Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas

My sister passed on to me this novel, Vladimir, by Julia May Jonas. As an extremely literary novel whose central character is a professor of literature at a small rural liberal arts college, it hits a nerve of recognition. The writing is good, though the first person narration didn’t draw me in. The novel takes an abrupt detour about 2/3 in, and the ending is a downbeat. I appreciated the many, many insights about self-esteem, sexuality, and relationships.

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A House Between Earth and the Moon, by Rebecca Scherm

I am beginning to feel that the algorithms are indeed writing fiction and making art. This novel, A House Between Earth and the Moon, by Rebecca Scherm, was enjoyable to read for awhile, until it starting feeling like a paint by numbers… like as if an algorithm itself had written it. It had all the plot elements and good writing of fiction, but it struck me as missing something. I still cannot pinpoint why I ended up being disappointed in it. Maybe it ended up being “too small”? Normally that is a virtue, but in sci-fi the reader is primed for the novel to go big. Why read sci-fi if it is just a domestic drama about adolescence, conformity, compromise, corporate control, etc? I can just watch Terrence Malik for that “feeling” if I need a fix… No slight to put Scherm in the same company as Richard Powers’ The Overstory, to which I had the same reaction.

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Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Really enjoyed Matrix, by Lauren Groff, but found myself unable to finish, for some reason? I got within 30 pages of the ending and put it down one night last week, and each time I tried to finish I said to myself but why, just 30 more pages of the same. It was super-good, but it did drag, in the sense that there was no real plot arc to resolve. She evolved, but goodness by the time you are 40 or 50 and have been the abbess/prioress for 30 years… is there really much room for “revelation”?

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Fugitive Telemetry, novella in the series The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

Fugitive Telemetry, novella in the series The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. breezy but philosophical sci-fi, with a realistic portrayal of bots having a range of consciousness and sentience. Perfect relaxing reading for a couple of nights. This novella is a very standard detective novel… could be Elmore Leonard.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

Leslie showed me how to borrow books from San Jose Public Library, so I immediately re-read Persuasion, after the disastrous Fleabag-style Netflix re-do. The novel remains excellent.

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Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

Enjoyed the science fiction novel Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey. Essentially Groundhog Day. Does one ever tire of variations of that theme, if well-written? The denouement happened a bit too quickly for me. Just thinking aloud, I would have liked the last fifth or so to have been more carefully and substantively plotted than the first four-firths evidently were. Really good writing, very mature development of the evolving character transformations. Again, though, just thinking aloud, the hardest conversation to write about remains the challenge: the two characters know where they are… they have a lot of time… it seems to me they would stop “acting” and have a really long conversation perhaps filled with silences. Maybe there is a device though that constrains their ability to engage in meta-conversation?

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Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

Our book group read Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. We all admired the crisp essay style, and the tension between irony and wonder that inhabits the subject of Mr. Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Well worth reading.

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Dark Sonnet by Tom McCarthy and Bill Dohar

I enjoyed Dark Sonnet by Tom McCarthy and Bill Dohar, a historical mystery (if you need a genre). Murder, a hidden chalice, slypes, and bigotry both old and new, figure prominently. There are word puzzles, and Gerard Manley Hopkins is central. For those acquainted with Jesuit institutions, it is especially rewarding. The authors take the virtues and values of the Jesuit order seriously, and that part of the novel is enlightening and inspiring. Very well-written, too!

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Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Beautiful translation by Susan Bernofsky. High literary drama. Short novel that traces the lives on people in a lakeside house in Germany, before and after WWII and East Germany. Deeply serious.Yet compelling and readable. Her counterpoint between the lives of the humans, and the gardener and the landscape, is a very powerful device.

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Triton, by Samuel Delany

I think I originally read this when I was about 15 years old. It cast a long shadow. Re-reading it…. boy is it a slog, and a not very good novel. But the bravura of Delaney’s science fiction is pretty undeniable. Much more explicit about gender fluidity than his contemporaries (including, I think, LeGuin, who approached it from an ethnographic rather than individual psychological perspective). Yes it borders on stereotypes of pop psychology (ok, not border, right in the middle). And a lot of good discussion of genetics, which 50 years later seems almost on target in terms of gene expression etc. And the foregrounding of individual – indeed, basically just one person- stories in “the future.” it’s the future, and yet everything is still banal, and like Adam Smith wrote in 1776 you still worry more about the look someone gave you in the office than news that 10 million people dies in a war on another moon or planet. Bron does have to be one of the most annoying characters ever written.

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Frederick Pohl, Gateway

I enjoyed reading Frederick Pohl’s sci-fi novel, Gateway, partly because it is so dated. The women are all referred to as “girls,” etc. Lots of 1970s psychoanalytic talk. And yet, the conceit is quite good: a sci-fi book about that inner journey of dealing with psychic trauma. Very little happens in the book, except a damaged person slowly unwinding his memories for an audience (who happens to be an AI). The novel is tailor-made for a limited series… great potential. Looks like (from browsing the web) that SyFy had it under development at some point, but it appears not to have gone into production. I can see the audience potential being fairly limited: the dominant theme is bleakness, and that doesn’t always sell. but the AI shrink is ready for an update, and shifting the perspective to the AI starting to acquire consciousness by dealing with Broadhead’s trauma could be an interesting way to update the tale.

Another thought that occurred to me while reading was how sci-fi evolved form the 1970s. Gateway deals with psychological trauma (OK basically he’s a Korea or Vietnam vet whose buddies were left behind?) but in space exploration context. But the social institutions of the time are very recognizable. There is little LeGuin-style construction of an alternative social order, an alternative mentality. The characters go to parties, have relationships (a little daring in the casualness of same-sex relationships), and have normal “work” lives (which Pohl underscores with the miscellany that peppers the book. You can see how the anthropologically-inflected sci-fi started to become an important form of the genre? The idea of “world-building,” of crafting a social order that is alien but recognizable, must have been thrilling to the writers of the late 1970s.

