Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Time for some obligatory year-end musings. 2008 was the year of short fiction for me--I mostly kept up with Analog, Asimovs, F&SF, Baen's Universe and Interzone. As of now I'm pretty much caught up (reviews of individual issues will be forthcoming). I'm partway through Dec. F&SF, and I just received the latest two issues of Interzone from Fictionwise, so I'll be plowing through those soon. I am definitely looking forward to filling out my Hugo nomination ballot this spring; I doubt that I'll ever be so thoroughly well-informed and -read in these categories ever again.

However, given my new (and more fun than I expected) position as a slush pile reader for Strange Horizons, that's it for me and consistent short fiction reading. I still enjoy it, but I won't be making it a focus this year. I need to free up time for other reading.

In 2009 I plan to read and review recent releases for Strange Horizons, SFSignal and Fruitless Recursion (among others), but to focus on genre classics and older international fiction here. For instance, I've got some William Hope Hodgson (The Night Land, 1912) and Lord Dunsany ("The King of Elfland's Daughter," 1924) downloaded to my eBook, and I recently found out about some older collections of German and Austrian SF from Gary Wolfe's column in Locus. I've also got the recent Speculative Japan anthology sitting on my to-read shelf. To fill out more of my background in literature, I'm also hoping to read all of Dante's Divine Comedy and Chaucer's Cantebury Tales this year--I know the basics about these works, but I think I'll enjoy getting more of the details.

Now, to wrap-up some loose ends from 2008. I present a list of those interesting books that I read this year but which won't get real reviews--either because I thought they weren't really relevant, or I couldn't think of anything terribly profound to say about them. This post will serve to rid myself of a guilty conscience in relation to these worthy books, so I can move forward into 2009 feeling guilty about more important things, like getting all those magazine reviews up!

This is Helen Thomas' memoirs that don't include the second Bush administration. In retrospect, I wish I'd waited for whatever updates she'll be doing. Still, this is a pretty amazing account of both a woman pioneering a field through sheer competence and an insider view of how different presidents and press secretaries have chosen to deal with the press. Interesting and insightful all the way through--you should probably wait for the sequel, though.

What the heck can I say about this classic that hasn't been said? I was inspired to read it by Ian McDonald's much-heralded Brasyl, and I'm very glad I finally did. It's shorter and more interesting that I had previously assumed. I was particularly struck by its incredibly focused diction; almost every sentence reinforced the theme of Death.

This is a wonderful tribute to some wonderful people, John and Judith Clute. I had bought the book in 2006, but was only able to read it straight through and appreciate it after meeting them and seeing their famous flat in Camden this summer as part of the SFF Masterclass. This has appreciations, criticism, reviews, and also short fiction that features their flat--including a particularly memorable story by Geoff Ryman involving the resurrection of Pablo Picasso. An eclectic collection for a fairly niche market.

The second collection of James Blish's criticism as "William Atheling, Jr." is more of the same--interesting and insightful, but not as revelatory as the first volume. This one gets into more depth with some of this arguments with contemporaries, and also chronicles some of the other early critical efforts within the genre.

I have to admit, I'm a total space junkie. As such, there was little in this book that was particularly new. I appreciated a view from the press side of the space efforts, and Barbree certainly cares deeply about the American space program. He has some interesting bits on the aftermath of various disasters, especially from the industrial side, and some anecdotes about the astronauts that I hadn't read before. However, I don't think this book stands alone as well as something like Failure is Not an Option by Gene Krantz.

Eric Idle's account of a solo tour of America where he attempted to expand his skills into stand-up comedy as well as performing the tried-and-true Monty Python sketches and songs. I found the first bits about tweaking the live show to be interesting, and because I'm not as well read in Python as I am in NASA, lots of the autobiography and Python anecdotes were new to me. Towards the end it got a bit repetitive, but especially in the first half it's often hilarious.

Yeah, I know. But I got it as an eBook from Baen's Webscription site. I had read a lot of these blog entries when they were originally published. I had planned to skim through a lot of it, but found myself re-reading them instead. These things hold up surprisingly well, mostly because of Scalzi's breezy and snarky style. Of course, this is a best-of collection, and in 10 years of blogging he had a lot to choose from. All you can say is, anyone who enjoys Scalzi's blog, which appears to be at least half of all 'Net users, will enjoy this book.

Pratchett's amazingly sinister take on Elves... you don't want to meet them in a dark alley and you certainly don't want to invite them into your realm. Also, lots more fun with the Witches. I was particularly happy to see Magrat, the youngest, finally come into her own.

Another guilty pleasure of mine (I think the only other such genre that I didn't hit this year is outdoor adventure non-fiction, such as Into Thin Air or The Worst Journey in the World). So how does one become a forensic anthropologist, anyway? Well, apparently it can be a fairly roundabout process, and Dr. Bass' memoir describes how the field has developed and gives many juicy case studies of how it's applied. I was happy to get more details about studies I'd only heard about, such as the ones involving insect colonization on corpses. Macabre, but fascinating.


Tim Walters said...

While The King of Elfland's Daughter is clearly the consensus choice for Dunsany's best novel (although I prefer The Charwoman's Shadow, he's one of those writers who's best at short fiction. So if you don't mind getting back on that horse, I recommend The Sword of Welleran or The Book Of Wonder.

Karen Burnham said...

Tim - Thanks for the tip! I also happen to have "Sword of Welleran" on my eBook. No problem with anthologies; it's keeping up with the new stuff that's a killer.

Another collection of his that I've heard of is "Collected Jorkens." Have you read any of that one?

Tim Walters said...

I haven't read any of the Jorkens stories. My understanding is that they're quite different from the fantasy material (being more in the "tall tale" line) and less central to his influence on later writers. But I'd be surprised if they were less than excellent. In fact I should go out and grab a copy.