Thursday, September 22, 2016

2016 read #73: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold.

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold
287 pages
Published 1994
Read from September 17 to September 22
Rating: out of 5

In outline, this book could almost be a parody of certain trends in the speculative fiction of the early '90s. The narrator, Sarah, is a Magical Mentally Ill woman, tossed out on the streets due to (it seems) budget cuts, fitting the novel within a continuum stretching from Wizard of the Pigeons to The Good Fairies of New York and no doubt well beyond. She speaks only in quotations and aphorisms, drawn largely from Shakespeare. For a while Lindskold manages to make it work, but by the fourth or fifth time Sarah repeats the book's title with a knowing look or a shy giggle, it gets real old. Sarah gets adopted into a colorful underground society of adolescent thieves, beggars, drug dealers, and child prostitutes, sort of like if those kids from Beyond Thunderdome got a gritty '90s reboot. Her rescuer is inexplicably half-naked when we meet her, her lips dyed blue, her hair dyed flaming orange; the rest of the "Wolf Pack" is similarly outfitted in the silliest, gaudiest cliches of crustpunk, cyberpunk, and a square sci-fi writer's idea of rave culture -- thereby beating The Matrix Reloaded to the punch by several years.

Sarah's love interest (for a brief interlude) and adored authority figure (for the rest of the book) is the Head Wolf, and in no uncertain terms, he is the pimp of a child prostitution ring. We are shown the effects of the prostitution on the psyches of various minor characters (in both senses of the word), yet the Head Wolf is elevated by the text as just so damn charismatic and beautiful and insane that our narrator and her rescuer and her elderly professor friend all continue to adore him. Plus, he really cares about his Pack and, like, tenderly cuddles his young prostitutes after they've had a bad night on the streets, because he's such a good soul. I believe this is meant to be some inexpert attempt to build a thought-provokingly ambiguous and flawed antihero. It comes across as equal parts misguided and laughable. At best, it seems like '90s-style grittiness for the sake of grittiness -- shock value to really make you think, dude.

Sarah's magical power is an ability to talk to inanimate objects -- provided they've absorbed some essence of importance from their use or significance to other people. There's some absurd technobabble about Sarah resulting from a breeding experiment, but perhaps recognizing its flimsiness, Lindskold only relies on the explanation long enough to sketch in Sarah's early life in the Institute and her relationships among her experimental siblings. Despite the weird icky stuff about child prostitution, the first half of the book isn't necessarily bad -- it's a silly mashup of early '90s cliches and try-hard grittiness, sure, but almost endearing in a bless-your-heart sort of way. It's when Sarah falls back into the clutches of the Institute that the narrative collapses under its own preposterousness. Interminable scenes of Sarah's friend the master hacker technobabbling her way into futuristic fortresses become redundant (well, further redundant) once Sarah masters her own superpowered abilities to get anywhere and do anything just by listening to inanimate objects. And in an obvious but utterly ridiculous twist, it turns out that this tinkering with the genetic basis of magical realism pretty much amounts to some corporate espionage (there's one more '90s cliche for ya).

There is never any sense of danger, no feeling that our heroes might be in trouble. I barely remember Lindskold's The Buried Pyramid (my extra-laconic review, perhaps the shortest I've ever written, certainly doesn't stir any recollections), but her Child of a Rainless Year shares with Brother signs of Lindskold's reluctance to make bad things happen to her characters. Scenes where almost any other author would tighten the screws and complicate matters for our heroes, Lindskold instead makes everything turn out hunky-dory. Yes, Sarah ends up back at the Institute, because of course she does, but it's almost like she's there to check out some family history, see some heirlooms, and learn some backstory -- rather than, you know, because she got captured by her nemesis and is getting experimented upon. It doesn't seem all that far removed from the intrepid narrator of Child grilling chicken dishes for visiting estate lawyers.

