31 May 2011


'Twas the vagaries of the Brooklyn Public Library that led to my reading two time-travel narratives in a row. All right, 'twas the vagaries of me having checked out way too many books at once and not being able to renew them because other folks have outstanding holds. But oddly enough daily fines for overdue books have fallen from a whole quarter to 15 cents, so I'm carrying a balance of like $2. Which even I can manage. LIBRARIES MAN THEY ARE THE BEST.

The Anubis Gates
, Tim Powers: Merciful Thoth, this book is amazing! Think I read about it in the introduction to a steampunk anthology I read last year...I have no idea why, as there's not a whirring automaton to be found. There are, however, ancient Egyptian sorcerers for whom touching the Earth is excruciating pain, beggars' guilds, a body-switching hirsute madman, a stoned Samuel Taylor Coleridge wandering blithely through a dungeon of nightmares, disguises and reversals and a dozen OMIGOD THAT'S WHAT THAT MEANT moments (for my money, the best part of a time-travel narrative. Imaginations that can make such stories coalesce earn my everlasting awe). Through it all we follow the adventures of lit professor Brendan Doyle, who's distracted from his frustrated attempts to write a biography of minor 19th-century poet William Ashbless by a truly unbelievable windfall: eccentric business tycoon J. Cochran Darrow offers him thousands of dollars to deliver a lecture on Coleridge to a select group of travelers, who have each paid $1 million in order to travel to a London night in 1810 and hear a lecture by the poet himself. Darrow has discovered a series of gaps along the river of time, distributed in a bell curve around a mysterious event in 1802 (which we are privy to from the prologue); with the application of magic or technology, one can pop out through a gap and re-enter the timestream at any other gap. The Coleridge lecture is, it seems, safely situated in a four-hour window so that the 1983 group can return to their present. As is to be expected, something goes wrong...and Doyle finds himself trapped in 1810 without money or skills, with an inconvenient American accent. Also people keep trying to kill him. The novel has perhaps the best-written action scenes I have ever read, and is fantastic in the most literal sense of the word. Added to my "everybody should read" list for sure.

My "everybody's already read this but me" list got a book shorter with my completion of Audrey Niffenegger's runaway bestseller The Time Traveler's Wife...which in the end I don't think I liked much. Do I need to give a summary? It's about the out-of-order romance of Henry, a librarian who drops in and out of time without warning, and Clare, an artist who meets him for the first time when she is six and he 36 (conversely, he meets her for the first time when he is 28 and she 20). Here are the two things that began to irritate me two-thirds of the way through: 1. his time-jumping is a genetic defect, which is lame; 2. Clare has six devastating miscarriages (due to the babies' intrauterine time travel) before OH LOOK they have a baby--thank goodness because what marriage is complete without children, right--who grows up to be a time traveler like Henry. I hesitate to set an arbitrary number of attempts at pregnancy before one should--for one's physical and emotional health--explore other options for offspring. But it is less than six. I really started to feel Clare was a masochist at that point, and then I started to focus on the core narrative, which is a woman in love and endlessly waiting for an absent, unavailable man, and I became angry about this kind of story being held up as (to quote the Chicago Tribune from the cover) "a soaring celebration of the victory of love over time." Then, you know, they boff for the first time when she is 18 and he's 41. Ewwww. Apparently I'm that "hard-hearted reader who is not moved to tears" (Tribune again)?

27 May 2011

The Emperor of Ice-Cream (Brian Moore)

Brian Moore's The Emperor of Ice-Cream was indirectly recommended to me by Graham Greene. (I'm slowly catching up on references from the letters collection I read a couple of years back.) It appears to be out of print, which is crazy (maybe NYRB Classics will pick up the slack? They reissued his The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne last year). Seriously, go to the library. It's so good.

At heart, it's the WWII-era coming-of-age tale of aimless Gavin Burke, who's chosen to join the Belfast ARP rather than go to college as his Catholic family expects. In fact, they're both contemptuous and angry about his decision: his father hopes fervently that Hitler will triumph over the British, and his son's wearing the oppressors' uniform fills him with disappointment and rage. Gavin, though, is seventeen, secretly agnostic, drinking too much, trying in vain to part the knees of his Irish-virgin girlfriend Sally--and he has no idea what he wants to do with his life. The ARP is a means of putting off adulthood, a means of escape.

