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Readings for February 2017

Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison

I first encountered "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" in video game form. I am not sure if Harlan Ellison's seminal short story of the subjugation of humanity to technological society was made into digital form ironically or not. The game is an oldie, having been published in 1995. But it looked really compelling, and seemed to have a cult following. But I put off buying the game, even for cheap.

In reading Neil Gaiman's non-fiction anthology I learned a bit more about Ellison, and decided to finally read the story which was the source for such an intriguing game. Alone Against Tomorrow is the anthology in which it is published. Hoo boy, what an read.

I don't mean to sound dramatic, but the stories in this collection really gave me a sense of dread about the balance between humanity and its technology. They were so good, and memorable. I recommend it if that is what you are into.

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías

Have you ever experienced a library serendipity? I just so happened to have been reading a review of a new novel by Javier Marías entitled Thus Bad Begins in Harper's when I found the same on a the new fiction shelf at my local library. Of course I had to check it out!

And I don't regret it. First off: the novel is in translation from Spanish, but I did not feel any bad effects from this. And I got to learn a lot of perspective about Spanish history, a topic which is often overlooked for American students learning the broad brushstrokes of Europe. But enough about that.

What charmed me about Thus Bad Begins is how squarely it sits in the center of what a literary novel should be. It looks at relationships and events and gives us a glimpse not only of the characters, but of ourselves - as is an end of all good fiction. In this case the story centers on the chilly relationship between a film director and his wife, and the observation of that relationship by the director's young assistant, who narrates. There is a good progression of the story, with the necessary intrigue and surprises to make it worth reading.

It is a novel which is not pretentious about it, and for that I'll give a positive recommendation.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2017

Comics

  • Briggs Land #4
  • Briggs Land #5
  • Briggs Land #6
  • Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse #2
  • Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse #3

Readings for January 2017

The reports of the demise of this blog have been somewhat exaggerated.

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

You know what? I like Neil Gaiman. I already loved his fiction, and with the collection The View from the Cheap Seats, I've come to find that I love his non-fiction as well. This is a collection of stuff. All kinds of stuff. Introductions, biographies, speeches, remembrances, etc.

I came away having learned quite a bit about Gaiman's early work in comics. I recommend it if you have a random urge to read a bunch of bits of interesting. Also, it could lead you to make new discoveries . . .

A Contract With God by Will Eisner

. . . like the art of Will Eisner.

As noted previously, I have recently developed an interest in comics. But it was not through this interest that I found Will Eisner. No, it was through Neil Gaiman's aforementioned non-fiction.

A Contract With God makes a bold claim: that it is the first graphic novel. I don't know how to judge that claim, but it is the first proper graphic novel that I have read. Really it is four short stories in a single volume. But they are each powerful stories.

What it is about the style of Will Eisner? It definitely is "cartoony", but in a way which serves his storytelling. Some seemingly simple line drawings can go a long way when illustrating a powerful story. I really enjoyed this and recommend it to anyone who wants to try out reading a graphic novel.

New York: Life in the Big City by Will Eisner

I liked my first taste of Eisner so much, I reserved a second volume from the library and went straight through it. Life in the Big City is a volume with four parts. There is some basic illustration of the city, some stories intertwined around a common setting ("The Building"), a series of vignettes about city people, and "Invisible People", another compilation of shorter stories.

I've been in New York City for a sum total of about 12 hours, so I cannot judge the authenticity of the work, but I can tell you that the quality and charm are outstanding. Need a second dose of Eisner? Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's December 2016

Readings for December 2016

Another year, another year. In 2016 I added a comic book habit which I'm not sure will continue into 2017. I have at least one series I'd like to continue. I may pursue the hobby primarily through graphic novels and trades from the library.

Arabella of Mars by David Levine

This is the "fiction" entry of the semi-random selection from the library's "new books" shelf. This appears to be Levine's debut novel, though he has credits in the Wild Cards series among others. He happens to be a local author (from Portland, OR), so that is cool.

Arabella of Mars was a delight to read. The premise is a genre mash-up of science fiction and regency, with a touch of steam-punk: in Victorian era man has discovered how to make great ships buoyant and can thence take ships aloft and sail them to other planets, including Mars. Yes you heard that right, you can sail to Mars. Which implies there is no vacuum of space, just a big atmosphere throughout the cosmos. The alternative reality works really well, I found, and I had no trouble suspending disbelief in service to the story.

Young Arabella Ashby finds herself in need to abscond to Mars to stop an insidious plot by her unscrupulous cousin. She does so by presenting herself as a boy and gaining passage by working as a deck-hand on an interstellar ship. Adventure ho!

