2013 Reading Review — debacles and farragos and cock-ups

I read fewer books this year than usual; we had a logistically complicated move back to the States after two years in Munich, followed by the need to refurnish our home in Seattle from scratch. Nevertheless, I got some good reading in because otherwise I’d have to jump off a bridge.

I’ve written about some of my favorite novels from this year already (links are to my reviews for these):

Light – M. John Harrison
Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks
The Goshawk – T.H. White
Blindsight – Peter Watts
Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

And here are a few other (non-SF) novels I especially liked:

Unconditional Surrender, by Evelyn Waugh — this is the last book in Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” trilogy (I read the first two books at the end of 2012). I’d tried Waugh before, but couldn’t finish Brideshead Revisited; it was just too obnoxious. But his World War II trilogy is richly satisfying, without the painfully arch tone of Brideshead — or of Decline and Fall, which I read later in the year. Waugh follows the passive, depressive Guy Crouchback through debacles and farragos and cock-ups, then expands his view to take in a whole assortment of deftly drawn characters going about their bizarre wartime business. Great stuff.

mystery-edwin-drood-charles-dickens-paperback-cover-artThe Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens — I’m not as big of a Dickens fan as some folks, e.g. my mom, who has read all of his books several times over. But both of these were great and I think this Dickens kid may have a bright future if he keeps it up. Pickwick has a great larkish feel to it, while Drood has a wonderfully obsessive atmosphere. Edwin Drood’s uncle John Jasper is a superb portrait of darkly obsessive, inappropriate, unrequited love; and I would’ve happily read a much longer novel just about the young retired sailor Mr. Tartar with his pleasant disposition and tidy lodgings. Really the phrase “pleasant disposition and tidy lodgings” perfectly describes the sort of rocket-fueled, tension-sprung engine that could drive any novel.

Anna of the Five Towns, by Arnold Bennett — speaking of tension, this 1902 novel was one of my most suspenseful reads of the year. Good old Victorian craftsmanship at its most heartbreaking, it tells the story of Anna Tellwright’s navigation amid the demands of her station in life and her miserly father. Definitely a read that snuck up on me — I really wasn’t expecting the narrative power Bennett brings to bear on what feels like it would have been a common scenario in industrially expanding Victorian England.

Also, my favorite non-fiction reads of the year:

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence, by Geoff Dyer — this was a re-read of one of my all-time favorites. Dyer procrastinates and prevaricates as his intention to write a scholarly study of D.H. Lawrence is undermined by his own fecklessness and endlessly charming self-loathing. The opening lines dive right in:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself. If, I said to myself, if I can apply myself to a sober — I can remember saying that word ‘sober’ to myself, over and over, until it acquired a hysterical, near-demented ring — if I can apply myself to a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence then that will force me to pull myself together.

9780312429461Dyer spends more time on his own travels and neuroses than he does on Lawrence, yet somehow manages to illuminate something essential in Lawrence’s difficult, mercurial identity as well.

Fun coincidence here: While we were living in Munich I read a New York Times article by Dyer that mentioned in passing an Atkinson Grimshaw exhibition at London’s Guildhall Museum; it was mentioned in the context of the use of Grimshaw’s paintings on Penguin Classics covers, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood (“To reread any of them with different cover art is inconceivable: ‘Edwin Drood’ is Grimshaw’s painting.” — see above for the image). I had always loved Penguin covers using Grimshaw’s art, and I never pass up an excuse to go to London, so my son and I made a quick jaunt over to visit my dad (who was living out near Greenwich at the time for a consulting job). The exhibition was well worth the trip — thanks Dyer and Grimshaw!

