Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Scar

The Scar by China Mieville, 2002.

Very good, showing an author that succeeds at basically everything they're aiming for, and is aiming for the right things.

I've come to Mieville in just about backward order, based on local availability form different libraries. So, the order ran Iron Council, The City & the City, Un Lun Dun, now The Scar, and will conclude with Perdido Street Station and King Rat. And I am going to read them all, Mieville is a strong enough writer to merit the attention.

He's one of the truly great worldbuildings, on the level of Vance or Le Guin. Casual little details are thrown in that make for an very compelling and believable setting. Economy, politics and daily life appear clearly, this isn't just a background with a convincing set of dynasties but one that feels inhabited by a whole order of classes. Mieville is the other type of urban fantasy writer--rather than take the existing world and put a slice of the fantastic over it he weaves a fictional city in great detail. Moreover, in the Scar this city is Armada, multiple levels of pirate ships on the water, the whole structure slowly drifting across the globe. Multiple species, a giant mythological beast to pull it, yet the structures of internal trade and partisan politics are comprehensible.

This book has as well wonderful moral complexity, a rich cast with a range of attitudes and desires. As a revealing incident, at one point major plot emerges from the vampire overlord of part of Armada launching an attempted coup of the city, aligned with Eldritch sea monsters. He's an antagonist, but rendered sympathetically, along with much of the cast. The one faction in this novel shown as monstrous is also the one with the most banal focus, the city aiming at strategic transit and commerce.

A very effective and unique work.

Similar to and better than: Jack Vance's Blue World
Similar to and worse than: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Not particularly similar, mind you, but the ocean-centered segments are broadly comparable.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Galactic Cluster

Galactic Cluster by James Blish, 1959

Collection of science fiction short stories. A bit tricky to assess at this point, while they contain a lot of neat ideas they're also ideas I've seen used a lot since, and in many cases a lot better. Blish is pretty good at executing a story and his prose is competent, but there's not enough humor, raw creativity or bite to his descriptions to make his short fiction stand the test of time like an Asimov or a Philip K. Dick. While I liked Blish's A Case of Conscience quite a deal, this particular anthology left me much colder, and is probably part of the reason I didn't get around to read it until four years after I bought this volume.

Still, if I was reading this in 1959 I'm sure I would have had my mind blown several times, and none of the stories stand out as bad, or even boring. I was most found of Beep. Overall, I'd say this collection was worth the look.

Similar to and better than: Fritz Leiber's Gather, Darkness!
Similar to and worse than: Isaac Asimov's The Early Asimov

The Tombs of Atuan

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1970.

A good work, intense, well-written and meaningful. Far from the quality of Lavinia or Le Guin's Hainish Cycle stuff, but quite rewarding, and a lot better than A Wizard of Earthsea. The story concerns a girl that becomes First Priestess, which mostly involves living underground and performing human sacrifices.

Very strong exploration of what magic would actually involve, making this a lot more than just flashy effects or convenient plot motivators. Rather, it's about naming, identity, perception, spirituality--all of which connect thematically to the larger journey of the book, particularly as Tenar is renamed and redefined for ritualistic ends. More than the slow build up to escape and travel, that's what the book is explicitly about: the function of religious questions in the invented world, and the tensions that ensue. Glorification and sacrifice, sanctioned and illicit beliefs, real gods and ritualistic forms. The book incorporates a lot of angles, and it works because Tenar is so ambivalent, believably uncertain about her rights in both authorizing murder and in leaving the environment. That she's able to have this range without being a weak or indecisive character speaks to Le Guin's high skill in both characterization and plot. And, the eventual escape from the titular Tombs of Atuan is awash in gorgeous description and themes, expressing very potently the emergence from a secluded mono-environment to the wider diversity of the planet.

Interestingly the work rarely feels claustrophobic, having enough intensity and range of description to come across as a complete environment. The main action is oddly closed in for Le Guin, though, as shown most prominently by there being only four real characters for most of the narrative. This is one of the areas where the work most benefits from being fantasy as opposed to SF--there's little need to offer an extensive worldbuilding (although the fact that this is part of a larger series also helps with that) so the description of hearing about and seeing the larger world can remain centered in the relevance to Tenar, in engaging with his past beliefs, overturning some, and connecting with basic influence of stories. This work isn't quite as meta as Lavinia in that regard, but it offers food for thought in that area as well.

Similar to and better than: Terry Pratchett's Pyramids
Similar to and worse than: Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia

Imperial Russia after 1861

Problems in European Civilization: Imperial Russia after 1861, 1965

Pretty interesting read here, although probably not for most readers, or even historians not interested in the late nineteenth century. Even within that the work has a bit of major clunkiness--for one it's a collection of related articles rather than a unified analysis, making for some superficial insights and mixed quality. One section where it went from a secondary analysis to temporary indepth quotation of a primary source was particularly jarring. Even more problematic, but not surprising for the time it was written, tis is a very tradition and top down type of history, focusing on a very small elite and missing a lot of structural cultural nuances.

Still, it's an effective primer on some of the main historical issues in late tsarist Russia, as well as some of the key historiographical debates concerning the same. Particularly good at chartering the wide variety, rhetoric and major concerns of the liberal and revolutionary movements in Russia.

Similar to and better than: Marshall Poe's The Russian Moment in World History
Similar to and worse than: Isaiah Berlin's Four Russian Thinkers

Market Forces

Market Forces by Richard Morgan, 2005.

A very cold, cynical and brutal book. Highly pessimistic framing for its setting, plot and main character. Yet excellent in overall quality, delivers many insights through a strong narrative, and confirms Morgan as one of the top genre writers and someone worth reading. Set a few decades in the future, it charts an environment in which major Western companies have privatized most major functions, including foreign policy. The narrative tracks Chris Faulkner, an up and coming operative in Conflict Investments, and their work to reinforce and topple regimes expressly for the sake of profit and profit alone.

The book is ultra-violent, ultra-sexual, and quite explicit in the portrayal of both elements. Yet this isn't done gratuitously or to tell a story for the lowest common denominator, it's part of a very focused view at forces that don't get enough narrative attention generally. Most notably, capitalism. It was very interesting to read this right after Night Watch, since a lot of my criticisms on that--backing away from the grimness of the premise, undermining credibility of the setting, issues with the main character--are fully fulfilled in Morgan's book. The standpoint is an environment in which some of the worst trends of the modern world are intensified, where major corporations exist completely unregulated (and are to a large extent dominant). This means an amoral focus on profit that leads to those without power suffering so those with power, from in the systemic (helping arm a group of rebels in Cambodia to overthrow the regime, giving lip service to good human rights, but making absolutely sure the new government puts in neoliberal export-focused economic conditions) as well as the personal (In an early scene, Chris and a coworker are out in the rougher parts of town looking for a good bar. Some teens approach their car with knives looking to jack it. The coworker shoots all three of them, including one that tried to surrender. The later police investigation never comes close to indicting him).

