Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best of 2013

These books are the ones that I'm prepared to call the best of 2013 - that is, that I read in 2013. I offer you no guarantee they were published in 2013, mind.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Unlike the other books I've picked, this one isn't remotely new, but this sprawling coming-of-age story reminds me of Edgardo Yunque, whose Lamentable Journey was written around the same time. Alas, Yunque is no longer with us, but thankfully Smith is.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: This book, popular enough that you don't need me to introduce it, is fantasy verging on magical realism, quite long, and surprisingly small-scale in its resolution.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Most of the time I was reading this, I didn't actually enjoy it. What impressed me at the time - and the reason I don't forget it - is the wide range of human habitats Robinson describes. Any one on its own would be lauded as inventive; taken together, its a startling vision.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: The best book I read all year? Likely not. Perhaps it's on here because I was singularly unimpressed with the movie and expected so little of the novel it was based on. The ultimate vision of the novel and the movie are as different as the visions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner, and the Russian nesting-doll structure of the book is a far more carefully crafted piece of work than the haphazard chronology of the movie.

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke: A book I likely would have never heard of if I hadn't been faced with a limited English-language selection at the bookstore at Iguatemi Florianopolis, this book tells the story of a Chinese village devastated by the AIDS crisis - with the government's complicity. That the story is told by a ghost makes for a interesting narrative structure without making the novel a part of the fantasy genre.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Starboard Wine

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
by Samuel R. Delany

It was with high expectations that I went to see the American Museum of Natural History's newest planetarium show on dark matter, because - well, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, mostly. But I came away disappointed. About 4/5 of the show was spent presenting background information necessary to understanding the concept of dark matter, rather than exploring what it might be. Wouldn't planetarium audiences already know that stuff? After all, I had first heard of dark matter at a presentation by a friend studying astronomy back in college, and I was no scientist.

But another friend, also an astronomer, recently reported after a planetarium talk she gave that adult audience members were unaware of the fact that galaxies give off their own light, rather than reflecting the light of our sun!

This sheer lack of of basic scientific knowledge is one reason Delany posits to explain why some readers, even avid ones, don't enjoy science fiction. He discusses at great length how a reader might parse the sentence fragment "monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni," especially a reader less fond of science.

Yet SF readers often "read around" what they don't know - to whit, it never occurred to me that "Delta" Cygni would represent the fourth star in a system, although my experience with the naming conventions of fraternity and sorority chapters should have led to ready extrapolation.

But reading SF requires more than an acquaintance with science; it requires, in Delany's phrase, a different set of reading protocols than realistic fiction. The reader must engage in world-building along with the author, learning from scant clues how objects and society behave. Even SF readers can lose this facility and enjoy only L. Ron Hubbard, paranormal urban fantasy, or Star Trek novelizations - to choose a few examples from folks I am personally acquainted with.

Starboard Wine is, ultimately, about how one reads SF, and how it is a genre defined by these reading protocols rather than by a setting, as Westerns are, or a plot structure, as romance novels and mysteries are. (Of course, being a collection of essays, the book is about many different things. One of these things is an evaluation of the work of several writers. I am less qualified to comment on these, having read (for example) no Sturgeon and precisely as much Heinlein as I want to.) It follows his earlier collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I found myself wishing I had with me: Delany spends much time here discussing how SF and mundane fiction compare, and I wanted to refresh my memory on how he fits fantasy as a genre into this schema.

The essays are nearly as old as I am, and the recently revised edition is thoughtfully updated with footnotes as well as an introduction by another author, although I found the former of much more interest than the latter. This chronology is startling only insofar as one realizes that Delany's three-decade-old thoughts on SF are still far ahead of how a good number of fans conceptualize the genre today. I would like to read his most recent collection, About Writing, although its focus is less SFnal. It would be nice to see an up-to-date collection of his latest thoughts on the genre, which at present are scattered.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Grass

Grass
Sheri S. Tepper

Today I wandered the science fiction aisles of Barnes & Noble and came away empty-handed. This happens often enough that I sometimes wonder if I really like the genre. To be sure, B&N had some books that I like but have already read, and they had an interesting sequel on the New Books shelf - although not the first book, and I'm rather strict about order. Yet, overall, my impression was that speculative fiction is apparently all urban fantasy (in the vampires-and-werewolves sense) or daring space expeditions (in the warmed-over Star Trek sense).

