Naomi Mitchison: Travel Light

“Travel light” is an exhortation protagonist Halla hears at one point in this singular slim book; it’s a tactic that enables her to travel farther and faster than she otherwise might, not being unduly burdened. It’s also a tactic the book itself employs, moving from what at first seems to be a fairy tale that might employ familiar tropes — wicked stepmothers, and such — into several quite different things, not burdened with the notion that it needs to keep an easily described shape. I wouldn’t exactly say that the novel grows more sophisticated as Halla trades innocence for age and wisdom — for one thing, that implies it’s relatively unsophisticated at the outset, itself a gross simplification. But I’d argue that the novel has little truck with linear progressions of any sort. How does the book go from being a girl-raised-by-animals story to a not completely unsatirical socio-political tale set in a mildly fantastic Constantinople? It travels light.

This was my introduction to Naomi Mitchison; I’ll certainly seek out more.

John Green: The Fault in Our Stars

I read The Fault in Our Stars with no clear idea of what it was about, because several people whose judgment I trusted said I really ought to. If I had known what it was about, I doubt I would’ve read it, because the bones of the plot sound maudlin, heavy-handed, and more than a little trite. It’s just been made into a movie, and I’m finding it hard to see how the singular presence and voice of Hazel Grace — which is most of what lifts this novel far above the maudlin, heavy-handed and trite — could possibly be translated to film without losing everything that makes the book so very good. But yeah, it’s about teens with cancer, and an improbable collision with a dissolute writer, and it defies every preconception those facts could give you. I’m very glad my prejudices didn’t keep me from reading it.

It’s also set some tongues to wagging about the merits of “Young Adult” as a marketing category (or, God help us, as a “genre”) and what gets tarred with the “romance” brush and what doesn’t, and the disparate treatment of/respect for male vs. female authors. My thunk, for what it’s worth, is that YA is a fine way to identify books with youthful protagonists, so that anyone with a particular inclination for or desire to avoid young protagonists has a way to do so. The rest of us can just read the books we want to, on bases like whether they sound interesting or maybe have something to teach us. Differing respect for male vs. female authors I find abominable, but I’m not nearly as tetchy about the notion that ambition to something beyond escapism has some intrinsic worth, when considering books that “succeed” equally well on their own terms. So to my mind The Fault in Our Stars is YA only in some strict technical (and possibly useless) sense. It has serious thematic heft, a (deceptively) complex narrative structure and incidentally its vocabulary sent me scrambling for a dictionary a time or two, which, no false modesty, does not happen often.

E. Nesbit: Five Children and It

I learned about E. Nesbit and Five Children and It from Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, which predisposed me to wonder if the reason I didn’t know Nesbit’s name while I did know the names Baum, Barrie, Lofting, Grahame, etc. was rooted in sexism. (Then again, I did know the names Travers and Norton.) After reading it, I’m a bit less inclined to cry foul — Nesbit’s book is just a little more rooted in its time, place, and class structure than its peers/approximate contemporaries. Although it undercuts several racial/cultural stereotypes it also gives them a lot of airtime, and in unexpurgated form it has some language that’s no longer appropriate in a children’s book. It all adds up to a book that’s less than welcoming to a modern young audience without either some judicious editing or some careful context setting. That’s a shame, because Five Children and It has quite a lot going for it. There’s a quite unusual magical critter, the menace of which is only gradually revealed. This oddly and intriguingly juxtaposes with a series of comic wish-gone-wrong episodes. Nesbit’s voice is drily witty, and she’s quite careful to narrate from the perspective of her young protagonists. (And really, we make a lot of historical allowances for all those other books, too.)

The Girl Who Would Be King

The Girl Who Would be King uses alternating first-person narration to tell the stories of two young women who discover that they have unusual abilities, their struggles to understand and adapt to them, and the conflict those struggles eventually draw them into. Along the way Bonnie and Lola become, more or less, a superhero and a supervillain.

There’s a lot I really liked about this novel. I’m a fan of reversing the stereotypical gender dynamic of most comic books: men are reduced to sidekick and love-interest roles. Thompson strives for emotional realism in her characters. I didn’t always find the results believable, but I certainly found Lola memorably creepy. The backstory is eventually revealed to have a mythological underpinning with some novelty to it.