Brother to Dragons begins as a mess of cliches before devolving into, well, just a mess, but there's enough charm to the early chapters to make me not totally hate my experience with this book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

2016 read #72: Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
218 pages
Published 1972
Read from September 11 to September 21
Rating: ★ out of 5

For such a brief, determinedly postmodern book, Mumbo Jumbo is thick with things to unpack. First, and most obvious these days, is the fact that it's 2016 and our society seems to have made little, if any, progress on the issues of race and culture satirized here. We still have a corrupt good ol' boy police culture; we still carry forward a colonialist mentality; the supremacy of "Western civilization" is a never-questioned article of faith for a staggering percentage of the population (a belief which supports a substantial corner of the publishing market, and even shows up to this day in how college art history courses are demarcated); we still have irrational hatred, bigotry, and basket upon basket of deplorables. But these are obvious points.

This is the sort of book that makes me wish I were better at commentary and dissection, at analysis in general. One topic (out of many) that stuck with me during my read of this book was the role of the cultural critic in keeping anything counter to the accepted narrative from entering the public (i.e. White, middle class, self-appointed "real American") awareness. This is deftly lampooned with a selection of juicy blurb quotes on the back jacket ("Propaganda," "Cute," "...such gratuitous viciousness is not called for," "This is diarrhea of the typewriter," from the likes of The New York Times, Kirkus, and The Journal of Black Poetry), and used directly several times within the text, barbed with quotation marks: "so read the 'illiterate' 'contradictory' 'scrawls,' product of 'a tormented mind'...." And more pointedly: "1st they intimidate the intellectuals by condemning work arising out of their own experience as being 1-dimensional, enraged, non-objective, preoccupied with hate and not universal, universal being a word co-opted by the Catholic Church when the Atonists took over Rome, as a way of measuring every 1 by their ideals." You can hear a young author's personal axe against the grindstone while still recognizing the sad social truth within the satire. To this day, conservative types (generally White, cis, hetero, Christian men) enjoy wielding "Calm down, you're too emotional" to shut down any debates -- all while ranting, unprompted, about the social ills brought about by "political correctness" and "millennials" and "people who don't want to work."

On a textual (rather than metatextual) level, I was fascinated by Reed's depiction of history as a clash of rival secret societies going all the way back to Osiris, the original funky brother, and Set, the first wallflower, spiteful over his own inability to bust a move. It is, naturally, as 1970s as you could possibly imagine. There are ancient aliens and oneness with Nature, revisionist archaeology of the "everything goes back to Egypt" school, prehistoric Black universities in Arabia -- all things nowadays relegated to basic cable conspiracy shows (and, well, bestselling books too, I suppose), but in the hands of a writer as talented and vigorous as Reed, it becomes a heady mix.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016 read #71: The Earth Gods Are Coming by Kenneth Bulmer.

The Earth Gods Are Coming by Kenneth Bulmer
107 pages
Published 1960
Read from September 6 to September 11
Rating: ½ out of 5

Not far into my read of Laughter in Ancient Rome, I decided it would be a good idea to have a lighter, fluffier book on hand as an escape valve for when all the academic density got to be too much. Luckily I already had this one hanging around, the literal flipside to The Games of Neith, printed together as an old Ace Double. Yet, thanks largely to Mary Beard's skill as an engaging author, I remained more interested in Rome than in old-timey starship shenanigans, and couldn't bring myself to make much progress with Gods until I wrapped up Beard's history.

Another reason I couldn't get invested in this book, of course, is the book itself. I always seem to think these slim pulpers will be easy reads -- short, simplistic, the opposite of literary -- yet those same attributes make them not very good reads. Gods is an improvement over most of these Ace novellas, both in prose and in plotting, but that's a low bar to clear. Bulmer's style is mechanical, telling rather than showing, setting up personal motivations and interpersonal conflict with affectless efficiency. The main character, Roy, is henpecked into "softness" and defeat by his overbearing wife, as we are reminded many times. In space, a chain of command issue between the navy captain (commander of the starship) and marine colonel Roy (in nominal charge of the mission) is mentioned many times as a source of friction between the two men, just in case we didn't catch it the first time.

The cast is surprisingly diverse and relatively egalitarian for the date of publication, but I must stress "relatively." Women make up about half the starship crew, but are relegated to communications, medicine, and the domestic role of quartermaster; a major subplot in the closing chapters concerns itself with Roy's love interest dyeing her hair to a less flattering color so as to not "distract" the men. Characters of many ethnic origins are shown to be competent and intelligent, almost never reduced to contemporary ethnic stereotypes, though most of those of high rank are white men. Still, for 1960, that's pretty impressive.

