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Category: Literature

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.

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.

July Reading List

I think this is finally the month where I didn’t read much and should be ashamed of myself, though I suspect August could be even worse. I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting one book, but it must have been something forgettable. I did write this up a few weeks ago, in fact, but then managed to delete it before posting, so if I sound especially bitter it’s because I’ve had to explain twice why I don’t care for/about most of these books, although the answer might just be that I’m really a grump these days. I used to be so much more forgiving of books when I was young, finding one beautiful sentence that seemed somehow transcendent. Now I just want to toss things away because none can live up to my imaginary expectations.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
When Calliope hits puberty in the ’60s (I think, maybe very early ’70s) in Detroit she realizes that she’s not like other girls, is in fact perhaps a boy. And there’s plenty of over-foreshadowed drama about intermarriage in previous generations, which is sort of odd as if it’s trying to assign blame or something ridiculous like that. I liked this better when it was an excerpt in The New Yorker or something and Cal got sexually involved with a pair of siblings (independently, not in an orgy situation) in a sexual identity crisis that culminated in the discovery of ambiguous genitalia. The transliterations of the Greek really rubbed me the wrong way. If you want to read a nonfiction and more compelling book about John Money’s theories on how to deal with gender, you’re better off with something by Anne Fausto-Sterling or else John Colpatino’s As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Steven Covey
I’m sure there are useful techniques here, but it took me months to read because it was such an annoying slog through the parts about how in the ’50s the worst thing that happened at school was that the hoods chewed gum, whereas now kids are being gunned down in the halls, etc. I was not a receptive audience. I am not particularly effective, either.

Candyfreak, Steve Almond
I really strongly disliked this book, although I’m pretty sure I knew I would when I bought it. I know it’s gotten rave reviews elsewhere but something about Almond’s smug reveries about every candy he eats just drove me up the wall. I think it would work better as a blank book so you can fill it in yourself. “Crystallized ginger not only tastes like heaven, but is mentioned in an Incredible String Band song!” “I hate peppermint but once sucked down an entire stick of Blackpool Rock (lettered right through) candy just to watch the pink letters every time I took it out of my mouth.” “I was pretty stupid in my teens when I had no caffeine for 18 months and then ate an entire bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans in about 5 minutes and thought I was going to shake to death. In retrospect, the fishnet stockings I wore later that evening were also probably an unwise choice.” “I remember sitting in a rowboat on Lake Erie eating Jordan almonds, which I thought had the taste of pure delight.” “What could taste more like summer than a Crystal Beach sucker?” “Probably only the awesomest people give out Kinder Surprise eggs as wedding favors.” See, all that was more interesting to me (and who else matters?) than anything Steve Almond had to say about his own boring gluttony. I did like reading about all the regional candies, though of all the options I’ve eaten only GooGoo Clusters. I’m not a fan of this book at all and don’t even want to bother calling it saccharine or something so I can be cute like all the other people who’ve blurbed it, except apparently in some meta way.

A Girl of the Limberlost, Gene Stratton Porter
This was written in the first decade of the 20th century and it shows. But I’d never read it and now I have. Elnora is a poor, good, smart, talented, honest girl, and if you think everything ends badly for her then you’re a very mean person who doesn’t appreciate this sort of narrative. It was actually sort of interesting. I don’t quite know the part of Indiana where it’s set, but I enjoyed the culture clash parts more than the straight-up melodrama.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick
If I already wrote about this, am I off the hook? I like it; it’s really interesting. I could say more but probably won’t now. I think I view books about identity and how do we know we’re ourselves and all that differently from the way most people do, but that’s not something I particularly want to muse about now.

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend
This is another therapist recommendation, but a good one. It’s explicitly geared toward Christians who want to know how to avoid being doormats while still being moral people. I struggle a lot with the secular version of that problem and found it easy to just use the scripture references as metaphor and explication and not worry about my eternal soul, just the extent to which I can stand to keep living my life or maybe even enjoy it. It was a very helpful read for me and I’ll be going back to it a lot.

