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.

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.