Therefore, it's always reassuring to find an author that I do like, especially when it's an author with a substantial backlist. On one hand, I wonder why I didn't know about them sooner, but on the other, I'm just glad to find more to read. The latest instance of this is Grass by Sheri S. Tepper, another book that ended up on my Amazon wishlist without any recollection on my part of how it got there.

Tepper is a feminist and environmentalist and an autodidact whose writing bats far above her education level. If I were an English professor or con organizer, I'd prepare some thoughtful analysis of the ideology of Grass as compared to Nicola Griffith's Ammonite and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (perhaps contrasted with Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead?), but I'm not, and you can't make me.

Grass is the story of a world with humans and other sentient lifeforms that the humans don't understand too well. A virus that threatens humanity all across the universe serves as a MacGuffin for the exploration of morality and responsibility.

There are a few miscues - Tepper seems to have a hard time sympathetically portraying characters in opposition to the "right" side, which is problematic when writing in head-hopping third person. The protagonist's husband and daughter, in particular, come off with all the believability of cardboard. And there is what I swear is a reference to an Elton John song at one point. It wouldn't jar so if it weren't the only 20th-century wink in the entire book.

Still, Grass is engrossing, and even when you can see where it is headed, it journey remains an interesting one. I'm curious to read the next book in the trilogy, as it takes place on another world, with other characters.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Between

The Between
Tananarive Due

Say what one will about Amazon - and I have plenty to say - one area in which it excels is in delivering out-of-print, hard-to-find books. Sometimes these books are available elsewhere electronically, but if you want paper in your hands, Amazon will usually succeed where even Powell's fails. Whether the books deserve to be out-of-print and hard-to-find is an entirely different matter.

The Between was championed somewhere, at some point, by a writer who I trust, if I recall correctly, although not to me specifically. From there it moved to my Amazon wishlist, and eventually to my doorstep. It's a novel that could better be described as speculative fiction verging on horror than as fantasy, insofar as fantasy conjures up elves and quests. Instead, it is almost a realistic novel, set in our everyday world, with a little bit of spirit haunting.

The book reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman, which isn't to suggest that Due is derivative; The Between was published in 1995, about when Gaiman's first solo novel was being written. But you could take Due's novel and repackage it with Gaiman's name and have a best-seller on your hands. (Of course, Gaiman could publish a book consisting of photos of his bowel movements, and his loyal readers would rush to praise it. That he doesn't is a testament to the fact that, in addition to being a good writer, he appears to be a decent human being.) Instead, it received modest critical acclaim and eventually fell out of print.

The SFF community likes to depict itself as egalitarian, enlightened, and not prone to celebrity worship. Not like those mundanes panting for the next installment of the Kardashians or Teen Mom, no sir! But speculative fiction fans are not free of sexism or racism, and they're as likely as everyone else to lionize the writers that already have been idolized by others. Gaiman is a handsome, goth/rock-god-looking white man, in a leather jacket with rumpled hair. And Due is a black woman, full stop. While she's continued to publish, she's never achieved the level of success that would return her backcatalog to print.

Yet The Between is a highly readable story, accessible both to genre fans and readers of realistic fiction. It's the story of one man whose world is starting to crack, and it's the story of him struggling to hold his marriage and family together. It's the kind of book a lot of readers would enjoy, if they knew it existed.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Grace Harlowe's college years

Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Second Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Third Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Fourth Year at Overton College

Josephine Chase dba Jessie Graham Flower

The story of Grace Harlowe's college years, as told in a series of four books, follows a series about Grace in high school, and proceeds two further series about her adult life. No longer in print, these pulp books for girls were published a century ago and are rather undistinguished as literature. Author Josephine Chase also wrote the Marjorie Dean series, with equally pedestrian titles and equally tun-of-the-mill plots and characters. This was the era when the genre of the college novel flourished, with iterations ranging from the literarily ambitious to this - novels by formula for a young audience that wanted exactly more of the same.

