You'd think that with how much I read this would be old hat by now, but I always get a little bit anxious when a friend publishes something. What if iYou'd think that with how much I read this would be old hat by now, but I always get a little bit anxious when a friend publishes something. What if it isn't good? What if I don't like it? How do you walk that line between supporting their work and wanting to be honest about your opinion of their work? I've lost a lot of sleep over how to review books of this sort, that complex dance of criticism, the "well i liked this aspect, but this and this felt like they were superfluous" waltz of carefully worded critiques. Fortunately, when it comes to the stories of Casey Plett, this concern never even crossed my mind. I was in love from word one.
No stranger to the written word, Plett has previously written a column on transitioning for McSweeneys and had a story featured in Topside Press' 2012 anthology, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard. Both marked her as a voice to be watched, a writer whose spare style and conversational approach evokes many comparisons to Michelle Tea's fictionalized memoirs of lesbian living. With the publication of her first short story collection, Plett makes good on the promise hinted at in her earlier stories, also reprinted herein, and offers us a sampler plate of the myriad ways that trans women are living, loving, and existing all throughout the country.
These girls are beautiful, at turns both fiercely strong and defiant against a world that loathes or fetishizes them and also so frighteningly fragile and vulnerable, so breakable that you'd like to capture them in a bell jar and keep them tucked away safe forever. Like Lisa, the recently single cam girl haunted by memories of her ex and crippling social anxiety, who ends up having a kink-fueled fling with an older lesbian in "How Old Are You Anyway?", a story which had me both titillated and nodding along in recognition as her conscious narrative devolved to a catalog of sensory input, those amazing spikes of pain that shoot from nipple to groin to neck and back again and all you want is for that ache to never end because for a moment you're so mercifully free of all concerns and actually home in your body and actually feeling and what does it matter that it's pain and hurt because for so long you've just felt nothing that to be able to feel anything physical at all is just so fucking transcendental. And then it's over. And the walls come back up and your thrice-damned thoughts come rushing back in and that blissful nothingness is just the faintest blissful memory.
Or the dynamics between "Lizzy and Annie," two Brooklyn trans girls negotiating their own uncertainty and fears to find love with one another, bouncing from bar to bed to breakfast all whilst ducking the attentions of chasers and the leering stares of their coworkers. Or the unnamed narrator of "How to Stay Friends" out for dinner with her ex for the first time since transitioning and simultaneously wanting to make a good new "first impression" and deconstructing everything that you did wrong and regret while you were dating and trying to maintain the facade of being a virile straight man. That particular story hit a little close to home and necessitated me putting the book down for a few minutes to catch my breath and get some distance from the material before returning. We all have those things we really regret from the times before transitioning, but it's always a bit disconcerting to see your own thoughts writ so clearly upon the page.
By far my favorite story is the largest, "Not Bleak," about Carla, a trans girl living in a small Mid-Western town near the Canadian border working at a book store and her friendship with Zeke, a mennonite trans girl who may or may not have stolen her hormones and her passport but who also really needed a friend and a community. Carla, ever of the warm heart and willing to extend the benefit of the doubt becomes close with her to the point of posing as her girlfriend and returning with Zeke to the small Mennonite community she grew up in so she could see her grandfather before he passed. Zeke utterly broke my heart, this poor little trans girl who was willing to hide her identity and be seen as a boy so as to preserve the links she had with her family. This girl who needs support so badly but who is her own worst enemy and continually brings people to distrust her. I want to say more but I don't want to spoil the story, but Plett's portrayal of an insular small-town queer community where everyone knows one another and has for years and how the lack of anything to do leads to some enormously silly hijinks in the name of entertaining yourself is absolutely spot-on. Of all the stories, this is the one that I've come back to and read several times more.
