Wednesday, November 29, 2017

2017 read #7: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
515 pages
Published 2015
Read from November 17 to November 29
Rating: 4 out of 5

In the preface, Frankopan proclaims his intention to write a history re-centering the world away from Western Europe and the United States, to narrate the history of the world from its long-time axis along the Silk Roads. In practice, however, much of the book explores how Central and Southwestern Asia interacted with -- you guessed it -- Western Europe and the United States. China would seem to be a fairly prominent topic to plumb in a book exploring global history from the vantage of the Silk Roads, but it receives a mere handful of mentions and little in-depth coverage. Africa south of the Sahara gets mentioned barely two or three times. As a "new history of the world," it's somewhat lacking. Which is not to say that The Silk Roads isn't excellent at what it does cover, which is an especially topical and important subject for study, but the statement of intent set out in the preface was misleading.

That's pretty much just a minor quibble. My interests in history tend toward the ancient: I prefer Etruscans over Romans, Minoans over Classical Greeks, the Neolithic over any of those metal-themed eras. Yet Frankopan's prose, and the fascinating subject matter, kept me engrossed long past the too-brief section on late antiquity. I fully expected to check out, mentally, after Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated about three-fifths of the way through the book, but if anything I read the chapters on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries more assiduously than I did what came before, speeding through (in relative terms) the remaining chapters in just three days. The hypocrisies of post-war Western foreign policy -- hallooing about democracy and freedom while propping up tyrants and dictators around the globe -- and the way they led directly to 9/11 and America's clumsy, heedless invasions throughout the region, are explored succinctly and brilliantly. The corresponding rise in Western authoritarianism was, perhaps, not as clearly formed when this book was written; Frankopan makes no mention of it. Yet its seeds are plain in hindsight.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

2017 read #6: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
400 pages
Published 2015
Read from September 26 to November 16
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

My attention span can sometimes still keep me hooked on a book and reading away at a reasonable pace, but far more often of late is its tendency to evaporate and leave me stranded halfway through something I had once thought interesting. I began reading A Darker Shade of Magic immediately after writing my review for The Refrigerator Monologues, and sped through its first hundred pages that same day. Shade is zippy and pulpy, rarely pausing for breath after the initial work of world-building is done, flinging its heroes pell-mell from one predicament to the next. I love the setting and atmosphere Schwab has constructed -- a strength of her writing, if one may extrapolate from two books. But the central characters -- a moody, conscientious mage; a prickly, ass-kicking rogue; a pair of sadistic evil ruler archetypes with vaguely incestuous overtones -- offer nothing new to a long-time fantasy reader, and the magical peril hunting them through the various Londons rarely feels perilous. Something always turns up, some new ability or inner strength or helpfully apathetic guard always gets them through to the next moment of peril. Mix and repeat until the page count is satisfied.

Sometimes I want nothing more than a fun, atmospheric adventure book where the good guys win and the cheeky rogue flirts with the recuperating prince before realizing her dream to sail the open sea. I would totally play as Lila Bard in a game of D&D. But sometimes such a book can become like Halloween candy: a treat at first, but the days go by and there's so much of it left and you just want a nice yummy salad instead.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

2017 read #5: The Honourable Company by John Keay.

The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company by John Keay
460 pages
Published 1991
Read from October 16 to October 26
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

A competent and thorough history, albeit one plagued by a tendency (shared by many such wide-ranging overviews) to assume that particular persons and events are general knowledge. It also tells the story of the East India Company almost entirely from the British point of view -- understandable, perhaps, given its date of publication (and the paucity of written primary sources from Subcontinental sources), but frustrating to a modern reader.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

2017 read #4: The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
150 pages
Published 2017
Read from September 25 to September 26
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Valente is one of my favorite authors, and this novella of interconnected tales -- the viewpoints of comic book heroines killed or bereaved or discarded to further the dramatic arcs of male superheroes -- might be my second favorite book of hers, bested only by the intoxicating Radiance.

