About halfway through, I thought that Okorafor understood mythology and mythmaking as well as anyone writing now. Then I got to the final two chaptersAbout halfway through, I thought that Okorafor understood mythology and mythmaking as well as anyone writing now. Then I got to the final two chapters, which made it clear that Okorafor's understanding of myth is light years beyond anyone else. Myth and sacred text are never just about myth. They're inevitably racial narratives, and have consequences far beyond anything the disembodied and forgotten authors could have intended. The Book of Phoenix is not about the life and deaths of Phoenix, even though that story occupies probably 90% of the pages. It's about the writing of The Great Book, the sacred text that drives the racially divided and dystopian culture of Who Fears Death.
I could tell you about the last two chapters. Given the book's framing structure, in which the final two chapters really aren't a part of the story, I wouldn't even consider that a spoiler. But I won't; the final chapters may be outside Phoenix's story, but they're the key to The Book of Phoenix. I, however, will end with a teaser. Given that storytellers are inevitably broken, biased, limited, and human, the important question isn't who wrote the story. It's "Who is writing you?"...more
More than a little perplexed. It really bugged me that, for a book in which radio (and specifically amateur radio) figures so prominently, that the auMore than a little perplexed. It really bugged me that, for a book in which radio (and specifically amateur radio) figures so prominently, that the author got so much basic stuff really wrong. K2W9 isn't a ham radio callsign. Just isn't. (I don't think the FCC assigns any callsigns of this form, ham, commercial, or otherwise.) And you shouldn't be talking about multidirectional Yagi antennas and stuff like that, because the whole point of a Yagi is to be mono-directional. Calling a Morse Code key a "switch"--no. Just don't. Nobody who knows anything about radio would. None of this is essential to the story, but man, do your research.
At the same time, this book takes the unreliable narrator to a Nabakovian extreme. One large section of the novel is devoted to events that take place in Cambodia, leading up to the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. The "source material" for this section is a novel that claims to be built around "historical" events; but this novel's veracity is vigorously denied by another fictional historian (many footnotes included). Part way through, the summary of the novel ends, and (according to an authorial aside) the rest of the Cambodian narrative is taken from the "history" written by the historian, who has a completely different take on the characters and the events that are being covered. And who's the "author" of the composite? What is the voice that's narrating this schizophrenic history? Facts are intentionally problematic throughout the book. Including, evidently, facts about radio.
So then: is the apparent cluelessness about radio just one more aspect of the unreliable narration? The Cambodian section could be equally unreliable about basic facts of Southeast Asian history, in ways that I could never detect without research. In this imaginative world, everything is fluid and called into question. All novels take place in imaginary worlds, and the creation of that imaginary world necessarily involves either bending history or science, or creating it anew. When you're bending, it seems a good practice to bend what's necessary, and leave the rest untouched. If an author is unreliable about basic facts I know, I assume he's also unreliable about facts that can't verify. What's different in Radar, though, is that this unreliability is precisely the point.
Radio aside (or in the foreground), I Am Radar is a wonderfully and insanely inventive story that takes in everything from the first atomic tests to Pol Pot to Serbia to the still ongoing civil war in the Congo. It's about a black boy (Radar) born to white parents (or was he? More narrative unreliability), whose skin color is changed by a bizarre experiment that takes place north of the Arctic Circle. It's about a radical puppet troupe (which performs the experiment) that puts on technically dazzling performances that aren't intended to be seen. The performances take place at the sites of human catastrophes, and are themselves frequently catastrophic: after a show in a Khmer Rouge camp, everyone in the troupe is killed except for one young boy.
Art bears witness; but witness to what? Why a show about superstring theory in a bombed-out Sarajevo library at the close of the Bosnian war? In a world where everything is unreliable, where both quantum uncertainly and entanglement are central, what does bearing witness even mean? Everything is connected, but connected to what? A system exists in the superposition of all possible states until it is observed; observation collapses the system into a single state. Art bears witness, but at tremendous cost.
Worth reading, and worth loving, especially if you don't know much about radio.
