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The Books I Read in January 2017

I’m not happy with my January reading.

I wanted to start the year reading more literary fiction. I wanted to start the year off with a Margaret Atwood binge. Nadine Gordimer got in on the binge. I wanted to try Louise Erdrich. And I decided that I finally needed to complete a T.C. Boyle novel (after failing to finish Water Music and The Road to Wellville). ( I also added a few other books here and there. Too many honestly).

I started off with LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I read fifty pages. The novel started strong. I liked what I read. But gradually, an emotional dissonance in the narrative and a sojourn in 1839 (compared to the 1990s setting) threw me out of the novel.

From that defeat, I moved on to Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This is a difficult novel about a young woman who has devoted herself to her parents’ political struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. I really should try this novel again when I am in a mood for difficult and great literary fiction.

As far as Margaret Atwood is concerned, I tried to read Cat’s Eye for the second time (and was not into it) and The Handmaid’s Tale (which I will not get into- not a fan of dystopia).

I also tried Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes and really did not like it. Which is a shame.

As far as literary fiction is concerned, I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come. It is a powerful story about violence and what drives people to violence. I would give it a solid four stars. But the novel is not without flaws. I feel that Sarah, whose story starts out strong, falters as the narrative progresses, becoming little more than an appendage to Adam/ Colter’s story.

I also reread Wislawa Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand. I first read this selected collection over ten years ago and loved it. But this past reread has cooled my passion for this collection of poems. To say I am frustrated should be obvious.

The problem, I am sure, is that I allowed a form of unintentional peer pressure to create a desire to binge read too much literary fiction. Which ultimately put me off of the whole thing.

In addition to the above books, I also read three comic book volumes. I first read Midnighter volume 1 (“Out”) by Steve Orlando. The book was okay. I enjoyed it. But the art is disappointing, the narrative is disjointed (and not in a good way), and the final confrontation with the villain is beyond disappointing (I expected so much more from Prometheus). I later read Thor volume 1 (“Goddess of Thunder”) by Jason Aaron. I  really liked this volume. I am sold on Jane Foster as Thor. I want to see what happens to her. But, I feel Thor is too good too fast. She can do things her predecessor never did without any training. And every damn villain is a straw man misogynist. I also read Doctor Strange volume 1 again by Jason Aaron. I hated this comic book. Aaron not only rips himself off (the plot is basically Doctor Strange’s “God Butcher” arc) but also attempts and fails to capture Loki magic by imitating Gillen and Ewing. And the art is terrible.

Finally, as I wandered around my favorite library, I checked out Nick Harkaway’s  Angelmaker  and James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. I hated Angelmaker. And fell in love with Leviathan’s Wake on my second attempt.

I love this book now. Leviathan’s Wake is wonderfully written and exciting and enjoyable. I fell in love with the characters. I wanted to see them succeed. I yearned to see the mystery of Julie Mao solved. A solid four and a half stars.

There are some flaws. Miller is, perhaps, too much of a hard boiled dick stereotype (down to falling in love with the subject of his investigation). Julie Mao is a woman in a refrigerator who I feel could probably have taken over Miller’s role. But on the whole, I really like the novel.

So that is what I read last month. Again, I’m not happy with it. I want to read more. And finish more books. And like more books for that matter.

Hopefully February will be a better month.

 

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A Report from The Friends of the Library Booksale

Every year,the Friends of the Waco-McLennan County Library hold a booksale. My attendance at the sale has been sporadic, but I’ve loved going when I’ve managed to make it. This is what I’ve picked up.

Four books for my nieces. Don’t know if they’ll like them, but I’m hopeful.

Of the books I had on my list here is what I managed to find.

The Book of Skaith by Leigh Brackett. Yes! I was hoping for a Brackett. Of course that also means the library no longer has their copy.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King. Yes. I fucking love this book.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was hoping for some Amber, but I’ve been dying to read this, as well.

I am bummed that I couldn’t find any Tanith Lee or find copies of The Neverending Story and The Phantom Toll Booth. Maybe next time.

In addition to what was on my list, I also picked up these interesting books.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I guess this means I can take back the book I checked out of the library!