A Reader’s Book of Days, by Tom Nissley — I wrote about this earlier, it’s crammed with good stuff. Reading it through, rather than just browsing by day, it starts to feel like a bizarrely skewed yet consummate history of world literature.

allroadsNow All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis — Thomas has always been one of my favorite poets. I think like a lot of his fans, I felt like he was a secret discovery back when I first came upon “Adlestrop” and “Rain” (in my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, back in college). He was actually more well-known and influential than I realized at the time, though; and in the twenty years since then his renown has only grown. Hollis does an excellent job of exploring his influence on other writers, in addition to his life and untimely death in World War I. I also ordered a Penguin selection of his poems and prose — I already had his collected poems in a Faber edition but it was great to dig into some of the fine journalism and travel writing he resented as so much hackwork.

Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger — Thesiger was one of the last Westerners to explore the Arabian peninsula’s murkier reaches before oil money poured in to develop, and corrupt, the region. His exploits are harrowing but he always presents them in an off-hand, understated style. This reminded me quite a bit of Fitzroy Maclean’s equally excellent memoir Eastern Approaches — British explorers and soldiers in the post-Burton mold, making their last crazy-brave forays into the world’s darkest, most dangerous corners as their empire collapses around them.

All in all a good reading year — looking forward to 2014.

Quote #13

“‘The French mathematician, Jacques Hadamard…He was the one who proved the Prime Number theorem that has you in such ecstasies…he says there are four stages to mathematical discovery. Not very different from the experience of the artist or poet, if you think about it. The first is to study and be familiar with what is known. The next is to let these ideas turn in your mind, as the earth regenerates by lying fallow between plantings. Then — with luck — there is the flash of insight, the illuminating moment when you discover something new and feel in your bones that it must be true. The final stage is to verify — to subject that epiphany to the rigors of mathematical proof…’

Abdul Karim feels that if he can simply go through Hadamard’s first two stages, perhaps Allah will reward him with a flash of insight. And perhaps not. If he had hopes of being another Ramanujan, those hopes are gone now. But no true Lover has ever turned from the threshold of the Beloved’s house, even knowing he will not be admitted through the doors.”

– Vandana Singh, “Infinities”

I Am Lame (The Film Version!)

I’ve seen one movie on Film Comment’s list of the 50 Best Films of 2013. One! It was Gravity.

gravityMy moviegoing is pretty much limited to things I’ll watch with either my wife or my son; or, more and more rarely, both. My wife can’t watch violence, because she finds the modern portrayal of it in films or television to be morbid and sadistic (though she’s usually fine watching people throw punches or shoot each other in the less visceral pre-80s style where there’s no crunching bones and jets of blood and graphic taunts). I admire this, really, but it limits our movie-watching to a surprising degree. She also has no interest in science fiction.

My son, meanwhile, has pretty typical tastes for a 13-year-old: he likes comedies, action, and science fiction. Will Ferrell shows up a lot. Superheroes show up a lot. If Will Ferrell plays Ant-Man, we’ll probably watch it.

In addition, I rarely watch movies on my own. If I have time to myself, I generally use it for bookish stuff like reading or writing (or this blog). There’s a whole slew of movies I’d like to watch but I can’t quite justify the time to myself, so it’s generally something I do when I can justify it as a semi-social family activity.

Given all that, there’s some films I’d definitely like to see here. Realistically I won’t get to the foreign-language films, which is a shame. I miss subtitles, but I’ll give myself a bit of a pass on that one as I watched plenty of films in German while living in Munich.

So here’s the list of potential watches from Film Comment’s list:

Me + Wife:

  • Before Midnight
  • American Hustle — might be a bit of tough sell for moments of violence
  • Blue Jasmine

Me + Son:

  • Upstream Color — probably in a few years, once we get around to seeing Primer as well

Me + Wife + Son:

  • Inside Llewyn Davis — both wife and son like Coen Bros. movies, thankfully
  • Gravity — re-watch, wife hasn’t seen it but might like it
  • Her
  • All Is Lost
  • Captain Phillips

This is all a pretty far cry from my 20s, before I was married, when I’d burn through Criterion Classics laserdiscs at an alarming rate. (Yep, owned a laserdisc player. CAV vs. CLV! Kurosawa! Kubrick! Antonioni!)

Some Thoughts on “Man of Steel”

I finally saw Man of Steel a few nights back. It was about what I expected; usually my feeling for this sort of movie is that I judge it pretty leniently while totally seeing the point of view of those who hated it. I can see why someone might find a film like this charmless or leaden or bombastic, but enough of my childhood love for superheroes still lingers that I can’t quite dismiss it. My semi-random thoughts:

  • It’s probably impossible to shoehorn into one movie the Krypton backstory, Clark’s childhood and youth, his wandering years, his transformation into Superman, and the battle for Earth against Team Zod. At least one of them has got to go (hence Superman and Superman II). You’ve got two-and-a-half hours to tell your story — that is precious real estate, man. Don’t spend five minutes with Superman engaging in a CGI chessefest fight with the tentacles of the world-engine, don’t plug in a rushed flashback of his father dying nonsensically in a tornado or another one of Clark redundantly refusing to fight a batch of bullies, and don’t spend a whole chunk of that real estate with a needless sequence of Superman and Lois captive on the enemy vessel. And absolutely don’t spend time on this whole Codex thing; don’t even use the word Codex.
  • The first half of the movie feels awfully choppy and half-baked. There’s probably a million blogposts and articles out there diagnosing how to fix it, but to my mind it would’ve been best to have the first forty-five minutes following Lois as she tracks down this mysterious super-powered do-gooder, with a flashback to each actual event springing naturally from her interview with each witness. You might have to leave out the whole Krypton sequence at the start but that was a bit of a hash anyway. It’s hard for me to judge how elegantly the 1978 Superman did it, because it’s so integral to my sense of the movies (I was seven years old when I saw it in the theater), but the whole pre-cape-and-tights hour of the ’78 version feels perfect to me in its pacing and emphasis.
  • One of the few moments that just felt right in the first half of this movie is Lois following Clark up onto and into the ice when he’s investigating the spacecraft. Man-of-Steel-Trailer-Kryptonian-ShipThat should have been the climax of that first act following Lois, with Clark always on the periphery: both she and Clark finding what they’ve been looking for and finally meeting. Unfortunately, in the actual version, we’ve literally met this woman five minutes earlier. Amy Adams can make a character instantly sympathetic but the script, directing, and editing should’ve helped her out a bit.
  • Meanwhile, pretty much everyone has complained about the wholesale destruction in Smallville and Metropolis in the movie’s second half — specifically, the fact that Superman isn’t making much of an effort to protect civilians. But I felt like this was when the movie started to find its feet. They make it clear that Clark has basically never even thrown a punch in his life; suddenly he has to take on a bunch of superpowered überwarriors in hand-to-hand combat. He’s got a full plate just staying alive and in the fight. There’s a bit of resonance here with his (human) father telling him “there’s more at stake here than our lives or the lives of those around us” — to put it brutally, a certain level of collateral damage is acceptable if you’re trying to neutralize a larger threat to Earth as a whole.
  • But on the other hand, Zack Snyder has never struck me as someone who’s skillfully planting those kinds of subtle thematic call-backs in his movies. And on the other other hand, ugh — once superhero movies start making the case for “acceptable collateral damage” we’re probably knee-deep in an ugly worldview that’s a little too close to what our post-WW2 imperial foreign policy has curdled into.
  • The comics-fandom fuss about Superman killing Zod seems weird. Basically, Supes kills Zod to prevent him from killing a handful of innocent people, realizing that he’ll never be able to stop him as long as he’s alive. Then he roars with despair at what he’s done. But back in Superman II, he throws Zod and his cronies into an icy chasm after they’ve lost their superpowers — in other words, once they’re safely neutralized, and after Superman brutally crushes Zod’s hand. Then Reeve and Kidder sort of wriggle their eyebrows and smirk about it. I mean, come on, which is worse?
  • Solid actors all around — Laurence Fishburne really sells the moment when he decides to stay with the intern trapped in the rubble. I found that quite moving, especially in conjunction with Superman destroying the world-engine. It felt like one of the few moments in the film that worked exactly the way it was intended to, despite the silly tentacle fight immediately preceding it.
  • Henry Cavill is so handsome he edges into uncanny valley territory. The guy looks like a Muppet. Good casting choice though, I love the last look he gives the bully in the bar, sort of a baffled “man, I will never figure out why humans are such aggressive little shits sometimes.”
  • Dr. Emil Hamilton needed to take on a comic relief role here. I usually hate the schematic feel of the comic relief role, and overall I liked the serious tone of the movie — it felt less po-faced than I had expected based on reviews. But they still really needed someone commenting on the ludicrous stuff going on in order to defuse its ludicrousness. Richard Schiff is great but we really needed Jonah Hill saying “I can’t believe you just said ‘it’s supposed to go in all the way'” and “Am I the only one getting a kinky catsuit vibe off that Kryptonian chick?”


    Ich bin deine Huckleberry.

  • Speaking of which: I thought Antje Traue did a great job, and boy does she have a lovely German name. I almost wish my name were “Antje Traue.” But Ursa from Superman II profoundly stirred the libido of 7-year-old me and will always remain my favorite Kryptonian lady psychopath.
  • Some special effects that struck me as particularly neato-burrito: the cleanly columnar pillars of fire shooting up at Krypton’s destruction; the cars and debris floating up and then thudding back down around the ship in Metropolis; those cars then later instantaneously pancaking on the ground.
  • It’s a personal thing but I’m always bugged when the question of language is glossed over. All the Kryptonians are fluent in English, even Jor-El’s ghost. How does that happen?

Capitol Hill Book Buying, December 2013

Yesterday afternoon I drove up to Capitol Hill in the damn freezing cold to take a look at science books at Ada’s Technical Books. It’s been a while since I’ve been up on 15th Avenue — in the late 90s my wife and I lived on 18th (around the corner from the Singles apartment building) and 15th was our main drag. We’d eat at Coastal Kitchen and Hopscotch (where I first tried spaetzle, igniting a powerful love affair that later carried me through many a winter night in Germany) and rent VHS movies at On 15th Video, and browse used books at Horizon Books. But once our son was born — at Group Health on 15th Ave, right down the street — we moved to Queen Anne and we’ve been here ever since.

9781848310872-532x760Sadly, Hopscotch has been gone for years now; meanwhile, Ada’s just recently moved into the spot where Horizon Books used to be. It’s pretty swank — they replaced the charming but rickety old house that Horizon was in with a fancy, white, high-ceilinged building that includes a cafe in addition to the bookstore. They don’t have a huge selection but I did find Introducting Fractals, which is in the same series as the book on quantum theory that I read last month. It looks like it’s right up my son’s alley, since he digs learning about hidden mathematical patterns in the world around us. So a good find for Christmas.

I also stopped at Twice Sold Tales — the commentor MKUltra over at Science Fiction Ruminations mentioned it — and made a few good finds.


I read Galaxies Like Grains of Sand back in college — it was my first Aldiss, and I’ve been a fan ever since. TheGreenManLooking forward to a re-read there. The Green Man is described on the back cover as “a violent, fast-paced novel of ancient Britain — a brutal land steeped in wizardry, revenge and sinister superstitions” (but apparently not steeped in the Oxford comma). I read Treece’s Viking saga a few years ago and enjoyed it without actually retaining a single detail of it, which I would argue is probably the purest sort of reading experience. In the moment! This one has a cover of unsurpassed awesomeness — if I were the big green guy I wouldn’t be turning my back to that sultry half-dressed lady with the shiv. Treece wrote a ton of historical Britain-based fiction that skirted the divide between kids’ fiction and adults’, which is a sub-sub-sub-genre I have a real weakness for (another writer in that sub-sub-sub-genre is the magnificent Rosemary Sutcliff).

pavaneKeith Roberts is criminally under-appreciated. Most folks know Pavane, which got a re-release last year bearing the classic Leo and Diane Dillon cover from the original Ace Science Fiction Specials edition. But for my money The Chalk Giants is a better book, or at least a more vital one. It’s easy to see why Pavane is held in such high esteem: it’s decorous and stately, like its title dance, and it shows a classic “literariness” in its restraint and careful structure. But The Chalk Giants is an ambitious, shamanistic mess — or at least appears to be a mess, until at the end it resolves perfectly into a survey of human culture at its roots. Pavane is Tolstoy and The Chalk Giants is Dostoevsky.

The Furies, meanwhile, is about giant insects swarming over Britain after a nuclear holocaust, so I’m not sure where that’d slot in with the Russian writers analogy. Gogol, probably.

mervyn-peakeThe last two are, hopefully, a treat. I haven’t yet read Mervyn Peake and didn’t even know until a few weeks ago that his Gormenghast trilogy was published in a set of Penguin Modern Classics. So it was a real treat to look up at the new arrivals shelf and see these two sitting there. Unfortunately, they only had the first and third books of the set, Titus Groan and Titus Alone. so I’ll have to keep looking for the second volume, Gormenghast proper.

Of all the Penguins, the Modern Classics from the ’60s and ’70s are my absolute favorites, with their sea-green spines (though as I mentioned before, I prefer the pre-Facetti era) and it’s hard to resist buying them no matter the title.

I passed on buying a few books, carrying them around the store until the end before replacing them on the shelves: Geoffrey Household’s freaky Dance of the Dwarfs (which I’ve read already but no longer own, and would like to) and a pair of Horatio Hornblower novels in the orange-spined Penguin editions from the 70s. I read the first Hornblower book a few years back and enjoyed it, as well as Forester’s Death to the French and his cannon-as-protagonist novel The Gun. So at some point I’d like to read more Hornblower, but I couldn’t quite pull the trigger on these two.

Quote #12

“I thought you just told me they used radio.”

“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”

“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much.”

– Terry Bisson, “They’re Made Out of Meat” — go read the whole thing, it’s a great, super-short story.

Review – Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan_WakesI was pretty skeptical about Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It looked like entry-level SF being cynically marketed as a sort of big-budget sci-fi blockbuster. The cover even looks like a movie poster, a splashy starship-porn cover with the title in big bold sans-serif font; a blurb on the cover of the third book in the series explicitly makes the comparison. It’s even being developed as a TV series.

But Leviathan Wakes turns out to be a hell of a good read. No one here was just looking to cash in; the writers are clearly fascinated by the world and characters they’ve created, and they’ve really taken care to craft a satisfying story.

The setting and tone is mid-future space opera (the century is never mentioned) when humanity has spread out into the solar system, dividing up into three simmeringly hostile factions: Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance that advocates for the populations in the asteroid belts and the moons of the gas giants. There’s a fair amount of political and economic background, skillfully explored and effectively integrated with the action.

The story follows two characters in alternating chapters, narrated in third-person limited: Miller, a cop on the asteroid Ceres, investigating the disappearance of an Earth woman at the behest of her moneyed family; and Holden, the executive officer on an ice-mining vessel. Their narratives merge around the book’s halfway point; over the course of the novel, both of their circumstances change drastically, as various ships are destroyed out from under Holden and the increasingly tense political situation caused by the repercussions of those ships’ destruction complicates Miller’s investigation. The situation throughout the solar system grows more dire, with attacks and reprisals by the three factions, until a sinister experiment conducted on a remote research station raises the stakes from high to really quite horrifyingly stratospheric.

The characterization is solid, though at times it wobbles a bit — at some point in the book’s second half, other characters start discussing what a paragon of righteousness Holden is, and it feels less like a character’s development and more like the authors’ conception of the character simply changed over the course of writing the book.

Miller, on the other hand, is a marvelously compelling character who thankfully manages to avoid most of the standard detective clichés. He’s more poached than hard-boiled, a man who only gradually realizes that his life has deteriorated to the point that it can’t really be put back together again. The arc of his story is well-developed and even quite touching, ending with a strange, poignant quasi-reunion that provides him with a sort of redemption. It’s very rare that I get “something in my eye” when reading a novel, but I definitely teared up as I sat in a coffee shop reading the resolution of Miller’s own story.

The supporting characters are generally fun, especially Holden’s shipmates Naomi and Amos (there’s another shipmate, Alex, who felt a bit underwritten until later in the book). The dialogue has a nice dry wit, and the prose is particularly fine in places — most consistently when the authors take some time with their characters’ states of mind:

He [Miller] was aware of having two different minds. One was the Miller he was used to, familiar with. The one who was thinking about what was going to happen when he got out…it was the shortsighted, idiotic part of him that couldn’t conceive of his own personal extinction, and it thought surely, surely there was going to be an after.

The other Miller was different. Quieter. Sad, maybe, but at peace. He’d read a poem many years before called “The Death-Self,” and he hadn’t understood the term until now. A knot at the middle of his psyche was untying. All the energy he’d put into holding things together — Ceres, his marriage, his career, himself — was coming free. He’d shot and killed more men in the past day than in his whole career as a cop. He’d started — only started — to realize that he’d actually fallen in love with the object of his search after he knew for certain that he’d lost her. He’d seen unequivocally that the chaos he’d dedicated his life to holding at bay was stronger and wider and more powerful than he would ever be. No compromise he could make would be enough. His death-self was unfolding in him, and the dark blooming took no effort. It was a relief, a relaxation, a long, slow exhale after decades of holding it in.

There are a lot of elements of hard SF in the descriptions of space travel: orbital mechanics, propulsion thrust and how it can be used for gravity on a space vessel, how high-G maneuvers would pretty much ravage the human body. If you want a realistic depiction of how transportation in a solar system-wide civilization would feel, this is it. The one thing that felt off was the lack of any sense that the planets actually revolve around the sun at different rates. In this case, it felt like the planets were all lined up in a straight line on one side of the sun, rather than scattered all around the ecliptic with some on the other side of the sun (not even mentioning asteroids like Ceres and Eros in their own orbits).

The action scenes are brisk and engaging, with the punchy, nervous feel of real peril. Unlike several books I’ve read recently, Leviathan Wakes doesn’t feel rushed and frenetic at the climax, with the authors nervously trying to backfill excitement into a story where it doesn’t quite fit. Instead they let the danger they’ve set in motion, as well as the consequences of the choices the characters (and the whole human race) have made throughout the story, evolve with a tension that feels both organic and thrilling. I’d been dreading some sort of bombastic blockbuster climax as I read, but what I got instead was a skillful balance of ratcheting tension and honestly earned emotion.

I’m not a huge watcher of dramatic TV series, but I’ll make a point of watching this one when it airs.

Stray observations:

  • I posted recently about bits of the Finnish language in English-language SF, so it was a bit of a thrill to find a passage of Finnish here amid the random babble of a proto-intelligence incorporating bits of human consciousness into its matrix: “…ja minä nousivat kuolleista ja halventaa kohtalo pakottaa minut ja siskoni…” According to my buddy Dave Google this translates (slightly incorrectly—nousivat should be nousevat) as: …and I will rise from the dead and decry the fate that forces me and my sister…”, which, yeah…that’s super-creepy.
  • Speaking of super-creepy: going in, I really wasn’t expecting a horror element here — a pleasant, and very thrilling, surprise.
  • On the other hand, the character names are disappointingly unimaginative. Probably this was an attempt to ground the characters in realism, and I’m not asking for exotically Banksian Culture names; but every time I saw the name Fred Johnson I had to wince. Of course my name’s Smith, so maybe I’m more sensitive to mundane names than most folks.
  • I only now got the pun in the title — Leviathan’s wake. Right? Because Leviathan’s a sea monster? Incidentally the word Leviathan never shows up in the book.

Quote #11

“The introduction of open-minded, multiple-level, continuously developing, on-line, operational, dynamic, economical, expanding, structural-functional, field-jumping, field-ignoring theory is needed.”

– John C. Lilly, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (used as the epigraph for Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere by Richard M. Doyle)