So many of the Gibson-inspired cyberpunk dystopias feature a similar setup of rampant corporations, but make a narrative focus to bypass a lot of how twisted a dystopia this would be. Neuromancer was dark, poor and ugly, but not crushing in this way. Morgan invests in his premise, portraying a world where, by the operation of the free market, crime is atrociously high, most of Europe lives in slums, and the power brokers are systematically callous, because that's where the profit is. On occasion some give charity or offer justifications for why their approach works, but it comes down to competition against the other guy, an understanding that if their country doesn't arm Latin American despots to straffe civilian villages someone else will, and it'll be their buck made. A lot of the patterns here and basic logic is coterminous with the modern world, but Morgan's future is starker, with less pretentious, and with a fuller exploration of the toll this system takes--particularly what it does to someone amongst the top tier of the enforcers.

Violence is central in this work, and is shown as ubiquitous and Janus-faced. Violence operates on the personal level, the corporate, the political, the global. Violence operates in self-defense, in open battle, to coldly murder the guilty, to slaughter droves of innocent. Viiolence is personal, abstract, collateral damage, entertainment, concealed, tolerated and illicit. Moreover, the corrosive moral force of it is portrayed deeply in this novel. The typical structure of the Holywood action movie or the written thriller is subverted, violence is not redemptive, not a force for the individual to step into heroism. As Chris fights and kills more and more across the novel he simply becomes numbed to it, casual in the tools and mentality used to take another life. The book doesn't simply repudiate the use of force either, as people in this book that abstain fully from violence leave themselves or others open to violation by those with less scruples.

The sexuality is also interwoven and diversified powerfully. At times the actual narratives focused on this seemed less necessary to the existing narrative, but thematically the focus works well. Breaking down this issue, the book shows sex for:
*intimacy. This involves a sign of connection and merger, occuring largely
*commerce. Like everything else, it can be a structure of the market, an act performed only for financial gain, which achieves such only because there are people interested in purchasing it. There's a minor recurring character who, late in the book, lays on the ground details of her past career in porn, which had been alluded to from early on. On a strict level of the story this doesn't substantively change or advance events, but in connecting the
*lust. A distraction, an activity of bodies that temporarily evades the need for thought. This aspect becomes crucial late in the work.
*dialog. Specifically, having sex so as to brag about it to one's buddies later. This appears throughout the book, most heavily in the character of Mike Bryant. Such a motif gets at a lot of what the book investigates, through sex, violence and other arenas. Masculinity, the set of mystique and expected norm associated with men, how they attempt to act to fit in, specifically to fit in as one of the dominant. There are subtexts in terms of race and gender that are wonderfully realized, highly bound up with the above. Much of the book is in a sense about men deciding what code of masculinity and self-definition to embrace--and to a large extent they fail miserably in this.

One of the recurrent questions across the book is what exactly the context of Chris and his wife Carla's relationship is. Are they an intimate union or a meeting of services and resources? Is Chris in actual love with Carla or merely supporting her; is their sex a meeting place or just the services rendered by a whore? Carla worries about the status of their relationship from early on, particularly as Chris changes, eventually this rises to verbal confrontation, still later Chris states flat out that for what he earns in his morally troubling job her quiet support as well as "an occasional blow job" is a bargain. Market forces again, connections of capitalism that run through desire as well as repression. There are so many novels that if exploring Chris' story--whether to glorify or condemn his violence and the unregulated capitalist model he facilitates--would have cut or reduced the status of his marriage. Really, though, this is the center-piece of the complexity of Morgan's story, the way capitalism incorporates physical bodies in its framing of their actions. Sex and violence run across the global system, offering at once intimacy and distance, codification and power, profit and loss.

After reading this book I viewed it as quite good. After organizing my thoughts into this review, I think it's a great work. To be sure it deals with a lot of ugliness and unpleasantness, and a lot of the book is ugly and unpleasant. Yet it deals with important issues and complex topics in a complex way, and the amorality of the protagonist, the narrative and the setting help frame what is--for the first time in his writing career--Richard Morgan taking a substantive literary stand. It's worth reading for that alone, doubly so for all the small details that make this, unfortunately, a strongly plausible future and, even more unfortunately, parallel a lot of what is happening now.

This book reminded me of and is better than: Watts' Blindsight
This book reminded me of and is worse than: Dick's A Scanner Darkly

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Night Watch: Dystopia as Prologue

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, 2002.

Interesting. Certainly one of the stronger Discworld books, and plays with some stronger emotions than usual. As well, the whole device of using the city past as dystopia was interesting, quite different from the norm for genre writers showing an oppressive setting. There's a lot to like scene to scene, with atmosphere and direct moments. The book also benefits from one of Pratchett's epiphanies (Vimes's recognition of Ankh-Morpork as a process, and then later ensuring Carcer would get a fair trial in the same spirit) and, in Carcer himself, one of the series' more creepy and plausible villains.

One implicit strand on this novel is that while earlier versions of most of the usual Ankh-Morpork cast show up as younger versions--Vimges, Colon, Nobbs, Vetinari--Carrot is completely absent. This makes sense, after all he arrived at the city in Guards! Guards! and this work obviously needed to be set before that, but it also fits with the general atmosphere of the piece. This is an environment where naive optimism gets hammered out more than it changes the world, where political change derives from back stage political decisions that doesn't alter essentials.

Still, for the hype I've heard of this book I was left a bit disappointed, and it perhaps indicates some of the aesthetic limits of the Discworld, that for all of Pratchett's good comedy and neatly rendered ideas he's not on the level of writers like Mieville, Valente or Kiernan. It seems Pratchett holds back at crucial points, and will go for the bit of satire or historical parallel over full emotional commitment to his invented situation. Specific things that bugged in Night Watch:
-It seems Pratchett gave in too much to the temptation to make cute continuity references. Was it really necessary for Vimes to encounter younger versions of as many people as he did?
-Vimes himself has grown to be a bit tedious, post Men at Arms. Too self-assured and self-righteous for it to be great fun spending a few hundred pages in his head, and his struggle with his urge to rage is rendered over-simplistically ('the monster inside him stirred')
-Vetinari's presence was largely a wasted opportunity, making a lot of jokes on invisibility and rendering him as unexplainedly helpful rather than showing him developing towards the political thinker seen in other books. Given the most looming contrast between the Night Watch era and "modern" Ankh-Morpork is Vetinari's role as Patrician, that seems to leave a bit of a void at the heart of the politics in this work.
Still, overall quite enjoyable and interesting, and I found it far more satisfactory than Unseen Academicals.

