The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson was a good “close to alt-history” novel. In a world similar to the world in 1500, an imperial power uses a variety of techniques to divide, conquer, rule, exploit, extract, and “develop” the periphery. Magic is hinted at but no more so than writings from Spain or Portugal in 1500 would have hinted at supernatural forces, and they did. I confess I started getting bored and skimmed the last third. but I appreciated his craft.
The New Wilderness, by Diana Cook, follows the wanderings of a small band of humans in a dystopian future (though not always clear it is really a dystopia or whether the group wandering the wilderness are the ones who cannot abide the everyday future). They sew clothes from animal sinews and fur, etc. Many of them die, but some children are born, and the arc of the novel takes place over a decade. The small group dynamics occupy a lot of the novel, silverback male stuff, matriarch stuff, etc. It can be very painful to read, the way a nature video of a challenge to the dominant chimpanzee is painful to watch. The writing is excellent, but to be honest I do not find these intense psychological stories of survival to be what I am looking for when reading. My preference leans towards the exotic and distant (you know, a time-traveling AI exploring the concept of gender while solving the problem of the weapons ship that disappeared). My 15 second pitch: The Road meets The English Passengers (the Tasmanian natives sections as they wander the country harassed by the settlers).
Got this for Christmas: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, by Roseanne Brown. Young adult fantasy novels keep improving the genre, as authors take the best elements from prior work, clean up the writing, put into interesting new contexts. I enjoyed reading this as decent escape entertainment. Could definitely see this becoming a novel that especially might appeal to young adult readers in Ghana (with advanced reading skills), for FAVL libraries.
Our neighborhood book club read The Stranger by Albert Camus. Everyone thought it was worth reading, and we had a good discussion about the fiction/story aspect of the novel, the philosophical aspects, and the psychological possibilities. Probably modern readers immediately focus on the last possibility as think, “Oh, some guy with severe Asperger’s syndrome?” I don’t really think Camus intended that. I found it an excellent provocation for thinking about meaning in a world without external “truths” that by osmosis infuse lives with meaning. the scene of the prosecutor and his crucifix was key, for me, in underscoring that point. Just as the reader is intended to think, “How could anyone actually think that?” Camus is asking, “How is that different, really, from any other meaning-infusing story about the universe?” Fortunately, I was born with the pragmatic get on with life gene, so I spent only a few minutes feeling that despair, before “i should feed my sourdough starter” popped into brain. I did read in French, and enjoyed a few interesting words not immediately obvious to me from context. Followup is to reread Bartleby, The Scrivener, which anticipated Camus by almost by 100 years.
A big fat sprawling space opera taking place over several thousand years, the virtue is to indelibly imprint in a reader (especially maybe a younger reader) that the Fermi Paradox (where is the other intelligent life in the galaxy?) is interesting and well-worth pondering. One direction taken in last couple decades is that maybe that evidence is all around, but the geologic scale and time scale of the traces has been too hard for humans to conceptualize until recently. That is, interstellar intelligent life might be capable of transforming and manipulating parts of the galaxy at both the nano and the planetary scale.
So, provocative ideas. But let us not forget that interstellar intelligent life would likely also write really good novels. And this is not one of them. As Kirkus Review wrote: “Forget such conventional novelistic virtues as characters, linear plotting, or continuous narrative; instead, Baxter offers challenging puzzles and mind-boggling extrapolations in a sweeping yarn that explodes with ideas.” There’s a few ideas, but the characterization of the inner life of the characters is basically zero, and the fixation on distinguishing “Europeans” from “Japanese” and then from “Africans” and insistence on using “race” is off-putting and can only make you wonder about Baxter’s inner life.
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This year I started but never really finished three Nabokov books… don’t know… I think I find the books excellent through the middle but then lose steam. So I start skimming, reading a chapter here and there, enjoy the writing but not caring too much about where the plot goes.
First of my Christmas books to read. Providence by Max Barry is an enjoyable “war” sci-fi. Lots of shooting. Well-crafted. Excellent characterization. Still I think I would rather read Vietnam memoirs than sci-fi war novels. They don’t bring that much to the table.
Enjoying every frame of French translation I found in our local used bookstore of Jiro Taniguchi’s superb graphic novel, Quartier Loitain. A story about discerning meaningfulness and discovering family. These kinds of novels will have no meaning for readers in several generations, because the lives of their parents will be documented exhaustively on social media and everyone will have an AI-spider that continuously spins the web of the events of every person. The mystery of “Who was my father/mother” or “What happened to my uncle who disappeared?” will seem quaint like getting lost in a city and driving around, or reading a paper newspaper.