It's not a reflection on the era, of course, or even the age of the readers. The Sweet Valley novels that reigned during my childhood years were equally formulaic, while some girls' novels of a century ago featured fully developed characters that grew and changed over time. Not Grace or Marjorie! Then again, the girls wouldn't be able to change, at least not for the better, as they start off their series as the implausibly ideal girl. Grace might have a weak thought every now and again, but she would never act on it, and her friends all look up to her as an example.

In her book on campus life, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz describes the difference between the well-off, for whom affording college is not a struggle, and the ambitious poor, who must attend to secure a living - what she calls the college joe versus the greasy grind. Most of this struggle is invisible in the lighter college fare for children. Generally there is one poor friend, yet she somehow rarely struggles to keep up with her gang. But social difference does rear its head briefly in the Grace Harlowe series. Grace discovers a group of poor students living in a cheap, unpleasant boarding hall and forms an organization of students to raise funds for their aid. The aid is delivered anonymously, and most of it is given as loans. While the poor students go without necessities such as gloves, their patrons buy fabric and trimmings to make elaborate costumes for their fund-raisers. "It doesn't seem fair that I should have had such good times when so many girls here have nothing but hard work and worry over money matters," Grace says in her senior year. Not incidentally, these girls are "digs" who study hard and enjoy few of the pleasures of college life.

Even with additional funds and anonymous gifts of accessories, though, these poor students remain in a separate world. Class and money are addressed nearly directly at one point when Arline, an especially wealthy student, stays on campus for Christmas and serves as the anonymous benefactor of social outings for the poorer girls. On Christmas day they dine at two local restaurants regularly patronized by the wealthier girls - the first time for most of the poor digs. Arline comments to her friends afterward about how difficult it was to socialize with them because of these differences.

Much is made in college novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries of "doing something" for ones college (as well as one's class year) - in the more serious novels as well. Playing basketball, holding charitable events - these are "doing something." One can only assume the students at Overton who don't have the time or money to do for are thereby taking from the college, but doing nothing for it.

This brief flash of class consciousness aside, other forms of diversity don't appear. The students are, to a number, Christian, white, and female. (The last of these is to be expected at a woman's college, which Overton is.) The institutions of the era were not diverse, but the erasure of all diversity is still problematic.

In short, these books create a pretty, pleasant fantasy world, at least for those girls who can imagine themselves to be inside of it. They're amusing and, almost, harmless.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Collected Stories


Leonard Michaels
The Collected Stories
 
I came across Leonard Michaels in Stanley Fish’s How to Read a Sentence (And How to Write One), where Fish discusses Michaels’ short story “Honeymoon,” and, exceeding his self-imposed boundaries, muses on much more than its opening sentence. I wanted to read “Honeymoon” for myself and ordered up his Collected Stories.

Michaels was a writer of literary fiction, with all that entailed in the mid- to late-twentieth century, a New York Jew who became a California professor. The stories as collected are arranged roughly in chronological order, which means the first half of the book is mostly tales of Jewish men struggling with shiksa women. Frankly, his anxieties are not that different from those of a Roth or an Updike, and therefore somewhat tiresome to a later generation. (Women are not a strange species who exist only to cause confusion and discomfort in men. If “modern” swinging love makes you unhappy, give it up and just do what makes you happy. Etc.)

But his writing is at times splendid and not easy to take. The book’s opening salvo is the story of a college woman who is raped and then commits suicide. It is at no point graphic, but it is brutal.

I recently read Paul Haines’ final collection of short stories, The Last Days of Kali Yuga. (This is not a digression.) Haines wrote horror – most of it not creepy, suggestive horror, but bloodspatter and entrail-waving horror. His stories are fine; some of them even won awards. None of them hold a candle to his brilliant novella “Wives,” which closes out the book. “Wives,” strictly speaking, isn’t horror; it’s speculative fiction, in which the only “speculative” part is changes in social structure. There is no hint of the fantastical, mythical, phantasmagorical, eldritch, unearthly, or divine in it, but simply a graphic critique of patriarchy.