Thompson’s prose isn’t showy or particularly inventive, but it’s generally clear and fairly lean, the sort of move-the-story along that’s appropriate for a very plot-driven book, and rather easy to undervalue.

I didn’t find the ending satisfying either in emotional terms or on a thematic level — it felt a bit arbitrary (and maybe calculated to leave room for a possible sequel). But I had a lot of fun reading it, and I would read more from Thompson.

Rainbow Rowell: Fangirl

Fangirl has a soundbite to make it easy to describe: it’s the YA novel about the girl who writes fanfic. Like most soundbites this is terribly and unfairly reductive; it’s about a whole lot of other things, like growing up, coping with your own neuroses and your family’s unique miseries. It’s nuanced and surprising, often funny as hell, and I loved it almost unreservedly.

The fic Cath writes is mildly slash stuff about Simon Snow, a Harry Potterish sort with a hot vampire nemesis, like if Draco Malloy were a Vampire Diarist. In between each chapter Rowell treats us to excerpts from the supposed Snow books and from Cath’s fic based on them, so we see Cath gradually becoming a better and bolder writer.

The fic isn’t a gimmick: the fact that Cath writes it, and how and why she writes it is deeply important to her character. But the compelling story here is Cath’s own, not Simon’s, and Rowell tells it deftly. (One little thing I particularly appreciated about Rowell’s prose: she’s good at matching specific physical detail to dialogue, in a terrific contrast to certain writers who lean hard on dull adjectives like “handsome,” and “lovely.”)

My only quibble is that there are few times when the reader needs to know things the first person narrator isn’t aware of, and the communication of these sometimes felt a bit unsubtle. But it’s a fundamentally difficult tricky to pull off.

Mark Z Danielweski: House of Leaves

House of Leaves, is more or less, a purported transcription by a guy named Johnny Truant of a manuscript he finds in a dead man’s apartment. He gradually becomes convinced the work of transcribing it is causing a malevolent supernatural presence to manifest in his life. Truant is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. He veers between confiding that he capriciously altered the dead man’s words for his own purposes to omitting individual and contextually unambiguous letters from damaged leaves. He injects himself in not the text through copious semi-autobiographical footnotes, initially on the pretext of documenting the Bad Stuff the manuscript is bringing him. His life mostly follows a familiar millennial seedy LA pattern of drink, drugs, and womanizing, but sometimes Truant spins off on weird tangents. Many of these are barely (or just plain not) lucid, but some evoke other texts, with instructions for pronouncing the ‘f’-word a la the opening of Nabokov’s most famous creepfest perhaps the most blatant allusion. (There’s also another footnote voice which at least pretends editorial objectivity and knows things Truant doesn’t know; and finally there are a few quirks of diction that undermine the notion that Truant and the dead man are really distinct authorial voices.)

(Still with me? Onward.)

The manuscript, meanwhile, is a sort of (incomplete and perhaps deliberately damaged and/or censored) faux academic treatise on a film. It cites an extensive body of scholarship about this film and the personages involved as well as more general topics. (Like the film itself, many of the referenced works don’t exist either in Truant’s reality or ours, but some you can readily find in a real-world library.)

The film itself documents what initially seems to be a distinctly Amityvillish haunting, but the occurrences quickly become more like the manifestation of some ideal of a labyrinth in/around the house (not a Platonic ideal: more Derrida-inspired – Danielewski’s involvement in a film about the philosopher is clearly no coincidence). The haunted family actually includes the filmmaker, a noted photojournalist, and the family structure has at least superficial points of commonality with Danielewski’s own family. (The book also references the lyrics of Danielewski’s sister who records as the musician Poe; her album Haunted likewise references House of Leaves.)

Since Truant’s word is all we have for anything that transpires in the book, it’s at least theoretically possible to read it as a supernatural novel in which everything Truant describes literally happens, or as a naturalistic novel chronicling Truant’s descent into madness, but I think the structure of the book — in every sense of the word “structure” — rails against the idea that any single interpretation could ever be valid. Reading it is a bit like following threads through a labyrinth of plot and narrative layers. But beyond that, the book as a physical object is itself labyrinthine. The reader must literally turn it from side to side, flip pages back and forward, and parse acrostics. It’s the most extreme example of ergodic literature I’ve yet encountered.