The Beast Master by Andre Norton. Damn, I forgot about her.

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds. I loved his Chasm City. And I need more science fiction. 

The Black Company by Glen Cook. I love this book.

The Door into Fire by Diane Duane. I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. I had to jump on it.

And finally, Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber. I am rather fond of Fafhrd  and the Gray Mouser. 

No manga, unfortunately. And not a good selection of art instructional books. But I did wait till the third day, so who knows what I missed.

All in all, a very good haul.

I’m Back! With a Shopping List?

The original version of this post was going to be me writing about some of my projects. However, I really should write a disclaimer post for all the posts where I discuss my writing. It should be patently obvious that everything I right, all my decisions regarding my writing, are subject to change. 

The second version of my return post featured a rant. A rant about how crappy some pop literary criticism can be. But I calmed down and realized that I need to take the time to really read those essays rather than reject them too soon.

So, I’ve settled for writing a shopping list. I’m going book shopping this weekend at the Friends of the Library Booksale (I’m also planning on hitting Golden’s, Hastings, and (probably) Amazon). So, what’s on the list?

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I couldn’t find the time to read the book when I checked it out of the library, but I really, really want it. 

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. What the fuck took me so long to read this book? It is fucking great! One of the best children’s books I’ve ever read.

Anything by Leigh Brackett. I’ve just discovered her and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. 

From Tanith Lee, I’m looking for The Storm Lord and The White Serpent from The Wars of Vis as well as the first three books from Tales from the Flat Earth.

Anything from Michael Moorcock. I love his work.

Triton (or anything) from Samuel R. Delaney.

Anything not Conan from Robert E. Howard. I have all of the Conan tales.

I finally want a book by Clark Ashton Smith.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diane Wynne Jones.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s science fiction (unless I’ve got it all). Not a fan of her fantasy work.

I’m also looking for more Zelazny. And science fiction in general.

On the manga front, I’ve got a psycho list with a lot of titles. 

Naruto, Fairy Tail, Bleach, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, Death Note, Pluto, Blue Exorcist, Nabari no Ou, etc.

I’m also wanting anything by CLAMP. Plus, I want to get around to checking out seinen manga.

That’s about it. I’ll let you all know how things look after I go shopping later this weekend.

Now, I’ve got a disclaimer to write.

31 Days of Post (2) Day 26: Too Many Books?

Right now, I have seventeen books checked out of the library. You heard that right. Seventeen. Yesterday, I checked out twelve from the library. I’m simply shocked that my library bag managed to hold so many. 

So, what all do I have? Well, here’s a list:

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I’m really looking forward to reading this before I have to return it next weekend.

The Book of Marvels by Richard Haliburton. I’m equally looking forward to checking this book out.

Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. I’ve read these before and am looking forward to reading them again.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I’ve read bits of it when I did a paper on Morgan Le Fay years ago. Finally going to read it.

The Space Opera Renaissance. I really need to read the whole thing. 

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances Gies, A People’s History of Science by Clifford D. Conner, and A Short History of Scientific Ideas to 1900 by Charles Joseph Singer. These three books are all for research for one of my projects.

And finally. I have volumes eleven through eighteen of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. 

Yep, that’s a lot. 

And this is why I love the library. I love the fact that I can check out so many books and not have to buy them. Especially if they are research books that turn out to be useless. 

That said, I do want to buy Tsubasa. Damn I love that series. And maybe The Neverending Story.

 

Theory: Influence and Interpretation

It is not uncommon for some writers to utilize a theory to influence or provide the foundation for their work. The best example, I think, would be China Mieville. His Marxism is clearly a foundation to his work. Now, it is sometimes problematic when an author’s politics, religion, or pet theory so heavily influences a work that the work is either unintelligible for those unfamiliar or ejects readers who do not agree,

This post is aimed, hopefully, at exploring the role of theory as influence and questioning the need to fully understand an author’s influences. Personally, unless you are a scholar or academic, I don’t think a reader needs to be expert in any or all theoretical systems a writer uses. But, I do think that one should try to gain a good foundation of the various theories out there. Both to understand theoretical frameworks as well as to expand one’s own interpretive framework.

