February Reading

The goal this year (well one of the goals, it’s not like it’s my only aim in life) is to reduce the number of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. Clearly this means I have to read more books than I buy, and so far I’m on the credit side. This year I’ve only bought three books, all at my buddy Tom’s independent bookstore Phinney Books: Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Neuromancer (which I already read twenty years ago, so it doesn’t count against me).

This all applies only to physical books. I’ve bought six e-books in 2015:

(It only just occurred to me now that, since Priest and Allan are partners, two of these purchases contribute to their household income.) E-books don’t stare at me accusingly from the bookshelves, so no matter how eager I am to get to some of these they might have to wait a while.

I did read a different Christopher Priest novel this month though: The Prestige. As a longtime fan of both Priest and the film version of the book, I suspected that I would find a way to be disappointed by this one, and I was right. prestigeTold mostly through the journals of two dueling magicians in the late Victorian age, with a framing device of a meeting between two of their descendents, the novel feels strangely arid. Priest’s books always have a certain reserve, but in the Dream Archipelago books that reserve reacts against the lush setting and passionate characters to create a powerful tension. In The Prestige the reserve feels sterile — the Victorian age is barely evoked and the relationships as portrayed feel arbitrary. It doesn’t help that it was the source material for a truly compelling film, with vivid performances and some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen.

The book’s last scenes are creepy and unsettling in a very satisfying way, though. In keeping with the structure of a magic trick (I can’t count the number of times my son and I have quoted the movie’s “Every magic trick consists of three parts…” speech at each other, pronouncing three as free in our crappiest Michael Caine impersonations) both book and film lead you to believe you’re experiencing one sort of story only to reveal a sort of surprise genre-shift in the last act. What’s interesting is that the book turns towards horror while the film swerves into science fiction.

Next up are a pair of books with a common subject but diverging approaches: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian. red_marsI enjoyed Red Mars. Some of the characterization feels old-fashioned and maybe even a bit square (along with the names — Americans born in the 1990s with names like Frank, Phyllis and Gene? Really?) but the intrigues and challenges the colonists face are involving, and the intent to portray as realistically as possible humanity’s first interplanetary colonization is necessary and noble. Robinson really commits to his project here, and there’s enough narrative force to keep me interested in the prospect of reading the later two books of the trilogy.

The Martian succeeds in spite of itself. The characters are bland, the dialogue juvenile, and the protrayal of the Martian setting almost entirely non-existent. Really the story of how it got published (blog posts to e-book to national bestseller to upcoming film) feels like a major part of its charm. But I will say the climax is marvelous, a seat-of-the-pants can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong rescue attempt that’s compelling even though you’re pretty sure the guy’s going to get out all right. Also in its favor: my son, who’s more of a hard-science enthusiast than me, really loved it. But I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

I started David Grann’s The Lost City of Z but found it a bit thin, surprising given a) all the positive reviews it received, and b) the subject matter of lost civilizations and disappeared explorers. Grann’s weirdly dismissive summary of the Victorian Age was what finally led me to put the book down for good — I guess between this and The Prestige, poor depictions of the Victorian Age had me in a bit of a huff this month.

I burned through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This was a breakout novel in 2013 about a woman who continually relives her life — honestly you’ve probably read about it everywhere else. life_after_lifeAgain and again while reading it I was reminded, in tone and feel, of William Boyd’s 2002 book Any Human Heart; and like that book it’s full of novelistic pleasures. The variations on Ursula’s early life are fluently done — they never feel onerously repetitive, and Atkinson finds ways to deepen our familiarity with the characters on each run-through, each time observing different events in Ursula’s life, or following events from a different character’s point of view. In particular the portrayal of Ursula’s marriage to Derek Oliphant, in one of her more harrowing lives, is fantastic. Derek-as-sudden-monster maybe feels a bit overdone — do we have to have him dump the poorly poached egg on Ursula’s head? — but the marriage is quickly, skillfully sketched and feels like a whole novel’s worth of story.

In the afterword, Atkinson states that “if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English…not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” It’s a telling statement — the book is laced with clichés of Englishness, bluebells and buttercups and the Blitz, etc. Often it feels a bit derivative, as if Ursula were reliving scenes not from her own life but from various English novels. Here, for instance, is a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach:

Mr. Winton — Archibald — had set up his easel on the sand and was attempting to render a seascape in watery marine smears of blue and green…He thought he might try to put some figures in his painting, it would give a bit of life and “movement,” something his night-school teacher (he took an art class) had encouraged him to introduce into his work.

And here’s a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint-brush…He struck the canvas a hasty violet-black dab. For the landscape needed it. It was too pale — greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so — too pale as usual. The critics would say it was too pale, for he was an unknown man exhibiting obscurely, a favourite with his landladies’ children, wearing a cross on his watch chain, and much gratified if his landladies liked his pictures — which they often did.

The echoes begin to haunt the reader the way Ursula’s past lives haunt her, a literary déja vu. There’s also a bit of business about killing-Hitler-before-it’s-too-late that feels like a distraction — though it’s lovely to read that Ursula lives on Elisabethstrasse when she’s in Munich, a rather short street in the Schwabing neighborhood that we crossed all the time when we lived there.

Last was M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it’s a little opaque and obsessed with the fallenness of the world around us, its disrepair and dismal scuzz. course_of_the_heartHere, though, that fallenness serves the purpose of highlighting the Gnostic impulse at the heart of the story. The characters, having briefly accessed a higher (or at any rate, other) realm in a brief rite in their college days, suffer from the echoes of this act through the rest of their lives — echoes both supernatural and psychological. The narrator’s friends Lucas and Pam remain haunted, uncertain people, adrift amid the squalor of 1980s Northern England, while the narrator himself seems to escape the consequences until, well, he doesn’t.

I’d been eager to read this novel ever since I first encountered excerpts of it in Harrison’s story collection Things That Never Happen, and it didn’t disappoint. Harrison’s books have been a consistent joy in my reading life for the past two years — and I still have Viriconium out there waiting for me, equally promising and threatening, like the Pleroma in The Course of the Heart. Wonderful.

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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.

Quote #20

jacobs-room“Old Professor Huxtable, performing with the method of a clock his change of dress, let himself down into his chair; filled his pipe; chose his paper; crossed his feet; and extracted his glasses. The whole flesh of his face then fell into folds as if props were removed. Yet strip a whole seat of an underground railway carriage of its heads and old Huxtable’s head will hold them all. Now, as his eye goes down the print, what a procession tramps through the corridors of his brain, orderly, quick-stepping, and reinforced, as the march goes on, by fresh runnels, till the whole hall, dome, whatever one calls it, is populous with ideas. Such a muster takes place in no other brain.”

– Virginia Woolf, having a bit of a “Dickens moment” in the otherwise quite unDickensian Jacob’s Room

Virginia Woolf and the Undescribed Internal World

Rereading Joshua Rothman’s marvelous New Yorker article about Virginia Woolf, I’m drawn to this paragraph again and again:

Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.

The whole thing is worth a read but I don’t have much to share about it because I’m keeping that private…

Theory of the Novel

“Virginia Woolf once said that novelists write not in sentences but in chapters. Novelistic form is, in some ways, the achievement of this deep, patient rhythm. Much contemporary fiction, like much contemporary life, has a restless flamboyance that preëmpts such wise shapeliness. In this regard, & Sons seems a contemporary novelistic document, in which cleverness too often substitutes for feeling, and ‘style’ presents itself for continual applause, each page offering bright and punctual plumes.”

James Wood in the New Yorker