There is a good novel buried in here. Possibly even a great novel. But this isn't it. You can improve it just by skipping the parts where the space alThere is a good novel buried in here. Possibly even a great novel. But this isn't it. You can improve it just by skipping the parts where the space aliens are speaking, the Voice of Mammon (yes, that Mammon), the Television, and lots of other bits. Fortunately, they're all identified for you. With Icons.
The novel centers on an alternative community in rural Maine, and how, between the outside world's misconceptions and its own, it becomes everything the outside world wants to believe it is. Paranoia strikes deep, and that paranoia cuts many ways. How do the working poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, fit into America? There isn't any easy answer, and woe betide the person who tries to find one. Or, as the Grays (the space aliens) say to close out their part in the novel: "this planet is the only location in the whole universe where exists both torment and delight at the same time, in the same place."
Carolyn Chute is one of the two great novelists of the American underclass; the other is Toni Morrison (in my opinion, the greatest living English-language author). The Beans of Egypt, Maine and Merry Men are brutally honest classics. Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves is equally brutal and honest, and it should be read. It will help you understand how communities fail as they struggle against demons within and without. And it doesn't leave you entirely without hope. But important as it is, and good as it could have been, it doesn't help its own cause. It needed an editor, and it didn't get one....more
Toni Morrison's play, Desdemona, is a brilliant and powerful re-reading of Othello. It is not an exaggeration to compare this to William Blake's re-reToni Morrison's play, Desdemona, is a brilliant and powerful re-reading of Othello. It is not an exaggeration to compare this to William Blake's re-reading of Paradise Lost. (And yes, I'm channelling Harold Bloom here.)
What we get is a much powerful, and more flawed, Desdemona: a woman who starts the play by saying "I am not the meaning of a name I did not choose." Nevertheless, she is caught up in her myth about her relationship to her childhood nurse, Barbary (a character hinted at in Shakespeare). She is caught up fatally in her myths about Othello; and Othello murders her, not out of distrust, but in anger at her delusions, and his own. Othello is quite clear about the problems of being a powerful black man in white Venetian power politics. His mistake is that he is forced to trust, to assume loyalty, where there is none.
Just before the end of the play, Desdemona says:
I am sick of killing as a solution. It solves nothing. Questions nothing, produces nothing, nothing, but more of itself... My mistake was believing that you hated war as much as I did. You believed I loved Othello the warrior. I did not... Alone together we could have been invincible.
That's it. That's a great summary of the power of this play, and of the original. It is impossible to be "alone together," and just as impossible to be avoid being trapped in the myths about the other.
I really didn't like this book. That saddens me; Kafka on the Shore is wonderful, and I thought this would be equally good. But Kafka has direction, wI really didn't like this book. That saddens me; Kafka on the Shore is wonderful, and I thought this would be equally good. But Kafka has direction, while Wind-Up Bird just felt aimless. Many ideas and themes are shared between the two books (and After Dark): isolation, the self, the connection between fantasy, dream, and reality, how connections between humans form and what they mean. This is certainly a novel of ideas. But in Wind-up Bird, they are only ideas. The characters seem lost, in a fog that's more Kafkaesque than Kafka on the Shore. And after 600 pages of wandering in the fog, it ends. One wonders if the May Kasahara, 16 year old girl who provides a chorus-like commentary on the events, isn't really the main character, rather than Toru Akada. May at least seems to come to some resolution at the end.
Of course, Akada's lost-ness is the point. In retrospect, there's an odd similarity to Kazuo Ishiguro's books, in which a strangely clueless character bumbles around oblivious to the bigger events around him. The difference, I think, is that there really aren't any bigger events for Akada to play against. His cat disappears; his wife leaves him; he talks to May; he hangs around at the bottom of a well; he's sort of adopted by a woman who runs some kind of psychic healing business; he inherits an empty box, and receives several very detailed letters about the Japanese-Soviet war in Manchuria. A lot of weird stuff happens (which is par for the course in Murakami). I grant that there's something to the small-scale lostness of an unimportant person in a stream of unimportant events. And there's something potentially fascinating about going to the bottom of a dried out well to gain access to an alternate world that is oddly connected to this one. But in this book, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. There's no shortage of weird, but there's little wonderful.