There’s no doubt it’s an impressive feat, and I’m glad I finally read it, but it didn’t engage me on all levels. It made me realize that I generally prefer literature that makes me wonder after the fact his the trick was accomplished to books that call attention to the trick as it is executed. But Infinite Jest is pretty showy too, and many superficial commonalities kept calling it to mind (footnotes critical to the plot, elaborate history of an imaginary filmmaker, clinical depression). I felt House of Leaves suffered by comparison; its are-you-inside-or-are-you-outside? games engaged my head but ultimately not my heart.

Gilbert Sorrentino: Lunar Follies

One of the interesting things about Gilbert Sorrentino’s Lunar Follies is how little I can say about it, despite its formal structure, without departing for the subjective.

It consists of 53 brief pieces, few more than a handful of pages long, named after features of the moon, ordered alphabetically. (In fact, its formalism and almost total abandonment of conventional narrative seem as much like experimental film – early Greenaway, say – as anything I’ve read. It’s fiction mostly by virtue of not being nonfiction (or poetry or drama).

Broadly, the pieces concern art. Some mimic text from an exhibition catalogue, some adopt marketing rhetoric, some are framed as pseudo-academic criticism. Some of the art described could well exist, and some of it is fanciful unless the description of it is understood to be metaphorical, e.g., sculptures incorporating intangible elements. One piece unambiguously parodies Jenny Holzer’s work, which gave me license to wonder whether Sorrentino intended to specifically evoke Sarah Sze’s intricate assemblages, or whether that was something I brought to the table. Much of the art is kinda dirty, in a male-centric way, which for me raises questions about the difficulty of commenting on objectification of women without perpetuating it.

One or two of the pieces might be read as essays placing the artist’s work in a particular context; then again they could almost be read as something like short stories. But mostly these prompted the realization that if you follow conceptual art to its logical extreme (or reduce ad absurdum, as you like) virtually any narrative could be construed as a description of a conceptual installation.

Some of the language in the vignettes is beautiful (Sorrentino also writes poetry, and presumably applies a poet’s care to his prose). Several of the pieces are quite funny (one including a list of imaginary football positions in particular made me snort). Some of the language is perhaps intended to be shocking or transgressive, but I just found it crass (both of the “c” words make several appearances).

Similarly, some of the art described sounds thrilling, and some of it sounds like baloney.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that repetitive references (to artistic types mostly, but also other public figures) occur throughout the book, suggesting some personal taxonomy. There are also some obvious errors of fact, like misidentifying the director of The Big Sleep as Robert Altman.

The title Lunar Follies and the dismissive tone of some (but by no means all) if the pieces might suggest a satirical reading, but I suspect an element of misdirection in the title. I reject a priori the notion that Sorrentino intends to say anything as simplistic as “artists are pretentious,” “modern art is hogwash,” or “art criticism is pointless.” I refuse to accept that a mind responsible for anything as willfully abstruse as this would dismiss other challenging forms of art, and likewise it seems unlikely to me that any writer would subscribe to the unsuitability of words to communicate about a specific nonverbal domain. I also think that too much work went into the book for it to be “just” a joke.

I’m inclined to think that it’s fundamentally about the difficulty of communication in a much broader sense: that my interpretation of Sorrentino’s meaning can never match his actual intent. And perhaps it’s also about the allure and elusiveness of the ineffable. But quite possibly that’s just me.

Regardless of what it does or doesn’t mean, I certainly found it thought-provoking, and I’m decidedly glad I read it.

Apology; Ann Aguirre: Wanderlust

There’s been mess of foamy-mouthedness around the Science Fiction Writers of America association over the past couple weeks. I won’t link to the petition that jump-started it, but it basically asserts that for the the official bulletin of a professional organization to have editorial standards that avoid hostility to its constituency is an assault on Free Speech. It would be hard to make it through more than a paragraph of the thing without recognizing it for what it really is: another dreary attempt to post a “NO GIRLZ ALOWD” sign on the clubhouse.

So this seems like an opportune time to clarify my position, by way of an apology.

A few years back, I reviewed Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace. I was generally positive, but I was arguably also a bit condescending. I mentioned a “lack of extrapolative rigor” and unscientific “howlers” (I provided one purported example, and, although it’s unspoilery, it’s also not good: there’s no reason space stations shouldn’t adopt a convention that anti-spinward is West).

