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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Wyandotté 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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A couple of The New Yorker short stories (Cynthia Ozick and Tessa Hadley)

I have been catching up on reading short stories in The New Yorker, one of my favorite past-times. Cynthia Ozick’s story, “The Biographer’s Hat,” is a Broolyn-esque Singer-esque story about lonely lives in the urban penumbra. An interesting window into the 1950s, also.

Tessa Hadley’s story, “After the Funeral,” continues with her characteristic (for me) brief pivots of point of view (like Godard’s device, I suppose, in film in the 1960s). This is a rich, complex family dynamic story, and I bet about a third of all people in wealthy (non-village) countries would recognize the dynamic for themselves or someone they know. I am sure family systems therapists have whole books on the “case.”

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The Genome Odyssey, by Euan Angus Ashley

If you are interested in a nice book-length but very readable anecdotal explainer of where we humans are in 2022 in terms of applying genomics to medicine, this is the book for you. Ashley effectively communicates the amazing advances in scientific understanding and, more importantly, technology. These have enabled quite inexpensive individual genome sequencing and consequently detection of dozens, if not hundreds, of relevant mutations in the genome’s of a small percentage of people (but with almost 8 billion humans, a small percentage is a lot of people!) that might be life-threatening, and that appear to be likely to be treatable in the very near future.

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Enchanted Night, by Stephen Millhauser

A short, lyrical novel, about an enchanted night. My kids remember him as the clever narrator of his The New Yorker story, “The Maker of Miniatures.” This is, likewise, a miniature, full of feeling for the warm summer nights of the East Coast. Reading it makes you want to set your alarm for 3am and go for a long walk in that undiscovered country.

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Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I had read this decades ago, and largely forgotten how interesting the narrator’s voice is, and how refreshing is the style. Worth a re-read if it has been awhile.

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Several recent excellent The New Yorker stories

The New Yorker seems back to form, after what seemed like (to me) a string of stories I was not that keen on. I really liked “The Ukraine” by Artem Chapeye (it just gives a feeling of warmth and love, despite being about death) and “Wood Sorrel House” by Zach Williams (one of those stories of the uncanny, slightly Grimm-like). But OMFG the story by Camille Bordas, “One Sun Only” was pure amazing incredible perfect short story, both in acknowledgment of the form, and in the content. Beautiful style and voice. Normally I dislike stories featuring children (too easy, and Zach Williams story in that sense is a bit ‘too easy’). But this one is insightful and honest.

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The year’s best science fiction, 2018, edited by Gardner Dozois

I am a big fan of science fiction short story anthologies. But this edition, The year’s best science fiction, 2018, edited by Gardner Dozois, proved disappointing. I did not read all of the stories (almost 670 pages), but started with earlier ones and authors I recognized. I jumped first to Robert Reed, a sci-fi author I really enjoy, but his story was quite disappointing and seemed a bit incoherent. Nancy Kress and Maureen McHugh delivered good solid stories, but . A style I enjoy (think leGuin) was nicely replicated in a story “The Road to the Sea,” by Lavie Tidhar. I liked a story by R.S. Benedict, “My English Name” about identity transformation. “An Evening with Severyn Grimes,” by Rich Larson was a somewhat entertaining action cyber-thriller… Same for “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz, which took a small idea an captured it nicely, but I prefer Maureen McHugh’s insistence that small characters do not have to be paired with billionaires and emperors to make a story interesting. Just let the small character be a small character. Michael Swanwick and Linda Nagata do that, in “Starlight Express” and “The Martian Obelisk,” respectively, though the overwhelming emotions that leads to the final acts (in each story) are not well-developed, in my opinion. Naomi Kritzer did a better job in “Waiting out the end of the world in Patty’s Place cafe.” “Night Passage” by Alistair Reynolds was a nice story about living with a decision that was not really yours to make; living as a survivor, I guess.

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When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut starts as the best Wikipedia entry you ever read, circling and linking, and as a reader you are compelled to just keep going. Then abruptly the pace slows, because the science is getting more entangled and quirky, just as the lives of those involved seem to defy linear narrative. By the end, the reader finds that everything, facts, emotions, biography, science, gets all mashed up. A book that probably rewards several close readings. If you imagined Borges being paid to write non-fiction for The New Yorker with John McPhee as his editor-colleague, this is definitely right up that alley.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a very short novel, heartbreaking to read. Beautiful prose, with narrator a young high school student Silvie who has joined her parents and some university students as they “recreate” living as the ancient Britons might have (think 2000 BC, Stonehenge-y times). The most frightening passage comes about two-thirds through, as the dark clouds gather. one of the university girls [yes, I use that word deliberately in this context] remarks: “I just think a lot it’s boys playing in the woods. Your dad and Jim, have you noticed, they’re not much interested in the foraging and cooking, they just want to kill things and talk about fighting, why would I take it seriously?” Silvie’s thought, clearly establishing her short lifetime of experience, is: “Because they are in charge…” It is a scary book.

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