I will certainly read more Murakami. Kafka on the Shore is a masterpiece. After Dark isn't a great book, but it's worth the effort. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle really isn't. And if I'd started with Wind-Up Bird, I don't think I would have gone on to the others....more
Strange, fascinating, and beautiful. Two intertwining stories about growth, identity, loss, emptiness, and forgiveness. The novel is best summarized bStrange, fascinating, and beautiful. Two intertwining stories about growth, identity, loss, emptiness, and forgiveness. The novel is best summarized by a Hegelian prostitute who says the self only comes to existence through its interaction with the Other, and that simultaneously, the other only comes into existence through its interaction with the self. There is no stable "self," but a self we build through our interactions and our losses. Strength and invulnerability are only emptiness.
The stories almost come together at the end, but don't quite. The publisher's blurb is completely wrong: there are lots of questions, but almost nothing is answered. Should they be? A more appropriate takeaway, echoed by several of Murakami's very odd characters: when things are so puzzling you can't think about them, don't. Or, thinking back to Henry James, the book ends by opening up into possibility. What had to happen has happened. What will happen next for Kafka (a Japanese teenager, not the German author)? What will become of the self he is building? That self certainly has little to do with the Kafka at the beginning of the novel, a runaway who wants to be tough and invulnerable. We don't know. That's what's beautiful. Life is about vulnerability. And the real beauty of this novel is that we care about what happens next to this vulnerable Japanese teen.
I may (and probably will) write more about this. But for now... just read it. ...more
A portrait of someone who might become an artist as a very young man. Mitchell has mastered the language of young teens. More than that, he's masteredA portrait of someone who might become an artist as a very young man. Mitchell has mastered the language of young teens. More than that, he's mastered their world, and has turned it into art....more
Not much to say. I like Terry Pratchett (RIP). I like Neil Gaiman (by far the better writer, IMHO). Good Omens was enjoyable, but I like what they'veNot much to say. I like Terry Pratchett (RIP). I like Neil Gaiman (by far the better writer, IMHO). Good Omens was enjoyable, but I like what they've written on their own better than this early collaboration. This landed with a Thud!. Which, if you really want to see what Pratchett can do, you should read. ...more
Young Adult Fiction for adults. That sounds like an insult, but I don't mean it that way. I enjoyed it; and I'm not sure why I consider this book AdulYoung Adult Fiction for adults. That sounds like an insult, but I don't mean it that way. I enjoyed it; and I'm not sure why I consider this book Adult YAF, and not the books of China Miéville or Clive Barker. If I worried more about splitting the hairs of literary genres, I'd give this some thought. I suppose it's a fairly classic "kid saves humanity from the bad guys" story, except that while the story starts when the Holly Sykes is 15 (young, whiny, and pregnant), and she doesn't get to save humanity until she's about 55, and a lot more interesting than she was at 15. If that isn't adult YAF, I don't know what is.
Structurally, it's amazing that The Bone Clocks works at all, let alone manages to be a compelling read. The main action doesn't really start until about 300 pages into a 600-page novel. The first half is composed of several sections, each focusing on one of the major characters, but interaction between the characters is limited, almost random: Hugo meets Holly on a ski slope, falls in love, and then disappears. Holly, having published a book, turns up at a literary festival next to Hershey, a washed-up novelist. And bits of uncanny weirdness (maybe this is Miéville's "weird fiction" genre) intrude, but are shut down almost as soon as they appear. Holly offers "asylum" (whatever that means, and we don't know) to an odd old woman. A stranger gives Hershey two very unwanted books of poetry, telling him that he's "in the script." None of this even starts gets stitched together until you're well over halfway through the novel. But between glimpses of the strangeness behind the plot, and stories that are compelling in their own right, it holds together. Something always made me turn the page. Yes, I finish almost everything I start. But after the first 15 pages or so (15 year-old Holly can get rather tiresome), I really wasn't tempted to put this down. The discontinuities just made it more interesting.