I liked just about everything about this novel. The only issue I had was a bit of cliche at the end which I wonder if it may be a sort of requirement of the regency genre (I've not ready any before, so am unsure about what to expect). But the setting, characters, story, structure, pacing, were all great.

It is setting itself up as a possible series, so I'll be following up. Recommended.

Censored 2017 edited by Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth

I had never heard of "Project Censored" when I saw this title at the library. In the wake of the 2016 elections I had been feeling a bit conventional in my political thinking and wanted to branch out some more, so I grabbed this title.

The structure is this: a list of what a panel deems were the "most censored stories of 2016", followed by a series of essays, mostly on media criticism. I read with great interest, but ended up abandoning the book after the first section.

A few of the stories seemed very interesting: I had not read anything (or very little) about them, and they were quite consequential. For example, there was a report on how many nations in the world in which US special force had training or combat operations in 2015 (over one hundred). Or the existence and operation of the so-called US vaccine court, which is not widely advertized due to fear of abuse.

But many of the stories seemed to have been absent from mainstream media coverage not because they were censored, but because they were boring or silly. For example, the idea that "climate change will have disproportional effects on women" turned out to be totally pointless, because as the summary noted, this was a side-effect of existing social structures and had absolutely nothing to do with climate change.

Insert a number of other boring or non-sequitur stories, and this was not the subversive reporting I had been hoping for. Not recommended.

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

"Surreal" was the word of the year for 2016 according to at least one authority. World news, and especially politics, made everything seem so bizarre that I could think of no finer way to end 2016 than by reading a Hitchhiker's novel.

Life, the Universe, and Everything fulfilled everything I was looking for. Of course it did. I heartily recommend it, of course after you read the previous installments.

Fittingly, I seem to have logged 42 entries on my 2016 reading list (see summarys below). As for 2017, I've decided that my theme will be to throw myself at the ground . . . and miss.

Periodicals

  • Harper's November 2016

Comics

  • Poe Dameron #8

Year-end stats

In 2016 I read:

  • 12 periodicals
  • 17 books
  • 13 comic books
  • 7,634 pages
  • or about 21 pages per day

Readings for November 2016

Something long, and something new.

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

I feel like I am becoming something of a broken record in these Wheel of Time reviews. I bogged down and took long breaks from this novel to get through it. It just seemed like every time I picked it up, the same characters were in the same places, ruminating over the same problems, with nothing ever changing, chapter after chapter. "Marking time" was the description I used in my last review.

If Lord of Chaos was employing this slow-down for character development, I think it would be OK. However there's no amount of character development which could justify this volume of text. Once again it could have been four or five hundred pages shorter and done better by me as a reader.

At this point I am not recommending the series except to die-hard readers, and perhaps to those who want exposure to an important piece in the history of the fantasy genre. I will of course be continuing.

And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind by Bill Streever

And now for something completely different. I love libraries, don't you? One of the best parts of a library is the "new books" shelf, which at the local library I have been haunting has one side dedicated to fiction, and the other to non-fiction. On a recent visit I chose one from each side. The fiction entry will be covered next month, but for non-fiction, it was Bill Streever's And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind.

This book is about wind as a natural phenomenon, but mostly about the history of weather forecasting. It is the sort of casual non-fiction book which I have in the past enjoyed very much but lately had mostly given up on, for whatever reason. It was fully of interesting stories and delightful discoveries and was just plain fascinating.

My only criticism has to do with the structure of the story. Streever frames his delivery of the material on a sailing voyage he undertook with his wife. The voyage itself is mostly boring and a bit anticlimactic (hey, not everything is drama), so while it did provide for topical jumping-off points, it was mostly pretty dull.

Still recommended.

Comics

  • Serenity: No Power in the 'Verse #1

Readings for October 2016

Something . . . unexpected happened with my reading in October. It all started in Disneyland. We had just finished riding Star Tours and landed in the gift shop. I saw there were some Star Wars comic books there, so I took a look.

One or two caught my eye. I had some pocket money, so I picked up a one-off issue for C-3P0. I read it back at the hotel and was surprised how much I had liked it. In my other recent forays into comics, I had not really thought the experience was worth the money. But for some reason this time, I thought it was pretty great. The story was decent, and the art was engaging.

So two days later, finding myself again in the same gift shop, I picked up another comic, in the Poe Dameron series. I read it and enjoyed it too.

Back home, I took a big step in nerdiness - I visited my local comic book shop. I nervously asked the attendant for some recommendations - and didn't really like any of them. And here I discovered my previous trouble with comic books: I don't really like superheroes. But I found I did like other stuff, like Star Wars, Back to the Future, and a realist drama Briggs Land.