These stories are all about trans characters, which I love because there's a frightening lack of creative work by and about girls like me, but they appeal to a much larger crowd as well- those of us who have ever stood on the outside of a party and watched the interplay between people and wondering why it seemed so easy for everyone else, those of us who have ever dealt with fear, anxiety, or isolation, those of us who have ever gotten sloppily drunk in order to feel more at ease in social situations. Plett has an amazing eye for the fragile foibles nestled within everyone's hearts and I think that any reader, trans or cis, can connect with her characters. This is her first collection, but I'm certainly hoping it's not her last as Casey Plett's voice is one that is desperately needed within the realm of fiction. Her stories are the sort that I long to read. I don't know that I could ever recommend a book more highly....more
Earlier this year, when I first started to try to get people to understand what I meant when I said that I was transgender, I searched high and low foEarlier this year, when I first started to try to get people to understand what I meant when I said that I was transgender, I searched high and low for any texts that I could give people to describe the dissociation from my body, the self-loathing I carried with me everywhere, the complete sense of helpless panic mixed with the certainty that I needed to do something. I wanted to find just one text that could express all of that and help others understand why I'd undertaken, why I had very much needed to undertake, such a drastic process. I had a lot more optimism then. These days I don't really care if people understand me so long as they respect my wishes and don't call me by my old name, male pronouns, or "it." Real world interactions with people almost always lead me to lower my expectations.
So imagine my delight when people on the message boards I belong to started talking about a new book that finally "got" it. Words written from the heart of an eloquent trans woman who was able to finally express all of the things we'd been struggling to get across to people, words that helped this subculture of which I'm a part begin to define ourselves in language we all understand rather than relying upon clinicians and sociologists to observe us and make notes, like so many books on being trans have done already (I'm looking at you True Selves and My Brother, My Sister).
Instead, here was a fiery punk rock girl revealing the full tumult of living as a trans woman. Not just the before-and-after fixation that so much of the press likes to focus on, but the messy little details that are nearly always overlooked- like how do begin to navigate the world as a single woman, how do you begin try to work past being being physically present but mentally absent from nearly every social situation, how do you ever leave behind the pain and hurt of all those years fighting against yourself and manage to live a more open life? And to do so with whip-smart prose and a style that crackles with intensity and wit is all the more appreciated. Imogen Binnie is no mere niche author of a subculture only beginning to create its own culture, but a writer of superb skill (seriously you all should read some of the articles she's written for Maximum Rock 'n Roll) who I hope will become a household name as she continues writing.
Nevada is the story of Maria Griffiths, a trans woman living in Brooklyn who has just been simultaneously dumped and fired and is feeling quite adrift from her life and has no idea how to move forward and so steals her girlfriend's car for an impromptu roadtrip to the Pacific. Along the way she meets James, a boy working in a small town Wal-Mart somewhere near Reno and realizes that he's like she was at 20- lost, trying to present as a man but failing at it, stuck in a relationship he kind of just fell into, and hiding it all under a thick haze of marijuana. As she helps James face the specter of his own dysphoria and take those first painfully hard steps of admitting that he's maybe/possibly/probably trans, she also gets a chance to process through the ruins of her own life and realize the things that she's also been avoiding.
I wanted to write this review without falling into the mire of autobiographical reflections and over-sharing of very intimate details of my life because I feel as though I've done too much of that far too publicly this year and I'm kind of feeling pretty self-conscious about broadcasting it like I did and kind of really tired of thinking about myself on a constant basis. Yet the more of the book I read, the more I realized that it's impossible to extricate myself from this review because, more than anything, reading Nevada was an exercise in finding parallels with my own life. Barely a page went by where I didn't find myself nodding along with a thought a character has, wincing in shared dismay at an unfortunate event, and finding my eyes grow moist with tender recognition when the action moves out of Brooklyn and into the barren wastes of Nevada and we meet James, whose entire storyline reads as a fictionalised retelling of the three long and dark years I spent living in Tucson.
That's a big part of the value of this book for me. Until recently I didn't know many trans women and none well enough to where I felt comfortable asking about the very personal aspects of living that fill our days, so questions like "am I the only one who has to pretend that they're not having sex with another person in order to get off" or "how is it that I can argue vehemently for the rights and freedom of others but find it impossible to vocalize anything about my own personal wants and needs" or "why does this misogynistic porn seem to be one of the few things I find enticing" (btw: this book is worth reading if only for the chapter in which Binnie conclusively kills off the dated and oppressive concept of autogynephilia) were all just big question marks that I chalked up to "I'm crazy" instead of "I'm trans." Reading Nevada, though, really brought home to me just how similar my own road to accepting that I'm a trans woman is to nearly every other trans woman I've come to know. I may not be a beautiful and unique snowflake of dysfunction but I am also not alone. Which, when you've spent so many years fearing and hating yourself for things you can't wish, smoke, or drink away, is an incredibly relieving thing to find out.