The Bakker Fracas among other recent issues has forced me to think harder about the role of theory in speculative fiction. I am unfamiliar with much of Bakker’s theoretical basis. I’m working on the assumption that he bases much of his writing in an evolutionary psychological framework. Furthermore, his citation of Jonathan Haidt’s work places him in a specific camp of evo. psyc.  I know a little bit about evo. psych. I flirted with literary darwinism a few years back and determined that it does not make a good theory of literature. I have not, however, gone into much depth.

With that in mind, I decided to read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. And I did not complete the first chapter before putting it down. And people say Derrida is a nightmare. . .

So, I’m wondering if the whole Bakker Fracas is nothing more than a competing theoretical frames. Bakker has gone on record that he dislikes the literary establishment. A Cracked Moon utilizes a rhetoric that is highly reminiscent of oppositional discursive tactics deployed by feminist and postcolonial influenced writers and critics. Makes me wonder. . .

As I mentioned in a comment on another blog today, I had an uncomfortable experience last year during round one of the Great Grimdark War. This event illustrated the need for the Russ Pledge to me. I do need to read more fantasy by women. And I do need to reacquaint myself with feminist literary theory.

Given the state of speculative fiction today, it is clear that some knowledge of feminist and postcolonial theory is very necessary. When my goal was getting a doctorate in English Literature, I was strongly interested in critical theory. But, I only have a smattering of it. And it has been years since I’ve read those works. A refresher is necessary, thankfully I still have my critical anthologies.

In some respects, I wish some of the more academic writers working in the genre would get together and work on a theoretical primer. This may increase understanding and give a common foundation when these debates rear up every few weeks.

It is important to learn about other cultures, other ways of seeing the world. But it is also incredibly hard. Maybe it is even impossible to fully understand another person, another culture, another gender, another sexuality. In the end, however, one must ask this question: Is it not worth it to try, even if one is likely to fail miserably?

 

 

Epics and Dystopias in a Tossed Salad

Okay, this post is going to be rather scattered as there is a lot to cover today in criticism and news/ announcements.

For the past few weeks, there has been an extended debate over nihilism and morality in fantasy, a dearth of definitions, and questioning who gets left out of the discussion. I’ve been interested in the debate (even wading into) and I want to get some of my thoughts down.

After a lot of thought, I think that when it comes to “realistic” or “nihilistic” (would some one please actually define what you mean when you use it!) a more appropriate term would be “dystopic.” A dystopia is a fantastical place where life is a mess- it is brutal, cruel, sadistic, depressing, etc. TV Tropes also uses the term “crapsack world” for it. I think this works better than either realism or nihilism. Realism makes one think of mundane fantasy while nihilism is just a pejorative with little real force. A dystopic fantasy is, I think, the best descriptor (until a better one comes along).

I’ve also been intrigued by Matthew David Surridge’s essay from last week trying to define “epic” fantasy. I agree with parts of his arguments, but I’m not totally with him. I think a good definition is “a work of fantastic literature that 1) Features a prominent ‘great conflict’ against a great, undeniable evil 2) usually lasts for over a thousand pages either in a single volume or across several and 3) typically, but not necessarily, being set in a secondary world that is annoyingly like Medieval Europe.” Now, not all of the definition has to be met although a consensus is that part one should be met.

Postmodernism has been brought into the debate, which I feel is problematic to say the least. Personally, I don’t trust postmodernism that much, especially with fantasy. I like some of the stylistic innovations that postmodernism has brought, but I don’t think that the wider philosophy of postmodernism is all that helpful in appreciating or understanding fantasy. What I mean is that often times postmodernism reflects on the text as an artificial construct but this, I think, damages the enjoyment of fantasy. And challenging everything before anything has been set is rather like knowing Cthullu. Enough of this.