But then as now, adulthood is inescapable, try as one might. And even for a grown-up
the catechism rules prevailed. In both worlds, lack of purpose, lack of faith, was the one deadlly sin. In both worlds, the authorities, detecting that sin, arranged one's punishment. All of life's races are fixed and false. You stand at the starting line, knowing you can run as well as the others, but the authorities, those inimical and unknown arbiters, have decreed that you will not get off your marks. They know, those authorities, that your place is with the misfits, that your future will be void.
Yes, this flies straight to my own heart, even as I approach twice Gavin's age. I find that even the outwardly successful feel this, though, that the deck is stacked against us all.

The novel's prose is knifelike and resonant, the characters--from Gavin's snide socialist friend Freddy Hargreaves to their martinet boss, Craig--deep and lucid. The final chapters, dealing with the April 1941 German bombing of Belfast and its aftermath (fully half the homes in the city were damaged), are both horrifying and strangely hopeful: nothing focuses one like tragedy. And for me, it illuminated an aspect of this so-written war that I'd never thought about.

Really: you are all in charge of finding this book, reading it, and telling everyone you know about it. Would be amazing to get it back in print.

26 May 2011

Buffy Season Eight!

(Spoilers? Yes indeedy.)

In early 2007, when I was living in a wee adobe box in Santa Fe, I got an unexpected package from my friend Josh. Inside was the first issue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight. I'd no idea such a marvelous event was even taking place, and it just straight-up made my year. (In fairness, 2007 was a lousy year. Doesn't lessen the excitement.)

I'd never collected individual comics issues before (OK, my sister and I did amass an enormous collection of Archie Double Digests), though not from any snobbery or cooler-than-thou; it becomes really difficult to catch up on this stuff when you didn't grow up reading it, you know? The DC and Marvel universes are decades old and crazy-ass complex...Buffy had seven seasons of crazy-ass complexity behind it, indeed--but it was crazy-ass complexity that was second nature to me. (The musical episode of Season Six is, in fact, my only homegrown Christmas tradition thus far.)

Now the series is through (40 issues--I've got most, having bought the first trade for issues #3-5, and I ran out of $$ for the last arc but read it on NetGalley, because NetGalley is the tits). As a whole, I'd rank Season Eight with the good seasons of the show (per my subjective-of-course opinion, 2 and 5; the great seasons were 3 and 6, the "ehn," 1, 4, and 7--though even those had high points, like the mostly-dialogue-less "Hush" in 4). Picking up around a year after the end of the TV show, it deals with the aftermath of Buffy's momentous decision to "activate" all the potential slayers in the world: from two (due to Buffy's various deaths) to 1,800, most girls working in loosely associated squads. The decision to create what's essentially an uber-race of ass-kicking ladies doesn't sit well with a lot of people, though, including the U.S. military and a mysterious cabal (are there non-mysterious cabals?) led by the charismatic masked Twilight.

Let's let that sink in: the Big Bad in this season is named Twilight. This made my brain explode with happiness. Whedon can swear all he likes it's a coincidence, but I can't imagine him doing any less than seething about the dominant vampire narrative of our time destroying his efforts to undo the helpless-female horror trope; he does pen a line for Buffy about the series, how she lived it, and "[her] vampire was better." There's also an storyline in which Harmony gets her own reality show and vampires become ever so chic, making slayers seem even more like villains, perhaps a response to the defanging of Edward and his ilk?