Where Haines’ career would have gone if he had lived longer is unknowable, but “Wives” suggests he was finding his true m├ętier with longer fiction. The second-best thing he wrote was his blog, in which he unflinchingly discussed his cancer and the family he would soon be leaving behind.

What he would not have become was Leonard Michaels. Michaels, unlike Haines, lived a long life, although his career was short – several short-story collections and two novels, one of which was a success. The novels do not hold up well.

But the short stories – his short stories are more truly horror than any of Haines’ tales of backpackers with cruel knives, despite that they are “realistic” literary fiction. Each brief story is a slim-tipped needle that sinks into your skin easily and leaves your bleeding. At least, this is the case for the first two-thirds of the collection.

Somewhere past the halfway point the horror stops and the stories become rather banal tales of modern men going to modern parties with their girlfriends, usually of a different ethnicity or religious persuasion, and modernly taking drugs and having exhausting, modern, unjoyous sex with partners not of their own choosing. Things do pick up near the end with his Nachman stories – less sex and drugs, more math and Asperger’s. Somewhere in here, too, his women turn into human beings, even if not likeable ones.

Haines also would never have become Michaels because his stories, for all that they feature white male protagonists, are highly critical of the patriarchy and sexism that is taken for granted in Michaels. Haines, nearly literally, puts women in refrigerators, but he does so to a purpose. Michaels would never do anything so pulpy, but he seems to sincerely believe that is where women belong. David Bezmozgiz in Tablet magazine seems somewhat mystified that his friend and mentor isn’t better known. I could tell him why, but I don’t think he’d understand, any more than Michaels himself did.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Wanderlust

Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Rebecca Solnit

I first discovered Rebecca Solnit at the Vanderbilt library when I was looking for something else entirely, picking up Savage Dreams based almost entirely on its title. I knew something about Yosemite, less about protests, and nothing at all about nuclear tests over Nevada, but the book was compelling nevertheless. Like John McPhee, she writes creative nonfiction that leaps from subject to subject, but unlike him, she is present in her books, even though they aren't about her, as a minor, first-person narrator.

Wanderlust is about all kinds of walking - that of the flaneur, the rambler, the pilgrim, the landscape consumer, the protestor, the distance walker; in the city and the wilderness; for health, for anonymity, for escape, for fashion, for spiritual growth; about walking alone, walking together, and not walking at all. Compared to Savage Dreams, this is territory I know.

McPhee's books tend to be much more focused; Solnit is a bricoleur, astonishingly well-read and wide-ranging, editorializing and making observations that, only after hearing, become obvious. Consider: "Among the terms for prostitutes are streetwalkers, women of the streets, women on the town, and public women (and of course phrases such as public man, man about town, or man of the streets mean very different things than do their equivalents attached to women). … Had a group of women called themselves the Sunday Tramps, as did a group of Leslie Stephen's male friends, the monicker would have implied not that they went walking but that they engaged in something rather salacious on Sundays."

At other times she is simply acerbic, which is pleasant if one agrees with her: "Cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix, Houston, and Denver may or may nor have a dense urban core floating somewhere in their bellies like a half-digested snack…"

The thesis of the book is that the experience of walking is different depending on where you walk and why you walk - perhaps rather obvious, but she breaks it down. To whom is walking for leisure available? How does intent shape the experience of walking? As a consumer of hiking literature, I have read quite a few paeans to walking that glorify nature, preferably untrammeled, at the expense of urbanity, but Solnit's is more catholic, praising the woods, formal gardens, and dense urban cores alike. Its polar opposite is Cheryl Strayed's lovely Wild, which is an intense, highly personal illumination of one particular individual experiencing one kind of walking. (City walkers, in their turn, seem to suggest they consider any place else a bore.)

