I read maybe one sci-fi book a year. My barrier to entry is generally the writing itself. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I find that most contemporary sci-fi...moreI read maybe one sci-fi book a year. My barrier to entry is generally the writing itself. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I find that most contemporary sci-fi books - as with most "genre" books - tend to be poorly written, sacrificing craft in favor of the fascinating worlds, etc that they present. So, it's always a pleasant surprise when I encounter a work of sci-fi that's also really well written because I am a bit of a futurist at heart and love to delve into these worlds. (It's not for nothing that Star Trek: The Next Generation was my favorite show as a kid.) I'm happy to say 2312 is such a work. Kim Stanley Robinson is perhaps most famous for his Mars trilogy, and from what I gather this book is typical of his earlier style. I haven't read the Mars trilogy, so I can't speak from personal experience. However, after 2312 I'm definitely intrigued.
It's difficult to summarize this book because it's really more a history of a possible future than a traditional novel. Sure, there's a main character and a central conflict, but so much of the book deals with the meta factors of life in space cohabiting with technology that it does the book a disservice to say it's simply the story of Swan Er Hong. Swan is Mercurial - in both the sense that she's prone to sudden mood shifts and that she's from the planet Mercury (there are a lot of little puns like that throughout) - and when we first meet her she's mourning the recent death of her grandmother. The plot picks up from there with Swan getting tangled up in a type of solar system manhunt/mystery. But, 2312 isn't a mystery, not really anyway. For one thing, the action scenes are few and far between and when they do arrive they're over before you even notice. No, the focus here is most definitely on exploring the time and place. Curiously enough, the strongest narrative voice here speaks from an even more distant future so that while reading one gets the dizzying sense of looking back on a time that for one reading today hasn't yet occurred. An interesting technique, but I could see how some might consider it gimmicky.
The greatest weakness here is also the novel's greatest strength. While the world building is fascinating it can at times drag on. It's worth enduring, however, as some of the most beautiful passages depict things never seen by human eyes: sunsets that last for 16 "days" on the moons of Saturn; clear aquarium "terrariums" floating in the nothingness of space; etc. Again, from what I gather, this is typical of Robinson's work, so if you're okay with that you shouldn't have any reservations about diving in. If this is the only sci-fi book I read this year, I'm glad it was such an enjoyable experience.(less)
I wanted to like this more than I actually did. On the surface When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man has everything I like: boats, tense family situ...moreI wanted to like this more than I actually did. On the surface When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man has everything I like: boats, tense family situations, nostalgia, violence, etc. But, somehow, the sum wasn't equal to the parts, or, rather, it was exactly equal to the parts. Cal longs to follow in his father's footsteps and head to Alaska with the crab boats. He's a fisherman's son in a fisherman's town, after all, but his mother - an unhappy California transplant - is dead set against it, and with good cause. Fishing is a dangerous pursuit. When John Gaunt,the town's richest man and owner of the entire fleet, dies the fate of the town rests with his shiftless son, Richard. What comes after is a kind of crucible for young Cal. A good read overall, but I had trouble fixing Cal's age throughout (Dybek does give it a couple of times), and while the situation was dramatic and the stakes were ratcheted up high I just found myself shrugging most of the time. Dybeck's prose is flawless, but it's not inspired. There were too many places where the prose felt manufactured rather than transcendental. Maybe that's vague and pretentious. I mean to say it felt like a work that did all the right things, but failed to move me. I'd read his next one, though.(less)
Kate Bornstein embraces hir outlaw status. Hell, Bornstein’s turned it into a brand. A pioneer who se...moreSee my interview of Kate over at Lambda Literary.
Kate Bornstein embraces hir outlaw status. Hell, Bornstein’s turned it into a brand. A pioneer who sets hirself outside the conventional gender binary, Kate first caught the world’s attention with hir groundbreaking book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, a literary portmanteau combining theory and theatre with a fair amount of autobiography. In Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws ze tackled teen suicide by offering unorthodox survival strategies. Bornstein maintains an open dialogue with hir fans via social media (Kate has over 13,000 Twitter fans) and an ambitious touring schedule. With hir new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today (Beacon Press), Bornstein continues to blaze a trail for freaks and outlaws everywhere.