However: that storyline is really where the season started going sour for me. The four arcs that come beforehand are great: The Long Way Home, while largely exposition, seems giddy with excitement about the revival of these characters, and crackles with delight, snappy dialogue, and some brill reveals, the best of which is Flayed Warren, who's been kept alive since Season 6 by a skin of Amy's magic. He is understandably bitter. In No Future For You, Giles recruits Faith to kill an aristocratic Brit slayer who's decided that her blue blood and supernatural powers give her a moral carte blanche; since Faith knows only too well that slayerhood doesn't mean righteousness, she's the best woman for the job, but conflicted as she gets to know the girl and recognizes a lot of herself. And there is totes a cameo of the Tenth Doctor and Rose which I completely missed the first time around. The third arc, Wolves at the Gate, is weakest of the four, but there's still drama and fun to be had: hijinx with Xander and Dracula, who apparently developed a weird buddy/manservant relationship after Anya died; Buffy's controversial decision to sleep with a Japanese slayer named Satsu (me? I think it was perfectly in keeping with her sexual history, which is often thoughtless and always unusual). And then Merciful Zeus there's Time of Your Life, the Buffy/Fray crossover I hadn't known was necessary to make my life complete. (I was Fray two Halloweens running, made myself a scythe, see?)

Then we hit a string of one-offs (collected in Predators and Prey), and things start to plateau. There are important events--Harmony's media success and the continued demonization of the slayers, worsened by the activity of rogue slayers. Dawn finally sheds the ex-boyfriend-induced enchantment she's been under the whole series up until now (which has rendered her a giant, a centaur, and a living doll). But perhaps because these issues are all written by different people, they lack cohesion--funny, really, that Monster of the Week eps are often my favorites in TV terms, but don't quite work for me in this medium.

When the series returns to arc form in Retreat, though, I wasn't as compelled, despite the reappearance of Oz (now married to a Tibetan woman and living a peaceful werewolf-free and yak-butter-laden existence). I think it's because things got too huge: there's a teleporting submarine, full-scale slayer-on-military warfare, three giant wrath goddesses who give Buffy superpowers. One of the joys of the comic for its creators, of course, is not being shackled to a small-screen third-tier-channel FX budget, but from here out the temptation to go blockbuster grows too great, and true core of the Buffy ethos--relationships, ambiguity, wit--sometimes get lost in the spectacle.

Endgame arrives in Twilight and Last Gleaming, and I found it a bit of a mess (minus the awesome sequence of Xander putting Buffy's newly acquired superpowers through the Superman paces). Twilight turns out to be Angel (buh?), and he and Buffy literally screw a universe into being (also buh?), which threatens this universe and can seemingly only be cured by the banishment of magic. Dawn and Xander get together, apropos of really nothing that I could see. Then, Spike shows up (maaaaaaan, I know he came back to life in Angel, but his hero's death in Season 7 made me so HAPPY) in a spaceship piloted by bugs, reveals the existence of a glowing whatsamajigger that's the source of all magic in this world I think and is guarded by the Master (somehow). Honestly, I spent a lot of these arcs being simultaneously confused and dubious; I mean, Giles dies*, and I didn't even cry! AM I A MONSTER?!?! (*Yeah, this was a bit too spoilery for me. Highlight if you will.)

Still and all! The ending is satisfying, albeit mostly in the new world it sets up: magic is removed from the world, at Buffy's hand. Vampires and the slayers already called remain...but Willow finds herself powerless and defeated, and rage against Buffy spreads in the formerly supernatural community. There's expected to be a season 9 starting in September, which promises to ratchet down the bells & whistles and adhere more closely to the show's heart: identity, change, betrayal. And I'll be reading!

22 May 2011


I'm pretty in love with retellings and reinterpretations and suchlike in general. Posy Simmonds' brill graphic novels Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe (the latter a you-wouldn't-know-it riff on Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, with a less implausibly named heroine--Hardy's is Bathsheba Everdene. Yet that's only my SECOND favorite Hardy heroine name, top honors going of course to Eustacia Vye from The Return of the Native. (Are you reading Hardy yet? WHY NOT). Matt Haig's haunting Hamlet take, The Dead Fathers Club. Angela Carter's brutal fairytales in The Bloody Chamber (dig that righteous new Penguin Ink cover!). Oh, and my favorite that no one else has heard of, Alison Habens' down-the-rabbit-hole Alice homage, Dreamhouse.