For example, I spent most of my adult life thinking that I couldn't be trans because I didn't fit the constrained and narrow view of what I thought, of what society tells us, that trans girls are. By which I mean the outdated and discredited Harry Benjamin Standards of Care that dictate that all trans women always present as super femme, always sit down to pee, and if they find women's bodies attractive well, they couldn't be lesbians, they're just perverted men. I could never fit into that definition and lacked any other examples as to how I could approach my own femininity so could never make the mental leap from seeing others being fulfilled by properly experiencing and expressing their gender to imagining myself so fulfilled and it tore me apart whenever I'd think about it, which was pretty much constantly. To avoid having to think about it I would just shut down and not process. I drank whiskey like water, smoked enough weed to fund an entire Mexican drug war, and hid in my apartment obsessively reading pretty much anything that fell into my lap (hence my Goodreads account being the social media site I've belonged to the longest), hating everything, and dissociating from my every day existence as a boy. Yet here it turns out that all of the fucked up weird shit that I did to cope or to process or to deny is pretty much a checklist that nearly every other trans woman I have come to know has done as well.
Which explains why every trans woman I know who has read it says that if you want to know about being trans, read Nevada. This is an important book, for me personally, for trans women as a group, and for a society raised on caricatures of trans women like Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill or the sexually predatory trans woman who wants nothing more than to trick a man or a lesbian into sex (seriously, how do people not understand just how very sexually dysfunctional most of us are?) that has no idea how to consider us as complex multi-faceted people....more
I've made it. I have finally reached the summit of the second Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick books, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70I've made it. I have finally reached the summit of the second Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick books, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s. With my flag firmly planted atop the snow-capped peak of this book I can look back upon two weeks of paranoia, time travel, authoritarian governments and more experimental drugs than you can find outside of a Merck testing lab, with the self-satisfied air of a man who has plumbed the depths of speed-induced psychosis and made it through the other side. What better reward could I ask for, though, than to have finally allowed myself to read a book I knew I would love from the moment I saw the film, A Scanner Darkly?
I have wanted to read this book since the first time I heard of it, way back in the heady year of 2004 when I was working the front desk of a hostel in Prague and running a traveler's lending library of english-language literature. I was fresh off of Man in the High Castle and was handed a tattered paperback by a Welshman along with the benediction that this book would "utterly melt your mind." With a recommendation like that, I was immediately interested. Unfortunately that copy was soon lost among the ever-changing residents of the hostel and an opportunity was postponed. I've read nearly two dozen of Dick's books in the time since then but for one reason or another have never returned to A Scanner Darkly until now. The wait has made it even more delectable.
Bob Arctor is an undercover cop investigating the sale of a drug known as Substance D, a heavily addictive drug its users lovingly refer to as Death because the end result of long term use is always either the big D itself or a fugue state in which the user's basic motor functions and cognitive abilities are stripped away, leaving a husk of a person behind. To infiltrate the organization making this drug, Arctor has become addicted to Substance D and is living in a bacchanal of a drug pad with 3 other users and attempting to make time with his dealer, Donna Hawthorne. He reports back to his office under the pseudonym of "Fred" and wearing a scramble suit to anonymize his identity, because no one knows the extent to which the police department has been corrupted by the drug syndicate, which leads to his superiors deciding that the user Bob Arctor is worthy of deeper investigation as he seems to have access to larger amounts of money than a man of his background should have and many hours where he simply disappears without a trace (of course, these are the times when Arctor is checking in with the department as Fred).
So Arctor begins investigating himself in a move so biting it could have been culled from one of Kafka's nightmares. Sitting in a secret facility, reviewing hours and hours of surveillance tapes, and hearing all of the inane blather that only a house full of junkies can think is profound, Arctor's consciousness begins to fragment down the center until his cop persona Fred begins to suspect that Arctor is in business with some very shady people and becomes determined to bring him down.