The flimsiness of the characters kept me from feeling invested in anything that happened, and while interesting, the central conceit -- Terran civilization sends out android "Prophets" in a propaganda campaign to literally convert alien cultures into allies -- is undermined by the vagueness of what the Earthly religion even entails, or what constitutes its antithesis. I kept thinking that this would have been a lot better two or three decades later, as a late '80s "ideas novel" along the lines of Sheri S. Tepper's Arbai Trilogy (1, 2, 3). Bulmer's concept is worth pursuing, I think, but the trappings and conventions of mid-century sci-fi militated against it here.

Friday, September 9, 2016

2016 read #70: Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard.

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up by Mary Beard
278 pages
Published 2014
Read from September 4 to September 9
Rating: ½ out of 5

I enjoyed Mary Beard's snark and snappy-but-educational style in her popular history, SPQR -- so much so that, after I finished it, I immediately looked up her other works. This one caught my eye: a book about Roman laughter and jokes from a scholar gifted with that rare combination of wit, writing ability, and authoritative knowledge. What could possibly be better?

I suspected my error the moment inter-library loan put the volume in my hands and I saw it was from the University of California Press, published as part of a line of classical lecture series. I still enjoyed Laughter, but it was a dense, technical work, full of the convolutions of postmodern scholarship in the humanities. (Beard vows in the preface, "My aim is to make the subject of Roman laughter a bit more complicated, indeed a bit messier, rather than to tidy it up.") This is a worthy goal -- fatuous simplifications and over-general "explanations" are a pest to be rooted out and burned away -- but the English language has yet to arrive at a fluent way to handle the necessary backtrackings, subordinate clauses, and complexification of statements this entails. I'm having a hard time even getting across what I mean (though, to be fair to myself, I've been out of academia for six years, and it's unseasonably hot and sticky as I struggle to write this review). Beard pushes bravely through the thickets of po-mo social science and emerges with, mostly, a surprisingly readable work, but popular history this is not. It's fascinating, largely because of Beard's skill at making such thick stuff readable, but for a casual reader who keyed in on the title and expected hilarity, it's a bit of a disappointment.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

2016 read #69: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Translated by Katherine Woods
92 pages
Published 1943
Read September 4
Rating: out of 5

Charming melancholy, delicate beauty that could fall apart at a breath. As with most books for children, this would probably have left a deeper mark if I had read it earlier in life, instead of just being another book among many books, but even so, I was moved. Wonder and significance and attachment are basic themes, especially in a quasi-didactic children's volume, but there was something bared here, a vulnerability that encouraged me to let down my own guard and left me affected and receptive. Perhaps it helps that I like to think of myself as someone who sees the stars, who questions why sheep and roses have warred for millions of years, whose grown-up love of figures and statistics hasn't buried my own sense of wonder and discovery.

2016 read #68: The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Translated by Alexandra Keeble
Prefaces by Aleida Guevara March, introduction by Cintio Vitier
175 pages
Published 1995; English translation published 2003
Read from August 29 to September 4
Rating: out of 5

My first exposure to Che was in a Hot Topic. It was 2002, and I was 19; having gone directly from an abusive childhood into the army, self-expression was still a new concept for me. One weekend, on break from training, I went with my then-friend to the mall, and after our customary Saturday Cinnabon I ventured into the Hot Topic, where I saw a shirt in a blinding shade of red, emblazoned with the cliched image of Che's face. I was struck by, but at that age unable to articulate, the fine irony of a symbol of rebellion and revolution commoditized and sold to teenagers from a franchise shopfront. That was my rationale for purchasing it over the protests and disbelief of my army friend (who would, of course, go on to be a racist conservative asshole later in life). Over the ensuing months, after my own political awakening, I wore it with proud new layers of irony on the army bases where I was stationed -- a further irony, one I didn't appreciate until later, being my own utter ignorance of Che.

