Thursday, January 2, 2020

Books Read in 2019, Part 2

Part the second!


Severance (Ling Ma)

This is a novel about surprisingly inconsequential actions set against a consequential background.  Candace Chen is an immigrant.  Born in Fujian, China, she comes to Salt Lake City as a child, young enough that she is culturally more of a first-generation American caught between the Old World experiences of her parents and the New World she grows up in than the immigrant she actually is.  Like many rootless people she drifts to New York City where she gets a job overseeing the production of Bibles for a specialty publishing company – a job that is both important to the company and ultimately meaningless, like most jobs today, a mindless but well-paid repetition of tasks.  She finds a boyfriend.  She starts a photoblog.  She misses her (now deceased) parents.  And all of this is set against the Shen Fever epidemic – a disease that, like Candace and Ling Ma herself, starts in China and comes to America.  It ultimately attacks the brain, leaving its victims little more than zombies rotely repeating their daily routine until their bodies give out – not all that different from her job, really, which is probably a point Ling Ma is making.  In alternating chapters you get Candace’s story before the epidemic in New York and after, as she and a small group of survivors make their way west.  They loot houses of the fevered for supplies, and when they find some still living, still shuffling through their empty routines, they kill them as a mercy, which is also probably a point Ling Ma is making.  It’s a well-written story, but a curiously muffled one – for all the trappings and events of a post-apocalyptic novel it never really feels tense the way such novels usually do, and, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11, the events that would ordinarily serve as dramatic high points get moved by fairly quietly.  There is probably a point to that as well. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (KJ Parker)

Orhan is an outsider – a “milkface” among the “blueskins” of the Robur, a man who has risen to a position of some rank (in his case, a colonel in the Empire’s engineering corps) despite the misfortune of continuing to exist in the wrong color.  He’s a con artist with both brains and heart – charming, morally flexible, rueful in his assessment of his life and prospects, dedicated to personal advancement, petty revenge on the Empire, and the protection of his troops from bureaucratic assaults, able to mix with any level of society, and pretty much the dictionary definition of attitude problem.  But when the Imperial forces are quickly and easily destroyed by an unknown enemy and all that is left is a frantic defense of a city under siege, it is Orhan who rises to the occasion and orchestrates the resistance.  The City – clearly modeled on Justinian’s Byzantium, with its color-coded factions (Greens and Blues here), Greek- and Latin-derived names, and general centrality to a crumbling empire under siege – is in trouble, surrounded by forces that are, mysteriously, waiting for someone else to show up before they attack.  When that someone does, the plot gets thicker – and from there it’s a flat-out dash of twists and turns to the end.  Parker – the pen name that Tom Holt uses for his more serious and less comic works – is a phenomenal writer whose plotting is both intricate and compelling and whose characters spring to life as people you’d find interesting but are probably glad not to live with. 

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (Ian Buruma and Avashai Margalit)

Every once in a while the library down at Home Campus weeds out part of its collection and puts the books it no longer wants out on carts for anyone to take.  I found this slim volume on one of those carts and it looked interesting.  It didn’t really turn out to be in the end, but it was short and it was worth a shot.  The main idea behind the book is the titular “Occidentalism” – a sort of mirror version of the Orientalism that views the East as exotic, inscrutable, and desirable.  Occidentalism, in contrast, views the West as something evil to be opposed, fought, or in some cases even eradicated.  It opens with 1940s Japanese thinkers celebrating the supposed organic wholeness of traditional Japanese society against the mechanistic emptiness of the United States in particular and the West in general, and then it marches through such topics as radical Islam and “the Russian soul.”  The enemies of the West are often, it seems, Westerners.  It’s hard to say what the main point of this book was, having now finished it.  That seems a missed opportunity.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Vol. 1 (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

