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August Reading List

August wasn’t a huge month for reading. The weather turned wet for the last half and so I never even finished my pool book, The Glass Bead Game. I think mostly I had a lazy month, did a lot of crosswords and spent time with the cat. We even watched some tv, finally seeing the Arrested Development dvds for the first two seasons. I’m reading a bit in September already and I hope I’ll be inspired to write here too.

Babel-17, Samuel Delany
Oh, I loved this one as much for the relationship parts as the language bits. It’s an SF classic and sort of hard to sum up, but poet and linguist Rydra Wong is hired by the military/government to try to decode a language, Babel-17, associated with instances of sabotage across the galaxy. Deciding she needs hands-on experience and with a belief that she knows where the next strike will be, she gathers a crew and heads out into space to investigate. There’s a lot of stuff about how the way we use language structures how we see the world, which is always interesting, but also about how the way we see the world impacts how we see the world, sort of. Different characters have different perspectives toward aliens, the dead, the military industrial complex, people who go in for cyborg-style body modification, and the key relationship on a ship that requires a trio of romantic partners. Key to all the insights is Rydra’s peculiar empathy, so strong that some suspect she might be psychic. I know I’m not doing much of a job explaining this, but I found it a very powerful, moving story in the way it did push for empathy even with people who were doing some violent, unpleasant things, or at least how it required recognizing the humanity (for lack of a better term) of all the various characters. I’m trying to push Steven to read this and I’ll probably return to it soon because it was such a pleasurable read.

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, Isabel Fonseca
This book disappointed me because I’d prefer more of a straight-up ethnography and this was written by someone who’s a journalist, not a scholar. I suspect most people don’t have the same preference I do in that continuum, and I know this is a popular book that’s assigned in classes regularly. The thing that bugged me most was Fonseca’s tendency to describe the Gypsies she spent time with as looking like “Indians,” which generally meant Native Americans though occasionally sometimes the from-India variety, because this just seemed kind of squicky and especially not the sort of thing someone writing about a historically marginalized group and about racial politics ought to be doing. Still, it was really interesting to read about travel in Central Europe in that little gap between the fall of the Soviet satellite states and the outbreak of full war in what was then still Yugoslavia. The stories of Fonseca’s specific interactions with the Roma she visited in her travels are compelling reading, but I still don’t think too highly of the book as a whole because it didn’t give me the imaginary thing I want.

Skinflick, Joseph Hansen
Gravedigger, Joseph Hansen
Nightwork, Joseph Hansen
These are three Dave Brandstetter mysteries, the first I’ve read. Dave is a gay Californian insurance investigator who looks into questionable deaths so that his various employers can know whether or not they should be paying out on the life insurance claims. These are basically the kind of hard-boiled stories I generally avoid, but I found them utterly endearing, if sometimes appropriately scary. The writing is beautiful (the first paragraph of Nightwork was clearly crafted to be read aloud) and the politics are fascinating. All three of these were written before HIV was a known issue, but they deal Dave’s friendship with his widowed stepmother; his current and past relationships and the tensions of race, age and openness within them; the rise of gang culture; the intersection between pornography, drugs and evangelical Christianity; the smothering pressures of family and familial responsibility; poverty and the rise of gang culture; the danger of unhealthy same-sex relationships based on shame (dealt with in a way that manages to implicate both the culture and the individuals involved for their various failings); and all this while managing to run through interesting, fully functional mysteries. I was fascinated and I’ll be looking for more.

The Wild Wood, Charles de Lint
A small, early de Lint novel. Eithnie is an artist who’s lost her spark and moved out to the woods in hopes of finding it, but when she finds herself falling into Faerie and perhaps making commitments she’ll regret later, she starts wondering about the nature of reality and her place in it. There’s a lot about grief for lost children (in a literal and figurative sense, as the world falls to pollution and the power of art fades) but the story manages to keep from getting too pat about the nature of nurture.