That said, they can't all be winners: sometimes a retelling just makes me want to reread the original. Such was Victoria Patterson's This Vacant Paradise, setting Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth in 1990s Orange County. It wasn't actively bad, just lackluster, and I didn't care a fig for either the aging must-marry-for-money heroine or the Lawrence Selden analogue, an insufferable sociology professor. Gave up after 200 pages, which seems a fair shake, yes? (Though I just flipped to the end, and looks like she becomes a waitress instead of killing herself. Hmph, some tragedy.)

Better was the upended Persephone myth in Emily Whitman's Radiant Darkness, in which she runs away with Hades to escape a mother who still thinks she's a child, and then struggles with learning to be a queen and the disturbing tales she hears of a drought in the upper world. There's a nice epic-poem lyricism to the prose, and some real dynamism to the character. Also, the hardcover deserves kudos for having a photo of a girl who may NOT be Western European on the cover! (Even though she should be holding a pomegranate, right?) Looks like the paperback blue-washes her into looking much more white, though. BOO.

21 May 2011

Two book club reads.

(Pre-book-talking-about ramble: I couldn't decide what adjective to use in this post title. I first thought "marvelous" or "awesome," and then I got sidetracked on how many of our laudatory superlatives come from religion, how we apply words designed for temporal revelations of God/god/gods to, you know, food we like, and then I got weirded out. So I thought "fantastic," and then I was like, huh, that's closer, but there's an unreality to it--which isn't that off for novels, I suppose, but there's another category of praise that's strange when you think about it. So: I think I want to go for is "lovely." Because I loved these books. Gosh and golly did I love 'em.)

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol: For WORD's Year o' Russians. I've read some Gogol before--SJC read "The Nose" for an all-college seminar (and I subsequently participated in an inebriated parody of dubious taste called "The Ponytail." My school was weird), and my mom picked up Village Evenings Near Dikanka and Mirgorod in prep for a trip to Ukraine several years ago. Both were top-notch--"The Nose," especially, that streak of ultra-modern that comes up sometimes to my surprise and joy in some nineteenth-and-previous-century writing (*cough* Tristram Shandy). Dead Souls, too, reads like it was written yesterday--though its picaresque humor and outsize-but-authentic characters might remind one of Dickens or Twain, the latter particularly in the Duke & King sections of Huck Finn. It's the rambling tale of Chichikov, charmer and con man extraordinaire, who's found a loophole in imperial Russian bureaucracy: every landowner was responsible for collecting taxes from the adult male serfs he owned (yup, slavery! Fun times!), but the number was determined by intermittent census, and there were always muzhiks who died before the next count. Chichikov wheedles or buys these "dead souls" from their owners, taking on the taxes--but also amassing collateral for a mortgage, making money without the bother of actually taking care of anyone. Along the way, he meets a gallery of satirical types--peculiarly Russian but still familiar: gambler Nozdryov, hoarder Plyushkin, ladies and gentlemen and pretenders to both. It's riotously funny, full of sly authorial interjections. So fun.

The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier: For Freebird's Post-Apocalyptic book club (which I didn't make, because I got lazy and tired on Thursday. But I have been keeping up on the readings since February). This novel is beautifully written, and elegiac in the truest sense of the word: an original take on the post-apocalyptic trope, as most of it takes place in an afterlife, a City where the dead go about workaday lives until the last living keeper of their memory dies. New arrivals tell the story of worsening global war and then a rapid pandemic...and then the City begins to empty out, as humanity dwindles away. Meanwhile, a researcher named Laura Byrd, stranded in the Antarctic, undertakes an unbearably arduous journey across the ice to what she hopes is salvation. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous tale of memory and grief, and the lives that surround our lives.

10 May 2011

Hotel Angeline

Yesterday I did something momentous: I read an ebook. I don't have a dedicated e-reader, of course, so I read it as a pdf in Adobe Digital Editions...and let me say, without meaning any slight to either program or book, the actual reading process gave me a headache. I'm delicate.