I’m not much for listening to podcasts because when I do listen that’s all I end up doing and eventually I have to go do other things.  But Welcome to Night Vale is a wonderful show – A Prairie Home Companion as written by HP Lovecraft, all about a quiet little town in the desert where all the conspiracy theories are true – and when they started publishing the podcasts as books, with each episode as a chapter, I figured that was for me.  I read the first two volumes a couple of years ago, but since volumes three and four came out this year I figured I’d go through the lot of them in one swoop rather than try to remember what had come before.  Plus, each chapter is introduced by one of the creators or perhaps one of the voice actors and you get some additional insight as to what they were trying to do.  In this first volume the general foundations are laid.  The calm reassuring voice of Cecil, our window into Night Vale with his community radio broadcasts.  Perfect, beautiful Carlos, the new scientist in town and Cecil’s great crush.  The Dog Park that no citizen of Night Vale is allowed to enter or even know about.  The Great Glow Cloud that drops dead animals from the sky and eventually runs for the school board.  The eldritch horrors of the City Council, the radio station management, and the hooded figures in the Dog Park.  The Sheriff’s Secret Police.  Hiram McDaniels – a 5-headed dragon wanted for insurance fraud who eventually becomes a mayoral candidate.  The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House.  Old Woman Josie and the angels who live with her despite City Council’s insistence that angels do not exist.  The hellbeast that Cecil insists on calling a cat hovering four feet in the air in the radio station men’s room.  Each episode is a small slice of life in Night Vale and includes both the traffic report (usually some kind of rumination on strange things) and the weather (always a song).  If you’re looking for a place to visit that somehow manages to be both entertaining and weirder than our current reality, you will find no better home than Night Vale.

The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volume 2
(Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

In season two of Welcome to Night Vale they shifted from simple stories about the town and its off-kilter daily life to longer arcs, such as the ongoing mayoral race between the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House and Hiram McDaniels, the attempted takeover of Night Vale by Strexcorp, and the ongoing saga of Intern Dana, who went into the Dog Park and ended up trapped in an alternate dimension with a blinking lighthouse on top of a mountain, a large army of winged soldiers, and a cell phone whose battery never ran out and that always got wifi so she could call and text Cecil.  There are still daily life stories and the town remains the haven of unbridled weirdity that it always has been, and the commentaries before each chapter continue to give insight.  One of the themes of the commentaries is the increasing popularity of the show, which hit a much wider audience this year.  And deservedly so.

The Buying of Lot 37: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volume 3 (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

Most of the weirdness of literature, movies, or television comes from watching normal people doing bizarre things, but with Welcome to Night Vale it comes from watching bizarre people trying to do normal things.  In this season we continue to follow the bent and twisted denizens of Night Vale through the aftermath of a mayoral election, the building of the new opera house, the ups and downs of Cecil and Carlos, and other things that with more mainstream characters might be quotidian but with these characters feels like a porcupine trying on a three-piece suit.  It’s all marvelously constructed and written with a flair for the epigrammatic, though it does tend to blend together in an immersive sort of way if you read it all at once.  But Carlos is home after a year in the desert with the roving army of winged soldiers, and all is as well as it gets in Night Vale, really.

Who’s a Good Boy?: Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volume 4 (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

And so the extant volumes of Welcome to Night Vale in book form come to an end with the conclusion of a number of long story arcs.  You can see the general framework of Welcome to Night Vale growing and maturing, as Cecil increasingly becomes a three-dimensional and unreliable narrator rather than simply our portal into this world, as Desert Bluffs becomes more central to the story, and as the writers take on more pointed and more substantive issues rather than just reveling in joyous weirdity.  The trial of Hiram McDaniels, for example, is a fairly remarkable thing in a story like this one.  The commentaries before each episode add a lot to your understanding, and the whole thing ends with you wanting to find the next book, but that won’t be for a while.  Alas.

The Two of Swords (KJ Parker)