Vurt, Jeff Noon
This was a reread, a book Steven read in his Modern Fantastic course back in the time just pre-blog. I read along with him but didn’t have a class, which is good because I would have said something about being appalled that no one in his class got the reference in the name of the feather called Curious Yellow. It’s a story about drug culture and virtual culture and a police state and beautiful incest and father figures and authority and the power of word and image. Protagonist Scribble has lost his beloved sister Desdemona to the virtual world and is on a quest to win her back, but life both real and virtual intervenes. What struck me more this time around was how clearly it traces the abusive relationships Scribble is in, on different sides of the power imbalance at different times. I’d remembered some of the scenes of violence pretty clearly, but a lot of the bestial intimidation and jockeying for control was more disturbing than I’d remembered. I’m not sure whether I liked this more than the next book in what can I suppose be thought of as a series, Pollen, but both feature a fascinating, lively world and lots of interesting wordplay and narrative-play. I thought Automated Alice took the punning too far so it was no longer fun, but the other two books are less self-aware in that regard and much more fun, if that’s the right word for this kind of darkness. They’re compelling and captivating, which is maybe better than fun.

seeing darkly

Steven and I saw A Scanner Darkly 10 days or so ago and then I read the book on Saturday. I have a lot to say about them, but I’ve already written a version of this post on the livejournal I’ve been keeping. I want it here because it’s more this kind of material than what I’ve been writing there and also because I have very similar things to say about V for Vendetta and it will be easier to say them if I can just link back here.

“Everybody bangs me.” She amended that. “Tries to, anyhow. That’s what it’s like to be a chick.” (14)

So I read A Scanner Darkly on Saturday and watched the adaptation the weekend before, and Steven was right that it was a remarkably faithful adaptation (and I’m sure I never doubted him!). Sure, the movie’s been beefed up with more foreshadowing (possibly, as Steven suggested to me, because some of the twists were things Dick made up as he went along) and a few nods to the fact that it’s being released in 2006, not the late 70s. So instead of phone booths there are cellphones. There’s no word about a Communist conspiracy, but there’s also no real surprise in Big Government colluding with Big Business.

Most interesting to me, though, is that while the movie is still about ostensibly straight, white men, that almost doesn’t matter. Sure, as in the book, there’s debate about how to get into Donna’s pants and why Bob can’t manage to do it. As in the novel, when Bob brings home a Donna-substitute to fuck, she wants to know whether he’s gay since he lives with two men. As in the novel, he tells her that he’s trying not to be. But there’s none of the hand-wringing about how Donna’s not going to be able to preserve her current chastity because chicks never do. In fact, in no time at all women addicts seem to slip right into selling sex for drugs. Somehow the men are able to avoid this or avoid mention at least. In the movie, it doesn’t come up much, in part because women don’t exist much.

In the whole movie, I don’t remember hearing once about a woman who wasn’t wearing a bra, but that’s a key descriptor for certainly the vast majority of the women who show up in the book. And while race seems quite incidental in the movie, that these just happen to be a bunch of white stoners, race has in many parts been erased. It’s supposed to be black people from whom Barris buys the bike and a black man who explains to them how the gears actually work, but that’s not how it works out in the movie. The only black character I remember (and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting some) from the movie is the doctor in the team examining Bob/Fred, and she’s female too. So instead of getting to see how privilege works, why these hierarchical distinctions maybe matter even more to these paranoid straight, white male addicts because inherent power is the only kind of power they can get, we get to see a black woman as the voice of reason, able to correctly assess what’s wrong with Bob. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate choice to contrast the novel’s stance (and I’m not accusing Dick of being a misogynist racist or anything; I assume the biases he gives Bob/Fred and his cohort are just the sort they’d really have) or if it’s a way of supporting it, showing that non-white/female power is just another thing Bob’s damaged brain can’t handle.

There’s more to it than that, of course. This doctor is the one who tells Bob to get Donna some little blue (in the movie version, at least, blue) flowers, which initially made me suspect that she might be Donna in some sort of higher-level scramble suit. She’s the one who lets him off the hook the first time he should fail his perception tests, also the sort of thing a kind-hearted or manipulative girlfriend might do. And yet it eventually turns out that maybe she’s gotten through to Bob’s reptile brain and, whether he realizes it or not, he may do exactly what she asks. Would a white man higher up the hierarchy have been able to get below his skin as well? Beats me.

There’s the whole Donna conundrum, too, that while in the movie she doesn’t get to be the castrating bitch who’s suing a man for $40,000 for grabbing her boob and who carries a well-concealed knife to ward off potential attackers, she gets a major elevation of role in the metaplot. Whether this makes her a conniving bitch instead, especially since as in the book there’s a decent chance that she’s disguised herself as Connie to be Bob’s Donna-substitute fuck after she’s turned him down as Donna, is unclear. I’m pretty sure there was a major difference in the scene where she does turn him down, when Bob asks if he can run away with her if she cleans up her life and leaves the scene, too. In the book, this refusal more than her unwillingness to have sex was the heartbreaking dealbreaker for him. He can’t even have a fantasy of her. And yet I’d thought in the movie she agreed that sure, maybe they’d go together and thus he could dream whatever he wanted (while she knew the truth). I feel a lot of tenderness for her in both versions, maybe gender biases coming into play again, but she’s a bit of a mystery no matter what. I think that’s a good thing, though.

