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Reading diary 2018, #16

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The big work project is over! Hurrah! After two and a half years! It went live on 1st September, and while there’s been some clean-up going on, and I’ve been helping out, life work-wise for me is pretty much back to what it was before. Which, hopefully, means writing again. And reading more. It’s going to take a while to renew old habits, and lose new habits, like watching films all the time… But I’m hopeful that by the end of October my reading will have picked up. Meanwhile, a recent trip to Denmark gave me some good reading time and I polished off three books in six days…

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Jacques Tardi (2012, France). One day, I will work out why I continue to buy bandes dessinées in English when I’m perfectly capable of reading them in (my schoolboy) French (with, I admit, the help of a dictionary). I mean, given the choice between men-in-tights superhero shenanigans out of the US and French sf comics, I know which I hugely prefer. And, okay, Tardi tends not to write genre, and I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is actually biography, that of his own father, with some incidents from the life of the father of his wife, the singer Dominique Grange. Buying it in French would at least allow me to keep up to date with some of my favourite series, especially those whose publication history in English has been erratic at best. They’d probably be cheaper too. Anyway, I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover. Tardi’s father served in tanks in the French Army during WWII, was captured early and spent pretty much the entire war in a prisoner of war camp. One thing the story illustrates is the stark difference between the treatment of French and British POWs and American POWs. We’ve all seen the movies and the cheap sitcoms, and POWs breaking out of their camps… but the French were so under-fed and mistreated they’d never have succeeded had they escaped. And, of course, once back home they were likely to be immediately reported to the occupying Germans… Recommended.

Author’s Choice Monthly 16: State of Grace, Kate Wilhelm (1991, USA). I’ve never been that much of a fan of Wilhelm’s fiction. She’s not a writer whose books I seek out. But I’ve found her novels to be generally good and worth reading, and I’ve no doubt about her stature in the genre (ie, it should be much higher). Not all of her work has been worthy of note but she’s generally produced stuff at a slight angle to what everyone else was doing and her prose was above average. I’m not sure this collection, selected by Wilhelm herself, according to some agenda which is not immediately obvious, does her reputation any favours. It contains half a dozen stories, and Wilhelm provides an intro to each which sort of acts as a very loose framing device. ‘The Book of Ylin’ uses spelling rules for some words based on English’s weirder bits of orthography, as illustrated by Shaw’s famous “ghoti”, which makes reading it a chore until it suddenly clicks, and then you wonder why Wilhelm bothered as it’s not a very amusing conceit. ‘The Downstairs’ Room’ reads like a reworking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, but doesn’t add anything to the original. There’s a welcome element of domesticity to the stories, something science fiction doesn’t cover very often, although Wilhelm has mined the territory in some of her novels. The stories stretch from 1963 to 1988, and there’s an impressive consistency to them. True, the earliest story, ‘Jenny with Wings’, is the least satisfactory, but then it doesn’t seem to do much and the resolution feels a little juvenile. One for fans.

Obelisk, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I continue to buy Stephen Baxter books and I’m not really sure why. Oh I know what I’m getting when I start to read one, which is, I suppose, a good enough reason for many to continue to read an author… But I like to be surprised– no, impressed… And that’s only going to happen if an author writes something so much better than they have done in the past, or a writer new to me writes something so much more, well, impressive than I had expected. Cf William Faulkner (see here). Baxter sometime does impress, but all too often his fiction reads a bit juvenile. At short lengths, he’s less likely to fall into that trap, so a collection like Obelisk should prove a more satisfactory read… But at novel length, especially when opening a series, such as the novel Coalescent, the first book of the Destiny’s Children quartet, he seems to shine, only for it all to descend into YA-like science fiction that just happens to throw around big ideas. And that, in microcosm, is sort of what happens in Obelisk. There are lots of fascinating ideas in the stories in the book, but there are some that read like YA, the opening story, ‘On Chryse Plain’, being a good example. It’s one of four stories, including the title story, set in the universe of ProximaUltima (see here and here), although to be honest I couldn’t really tell. Other stories are grouped as “Other Yesterdays”, “Other Todays” and “Other Tomorrows”. All but two were previously published. Two weeks after I finished the book, I’m having trouble remembering the individual stories – although Baxter has certainly written short fiction that stands out… There just aren’t any here. One for fans, I suspect.

Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK). I took this with me to read on my trip to Denmark and pretty much polished it off during the journey there. It was a much easier read than I’d expected, a very easy read, in fact, so much so I kept on thinking throughout that Spufford had attempted to write something like Golding’s Rites of Passage (see here) but hadn’t quite managed to nail down eighteenth-century prose, resulting in a much more readable prose style. Not, I  hasten to add, that I’m an expert on eighteenth-century prose, or indeed have read any books written during that century, like Gulliver’s Travels or Pamela. But Golding’s novel seems more, well, authentic than this one, although Spufford’s representation of life in 1746 New York is thoroughly convincing. A young man called Smith arrives in New-York (as it’s given throughout the novel) with a promissory note for £1000, effectively a banker’s draft, and an enormous sum in those days. He hands it over to a local merchant but is told it will take sixty days for the merchant to get together the money. So Smith has to hang around until then. He refuses to explain who he is, or what the money is for; which means most think he is a con artist and there will be no supporting credentials on the next ship. Which there isn’t. So he’s arrested. But then it turns up on the ship after that, so it seems he really does have £1000. Meanwhile, everyone has been speculating about what he is – he knows a lot about the theatre, so perhaps he’s an actor – and he’s fallen in with the governor’s private secretary, a gay man his own age, and started courting the merchant’s oldest and very prickly daughter. Spufford keeps the speculation on Smith’s identity and purpose going throughout the novel, which is an impressive achievement. But the real stand-out in the book is New-York of 1746, which feels like a living, breathing place, which, er, obviously it was. The plot is all that you would expect of a novel set then, all setbacks and set-pieces, hearts won, enemies made, lessons learned… The final revelation, when it comes, is a surprise but the foundation for it is plain to see in hindsight. I don’t think Golden Hill will make my best of the year top five but it certainly deserves an honourable mention. Recommended.

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995, USA). I first read Chabon when his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was nominated for a sf award, but I think I might have seen the film adaptation of Wonder Boys before that. What am I saying? I have spreadsheets containing this information. I can check… So: I watched Wonder Boys on 4 June 2001 and read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on 15 March 2008. I did indeed watch the film before reading any of Chabon’s novels. Anyway, having now read Wonder Boys, I want to rewatch the film. Argh. The one thing that struck while reading the book was that most of the film’s cast had been badly-chosen. The narrator is a failed writer of GRRM-proportions who teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh university. He was played by Michael Douglas. His gay agent was played by Robert Downey Jr. And troubled student James Leer was played by Tobey Maguire. None of them really fit the characters has portrayed in the novel. Which is basically about a weekend at the university during a writing festival, in which the narrator’s wife leaves him, his lover, the chancellor, tells him she’s pregnant, Leer steals the chancellor’s husband’s prize possession, a jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe and shoots their dog, and… well, shit happens, in that sort of slowly inevitable One Foot in the Grave way that ends up in farce. And overshadowing it all is the narrator’s current WIP, which shares the novel’s title, and which he has been working on for seven years, has grown to gargantuan proportions and he will likely never ever finish. Literary professors/authors whose lives are slowly, and comically, unravelling is pretty much a genre on its own, and is seen by many as emblematic of literary fiction as a whole. I disagree, of course. The only people who think lit fic is all middle-class professors lusting after nubile students, disappearing into a bottle, failing to finish their magnum opus, etc, are the people who generally only read genre and almost certainly have not read widely in literary fiction/literature. I’m still not sure what to make of Chabon’s work – this novel is a bit of a bloated cliché and he has a tendency to drop the odd bit of over-writing into his prose, but there’s a curious personality that shines through, one that’s keen to experiment with the stories he tells, and there’s something very likable about that.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955, USA). Just about every US science fiction writer has had a go at a post-apocalypse novel – and if it was during the first 75 years of last century, it was usually a post-nuclear holocaust novel. Several of the better ones have been by women writers, although, as is usually the case, the ones by male writers – Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz – have been more celebrated. But with Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth and Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, you have two of the best American post-nuclear war sf novels written in the first half(-ish) of last century. They should be the ones that are celebrated, not Stewart or Miller. But, no matter, we know sf is male-centric, and though we do our best to show this is a false picture, women writers have been immensely successful in genre fiction the last couple of years and that tends to overshadow the achievements of women genre writers of last century. Which it should not. In The Long Tomorrow, the US has turned Mennonite after a nuclear war, and an amendment to the constitution bans towns and villages over a certain size. Cities, you see, make good targets. Of course, the rest of the world has also probably devolved to an agrarian early twentieth-century society, so who’s going to attack the US? But never mind. Len and Esau are curious teenagers in a small New Mennonite farming community, who dream of bigger things, particularly Bartorstown, a mythical town of high tech. After witnessing the stoning of a man linked with Bartorstown, they run away. And end up at the town of Refuge, where they come into conflict with some of the townsfolk because they’re start working for a trader who wants to build an extra warehouse, which will break the aforementioned amendment. This is exacerbated by a rival town across the river which is taking advantage of Refuge’s inability to grow. And then farmers descend on Refuge and put warehouses to the torch, but Len and Esau manage to escape, with the help of an old friend who proves to be from Bartorstown… There’s nothing new in the future US Brackett depicts, drawing as it does on pretty much the entire history of American literature; but the events in Refuge are unexpected, and the arguments against holding back progress, while characteristically American, are handled well. The two leads are typical for sixty year old American sf – ie, white males from comfortable backgrounds – and in fact I don’t recall any POC being mentioned anywhere in the novel. I’m a bigger fan of Brackett’s planetary romances than I am her straight-up sf, although The Long Tomorrow was better than I’d expected. It’s now in the SF Masterworks series.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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