(5/10) I've never been one of those people who thinks that white Americans shouldn't write about other cultures, mainly because white Americans writin...more(5/10) I've never been one of those people who thinks that white Americans shouldn't write about other cultures, mainly because white Americans writing exclusively about write Americans is what got us into this whole mess in the first place. But there are a lot of easy pitfalls that a writer can fall into when writing about a foreign culture, and Sarah Bird falls into just about every one of them. In the process, a promising novel gets derailed into a high-school World Religions class.
The pages brim with exposition on Okinawan history and mythology (interpreted over-literally, of course). Enemies of America are demonized at every opportunity, while America's own (much more recent) acts of imperialism are present but only in the margins. Characters include exactly one word of a foreign language in each sentence, which is then translated immediately afterwards. People say things like "This is okinawa. This is how it is: we live with the dead and the dead live with us." I can understand wanting to pay homage to the local culture and put yourself in a different mindset, but Bird highlights tradition to the point that it exoticizes the Okinawan people and obscures that this is a highly technologically developed society (at one point it's suggested that the Okinawans don't know what the Internet is). An American learns a valuable life lesson from another culture.
It's too bad, because Okinawa is a really fascinating setting -- at the borderline between multiple imperial forces, modernity and tradition, war and peace. Bird visits each of these divide with distinctly uneven attention. She portrays the subculture of military children with much more ease. It's quite interesting to consider the military as a kind of diasporic community, although I would have liked more focus on how that community is also an instrument of dominaton. Luz James is a great protagonist, strong but not invulnerable, and her voice really pops off the page, especially in contrast with the more trite sections from the perspective of a 1940s Okinawan girl.
Above the East China Sea has strong passages and at least one effective setting, but it gets derailed and eventually turns into Let's Learn About Okinawa before a really frustrating and highly problematic ending. If you want to learn about this fascinating culture, head to the history books. If you want a great novel, there are countless better options.(less)
(6/10) [i]My Real Children[/i] is a novel that uses an ordinary life to explore high-concept science fiction and broad questions about history and ind...more(6/10) [i]My Real Children[/i] is a novel that uses an ordinary life to explore high-concept science fiction and broad questions about history and individual choice. The life in question is that of Patricia, attaining adulthood in postwar Britain. The conceit is that the novel follows two different life paths, splitting off from a single decision: one decision leading to a stifling married life and the other leading to a cosmopolitan and queer existence. Each path also has its own alternate history, with the former being a more peaceful and optimistic version of the history we're familiar with and the latter taking place amidst a dystopian backdrop of nuclear war. In both cases, the larger historical climate eventually overcomes the good or bad effects of Patricia's personal decision, before all of said effects are lost to the tide of time.
This is a bold theme and a bold structure, but it results in a story that's distinctly overdone: the straight marriage is too nightmarish, and the lesbian relationship too idyllic. Patricia herself rarely seems to have any faults, and hence not much of a character to hold on to. The alternate histories are more interesting, and a good reminder that things good have gone very differently in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the political commentary is occasionally mired in British liberal parochialism, and the queer politics feel anachronistic -- the main concern for Pat and her female partner is legal recognition and not mere survival, as it would have been during that time period.
It's hard to capture an entire life in a standard 300-page novel, let alone two parallel lives and two accounts of world history. The result is a story that often feels like it's on fast forward, with important events flying by. Walton is a good writer when she wants to be -- there are some lovely passages near the beginning about Patricia's wartime childhood -- but her prose is stifled by the need for constant exposition. I'm not sure how one would solve this, save for making a thousand-page book -- but maybe some books need to be a thousand pages.
[i]My Real Children[/i] poses some really interesting questions and ideas, but the page-to-page storytelling is generally lacking. This is one of those books that is a lot more fun to think about afterwards than it is to actually read. I would give it a moderate reccomendation with that big disclaimer attached.(less)
(too old to rate) This one is a weird one. I mean, when you get back this far in history, everything is weird too our modern sensibility, but Gregory...more(too old to rate) This one is a weird one. I mean, when you get back this far in history, everything is weird too our modern sensibility, but Gregory of Tours stands out even from the texts around him. A History of the Franks is part medieval historical epic, part memoir, part Christian treatise, and part gossip collection. Gregory took the Bible as his model, and all of that book's generic variation and weird repetitions occur here. This is also the most complete primary text from this era of French history, and so despite being a clearly ideological text, it's become something of the historical record.