Really, I said that I was okay with not having all the plotlines completely resolved and I still am. I like a certain amount of uncertainty (ha ha) but there’s something a bit unnerving about the cleanup of the nastier bits of story for the movie, just as there would be something unnerving about hearing Keanu Reeves call someone a “spade” the way he’d have to in a literal adaptation. I don’t know how this sort of thing generally does or should get dealt with, but it’s still got me thinking days later. I just don’t think I’m thinking toward definitives, which is typical but also probably good.

Moominsummer Madness

I’m already starting my countdown to Drawn & Quarterly’s September release of Tove Jansson’s Moomin comics with the free strip every weekday that they offer. The story starts here if you’d like to read from the beginning. Or there’s a PDF preview if you’d rather not wait on the daily postings.

Can you tell I’m pushing Moomins? Of course, who wouldn’t love a family of gentle hippo-ish creatures and their many and varied friends? I was such a fan of the books when I was young (or became a fan then, since clearly they still get me excited) and I’m really looking forward to reading the comics. Jansson wrote stories that are sort of ridiculous but also kind and honest in a way that I find appealing. They’re books for children, certainly, but I think adults can appreciate their goofy depths too. As I recall, my littlest brother got his start in comparative literature at 8 or so by comparing how the adventures in Exploits of Moominpappa shape up against the reminiscences of Moominpappa’s Memoirs, although the Wikipedia entry thinks that these are different titles for the same book.

As far as the books go, my favorite is the one whose title I stole for this post. In Moominsummer Madness, a volcanic eruption starts a flood that sweeps through Moominvalley, forcing the inhabitants to evacuate. They find refuge in a floating theater and decide to write and perform a play. Or there’s Finn Family Moomintroll, a good introduction to most of the major characters, in which Moomintroll’s friends find a hat lost by the Hobgoblin who lives on the moon. It turns out that anything put into this hat transforms, which is part of the reason the sinister Hobgoblin is tracking it down and thus stalking the Moomins and their friends.

I write these plot summaries as if plot is really what drives these stories, but it definitely isn’t. From the lonely Groke whose alienation is so extreme that she leaves a trail of dead grass behind her with each step to Moomintroll’s friend Snufkin, a thoughtful wanderer who plays the harmonica and despises the park-keepers who want to keep him from enjoying the greenery, the characters are both outrageous and recognizably human underneath their fantastical forms. It’s especially the details that make the books such fun for me, which seems to be true of the strips as well. The background business is a delightful complement to the main characters’ conversations. in both cases, it’s the vividness of the world that makes everything more interesting.

I hate writing reviews, as I’ve said before, and so everything I’ve written here seems fake and cliched to me, but I’m sounding like a fangirl because I am a fangirl. Other bloggers can write about their childhood superhero crushes or how they thought they were Ninja Turtles, but instead of anything like that I taught myself to draw Moominmamma and Little My. I even made a little shoebox Moomin house for all my homemade Moomin paper dolls to live in so that I could let them walk across my bed and have conversations but also have a nice place to stay at night. Maybe once I read the strip collection I’ll have more sensible and insightful things to say, but for now I’ll just look forward to it and know that to me it feels like home.

May & June Reading List

I was bad about doing a list in June because I couldn’t remember all I’d read in May. Now that I’m even farther from either, I’m sure I’m forgetting things in both months. I did actually start my July list today, so there’s a chance it will be better. This definitely convinces me that the idea of marking down what I’d read so I don’t forget it is a good one. I’m also reading more than I would otherwise because I don’t want people to look at the list and think I’m totally slacking off, although forgetting books does sort of detract from the impressiveness of the list I do have. But here it is!

Women in the Shadows, Ann Bannon
The last of the 50s lesbian pulp in the house, this one was really a downer. Laura has settled in Greenwich Village with her girlfriend Beebo, but the relationship is getting abusive and both are unhappy. Laura’s attracted to a dance teacher who turns out to be black and married, which was one of the most interesting subplots, and Beebo is jealous to the point of scariness. Laura decides to leave that life and marry her gay friend Jack, whose boyfriend has also become a bad dude. But Jack maybe wants a baby and Laura maybe wants to be more open about her lesbianism and it’s all a huge pit of despair. It was fascinating to read and I’m sure very realistic, but deeply discomforting.