Just as the classic battle between Good and Evil (the Horologists and the Anchorites) doesn't get started for 300 or more pages, The Bone Clocks spends 100 or so pages winding down after the climax. It's another 20 years in the future. Holly is now 75, and dying. The world is post-apocalyptic, post-oil, post-functioning institutions: not unlike the "Jackpot" of Gibson's The Peripheral. It's governed largely by local militias; there's limited food, limited power, and almost no medicine. That's the context that places the great battle into focus. The Horologists, for some unknown reason, are re-incarnated (wrong word, but I don't think there's a right word) after they die. The Anchorites have discovered how to cheat death by stopping aging: "immortality with conditions," as the Horologists put it. But when you look at immortality, of any flavor, in the light of a world with no future, you have to ask what's the point. The ancient Greeks were certainly right: unending life is not a gift, it's a curse.
There's more to the story of course, and a surprising ending. I'd like to write about it, but that would be a spoiler......more
I've never travelled to Kenya. But this book makes you feel like you're there. In the midst of a post-colonial political tragedy, played out in all toI've never travelled to Kenya. But this book makes you feel like you're there. In the midst of a post-colonial political tragedy, played out in all too many African states. Beauty and pain, suffering and endurance. ...more
I found this book very frightening, in an understated Gibson-y sort of way. Not particularly because of any specific action in the plot. It's a sci-fiI found this book very frightening, in an understated Gibson-y sort of way. Not particularly because of any specific action in the plot. It's a sci-fi thriller, so it has sci-fi thriller stuff. I've never been thrilled by thrillers, but some books (like this one) are worth reading anyway.
Peripheral takes place in two futures: one reasonably soon, one about 75 years later. The near future looks very much like the future to which we're headed. The rich have gotten richer, everyone else has gotten poorer. The economy is dominated by a small number of giant, corrupt companies. The technology is somewhat more advanced than ours, but not much.
This near-term future is separated from the more distant future by an event called the "jackpot." That's when the rich get really rich, and everyone else, dies off (roughly 80% of the Earth's human population). There's enough robotics around so that the rich don't really need to worry; it's a "jackpot" in that all those inconvenient people no longer exist, and the kleptocracy can run the show pretty much any way they want. The jackpot wasn't a single cataclysm, but a long, slow series of constant disasters: 100,000 people in a plague here, half a million in a hurricane there, a few more million in a famine, that sort of thing. And it's rarely discussed--because why would anyone living after the jackpot care?
The novel grows out of the interaction between the near and more distant futures: the post-jackpot future has developed the ability to project human consciousness into robotic devices, including such devices that existed in the past. (Post-Jackpot, robots are humanoid in virtually every way imaginable; pre-jackpot, they're projecting consciousness into something that seems like a Segway with an iPad attached.) So there's a limited connection between the two futures, out of which the plot develops. (Just so you know: interacting with a past is a post-Jackpot hobby, but the act of interacting with a past separates that past from your future. So the pre-Jackpot past of this novel is disconnected from the post-Jackpot future, and won't necessarily go that route.)
What's chilling is that, as I've said, the nearer future is very much the future toward which we're headed. And the post-jackpot world strikes me as the entirely too-likely consequence of that future. Gibson has a history of seeing the future with uncanny accuracy. This time, I hope he's wrong. ...more
Loved it. Great exposition of some of the best ideas in the history of mathematics. I've seen some other books like this, but this is the first one thLoved it. Great exposition of some of the best ideas in the history of mathematics. I've seen some other books like this, but this is the first one that really explains the way the Greeks did their mathematics. I've seen Euclid's proof of the Pythagorean Theorem before, but this is the first time it really made sense, and the first time I understood why Euclid had to prove it that way: he had no concept of what we would call algebra. For him a square was just that, and the theorem isn't a^2 + b^2 = c^2, but "if you make each side of a triangle into a square, the total area of the squares on the shorter sides is the same as the area of the square on the long side."
I have a couple of quibbles. He uses "awesome" too much; that's more of an obnoxious mannerism now than it was when Dunham wrote, and it grates. More important: One of the virtues of this book is that it's brief, and Dunham limits himself to math that is important, elegant, and easily explained. Selection is very important, and Dunham's excellent sense of what to leave out is why this book works so well. With that in mind, maybe it's unfair of me to complain about what was left out. But this book ends with the 19th century. There are brief mentions of Hilbert and Gödel, and that's about it. I would have liked to see it push a bit farther: Hilbert's reformulation of mathematics, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and maybe even Turing's undecidability theorem. Surely that's not too much to ask; it's just following the story he was telling in his last chapter through until the end.
