Friday, December 30, 2011

End of the Year

2011 draws to a close, marking the end of a year that has probably marked the biggest single change in my life, ever. Posts have been thin on the ground here at Spiral Galaxy, but I have no regrets. I've managed to keep: my child alive and healthy, my job (and gotten into a new and awesome group at NASA), the Locus blog going, and my book draft going (although with a new deadline of August 2012 instead of March 2012). Of the things that needed to be thrown overboard, this blog and other reviewing seemed the most reasonable things to go. But I haven't stopped reading! Here's some capsule thoughts on books I've read since little Gadget was born, on August 30th.

In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan. I had previously bounced off Goonan's work with the Queen City Jazz cycle, and this didn't change that. There are some authors where I can see their virtues, but the work just doesn't resonate with me, and Goonan appears to be one of those. I really liked the historical bits in War Times, but the jazz lost me and I didn't find the super-physics convincing. I had planned to read this preparatory to This Shared Dream, but I think I'll let that slide.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. Charles Brown used to say that this book was the most horrific that he'd ever read, but it didn't strike me that way. One thing I liked is that between this and Ubik, I now know that I like PKD as a sentence-level writer much more than I thought I would. However, I was specifically reading these to see if they linked in with Greg Egan's altered/virtual reality futures, and I don't think that they do. PKD's characters are on very unstable ground, never knowing what their position is vis a vie reality, whereas Egan's characters are pretty much all rational actors in a rational universe, whether that universe is physical, digital, or both. Completely different affect and theme.

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Probably not the right book to read right at the beginning of my maternity leave. However, I found it very well written, very convincing, often amusing, and definitely enlightening. Thanks to Farah Mendlesohn for the recommendation!

Book by Book by Michael Dirda. A short book full of Dirda's notes on reading. Light and charming, but pretty fluffy. I've always enjoyed reading his thoughts, and this was no exception.

Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynn Jones. I'd enjoyed the film when it came out, and enjoyed this as well. I hadn't before realized just how YA the original book was. I thought the middle got into a bit of a muddle, but definitely enjoyed the characters and the whole milieu.

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I appreciated this for many of the same reasons I loved Les Miserables--the in-depth and incisive character portraits. I know people today who share many depressing characteristics with M. Bovary. But I didn't fall in love with it the way I did with Les Mis, probably because it lacked Hugo's epic sweep. By the by, it was Dirda's book that finally inspired me to pick this up.

God, No! by Penn Jillette. Another book full of assorted thoughts and vignettes, rather like Dirda's book but for atheists instead of life-long readers. Lots of amusing anecdotes from Jillette's improbable career and life.

The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust. This book deserves a bigger, better review than what I'm writing here. I loved it. It's a twinned tale of mythology and urban African-Canadian (although I imagine African-Americans would find it equally apt) experience. The contemporary and non-fantastic part follows a troubled black teenager as he finds a role model and a place in the community--although his is not an easy story and it doesn't have an easy ending. The fantastic portion describes a young man navigating a mythic landscape, learning about his powers and leadership. Argh, that makes it all sound too pat. I've loved everything I've read by Faust, and this was no exception. If nothing else, the poetry and rhythm of his language would be worth it. If nothing else, the reading list that the mentor figure gives to young Raptor would be worth it. The whole resonant package is even more worth it. And if I'm saying this as a middle-aged white woman, when the story is so intensely young, black, and male, then that tells you something (I hope) about the power of Faust's writing. The only major critique I'd have is that I felt that the author dodged a bit when the issue of homophobia reared its head. But that's a very small matter in a book that's much bigger than its relatively short length.

Embassytown by China Mieville. I loved Perdido Street Station and The Scar. I finished Iron Council. I enjoyed The City and The City. I bounced off of Kraken. And now I've bounced off of Embassytown. Reading the book, I kept waiting for an answer to the question: how in hell can a language that can't refer to things that haven't happened allow for engineering? But about halfway through, as the plot was ramping up, I realized that the main viewpoint character, the first person narrator Avice, was a complete cipher to me. She didn't seem to have a real character or personality, and I wasn't even sure what might motivate her. So I bailed out, abandoning the book altogether. It especially suffered in comparison to the books I read before and after it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'd been meaning to read something of Ishiguro's for ages, and I figured that Never Let Me Go would just annoy me. Remains was a beautiful read, with effortless prose that was wonderful to just swim through. Ishiguro has perfect mastery of tone, with no word out of place. It's a quiet tale, entirely about the character of its narrator. He's an unreliable observer of himself, but there are plenty of narrative clues that let us know what he doesn't know about himself. It's the quietly tragic story of a man who made a lot of wrong choices but can't let himself admit that. If I perhaps felt that some of the clues were rather obvious, making it easy for the educated reader to say I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, YAY GO ME! the prose style made it very easy to forgive.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White. Again, this deserves a longer post. It was quite different than I'd expected, and seemed overly grounded in the politics of post-WWII England. The tone shift as it moves from book to book is dramatic, but it worked for me. While White makes it clear that he feels that the tragedy stems from Arthur's sin in bedding his sister (while under the sway of one of her spells), I really felt that the whole 'ordering all two-year-old boys to be killed' thing (while not under anyone's spell) got rather swept under the rug. I will say that I think I've read the Arthurian stories in rather the wrong order. One should probably read L'Morte de Arthur, then Once and Future King, then The Mists of Avalon. Whereas I read Avalon years ago, then this, and will probably never get to L'Morte. I retrospectively appreciate Mists of Avalon quite a bit more now, after reading this.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. I had bounced off of Rajaniemi's short fiction to this point, so I was happy to find that I finished this book. However, it didn't really stand out for me. It was a good read, but nothing that made me want to jump up and laud it. Again, I think Rajaniemi is just going to be one of those authors that I know I should like, that I have every reason to like, that I can see why other people like him, but I just don't like very much. C'est la vie.

Mind Children by Hans Moravec. Read this as research for the Egan book. Fascinating stuff, chock-full of techno-optimism. Not perhaps the best written ever, but you could make an entire career fleshing out the sfnal ideas in here, and one can argue that Egan did just that in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross. I've enjoyed his other Laundry series books, and I enjoyed this one. Actually, I liked this one rather more than the second book in the series, The Jennifer Morgue. Fuller Memorandum is a fun book, I've always liked the premise of the universe, and I agree with the politics in the book, so it was all a very stress-free experience. During this time I started in on some of L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter stories, and it was really striking how much Bob Howard of the Laundry is the heir to that sfnal-attitude-in-a-fantastic-universe tradition.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. I've been slowly reading the Discworld books in publication order, and I lucked out that I got to Hogfather right before Christmas. Perfect time to read this one as a nice mental break.

Science as Salvation by Mary Midgley. Another one that I'm reading for the Egan book. This book is a criticism of the narrative created by some scientists, especially those involved in popularizing science such as Freeman Dyson, that promise immortality in humanity's future. I don't agree with many of Midgley's critiques, but it was excellent food for thought.

So while I've been quiet, I haven't been idle! I'm doing a lot of reading in other areas for the Egan research, which combined with the baby-related lack of free time, means that I haven't been reading much for review or for my Golden Age reading project. When the book is done I hope to get back to normal reviewing reading. In the meantime I'm having a ton of fun with the Egan project, and with the baby, and with my day job, and you really can't ask for better than that!