31 December 2012

2012 favorites.

Closing out the year with some opinionated accolades! This year, I've with great difficulty held it to twenty-five, giving precedence to genre reads and a couple of small presses. As per uzh, books are in arbitrary (alphabetical by author) order; links go back to original mention on this blog, in an omphaloskeptical sort of way.

And in the "my friends are super talented" category:

26 December 2012

We (Yevgeny Zamyatin)

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We takes place in the far-future One State, walled off by glass from the green and chaotic world outside, where all citizens have numbers instead of names, and order their lives according to a strict Table of Hours--even chewing their food in unison. It's narrated by D-503, a mathematician and engineer heading up the construction of the Integral, a spaceship set to take the blessings of the One State to the universe. Then he meets a strange woman, I-330, who opens his mind to the possibilities of disorder and disobedience.

It's a story I've read before, but that's because it's the source, the progenitor of better-known 20th-century dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World. (Better known in the U.S., I mean--though We wasn't published in its native Russia until 1988, some 67 years after it was written, I imagine it's pretty standard there now.) Orwell, in fact, wrote 1984 just a few months after encountering a translation of We. So it's clearly an important novel, and surprising, since it was written so soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, long before the oppressive heyday of the Soviet Union.

For me, though, We's ur-text nature hurt it somewhat as just a good read; I can't undo having experienced the plot before in my own chronology, and so it felt predictable. The prose, too, suffers a bit from its own premises--writing of a perfectly comformist society requires a certain tedium, backed up by very Russian bleakness. It's not a difficult read, nor a disappointing one. But I felt its worth more as an artifact than as a work of art.

P.S. Yevgeny is so my favorite Russian name!

22 December 2012

Limit (Keiko Suenobu)

Since one of my selected post-apocalyptic reads was a bust, I decided to cheat a little and swap in something I'd read previously: the first two volumes (of 6) of Keiko Suenobu's Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-Mean-Girls manga Limit.

A bus crash on a high school class trip kills all but five girls: Konno and Haru, both acolytes of now-dead queen bee Sakura; meek, injured Usui; level-headed Kamiya, indifferent to the cliques and callousness of her peers; and outcast Moriko, whose awkwardness conceals a reservoir of rage. And she's the one who scrounged a garden scythe from the wrecked vehicle, which puts her immediately at the top of their improvised society. She won't be a benevolent ruler.

It's the tiniest of dystopias, putting the ordinary teenage cruelties into a pressure cooker. Not having read all of it, I can't judge the whole narrative, but the first two installments are fantastic, edgy and troubling, with striking art--lots of slashing diagonals in the panel layouts, the dialogue parsed out between successive bubbles in a way that really draws out the tension. I think it's my favorite manga of the year (with Flowers of Evil a close second. Teenagers messing with each other's heads = compelling drama).

P.S. Speaking of comic dystopias, Chris urged me to read Tales of the Bizarro World, a collection of Silver Age hijinx from the crazy-wacky-zany square planet Bizarro, populated with imperfect clones of Superman and Lois Lane. I would say the target audience is maybe 6 or 7, whatever age it is where Opposite Day is the height of mind-bending comic genius: people break into jail! Every woman wants to win the ugly contest! The alarm clock rings when it's time to go to sleep! It is very, very silly, in short. Helps to be drunk when you read it.

20 December 2012

Things We Didn't See Coming (Steven Amsterdam)

I don't know how much I have to say about Things We Didn't See Coming--didn't dislike it, decent prose, some good ideas, all that. It's not a novel but a series of connected stories, with the same first-person narrator, over three decades of varied post-apocalyptic anecdotes--there's plague and barricades and societal breakdown, as per uzh.

I guess what's missing for me is connection: both between the stories and with the narrator himself. The episodic feel of the book skips over years that I wanted to know about: the world reshuffles itself so many times in the lacunae, but I've no real idea how, what the transition was like for those who lived through it. And the narrator himself is always a cipher.