I just finished read Naruto vol. 49, and I am debating whether I want to do a review or tackle it when I do my Naruto analysis project. I think I may do that then. I also attempted Brent Weeks’s novel The Way of Shadows and did not make it too far (only about 117). Not impressed with that one. Next is Tanith Lee, Joe Abercrombie, and Glenn Cook. As for my own reading projects for the blog, I’m either going to do Naruto in the coming weeks or do a Clark Ashton Smith project. Or I could do both!

Enough for now. I need to get to writing.

Bas-Lag Reading Project: The Scar- Part Two: Salt

It’s been almost a week now since my first post. As I mentioned earlier, I should finish The Scar by tomorrow. And I’ll finish my postings over the next two weeks. Baring anything interesting happening. Now, onto my post.

The second part of The Scar is devoted, by and large, to orienting the reader to the city of Armada and the hints of something bigger going on, of some conspiracy. This second aspect I will deal with in part three.

“Salt” refers to Salt, the language of the pirates and, by default, the lingua franca of Armada. I use italics when referring to the floating pirate city because that is the standard when discussing ships. And that is what Armada really is, a city ship, a city composed of pirated and pirate ships.

Mieville’s use of the name, armada, comes from what it is, an armada of ships. Now, he could have chosen any other name for a collection of ships, but Fleet, Flotilla, Squadron, etc. really does not have the same emotive power as Armada.

There are two reasons, I think why Mieville decided to work with pirates for this novel. For one thing, pirates have been, for most of human history, among the most democratic groups of people. A ship’s captain ruled only by the sufferance of the crew. If the captain lost the confidence of the crew, he was out- either demoted or killed. Compared to the harshness of organized navy life, being a pirate is a good alternative. And the second reason is that pirates are cool.

Armada, I think, challenges and interrogates the idea of pirates as democratic. Can the direct democracy of the ship be applied to a city state, like Armada? Depends where in the city one lives.

The city is divided into a number of autonomous districts called ridings. The most important and dominate is Garwater, led by the “benevolent autocrats” called the Lovers. Their rule is by the whipping post, a traditional maritime punishment. Other important ridings include Dry Fall (led by the vampir called the Brucolac), Curhouse, Clockhouse, Jhour, etc.

Bellis is an unwilling citizen/ subject of Garwater. She is assigned to work in the great library of Armada called Grand Gears Library (located in Clockhouse). For much of the first third of the section, she is highly depressed and resentful. It is here that perhaps the most emotionally powerful defense of New Crobuzon is mounted by Bellis during her dinner with Johannes. Here, Bellis reveals why she loves her city despite the fact that it is for most people a shit hole, a nightmare. And it is here where Johannes turns the tables on her and argues for Armada and the people who will find a better life with the pirates rather than with either New Crobuzon or Nova Esperium.

Despite Bellis’s recognition that she needs to know more about her city, she still desires to go home, that Armada will never be home. In this, she meets an ally in Silas Fennec, or Simon Fench. Silas is in many ways just like her, except that he is a spy who seemingly cannot abide to remain in one place too long. The two bond over their love of their city (and desire to protect it from the grindylow of the Gengris (which will come later).

In addition to Silas, Bellis interacts with Shekel, the cabin boy. Living with Tanner Sack and in love with the older Angevine, Shekel goes to Bellis in the hopes that she can help teach him how to read. This is, perhaps, the most touching and human part of the narrative. It allows Mieville to explore the beauty and mystery of reading from the perspective of one who has been illiterate for the first seventeen or eighteen years of one’s life. This humanizes Bellis and paints her in a far more sympathetic light. And Shekel continues to act as the “wonderment” perspective. The scene of Shekel in the children’s section, alone, discovering the power of words is just amazing.

And for Tanner, this section explores his speedy adaptation to the city has he commits himself to Garwater and Armada. He does this by further Remaking himself into an amphibious being. This places him into a liminal and powerful position. As well as conveniently giving him a role to play later on in the book.

The section is really all about Armada. Giving texture, substance, and experience of the pirate city. But it also has one powerful ending as Bellis discovers what the Lovers are planning to do. . .

 

 

Theories and Definitions

I have three The Scar posts waiting for editing, and I’m hoping to have them out over the next two weeks (of course I should finish the novel itself by the end of this week). But this whole debate about “realism” in fantasy just keeps dragging me in. Hopefully, this will be my last word and I can go back to talking about Mieville.