I chose to make this literary leap against my late-if-at-all-adopter tendencies for a wholly unique book (which is also available in paperback, no worries): the brainchild of Northwest author collective Seattle7Writers,  Hotel Angeline was written live last October in Seattle, by 36 authors taking two-hour shifts. The event raised money for literacy groups (50% of ebook & print proceeds will be similarly donated) and brought together local bookstores, restaurants, and schools. It's (argh, the pun CANNOT BE STOPPED) a novel idea: direct access to the writing process for the audience, collaboration between a diverse cadre of area writers (poets and YA novelists, romance and mystery scribes, even historians and a cartoonist), all attempting to strike a balance between individual voice and cohesive narrative.

So how'd they do? I shan't shock, I don't think, by saying that the brilliance of Hotel Angeline lies more in the concept than the execution; and yet that's not as left-handed a compliment as it might seem, since the half-mad method is brilliant indeed, and the finished artifact is, in fact, a solid piece of writing. The essential narrative arc, sketched in advance by an editorial committee consisting of Garth Stein, Jennie Shortridge, Elizabeth George, Robert Dugoni, and Maria Semple, is the story of fourteen-year-old Alexis Austin, thrown into situations far beyond her years by the death of her mother, as she struggles to keep the death (and the body) hidden, manage the titular residence and its population of colorful misfits on her own, and deal with the murky revolutionary past and present of father figure LJ and her own sexuality.

One of the best things about Hotel is the sense of place--and for once the place isn't New York City. Seattle landmarks, neighborhoods, and (naturally) weather are all an organic part of the tale, as is the tension between its counterculture history and the usual de-eccentricizing force of moneyed "progress." Other highlights, for me: I love Stephanie Kallos's chapter, told from the point of view of a pet crow who's flown in and out of the story; Matthew Amster-Burton's descriptions of food; David Lasky's and Greg Stump's graphic chapter making visible the inky puddles of a Northwest evening.

I wasn't as much a fan of the hotel's inhabitants, who seemed a bit by-the-numbers quirky, and I am really pretty sure that no one has ever died from breaking a mercury thermometer, which is what does in Alexis's mom. Too, I think the hardest thing to nail consistently is dialogue, and the character's fluidity of speech varies widely--I thought the YA authors (like Deb Caletti and Suzanne Selfors) and the mystery writers (Elizabeth George, Robert Dugoni) did it best. And there's a central character for whom I lost all sympathy, which made later references less than compelling.

Evaluating the project by its own sui generis standards, though, Hotel Angeline succeeds: good cause, fun times, new way to think about writing and authorship. A lot of great author interviews here. Have a look!

09 May 2011

Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

I read Ella Minnow Pea right before Embassytown, actually, but I like to hold off writing up book club reads until after the club's met...nothin' shakes out my thinking like a solid book nerd confab. 'Twas an unexpected serendipity reading these two so close to each other, though, as they both play out thought experiments in language in darkly fun ways.

Ella Minnow Pea's elegant subtitle is "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," which I will now ruin the elegance of by explaining: epistolary just means "in the form of letters" (of course, one can also use emails or texts or instant messages), whereas a lipogram is a piece of writing artificially constrained by not using certain letters. The story also includes several pangrams, sentences written using all the letters of the alphabet, the most famous of which--and that upon which the plot hinges--is "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." Dunn attributes the coining of said phrase to one Nevin Nollop, revered to near godhood on an invented island bearing his last name, somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. Underneath his statue, his economical yet exhaustive sentence is spelled out in tiles--tiles, it turns out, inadequately adhered, for one day the Z falls off. The all-powerful island council takes it as a sign to be yet more careful in their language, and soon the use of the letter is banned in writing and in speech, with the first offense meriting a warning, the second the choice of the stocks or public flogging, and the third outright banishment. Then, a second letter falls...

Since the novel's told through letters, subject to island law, as more of the alphabet becomes verboten, the more carefully worded the missives become. It's a lively project: one imagines Dunn surrounded by lists of words he can no longer use, and often having to write around a common word with a forbidden letter results in awkward beauty, as synonyms are chosen from further afield. When the "d" is lost, Nollop's inhabitants lose the easiest way to express the past tense. And the days of the week. And God.