So I tried a few things. And then came back and got some more. Then I started looking at the library for trade paperbacks. And things got out a hand a bit, and I did not complete anything else other than comics in October.

I have kept up the hobby a bit, but it doesn't have the same intensity (surprising nobody since I am pretty fickle in my hobbies). Whether or not I continue on, it was fun for this month at least.

Comics

  • C-3P0
  • Poe Dameron #4
  • Poe Dameron #5
  • Poe Dameron #6
  • Poe Dameron #7
  • Back to the Future: Citizen Brown #1
  • Back to the Future: Citizen Brown #2
  • Briggs Land #1
  • Briggs Land #2
  • Briggs Land #3
  • Neil Young's Greendale by Josh Dysart and Cliff Chiang

Readings for September 2016

In which I read a stage play.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorn, and John Tiffany

There seems to have been a bit of marketing confusion for this book which must be cleared up right away - this is a script for a stage play. It contains stage directions and dialogue. Many people I spoke to thought this was a novel. It is indeed "the eighth Harry Potter" story, but it is a play. I have not seen the play, only read the script.

The verdict is: it's not bad. I worried that after the magic of the initial Harry Potter sequence nothing will measure up. See the Star Wars prequels for an example of this. Luckily the story starts with a very compelling premise: it is rumored that Voldemort left behind a child, and the paranoia introduced by this produces some great drama.

Somewhat unfortunately, a lot of the plot is driven by time travel. That was used with decent effect in the third Harry Potter novel. But as so often happens with time travel, the plot gets burdened with the weight of its pure plottiness, and many, many distractions are introduced to the reader in the form of continuity questions. These didn't ruin it for me, but it did cause me to question whether the conclusions of the story really ring true.

One thing I can say is I really would like to see this production live one day. The stage craft implied by the stage directions is really amazing, and I'd love to see how they pull everything off. I am sure it will go on tour someday, but it may be a decade before it comes to Portland.

If you are a Potter maniac I'll recommend it. Though if that is the case you've likely already read it.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2016
  • Harper's September 2016
  • Harper's October 2016

Whew, all caught up!

Readings for August 2016

Summer reading, in force!

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I'll begin by giving the Recommended tag. Stardust is a delightful little tale which shows Gaiman at his best. I may even read this one again one day.

It is always pleasant when as I reader I wonder to myself, "how did the author come up with this?" Novelty, not in a jarring sense, but in a way which works within the terms of the story, is what I love about this tale. Like all good modern fairy tales, it reacts to and plays off of common tropes, but enhances them with a twist.

Do yourself a favor, read Stardust.

My Struggle: Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Zadie Smith is quoted as saying:

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD. MY STRUGGLE. It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack.

I'm in the same boat, Zadie. And I got my fix this month, as the fifth volume of Knausgaard's My Struggle has arrived in English hardcover. As has become my custom I bought it immediately on discovering its availability, abandoned what I had been reading heretofore been reading, and devoured it.

Book 5 is worth it - I think it is my favorite since Book 1. Books 3 and 4 had gotten into a more pure narrative recollection of Knausgaard's childhood. While this was interesting reading, it lacked the interludes and flash-forwards of the first two volumes which I loved so much. This book launches the young author's writing career and fills in the history of his young adult life, which had been covered obliquely in the prior works. There's a number of "a ha!" moments and moments which add richer detail to already-covered anecdotes.

Then there is a fairly significant story near the end which I'll not spoil. It adds some poignancy to the author's departure from Bergen and the dissolution of his first marriage. It was heavy, and emotional for me as a reader. All of this makes good writing.

Heartily recommended, and I can't wait for the final volume!

The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuin

LeGuin: she's so great she can make you love the "anthropologists in space" premise. The Telling relates the tale of an outsider - Sutty from earth - who comes to the planet Aka to observe and catalog the practices of the locals. While she was in her long interstellar flight the planet had a cultural revolution, so much of what she came expecting to find has been forced underground.

Our heroine finds her way out of the officially-sanctioned, government approved activities to visit people in the back country who still practice their ancient cultural traditions undercover. This centers on "The Telling", which is some part wisdom tradition and perhaps another part religion, but it eludes Sutty's attempts at definition. The search for truth leads her deep into the mountains, but also enlists her hosts in danger of reprisal from the central government. It's a pretty good yarn.