Amsterdam, Ian McEwan
Basically, is it morally acceptable to out a closeted cross-dressing politician in the newspapers if he’s a creepy conservative and this would destroy his power? Do you have to intervene if you’re very busy but see a couple arguing in a way that makes you think rape or murder might be next on the agenda? And assisted suicide, what’s up with that? There’s a lot more to this book than those semi-glib questions, most essentially the woman who was at various times a lover to all the men involved in these dilemmas, but somehow it felt semi-glib to me nonetheless. It’s the first McEwan I’ve read and I didn’t dislike the writing, just didn’t catch on to the content much. I’m open to more.

Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy, edited by Al Sarrantonio
I bought this for Neil Gaiman’s story involving White Witch/Aslan oral sex, but I read it all. Two months later, that story is the one I remember most vividly, finding most of them vaguely unsatisfying. I think it’s probably hard to write a fantasy short story where you’re creating a world and having character development and plot all in a very small space. I know there were other highlights, but much of the time while I was reading I wanted to have a pen to mark things up and make suggested changes.

How Would a Patriot Act?, Glenn Greenwald
I had to read this to make sure it was an appropriate present for my grandmother’s 80th birthday, which it was. For someone who follows political blogs including Greenwald’s it wasn’t terribly new information and no more shocking than it always is, but the current US administration seems so corrupt and awful that anything that gets the story out succinctly and clearly is a good tool to have on hand. This is a short book, easily digested, and it gets right to the point. Apparently it’s quite a hit among anti-Bush octogenarians, judging from the fact that my grandmother recognized it immediately and said her friends had been recommending it.

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell (cd version)
I definitely recommend this for the drive from Cincinnati to Buffalo because it lets you get to the right points in the text as you’re passing the relevant exits. So you can say, “Last chance for Garfield’s house! Does anyone need the bathroom or a drink?” and it’s all terribly topical. I still have trouble listening to recorded books because they’re so fucking slow compared to actual reading, but it definitely makes the miles pass and this was a very good choice. There’s plenty of commentary on the current administration, plus tons of historical tidbits and a strong authorial voice. And with the cd, you could even make a road trip of it, though we didn’t.

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, Alexandra Robbins
If I’d actually rushed as a freshman, I totally could have been mentioned in this book! Well, if I’d gone Kappa and then been chosen for a secret society within the organization and then, like some classmates I never knew personally, gone public about the ritual initiation with its simulated oral sex, skulls, and cigarette brandings. But yeah, I went to what was at the time the Greekest school in the nation and while I basically avoided that world, I have a more positive view of sororities than I did when I started out. I’m even more skeptical of fraternities than I was at first, but a good 1/3 of my Feminist Theory class consisted of sorority leaders. This was an interesting look at three key informants on a Texas campus, where the Greek system seems to be particularly entrenched and unpleasant, and it gave a good look into body issue problems, troubled race relations, money and class divisions within and among sororities, and the general social pluses and minuses of enforced sisterhood. I certainly made the right decision for myself in not even giving the sororities a chance (though I made other stupider, more damaging choices instead) but it was interesting to compare how things worked out for the women in this book and for other women I knew in college.

The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain, Simon Baron-Cohen
This is where Baron-Cohen lays out his theory of autism as a sort of extreme male brain capable of systematizing but not empathizing. I’m not entirely sold on the details, but as a general concept it was very interesting. I think I have an integrated brain with certain extreme aspects on both the male and female sides and certainly not autistic because one of my failings is an extreme empathy that makes me incredibly uncomfortable and heart-broken when I think other people are uncomfortable in a situation. Luckily this doesn’t extend directly to the internet to a degree that I care much whether people are unnerved by what I say, because I hope they’ll just click away and be done with it. But I do well with science and math and very much enjoyed the section about people with a head for directions, which I definitely have. I used the book more as a way of testing people I know against the various descriptions of behaviors and tendencies, but it was certainly an interesting read.