Lambda sat down with the iconoclast to chat about the new book, the future of the Queer movement, Scientology and fame.... (read the whole interview at Lambda Literary.)
In his latest collection of essays, Jonathan Franzen reiterates his well-documented love of birds and mourns...moreOriginally published in Time Out New York
In his latest collection of essays, Jonathan Franzen reiterates his well-documented love of birds and mourns his late friend, the literary heavyweight David Foster Wallace. Much of the better material here has been previously published. Taken together, however, these writings present a broader, more freewheeling curiosity than the novelist generally indulges in his fiction.
A kitschy gift provokes a cautionary tale on sustainability and emerging economies in “The Chinese Puffin.” “Authentic but Horrible” condemns the Broadway musical adaptation of Spring Awakening while getting to the core of Frank Wedekind’s subversive play. A brief bid is made for the canonization of Canadian short-story master Alice Munro in “What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself?” The title essay finds the author on a remote Pacific island confronting, at long last, the death of Wallace.
Analyzing and extrapolating from disparate literary sources (anything from Robinson Crusoe to Swedish detective novels), these occasionally dithering essays provide a glimpse into the critical faculties of one of our most celebrated contemporary novelists. Franzen’s views on technology and writing are particularly salient: The Internet’s expansiveness is a kind of prison, and postmodernism actually leads us back to the primitive. Still, Farther Away reads more like supplemental material than primary text, and one gets the feeling that this collection is only meant to hold over readers hungry for the author’s next novel. In that sense, the essays in Farther Away are not unlike the European songbird poachers he writes about: For a novelist like Franzen, they make for strange bedfellows.(less)
Esther Newton's slim anthropological study of drag queens and camp culture in mid-60s America is a quick and informative read. I didn't love it, thoug...moreEsther Newton's slim anthropological study of drag queens and camp culture in mid-60s America is a quick and informative read. I didn't love it, though. Mother Camp - like many of the queens profiled - betrays its age. No doubt, this was ground-breaking stuff when it was published, but this pre-Stonewall account reads almost laughably elementary in a RuPaul's Drag Race world. We learn things like: drag queens, or female impersonators, often refer to each other as "she"; and that "tricks" and "hustlers" are men who are often paid for sex. Obviously, it's unfair to "read" (and I mean that in a throwing shade kind of way) Newton for the increased visibility drag culture has acquired in the subsequent decades, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for something a bit more academic and rigorous and less, well, anthropological. The whole approach was kind of like watching a nature documentary in that you have a very removed and (more or less) objective view of a contained world. One major omission, I felt, was the lack of discussion about the queen's romantic lives. Sure, the aforementioned tricks, hustlers and even "husbands" were mentioned, but always as minor figures on the periphery. I would've liked to see what the romantic lives of these performers were like: was it difficult to find love given the stigma of drag and the transitory nature of the profession? did the queens date amongst themselves? etc. I don't think that would've been outside the stated scope of this project, especially since Newton spent a considerable amount of time describing the various domiciles of some of the central performers in the text. For me, it would've helped paint a more complete picture, particularly at this crucial moment in gay history. Overall, I think the book succeeds in its project, but I would advise readers to look at this more as a historical document than as a text informing contemporary drag culture. (less)
These poems wrecked me. Essentially, an elegy for a teen suicide and an exploration of the aftermath it brings to small town America. Snider writes be...moreThese poems wrecked me. Essentially, an elegy for a teen suicide and an exploration of the aftermath it brings to small town America. Snider writes beautifully about the intimate moments he and his cousin Nick shared before Nick took his own life with a hose and an idling car. What comes across the strongest here is a sense of the hidden trauma: these poems are filled with bodies coming to terms with a renegade sexuality. Just really fantastic all the way through. Definitely recommend for fans of contemporary, narrative poetry.(less)
I can't remember the last time I read a book of poetry though I enjoy the form. This was a good reintroduction, not as narrative as I normally prefer,...moreI can't remember the last time I read a book of poetry though I enjoy the form. This was a good reintroduction, not as narrative as I normally prefer, but good nonetheless. I wish I had something more insightful to say, but I don't at present.(less)
Pretty comprehensive view of the publishing industry today. I kind of wish I would've read a digital copy only because that would've lent itself to in...morePretty comprehensive view of the publishing industry today. I kind of wish I would've read a digital copy only because that would've lent itself to instant updates, which would've meant a synopsis of the DOJ's antitrust suit against the publishers and Apple, but I'm not sure that Thompson has actually examined that, or that he is actively keeping Merchants of Culture up to date aside from the occasional new edition. Overall, it was a really well-written and informative study of an industry I find quite fascinating yet befuddling. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in publishing as well as business in general.(less)
I finally got around to reading this much-appreciated birthday present. I've been hearing a lot of good things about Alison Bechdel recently, and now...moreI finally got around to reading this much-appreciated birthday present. I've been hearing a lot of good things about Alison Bechdel recently, and now I know why. Are You My Mother? was rigorous, inventive, touching, and honest. At its heart its the story of a woman coming to terms with her mother, but Bechdel pulls in allusions from all over the place to give this deeply personal story a universal authenticity.
