Saturday, April 8, 2017

2017 read #1: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
548 pages
Published 2003
Read from January 25 to April 8
Rating: 4 out of 5

Three calendar months without finishing a single book. Even in my personal reading dark ages, from approximately 2009 through 2011, I'm not sure I ever went three entire months without reading something. I was pretty depressed in the first half of January, still despondent over the election of Cheeto Mussolini, and I fell into a habit of turning off my brain and browsing Facebook and the internet at large, rather than escaping into books.

Books are hard things, hurtful things, words of pain and love and loss tattooed on felled trees and shared, mind to mind, in the private corners of imagination. Really good books will wring you out and leave you bewildered, carrying memories of a life you never lived. But reading a bunch of books, finishing two or three a week for years (as fun and rewarding as that is), can rob reading of some of its strange power. Taking so many weeks to finish The Time Traveler's Wife gave it a larger role in my life than most books have attained in recent years; living with it, having it as a companion for a period of sweeping personal change, elevated it in a way that reading a couple books each week doesn't often permit. Not that I wish to return to the dark days of my de-literacy -- it was merely a passing observation.

Having lived with Wife for so long, it's hard for me to gather my thoughts on it in any coherent or tidy fashion. It was an experience as much as it was a book, an experience that may not owe entirely to how long it took me to finish it. I won't say it was a perfect book by any means, but it was intensely felt and movingly constructed work, utilizing time travel as a literary device far more effectively than any other novel I can presently recall. This book made me feel things, and I can think of few higher compliments.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016 read #93: The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin.

The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin
504 pages
Published 2012
Read from December 15 to December 24
Rating: out of 5

Following on some ten or so years after the events of The Killing Moon, The Shadowed Sun has the advantage of a setting and cosmology already established. Sun is free of Moon's double duties of delineating a complicated cosmology and system of dream-magic, liberating its opening chapters to set up new characters and hook the reader with a sense of momentum lacking in Moon's early passages. That momentum dissipates, however, getting lost like floodwaters across a porous substrate of overly convoluted plot, double dealings, magical threats that get set up early on only to evaporate, replaced by others as if Jemisin got bored halfway through.

The magic and cultures Jemisin depicts are wonderfully inventive and memorable, worthy additions to the atlas of all-time great fantastical lands. For the most part, the characters are interesting enough to follow around, although Jemisin kind of shoehorns a couple of them into an unlikely and unconvincing romance plot. Ultimately, the setting and characters weren't enough to sustain my interest in the meandering storyline -- whether that can be attributed to the book or to my own flagging attention span is for others to judge.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 read #92: A Wicked Company by Philipp Blom.

A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom
340 pages
Published 2010
Read from November 15 to December 14
Rating: ½ out of 5

What we commonly understand to be the Enlightenment, declares Blom in a moving epilogue, is a bourgeois dilution of the radical ideas of the real thinkers of the Enlightenment -- a dilution that elevated the "moderate" sensibilities of Voltaire and Kant to better fit the ideals of a "rationalistic," industrial society, while discarding the inconvenient positions of Diderot, Holbach, Raynal, Helvétius, and others who frequented the philosophical discussions in Holbach's salon, who formed the core of the true Enlightenment. The philosophes at Holbach's dinner table advocated instinct, the drive for pleasure and the avoidance of pain, moderated and directed by reason and empathy -- a society without gods or priests or aristocrats, without imbalances in wealth or power, without exploitation of the poor or colonization of less-well-armed societies around the globe. This radical Enlightenment, says Blom, was snuffed out by the Revolution in the hands of Robespierre, who seized upon the rival philosophy of Rousseau, a philosophy that permitted autocratic tyranny and religious power in pursuit of some abstracted ideal of "natural man."

Blom sketches a fascinating but often repetitive tale of these thinkers and philosophers as they cross paths with each other and with the wider scenes of history. His personal bias can be blatant at times, between his sustained character assassination of Rousseau and his obvious hero-worship of Baron Paul Thiry Holbach. A chapter detailing the frustrated sexual fetishes of Rousseau is entertaining, but makes for an overly reductive psychosexual case for Rousseau's philosophical convictions. While Rousseau deserves to be taken down quite a few pegs, I'm not sure that exploring his desire to be whipped and punished is entirely relevant to that task.

Rousseau, inadvertent father of the Romantics, holds a place in the philosophical foundations of conservationism and outdoor recreation, by crooked inspirational paths reaching through Muir and beyond, so it was startling to learn, for the first time, how ghastly his "social contract" really was, how reprehensible his personal and family life (siring four children with his mistress, and making her leave them as foundlings, all while writing his highflown ruminations on "proper" childrearing) were. That kind of character assassination -- using his actual positions and his handling of those in his power to portray his ugly character -- is a completely legitimate angle for Blom to take, and he handles it ably.