It's always a relief to me when a book manages to live up to the expectations I have, especially when it's a read I've been looking forward to for a number of years. The dialogue was spot on, so many of the conversations between Arctor and his roommates, Barris and Luckman, seem as though they could have easily been taken from real life. Especially considering that at the time he was writing this, Dick had essentially opened up his home in Berkeley to the ever-shifting tide of drug users, political activists, and wanderers that were all moving through the Bay Area in the early 70s. The paranoia that is a hallmark of every Dick work reaches its pinnacle here as Arctor races against his own failing mind to collar his crook in time, who just happens to be himself.
This read ranks up there with Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as one of Dick's finest. It is easily worthy of the praise which has been heaped upon it, and it was really nice to find proof that one of Dick's books had finally been adapted to film in a manner that did justice to the source material. The only disappointment I feel is that I no longer have this book to look forward to, though I am certain that I will return for a reread at least once or twice in the years to come.
Thus ends my Dick binge of 2012. I've made it through a good number of the author's books by this point and the only major work still remaining are his Exegesis books (VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which I will get to at some point down the road when my mind is on more firm ground than it is after devouring five reality-shifting books....more
If I were to ever have doubts as to the worthiness of comics as a medium for social critique or dissenting opinions, they would all be washed away byIf I were to ever have doubts as to the worthiness of comics as a medium for social critique or dissenting opinions, they would all be washed away by this volume of Warren Ellis' masterwork, Transmetropolitan. Within these slim and splendidly decorated pages lie some of the most biting and harsh political and social truths ever uttered, words so wonderfully free of restraint and so incendiary that, were they not shielded by the disregard most high minds have for comics, Ellis would likely be removed from his home late at night by an elite team of Blackwater mercenaries, sleek black hood slipped over his head and tranquilizers pumped through his body, only to awaken after being extraordinarily rendered to Egypt, or Oman, or Yemen, or whatever dictator-du-jour is currently doing the United States' wet work.
Ellis' Spider Jerusalem is a rabid dog of a journalist. Veins racing with an ever-shifting cocktail of uppers, downers, hallucinogens, and baby seal eyes, with a soul yearning to express the Truth at any cost, Jerusalem is quite easily the best and most faithful Hunter S. Thompson caricature that I've ever come across. In previous volumes, Jerusalem has taken on the sacred cows of religion, television, and fame but here in Volume 3 is when he finally tackles my own bete noire, electoral politics, and wins my heart all over again. Sure, the set-up is nearly all cadged from Thompson's Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72, but that air of reality is what lends this volume its bite.
Trying to assuage his ever-demanding editor, Jerusalem is sent to cover the Opposition Party Convention, wherein the Opposition delegates are struggling to decide between two career hacks (Sen. Callahan, a Jerry Brown surrogate with a Joker-like grin and Bob Heller, a thick-necked white supremacist running on a platform of pure rage) to run against The Beast, a Nixon/Bush Jr hybrid that could only have been born from some dark sacrificial act. Over the course of these issues, Jerusalem unwraps a fetid taco's worth of corruption and bile, highlighting all of the backroom politicking, endorsement-buying, and victim exploitation that occurs as a matter of course in our electoral system but amped up to the nth degree and then injected with steroids. It is biting, it is harsh, and it is some of the most topical criticism I've read in a long time. This series is highly recommended for nearly everyone....more
What an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to desWhat an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to describe my time with it ever since. This vast and sprawling epic is an ambitious, eloquent and beautiful novel- the type of read that reminds you of what all literature should strive to be. Or as Bolano puts it far more succinctly: "what a sad paradox... Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown... they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." This is exactly that sort of book and Bolano is undoubtedly one of the great masters, if it wasn't clear after Savage Detectives then 2666 should put all doubts to rest. This is the sort of book that inspires a reader to pick up a pen for the first time in who-knows-how-long and jot out their own ramblings or makes you want to tackle all of those great pillars of literature that have loomed intimidatingly on the horizon for years, as though after summiting this peak you can handle just about anything an author can throw at you. Bolano likely intended such a challenge to his readers though, the chiding asides sprinkled through the book about the state of writing and reading in the world today serving as goads to spur the reader on.