In the meantime, I’ve since followed @MsAnnAguiree on Twitter, and learned that she (very reasonably) hates it when people say her work isn’t “real” science fiction. And I feel like sniffing about the rigor of the science content is a difference of degree, not of kind. I never wanted to create the impression that the author’s gender influenced the content or tone of the review — but I can see how easy it would be to misconstrue my intent.

For better or worse, I’m a classifier: I can get worked up about the distinctions between tractors and riding mowers. But not all classifications are helpful. When I really thought about it, I realized the line I draw between “science fiction” and “not science fiction” is about the difficulty of maintaining my own personal willing suspension of disbelief. That demarcation is heavily influenced by how much I actually know about the specific discipline of science involved; it’s clearly not actually useful to anyone but me. And the more I’ve thought about it, the worse I’ve felt about that review.

The voice I hear in my head, that sneers “whatever that is, it AIN’T science fiction,” when I think about the importance (or lack thereof) of drawing that line is a real voice. It belongs to someone I worked with years ago. And when I later learned that this coworker had been the kind of a—–e most women wouldn’t voluntarily share an elevator with alone, I was saddened, angered — but I can’t say I was really shocked.

I would rather be on the side of the angels than the a—–es.

So, I apologize, Ann Aguirre, if you happened to see my review and felt patronized or condescended to. I apologize to anyone else who might’ve seen it and thought the author’s gender was in any way relevant to the review.

And here are some of the things I liked about Ann Aguirre’s Wanderlust, the sequel to Grimspace

  • In this series, interstellar travel is dependent on individuals with an ability to control faster-than-light travel, an ability which is exercised at great personal cost. It’s not a wholly original trope, but I feel like it has plenty of life left in it, and Aguirre’s version has some intriguing aspects.
  • The novel exploits a plot device I’m fond of: a decidedly undiplomatic individual forced into a role requiring diplomacy.
  • It also features two gripping sequences that evoke the claustrophobic terror the first Alien movies were so good at.
  • As in a great many stories, some of the romantic tension is the sort that could probably be resolved by people talking things through instead of making assumptions in the absence of clear communication — but Aguirre does an unusually good job of establishing why that clear communication would be so difficult for her characters. And Aguirre also explores how previous relationships relate to present ones in an unusually nuanced way.

I was a bit frustrated with the novel’s non-resolution of key plot elements — it’s definitely a middle act sort of book — but that’s really a complaint about the current publishing practice than about the book per se. And if some elements taxed my willing suspension of disbelief — well, that’s really neither here nor there, is it?

Tim Leong: Super Graphic – A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe

Imagine, if you well, a Venn diagram, with circles for people who:
* like mainstream comic books
* like indie/alternative comic books
* are interested in information design
* like infographics/”chart porn”
* have a sense of whimsy

If you’re in the intersection of all these, you want this book. I don’t think every graphic succeeds — although maybe the impenetrability of the mapping of Marvel superheroes to Marvel superhero teams is deliberate. But I learned quite a few things (mostly about the evolution of the business, there are great charts about acquisition chains and price-point changes). I and laughed a lot. And I literally didn’t put the book down until I’d plowed through the whole thing.

If there’s a sequel, or maybe even just a second edition, it needs a chart about XTC songs and comic book character references. Maybe Sgt. Rock can help.

Andrea Phillips: The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart (so far)

I wouldn’t normally write about a novel that’s half-complete, but I just tore through the available chapters of this serial novel-in-progress like a bag of movie popcorn, and this seems like a great jumping-on-point. I think the overall title does a fantastic job of setting expectations: Smokeheart sails in waters that remind me of Errol Flynn at his swashbucklingest (Captain Blood?), the abundant magic and gleeful camp of The Princess Bride (film version) with maybe a dash of Gideon Defoe’s pomo piratical zaniness.

There’s a real world treasure quest that parallels Smokeheart’s quest, which I’m not into, but which dictates that the chapters each more-or-less have to deliver a clue to the real-world treasure hunters (and hence to Smokeheart). So there’s a bit of repetition to the structure of the chapters, and anyone really allergic to puzzles might want to salt my recommendation. But with that very minor caveat, I’m finding this really delightful so far.