What do I think is going on? Part of the problem is certainly a lack of definitions, of a consensus of what is meant when we throw around terms like “realism” and “fantasy.” My definition comes from my edition of Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature. In that book, “realism” is defined as a genre that attempts to explore middle class life in the nineteenth century. It is highly mimetic and emphasizes character and psychology over plot. From the late nineteenth century, realism has largely, in various permutation, influenced most of mainstream literature.  One can say that there are elements of realism in fantasy, as I said in various comments, that verisimilitude and character are important (read the writing blogs that I read). The idea is to make the secondary world as believable as possible so that the readers are not lost at the beginning (or at the first sign of the fantastic).

But I think that “realism” and “realistic” are being misused when other terms could be more appropriate. I posited that Comedy and Tragedy (as Aristotle and the Elizabethans understood it) and Northrop Frye’s theories might be better terms to explain the issues at hand. But I am not so sure right now (of course, they do work to explain fantasy in general).

Taking a cue from science fiction, I would like to posit the notion of “mundane” fantasy. Mundane fantasy, like mundane science fiction, is about secondary worlds in which little or no magic exists. And the magic, the supernatural, and the fantastic, might just be illusions or parlor tricks if it exists at all. And if we are talking about this mundane fantasy, then I agree with the naysayers, I don’t like the idea of it.

Now, if we are talking about the new violent, explicit strain in fantasy, I think that this strain has existed since Howard and the pulps (just not as explicit- hell read the old epics). I would posit you to take a look at SF Signal’s sword and sorcery mind meld from a few months ago. What we are seeing is, perhaps, a diffusion of sword and sorcery influence on the wider body of the fantasy genre. But if you still are not convinced or happy with that, then how about we posit a style rather than a genre- the “brutal” style of fantasy.

Now with this in mind, I think that for a lot of those who dislike Martin, Morgan, and Bakker for the explicitness of their work, you can rage about the brutal style and not bring in clunky old realism. And if it is a lack of fantasy, then tear apart the mundane secondary genre.

I won’t say categorically that there will be no more posts on this issue. But for now, I want to get back to Mieville. However, I do see the potential for a new series of posts where I hash out an analysis of fantasy. Unfortunately, that means I still can’t get rid of my monstrous theory anthologies! Augh!

What do You Mean by “Realism” in “Fantasy?”

As an early aside, I have parts two and three of my Bas-Lag Reading Project: The Scar awaiting editing. I’ll try to get them up next week.

But for now, I want to discuss a flurry of posts over the past week or so that has caught my attention. Brian Murphy over at Blackgate’s excellent website posted “Why Realism does not Equate to Adult (or even Good) Fantasy.” I read that post and didn’t get it, unsure of what Murphy was trying to say because I don’t think he really proved his case. Now I think Michal Woljcik of One Las Sketch and Al Harron of The Blog that Time Forgot make far better cases. Still, I am not convinced that there is a problem.

I agree with some of the comments that argue that the “new” “realist” strain of fantasy is a reaction against the dominant/ dominating presence of Tolkein’s clones. Fantasy didn’t have a New Wave like Science Fiction did in the sixties. The New Wave was a loose group of younger writers who brought new methods, styles, subjects, etc. to a genre that needed a breath of fresh air. Fantasy needs a breath of fresh air too, if you ask me.

In this maybe revolution where steampunk, new weird, sword and sorcery, mythpunk, etc. come to more prominence (or too much prominence), there will be fights fought. Battles waged in a Bloomian contest of young writers trying to overthrow their elders. Tolkein is the one of the Two Towers of Fantasy, Barad-ur in fact. As many of the new crop of writers come into their own, they will attack Tolkein because that is how it is done. While being influenced, one rebels for originality.

Yes a lot of the “new” fantasy is only new in that it is violent, sexy, dirty, gritty, and largely dystopic. And yes Howard and Smith did that over seventy years ago. And they did it damn well.