The overall impression left by A Wicked Company in this Age of Trumpism is a depressing realization of how many of the issues we face today -- ignorance, exploitation of the poor, dehumanization of women, religious and monetary power, colonialism, repression of empathy and compassion, suppression and distortion of healthy sexuality -- were recognized and debated over two centuries ago in a salon in Paris, and how little progress has been made toward realizing the free and happy state of brotherhood and equality dreamed by the philosophes. The Enlightenment ends in the suburbs, Diderot proclaims, and that is especially true in 2016.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

2016 read #91: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
140 pages
Published 1911
Read from December 9 to December 11
Rating: ½ out of 5

A tragedy of old New England "granite," in Wharton's phrase, shot through with bleakly comic veins. More is suggested than stated: the heartbreak and poisonous struggles hidden behind farmhouse doors, the social and psychological pressures denied outlet by long-standing custom, winter hardships and hardscrabble poverty crushing ambition and curiosity and desire for more under their glacial inevitability.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

2016 read #90: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle.

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
238 pages
Published 2016
Read from December 4 to December 7
Rating: ½ out of 5

I wonder how much more I would have enjoyed this novel, had I been more able to enjoy anything these days. That said, I don't feel like this was anywhere near Beagle's best. It left me feeling equivocal, bored even, especially during the first half, which felt at times closer to the urban fairy tales of de Lint than the sensitive and emotionally weighted musings I've come to expect from Beagle's longform stories. That first half read like a somewhat more intelligent but entirely formulaic urban fantasy of a fey being improving the tap water and ameliorating the Pacific Northwest weather with her mere presence, something I would have eaten up a couple years ago but can't get excited about anymore. Interludes of a main character, in his silver years, attaching himself to a blues-harmonica outfit did nothing to cultivate my interest. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't catch on to the identity of the magical stranger until roughly the halfway point, when a certain mythological connection was referenced by name. But that's also about when the book (or at least my interest in it) picked up noticeably.

What follows is a complicated knot of inadvertent betrayal, understandable hurt and pettishness, some light stalking, and a coda of heartbreaking realism. The last couple of pages at long last punctured my Trump Age anhedonia to move me the way I expect a Beagle novel to move me.

Friday, December 2, 2016

2016 read #89: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
304 pages
Published 2016
Read from November 21 to December 2
Rating: out of 5

Meh. I wanted to like this book. The concept -- a corps of spiritualist mediums channeling the ghosts of British soldiers killed in the First World War, to gain instant intelligence of German action on the front -- is entirely my sort of thing. I mostly enjoyed Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, which showed authorial potential up until the blatant set-up-the-series coda. And Ghost Talkers' opening chapters, while establishing the characters and setting with such efficiency that they could have been generated from a step-by-step "How to write a fantasy novel" guide, presented a decent hook and a moderately appealing cast. But after that... I dunno. It's hard these days to discern whether my lack of enthusiasm for a book results from a mediocre story or from my ongoing post-election anhedonia. I just could not stay engaged with the narrative for any length of time. The initially promising plot -- ghosts! traitors in the ranks! emotionally moving scenes! -- devolved into the main character trotting around pell-mell, first to the front tranches to have a gratuitous encounter with one Lt. Tolkien, then to a book store, then to a train that she thought was going one place then turned out to be going to another place, then a detour to unmask an obvious plot twist, and so on and so forth, like a farce getting played for drama. After a while, I got to the point where I could only read a few pages before losing interest and gravitating toward my D&D manuals.

I don't want to blame my lack of engagement on the book, necessarily -- I haven't felt especially interested in any of the other three books I'm currently working through. Nor do I have anything more substantial to say about this one. I mean, I do like bits and pieces (two words: poltergeist battalion), but the overall effect is just... meh.

So much for being able to finish a hundred books this year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

2016 read #88: Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin
89 pages
Published 1976
Read from November 17 to November 20
Rating: ½ out of 5

Only an urge toward completionism motivated me to pick up this book. Aside from Always Coming Home, Malafrena, Orisinian Tales, Four Ways to Forgiveness, and a whole bunch of short story compilations, all that remains of Le Guin's work for me to read is her juvenile fiction; this isn't the sort of book I'd select if it weren't for the drive to read everything. I'm happy for the prompt, however. Prosaic as this tale of an introverted, self-proclaimed high school intellectual may be, Le Guin brings her characteristic insight and deep compassion to the work. Giving into received social expectations leads to heartache and frustration as our narrator disregards what he knows and feels in favor of some half-conscious capitulation to conformity. The emotional fluency of Le Guin's prose, examining adolescent longing with detached yet heartfelt honesty, again and again delivered lines and moments of perceptive clarity.