Volume 1

The war between the Eastern and Western Empires has been going on for so long now that nobody really remembers why they’re still fighting.  Something to do with honor, perhaps.  Or revenge. Quite possibly nothing but habit.  And throughout this book KJ Parker (i.e. Tom Holt being serious rather than bittersweet comic) slowly introduces us to a wide variety of characters, each of whom gets a large section from their perspective that advances the story forward just by that much.  Teucer, the small-village archer about to get sucked into the war.  His buddy Musen, a born thief and a craftsman – a member of the Lodge.  Telemon, an agent of the Lodge with a talent for assassination.  The brothers Forza and Senza Belot – the two greatest generals in history and it’s just a shame they’re on opposite sides trying to kill each other and, as a byproduct, perhaps win the war.  The Emperor Glaucus, a scholar and collector.  Daxin, the Grand Logothete of Blemya – a buffer state between the two empires and currently on the short end of a war against the desert nomads.  Oida, the second-best musician in the empires and perhaps the only person who can travel freely between the two warring sides.  Procopius, the guy better than Oida.  And so on – the story gets wider and more complex with each character.  Each section was previously published as a novella and is here collected in this first of three volumes.  The war goes well or not, the characters do well or not, and ultimately – as the reader slowly comes to suspect – it’s all just clearing the way for the real conflict to follow.  Parker’s novels are always a treat to read – well written, intricately plotted, and immersive, with sharply drawn and complex characters (there are no real villains though they often do terrible things, for example) – and he does a surprisingly good job of juggling all of the separate pieces, though I’m glad I’m reading them all at once instead of trying to keep track of them over the long, drawn-out publication schedule of the original novellas.

Volume 2

The war gets deeper, the world gets grimmer, and the lead characters keep changing.  In KJ Parker's bleak civil war between the Eastern and Western Empires nobody really seems to know who's winning.  Forza Belot may or may not be dead, his brother Senza is sort of but not really besieging the capital of the opposing empire (even though the government itself fled to an island fortress beforehand), and the Lodge is doing what the Lodge does, which is never really clear even to high ranking members of the Lodge, whose identities are also not clear if you go up high enough.  There is a long subplot about stealing a deck of cards, which makes sense in context, but mostly this is a story about the characters of men and women in a brutal and chaotic world not of their own making.  Every chapter shifts POV to another character - sometimes a Lodge member, sometimes a mercenary soldier, sometimes the thief trying to steal the cards, sometimes a different mercenary charged with kidnapping a woman another character considers valuable – and the plot builds slowly around that.  Parker is a brilliant writer whose sentences follow one on the other with ease and joy even as his world grows darker and more violent with every page.

Volume 3

This is the volume where we find out who the main characters really were – Telemon and Oida, for those of you not paying attention as you were reading the first two books – and what happens when a utopian secret society has the power, money, and influence to destroy an invincible empire in order to remake the world.  Hint: it’s not pretty.  Told from the ground up, this is more of a character study than a novel – many things happen, of course, and Parker’s writing makes you eager to get to the next sentence, next chapter, and next volume – but in the end it’s hard to say whether anyone has changed or not.  Parker does wrap things up fairly neatly, the way he tends to do even at his grimmest, and it’s satisfying to see how the characters end up.  I think it would help immensely if he ever published a map of his world, since so many of his books are set in the same world, if across hundreds of years.  It’s hard to follow the game without a program, especially since Parker is so skilled at creating a textured historical world with only a few allusions. 

Smoke and Mirrors (Neil Gaiman)

This is Neil Gaiman’s first collection of short stories, published in 1997, and you can see the talent that is emerging here even as his later work outshines it.  That said, there are a couple of great stories in here – “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale,” for instance, a story about murder and bargains, as well as “Murder Mysteries,” which takes a cosmic view of such things.  There’s also a lot of stories which read as someone writing in the style of HP Lovecraft, and any number of long poems that I can appreciate but don’t really enjoy much.  In the introduction Gaiman gives you a few paragraphs about each story, and I put a separate bookmark there so I could read them as I completed each story.  It seemed appropriate.

Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia (Chris Stewart)

This is another of those travel memoirs that I like to read, except that instead of traveling Chris Stewart decided to emigrate from the UK to the mountains of Andalucia in Spain.  He buys a ramshackle farm from a peasant whose villainy is obvious to all but him.  He moves his wife and dog there.  He meets the neighbors, becomes embedded in the community, and eventually most things work out reasonably enough.  He’s not good with timelines – he clearly lived there for a number of years before writing this book and events tend to get jumbled together based on what story he feels like telling next – and despite his efforts it takes him a very long time to figure out that the locals are just as smart as he is.  But he is well-meaning and educable, and it’s a fairly positive book in the end – just as the subtitle says.