Similar to and better than: Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time
Similar to and worse than: Yevgeny Zamyatin's We


*Palimpsest by Catherine M. Valente, 2009.

Now, this one is good enough to make it to my current shortlist for Hugo voting. Very impressive piece of writing, great at tangible details, characterization, and large-scale depictions. This is interesting to contrast with Mieville's The City & the City, in which the population makes an elaborate and constant form of mental repression to not notice the other city fantastically embedded in it. In Valente's work, all the characters are obsessed with entering the secluded Other city, gaining access through dreams and seeking permanent immigration.

The concept seems to lend itself to purient voyeurism, but it avoids these pitfalls and delivers an emotionally complex tale. The basic story concerns a group of strangers, each of whom is drawn into obsessive quest of a fantasy city. The titular city has permanent inhabitants, but people in our world can access it only through sexual contact, access to it in dreams is spread by sex between members of the group, who are also marked by a tattoo appearing on the skin, each strand a part of a much larger map. A lot of what develops is how empty and lonely the frequent sexual encounters are, how cold functionalist relationships become.

There's an interesting process across the book, as the characters get more and more obsessive with their interest, and their outer lives are more and more abandoned. It's not entirely depressing because the quest they have isn't just a psychosis, it's a real city, which becomes more fleshed out and interesting. It's not a facile success fantasy, though, because in being fleshed out the setting itself becomes somewhat banal. "This is the real world," one of the characters insists of the magic city at one point, and a lot bears this out. While some of the metaphysics of the city Palimpsest vary it still has largely similar people, with a class structure and internal politics. What this means is there's little reason to assume the characters will be better off in Palimpsest, in a way it's as empty an ambition as thinking relocation from one conventional city to another will make a transcendent improvement.

There are a few awkward points and impracticalities, most of the latter dealing with the ease in which contact with the extraordinary is covered up from the mundanes. As well, it's a disturbing book in a number of ways, with the explicit detail and the larger patterns of emptiness and selfishness it traces. Still, it's a very rewarding engagement with an interesting premise, and it succeeds a lot more than it falters.

Similar to and better than: Gene Wolfe's There Are Doors

Similar to and worse than: China Mieville's The City & the City

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Caryatids

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling, 2009, also doesn't merit Hugo nominee,

A pretty good book, though. Suffers in relative quality in reminding me of The Windup Girl (multiple morally ambiguous viewpoints set among an environmentally devastated planet) while not being anywhere near as good. Still, there's a lot of interesting stuff here, pulled together in an effective story. It's over infatuated with the device of cloning as a perspective device and the beginning is very slow, but it was quite engaging by the end. Solidly in the category of a good and worthwhile SF book, it's short of great I believe mostly in that 1) it goes with a type of shallow satire for a long section, rather than committing to a future dystopian or doomsday premise and 2) having one major character who just bugged, especially her implausible motivation (blow everything up!).

This is the fourth genre novel from 2009 I've read that deals with the theme of environmental devastation impacting catastrophically on human civilization. I'd conclude that this book wasn't as strong as the others (The Windup Girl, Julian Comstock, Year of the Flood) although it's only narrowly behind Atwood's. While Sterling's narrative is over attached to the device of different viewpoint characters being clones of each other, and the structure isn't as novel as he thinks it is, he does offer an interesting setting to place this world. Opening well after the main devastation, the book doesn't spend much time tracing the changes that have doomed old norms, instead it engages with the different new organizations that have adapted to thrive. The Acquis, the Dispensation and China form the main powerblocks, with one viewpoint character assigned to each.

The first two are each interesting, primarily for the contrast. The Acquis are a type of mildly transhuman adaptation in the direction of Green collectivism. Easily the most benign, yet with enough creepy, coercive and austere elements to not feel too idealized. The main interest I found in this angle was the negotiations they were forced into, having to balance their intentions with their relatively weak power. A community that had succeeded at immense odds in reclaiming a bit of the globe against collapse--and now finds that they still have issues to deal with, that their success attracts attention, that in order to work with a broader humanity they have to cut deals with a group that doesn't share their principles, and finally that their very success might have been gained through a heavy ethical cost precisely because of their form of principles. It's a very nice scenario, and while the negotiation scene early in the novel is rather drawn out, it has enough ambiguity to be compelling.

The Dispensation is interesting for contrast, but is less compelling in its own right. A type of disaster-capitalism that now strikes me as having parallels with the portrayal in Market Forces, they focus on hype, entertainment, ultra-adaptation. What's most interesting about the Dispensation is that they don't appear as center stage of their own setting--a lot of authors using this would have made them the center of a dystopia that needed to be challenge. Instead, while there's a lot to obviously condemn about the way they operate, it's shown as an understandable and eminently human structure. Still, this plot strand tens the most to shallow satire over more substantive world-building, and despite some nice character growth is the weakest part of the book.

Finally there's China, the only nation that's maintained it's identity and power, albeit at a pretty staggering cost. The best part of the book is here, partly from the setting, but as well in the protagonist's involvement with this society. The whole atmosphere of navigating through 'the last nation-state', and the confident reasons given in-universe for why of course it was China that did this, are quite intriguing. The very ending makes for a neat connection and plot movement amongst the arcs, but also spoils some of the ambiguity in the China section, making me a bit ambivalent on it. Nevertheless, I'd recommend this work.

Similar to and better than: Stephen Baxter's Titan
Similar to and worse than: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl


Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker, 2009.

The first time I read this author, one of the considerations for the Hugo voting in a couple of months. Doesn't deserve to be on the shortlist, by a long shot. Strange, occasionally interesting, but mostly incoherent. A sequel to an earlier work which I haven't read, but even with that as a proviso for not understanding everything, it rapidly becomes clear the author is just throwing things into the narrative arbitrarily. It's a postsingular society, aliens intervene, the religious right all enmasse instantly to be enslaved by aliens---the whole thing was at best a few drafts away from actually deserving publication, and it's made me strongly inclined not to read any more of Rucker's stuff. The plot is utterly insane, a large host of things that happen unbelievable, the characterization very weak and the prose barely competent. A struggle to finish. Easily the worst science fiction book from 2009 I've yet read. Much worse than Secret Son.