But who has actually read Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith or C.L. Moore besides the fans, the readers willing to take the time to scour old shelves in used bookstores for treasures? There is a Renaissance brewing, but that is a recent and still tentative thing.

Most people read Tolkein and Lewis and maybe some others (and Rowling too). And then they drop fantasy for other things- “real” literature (like anyone reads that), video games, etc. So when an example of the grittier fantasy is successful (particularly when it is being adapted- A Game of Thrones) then it is declared “one of a kind,” “original,” and all that drivel because the writers are not as informed as they should be. The whole body of Harry Potter criticism can tell you that.

But that said, I like the grittier fantasy, the violent fantasy, the dystopic fantasy. I like Howard, Smith, Mieville, Bakker, and Morgan. Yeah, of the three recent writers, only Mieville can claim to be original in his work.  But so what?

So, in the end, I predict that by the time this gritty, bloody revolution is over, that we won’t be returning to the boring old Tolkein clone.

 

Bas-Lag Reading Project: The Scar- Part One: Channels

And now we come to the second part of my Bas-Lag Reading Project. The Scar is widely praised as being the best of Mieville’s Bas-Lag books. To be honest, I didn’t like it that much the first time I read it. But when I gave it another go a year or so ago, I fell in love with it as much as I did Perdido Street Station. Like my series of posts on Perdido Street Station, I will do a post concerning each part of the novel and focusing on a few things that catch my eye.

The Scar is similar in structure to Perdido in that the strange prologue and interludes continue. However, this prologue and the interludes are different. The prologue and the first interlude seemingly have no bearing on the narrative at present (of course that changes towards the end). And Bellis narrates the second interlude as she is introduced to Armada for the first time.

The first part is entitled “Channels,” and it obviously means a channel for adventure, for movement. This first part is buildup, a channel that leads to the main narrative. The main characters are introduced and their immediate circumstances investigated.

Bellis Coldwine is not a bitch. Yes she comes off as a bitch, but she is not one. In the world of New Crobuzon, of the vaguely Victorian culture that exists there, a woman has to be harsh to succeed in life. This is pointed out as her books, the ones she wrote, are written by a “B. Coldwine.”

And it is arguable that Bellis is acting in such a manner because she is being forced to do something she does not want to do- leave New Crobuzon. For those in the know, Bellis is the ex-lover of Isaac before Lin. As a part of that circle, the Militia of New Crobuzon is actively looking at her, even if she had nothing to do with Isaac’s escapades. She loves New Crobuzon and does not wish to leave it. And she intends to return, hopefully after a year.

I personally like Bellis as a character. She has a dry wit and way of approaching things that makes her plight all the more meaningful. She is unlikeable and she herself causes most of the troubles that befall her. But that is what makes her an excellent character.

She is joined by two other character who get point of view time- the Remade Tanner Sack and the cabin boy Shekel. Tanner (and to an extent Shekel) act as a counter balance to Bellis. I can imagine that Mieville wanted another character that bared some resemblance to Isaac or a more Mievillean character. Shekel is, I think, more of a wonderment character. His youth imparts a sense of excitement and passion that is infectious.

I like all three characters. They do not sound alike and each of their motivations are different (even though Tanner and Shekel have to wait until part two to get more character development).

 

Another thing that fascinated me in part one is Salkrilkator, the capital city of the Cray Commonwealth. Even though the city is only explored in two chapters, the city is amazing in its too brief appearance. The Cray are human lobsters. Human torsos on lobster bodies, like a centaur. There are two parts of the city, a smallish above water quarter for humans and other air breathers, and a larger underwater city that serves the Cray (and other water breathers).

The Cray of Salkrilkator has good relations to New Crobuzon with the later city clearly being the dominant in the relationship. It is New Crobuzon who gave Salkrilkator the ability to industrialize (given that steam power does not work underwater). How weak of a position Salkrilkator has in relation to New Crobuzon is not explored, but it seems that even a merchant captain can threaten two members of the ruling elite over the loss of the Sorghum.

 

To be honest, I wish more had been done with Salkrilkator, but the Cray city is only a dry run for the pirate city.