The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)

In a near future where nation states have withered to the point of irrelevance, where nanotechnology has largely ended the economy of scarcity, and where people have sorted themselves out into “claves” of likeminded peoples, John Percival Hackworth has been given a task.  Hackworth – who lives a neo-Victorian lifestyle near Shanghai – is a computer programmer, and his mission is to create a primer, a book capable of raising a small child, and in particular the granddaughter of Sir Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, an Equity Lord in Hackworth’s clave.  When he makes a copy for his own daughter and then has it stolen from him, all sorts of problems ensue.  The copy finds its way to Nell – the daughter of a street thug (executed in the first few pages of the novel for his crimes) and a neglectful mother, protected by her brother Harv – who uses it to grow up with.  Coming into this complex story are Miranda – the voice actor who makes the book come alive for Nell and who becomes, without ever meeting her, something of a replacement mother for her – and Judge Fang, whose judicial activities weave in and out of the plot.  It’s kind of a picaresque in some ways, as the plot follows each of the main characters through long periods of time – some in detail, sometimes simply by noting that time has passed – and the conclusion is somewhat vague as much of the order in coastal China deteriorates.  At this stage of Stephenson’s career he was one of the leading figures in cyberpunk and this is one of the books that made his name.  He’s matured as a writer since then, but even his early works are well worth reading.

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Catherine Nixey)

The transition from the classical pagan world to Christian Europe is usually told as a triumph – the defeat and casting aside of the old gods and culture for the new and presumably better one we’re familiar with.  But, as Nixey points out, to the Romans the word “triumph” meant more than merely victory.  It meant the annihilation of their enemies, their humiliation, and their oblivion.  This, she says, is what happened to the classical world.  It’s a story that often gets overlooked or soft-pedaled by later (Christian) writers, who tend to write as if classical civilization was overjoyed by the prospect of conversion to Christianity and the adoption of a new culture.  Nixey instead portrays a transition characterized by mindless fanaticism, brutal violence, cultural destruction, and futile resistance.  The villains are the monks, hermits, and other Christian zealots whose vicious crimes were often coated in a thick layer of self-righteousness and earnest claims to be destroying their enemies out of love – to save them from hell they would put them through hell, in other words.  In the end, the overwhelming majority of classical civilization – a thousand years of culture, science, ethics, faith, learning, and relative tolerance – is now deliberately lost to us, and we will never truly fathom the depths of that loss.

Fall: or, Dodge in Hell (Neal Stephenson)

When humans finally achieve immortality by uploading their consciousnesses into a digital universe the end result will be Middle Earth.  Or the Bible.  Or possibly Milton’s Paradise Lost.  This will probably come as a surprise to the tech engineers running the place, but that’s what Neal Stephenson is predicting and presumably he knows these things.  This is a Big Book, in every sense.  It’s physically big – Stephenson always gives good value in terms of words per dollar – and it tackles Big Ideas, such as identity, immortality, the nature of knowledge across impenetrable divides, the general direction of American culture and politics, and the difficulty of knowing anything in an age of Fake News.  Somewhere in all of that are anywhere from three to five separate novels of varying accomplishment, all clamoring for attention and all confined within the covers of this one book.  The story opens in Seattle, where many of the characters from REAMDE have settled after the events of that novel (this isn’t really a sequel, though – no need to read the first one if you don’t feel like it).  Richard Dodge Forthrast – tech guru and bazillionaire, generally known as Dodge – is about to have a minor surgical procedure, during which he will die.  This is not a spoiler – it’s the engine of the plot.   Because he never bothered to update his will after a brief flirtation with cryogenics and other forms of forced immortality, this sets off an immense struggle between his heirs – his niece Zula, her daughter Sophia, and his old partner Corvallis chief among them – and the immortality guys, led by Elmo Shephard (El, for short, and if that’s also the word for god in Hebrew, well, that’s not accidental).  After some time passes – there are several sections in this book that are divided by years or even decades – Dodge’s connectome (what we might call his mind or his soul – these terms get thrown around loosely) gets uploaded to a digital universe where he basically recreates Genesis while playing the role of God.  Eventually conflict comes to both the real world and the Land, as Dodge’s world comes to be called, and as more characters die in the real world they get born in the Land where the conflict continues.  There is a great pile-up of mythological references here – characters named Adam, Eve, Edda, and Spring play their roles, as do sacred groves and mariner’s tales – and ultimately the last part of the novel comes down to a Quest (capitalized) straight out of the Secondary-World Fantasy Trope-Shop, one that I had a hard time caring about mostly because I knew that all the characters were just bits and bytes even within their own world, let alone in mine.  I like Stephenson’s books – the man knows how to WRITE and he’s always thought-provoking – and there were long sections of this that I enjoyed very much (usually those set in the real world rather than the Land), but I’ve read almost all of his fiction and this one is definitely the weakest of the lot.