I've grown a lot more tolerant of fantasy over the past year, but I still orient towards science fiction for the most part. Certainly it's possible to tell a great story in either genre, but what science fiction offers implicitly more of is scale, a big picture. As a genre, it's not merely an invitation to a particular story or a certain series of events. It's instead a way to picture our future, the changes and alterations of the planet. Not simply to invent a character and have them run on their way, but to picture the changes that will impact on everyone. Certainly the singularity brings this concept in centrally--imagining vastly accelerated rate of technological development, and the manifold change in the definition of the human that can result. Rucker's failing isn't just that he reworks a scenario done in a vastly more interesting style in the past several decades--think of Marooned in Realtime, Accelerando, Diaspora--but that he actively undercuts the scale that most scifi and implicitly singularity scifi demands.

The people that matter in Hylozoic are a small collection of inventors, spouses of inventors and related community that were responsible for developing the main technology initially. They have their adventures, in time are victorious with a huge reset button that literally whisks the aliens away, and the whole fate of Earth is all about them. Their lives are the centers for massive reality television (since they apparently need the money, despite all this new miracle tech that they themselves developed) but while the populace at large is enthralled over who is sleeping with who, the disclosure of technologically advanced and hostile aliens raises no real concerns. There's not even social satire going on here, Rucker just apparently finds it convenient to go with the main population as insultingly useless. There's a half page after the main crisis is over describing how, in response to every government in the planet collaborating enthusiastically with the aliens, the people get rid of elected government and start applying a more utopian direct democracy. It's a conclusion so far out of field with everything that's happened previously, an covered in such a brief analysis, that the term deus ex machina doesn't even cover it.

There's no dignity to any of these characters, nor belivability in anything they do. Do not recommend.

Similar to and better than: ?
Similar to and worse than: Charles Stross' Accelerando

Secret Son

Secret Son by Laila Lalami, 2009.

Now this was a bad book. It has some interesting description and themes, and at times a very engaging exploration of the class divide in contemporary Morocco, but overall the novel fails on issues of prose, plot and character.

The prose is perhaps the most jarring defect. Most of the dialog is servicable, but a given statement is frequently ruining by a character musing to themself after it, beating a given dead horse and destroying any expectation of subtltety or ust in the reader. There seem to be one of these sentences every few pages, and they wreck reader patience, violence 'show, don't tell' and drastically weaken the development of the novel.

The plot doesn't particularly help in that regards, being too melodramatic by far. Furthermore, the author seems to feel that this type of story will be unfamiliar to the readers, and invests the meager plot twists with all the shock of monumental upheavels. The story itself is--leaving out the last forty pages which merit their own point--is quite conventional for the initial setup. A boy in his late teens discovers that his father isn't dead as he was told, instead he was the bastard product of his mother's illicit liaison with a (married) upper-class man. He goes to Daddy, who is shocked, shocked to learn he has a son (he knew his lover had gotten pregnant but she left then and he assumed she'd gotten an abortion). Daddy helps his *secret son* with pride, status and a lot of cash, the son enjoys entering into a higher class and the goods and sex he now has access to. But, the father's wife finds out about the whole sordid situation (not, you know, in the actual story or anything dramatic like that, but we hear about it second hand) and the father cuts off the son, who is sad that he no longer has the monies and sex.

The characterization didn't bother me at first, but across a novel's span it proved flat and predictable. Worst in this regard is the author's habit of showing an important scene first from one character's perspective, then the others. The dialog is identical, and seeing the thoughts and perceptions of another character when you know what's going to be said just underscores how one-note and predictable these people are. One area I thought was better in this was the daughter of the father, half-sister to the *secret son*. She had a number of scenes of studying in LA, they didn't have much connection to the plot, but they were better written, more nuanced in characterization, and at the end this could have been a much stronger book if it focused on her expectations and problems rather than her idiot family.

Still, all the problems I've described would make this a weak book but not a bad one, until the ending. See, the son being sad because he didn't have the love and monies wasn't actually the end of the book. At this point, he goes to the local Islamic fundamentalist party (called simply the Party, clearly having studied their Orwell), and after a ten minute conversation agrees to murder a reporter that's been critical of the Party, all for the cause. Now, this movement had been a presence across the novel, both in criticizing the corruption and oppression of Moroccan society and in being criticized for it. Now, for most of the book I thought this was one of the strongest elements--a little pat and simplistic in presentation perhaps, but reflecting a part of the society in a quiet background way. This all gets ruined when they step into the main plot, and make everything too melodramatic by far. This also makes a hash of the protagonist's characterization--while he's angry at his father for rejecting him and by extension the larger upper class society that he's excluded from, him being lead to an active identification with the Party happens far too quickly (they basically give a lot of two-bit rhetoric and a short video on all the terrible things that happen to Muslims across the world) and him actually agreeing to slit the throat of the reporter is just absurd, particularly as the man was a minor friend of his and he knew quite well he was a decent man active in attacking abuses of all kinds. His agreement makes the whole moral and psychological calculas of the novel absurd. Now, granted, he quickly regrets his commitment and tried, ineffectively, to stop the secondary assassin. But still.

Similar to and better than: John Updike's The Terrorist.
Similar to and worse than: Sharnush Parsipur's Woman Without Men. Drastically worse than, given I'd actually recommend the later.

The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, 1978.

This is a difficult work to review. Partly because I don't read many mysteries, and have distinct worry of missing large parts of the intent and style. It'd be like having read a few science fiction works and then reviewing another, mentioning I liked the language and characters but the story just got ridiculous and unbelievable when the aliens showed up, and why did they need timetravel anyway? That is of course how a lot of mainstream commentators review anything SF/F (particularly through assuming that the whole endeavor is just juvenile escapism) and I'm wary of making a similar error across here. For instance, while I found a lot of what happened arbitrary and unbelievable from the setup of the book, that could be as much to not being as familiar with the genre elements Crumley is incorporating or subverting.

Furthermore, and possibly due to the above, I didn't really find this a good novel. I can't say it's bad, but it seemed incomplete or off-center in some ways, which doesn't give me the strong unifying focus I'd have to rant in either praising or condemning it. The Last Good Kiss is quite effective on the level of direct writing, the prose is decent, the dialog snappy, the pace on paragraph to paragraph basis good. It's the larger picture the novel paints (or buys into) that's less satisfying.

The best and worst thing in this novel is how 70s it is, reflecting both intense sexuality, intrigue and political radicalism, as well as a partial blowback against these. So, the protagonist gets eventually sidetracked into following the trail of a ten-years-missing young woman, tracking her past through porn, drug addiction, a hippie commune, and then reinvention of herself into a respectable and settled wife. It's an overview that plays at times like a metaphor for the country as a whole in the previous decade. Certainly in the trail of this, the protagonist has a lot of interesting encounters that deal heavily with the impact of "the Dream" in its late 60s manifestation, its major collapse, and how people left around after the end relate. It's the most productive part of the book, but it also forces the story into a few contrivances--is it really likely one person would have such a symbolically important set of roles? This could work in a lot of senses, but the reason it doesn't fully here is the gritty and near-realistic tone of the work undercut it's larger importance.