Yet for all the word-game playfulness, the book is hard to call light-hearted, as it deals with the systematic dismantling of a people's ability to express themselves. Control of language is an attempt to control thought, and it's a very real technique, from extreme examples like Saparmurat Niyazov, former president-for-life of Turkmenistan, whose cult of personality extended to changing the names of the months (April was his mother's name. That alone is wading into a psychological mire on a truly epic scale), to modern marketing's casual appropriation of terms that can render everyday words useless (say, "quality"). Language is pulled in multiple directions: by technology, by respect for the past, by culture and by convenience; it's simultaneously static and dynamic. And I think it's worth fighting for.

[One tiny, tiny nerd quibble: link above goes to the edition I read, the original 2001 hardcover by MacAdam/Cage--it's since been released in paperback by Vintage--and omigosh, I hated the font. It's too jaunty somehow, and way too noticeable, a particular fault in a book where the reader pays so much attention to individual letters. So read the paperback, is what I'm saying.]

06 May 2011

Embassytown (China Miéville)

May 17!! I dithered a bit about blogging about it before the on-sale date, since it's not strictly kosher, but c'mon, the New York Times Book Review does it, and they've got waaaay more cred/clout than I do. Not that they'll review Embassytown, cause, you know, aliens. Their freakin' loss. [UPDATE 6/9: Okay, so they did review it, and this post is now only the third hit for "embassytown nyt." Please note, though, that this is their "Summer Reading" issue, so thankfully it's in a nice ghetto away from the Serious Books. Also note that fully half the review is about his other books, and that the review's author feels compelled to note that there are neologisms. In a sci-fi book? GET OUT]

Still, I'm not sure I can really call this little write-up a review, since those usually roll out rather more plot summary than I find appropriate for a novel as charily plotted and prone to epiphany as Miéville's are. Me, I find 90% of the joy and awe of reading a work of speculative fiction lies in finding things out at the moment the author deems appropriate, and I loathe reviews (or cover flaps, even) that give away much beyond, say, the first 50 pages, so I'll arbitrarily stick to that.

Suffice it to say: yup, aliens! Embassytown is more "obviously" sci-fi than his previous works (accepting the sci-fi=robots'n'aliens fantasy=dragons'n'magic dichotomy, which is reductive but useful), taking place in a distant future of the post-Earth human diaspora. The eponymous colonial outpost occupies an atmosphere-controlled niche on a planet whose double-mouthed natives speak a language unique in the universe: it is non-symbolic, i.e. the words are not different from the thoughts that produce them, and as such, these aliens (respectfully called "the Hosts" by Embassytown's residents) are incapable of lying. In her youth, the human narrator, Avice Benner Cho, went through a strange and uncomfortable experience to help the Host bring into reality a simile they wanted to use--which they could not without the events actually occurring--making her a living part of their Language (later Hosts will twitter to her "I use you all the time!") Hosts also can't understand speech removed from mind, hearing even the proper tones as nothing more than noise unless produced by a single consciousness; this has necessitated the creation of identical-twin Ambassadors, whose two human voices are urged together  by technology and empathy into the closest approximation of one Host voice. The novel's events ravel out from the arrival from off-world (the "out") of an impossible Ambassador, made up of two entirely unrelated men.

While the book clearly touches on issues of colonialism, Miéville avoids the easy route of interplanetary noble-savagery--despite unintended consequences, his humans really do their best to integrate with indigenous culture. Instead, he's interested in what should be a paramount concern for any writer: what is language? What can it accomplish, and what limits it in doing so? The exploration of the Hosts' asemiotic speech directly addresses the sometimes maladroit intersections between words and truth. And there is so much cool shit along the way.

I am deeply indebted to Robin Lenz, managing editor of bookseller-required-reading e-letter Shelf Awareness, for passing along her ARC to me!! I'm also SO GORRAM EXCITED that WORD is hosting the NYC event of this book tour!!!!!!!<==this is an inadequate number of exclamation points. (Hopefully they'll need volunteer help, cause $25's more than I have to my name right now. So sad, so true.)
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