As a whole, I think Things is a perfect example of the tendency of literary fiction to emulate genre without really understanding it, preserving the outer trappings but missing the heart. Again, there's nothing wrong with it--I do plan to read Amsterdam's upcoming novel, What the Family Needed--I've just enjoyed other, fully-committed spec-fic dystopias more.

19 December 2012

The Giver (Lois Lowry)

I think I'm supposed to remember Lois Lowry for Number the Stars, an Important Holocaust Novel--and I'm sure I read that one in my youth--but as an awkward smartypants little girl with glasses, I'm most indebted to her for writing Anastasia Krupnik and its sequels. Kept Love and Hate lists for years. (Oh, and looking at her bibliography, I also loved Taking Care of Terrific and The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, which both look to be out of print, boo.) Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I hadn't read The Giver,, which won 1994's Newbery; now that I have, I wish it had been published ten years earlier, because I would've loved it as a kid. Beginner's dystopia, so much better and more complicated than The Hunger Games!

It's written from the point of view of almost-teenaged Jonah, though his community doesn't reckon ages like we do--every December, all children born that year become Ones, the next year Twos, and so forth. Each advancement is celebrated in a ceremony attended by all, and each new "age" brings with it a new set of responsibilities: Sixes receive the bikes everyone uses to get around, Eights give up their "comfort object," a stuffed animal of species none of them recognize, like elephants and bears. Jonah is about to become a Twelve, the last numbered ceremony, when all the children are told what position they'll hold in the adult community--Nurturer (like Jonah's father), Pilot, Law, Birthmother, and so forth. Jonah is assigned to train with the Receiver, who holds the collective memory of what mankind was like before it adopted the strict ranks and rules of their community . . . pleasures, pains, colors, music.

The Giver's not didactic--too well-written for that--but it raises questions not usually put before middle-grade readers (and they should be, they should!): what are peace, safety, security worth giving up? Can we gain from unhappiness and injury? How should we treat the very young, the very old? And (as Jonah struggles with his knowledge of the world before Sameness) when we begin to feel that authority is wrong, what can--or should--we do to change things?

Lowry wrote two other middle-grade dystopias related to The Giver--2000's Gathering Blue and 2004's The Messenger--before bringing the storylines together in this fall's Son. I'm not gonna lie, I'm a little disappointed in this giving in to the series fever endemic to kids' books these days; I also really liked that The Giver has an ambiguous ending, and it's too bad that now there's a canonical continuation for the characters. But you know what? I'll bet they're good.

18 December 2012

Chalcot Crescent (Fay Weldon)

You'd think, reading the jumping-off point for Fay Weldon's Chalcot Crescent ("Two years after I was born, my mother has a miscarriage. . . . This is the sister's story, set in an alternative universe that closely mirrors our own") the novel would be, frankly, a downer. Instead, I can only describe it as delightful--and it's my old friend, VOICE, that does the trick.

Said voice comes courtesy of Weldon's conjectured sister, Frances, eighty-something in a near-future London. It's so nice to have an elderly female narrator, you know? And so rare. Frances is so much the kind of old lady I aspire to being, the kind one might admiringly refer to as a "battleaxe": cranky, funny, bawdy, and far more realistic than her descendants about the future ("When people complain that I am cynical, I say, but I am not cynical, I am just old, I know what is going to happen next"). She is a writer, or once was--she's outlived her heyday and spent her fortune, and the bailiffs are at the door of her title-street home--and the novel is a kind of memoir, full of flashbacks and imagined scenes. Two favorite passages, witty and wise, which shall have to stand in for many more:
  • "I hesitate to say this of this alleged love of my life, but show him a female and he'd try to fuck up her mind."
  • "Many a lady writer feels that . . . she will be unveiled any minute as an impostor. That the review will one day appear: 'Why have we been taking this writer so seriously? She can't write for toffee.' And that will be that. It is not a worry that plagues men. On the whole, women who get bad reviews crawl under the blankets and hide; men writers roar and go round and beat up the critic, or at least think about it."
Reading Crescent right after The Stand, the latter a thoroughly American apocalypse, really highlighted its Britishness--not just the humor, which runs to the dry, but the nature of the dystopia itself. Britain, a few years from now, has been through a depressingly familiar series of crises, economic, political, and climatological, but has found a sort of stability under the National Unity Government (NUG), which is composed "not of politicians but of sociologists and therapists." There's a CiviCam on every corner and National Meat Loaf (suitable, mysteriously, for vegetarians) in every pantry. It's very much the nanny state writ large, a government that cares so much about its citizens it has no choice but to oppress them for their own good.