To be fair, there is a good deal in here that will be valuable to those interested in the period. Gregory gives us a glimpse into what it was like to actually live in the early middle ages -- not just the court intrigues and the church politics, but the day-to-day events of village life. Precisely because of its hodgepodge nature, A History of the Franks captures the texture of everyday life better than any classical history and most contemporary ones. It's also fairly readable, providing you can get past all of the anti-Arian preaching. For all his weirdness and obvious agenda, Gregory of Tours is still worth a look.(less)
(5/10) For most of its length, The Adjacent is startlingly bad, especially for an author as well-renowned as Priest. The science-fictional parts take...more(5/10) For most of its length, The Adjacent is startlingly bad, especially for an author as well-renowned as Priest. The science-fictional parts take place in an Islam-dominated Britain right out of a right-wing "Eurabia" screed, while the historical narratives are the usual patter of cameos by famous people and long recollections of backstory. After long hours of reading, none of it seems to be going anywhere.
Things change a bit in the final third. Without going into too many specifics, Priest introduces a parallel world that is strange but also well-developed. There's a lot of exposition here as well, but it's generally interesting exposition. And slowly a grander puzzle begins to come into vision, asking the reader how to relate all of the various narratives contained within the book.
All of which is well and good, but the poorness of these narratives makes piecing them together a more or less unpleasant exercise. There's a suggestion of universal connection and recurring archetypes, but the story that keeps getting told is not an interesting one, and is more than a little misogynist. (Across all of these eras and universes, the one constant is that women are compelled to throw themselves at the nearest male protagonist within five minutes of meeting him.) In the end, The Adjacent moves from "failure" to "interesting failure", but is still a long way from "success".(less)
(10/10) Far more than the memoirs of a half-remembered author, Earthly Paradise is a collection of memories and experiences that speak to every part o...more(10/10) Far more than the memoirs of a half-remembered author, Earthly Paradise is a collection of memories and experiences that speak to every part of life with both sensual and intellectual brilliance. There's an erotic undercurrent to the most innocent of memories, supplied by Colette's lush prose and teasing hints as to the scandals of her life. And there's no shortage of witticisms, some of which I actually laughed at.
If you're interested in reading an autobiographical modernist narrative that deals with issues of memory and eroticism, I would reccomend Colette over Proust any day of the week. It's a couple thousand pages shorter, much more readable, and a lot kinder to everyone involved. Or maybe it's just the lack of dinner parties I prefer.
I came to this book via Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, and only belatedly realized that it's in part a compilation of Colette's various autobiographical works. I'm really interested in reading all of the books it draws on now, as well as Colette's fiction. So like any great book, this one just leads me to countless more books. Not that I'm complaining.(less)
(8/10) In Direct Action, David Graeber sets out on what is ostensibly an anthropological ethnography of anarchist politics and the anti-globalization...more(8/10) In Direct Action, David Graeber sets out on what is ostensibly an anthropological ethnography of anarchist politics and the anti-globalization movement. As an active participant in these movements, Graeber offers a lot of insight into both the nuts-and-bolts preparation for major protests and the larger understanding of the world that shapes anarchist praxis. For those interested in the movement, this is almost too much detail -- but, as Graeber argues, meaningful action and understanding arises from even the most tedious meetings.
As Graeber readily admits, his perspective is a limited one, mostly focusing on the short-lived New York Direct Action Network and its involvement with the protests against a summit in Quebec City. For people like me who are less interested in the summit-protesting, window-smashing form of activism, this is a bit of a disappointment, and I remain unpersuaded by Graeber's arguments about the efficacy of the actions he describes. But if nothing else, he helps me to understand why summit riots are so important to so many people, and their political ramifications.
My favourite chapters of the books were the later ones, where Graeber moves away from specific examples and talks about broader trends and principles. His description and analysis of the interactions between activists, police and the media is revealing and complex while still having a strong moral urgency. Graeber understands society's institutions as not a monolithic system of oppression but a bunch of barely-functioning bureaucracies taking the easiest road possible -- a description which seems pretty accurate, given my own interactions with the government. Potshots at post-structuralism aside, Graeber makes a number of important interventions that should be taken up by writers and theorists everywhere.
Direct Action is a big baggy book, with a lot of detail that will bore some and entrance others (I was mostly in the latter camp). It's not quite as poetically vibrant and politically essential as some of Graeber's other work, particularly given that the form of activism he describes seems to be on the wane. But if you're looking for a highly readable account of the global justice movement in the early 2000s, look no further(less)
(9/10) I don't read a lot of contemporary poetry, especially the endless proliferation of chapbooks and small collections which apparently consist ent...more(9/10) I don't read a lot of contemporary poetry, especially the endless proliferation of chapbooks and small collections which apparently consist entirely of brilliant emerging voices, but I took a chance on this one and I'm glad that I did. Lisa Williams deals with humans' relationships to animals, our bodies, and our own experiences. Despite the clarity of the language, there's a lot of complex and ambiguous ideas and emotions in these poems.