If one likes walking, Wanderlust is full of trivia that will enhance one's reputation with fellow enthusiasts. "Did you know," you can say at your next dinner party, "that the treadmill was invented a a tool to break the will of prisoners?" And if your guests are sociologists, follow up by drawing a parallel between it and the Panopticon, both of which modern society embraces. But as entertaining as the trivia is, the book is more worth reading for the connections it draws across and through ideas.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Meridian

Meridian
Alice Walker

Meridian is part of the class of novels that centers on college, drawing deeply on the author’s experiences as an undergraduate student but extending chronologically past it. Other books in this canon include Ellison’s Invisible Man and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. There are other kinds of college student novels, of course, ranging from the unreflective celebration, often aimed at a pre-college audience, to the reflective glorification (Stover at Yale), to the scathing critique (I am Charlotte Simmons or The Big U). But in the case of Invisible Man, This Side of Paradise and Meridian, college represents a particularly important formative period in the protagonist’s life, and the college experience partially reflects the author’s own. After all, the recent Texas A&M alumnus doesn’t set his novel at Oberlin College, but at “Texas Ag.” The college novel is often also a first novel, which is one reason the college period is taken as transformative, even when the novel extends years past graduation.

Fitzgerald is the least imaginative of the bunch – I have the impression he took his own college experiences and simply added more money to his childhood. Walker doesn’t do this. While Meridian's historically black women’s “Saxon College” is no doubt drawn from Spelman, where Walker started her undergraduate education, and the main character is the daughter of black Southern farmers, like Walker, the protagonist Meridian is not a version of the author.  Perhaps this is due to this being Walker's second book. In any case, Walker uses settings and times she knows; Meridian's concerns may even be her own, but her story is a different one. If Walker is a voice of womanism, Meridian is its literal embodiment, becoming a saint-like figure.

Spelman, as Saxon, is depicted as a finishing school for women of the black upper class, a place where the Civil Rights movement is ignored because it isn't ladylike. The self-centeredness of the residential college experience that is celebrated in Stover at Yale is critiqued here. The rewards that accrue to the joiner and class leader aren't even mentioned, as Meridian is an outsider, partially by choice. In classic college novels, such as Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College, Dolly's College Experiences, and even the somewhat more redeeming Anne of the Island, having a close-knit group of girlfriends that strives to honor their class and college is portrayed as morally and mentally correct. Outsiders either see the errors of their ways or are lost. In Meridian, it is everyone else who is lost, while Meridian follows a true path, invisible to the rest.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Demon of Writing and the Myth of the Paperless Office

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork
Ben Kafka

The Myth of the Paperless Office
Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper

Here we have two academic books about paper, one new and one old. The Myth of the Paperless Office deals with paper from the perspective of organizational behavior; The Demon of Writing deals with it in a manner that is historical, psychoanalytic, and political. Paperless addresses the uses of paper in the service of (presumably "good" - although readers may have their own opinions on the World Bank) organizational ends; Demon addresses how paper can both serve and subvert organizational ends, and those ends are, if not quite interrogated, at least critiqued. Both address what Paperless calls the affordances of paper - its ability to be written upon, shared, lost, or soaked in water and disposed of in the Seine.

That Sellen and Harper's book is readable isn't shocking, as both are industrial reseachers accustomed to explaining things to outsiders. More surprising is that Kafka's book is readable as well - Kafka writes with an accessible, even conversational, tone rare among those fluently conversant with Barthes and Zizek (admittedly, chapter four really does require at least a masters degree in a postmodern-influenced social sciences/humanities discipline to get through with one's self-esteem intact). This, surely, is one of the reasons it's become a hit, as much as academic books are ever "a hit." Humor even surfaces occasionally, as in Kafka's characterization of certain highly visible records as the "'charismatic megafauna' of paperwork," or in Sellen and Harper's discussion of their research at the World Bank. The thought of two ethnographers studying 500 economists is nearly irresistible to anyone in the social sciences, although the authors play this one straight.