11 December 2012

Rogue Male (Geoffrey Household)

At the end of every WORD Classics book club meeting, the esteemed Bookavore asks us: "To whom would you recommend this book?" (Albeit sometimes less grammatically, because for goodness' sake, it's Saturday. Also this time there was beer.) For me, the question's the best way into Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, which is both a thriller for people who don't read thrillers and a thriller for people who only read thrillers, but are willing to delve into some explorations of social class (because it is, after all, British) along with the chase.

In the opening pages of Rogue Male, the unnamed narrator, a wealthy English sportsman of some note, decides on a hunterly whim to see how close he can get to the Central European stronghold of an up-and-coming dictator (it was written in '39, so yeah, Hitler, but that's really beside the point). He has the man in his sights when he's captured by bodyguards and brutally interrogated; but he manages to escape, and from there the book divides its time between furious flight and the tedium of hiding as, pursued to his home country by the dictator's minions, the narrator goes to ground in a literal burrow in Dorset, his only companion a similarly feral cat he calls Asmodeus.

What I loved about this book is the mix of skills required for the narrator's survival--both the primal knowledge that provides him with food and shelter and the social aptitude he uses on his rare forays from his den. For he belongs to what he calls "Class X," a rank he struggles to define but which is immediately identifiable to any Englishman, who treat him accordingly. Even more so than his limitless wealth (though it certainly helps), it's this vague but unmistakable membership that allows him to navigate through the world of men. Being Class X isn't enough, of course; he needs his Bear Grylls-esque ability to eke existence from his environment, but the latter skill set also isn't sufficient to keep him out of harm's way. Watching these two very different areas of expertise complement and support each other is a joy to read, and makes Rogue Male uniquely pleasurable for the mutually exclusive sets of readers I've mentioned above. Highly recommended!

09 December 2012

The Stand (Stephen King)

Thirteen days, you guys! Thirteen days it took me to read King's apocalyptic American epic The Stand. I'll admit that while I enjoyed it the whole way through, by the last 400 pages or so I was kinda ready for it to be over--but I never once considered giving up.*

The Stand
begins with the death of 90% of humanity, slain by a genetically engineered superflu. Bands of survivors across the country find themselves drawn westward in dreams, some to Boulder and a 108-year-old woman named Mother Abagail, others to Las Vegas and the dark empire of a sentient ball of hatred who calls himself Randall Flagg. (The supernatural nature of the dreams, as well as Flagg's magical powers, are actually my least favorite part of the book . . . but really, how else to draw characters from Texas and Maine and NYC together?)

On the other hand, the bulk of King's work deals with what fascinates me about post-apocalyptic stories in general: the (exhaustive) details of survival and reconstruction. Food, shelter, transport, medicine--how to scrounge these things from the remains of industrial society? In this vision, all the resources are still there . . . but what good are scalpels with no surgeon, power lines with no electrician? I could (and did) read about the remnants' improvisation and ingenuity for ages.

But really, the heart of the book is the Tolstoyan cast. If you'll allow me to repeat myself: "Dude can create and dispatch characters so effectively, with such an understanding of the Western cultural expectation of story; it's as satisfying as listening to Mozart."

*(The same cannot be said of Julianna Baggott's Pure, which in its first 20 or so pages continually commits the unpardonable spec-fic sin of using a neologism in dialogue and then immediately explaining it in narration. Authors! It's totally OK if your readers have to figure out what something means from context! In fact, most sci-fi/fantasy readers think that's a big part of the fun!)
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