Like most great pieces of literature, it's not easy to describe this book. At its center lies the fictional city of Santa Teresa, a sprawling necropolis of factories and slums situated across the thin Arizona border in the Mexican state of Sonora. A perfect representation of the dark and cannibalistic side of capitalist consumption, this city is a charnel house that consumes with unceasing hunger those souls who venture to the border looking for a better life. An epidemic of brutal killings has plagued the city for over a decade, hundreds of women raped, murdered, and dumped on trash heaps as the citizenry has internalized the message fed them at every turning. This message, that people, like the goods churned out in the maquiladoras, are disposable, cheap, rarely missed and easily replaced, creates an oppressive atmosphere of dread that permeates the five interweaving stories that spin out from Santa Teresa like the spokes on a bicycle and perfectly brings to life the Baudelaire quote with which Bolano opens the book, "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom."
In a postscript the heirs to Bolano's estate write about how, in his last days, Bolano insisted that the book be split into its five parts and sold separately so as to provide for the future well-being of his offspring. Fortunately his heirs couldn't stand to see the book sundered like that and initially published it as a whole before issuing a second edition sold as a quintet. While each of the parts can be seen as a stand alone tale set in the same world, I think it is the incongruities between these differing parts of the story that help the whole thing congeal into its own large imbalanced creature. We have the critics, devoting their whole lives to promoting a reclusive author who may or may not have finally surfaced in Mexico while still playing out the familiar power dynamics of a three-way sexual relationship. We have the Chilean expat, Professor Amalfitano, who may be receiving telepathic messages from an ancient race of humans or may just be going mad with worry about the fate of his nubile young daughter in a city that eats its young. There is the aging black power activist turned magazine writer, venturing into Santa Teresa on his first assignment as a boxing reporter. There are the hapless police of Santa Teresa on the hunt for this woman killer whilst being flummoxed at all turns by corruption from above, poor training from below, and the sheer systemic nature of the murders. Then, finally, there's the reclusive author himself Benno Von Archimboldi, a former German soldier turned literary star who seals together all these disparate parts into its substantial whole. Separately these are all interesting and distracting vignettes, together they form like Voltron into a lumbering golem of greatness.
There are some faltering steps though, however small. Part 4, the part that focuses on the killings, gets particularly rough about two hundred pages through after about the 70-80th clinically stark description of the raped and murdered corpses that keep appearing in the illegal dumps of Santa Teresa. A friend of mine aptly described this section as the book's Everest and it did indeed prove difficult to summit, but well worth it in the end. Finally, there's also the unfinished nature of the book. Bolano died before finishing it, so things are never tied up neatly in a little bow for the reader. Still, leaving the story without a definitive conclusion fits well with what I've taken away from the book- that events just happen and that there's no rhyme or reason to most of them. That we would all like to think we are the protagonists in our own stories, but for all we know we're just bit players in another player's banal Sisyphean epic. If you can accept that not things need conclusions but are just as powerful simply for having existed even briefly then this is a book that will astound and inspire. ...more
There are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passedThere are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed on with loving grace and books that are clung to relentlessly for years. There are books of which we hear much yet never open and obscure books that catch our eye in a musty booksellers that swiftly become those items with which to cudgel our own friends. There are books that you forget minutes after reading and books that haunt your steps for years like a ghost of memory. Those are the books which I am always in search of, the always rare tomes that live on inside of you long after the final page is turned and inform your worldview for years, either consciously or not. Without realizing the import at the time, picking this lengthy read from atop my ever-growing to-read pile was the defining moment of my entire year.
Mario Vargas Llosa is an author of whom I had heard much, yet, for one ill-conceived reason or another, had never picked up any of his works and read them. All throughout my hodgepodge affair with Latin American authors there he has sat, waiting patiently as I endured the brilliant-but-meandering Garcia Marquez, the imaginative-yet-overblown Allende, the deliberately obtuse Bolano. Finally on a cold morning in February, as I cursed at my stacks of books purchased in haste and then left to linger for months, the spirit of inspiration that first moved me to acquire this structurally unsound stack of literature lit once more upon my shoulder and whispered at me to pick that beautiful red cover featured above from the neglected horde. Nothing has been the same since.
It is remarkably easy to dive deep into the world of post-Monarchist Brazil, populated by a vast coterie of the wretched and the ignorant and torn apart by the shifting winds of change and the turning of one epoch to another. Brazil has won its freedom from the monarchs of Portugal and is constructing its first civil government- with all the implements of the State which we take for granted now: marriage available for the first time outside of a church, a census to better know the nascent country's people and its needs, taxes to be paid for the creation of new roads and railways to better connect this country of nigh unfathomable size. Things that we, little more than a century later, take for granted (though we still seem to be having some delay with that whole Civil Marriage thing).