Throughout the journey we meet a host of people in Bechdel's life, including therapists, and lovers, as well as historical figures. Virginia Woolf and Freud protege D.W. Winicott play important roles here. I've always been a fan of the way graphic novels (or memoirs, as the case may be) tell a story through the subtle interplay of words and images. Bechdel uses both to great effect, imbuing the narrative with a gentle sense of movement that adds both tension and closure.
I'm super excited to read her previous work, now, particularly Fun Home since so much of this book is an outgrowth of/response to that one. Highly recommended for fans of the graphic novel/memoir genre as well as Dykes (To Watch Out For).(less)
Gay men are great travelers and Eric Sasson does them justice in his spirited new collection, Margins of Tolera...moreOriginally Published at Lambda Literary
Gay men are great travelers and Eric Sasson does them justice in his spirited new collection, Margins of Tolerance (Livingston Press). Provocative and unapologetic, the stories here offer a glimpse into the conflicted psyches of men in transition alongside moments of rare insight. There are shades of Holleran and Kramer here with prose by turns bombastic and elegiac.
Peruvian hotel clerk Francisco desires much more than American TV or, even, the affections of Columbus, the horny gringo guest entertaining a string of local boys, in “Floating.” An accidental touch incites a neurotic storm of speculation and recrimination for an airline passenger seeking some epistolary therapy in “Dear Guy in 24B.” “Body and Mind” introduces Marcel and Hunter, a couple celebrating their anniversary, Vegas-style, with some joint play. They’ll soon discover that not all things that happen in Vegas stay there. And the idea of Russian men proves a far greater aphrodisiac in “The Coming Revolution” than the men themselves.
Sasson is interested in the moment when desire confronts reality, and while the stories here – largely depicting solitary travelers – examine that theme with honesty and compassion, overall the collection feels uneven. At times, the overt politics of the prose gets in the way. The titular story has a powerful message: that acceptance demands assimilation and that tolerance often hews a narrow path. But the effect is stymied by a heavy-handed approach and details that are too on-the-nose: a painting of straight couples enjoying a screening of Brokeback Mountain plays a pivotal role. Sasson is strongest when examining the unmoored space a queer traveler occupies abroad as he does in “Remains of a Once Great Civilization” and “Getting There,” among others. Ultimately, the stories here offer a snapshot of a culture in flux between a rich past and an uncertain future. Margins of Tolerance is not so much a road-map to where we’ll end up as gay men, but rather a guidebook to help us make the most of the journey.(less)
Somewhat uneven, Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea is nonetheless a touching tale of coming to terms with grief. As his name suggests Jason Prosper is...moreSomewhat uneven, Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea is nonetheless a touching tale of coming to terms with grief. As his name suggests Jason Prosper is a well-to-do kid in his final year of prep school in New England. Appearances aren't quite what they seem though. Jason is hiding a dark secret. In short, he was complicit in the suicide of his best friend and roommate/lover Cal. Bellingham Academy specializes in educating the troubled youth of privilege, especially when, as Jason's father does, they fund capital improvement projects. Things seem more or less stable for Jason, as best as can be expected at any rate, but its not long until things once again take a tragic turn for our misery-bound protagonist. You probably saw that coming.