The Liar, Stephen Fry
Such a silly, engaging story. Adrian Healey, presumably the liar of the title, tells the story of his school days through his time at Oxford, during which he manages to wrap himself in unrequited love, spend some time working the streets, help drive a classmate to suicide, create lost Dickens pornography, and eventually end up embroiled in what seems to be a major spy ring of some sort, or else he’s lying about any or all of those things. Adrian is so obnoxious and self-absorbed yet endearing. He’s smart enough that he doesn’t have to study and can rattle off poetry, but not without misquoting a bit. He desperately wants an interesting life but might be refusing to see the one he’s already got. (Possibly I’m projecting.) The writing was what made this truly fun, a bit over the top when it comes to cleverness but like its protagonist blithely unwilling to admit the possibility that any of it might be de trop.

Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo, Pagan Kennedy
As advertised, the story of how William Sheppard, an African-American Presbyterian minister, went to The Congo as a missionary and eventually helped to expose some of the horrific mistreatment of Africans going on there. This is a smart narrative willing to address racial and cultural tensions as well as avoid a tendency toward easy summation. The story is so engaging in large part because the man at its center is fascinating, a minister who didn’t seem overly bothered by the fact that he wasn’t doing so well saving souls when he was able to learn about the cultures he encountered, apparently a devoted father and husband who nonetheless had several affairs with African women and eventually lost his job with the church because of this, a black man who spoke out about the atrocities he’d witnessed in the Congo and refused to recant even when the Belgian authorities put him on trial and yet who was publicly silent on the touchy issues of race and his second-class status in his home country. I wish I had learned about this fascinating character before now, but I’ve already passed on my copy of the book to someone I think will be interested.


  1. Dave Intermittent says:

    Okay, I’ll bite: why do you generally avoid hardboiled stories? Aside from the fact that many of them are intentionally awful, I mean.

    — 4 September 2006 at 9:30 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    It’s more that I’ve historically avoided them than that I have any kind of policy or anything. They just seem like they’d be overwrought in a bad way and all full of dames and stuff. But this is a totally uninformed opinion, since when I was reorganizing books today I moved a whole bunch of Chandler and Hammett I’ve never read. I don’t read a ton of mysteries these days, although actually I’ve read several this year I guess, but if it were Agatha Christie (and not one of those horrific Tommy & Tuppence) vs. Raymond Chandler, I’d pick up the Christie. But again, that’s because I know what I’m getting with Miss Marple and only assume that I wouldn’t prefer shadowy streets and guns.

    One thing I didn’t mention about Hansen’s books and probably should have was how good his women characters were, nuanced and multidimensional whether they were good or bad. This, too, I think is probably a step up from standard hardboiled stories.

    — 4 September 2006 at 9:35 pm (Permalink)

  3. David Golding says:

    Eight books, not “a huge month”? I’m impressed. :-)

    What was the prose like in Babel-17? I’m in awe of Delany’s essays and interviews, but between the awful opening chapters of The Jewels of Aptor and the difficulty of the first page of Dhalgren, I’ve never managed to get into one of his novels.

    — 5 September 2006 at 2:25 am (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Steven thinks that I have to count the Hansen books as one rather than three since they came bound together, but he also enjoys exploiting some of my insecurities! He also thinks some of these shouldn’t count since every month I wait until the 20th or 25th and then get panicky and read a bunch of books so I won’t look like a loser. He thinks since this isn’t reading like normal people do, it somehow shouldn’t count.

    This was the first Delany I’ve read, so I’m not entirely sure I can give you a useful answer. The prose was not slick, but not impenetrable. Although this is really more of a novella, it does take a while to get going before it’s really clear what’s going on in the world. He wisely starts with a character who’s sort of smitten with Rydra and thus willing to make all sorts of obvious comments, but next is a section where she goes off to hire a crew and you’re just dropped into the midst of the world at large. I think that’s intentional, to build up familiarity and alienation, and it works fine. But I’d say the writing is interestingly clunky or something like that, more functional than beautiful but still absolutely lovely in parts.

    We have a copy of Driftglass but not Dhalgren and I’m hoping to read the former soon and probably pick up the latter at some point.

    — 5 September 2006 at 6:38 am (Permalink)

  5. Dave G says:

    I hope you do try out more Delany. I enjoyed a few of his novels in college, but I am sure I wasn’t getting everything out of them. Maybe it is time to revisit some of them. (For the record, I never made it through Dhalgren, either. But lots of his other books, especially the novellas, are a lot more approachable.)

    — 6 September 2006 at 1:17 pm (Permalink)