Not so in turn-of-the-century Bahia, a state midway along the coast known today primarily for its vast cacao plantations. In the backlands of this state wanders a man known as The Counselor preaching the Gospels to the illiterate, rebuilding churches fallen into disrepair and, everywhere he walks, showing love and acceptance for the most miserable and misshapen (both physically and mentally), some for the first time in their lives. He builds quite a dedicated following out of the dregs of society, winning over cangaceros (bandits), merchants, beggars and mutants as he travels for many years around the interior. Until one day he is shown a proclamation from the Republic informing the populace that civil marriage is now allowed and a census is to be taken regularly. Seeing this as a full assault on the church to which he is beholden he realizes that the faith is under assault by this new monster called the Republic, who must surely be the Antichrist in disguise. There is nothing to be done but to find some land and build a true city of god where his followers may live in peace. The fledgling state sees this as an open revolt to be quashed immediately lest other regions follow the example of the faithful of Canudos and proceeds to send out that true Antichrist, the Brazilian Army to ruthlessly put down this secessionist movement.
And so begins the tumultuous The War of the End of the World, based on true events but given poetic timbre by Vargas Llosa's pen. A cast of hundreds filters through, all with their histories and viewpoints, none purely evil and all conflicted by the demands this new age makes upon them. The beauty of Vargas Llosa's writing really comes through here as each, rebel and soldier, takes their minute upon the stage and illuminates very clearly the trying nature of these times. The doomed European idealist Gallileo Gall who believes quite fervently in both the ideal of Revolution and the disproved tenets of phrenology. The Dwarf, a member of a traveling circus fallen upon hard times. The near-sighted Journalist who plays the role of a faithless Job here, plagued by misfortune again and again. The retired cangacero Pajeu who has found grace in the Counselor's teachings and makes up for his bloody past by becoming a guerilla leader against the Army expeditions that assault Canudos again and again. The cast is vast but, so consummate is Vargas Llosa's skill, it never becomes overwhelming or difficult to keep straight.
Like the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa creates a whole world around the blessed miscreants in Canudos, but also improves upon it by pulling back on the scope of his ambitions and focusing instead on just those events that are germane to the story at hand. Where Garcia Marquez can tend to become overblown and distracted by whatever thoughts pass through his, admittedly admirable, head, Vargas Llosa uses his digressions to better tie his story together. This is performed so perfectly that when, near the end of the tale, a character says that "Canudos isn't a story; it's a tree of stories" you can't help but nod your head in agreement and marvel at Vargas Llosa's deft skill in crafting such an impeccable novel. Having been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature one can only hope that this brings his works to a new generation of bibliophiles for he is, without a doubt, one of the finest wordsmiths that I have ever had the privilege of reading....more
I'll admit it freely- I was unprepared for Cormac McCarthy. Sure, I've heard all the reviews: that he's bleak, despairing, has a dark and twisted worlI'll admit it freely- I was unprepared for Cormac McCarthy. Sure, I've heard all the reviews: that he's bleak, despairing, has a dark and twisted worldview, offers little hope for the future, et cetera ad nauseum. It's one thing to hear about this and to know that cracking a Cormac McCarthy book is not going to be an exercise in gumdrops and rainbows, it's a whole other thing to actually open a book and expose yourself to over 400 pages of brutally hard-living and events that shake your faith in humankind even as you marvel at the tenacity of the human spirit.
The second in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, you know within the opening pages that this is a far different beast of a book than the award-winning All The Pretty Horses. The protagonists are similar, both teen boys looking for adventure and meaning on the other side of the thin imaginary line that divides American soil from Mexican. Yet where John Grady Cole descended into Mexico to care for horses and search out love, The Crossing's Billy Parham is on a quest that makes Sisyphus' efforts look like a lark. After trapping a pregnant wolf that has been preying on his family's cattle, Billy finds he can't bring himself to kill her and instead sets forth to the mountains of Mexico to release her back into the wild.