Dermont's great strength here is delivering a campus novel steeped in privilege without alienating the average reader. You'll find yourself rolling your eyes at the surfeit of ridiculous names - Tazewell, Race, Riegel, etc. - and embracing your righteous indignation at the level of cruelty so casually engaged in by these golden sons, but Dermont's prose is definitely not giving them a pass. Part of the point here is that nobody escapes sin. Everyone is complicit. All the same, it's no small accomplishment that Jason comes off better than most. And, of course, I need to mention the sailing. I likely wouldn't have picked up this book if it hadn't promised a hearty dose of nautical ephemera. Dermont proves her bonafides here, and it was a real treat to inhabit that world.
Jason's character was rather interesting, too. Dermont's handled his sexuality well, keeping it central to the story, but without letting it overwhelm the book. It was more nuanced then I was expecting, and, in fact, rather forward thinking. I said at the beginning that this was an uneven novel. Overall, it was strong, but there were instances where the prose felt overwrought - nothing too serious, though. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of coming-of-age campus novels as well as those who like books about sailing.(less)
The vibrant stories in Lysley Tenorio’s debut collection, Monstress (Ecco), depict an immigrant experience that...moreOriginally published at Lambda Literary
The vibrant stories in Lysley Tenorio’s debut collection, Monstress (Ecco), depict an immigrant experience that reveals the implications of what it means to be a perpetual outsider. Intimate portrayals give way to larger meditations in these eight stories of Filipino fiction.
In “Save the I-Hotel,” forty years of friendship and the vagaries of old age have finally granted Fortunado the intimacy he’s always desired with neighbor Vicente, but imminent eviction forces a reassessment of the painful choices that led to the present moment. In “Help,” a harebrained revenge plot against The Beatles inadvertently reveals a broader world to a group of cousins living in thePhilippines. “Superassassin” finds a nerdy teen appropriating the ambiguous legacy of a superhero gone wrong in a bid to seek revenge against a bully. And in “The Brothers,”Edmond discovers the true meaning of sibling love in the trans community following the untimely death of his brother.
Hard lives and hard choices take center stage in Monstress, but this is no bleak landscape that Tenorio limns. Woven throughout the collection is a wry narrative of ambition. These characters whether they are gay or straight, American or Filipino, all share an abiding desire to succeed, their shared identity of otherness paradoxically empowering as it appears to disenfranchise. In that sense, they belong to a larger project of outsider fiction. So much here hinges on family, tradition and culture. The particulars that define one group from another may change, Tenorio seems to suggest, but the one constant that remains throughout is an abiding human desire for community. And that holds true whether you’re a drag queen, an immigrant or a creature feature actresses.(less)
Chronicles of arctic exploration have always interested me and when I saw this title featured in a Barnes and Noble newsletter a couple of months ago...moreChronicles of arctic exploration have always interested me and when I saw this title featured in a Barnes and Noble newsletter a couple of months ago I immediately knew I'd read it. I won't pretend I wasn't swayed by the gorgeous cover art.
Having never heard of S.A Andrée I didn't know what to expect. He and his fellow adventures where the first to attempt a polar approach by balloon: a feat met with more than a bit of skepticism in the late 19th century. That skepticism, it turns out, was well founded. I'm not giving anything away when I say that theirs was a tragic journey.
Throughout, Wilkinson - a longtime New Yorker contributed - did much to situate the journey historically within the context of polar exploration (both northern and southern). Other attempts by traditional means were presented alongside Andrée's novel approach and did much to inform the narrative in the technology and science employed as well as the levels of physical depravation that explorers endured. For instance, it was a widely help opinion that a temperate sea surrounded the pole. We now know this to be false.
While it was an enjoyable and edifying read, I found it ultimately to be unsatisfying. Andrée's expedition was the focus, but I felt we never got a full picture of his journey. Part of the problem was the super short chapters. That format prevented Wilkinson from really delving into the heart of the matter in the way that a book like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm does so well. The later chapters give a pretty good play-by-play of Andrée's sally, but it felt a bit too removed for my taste. Maybe it's my schadenfreude at it's worse, but I wanted to feel myself trapped on the northern ice floes, hubris exacting it's toll. Overall, I would definitely recommend this book for someone who's interested in the, admittedly narrow, intersection of Victorian polar adventuring and ballooning if for no other reason than the photographs. The cover is just one of many haunting images presented here.(less)