LeGuin deploys a trick that I love which works so well in the context of this novel. In a secret meeting place Sutty is experiencing a ritual when she observes something impossible, something supernatural. Yet nobody else truly acknowledges it, and she is left wondering if it was not some trick of perception in the poorly-lit room. This episode is left mostly unresolved for the reader, so you are left to ponder just what the nature of "The Telling" is. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's July 2016

Readings for July 2016

In which I go obscure and mainstream.

Advances in the Study of Greek by Constantine Campbell

I don't believe I had read any new Greek books after grad school until now. Seeing as I had a bit of a gap, Constantine Campbell's Advances in the Study of Greek seemed like a perfect way to catch up. The scope of its advances are mostly in the time-frame after I last did academic study, so it really was quite helpful.

The book is organized into various fields of Greek, with a survey of the various subjects of recent inquiry and a summary of the various positions where there is controversy. There is not too much wading into the weeds, except in the case of aspect - which I think can be forgiven given the author's stake in that subject.

It felt good to read up on recent topics and realize that I haven't gotten so far behind in spite of being about three years behind in reading JBL. Recommended for everyone who wants to stay abreast of Greek scholarship.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

The unexpected release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman created a lot of media buzz and was a smashing success. I randomly encountered a pile of five of these in the stacks of my local public library after the frenzy had died down, so I decided to snag one. After all, I should try to read mainstream literature from time to time, right?

What was this novel's relationship to the To Kill a Mockingbird, that cornerstone of the American literary canon? It is set in the same universe as it were, with the same characters in the same town, only later. It was marketed, implicitly at least, as a "sequel", though Watchman was written first. However there happen to be a couple continuity issues, as my wife noticed in a back-to-back reading of the two. The other thing she noted is that a few passages are lifted verbatim, which serves as evidence of an emerging consensus: it was a first "draft" which was later reworked into Mockingbird.

"First draft" seems like a bit of a stretch, because that implies that Watchman became Mockingbird through revision and editing, which is absurd given that the finished products are distinct enough that one can be claimed to be the sequel of the other. But Watchman was definitely the precursor, though initially rejected.

One wonders about the wisdom of publishing works which were rejected or abandoned. My most memorable encounter with this practice was with Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes, which was discovered and published posthumously. That novel, while an amusing diversion from Crichton's normal genre, was a half-baked mess. Crichton probably left it in the drawer for a reason, and in my opinion his literary estate stained his legacy a bit by releasing it.

I don't think Watchman fits into that mold precisely. However it is true that the structure is not traditional for a novel. It is basically a series of a few recollections from Scout's past, accompanied by relatively few scenes of dialog and soliloquy. The recollections are, by the way, quite enjoyable, especially Scot and a friend playing "church revival."

Finally there is the matter of the "controversial" reveal of Atticus Finch being a segregationist in late life. I happen to not find anything controversial about good character development. I was somewhat disquieted by Scout's reaction to the bigoted reality of her hometown.

I will not recommend this one. If you'd like a good read, proceed to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Readings for May 2016

I continue to invest time in Gravity's Rainbow but have nothing yet to show for it.

Periodicals

  • Harper's April 2016
  • Harper's May 2016
Published:
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for April 2016

Novel streak!

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

I happened across a positive review of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and decided to check it out. As it happened my local library branch did not have that particular work, but did have some more recent of his novels. I was honestly unsure what to choose, so after some jacket perusal I went with The Land Across. It is the surreal story of a travel writer stranded in a generic eastern European nation. Grafton suffers successive misadventures at the hands of the bureaucracy and the occult. Let the reader decide which threat is more dire.

Now I'm not one to put much stock in review blurbs. However, Gene Wolfe has the amazing distinction of being called the sci-fi/fantasy community's Melville by Ursula K. LeGuin. I was sold.

The Land Across is one of those novels where I have a particular issue: I really enjoy my reading experience, but I progress slowly. In this case I dragged through and eventually took a break to read My Struggle Book Four. Then I picked Wolfe up again and finished it. I love Wolfe's voice and I love the tone of this book. But for some reason I was not compelled to turn pages. Gass is another author with whom I had this struggle, but later enjoyed tremendously. So I'll try another by Wolfe, maybe the original recommendation.

Assumption by Percival Everett

After Glyph I went directly back to the Percival Everett well. Assumption is comprised of three novellas centered on the same small town policy deputy in the U.S. Southwest. Now I'll give this note in hopes it'll save another reader the confusion I suffered: Assumption is three discrete stories, not three acts in the same arc. I was confused in reading because I was looking for a link from the first story in the second before I more-carefully read the back cover description.

Do you like detective stories? Do you like deconstructing detective story tropes? Check it out. I really enjoyed it. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2016

Readings for March 2016

I have gotten into a streak of reading novels, which is nice.