The major plot elements make sense in retrospect, the pieces of the backstory fit the described narrative. Unfortunately there's a cost to this coherence, as it forces levels of rediscovery of the small cast, showing hidden identities and covert manipulations. It was engaging to read through, but also distanced me a lot from most of the people in this novel, and in retrospect I find it a fairly alienating tactic. The work isn't atmospherically paranoid enough to support this type of deception, and by the end several many characters were left too ambivalent for real connection.

Where the book really loses me is in the end, with a bit of an improbable coincidence forcing an action-packed rescue against the local mob. It's too neat by far, too succesfull to really be believed, and in the process the book doesn't really deal with the full impact of the abuse (particularly in the sexual form against woman) that's inherent to the setup. This aspect was a factor across the work, but it became most prominent just at the moment of ostensibly the greatest narrative intensity, and left me rather cold. Still, there's a lot to like in here, and as an exploration of a largely unfamiliar genre was probably worth its own sake.

This book reminded me of and was better than: Agatha Cristie's Murder on the Orient Express
This book reminded me of and was worse than: Stephen King's The Dead Zone

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf, 1929

This was an incredible work, mindblowing and provocative, putting intense subject matter and scope into a very short little account. Of the work I've read so far in 2010, it does the most with the least space, giving a fundamental feminist branching point for reflections on literature, politics, war, culture, family, psychology, the academy and identity. This final element is particularly effective, providing a rich understanding of how conditions of patriarchy determine not just power, not just social roles, but the very self. Starkly, this account delves into the scope of such politics, in framing how self-regard and the regard of others. Woolf perceives and expresses very clearly that men and women both have twisted psyches from the power disequilibrium, and some of her most resonant passages are the musings on why exactly the entrenched male intellectual elite show so much passion in denying female publications. Across the work there are areas where Woolf is no longer as applicable, where she reflects on conditions in our day that are substantively changed for the better. But this is far from total, and a lot of this writing still rings very true. That's not exactly a positive reflection on the state of our world ninety years later, but it makes this piece still a vital piece of thought for policy brokers and regular citizen here and now.

Perhaps the area Woolf most impressed me was her thorough understanding of how systemic realities and power structures work. Long before historians had really started taking cultural history seriously or understanding the role of discourses in positioning individuals, Woolf paints a clear understanding in the feminist context. Specifically, her question of what would happen to a woman of literary genius in a society where she cannot express herself poses some stark look at structures, while her answer (probably go insane) reveals again how fundamental this type of control is, how non-negotiable basic equality should be to avoid this kind of intergenerational anguish.

In addition to Woolf's effectiveness in analysis of many given topics, there's also a great energy and value to the way she moves from one angle of focus to another. There's apower fluidity in here that reflects both the power of her thought and the inherent interconnectivity of the issues she faces, women's place in literature leads smoothly into the cultural changes of Britain since the war, which leads to reflections on basic power distribution and the scope of nature. What the question ultimately returns to, and what Woolf powerfully voices, is how widespread the power gap is between men and women, how much the later have been abused, coerced and silenced, and how intolerable this situation is. Woolf's writing is self-consciously a record of main themes of that oppression and a challenge against it.

In a more minor note, it's a bit surprising to encounter repeated references to Mussolini as the archetypal figure of masculinized, militaristic fascism. Pre '33 that makes sense, and works as a reminder on how rapidly political symbols of evil and violence can shift in global vocabulary.

Similar to and better than: Woolf's Three Guineas

Similar to and worse than: Butler's Gender Trouble

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by James Weldon Johnson, 1912.

A powerful little novel, packs a lot of substantive issues into a tight and thoughtful narrative.

There are three main things this work tackles:

1] Exploration of racist conditions in early 20th century United States. Quiet but potent, such a scenario inevitably causes us to what's shifted from this account, and then what hasn't. For a portion of the book this issue seemed almost too light, too much a matter of verbal prejudice rather than more fundamental realities--but it came full force near the ending, with a vivid narration of a lynching.

2] Debate concerning such racism. Here the work is less succesful, and seems to a greater extent dated and less useful. The larger approach is credible enough but the exploration of racism as a component of southern pride and regional nationalism feels incomplete. The arguments analyzed here are major racist tenets, but they don't get at some of major overlapping motifs behind abhorrence. Even more deficient are the counter arguments against racist definitions of blacks and black culture. The intent is certainly laudable, but the actual speeches given--largely pointing to black music as a self-evident sign of accomplishment rather than degradation--miss a lot and close the book on assessment in a way I doubt was applicable even in the author's time.

3] Attempted opting out of this issue. This element is where the book shines, showing the systemically inhumane treatment of blacks, and the ambivalent and muddled human response to this. Faced with long odds and no prospects of racial equality, the protagonist chooses--as the title indicates--to pass as white and give up efforts for a wider struggle. Not an heroic choice, but eminently understandable, and puts a far more tangible face on the many characters real and fictional who did sacrifice deeply in a question for human justice.

This book reminded me of and was better than: Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat By the Door.

This book reminded me of and was worse than: Morrison's Sula.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte, 1847.

Of the books I've reviewed so far in 2010 this is the most famous, long-lasting and well-praised. It is unfortunate then, dear reader, that it was also the first I found fundamentally disappointing.

It seems that the basic purpose of the character Jane Eyre is to suffer nobly and then eventually succeed. Both elements are highly problematic as presented. Her noble suffering acts to undermine her actual character, making someone that reacts the same to most of the challenges--stoic, determined, largely silent, resigned. This required attitude makes her too much of a blank slate, too reactive, with insufficient personal details to be memorable or seem like a complex psychological portrait. One gathers that Bronte was trying to subvert common norms in representation of woman, by making Jane a lot plainer and less accomplished than was the usual style. She may have made a major improvement in this, and as discussed below there are some interesting elements to all this, but the basic result undercuts the character's agency too much. Jane can work as a symbol, she does not work as a person, and the novel is too deeply linked to her consciousness for that to be a passable loss.

As well there are major pacing issues and apparent questions on the larger arc, with much of the first hundred pages and the last hundred and fifty being off-tangent to the necessary interactions for the particular story. Still, it was hardly the worst or most difficult work to get through. For much of the first two hundred pages I found it moderately enjoyable, without thinking it was very good. I was reading it as a dark comedy, framed by a blank protagonist in a fundamentally ridiculous situation. The humor--genuine though presumably unintended--came from the contrast of the stylized language forms and general etiquette focus and how cruelly people acts. See in particular the treatment of Jane in the devil child scene, in the way that's she stiffly defends herself as opposed to how the school argues she's a literal follower of the devil, and how that's a bad thing. Amusing, in a twisted sense, at least as I took it.