I use this blog mainly to track my own reading (and remember what I read several years later!). I loved reading Vol. 1 of Le Seigneur des anneaux in French. Gave the whole novel a fresh perspective (I had not read it since high school). I especially enjoyed the Tom Bombadill sections, that I had completely forgotten about. Reminded me of Alan Garner.
Old Man’s War confirmed the Elmore Leonard-ish style, which is not really my preference. I guess it was a decent read? A beach/airplane novel. Nothing memorable except the plot concept. Remarkably blinkered for sci-fi. The “aliens” may as well have been “the natives of Tonga.”
The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett, was our book club book. Our criterion is “under 200 pages” and good. This short novel of vignettes written in the late 1800s is filled with memorable characters and beautiful imagery. Jewett has no trouble crafting beautiful sentences that pithily evoke all manner of emotions, from nostalgia to love of nature to empathy for our fellow humans. Along the way you get a good dose of insight into ordinary life in the pre-electric era in rural, coastal, sea-oriented America. Jewett would have loved Rachel Carson!
Definitely the Elmore Leonard of science fiction: all plot, almost no science. Characters are tough guys, molls with mouths as long as their legs… you get the picture. Enjoyable. not sure I could read more than a few of these, maybe just once a year. The Android’s Dream is basically The Maltese Falcon? Somewhat clever, if a bit obvious, sci-fi references naturally make it a little more fun to read.
Nice historical novel following several historical characters (Frederick Douglass, George Mitchell) and some fictional characters who crossed the eastern seaboard to Ireland transatlantically…. by ship, by plane, by letter…. Very nice, very readable, super interesting. You learn a bunch of fun facts, are reminded of the Good Friday accords… not much more to say. Definitely worth a few hours of your time. The only downside? The “tidying up” novelistic device a the very very end…rather unnecessary.
Short novel by Ma Jian, China Dream is a poignant allegory. I am sure it is far richer in original Chinese, but I enjoyed and appreciated the deft characterizations and set pieces. Every person, to varying degrees, has to confront the difference between personal memories and the constructed social memories of relevant social groups. And we honor and remember individuals we knew, who were close to us, but occasionally wonder what makes them different from those other people who occupy our memories, whom we didn’t know, or whom we barely knew; they are the “manufactured” memories. I loved how this novel explored that aspect of our human nature.
I read the sprawling science-fiction novel The Algebraist by Iain Banks some years ago. I got it as a gift for Christmas, had forgotten I had read it, started reading it, started to think it was familiar, couldn’t recall much. I set it aside. Last week, bored, I randomly started reading in the middle. After a few pages I went back to page 1. I read it straight through over five nights. Wow. Sure, there were parts I skimmed. But this time around I really appreciated the nuance that is in the novel.
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Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills was a tremendous read. The cover says “elliptical” and that was exactly right. It is very quiet, and not that much happens, but the juxtaposition of intense inner life with empty meaninglessness was… meaningful and thought-provoking. The kind of book where at the end you sit and look at the cover for awhile. One thing that was interesting for me was that about half way through I just read the last few pages, which I do not normally do, just to get a better idea of where it was heading. I remember thinking, “Oh a quiet book not going anywhere.” Little did I realize that it was a growing suspicion in my brain that was “where the book was going.” Here’s my spoiler alert- not about plot but about understanding the novel. Ishiguro structures it so nicely, with subtle ambiguity introduced in numerous place. Towards the end you start realizing: Wait, is Keiko’s mother Sachiko and not Etsuko? How do I know who is narrating the different parts? If indeed it is Sachiko who has moved to England (after America) and Keiko/Mariko who has committed suicide.. and maybe Etsuko was really the woman holding the child under the water in a sense? Time and identities are all mixed up. Anyway, that realization is brilliant.
Yay, my analysis is validated. here is a reader on goodreads: “Then, only ten pages from the end, the pronouns change. Where you expect ‘she’ there is ‘the child’ and where you expect ‘you’ there is ‘we’. And all of a sudden you’re unsure who is talking to whom, and when, and you start to realize that you have been taking what your narrator says at face value when perhaps you shouldn’t have.”
Random thought: Hills like white elephants kept coming to mind: elliptical dialogue.
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I enjoyed 1776 by David McCullough and would encourage any reader to pick it up. It is a narrative of the fateful year when the rebellion against the authority of the British Crown was gathering steam and blew out into full blown war. I was not aware of just how precarious the short term military situation was: At several moments in the fall of 1776 a few different decisions and Washington could have been decisively defeated and Philadelphia captured. McCullough mentions, in the right ways, the contradictions of Virginia planters fighting for liberty while owning slaves. His focus is no on the ideology, but rather the particular military maneuvers and strategies adopted.