Glyph by Percival Everett

Everett is one of the authors I had on my "to try" list, so I grabbed a Glyph, a slim, fairly-recently published work. It is the farcical story of a an infant prodigy who doesn't deign to talk, but writes with a skill both startling and amazing to the adults in his world. Needless to say this draws interest from a number of fronts, and before long we're treated to the literary version of a baby outsmarting his kidnappers, a la the "Baby's Day Out" film. But it's better than that, of course. Really Everett draws together themes of childhood, race, and parental love to provide a rich subtext for the zany antics.

I'll recommend it, especially for its brevity, as an easy way to step in to Everett. I've already logged another by him, as you'll see next month.

My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I am one of those shameless Karl Ove Knausgaard fans of whom it has become hip to make fun. I discovered that the fourth installment of My Struggle had been published in English, so I took a detour on the way to another meeting to pop into Powell's and purchase it. I was late to the meeting. I suppose that means I'm an addict, as the Knausgaard habit is affecting my responsibilities in the rest of my life.

The theme of this work is so simple: a young man trying to get lucky. At first it seems so cliche for a memoir, but then it really is foundational to the ego of a young man, isn't it? This volume interweaves the Quest with his last two years of secondary school and a year working as a teacher in Northern Norway.

As always, Knausgaard's recollections have the effect of stirring up my own memories of my youth, sometimes dredging up things I haven't recalled for years. On the whole it is a good thing, but can be uncomfortable as well. And zooming in to a young man's first year of independence - and the seemingly-boundless potential lying ahead - has the peculiar effect of forcing the reader to also consider "what could have been"?

Recommended of course, and I can't wait until the next volume drops. Maybe I'll be the only one in a tent on the sidewalk, waiting to buy it on its first day.

Readings for February 2016

In which I enjoy some pop novels.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

When in doubt, Brandon Sanderson. Shadows of Self is the next installment in the Mistborn series, and the second in the Wax and Wayne cycle: you know, magic in a steam-punk setting. And I'm OK with that. Sanderson in this novel is showing his increasing command of comedy - I had some honest guffaws. He also managed to find a way to write novels (for some series) which do not stretch the technology of book binding, so that is a plus. Recommended.

The Martian by Andy Weir

I saw the film The Martian in the theater with a friend and loved it. My wife picked up the novel recently, and it was even better. I really devoured it (and so did she, after I relinquished it). Most of the time I don't put too much stock in "real science" sci-fi, because to me the storytelling is ultimately more important than the genre bonafides. This story managed to blend both to perfect taste. Recommended, and I hope the author Andy Weir writes more to enjoy in the future.

Periodicals

  • Tin House #62

Readings for January 2016

Getting caught up on periodicals feels good. Getting deep into long books feels good too, though they don't show up in the ledger in a timely fashion.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2016
  • Harper's February 2016
Published:
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for December 2015

In which our hero realizes that life changes have made reading more difficult by observing his end-of-year reading stats.

Basically I lost a long train commute which afforded a lot of reading time and on top of that had a baby. It was my lowest total since 2010, when I had my first son.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

Considered by many to be Ellul's magnum opus, The Technological Society did not disappoint. It is the full exposition of the thinking of Ellul which I had only seen in small bits previously. Reading his account of technique will change how you perceive the world in a fundamental sense. Or at least it has for me.

I left many dog-ears in my copy, and I keep saying I'm going to a post expanding on my observations there. For the most part his observations are prescient and still relevant to this day. One fascinating angle in the work is that he wrote at the height of the Cold War, at a time when it was not clear how it would pan out.

This is a very dense work, so it takes commitment to complete. Recommended if you have the will to get through it. Perhaps warm up on some shorter articles or interviews to find out if you have the taste for Ellul.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy has a boisterous following, and some thinkers I respect are among them. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and therefore in some sense is a part of the American literary canon. Yet it is in a realist school which I find a bit tiresome. I felt as I did after reading The Sun Also Rises, that nothing important had really transpired in the course of the novel. Yeah, I probably didn't read closely enough, and missed the point. But this one did not inspire close reading for me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle is a delightful short story which springboards from a certain well-known (but never explicitly named) fairy tale. The version I read was made even more delightful by the inclusion of fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddell. I got through it in a single sitting, and I do believe it has re-read value (once I get it back from a friend to whom I lent it). Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's October 2015
  • Harper's November 2015
  • Harper's December 2015

Year-end stats

In 2015 I read:

  • 14 magazines
  • 18 books
  • 7,874 pages
  • or about 22 pages per day

Much less than last year, as discussed above.

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