How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps (Adam Fletcher)

This is one of those short, breezy, not entirely informative but entertaining books that purport to tell you painlessly how to survive in another culture.  It's a pastiche of observations from an English expat happily living in Germany now, divided – as advertised – into 50 chapters of between one and two pages.  Fletcher clearly loves his adopted country and just as clearly it took him some time to adjust to it, so there are a few useful tips here (prepare to eat a big, slow breakfast, for example), but he assumes a familiarity with the German language that his target audience may or may not have (he leaves a lot of things untranslated – there’s a chapter on the five most useful phrases in German, phrases that can be arranged in any order to form a complete conversation, but he never actually tells us what those mean in English; plus this book is one of those that you can flip over and read from the other side, this time in German) and he’s more interested in broad observations and punchlines than cultural analysis.  It’s a fun book, and you can get some useful things out of it.  But I’m still not German.

German Men Sit Down to Pee and Other Insights Into German Culture (Niklas Frank and James Cave)

This is a slightly more serious and vastly more informative version of the previous book, written by an actual German (Frank) and his Irish coauthor (Cave).  Like Fletcher’s book, it goes through various bits and bobs of the day in Germany, explaining things that you should do (obey rules, eat a slow breakfast, and yes, sit to pee) and not do (make jokes about Nazis, be overly forward, or get shocked by nudity), though Frank and Cave do take the time to translate the German for the reader.  It’s a useful if rather surface-level introduction for those heading to Germany for a time.

Something Rising (Light and Swift) (Haven Kimmel)

I discovered Haven Kimmel with her autobiography, A Girl Named Zippy, which remains one of my favorites – it just barely missed my Top Month’s Worth Of Books post, and that’s just the problem of reading all the time.  It’s a nice problem to have.  This is a novel, though, and while it is well written it isn’t really my thing.  The best adjective I can come up with for it is “humid” – it’s basically a Southern Gothic novel set in a small town in Indiana.  Mostly it tells the story of Cassie, a born rebel and a pool shark growing up poor with a sister with mental health issues (Belle), a mother forever mourning the life she gave up to run away with Cassie’s father (Linda), and Cassie’s now absent father (Jimmy), from whom she inherited her pool skills though at one point she beats him handily at his own sport.  The book is told in several sections widely separated in time – from the late 1970s to the late 1990s – and it has the closed-in, few-options feel of a life and a town going nowhere.  Characters change, grow, even die, and the future never looks any different.  It’s even difficult to say quite how it ends, since little if anything gets resolved.  It’s a well-crafted book, but not one I really enjoyed.

Alice Isn’t Dead (Joseph Fink)

Well, I now know which of the two Welcome to Night Vale creators is responsible for the eerie weirdness and general mood of the series (Fink) and which is responsible for the black humor that runs through it (Jeffrey Cranor).  This book is entirely Joseph Fink’s, and it is a dark, twisted horror novel about things just below the surface of everyday life, without the absurdities that make Night Vale funny.  Keisha’s wife Alice disappeared before the book began, and Keisha then disappeared back into her pit of anxiety for a long time before it began to dawn on her that Alice wasn’t dead after all.  So she gets a job as a long-haul trucker as a way to search the country.  She quickly runs into the Thistle Men – weird, inhuman, murderous creatures – and a teenaged runaway named Sylvia who knows about them and is on her side.  It turns out that lots of people know about them, but few are willing to acknowledge them.  And when Fink explains exactly what the Thistle Men are it becomes clear just how much of the story is a metaphor of modern American life.  There are also “oracles” – cryptic, as oracles are, but beneficent – and a woman with paper skin who seems to pull the strings behind all of this, and there is the trucking company that Keisha (and Alice) work for and which is more than it appears.  Most things are.  Intertwined throughout is the story of Keisha and Alice – how they met, how they lived, and so on.  If you’re looking for an intelligent horror story with a lot to say about how we live today in the modern United States, look no further.

No comments: