November Reading

A pretty typical reading month here, with some SF and some English Lit.

Some months seem like they go on forever — it feels like several months ago that I read Acceptance, the third and final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a solid ending to the series. VanderMeer maintains the story’s integrity throughout, providing enough sense of the source and scope of the Area X anomaly to satisfy the reader without waving his authorial arms around.

The trilogy could be about anything — write an intelligent-sounding sentence and it would probably sound like a viable thematic statement. acceptance“The unknowable future and the way it transforms how we see the past” — I just made that up on the fly but it seems credible and I could probably back it up with something from the text. This is not me faulting the trilogy for thematic nebulousness. A really good novel, a novel with depth, should be “about” a lot of things. VanderMeer touches on the shortcomings of the scientific method, the chasm between modern masculine vs. feminine approaches to the world, the limits of knowability, and human dissociation from nature. It’s possible I’m just riffing here but honestly all of this gets a look-in at some point.

The story itself loses some of its horror and intensity, however. Annihilation was a fleet, terrifying beast of a book, a truly unsettling reading experience. The second book, Authority, was different, a portrayal of men and women trying to get a handle on horror using the frankly inadequate tools of systems analysis and project management; and the streak of satire served as a really effective counterpoint to the disorienting immediacy of the first book. Acceptance, though, suffers a bit from loose-end-itis; its strongest line is the story of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper in pre-anomaly Area X who had previously been a minor off-stage character. The material about previously-explored characters — the psychologist/director, the biologist/Ghost Bird, Control — occasionally feels like it’s marking time. And VanderMeer’s style, crisp and evocative in the first two books, has started to calcify a bit by the time we reach Acceptance. What was vivid and haunting in Annihilation has hardened into mannerism; but VanderMeer is testing the limits of his talent here, almost certainly growing it in the process. No shame in that.

From the unsettling shores of Area X to some unsettling islands: I read a few stories from a collection of Christopher Priest’s “Dream Archipelago” stories. dream-archipelagoOf the six stories, I’d read three of them previously in the collection An Infinite Summer. The three new ones were all strong entries. The shortest and least satisfying was “The Equatorial Moment,” a vignette of military jet crews experiencing the time vortex that looms over the islands. The other two revisited two horror-infused elements of Priest’s The Islanders, with the return of the repulsive insect species known as the thryme in “The Cremation” and a journey back to the tower-haunted island of Seevl in “The Miraculous Cairn.” In each tale, the horror element serves to charge an intriguing story of sexual misunderstanding. Great, great additions to Priest’s ongoing project.

Next was the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, Early Visions: 1772-1804. coleridgeColeridge has long been one of my cultural heroes, a troubled visionary whose poetic gifts were betrayed by his own internal weather. I would have liked a deeper dive into the fantasy/supernatural poetry here (most of Coleridge’s signature poems were written in the years covered by this volume, before he turned to criticism and the Biographia Literaria). Really only the conversational poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode” get what feels like a thorough treatment, while the more outré stuff like “Kubla Khan” and the Ancient Mariner get slighted — along with the incredibly influential “Christabel,” though possibly that will get more space in the second volume once it’s finally published in 1820.

In any case, I reckon Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner get plenty of attention elsewhere — John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 study The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination is a maniacally comprehensive and entertaining investigation into the reading and experiences that influenced those two poems. Holmes, meanwhile, does a fine job of portraying Coleridge the man in all his dreamy, mercurial imperfections.

Titus Andronicus is considered the least of Shakespeare’s plays, tituswidely derided for the almost Grand Guignol graphic violence: amid the rape and the murder and feeding of kids to their parents there are at least three hands chopped off (the image here is of Livinia, post-handectomy and -tonguectomy, from a 2006 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). I read it because I flipped open my Oxford Shakespeare and came across the “Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves/And set them upright at their dear friends’ door” speech from Aaron, the moor who serves as the villain. Nothing else in the play really matches that speech’s outlandish malevolence, but it’s still a fun read. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for Titus Andronicus mentions a 1970 Finnish TV adaptation:

In 1970, Finnish TV channel Yle TV1 screened an adaptation of the play written and directed by Jukka Sipilä, starring Leo Lastumäki as Titus, Iris-Lilja Lassila as Tamora, Eugene Holman as Aaron and Maija Leino as Lavinia.

Eugene Holman! I’m assuming there weren’t two black Eugene Holmans in Finland in 1970, so presumably this is the same Eugene Holman who spent a few days introducing us American students to the Finnish language back in 1987. It’s hard to imagine the mild-mannered linguist taking on the role. Anyway, small world.

I read a few entries from a Penguin collection of Borges essays orlando(“Literary Pleasure” in particular was good) and the first fifty pages of Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones (which I lost interest in — I didn’t buy the Stone Age setting at all). And I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I’ve been meaning to read it for years; I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a sort of Bloomsbury/Highlander mash-up. So I was surprised to find it disappointing — the tone is too arch and the style too clotty for real pleasure in reading, at least until it reaches Woolf’s own era when her natural fluency of perception and detail returns. There’s a great moment of cognitive dissonance in this section:

Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying — but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.

What a lovely description of the SFnal impulse, and a great way to end the month’s reading.

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What I’m Reading – Sept 9

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Here’s what I’m reading this month:

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard — or as my wife calls it, My Snuggle. I finished this last night and found the exploration of one man’s life, in all its excruciating minutiae, utterly gripping. Knausgaard goes against a whole slew of writing conventions, describing in paragraphs what most writers would gloss over in a clause and shooting off on tangents that go on for pages. It’s a studied artlessness, with often-mundane writing about mundane experiences that nevertheless illuminates a life from the inside. Joshua Rothman, writing in The New Yorker, puts it well:

I don’t think Knausgaard is working up to some big philosophy of life, at least not consciously. Instead, he’s amplifying his life, playing it as loud as he can, trying to get inside it — and letting its vibrations get inside of him. The struggle doesn’t “mean” anything, but it is something: not a tune, but a frequency, uniquely his. Perhaps we each have our own.

Book 1 (there are six volumes, though so far only the first three have been translated into English) focuses mostly on his adolescence for the first half, and the death of his father for the second half. Knausgaard, born in 1968, is only two years older than me, so a lot of our cultural touchstones are the same despite the fact that he grew up in Norway and I grew up in Northern California. Very interesting stuff — I’m sure I’ll get to the second book in the next year.

Post Office is my first Bukowski. I’m not really a nostalgie de la boue sort, but I got it into my head to read him for some reason. I’m about halfway through — it’s pretty funny in spots, but there’s nothing transformative here for me and I probably won’t seek out his other work.

I’m hoping to get more out of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This will be my first Sebald, despite several friends’ encouragement over the years. I have a soft spot for books about eastern England (I’d still like to give Graham Swift’s Waterland a re-read some day) and a soft spot for books named after astronomical phenomena, so…what could go wrong?

I’m pretty excited to read Authority, the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Annihilation, the first book, was unsettling in all the right ways. The intriguing premise felt grounded in the real world, despite the overwhelming, otherworldly horror, by the portrayal of the damaged protagonist and the close attention to the details of the Florida setting. Really just a masterfully controlled novel.

The Damned United will be my second attempt at a David Peace novel. I tried Nineteen Seventy-Four a few years ago but found it just too bleak and nihilistic despite Peace’s evident literary ability. Although crime novels aren’t usually something I seek out, I was attracted by the grubbiness of northern England in the ’70s — all that rain and tacky outerwear! But ultimately the disregard for human dignity, the casual brutality the author displayed for the characters and the characters displayed for each other, defeated me. I’m hoping the soccer football angle of this one will make it funnier, though still in a grim way. If I dig it I’ll definitely put his book about the 80s miner strike, GB84, on my list as well.