It's hard to separate what might be autobiography from fiction in this novel. It's clearly derivative: it begins in a world that's more like Marquez'It's hard to separate what might be autobiography from fiction in this novel. It's clearly derivative: it begins in a world that's more like Marquez' Macondo than anything else. And just as Macondo falls victim to banana capitalism, Allende's country (I don't believe she ever calls it Chile) falls victim to conservative South American politics, and military dictatorship. And although the conservatives throw the economy off the cliff to make their opponents look bad (does this sound familiar? I am not thinking about Chile here), then instigate a bloody coup to throw the leftists out of power, even they are unprepared for the military regime that follows. Imagine that: the military isn't interested in giving power back.
Allende begins with "magical realism" but ends with the very non-magical brutality of military dictatorship. The brutal ending grows out of the beginning: out of the faded oligarchy, out of the mines in the North, out of the plantation in the country. This is a transition Marquez never quite makes. Banana capitalism destroys the world of Macondo, but that was an invasion from the outside. And when that order collapses, it's gone. The House of the Spirits doesn't close with a rotting, collapsing village, but with a state imposing terror on its citizens. What dies is much more than an idyllic, magical past with larger-than-life heroes. In Allende's novel, civilization and civility themselves are the victims....more
I've said that one of my favorite sub-genres is historical fiction about writers. The Master of Peterburg is a tour de force. It's about a brief perioI've said that one of my favorite sub-genres is historical fiction about writers. The Master of Peterburg is a tour de force. It's about a brief period in the life of Dostoevsky during which he tries to reconstruct the death of his adopted son, who may have committed suicide by jumping off a tower, been killed by police, or been murdered by members of a revolutionary group in which he has become entangled.
What makes this novel so interesting is that the fictional Fyodor M. Dostoevsky becomes a character in a Dostoevsky novel. He is Raskolnikov, in Raskolnikov's Petersburg, being interviewed by shifty police bureaucrats. It has the aimless obsessive wandering, the obsessive thinking, the guilt--though, unlike Raskolnikov, we're never sure what Fyodor is guilty of. (The novel is based on a suppressed chapter of Dostoevsky's Demons, so that may be a more appropriate background. History aside, Coetzee's novel feels much more like Crime and Punishment.)
But the master of Cape Town is also fully present, and the ending is something that I can't imagine Dostoevsky writing: wearing his dead son's white suit, Dostoevsky starts writing a novel based on sketches (or a diary?) in his late son's papers, in which a young man wearing a white suit cruelly teases and abandons a half-wit woman by pretending that he's her imaginary suitor. And the fictional Dostoevsky realizes that this is betrayal; that writing is betrayal: betrayal of his son, of the young girl watching him, of the characters in his son's fiction (or diary). The novelist has no self: he creates himself by becoming others (his son, his son's protagonist), and in the process, betraying them.
And the betrayals continue. I don't know much about Coetzee's life, but one of the reviewers points out that Coetzee's son was killed at the age of 23 in a falling accident. So Coetzee and son mirrors Dostoevsky and foster-son, as the writer empties his own self and reconstitutes it from the raw material surrounding him.
Brilliant writing about a brilliant writer....more
I liked it. I'm not going to say it was fantastic. But I'd read another book by Rathbone, and recommend this to anyone interested in historical fictioI liked it. I'm not going to say it was fantastic. But I'd read another book by Rathbone, and recommend this to anyone interested in historical fiction about the early middle ages.
Two things I like particularly:
In the final volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, a character who has lived for 700 years or so attends a modern Renaissance Faire, which he hates: it's all fantasy, not history. And one of his complaints is that "there's no shit." This book has the shit. Maybe not quite as much as an 11th century Englishman had to live with, but certainly enough to elevate it beyond run-of-the-mill historical fantasy.
And, despite all the action, all the characters (there are plenty of both, mostly historical), and a stage that spreads from Northumberland to the Levant, this book gives me an eerie sense of what it would have been like to live in England before it was overpopulated, when humans were actually relatively scarce. The seals, the oaks, the fog: no other book does it quite so well.