Of course nothing goes as it should and by the time Billy meanders back across the border to the ruins of his life he is hardly the immature youth who first set out on the long road through unfriendly lands. Through a series of events that are better left unwritten here, Billy finds himself drawn to Mexico again and again as the years go by, each journey removing more and more of his ties to the world and rendering him a living ghost haunted by the choices he's made and the vicissitudes of fate that have left him bereft.
Much has been made of the brutality and violence in McCarthy's works and I would be remiss if I didn't mention something about them. Don't get me wrong, this book is violent. There are descriptions of extreme brutality that makes you wonder as to the mental stability of the author- a particularly gruesome description of a man's eyes being sucked from his skull by a perverse German still haunt me. It's not only human-on-human violence within these pages, though. Some of the most inexplicable and haunting acts are performed on animals- the wolf, a dog, Billy's horse- which does far more to bring home the nature of the harsh world that Billy exists in.
The interesting thing, for me, is that most of the violence happens off-stage and is made known to the reader only through the effects it has on his characters. You don't get the action, but the reaction. It was this remove from the actual violence that made it seem that much more hard-hitting. Even the violence that occurs on-stage is briefly described in favor of longer passages dealing with the characters recovery from these events. It is this, the focus on the consequences of violence rather than the violence itself, that sticks with the reader long after the last page has been turned.
McCarthy is a man who has ruminated at great lengths on the darker nature of humanity and it is laid out fantastically herein. Questions of faith in a god that lets such atrocities as described above occur, moments of extreme kindness and charity by the most dispossessed inhabitants of the Sonoran desert, the sheer random nature of some of the events- McCarthy has crafted a fable that cuts right to the heart of humanity and leaves you questioning whether original sin may actually be an affliction which we suffer. At the very least, he's earned a dedicated fan and I can not wait to read the concluding book of the trilogy....more
One of my favorite aspects of good science fiction is its ability to peer into its murky scrying bowl and divine absorbing pictures of possible futureOne of my favorite aspects of good science fiction is its ability to peer into its murky scrying bowl and divine absorbing pictures of possible futures based on current trends, cultural histories, and good old-fashioned chance happenings. Through such activities we are able to look at possible futures for ourselves and society and attempt to sway events accordingly. Unfortunately so much science fiction is written by white, comparatively affluent, straight men that this practice can lend itself to rather myopic ends. Thankfully there are writers like Ian McDonald that attempt to break free from these experiential constraints and create futures not rooted in Western modes of thought, but in the rich multicultural melting pots that much of the world calls home.
Over the course of his past three books, McDonald has created immaculately realized futures centered not in bustling American metropolises or pastoral English countrysides, but in the seamy fetid ports of the Amazonian headwaters, a parched post-climate change Indian subcontinent, and, here, the bazaars and tea houses of that great bordertown between Europe and Asia, Istanbul. While a strong argument could be made for the colonialist nature of this cultural appropriation (wherefore the genre writers of Turkey or Thailand? They must exist, how do I gain access to their works?) at the same time I feel that writers like McDonald and The Wind-Up Girl's Paolo Bacigalupi have found bold new directions in which to take science fiction. Beyond the boundaries of cyberpunk that even its esteemed godfather, William Gibson, found himself chaffing against, into a new and incredibly exciting frontier.
Set just after Turkey's entry into the European Union, The Dervish House is a richly detailed story that peers deep into the history of Istanbul and the swirling paths of migration, both physical and ideological, to piece together a story as detailed and tightly woven as any of the rugs one may find in the grand bazaar. The tale focuses on the residents of a single building, a former Dervish House that has been converted to more secular purposes for, much like Rome, everything in Istanbul is built atop the ruined foundations of another era. Within these walls live a great host of characters who, over the course of five days, unravel the web of connections that have unwittingly brought them all together and will, for better or worse, shape the future of the city perched along the shores of the Bosphorus.
