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Archive: October 2006

September Reading List

The good news is that I’m already working on my October reading list. I’m not in much of a mood for writing here these days, though there’s writing I should do.

Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City, William Mitchell
I actually read this in June, but then forgot to write it up and forgot to return it to its owner. Both obligations will now be discharged. It’s a collection of short essays on architecture, design, city planning, semiotics, and symbolism. Since these essays were written over the course of several years for several sources, there’s a certain amount of overlap and also of gaps between them, but it’s an enjoyable and enlightening collection.

Braided Lives, Marge Piercy
In the 1950s, Jill, a smart, streetwise Jewish girl from Detroit, goes to college and rooms with her beautiful cousin Donna, creating a troubled friendship that will follow them through their lives. I think this is more autobiographical than most Piercy not only because Jill grows up to be a poet but because physically she’s a lot like Piercy describes herself in her autobiography and she has the same kind of anger and love toward her mother. Much of the story in terms focuses on the danger and dynamics of sex before legalized abortions. Jill is smart, politicized, and wants to be able to enjoy herself, but her relationship with her parents and her boyfriends don’t leave room for the kind of life and pleasure she wants. There are several different abortion scenes, none pleasant, and a sort of understanding between women to work together to cover them up, to keep the need a secret rather than be public about it. Like a lot of Piercy’s books, it’s pretty low-key and analytical about emotion, though still very passionate about words, ideas, politics. There’s injustice in the world and that’s made totally clear, but so too is that even people who aren’t trying to be total bastards lead difficult, painful lives.

King of Morning, Queen of Day, Ian McDonald
I don’t even know how to try to sum up this book. Three generations of Irish women are haunted/plagued/inspired by escapees from a dreamworld. In the early part of the 20th century, Emily is a dreamy teenager who wants to be a poet like Yeats (only better, probably) and is fascinated with the hints she sees that Celtic mythology may talk about a reality that’s alive and well. Meanwhile her astronomer father thinks he may have discovered a message from space. In the second story, set in the 1930s, Jessica is a foul-mouthed compulsive liar who finds the lover whose existence she lied about is suddenly very real and interested in pulling her into a life of real adventure. Then in some vaguely futuristic setting (which is to say that the drugs they have are better than the ones we do now) Enye is a skilled martial artist who uses a drug to focus her so she can fight back the forces of evil, which she doesn’t quite understand. The stories are all interconnected with some of the magical characters showing up in later tales, sometimes in slightly different guises. I enjoyed it, especially because the tone and diction for each section changes to suit the era and the personality of the protagonist.

Driftglass, Samuel Delany
Short stories, more of my new Delany obsession. There are a lot of beauties here and I think when I go back to reread it I’ll have different favorites. Delany manages to make any situation both alien and understandable, and I appreciated that.

Z for Zachariah, Robert O’Brien
I’ve had a longstanding fascination with post-apocalypse books about teen survivors. This is one I’d heard about for years but never seen until I finally ran across it in a thrift store in September. Teen survivor Ann thinks she might be the last human alive after her family never returns from searching for other survivors outside their secluded valley. One day she notices a campfire, though, and eventually another person shows up, a man in a protective suit that shields him from radiation. At first she’s wary, then delighted to have company, but once she realizes he expects to subjugate her to keep his freedom (and he tries to rape her) she decides she has to manage to get his suit and make an escape, but first she has to stay alive. It’s an interesting story, told as Ann’s diary. It predates a lot of the similar books I’d read when I was young and is dark in a very different way. This has to do almost completely with Ann’s personal thoughts and expectations, with little analysis about how to rebuild a world (although Ann on her farm is more practical and knowledgeable than most similar protagonists) or how everything fell apart.

Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent
I’ve been running across blogs lately where people say they put this down because the tone was so annoying to them, but I stuck with it even when it struck me as strange. It’s a memoir, I suppose, of the time Vincent spent passing as a man (Ned) in a variety of all-male or male-dominated situations to find out what it is that men do when they’re together, which is something that’s always intrigued me. So she joins a bowling league, goes to strip clubs, tries internet dating, stays at a monastery, works in door-to-door sales, eventually joins a New Age-y men’s group (and that part did strike me as exploitative in ways others didn’t) and eventually, as Norah, has a nervous breakdown and falls into a deep depression after trying to manage all of this. Neither the anecdotes nor the analyses were things I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere from male authors, but I thought they blended into a readable enough book. It was useful for me because it highlighted some of the things I was thinking about at the time specifically about how men and women grow to deal with self-expression in different acceptable ways, but I don’t want to make great claims based on it or anything like that. Clearly a lot of people thought Vincent was too smug about passing, but I didn’t think that was much of an issue; she’s clear about the adrenaline rush she got from managing, but also the psychological toll it took. If anything, I didn’t like the way she detailed her “coming out” moments when she let people in on the fact that she’d been fooling or partially fooling them. Still, as long as you don’t read it as being about all men and all women and stupid battle-of-the-sexes stuff like that, I think it can be useful and thought-provoking. It was for me.

Dhalgren, Samuel Delany
This was by far the biggest book I read in length, time, and impact it had on me, and as a result I’m really not sure what to say about it. I have a sort of fondness for big books, especially when they have plenty of sex (which, by my reckoning, Neal Stephenson’s never do) and on those grounds alone this one is right up there with Gravity’s Rainbow, but that’s certainly inadequate. The narrative starts in the middle of a sentence or a poem, in the middle of something, and the protagonist who has forgotten his name is having a transcendental and dreamlike experience that culminates in his arrival in the lawless, post-disaster city, Bellona. There he takes to being called The Kid (or variants thereof) and moves into a world that operates by dream logic and yet seems stunningly real. The Kid is a strange attractor, able to be where things are going on and meet most of the powerful people in the city, but at the same time he’s not really a participant. He happens into a raid on a department store by one of the local gangs that ends up giving him enough status he can basically run a branch of the gang, but that doesn’t seem to have much effect on him. Instead what matters most is the poetry he’s writing in a notebook he found, which does focus on the things he’s experiencing maybe at the expense of letting him remember and understand them sometimes.

Memory and preservation of memory are key here, since obviously The Kid has lost his name and some of his background. Even in Bellona, he’ll wake and days will have gone by without his noticing. But that’s not entirely unique to him, although his problems are particularly severe. Bellona sometimes has two moons and no one ever seems to know what time it is there. This is all very much The Kid’s story even though until the last section of the book it’s third-person narrative (and only in that first-person portion did it become clear how much broader and less focused the third-person parts were than I’d realized at the time) and even the people he cares about most, his girlfriend Lanya and his (later their) young teen boyfriend, are sometimes almost incidental to him and very much to the plot when they’re absent.

I’m not doing a good job with this, as I knew I couldn’t, because I’m trying to summarize a vast summary where summary is impossible. It was a thrilling read both in style and content. I was captivated. I identify with The Kid in some ways, which probably helps, since I have my own fears about memory and my (in)ability to love and feel in human ways, my own concerns about whether I can write anything worth reading and whether I’ve ever managed to do so. But I think it’s a strong enough book that anyone willing to put up with its not being straight-forward at all, deal with the fact that the narrative slips around and reality, it seems, is pretty malleable in Bellona should get a lot out of it. I see plenty of political resonance now, when it doesn’t seem surprising that in the moment of disaster the US government might decide to stay out of a city full of minorities and degenerates, or help the white middle class escape before leaving the rest of it to fester in ruin. That something (although something full of pain and tragedy as well as plenty of people getting by) of stability and civilization can flourish in Bellona I think says a lot. Just in Dhalgren it doesn’t say anything in a direct or polemical way. It’s all poetry instead, after a fashion.