Che himself, as a man and as a symbol, was someone I hadn't thought much about beyond that initial set of ironies. His existence, actions, and ideology seem to be crushed beneath the weight of Che the symbol. To the regressives of the world, he's a hypocrite and a war criminal, guilty of vast (and usually vague) atrocities; to certain segments of the ever-divided left, he's a martyred saint, his every word dissected for hidden wisdom, as in the hagiographic introduction to this volume. Not to get all "the truth is in the middle" here, but in this instance, I'm pretty sure the reality is not close to either of those extremes.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a fascinating introduction to the young man who existed before the myth, a polished and edited "journal" of a bumbling expedition, by motorbike and by hitch, across several Latin American nations in 1952. The formative effect this had upon young Che's outlook, priorities, and ideology are obvious, though kept mostly between the lines; Che's tight-lipped indignation at the appalling poverty and class structures he encounters are the most interesting, and affecting, sections of the book. The rest, sadly, has something of a superficial feel to it. Despite the editorial efforts of an older Che (or possibly others), it feels obvious that this was a young student's travel diary, its tone alternately flippant and philosophical -- it would be easy to imagine, say, a college radio DJ writing something similar today, after a summer spent in search of "authenticity." Like a college dude, Che drops casual bits of homophobia and racial prejudice -- though, equally apropos, we could say "Like any dude in the 1950s." The travel portions tend toward the repetitive, fascinating interludes abbreviated in favor of enumerations of hunger, bad drivers, sleeping in police stations, and caging meals from reluctant, or naively enthusiastic, strangers.

It's a shame that Soviet-style Communism, in its day, was as corrupt and oligarchic, as reliant upon hegemonic colonialism, as capitalism has always tended to be. Through his writings, at least, it seems Che was a genuine revolutionary, a believer in the ideals he fought and eventually died for. This edition's appendix, taken from a speech Che gave to Havana medical students in 1960, is flush with revolutionary fervor, with utopian visions of "the new kinds of human beings born in Cuba." Like Che himself, the balance between social organization and individualism is ambiguous, multifaceted, perhaps impossible to resolve -- and certainly too ambitious for me to tackle in a simple book review.

Monday, August 29, 2016

2016 read #67: The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies by Martin Millar.

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies by Martin Millar
194 pages
Published 2015
Read from August 28 to August 29
Rating: out of 5

Humor that doesn't land, farce that never achieves momentum, fantasy that isn't the least fantastic, choppy little scenes that go nowhere and add nothing we don't already know, two dimensional characters that wouldn't be out of place in a recent rom-com, capped with outsize praise from prominent authors on the back cover -- why, it must be another Martin Millar novel!

It feels like it's been ages since I first (and last) read Millar, though it's only been about three years. I was far more forgiving of his schtick back then -- either that or in a more genial mood. Perhaps "zany farce with fantasy elements" felt fresher to me then. I was generous in my review of The Good Fairies of New York, but in the years since, I've come to think of it as disposable and cloying when I thought of it at all. I only picked up Buttercups and Daisies for two reasons: one, I haven't read much this month, and I wanted a brief book to bolster my numbers; two, Jo Walton's Just City duology (1, 2) left me primed for more atypical fantasy centered on the Classical Greeks. Well, maybe there was a third reason, a faint inclination to give Millar a second chance.

If I erred in the direction of generosity last time, this time I'm probably erring in favor of being snippy. In all fairness, this wasn't a bad book, or even unpleasant to read at any point, but then again, it failed to stir much of a reaction at all. It was just so generic. The farcical bits about mechanical phalluses being required props in Athenian comedy were mildly amusing, but the rest could have taken place in any time period, against any backdrop, and not lost or gained anything. I entertained myself with casting a Buttercups and Daisies rom-com, perhaps set in a mid-size city with a theater scene, possibly Minneapolis. Jason Bateman could probably tap his put-upon (and not so secretly arrogant) everyman thing to play Millar's Aristophanes, Gwendoline Christie would be the inevitable choice du jour for Bremusa the humorless Amazon, Tony Revolori could fit as the optimistic orphan poet Luxos, any number of effervescent young Manic Pixie types could be typecast as Metris, the titular nymph -- which just shows how cardboard and uninspired her character was. Millar (going by all two of his books that I've read) seems to have a thing for Manic Pixie leads. The one in Good Fairies was better; at least she had a colostomy bag and motivations of her own.