The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
My experience with this book was, I think, the best it could possibly be, with Steven reading it aloud to me. He’d shake his fist to signify the italicized thoughts (generally appropriately) and we’d both interject constantly to mock the writing and the story. Between the two of us, we figured out all the puzzles and major plot twists well before the characters involved, generally by yelling, “Oh, Christ, I’ll bet it’s going to be x because that’s the most awful thing it could be!” If we could rent him out to read this to other people who want to mock the book while finding out what the big deal apparently is, we’d make good money and he’d be worth every penny.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World , Tracy Kidder
I’d heard Tracy Kidder talking about this on one of the NPR afternoon shows and then my grandmother was lending this book to everyone she could, so I borrowed it for a plane ride. It was really interesting, the story of a gifted American doctor who spends much of his time at a clinic he’s built in Haiti (and, now, flying around the world to talk about healthcare for the poor or policy toward developing nations). The anecdotes were fascinating and while anyone would feel a bit inadequate compared to Farmer, it suggests many avenues average people like me could pursue.

Northern Suns: The New Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Glenn Grant
This was a great anthology full of a wide range of stories, all of them in English. I’m not even sure what I would say stood out as very few were disappointing. The biographical notes were engaging enough and the stories themselves were gems. I need to make notes of the authors who were new to me and see what books I can find to fill in the gaps in my reading.

Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, Naomi Wolf
This is one of those books it seems like everyone has already read, so when I found it for $1 I figured I’d better join the club. Maybe I’m just too young to relate or not cool enough, but I found very little relevant to my own life here. On a sociological/voyeuristic level it was neat to read about how all these women later looked back on their adolescent sexual selves, but I don’t think I learned anything new about feminism, femininities, or myself. I did learn a great deal about Naomi Wolf, like that I probably won’t push myself to read any more of her books.

The Angel with One Hundred Wings, Daniel Horch
This is Horch’s first novel, an elaboration of a story from the 1001 Nights in which a young prince falls in love with the sultan’s favorite wife and they prevail upon the narrator, pharmacist and alchemist (not to mention friend of the sultan) Abulhassan, to help them make their escape to Spain, where they can live in love and obscurity. There was actually quite a lot of drama in the story itself and while the writing sometimes struck me as overmannered, it mostly got to the effect I think Horch was going for. It wasn’t a great book in part because it was so overwrought, but I think I enjoy it more in retrospect than I did at the time, when I was more concerned about why it wasn’t all as good as parts of it were. I don’t read a lot of love stories and this one was convincing in a certain Romeo/Juliet way, although I grew to believe like Abulhassan did that perhaps the young lovers truly did understand and appreciate one another, if not the troubles that would inevitably lie ahead of them. I don’t know if Horch has written more since, but I’d be interested in trying his next book.

April Reading List

April is over already and I know I’m forgetting something on this list but I can’t remember what. I guess this is the chance for my pals who have to hear me babble about what I’ve been reading to test whether they pay better attention than I apparently do.

I have some posts partly written, several still in my head. I just can’t face the discipline it takes to sit down and own up to them, I guess. So instead this is the easy part, what I did when I wasn’t blogging.

Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, Elaine Sciolino
Yes, boys and girls, I think we’d better be prepping for the next war. I didn’t learn much news in a big-picture sense from this story, although maybe not everyone went through a phase of reading lots and lots of books about Iran, so that’s not saying too much. Sciolino details memories from her visits to Iran as a journalist from her meetings with Khomeini in his pre-Revolution exile to (in my favorite anecdote) the day she learns that the misguided US policy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq as if they were separate-but-equal forces in wickedness was in part a result of an article she’d written opposing any such policy. You get a sense of the culture, history, even terrain of Iran without getting too much deeper, but it’s a patchwork worth reviewing. It’s a nuanced book, easy reading for something that deals with hundreds of characters over more than two decades, and maybe not a bad start while we’re listening to the drums in the deep.

The Lake of Dead Languages, Carol Goodman
I never liked Donna Tartt’s The Secret History even though I know I’m supposed to and I want to give it a charitable reading now that I’m older even though I didn’t like her next book, The Little Friend last fall. This tale, though, is about Latinists not Greeksters, which is perhaps why I don’t hold it to a high standard. It’s a fun enough story about a woman separating from her husband who goes back to the boarding school she attended in high school and where her roommates committed suicide to teach Latin. That part of the book is fine, but when she starts to realize that crime has come to campus and that (bum bum bum) perhaps the suicides weren’t quite that I lost a bit of interest. It’s a problem in a 500-page whodunit if you can easily figure out the “who” in the first 150 pages and then have to just keep waiting for things to get dun and the protagonist to wake the fuck up and deal with the necessary denouement. That sounds like I liked it much less than I did. It dealt with adolescent girls (and Latin!) in what seemed like a largely plausible way, though it is first and foremost a plot-driven story, even if the plot takes its time moving through its curves. I’d recommend it as fun, but it’s nothing special unless you’re a classics geek, in which case you should be encouraging me to geek up myself and do better than just reading high-class trashy mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
I’ve read this before, but it was only $1 and I couldn’t pass it up. I don’t know to what degree the voice is accurate or fair and not some sort of colonialist fantasy, but the view of the peculiar sufferings of women was one I wanted to hear when I read it, though I don’t think it’s the only truth.