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The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

I had forgotten how compelling and clear the prose was for Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a great writer. I love the occasional science and statistics asides. The explicitness of Holmes’ cocaine usage (7%) is also still shocking. The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle also offers a bit of history of the 1857 Indian mutiny, insights into the casual racism of the late 1890s, a good example of a very bad subplot (Watson falling in love with Marston… ridiculous), and an exciting river craft chase scene where the boatmen are shoveling coal into the boiler! And it had been so long since I had read a Sherlock Holmes story, I honestly could not believe Doyle had the treasure be thrown into the river, according to Jonathan Small. It is so obvious he is lying, and the treasure is just one “clew” away, but the author by that point had given up.

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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

I do not read much non-fiction outside of material relating to Burkina Faso and West Africa. A friend recommended this book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, and it did not disappoint. Plenty of food for thought about urban violence, small violent groups, the culture of violence and honor, universities getting involved, etc. I found myself skimming a fair amount: the prose occasionally gets a bit tedious, and the “device” of the book (what did the tapes reveal!?) perhaps could have been eschewed. I understand the idea of having the reader “learn” along with so many others, but an alternative narration technique might have worked better?

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Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles

Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles is a verse novelette, written in Orkney dialect (to this American reader, it sounded in my head like very heavily-accented Scottish) and thus hard to read for a non-Orkney speaker, but the novelette also has a kind of translation that uses compound words to convey the multiple meanings of an Orkney work. The book is moody and evocative. Not bad!

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Wyandott√© by James Fenimore Cooper

Wyandotté by James Fenimore Cooper was published in 1843. I cannot recall how I stumbled on it. I read about 2/3 and then skimmed the rest. For a modern reader, the narrative techniques are a bit fusty. But from the perspective of learning about 1775-76 history, filtered through a novelist writing in 1840s, pretty amazing. The introduction was almost as interesting as the novel. There is plenty to cringe at, in terms of the stereotypes (gender, Native Americans, various white ethnicities, kitchen slaves).

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Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower

Light, compelling, and deep at same time, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower explores, cleverly, political strategies of gods and humans as they make their way through complex social world (that will eventually provoke you to think, wait a second… I know this story?). Uses (nicely) a 2nd person narration technique.

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The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

I read very little ultra-contemporary fiction, but this was a gift. I started with some trepidation, but a personal connection to the Cardiff Jewish community (part of my extended family ended up in Wales in the 1880s) kept me going, and it proved rewarding. Mohamed’s reconstruction of the inner life of the protagonist, Mattan, on trial for murder in 1950s Cardiff, is quite good. She uses some particular stylistic devices (having to do with grammar)… some readers may find it distracting, and numerous times I had to resist the temptation to check whether she was being consistent in the usage (like in the movies when a villain sometimes has a “cockney” accent and sometimes doesn’t, you know that feeling?). in the end I decided to just trust the author an immerse myself in the novel, and I read the last 150 pages in one sitting (yes I am tired this morning). A difficult novel to read, for a variety of reasons, but definitely rewarding, and deservedly on many prize and “best of 2021” lists.

Here is a nice blog review that I don’t disagree with.

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Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel

Got this last week, and immediately devoured it in two nights. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel is a clever, minimal sci-fi novel. it leverages the same characters as The Glass Hotel (I was glad I had read that before). In the end, though, the novel is slight (and indeed, some pages just have a single short paragraph… supposed to be somewhat poetic, but just felt like she was under a deadline to deliver and her agent said fuck it your readers don’t really care. But at the end, the reader does care. The craft and amazingly careful composition that went into Station Eleven are absent here, and instead w get an absorbing but very slight novel with quite limited engagement of a major and important sci-fi theme. If you are going to do sci-fi, don’t do it lazily like this, or like that similar novel The Anomaly (the French one about the rupture). Sci-fi isn’t like deciding to have your character visit Rome so you can have a few paragraphs as backdrop… Just because you (the author) thinks that sci-fi should be written as if the sci-fi was just an incidental external trigger for character development, the reader does not.

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No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

Somehow I stumbled across a reference to No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai so I ordered it from the library. Interesting novel from 1948 Japan. The narrator has lost interest in humans, but still must make his way through the world… dissolute, his family gradually cuts ties… handsome, he finds women ready to enable his self-destructive alcoholism. Think Nicholas Cage Leaving Las Vegas but more picturesque and self-reflective? But at the end of the day, not that different. The real life author commits suicide. At the end of the day, we (the reader) don’t take away much more than “some of our fellow humans sure do go through this burden of life in depressive self-absorption made worse by their acute consciousness of how different they are… and their inability to change.”

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“Annunciation” by Lauren Groff in The New Yorker

Not exactly sure why, but “Annunciation” by Lauren Groff in the February 2022 The New Yorker may be currently up there as my most-appreciated short story in a couple years. The story is ultra-real, but the reader is simultaneously aware that it is a kind of fairy-tale. (That Griselda lives in the main house, with her mastiff, is both ultra-real and ultra-metaphor.) Only three things happen: the narrator leaves home to go to San Francisco after college graduation, she moves to Palo Alto to live in a backyard cottage, and she works in an office setting. Within those events, though, a whole world is constructed, of feeling and interior life. The rush of backwards-looking assessment at the end I found breathtaking (and for me echoed Hemingway’s sudden looking back at the end of A Moveable Feast). The people at Mookse have some nice commentary.

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