In some sense, both volumes deal with the interplay of ideas, objects, and people, and the consequences of this interplay. "Not only was power resistible; it was water soluble," Kafka tells us. Sellen and Harper stay away from bigger ideas such as power in favor of ground-level questions such as Does it work? The latter book is outdated in some ways, of course; 11 years is a long time in tech. Today's entrepreneurs are unlikely to tear stories out of newspapers or carry beepers, and the book's prediction that the coming e-readers would be much more used for work than leisure reading has turned out precisely backwards. Yet much else has not changed; recently my students complained about e-textbooks because they don't have some of the affordances of paper, such as tactilely knowing how far you are in a document, or enabling a visual memory of where a particular passage is located. Sellen and Harper excel at documenting these issues and explaining why they aren't going away, even with technology-marinated generations replacing presumably hidebound older generations.

What both books bring home is how the technology of administration - be it oral, paperwork, or on a computers - shapes how work is done, but that shaping has limits. Replacing paper with computers doesn't endow computer screens with flexibility, portability, or high data density, just a few of the things paper excels at. But it would have freed up any number of copyists in the French Revolution to do more substantive work.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bleeding Edge

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is back with what everyone notes is his first New York City novel, despite the fact that he has hidden in plain sight here for years. Given his penchant for technology and paranoia, it's almost inevitable that 9/11 is Bleeding Edge's fulcrum, and given that he rarely writes about cultural moments at their heyday, it's fully inevitable that the aftermath of the dot-com bubble casts a long shadow over the scene - never nostalgically, of course.

It's a New York novel not just in setting but in its wealth of references, many of which stop short of name-dropping. (I imagine ladies who lunch discuss handbags in the same terms.) One gets used to missing some references when reading Pynchon; he writes as if every reader is working with the same map of ideas that he is. It isn't necessary to understand all of them, but the reader needs to understand some significant fraction of them. (At the time, I attributed the fact that I was one of very few students to finish Gravity's Rainbow when it was assigned in college to some superiority on my part; most likely, it was simply that I was a history of science major in addition to English.)

Some of these references are absolutely necessary, and Pynchon tends to write them as such: In Bleeding Edge, familiarity with the events of 9/11 is assumed. Others aren't, and catching them is simply a reward for in-group status. For those who have read both, it's hard not to consider Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice as something of a matched set. Both are "minor" Pynchons, in the sense that they follow one character through one plot line; both are detective novels at heart, drawing on the noir tradition. Vice is set in LA, while Edge is set in New York City. These are cities most English speakers know something about, even if they've never visited, and both books are rife with references only those with quality time under their belts will get.

I've lived in New York for two years now, which in no sense makes me a "New Yorker," but it does provide me with a working knowledge of Manhattan, where most of the book's action takes place. I have seen many of the locales named and can identify many of those that aren't - the Ukrainian dumpling place in the LES is Veselka, for example. Throughout the book, I wondered how much non-New Yorkers would appreciate it. (There are far more Americans who have never been to NYC than the average New Yorker assumes, of course.) But I was able to enjoy Vice despite my scantier knowledge of LA, as someone who has both a New Yorker's and an Oregonian's attitude toward that place, and I ultimately concluded Bleeding Edge likely works in the same way.

What worked less well was the time spent online, in the world of DeepArcher, which is more or less a MMORPG minus the G. The version of future in which we use the internet as an imitation of geography stopped being relevant not long after Snow Crash - it works only in newer novels such as Reamde when it is explicitly a World of Warcraft-like game rather than the internet as a whole. Metaphors of physical travel from site to site went out with Geocities, and avatars reached their height of development with the Wii. It's hard to see DeepArcher as having any real bearing on what the internet actually looked like in 2001 - to say nothing of working well with the bandwidth of the time. It may be narratively easier to write the internet as place, but the result here is that the usually clear-sighted Pynchon seems to have slipped into a Gernsback Continuum moment.

This oddity aside, Bleeding Edge is vintage Pynchon, which means the top of your head is likely to come off at least a few times during reading, and that the NSA is probably having a hell of a time trying to grasp the meaning of his internet search history.