Worlds of Exile and Illusion, Ursula Le Guin contains the books from her Hainish/Ekumen of Known Worlds series Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions.
Still on my Le Guin kick. These books, originally published separately, have more connections (though obscure enough to be not really necessary to understand the stories) than the other Hainish novels I’ve read. My favorite was Planet of Exile because it was a love story of a most unsentimental sort. People fall in love/lust and make their choices and live through wars and trials or don’t, but there was a deep beauty about it.

Passage, Connie Willis
I don’t believe in near-death experiences, but there was something about this book that got me out of bed to have Steven tuck me in because I was so unnerved that I needed to get up and move around. It’s very much a “creation of self through narrative” story about a woman researching near-death experiences who is able to go into a simulated version only to realize she’s found something very real to her. There’s not a good way to resolve the story and keep those who do think there’s an afterlife as happy as those of us who think that’s just the end of us.

River of Gods, Ian McDonald
I really need to write about this book, especially the anime/manga aspect of nute fetishism, which I thought was really cool. I don’t remember where Steven read about this first, but he’s been looking for it for a year or so and it’s finally available in the states. It’s a story about geopolitics and sex and intrigue and water wars and rogue AIs in post-India at the centennial of its no longer being pre-India, 2047. I’ve never read such a well-realized future world and enjoyed and appreciated the nine personal stories we follow, although I found Shiv’s the least interesting and was disappointed that his opens the volume. Unlike a lot of books with multiple characters and converging storylines (I’m thinking of William Gibson and Barbara Kingsolver, who display quite different and differently disappointing tendencies) have real endings after real arcs. To go back to The Lake of Dead Languages a bit, even once it’s obvious what’s going on and what some of the solutions are, the human element remains so real that those story bits don’t really matter. Much as I’ve gone crazy for Le Guin and probably others, I think this is the best-written and most affecting book I’ve read this year and I can’t wait for Steven to finish his semester and take a crack at it so we can talk together. Maybe I’ll be a kind blogger and figure out some ways to talk about it here because wow did I like this book!

Life Mask, Emma Donoghue
I still adore Emma Donoghue, whose Stir-Fry I wrote about a lifetime ago and loved even farther into the past. I could say this one is set in the same universe as her previous historical novel, Slammerkin except that the protagonist here, Eliza, is trying to be sure that as a celebrated actress she’s keeping herself (barely) in the rarefied World of the aristocracy in England just before/in the midst of the French Revolution has no overlap whatsoever with the street life of a common whore. Eliza befriends Anne, a talented sculptor, but feels she has to let the friendship fall when rumors of lesbianism pop up, because while a true aristocrat can weather anything, those who’ve worked their way in have no right to safety. Meanwhile there’s plenty of political intrigue on the part of the Whigs who disapprove of Pitt the Elder, not to mention aristocratic adultery all over the place. And then at the end there’s suddenly a love story that made me smile (and, in the book, may make Walpole smile). It’s not that I don’t know English history at all, but I certainly didn’t know it to the who-was-fucking-whom-when level and still don’t entirely even for the group involved here, but I very much enjoyed the detailed view. I’d have smarter things to say, I think, if I hadn’t been tired when I finished it last night and tired now when I try to think of a response, so I’ll leave it at that.

Onward and upward. I have some reading plans for May, but we have many family obligations so I may end up posting a very short list and feeling sure that everyone is laughing at me, which they may well be. We’ll see!

March Reading List

Not such an exciting month, but the first to feature audio books since two interstate trips necessitated something to help me keep my eyes on the road.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell, read by the author and famous pals
I know everyone thinks Sarah Vowell’s voice is the hottest thing ever, but it definitely took some time to grow on me, though grow it did to some degree. I like the authorial intent side of hearing a writer read her own work, but it can be unsettling too. I don’t want to know that Vowell says “R. E.” for “Re:” any more than I wanted to know that William Gibson says “ock-TAYVE” or pronounces “Jean” the same way whether it refers to a boy or a girl. Though since I’m a heretic and hadn’t read much of Sarah Vowell’s writing anyway, it won’t hurt me much to hear her voice subvocalizing next time I come to it. I’m still on the lookout for the audio version of Assassination Vacation, at least part of which should be perfect preparation for another trip to Buffalo.

Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall, and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools, Ilana DeBare
I went to an all-girls high school, although the Catholic sort that only warrants a chapter here, so I have strong feelings about the potentials for success in all-female environments. DeBare, in working to found a non-religious independent and progressive school for girls, began researching the history of girls’ schools and realized there was a lot more of that independent mindset in the schools that had come before her than many people would assume. There’s not a lot of depth here, but it covers a lot of ground and I found it entertaining and interesting reading. I’ve been thinking a lot about education recently and reading a lot of parent blogs and educator blogs where such things are discussed. I sure am glad to be able to think about this more as theory than practice.

Stiffs: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach, read by Shelly Frasier
As a road book, this was more than tolerable, though I found the reading boring. It’s painful to listen to a slow reader and I keep wanting to push ahead to a comfortable pace the way I would if I were in control. Also I was horrified that they didn’t get someone who knew the difference between “cavalry” and “Calvary” or how to pronounce “Turin” since that kept cropping up. I’m still not sold on audio books mostly because I prefer to read idiosyncratically, but this was an engaging enough book that made the miles and miles of Ohio pass more pleasantly.

The Telling, Ursula Le Guin
Indeed, I reread it. Still beautiful and haunting and true.

Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler: Celluloid Tirades and Escapades, Joe Queenan
I got this because it was cheap, knowing nothing about it. Queenan has a collection of anecdotes about movies he’s seen and reviewed, the sort of thing that nowadays you’d find on a blog. I don’t know if he and I share a ton of common ground in terms of aesthetic preferences (except a mutual dislike for the near-mandatory scenes where some guy gets kicked in the crotch) but I decided to not really argue with anything and just see how much entertainment I could get out of it, which was enough for the tiny amount of time it took to work my way through each article.

Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris, read by the author
Another car trip. Maybe this shouldn’t count because I had Steven shut off the cd with the one about the tv producer at the Southern church, especially because I didn’t want to hear that horrible Christmas letter. But I’ve read the book before, which is how I knew what to skip. I’d wanted to actually hear The SantaLand Diaries and that was worth it, but ooooooh does the fictiony fiction hurt.

I’m reading other books but I didn’t finish any of them. I was aiming for a lot of non-fiction this time around but only managed a little bit, or perhaps lots of little bits.

February Reading List

Right, it’s not February anymore. I didn’t make much time to read in February and hope to do better about that in March, as well as pull in some non-fiction. I may have come to a halt on Le Guin for now, but gorging myself on her books didn’t detract from my enjoyment of any of them.

The Love Wife, Gish Jen
The story of the stresses and delights of a multiracial family when a distant Chinese relative comes to live with them and provide childcare. While the plot itself was engaging, the style was really the high point. Written almost like a screenplay, each major character narrates at various times, often commenting on the narrations of others. It sounds awkward when I describe it, but it was very effective and made me sympathetic to all the characters, which is all the more powerful in a story about conflict and changing self-definition. I very much enjoyed readiing, although the plot doesn’t overlow with joy.

The Telling, Ursula Le Guin
As I said yesterday, this warrants rereading for me and was worth buying too. Relevant and beautiful.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory Doctorow
I really hadn’t liked Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and here I didn’t think the postmodern magical realism added up to much and didn’t think the revolutionary techgeek subplot worked, but there were moments that were absolutely lovely. Maybe the next Doctorow book will be the one for me, but I have no regrets about reading this. Like The Telling, I found it an inspiring relationship book, although it’s not exactly about good happy-ending-type stories.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin
I think this is the oldest Le Guin I’ve read, but it didn’t feel particularly dated. I briefly complained about is-she-crazy-or-does-she-have-access-to-another-world stories, but here it’s clearly not an either/or situation. Here it’s a man who’s the protagonist and his dreams can remake the world, which means that no one in that world can be aware of the changes. Maybe I don’t have a problem with stories like that after all.

Tales of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
The tales themselves are mixed in depth and context, but all entertaining for fans of Earthsea and they provide support and added explanation for other books without being necessary to understand them.

The Other Wind, Ursula Le Guin
The latest and perhaps last of the Earthsea books brings back characters from all the previous novels (including Tehanu, which I hadn’t yet read) and brings them to satisfying conclusions by having them look death in the face and understand their places in the world as a part of world-building.

