatly appreciated that Vandermeer was reticent in answering the big questions. I could have done with less answers, to be honest.

George Saunders' much lauded collection of stories, Tenth of December was okay, the reality of the work certainly not matching the hyperbolic praise lavishing heaped on the slim volume's shoulders. The weird science fiction elements hopelessly and negatively forced comparisons (unconscious and not) to the late great David Foster Wallace, especially, the product testing story that couldn't sustain its premise or its characters, an unequal shadow of DFW's stories in Oblivion. That being said, I still liked the odd story or two. The prose, while unspectacular, was unobtrusive and pleasant.

I had always meant to read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale but had never got around to it. I am very glad I did; it's Atwood pared down to the maximum of her considerable talents. It's not a perfect novel (the middle sags like so many other middles do) but the final third is as masterful as anything else she has written. The themes of technology, theocratic power, and patriarchy resonant still to this day, possibly even more. A Foucauldian reading of this novel seems painfully obvious but necessary, a task I won't bother with, presuming other better thinkers have tackled this classic.

Though I had only read Cloud Atlas, I have great admiration for David Mitchell's ambition, perhaps less so for his actual skill. Starting Ghostwritten, his debut, I meant to read only the first section of nine, but when I looked up, I was a third through the novel. I had forgotten how utterly compulsive reading Mitchell. His prose is so pleasant, so easily digested. Luckily, the subject matter of Ghostwritten matches the prose. Unlike Cloud Atlas's fascination with spirituality, Mitchell's debut is interested in geographical, political, and social connections. These connections manifest thematically in Mitchell's introduction of banking systems, economies of consumables, and the Internet. It's a success, even if the final two stories are a bit of a slog. The Bone Clocks, his longest and most recent novel, was good, I would say. The final story was absolutely stellar, showcasing his humanist interest in emotions. The fantasy elements of the novel are quite unsuccessful, to the point where I didn't really need them. Oh well.

I had started Perdido Street Station when I was in high school, and I quickly gave up. Mieville's prose is beautiful, but too dense for the adolescent me. Luckily, I gave the novel another try, and I'm happy that I did. The lushness of both his prose and his world made the slow start to the novel easy to conquer. The plot was fun and tickled many of my fancies. I was especially pleased to read a fantasy novel (or science fiction -- whatever) that consider the economics of its constructed world. It always drives me nuts when manufacturing, industry, agriculture, and currency is never thought through. I always wonder where items come from. Mieville, with his PhD, has thoroughly considered not only the economics, but also the politics of his world. Perdido Street Station was probably my favourite read of January, enough that I eagerly await reading the follow-up novel.

The Child Garden was a hard read. I find myself fascinated with a really specific sub sub subgenre of science fiction called "biopunk," the technologically oriented hacking of biology (a theme that features heavily in Perdido Street Station). Ryman's world considers the impact of genetically engineered viruses that cure disease and provide limitless knowledge to the infected. This sounds utterly fascinating, but Ryman's plot was far more interested in a character study of a rather flat protagonist and her relation to an opera based on Dante. It's obtuse and unwieldly, and I had to force myself through the novel. I didn't hate it; certainly Ryman's beautiful prose made it easier. I wish that I loved the book more. I wish I had loved the characters or cared about them in any way. I wish that the political dimensions of the novel hadn't been so... sophomoric (ie the main political thrust of the book is that Communism leads to a dangerous paucity of creativity, leading to large scale social stagnation -- yawn). Alas. Perhaps a second read would result in a better experience, but who has time for re-reads?

I'm pretty sure I read Gaiman's short novel in December, but I might have read it in November. Confession: I only read the novel because my partner needed it read for the class they teach. Otherwise, I would have never read it. What should have been one sitting dragged onto three because I fucking hate Gaiman's prose. He's the Hugh Grant of literature: bumbling, blandly charming, inoffensive, and coasting off success from 25 years ago. This novel was unbelievably forgettable. I have no idea what happened in it and it doesn't matter in the slightest what happened because it's about stories in the same way that everything Gaiman does. Ugh. (I will say this though: I quite enjoyed his Doctor Who story about Cybermen)

Robert Aickman, an author I had never heard of, turns out to be enjoying a critical renaissance. Hopefully this means more of his work will come into print, especially since the four collections of stories I picked up are fucking gorgeous. The stories are "strange stories," his preferred term, and they don't quite fit into the horror slot nor the Weird slot (notice the capital letter). They are their own beasts. Regardless of the subject matter, Aickman's prose is absolutely heavenly, an economic but welcome expanse of descriptive words that capture the ambiguity of the situation without losing the reader. Utterly wonderful. I've read two thirds of The Unsettled Dust and only maybe one story was lacklustre. A few stories haunt me, a verb I don't often use.

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