My neighborhood book club read and discussed Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. We’re an odd mix, and it is always interesting to see who “likes” and who doesn’t. Leaving the Atocha Station is about as high literary-meta as you can get: a bored precocious poet is writing, and the novel is about how he’s not writing, and how he’s not even sure what writing, and communicating in general, means, especially not in Spanish in Spain. It is very short, and not much happens. The narrator can be deliberately annoying. But everyone agreed it was an interesting deconstruction of the idea of writing. Everyone liked it!
I really enjoyed reading Earthsea by Ursula K. le Guin in French translation by Philippe Hupp. I had previously only read the first volume in English. Maybe reading in translation lends gravity to what might be, in native language, an ordinary young adult fantasy novel? I found the themes of the second two novels to be far more adult. This was an adventure into the mind, and discovering the country of who we are and what gives life meaning. The occasional action sequence is definitely secondary to long scenes of sitting. First, Ged and Tenar in the treasure caves, and second, Ged and Arren on the sailboat. Sometimes the sitting is accompanied by talking, but very often the sitting is a chance for characters to think. They think a lot, and their thinking changes over the course of the novels. Highly recommended!
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Very enjoyable, very readable, Katie Mack’s The End of Everything is good cosmology overview of where the field is at on the question of what happens when the universe winds down. Obviously the math is way beyond me, but Mack does a good job helping you think you understand a little bit more than you did before.
Finished Eifelheim by Michael Flynn… a bit exhausting, but the “everyone is going to die” reader anticipation of plague novels is pretty compelling nevertheless. The frame story doesn’t work very well, but the Krenken-Dietrich-Manfred main story is very moving. I’d read a good novella told from Manfred’s point of view.
I thought this short story, “Blushes,” by Graham Swift, in The New Yorker, January 18 2021, was tremendous as a statement of quiet competence in writing, on a well-trodden theme: towards the end of life, looking back and having a childhood memory stick. (Rosebud?) Every human, one imagines, over a certain age is familiar with this sentiment, and one can imagine more clearly, when confronted with writing like this, what it would mean to not have these kinds of memory flashes. The sense of continuity constructed by the brain: “that self was myself, even as it was a different self,” is arguably one of our most mysterious human traits. Some commentary over at Mookse.
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The story “Good-Looking” by Souvankham Thammavongsa in the March 1, 2021 issue of The New Yorker. Quite enjoyable read, for the craft. About as concise as possible as a portrayal of how the child remembers something, knows a bit of the backstory, can fill in many gaps, and sits there 30 years later, as an adult, and wonders about the gap between “knowing” someone like your own father, and your father’s knowing of himself. I found it interesting that she chose to use “air bubbles” at the end…? Carbon dioxide is not usually thought of as air. Deliberate? Mistake? Everything else is so precise, why that? Anyway, one cannot really complain about two pages written so lucidly and insightfully.
Reading this sci-fi “empire” novel A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (the new labeling for what used to be called space opera, I guess) was enjoyable. Very good characterization of the two central characters. A decent science-fi idea, though in the end perhaps underdeveloped. A good editor I think could have taken this one step further – there were numerous small grammar issues and repetitions (the main character was “on the verge of a hysterical laugh” enough times that I started noticing the construction). I will admit that I skimmed the last third: denouement is such a hard problem in novel writing. I’m becoming more of a fan of “circular” writing where the ending turns around to go right back to the beginning (influence of reading Pnin, I suppose).
A fine moody, noir-ish, crime novel where the crime is really quite tangential and left for the very end. The focus is on a washed-out ex-punk photographer. Lots of interesting discussion of photography, landscape (desolate parts of Maine, that I know only vicariously and from one trip during the summer), gender, and purpose. Crisp writing. It isn’t for everyone, I think. But I found it quite rewarding.
I think the answer is pretty simple: if you care that inequality in the United States has risen and that many, many people are being “left behind” then you should be in favor. The pundits, including many prominent economists who are associated with the Democratic Party, and many reactionary economists associated with Republican party and libertarian-y types, will say this is “irresponsible” because the large transfer will be inflationary. The solution to the inflation possibility is very simple: raise taxes on the wealthy and reduce military spending and stop the giveaways to the corporate farm sector to ensure interest rates do not rise dramatically and that the increase in spending by the bottom half of the income distribution is not putting pressure on prices. Maybe while you are at it reform housing regulations (allow fourplexes in every single family zoned neighborhood) so that the bottom half of the income distribution in expensive urban areas is more likely to invest/consume better housing stock.
“The Wind” by Lauren Groff, in The New Yorker, was a straightforward, powerful story of domestic violence. I confess it is a genre that no reader, let alone me, enjoys, told, as it is, from the eyes of a child. But sometimes you have to, you should, go out of your way, grit your teeth, and read. You need the constant reminder of the world. She is a beautiful, lyrical writer.
A very short allegory, “A Wrinkle in the Realm” by Ben Okri. Okri had a whole volume of short allegories some time ago, that I found difficult to read. Here the idea is straightforward, but it is a wrinkle. I think maybe a wrinkle on Recitatif, by Toni Morrison? The fiction works because the reader is constantly aware of all that they are bringing to the story: an immense cultural and literary understanding through which the simple story is filtered. Like Recitatif, it feels like an exercise, and the allegory’s subject matter is so serious that maybe we humans do need regular exercise in this realm? I listened to Okri, with his quiet straightforward delivery, and I think that might be better than reading it?
I really enjoyed Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It is a short novel, an allegory, really. But she deftly works in the “real” world, and the writing is extremely satisfying: I lingered over her choices of words and sentences, and definitely want to read again. Oddly, something in common with The Traitor Baru Cormorant was the concept of a palimpsest, which in our current multiverse understanding of reality is perhaps becoming an organizing principle for cultural production.
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.