Where I stopped being able to do this was precisely the point that the horrid and creepy Mr. Rochester became crucial to the story. He was a fundamentally twisted, harsh and disturbing person in his own right, and the eventual arc of the book where Jane does marry him and this is apparently a good thing fatally undermines the book. The way Jane plods on is problematic in itself, but it's what he ultimately plods to that is truly wrong. Rochester's focus on pride and control, his lies, his age, his borderline-deranged manner of fixating on women, the fact we have only his own word on the true story with his first wife, all these make Jane's eventual marriage with him very far from a happy thing. Yet the book seems insistent to regard it in this light, as if Rochester's injury has in itself transformed his character enough that Jane waiting on him for the rest of his life a satisfying resolution. It's the ending scenario that makes the conclusion of the author and the whole structure of the narrative less than even good.

Nevertheless, the novel is an accomplishment in a number of ways. That it exists at all, that early in the nineteenth century a woman could be published. Furthermore, it's extraordinary that she was able to include so centrally in her work a protest and anger against the systemic condition of women of her time, and that both elements have been perpetuated down into the present. Creepy as some of the above subtext is, that's a worthwhile development amidst what was a pretty terrifyingly close-minded century.

There's also some interesting stuff at work with religion, class and attitudes in the nineteenth century context, Jane occupying a bit of a hybrid position in all of these, not affluent nor truly destitute, not tightly religious or a firm skeptic. The hybridity of her position is very revealing to a lot of norms that we might not see in novels of the period, as her very existence in the text portrays social structures even while it undermines them. Jane Eyre the character and book are transgressive in certain ways, then, and the way this plays out is interesting. Yet, I find this appealing and informative more in my hat as historian than as a reader. The book is quite revealing of the cultural context of the author, but that's going to be the case for almost every book ever published, and it's notably less effective in framing the context for its invented narrative, cast of characters, and atmosphere. I could forgive a lot more in this book, and even come to value much of it, if it weren't for that ending that pushes the whole thing into a disturbed romance. However the book does, and so let it rest.

Jane Eyre reminds me of and is better than: Bronte's Wuthering Heights
Jane Eyre reminds me of and is worse than: Shelly's Frankenstein

The Heart of the Matter

by Graham Greene, 1948.

Greene is an intimidatingly good writer. A lot of the truly classic authors carry with them a certain mystique, arriving with all their major plot details spoiled, a fancy edition with an introduction by someone else. Not that all such literary classics are great, or even good (see the next review) but this type of reputation more often than not indicates a strong accomplishment. Greene is an author of that stature, but I first encountered him as a more casual, as if less celebrated author, and to an extent that still comes through in the book editions I get, the lack of major literary discussion on him I come across, and even the name. "Greene", really? Is that the name of a literary giant?

Greene is the name of a literary giant. He's one of the best, and The Heart of the Matter is very much up to form. The pace works to deliver the core struggles of the character through the plot to the reader, at a certain point in analysis looking for something as a plot-element or a character-revealing element breaks down. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as The Comedians or the Human Factor, but it's an impressive work by any light.

Ultimately this book is an account of a man who commits adultery and then suicide, believing throughout that both actions damn his soul to an eternal hell. I'm quite a few degrees away from supporting a belief in adultery, suicide or damnation, yet I still found it a very moving story, one that benefits from rendering an alien form of thought as utterly credible to me. At times a good mainstream author can offer a more complex world-building experience than a lot of science fiction ones, here it brings home how strange and complex our fellow humans can be. There's always another narrative. This is something that all good writers have to tackle to some extent, but it emerges with particular force in Greene. In part this particular scenario probably benefits from Greene's own religious philosophy, but he's able to take the commitment very seriously. Scobie deals with his situation in some very destructive ways, but he retains his own viewpoint and set of justifications, and when his mistress claims he couldn't believe in damnation for his adultery, or his wife claims he couldn't have committed suicide, they're both wrong, and wrong in a manner that shows a crucial failure of imagination. Greene's accomplishment isn't merely that he represents Scobie as a highly sympathetic and moral man, but that he shows him to be as complex and self-regarding as any other, despite the intrinsic contradictions built into his final actions.

Though as I said, not entirely in his best. One defect with worldbuilding--using again a science fiction staple for this non-SF book, which seems consistently appropriate--here is not giving enough focus on the colonial scope. The book takes place in WWII British West Africa, and there's some very good scenes on the racial bias issues inherent to that situation, but the whole thing doesn't go nearly far enough for me, doesn't engage with the real ugliness and ambivalent passions promoted by this issue, in the way Orwell renders so well. Instead Scobie comes across as largely calm and unaffected by this issue, and there's a lot of untapped potential here. Still, this book is by my standards a masterpiece.

Reminded me of and was better than: Flaubert's Madame Bovary
Reminded me of and was worse than: Coetzee's Disgrace

Monday, January 4, 2010

This Is Not a Game

by Walter Jon Williams, 2009.

One of the works I considered as part of the 'genre published in 2009' as a Hugo voter for this year. To state upfront--this is nowhere near good enough to merit being on the shortlist for the Hugo[1]. It also suffers a bit by coming in my reading immediately after Lavinia, as it's an order of magnitude less ambitious, creative, clever and successful. Nevertheless, I liked this one, overall probably more than Stardust. It's a technothriller with large tokens of a murder mystery, all wrapped around an intricate knowledge of online forums and live roleplaying. The knowledge of this type of sub-culture is where the book's strengths really lies, with a lot of humor and some interesting scenarios embedded into the plot. The characterization and plot is decent, and the above high points are enough to get pass some melodramatic silliness with the Russian Mafia.

The core of the larger idea here is on the basic danger of an unregulated market, the way profit can emerge through ripple effects that cause violence and chaos in the short term, and global collapse longer term. Specifically, there's a system of automated trading viruses that have become very good at mindlessly increasing wealth for their creator, up to the level of netting billions by collapsing entire national currencies. As a sci-fi metaphor this works decently, and some of the strongest work in this vein occurs through description off all the very real human suffering and death produced by such (coerced, in this case) market forces. However the resolution, as practically mandated by the style and techno-thriller format, is far too pat and simplifies everything. Foil the psychopathically greedy villain, use millions of online players to carry out a complex Internet-wide debugging operation, end the economic menace. It's possible to quite literally put the genie back in the bottle here, and there's little sight of any more complex evaluation or possible remedy towards economic meltdowns conventional or SFnal. Perhaps that's expecting too much from this, more than Williams really aimed at. Still, the field could always use more ambition and depth, particularly in a time like this dealing in a speculative fiction way with this particular theme.

This book reminded me of and was better than: Stross' Halting State.

This book reminded me of and was worse than: Reynolds' Chasm City.

[1] Not that this in principle rules anything out, given certain past debacles in who has managed to walk away with the award. See especially Goblet of Fire and Starship Troopers, as well as 2009's rather disappointing shortlist.


by Ursula K. Le Guin, 2008.

As might be gathered from the title of this blog, I'm a great admirer of this work. Reinterpreting the tale of the Aeneid, Le Guin's offers part fantasy, part historical reworking, larger part literary reworking. This description might seem to offer a fragmented and confused type of story, but I found it all wonderfully coherent, inviting and using that invitation to do very interesting thing with the nature of genre and assumptions in stories.

What this book does best is to contextualize the war described by Virgil. It's not purely a condemnation of the conflict, and the other similar actions of pride-driven senseless collective violence--although it certainly has elements of this--but it's about fitting war into a larger story, a narrative that includes but is not defined by the incidents of violence. It shows what happens before, what happens after a war, the psychological and structural forces that can generate conflict, and how a resolution of it works. It also centers the periphery of this, civilians following from a distance the process that turns family members from people into corpses, women on the rooftops trying to follow what's happening in chaotic violence, the ultra-masculine aggression, injustice and violation of combat. The most effective accomplishment of the book is to work in the form of Vigil's war into depiction of wider politics, economics and society, and represent these familiar/heroic backdrops as a functioning community as valid as our own.

For university this past semester I read a number of articles on the topic of reclaiming the past, achieving a female middle voice in the context of old patriarchal narratives. The challenge was, recognizing the inherent worse of women in an inherently patriarchal context where all records are inevitably tainted, can we as feminist 21st century scholars recapture the periphery? Can we take figures like Asphasia as valuable additions to the canon, or is that just a path of invention? I took the latter argument, but now begin to see what value there can be in this type of account. Le Guin's narrative is a pure fiction, but to label it thusly is to underestimate the insight that this kind of fiction can accomplish, and as a project that works, reworks and expands a feminist reading of a classical text, I wouldn't dismiss the scholarly validity. We can't pretend that Virgil left record of Lavinia as an actual person (as this work points out, and as clearly motivated Le Guin, Lavinia doesn't even speak in the original poem, serving only as a plot point) but Lavinia as a text gives a tool to engage with it now. The benefit of her work isn't just to challenge the conventional and exclusive picture of the Aeneid, but to create a subtext that after reading this one is more likely to ask these sorts of questions. To inquire if canonical works are biased, if they exclude. And, of course, the same question can be asked about books published now, items written this year. Who are we excluding? What type of narratives do presume?

Going into this I'd expected it to be a feminist reinterpretation, and to portray the titular character in much more depth than the original source (not hard, that) but this work also treats other characters effectively. Aeneas himself is a complex, sympathetic character, and in several of his discussions with Lavinia it very much seems that he makes the better point. More widely Lavinia does the same respectful additions to the larger scope of Etruscan-dominated Italy, offering an intimacy both with the wider scope of legendary history and the moment to moment details of life. Lavinia's father comes across particularly well, not terribly effective, far from flawless, but sympathetic in his strengths, weaknesses, and how deeply the two are intertwined.

I've labeled this a fantasy (as have most, though not all, readers) but this doesn't hit on the conventional tropes of this at all. In numerous ways it's even less magic-driven than Virgil's account, having no direct action of gods, no miracles, no practicing sorcerers. The one supernatural element occurs with the titular character herself, and the conversations she's able to have with the poet Virgil. Obviously, what this allows Le Guin to do is enter into an explicit dialog with the author of the primary canonical work. This could have so easily been a case of demolishing and condemning the first source, but Le Guin's goals are nuanced enough and she's an effective enough author that writing Virgil literally into the account makes him a sympathetic and interesting character. These scenes stand in the same relation to the larger juxtaposition of Aeneid and Lavinia, as expansions past the canonical without being merely fanfiction, revisioning of core motifs without demolishing the work.

This is a book that I'd recommend for everyone, especially those that have any experience with the Aenied, and even more especially those who think the main focus is too narrow, too blood-drenched, too irrelevant to wider concerns of contemporary times. Le Guin has offered an invaluable expansion to it that is among the very best novels of the 21st century. Le Guin's novel is deconstrutive in the best possible sense--taking apart an old narrative and the assumptions that factor into it, and in the process expanding, putting together and reinvigorating the narrative through her own focus. It's also one of the most powerful, quietly political and engaging stories I've read.

Reminds me of but is better than: Robinson's Galileo's Dreams. It seems Robinson was carrying out a similar approach with regards to the more historically grounded early science figure, but the result is far more muddled. One of the problems is that he makes travel into the future part of an actual plot rather than a reflection on the past, as well his past interludes show far less creativity in focus.
Reminds me of but is worse than: Not sure, actually. I've read books better than Lavinia [1], but none that had quite the same ambitions, style or core content as this one, the one's that are similar in approach are also a lot lower in quality. The book I'd be prompted to think as similar and better than Lavinia might be one of Le Guin's other books, The Dispossessed in particular, but that's more a trick of memory than a real connection. Part of why Le Guin is so ridiculously talented is that she writes massively different types of fiction. If her name wasn't attached to both, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell Lavinia and the Dispossessed had common authorship.

[1] Although none of the 10 I've finished so far in 2010 qualify, and I'll make a special note when one does. Won't change the name of the blog, though.


by Toni Morrison, 1973.

My reading of Morrison has been sadly limited, nothing sustained since Beloved in high school. Picking this work up, I didn't find it nearly as intense or impressive as Beloved, but it's an impressive novel that reemphasizes Morrison as an Author to Be Known, and made me resolve to read her other books. The work covers the kind of inter-generational type change that can exist in a single lifetime, of moving on and growing up, then coming back to the people you knew before. There's a lot of effective stuff around Sula herself and the way she's received, and Morrison does some very deft work with showing how deep ostracism can work, while still keeping the outer line of civility. Often this type of story--woman comes back to town, is judged inappropriate and shunned--seems to go to one extreme or another. Either the prejudice against her is ultimately that of misunderstanding, not hatred, despite all the barbs, or it's so extreme people are literally spitting at her at every moment. Think of the Scarlet Latter for the latter trope. Here, Morrison paints a very convincing picture of how a community can be quite outerly polite, seemingly accepting, and even view the woman as a necessary part of the institution--while also quite fully hating her and making her miserable, because her behavior is too heterodox for them to tolerate. It's that kind of ambiguity that is so awkward to deal with, and at the same time makes the town understandably human even in their worst.

The characterization is very deep, very effective. Compared with the work in Stardust it's a lot more in depth, compared with Look at the Harlequins it has a bit more substance even in a smaller package. Morrison is also quite effective at the socio-economics of race in a section of the United States (here Ohio), presenting a sort of lived portrayal of how pervasive exploitation and discrimination operates. Even post-Emancipation and even--by inference--post Civil Rights, the novel is set earlier but the underlying forces that hedge in the town of Bottom aren't simply going to go away, and in many cases haven't. That Morrison renders this effectively is one of her accomplishments, the greater one is that she's able to bring such humanity and complex empathy to the situation, showing people as deserving even when they're rendered in unglamorous situations.

There's a lot more worth saying on this work, the basic story, the larger themes, but I feel this is an established and classic enough piece not to need it here. More precisely I feel this is the type of work it would be more beneficial to read litcrit on rather than offer my own musings. Or at least read all of Morrison's other stuff.

This book reminded me of but was better than: Wiesel's The Accident.

This book reminded me of but was worse than: Morrison's Beloved.


by Neil Gaiman, 1998.

Fantasy novel, mostly notable as the first independent book-length prose by the author. Plot summary you can find elsewhere, and not planning to spend too much time reviewing this one. The whole effort struck me as competent but unexciting, a coming-of-age travel adventure with a backdrop of magic and strange creatures that didn't show anything like Gaiman's full abilities. There's nothing of the edge, raw creativity or narrative power of Gaiman's Sandman or American Gods. Instead there's a basic narrative that feels too plain, too modest, to be really worth Gaiman's time. So there's enough plot twist to keep the whole thing fairly energetic and moderately meaningful, but it's still lackluster.

Perhaps the most disappointing element was that the political intrigue surrounding the Stormhold was so stylized as to be dull, which robbed a large point of the ending of its force. On the other hand, some of the basic premises of the book are rather engaging, with the question to bring back a shooting star that is in Faerie a living being, and the town of Wall elaborates trying to ward off Faerie. This last is the most interesting element by far, and brings a touch of genuine structural excitement to the work, while it's basic the scenario imagined for the barrier between mundane and fantastical is fairly unique.

For a long point when reading this book I was trying to figure out if this was stronger or weaker than Gaiman's most recent book, the improbably Hugo-winning The Graveyard Book. I think ultimately it's a bit weaker, though they're in the same general ballpark. The Graveyard Book was better at atmosphere, of taking a core narrative and reworking it into an effective post-urban fantasy atmosphere, for all that the villain and central conflict were much lamer than in Stardust. Both books are worth it for Gaiman devotees(which, of course, I'm on record as being) and probably will be at least tolerated by those interested in traditional-style fantasy. I still hope to see more of the other Gaiman, the mindblowing one.

This book reminded me of, but was better than: Lint's The Mystery of Grace
This book reminded me of, but was worse than: Martin's A Game of Thrones

Look at the Harlequins!

by Vladimir Nabokov, 1974.

When reading all the fiction of a given author[1] I make it a point not to go in chronological order. I don't necessarily mind starting off with an earlier book first (although it rarely works out that way) but I hate the idea of ending my read-cycle with the last work published. With deceased authors, at least, for living ones it's not inherently depressing and is basically likely to happen if I outrace them yet they're still publishing. However, with authors already gone, their whole corpus turned around and ready to be dissected and museum display, I prefer to read the concluding work some point earlier, end with something more midrange in the career. Accordingly I've still a number of others works ahead, but have recently read Nabokov's last complete book, with his recently published fragments The Original of Laura impending.

So, the actual work. I've gathered from incidental references, both the New York Times book review and Adam Robert's blog, that Look at the Harlequins! is regarded as one of Nabokov's lesser works, off-focus from even his midrange stuff and a larger magnitude below works like Lolita or Pale Fire; that Nabokov fictionalizes his autobiography to no great end, and that the narrative collapses away to defeatism. For my part, I liked it well enough, but can't deny the criticism. The edition I checked out from the library for this end was a collection of Nabokov's last few novels, and compared with Transparent Things or (my personal favorite) Ada it is a lesser work. But I'd still say it's a major accomplishment, engaging and interesting, better than most novels. The prose is as beautiful as always, the dialog and description both first rate. One of the things that most struck me in this work--and something I'll have to look for in others--is the effectiveness of description of the body, its significance, power and fragility. A brief scene of the protagonist putting on a rob and going by the window carries such pathos, from age, from position, from the not completely defeated aspirations--it's precisely in the banality of such small moments that Nabokov shines.

On the larger questions of plot and characterization one runs into the central issue of judging a fictionalized autobiography. It's difficult to assess how much is gained by this approach, that is to say the broader relevance of this approach beyond Nabokov's own life. I wasn't as bothered going through by the question of how much Vadimovich's life resembled Nabokov--though I do have a strong urge to read Speak, Memory now. I was most curious on how the explicit political views compared, the sensory details and subjective actions I'm prepared to accept as fundamentally novelistic. And in that light it's a worthwhile story, tracking Vadimovich's travels and life of quiet escape. Like Ada (although less effectively) the story's structure grounds memory, with both explicit judgement and

So, in conclusion a very strong work which I heartily recommend. I'm pretty sure that everyone wouldn't enjoy it, though, and I'm not even sure that I'm in the ideal position to read it--perhaps I would like it more or less if I'd read all of his earlier work and had a closer awareness of his life (although the Vintage Three Volume edition had a nice detailed timeline at the back that provided a fair bit of context). Maybe my approach to not ending with the last is flawed after all. Although perhaps this (call it a) novel is most valuable not for the direct story but for the way it destabilizes categories of thought and memory, including an explicit destabilizing of fact/fiction and story/self. Of course all fiction has an element of the auto-biographical in it, but making this trend much stronger can cause some interesting breakdown.

This work reminded me of but was better than: Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year.
This work reminded me of but was worse than: Nabokov's Ada.

[1] Which I have currently done with Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Iain Banks, Philip K. Dick, Robert J. Sawyer, Vernor Vinge, Robert Charles Wilson and Ian McEwan, FYI. I am seeking to finish all the works of China Mieville, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nancy Kress, Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin and Vladimir Nabokov, further FYI. Although technically the whole blog fits into FYI territory, but this list--and most footnotes--are more so.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Setting about the foundation

This Lavinia Shadows blog will serve as the record of the books I read across 2010, along with my thoughts on them.

Comments are welcome.