Friday, July 31, 2015

July Reads

T2: Infiltrator by S.M. Stirling
Artful by Ali Smith
A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández

and material from the following collections:
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird ed. Paula Guran
New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird ed. Paula Guran
Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror ed. S. T. Joshi
Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas
Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville

I also abandoned a few novels this month, including House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill (I've read one novel by him previously of which I had mixed feelings) and I also started with the intent to finish a few novels including Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville, The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

The Hernández memoir for my queer folks' bookclub and was the forth selection, if I recall. I had mixed feelings about it (as with most things) due to the unevenness of the memoir. It's more a collection of previously published essays than a self-contained memoir, which gives it a stuttering effect. The middle section, in which Hernández speaks candidly about her sexuality and its insipid fluidity was quite compelling. The first section, detailing her life growing up in a mixed language environment, was intellectually interesting but narratively stalling. I found the final section to have its moments, but otherwise a bit of a slog.

I read Stirling's authorized continuation of James Cameron's T2 because of the fifth film (which I really didn't mind). The novel, the first in a trilogy (that I found complete at a Value Village of all places), is a confused beast. It replicates a lot of the beats of the second film but also tries to carve new territory, as if the novel existed before Stirling was given the license, and he retroactively added the Terminator elements to the story. Though, perhaps this description makes the novel sound terrible. It really wasn't. I read it at the cabin and enjoyed my time with it. I've read copious amounts of licensed novels and have complicated feelings about the phenomenon; we live in a world that is essentially pre-established intellectual properties being controlled by adults who grew up with them, so everything ends up being a type of fanfiction. This paradigm is so ubiquitous that I find it difficult to muster outrage over it. When Internet commenters rage that every Hollywood film is a remake, I shrug my shoulders and point to the vast output of indie filmmakers and non-Hollywood production hubs (Europe, Bollywood, Asia, etc). If I enjoy a world, why not revisit it? I plan my trips to these corporate-owned worlds moderately, without addiction, without permanence, so who am I to begrudge others who do the same? Certainly, the artistic world would probably benefit from less corporatization, less novels made out of the rubble of other vacuous novels, but I can only control my consumption habits.

Ali Smith's book, which is neither straight-ahead fiction nor the advertised series of lectures delivered at a university, was typically perfect. Smith's reputation in my books has only risen through the years. I find myself proselytizing Smith to co-workers at the bookstore (have I mentioned I now work at a bookstore?), especially her award-winning How To Be Both. I still think The Accidental is her masterpiece, but everything else has been roughly the same quality, a rare feat indeed. Artful (which I had been waiting for in paperback for like 4 years) was classic Ali Smith: clever (painfully, exceedingly clever), heartfelt, affecting, and compelling. Her treatises on fiction increased my hunger for more non-fiction from her.

Paula Guran's collections of recent Weird fiction inspired by Lovecraft have been great. I love Lovecraft-inspired stuff and Guran has a crisp and clear eye for a good yarn. The collections mentioned above might not contain the more experimental or less conventional stuff (such as Nick Namatas's work), but they scratch an itch I'm happy to have. S.T. Joshi, a renowned expert on Lovecraft, assembles a bit drier collection (not surprising, there is overlap). In all cases, Simon Strantzas was a highlight. I purchased his (fourth, I believe) collection of stories based solely on his piece in Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume One and the announcement that he would edit Volume Three. So far, I haven't been disappointed.

Leviathan Wakes, by the pseudonymous James S.A. Corey, has been a frustrating read. I yearn for an excellent space opera, but I have not found the one that I need (I might need to just write my own at this point). The reputation for the Expanse Series is verging on hysterically positive, and this should have been my first clue. The novel is aggressively middlebrow, in both execution and concept. The "banter" if you can call it is somebody's shitty impression of Joss Whedon, and the characterization is closer to stereotype than fully realized person. I will say that the plotting is... decent enough, but everything else is just simply so conventional. It feels like it's marketing executive calculated work, designed to appeal to the largest mass. The "moral ambiguity" of the protagonists feels market-driven, in the sense that white hat protagonists simply aren't fashionable. So instead of truly exploring a complicated moral universe, Corey plays it safe. I'll quote myself (I posted on Jonathan McCalmont's essay on the allure of ambiguity):
I was especially struck by the blandness of the worldbuilding, specifically that the political concepts put forward are so simplistic and binary; the audience is expected to root for the heroes if only because the alternative is so cartoonishly evil (“terrorism is bad you guys”). However, what makes this even more egregious is the author’s attempt at introducing ambiguity in its protagonist — but only because the market demands it. No longer are white hat protagonists fashionable, so the narrative shoe horns in some reductive child’s play level thought problem that one of the heroes has had a hand in fascism. But this is countermanded by the fact that we’re repeatedly told “he felt bad about it.”
Of course, I'm only 300 pages into a (so far) five novel series. I've heard it gets better with the second novel, so I'll keep going, but I'm not impressed so far. I might also add the prose is beyond colourless. I'll have examples when I eventually review it in full.

I will read Moby-Dick this year. I will do it. So I'm reading some Melville in preparation; I'm revisiting Billy Budd, Sailor, and started reading one of his few nautical novels, Pierre, or The Ambiguities. I read the story about the sailor in university and like all of my other interactions with Melville, I was blown away. The allegory is deep and wide, allowing for a multiplicity of meaning, and the prose is baroque and stunning. Melville is truly one of the best authors I've never really read if only because his difficulty is quite daunting. I read Gravity's Rainbow this year so I wonder if I can check off the other two that have been waiting years for me: Infinite Jest and the aforementioned novel about whales.

Again, it's a slow month because I've watched dozens of films. I've never watched so many films in my life. And it's not just shit that I've been watching, but proper cinema too!

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