It all begins when Nectec, the drug-addled brother of an upstart imam witnesses a suicide bombing on a tram and soon thereafter begins to be plagued with visions of djinn and spirits, leading him to believe that Allah has begun speaking to him. The tram blast is also witnessed by a young boy with a yen for adventure named Can, locked away in his apartment due to a mysterious illness that would cause his heart to explode if he's exposed to sudden noises, whose only exposure to the city is through the eyes of his shape-shifting Bit Bots, micro machines capable of becoming a monkey, bird, or rat, and who takes it upon himself to unravel the mystery of Nectec's visions and the nefarious forces that are hunting him. With the begrudging help of Georges Ferontinou, one of the last remaining members of what was once a large community of Greek immigrants with a checkered past of political activism, Can uncovers a plot to bury Turkey's hard-won secularism once and for all. Also within the walls of Adem Dede, the titular dervish house, lives Leyla Gultasli, a recent graduate of marketing school who is tasked with locating funding for a family-run nanotech start-up as well as recovering an ancient family heirloom, as well as Ayse Erkoc, an antiquities dealer who takes on the seemingly impossible task of locating a mellified man (a man mummified in honey) and her husband Adnan Sarioglu, the quintessential Young Turk with a wild plan to secure his fortune.
As in his previous two books, Istanbul itself is the main character here. Each chapter illuminates just a small portion of this teeming metropolis, leaving just enough in the shadows to let the reader know that several lifetimes could be spent before Istanbul reveals all of her mysteries. More than anything, such tantalizing gaps intrigue and draw the reader more deeply into the story and reveal why it is that McDonald may be the best science fiction writer currently putting pen to page. This was the last book I read in 2012 and may well be the best piece of scifi that I have read in this entire year. If you enjoy richly detailed views of possible futures, this book is not to be missed....more
For the past month or so I have been regrettably absent from the nets that I like to call my digital home. Real life demands have left me with preciouFor the past month or so I have been regrettably absent from the nets that I like to call my digital home. Real life demands have left me with precious little time to call my own and, more frightening still, the books that have found their way into my hands have not been inspiring me to take to the webs and shout my opinions into the ether with my usual gusto. Yes, I was in the grip of a mid-winter malaise second to none where everything I read, saw, or listened to just seemed either like it was trying too hard to be something that it wasn’t or was emotionally empty pap that entertained but left little behind in its passing. This was true until I finally cracked the spine on Sergei Lukyanenko’s fantastic Night Watch. Finally, a book that was everything I wanted to read at that moment: entertaining but thought-provoking, engaging while still making me pause to appreciate a particularly good passage. I knew I had been saving this series for a rainy day for a reason.
On face this is a standard tale of good vs. evil as performed by a motley collection of magicians, shape-shifters, vampires and werewolves trying to preserve an ancient truce between the forces of Light and Darkness. The keepers of this truce are the titular Night Watch, agents of the Light who watch over the night to make sure that the balance of power is maintained, and the Day Watch, agents of the Dark who oversee the sunlit hours. Anton Gorodetsky is a mid-grade Light Magician working as an analyst with the Night Watch, new to field work, who quickly becomes an important pawn in the latest scheme by the Day Watch to tilt the balance of power in their favor.
A familiar scenario but for the uniquely Russian ability to interject large amounts of ethical ambiguity and age old moral dilemmas (see: Kant- Utilitarianism) into a novel without it seeming heavy-handed or needlessly digressive. As Anton is drawn deeper into the secrets of the Watch, he is forced again and again to make extremely difficult decisions and manipulate events in ways that go against the core values of the Light but, as Gesar, the ancient magician who heads the Moscow offices of the Night Watch, likes to remind Anton- it’s all about the net effect. As long as the amount of good created by an action outweighs the possible harm, the Night Watch is able to act with a free hand. With as vague a definition as this, it is no wonder that the Light has been inadvertently responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century and Anton comes to realize that the Day Watch does just as much to hold back the ambitions of the Light as his cadre stops the Dark. Realizing that he is a bit player in a far larger show than he first thought, Anton tries as best he can to break out of the predictable paths that his superiors are relying on him to follow, which leads to a fair amount of madness in the streets of post-Soviet Moscow.
In Night Watch, Lukyanenko has crafted that rarest of gems- a story that manages to both thrill and excite with non-stop action and grand descriptions of magical powers while also forcing the reader to wonder what they would do in that situation. If one had the ability to become an Other, would you return from the Twilight as an agent of the Light or an agent of the Dark? Could you license vampires to feed upon the innocent even if it helps preserve a precarious peace? Could you take it upon yourself to rewrite a person’s destiny to push them closer toward the Light, or does that smack too much of compelling goodness (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one)? These are the thoughts that the book left me with upon finishing and I could not help but turn immediately to the sequel for another serving of some of the best story-telling I’ve read all year.