On the other hand, I resist the idealization of the pre-Norman English. I'm sure William wasn't a nice guy; people whose sobriquet is "The Conqueror" rarely are. "The Bastard" was probably more appropriate. But I find it hard to take this world where the King took care of the Earls, who took care of their underlings, who took care of their underlings, down to the lowliest serf (of which there were few). If that's how it was, well, we lost an awful lot when William conquered. But I don't believe that myth; on the contrary, I believe we're still paying the price of that myth. ...more
Another beautiful book by Saramago. His style is quirky, but getting used to it is worth the effort.
What is life for a clerk at the Central RegistryAnother beautiful book by Saramago. His style is quirky, but getting used to it is worth the effort.
What is life for a clerk at the Central Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages? Something to be compressed to a slip of paper and filed away. Something that can't be known, even if you try to track it down. Something that you can decide to live, or not to live, but that can't be lived vicariously, not even with painstaking research. The Registry is a repository of dusty paper that can neither create nor restore life, and certainly can't live it.
I'm perhaps harsher on Senhor José than other people who've written about this book. He's certainly endearing in his humble and muddled way. But at the end, he's a person who hasn't lived, except through his records of other people--even the unknown woman whose history become an obsession, and who he will never meet. Perhaps the most poignant scene (I will try very hard not to write a spoiler) comes towards the end, when he's in her apartment, and considers spending the night in her bed. Of course, she isn't there, and of course, he decides it's best just to go home.
I can't get All the Names' odd kinship to another beautiful book by a Portugese author, Night Train to Lisbon, out of my head. Night Train is much the opposite: about a middle-aged Latin teacher who suddenly walks away from his classes to find the life that he hasn't lived. It's a beautiful pairing.
It's hard to call this a fairy tale or a short story. It's a beautiful little piece of exuberant and humane imagination, whatever that might be calledIt's hard to call this a fairy tale or a short story. It's a beautiful little piece of exuberant and humane imagination, whatever that might be called. Read it. ...more
I'm a Banville fan, and I've read most of what he's written. Ancient Light didn't grab me; it's a lot like The Sea, but not as good.
Like most BanvilleI'm a Banville fan, and I've read most of what he's written. Ancient Light didn't grab me; it's a lot like The Sea, but not as good.
Like most Banville books, Ancient Light is about memory, storytelling, and the relationship between them. What are memories, if not the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? What is accurate, and what is inaccurate? What does it mean to remember something?
The protagonist brings this up time and time again throughout the novel: did I remember this correctly? It couldn't possibly have happened like this, but here's what I remember. But that trite, commonplace insecurity about memory is blown out of the water by the final chapters, which throw the entire narrative into question. Did anything described in the previous chapters actually happen? It's breathtaking, and I only wish the rest of the book deserved an ending so brilliant.
I have been careful not to write a spoiler, so if you want to find out more, you'll have to read it yourself.
[Aside to self: I really ought to re-read and review the many other Banville books I've loved, particularly Copernicus, Kepler, and Athena]...more
One of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. Everyone says that, so I might as well.
After a re-reading following Márquez' death, something elseOne of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. Everyone says that, so I might as well.
After a re-reading following Márquez' death, something else that everyone is doing, I'm even more impressed. I have not traveled in South America, but there's a sense in which this book is South America. The endless revolutions, the macho, the exuberance, the religion, the bananas, the decay: it's all here. We've wondered for years what the "great American novel is." We still don't know. But this is surely the great South American novel.
I'm also fascinated by Márquez' claim that this is not magical realism: it's just realism. He's right. There is an abundance of imagination, and certainly no small amount of exaggeration, but this is a story that takes a grandmother's stories very seriously. "Magical realism" is a defense that Norteamericanos use so they don't have to think about swarms of yellow butterflies. Or, for that matter, court decisions that rule that an American banana company never existed, and therefore couldn't be held culpable for its actions. ...more
Interesting, but lightweight. More about the personalities and the walks in the woods than the science.
It is very sad to see the US' programs for discInteresting, but lightweight. More about the personalities and the walks in the woods than the science.
It is very sad to see the US' programs for discovering planets outside the solar system, and even life outside the solar system, go by the wayside. But this book didn't convice me that this is the most important scientific question facing us. ...more