In recent years, especially, I've felt that Valente has come to rely on a particular self-aware, metafictional narrative voice, half noirish pitter-patter, half "Auntie Cathy tells the kiddies a tale." At times (as in the disappointing Speak Easy), it can seem as if Valente got stuck in that voice halfway through writing her Fairyland series, and can't help but churn out puns and genre-aware wordplay to the tune of a secret knock on a bootlegger's door. Monologues begins in a similar key: "Dead. Dead. Dead. Flying Ace of the Corpse Corps. Stepping the light Deathtastic. I don't actually know what a doornail is, but we have a lot in common." My fears that this would prove to be another Speak Easy were quickly buried, thankfully, under the weight of how awesome this book is. Valente's go-to voice might make it hard to tell her books apart, but it can still be an effective tool when wielded with this precision.

The narrators, almost all of them "fridged" inhabitants of Deadtown, are excellent pastiches of certain funny-book characters whose names are not public domain. There's the Gwen Stacy figure, the Jane Grey/Phoenix psychokinetic, the Harley Quinn, the Atlantean princess whose only mistake was to fall in love with Aquaman. The chapter on the non-union equivalent of Harley Quinn and her pyromaniac love for "Mr. Punch" might be the best thing to have ever come out of the Batman mythos -- and I'm including The Lego Batman Movie in that category.

This is no mere work of fan-fiction, however. Valente's incisive, memorable phrases -- normally the highlight of any of her works -- here serve to shape a picture of the toxic boys'-club of fiction, and not just the kind printed in four colors. Monologues is a work of elegant rage, a knife-tip against a festering boil of literature's manocentric maleocracy, a literary landscape where female characters are set-dressings to be employed or tossed away however they best fit the male heroes' dramatic arcs.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

2017 read #3: Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
238 pages
Published 1998
Read from September 1 to September 8
Rating: 3 out of 5

One of my earliest fixations when I began this blog, all those years ago, was stories of Faerie or the Fey Realm intruding upon the modern world of cities. I read every such book I could find, for quite a while; an early staple of urban fantasy, this scenario generated many books for me to find. As with all fixations, of course, I began to tire of the same old storyline eventually. I'd start an urban faerie book, get bored as the author went through the usual motions, and drop out before the magic I still desired managed to charm me.

That almost happened with Stardust. It's a breeze of a book to read, written straightforwardly and printed with generously-sized font and margins; in the old days I would have finished it in a day, easily. It's charming and at no point can it be said to become a chore. But a couple chapters in, I reached a point when I went, "Well, that's nice enough," and couldn't motivate myself to make time for it. It just wasn't a pressing interest -- I'd read this exact story (more or less) a dozen times before. It certainly didn't help that the tale is of a nebbishy young man who barges into a magical situation he doesn't understand, runs into a spunky heroine who rolls her eyes at him and calls him an idiot and a dunderhead, and learns to navigate the supranatural realm sufficiently well to save her bacon and (spoilers) win her heart. With minor variations, that describes at least half of Gaiman's novels. I could even swear "idiot" and "dunderhead" turning into terms of endearment was repeated in another one of his books.

So that was all fine, and charming enough, and also completely unremarkable. This time I persevered, though (possibly out of a sense of completionism -- Stardust was the last major Gaiman novel I hadn't read), and I'm happy I did. The central romance plot began on some iffy ground; chaining up a woman (who is literally magical) to accomplish your own selfish desires, then treating it all as some wacky mix-up that can be forgiven after the man has a change of heart, leaves a lot of baggage (gender baggage, power dynamic baggage) to unpack. Nonetheless, the happy ending pleased me, and I especially appreciated how the major conflicts were resolved by the heroes exercising newfound emotional maturity rather than devolving into "action."

Friday, September 1, 2017

2017 read #2: 1700: Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller.

1700: Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller
334 pages
Published 2000
Read from August 28 to September 1
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Once I had finally resolved to sit down and read some books again, I had assumed it would take weeks or months to scrape the rust off and get my attention span back in working order. Turns out, I just needed a book that could hold my interest. While not a classic of the genre, 1700 is an absorbing example of "street level history," emphasizing quotidian glimpses of lower and middle class life to illustrate larger social trends rather than framing history as a sequence of great men and great events. If I had one quibble with Waller's presentation, it was her habit of printing the observations of moralists and social "superiors" at face value -- relying, perhaps, on the sophistication of her intended readership to place Daniel Dafoe's opprobrium of the lowest classes within socioeconomic context.

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.