This material could easily fall into a kind of easy animal-rights lament about human cruelty, and for a few moments at the beginning it appears to do so, but Williams' poems more capture the impossibility and yet neccesariness of reconciling our mental ideals with the physical, natural, and often brutal world around us. A lot of the later poems, expressing philosophy through nature or perhaps nature through philosophy, are like a more visceral Wallace Stevens. This is a really strong (and beautifully designed) collection, and it makes me feel like maybe contemporary poetry isn't such a mug's game after all.(less)
(Too old to rate) St. Augustine's Confessions is frequently referred to as an early example of autobiography, perhaps the earliest, but if this is an...more(Too old to rate) St. Augustine's Confessions is frequently referred to as an early example of autobiography, perhaps the earliest, but if this is an autobiography it's a much different form of life writing than what we're used to today. While we get a good sense of St. Augustine's life trajectory, he's not really interested in providing vibrant detail or personal emotions. There's the skeleton of a narrative, the redemption of the author from sin and intellectual sophistry through Christianity and Platonism, but I would be hard pressed to call it a story.
What Augustine is more interested in is theology and philosophy, and hence the story of his life is the story of a shift through various intellectual positions. In the last four books, he abandons autobiography altogether and enters into a meditation on the nature of time (a surprisingly contemporary concern). While Augustine doesn't full embrace Plato's philosophy, his approach is not too distant, using narrative as a framework for argumentation but still maintaining a strong didactic method.
At one point St. Augustine comments that it was difficult to accept the ugly heterogeneity of the Bible over the beautiful and well-organized works of Greek antiquity. Being in the midst of a masochistic attempt to read the Bible cover to cover, I'm inclined to agree. The Confessions, or at least the public-domain translation I read, is very much of a piece with the Bible, with the interesting bits hidden between endless God-praising. What's interesting, though, about Augustine's remark is that it sheds a lot of light on his project and his historical context. He and his work were situated between the classical and the medieval, between the philosophical dialogue and the theological vita -- at the overlap between two very different eras. For this if nothing else, The Confessions are worth a look. It won't be a fun read, even for theoryheads, but it remains of great historical interest.(less)
(10/10) For most of its length I thought of Light as a typical but well-written work of late cyberpunk, with all of its conceptual obsessions and glit...more(10/10) For most of its length I thought of Light as a typical but well-written work of late cyberpunk, with all of its conceptual obsessions and glitzy, oversexed style. I liked this book well enough, but didn't love it. And then the last 50 pages came, which put a whole new spin on everything in a way that could have been cliched but really wasn't. Harrison probably gets as close to a quantum, nigh-singulitarian narrative technique as anyone will this century. Of course, this was quite difficult for my linear and all too human brain to understand, but I think ultimately it was very worthwhile. If nothing else, there's always the prose and the weird sex.(less)
(7/10) My current academic project led me to try and acquaint myself with queer theory and writing about queer ways of reading, which lead me to this...more(7/10) My current academic project led me to try and acquaint myself with queer theory and writing about queer ways of reading, which lead me to this 1994 book by Lee Edelman, who I had only previously known as a phrase that came after "Lauren Berlant and". To be honest, there wasn't much here that helped me with my work, but a lot of it was pretty interesting regardless.
In the first essay Edelman coins the ungainly term "homographesis" to describe the way in which gay bodies act as social texts. Rather than being an extensive theoretical project, however, this book is more a collection of scattered cultural notes loosely tied to the figure of the gay man in American culture. Edelman has a Barthesian touch in the way he can tease out the manifold implications of seemingly very straightforward texts, from two-word political slogans to embarrassing photos of the President, and like Barthes he couples his sometimes dense theoretical musings with wry humour.
Be forewarned that this text is very academic and theory-heavy, moving between several different cultural philosophies. Edelman defends his style in the prologue, and I think he's right to do so, but it. A twenty-year-old academic text can often seem obsolete even in the humanities, especially one such as this that deals with at-the-time current events which now seem distant and foggy. While Edelman's theoretical methodology has certainly not been discredited, I have to imagine that a contemporary text would pay more attention to questions of how race and gender identity, among other factors, inform readings of the gay body. Edelman often seems to assume a unified gay male subject, an assumption that continues to plague contemporary queer politics and organizing.
Still, I think Homographesis is worth revisiting for anyone interested in queer theory and how it emerged from the gay politics of the 1980s. If nothing else, read the essay on George H. W. Bush vomiting in Japan, which is the funniest academic work I've read in quite some time.(less)