Tehanu, Ursula Le Guin
I already knew who Tehanu was and some of her story from reading the sequels first, but I was amazed and delighted to read a book for children in which a character says, appropriately angered, that a child has been raped because sometimes children are raped. There’s so much more to it than that, but the politics impressed me. I should try to write more on this later.

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
As long as we run across people saying, “Don’t chicks just naturally like cleaning?” I don’t think this book is outdated yet.

Some Twistings and Tellings

David Allison has some thoughts on The Iron Dragon’s Daughter which I’ll inelegantly sum up by saying he thinks it’s a fantasy story about the discursive nature of reality. That’s the direction Steven and I went in talking about it when we read it and, to some degree, when we discussed it on Peiratikos. When I first put it down, I remember being annoyed that, oh, it was another book where a woman’s crazy or maybe she’s not and there really is another world! But that’s not really it, and I knew that. It’s most interesting maybe for what it does to its readers who have watched the protagonist Jane making the same circles in her life again and again in different iterations only to see her break through to something, maybe something new or maybe something more. I’m really torn on which I think it is, but I do think at least that it’s a question of self-determination and self-awareness there when those aspects had been cloaked earlier. Good old creation of self through narrative, how I’ve sort of missed you a tiny bit!

I’m not sure I’d have been reminded of this if David hadn’t posted, but I’ve recently been fascinated with another book about a sad, lonely woman learning her story, Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling. It was published in 2000 and presumably written before, which I mention because to me it exemplifies a “pre-9/11 mindset” that doesn’t take as a given that many of those who use the term are setting the stage for a worldwide theocracy but looks at this as an element in telling a story about a possible future. Set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness and other books I haven’t yet read, it features another Earth-born rookie investigator for the Ekumen of Known Worlds scoping out a newer planet. This time around, though, it’s a woman, Sutty, who grew up just outside the reach of the Unist religious world government and lived long enough to see it begin to fray and fall as part of interacting with the Hainish aliens and others in the Ekumen.

Sutty and her girlfriend Pao planned to study together and travel to new worlds as a pair, but Sutty finds herself alone on the world of Aka, where indigenous culture has been successfully and quickly suppressed as part of the acceptance of technology and the consumerism that has become the Akans’ core value since their initial contact with aliens (in this case mostly from Earth). Eventually Sutty gets to leave the major city and head upriver to a place where she hopes to get under the surface of the propaganda and learn about the culture whose language she learned to read and which was already banned and obliterated in the years it took her to travel through space to Aka. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that reading isn’t important in the same way as listening and telling and that books are a way to preserve the stories that preserve and sustain the traditional culture. Truth is in its tellings in a world where the idea of a dictated fact had previously held no ground, but Sutty is shocked and worried to learn that attempts to keep the telling a nourishing force have meant that stories of the rise of the corporate state and suppression of the words and tales have not themselves been incorporated into tradition. Does this mean the culture she’s growing to love will head in the same direction as the Unists who erased Earth’s history and were willing to forsake all other books for their one Book?

I’ve just begun to reread The Telling even though it’s only been a few weeks since I read it because the love story, core not only because of Sutty and Pao but because of the required duality of the traditional storytellers, inspires me and because all of it seems so pertinent and real. I worry that I’m complicit in the silence, that keeping a silly little blog where I’d never engage the people whose blogs I read in the bigger world is a way of ignoring the real stories, keeping my voice out of them. Then of course I can worry that thinking about this in terms of fiction is easier than talking about ports or birdshot or the hidden imam, even though the other things are ones I could say. But part of the power of The Telling is Sutty’s deeply personal story of oppression, love, loss, alienation, and learning. It’s also a witness to stories of heroes and regular people, many of whom are heroes of a sort as well. It’s not the story of the Earth’s post-Unist recovery but a reminder that there could be one at least. I’m more concerned, though, about intelligent life here, not the hope of eventual support from the heavens.

Ours was originally a blog sort of written in the dual, a shared way for Steven and me to muddle things out, to think and work together while we were far apart. But now we’re not far apart and I wonder if I should be rereading The Iron Dragon’s Daughter too because like Jane I keep spiraling around here and trying something new only to end up tongue-tied, uninspired, saying the same sort of things I’ve said with some derivative passion. I’m not at the jumping-off/restarting point yet, but I think I’m approaching it and maybe this self-awareness will help this time. Either way, I’ve just finished a sweater and will have a short list of books I’ve finished to post tomorrow and the rest of the world will keep marching to wherever it is that it’s going now.