Two things that are true: 1) I don’t read that much SF. 2) When I do, I sometimes get a little impatient with world-building. I don’t know if there’s a cause/effect relationship between those two things, and if there is, I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect, but I did find myself feeling sort of impatient with some parts of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The book is set in a version of the 21st century (as imagined from 1995) in which nanotechnology is omnipresent and has changed the world hugely. Food, clothing, and even buildings can be created by “matter compilers”; diamonds are cheaper than glass; “real cloth” is a status symbol. In this world, people live in tribes called phyles, and the New Atlantans/neo-Victorians—who have a Queen Victoria II and a lot of the old Victorians’ etiquette/social structures—are one of the wealthiest and most influential of the phyles. John Percival Hackworth, a New Atlantan engineer, is commissioned to make a singular interactive educational device for a rich man’s granddaughter: the rich man, Lord Finkle-McGraw, wants his granddaughter’s life to be interesting, and as part of this, he wants to see if he can make sure she learns independence and subversiveness, as well as everything she’s “supposed to” learn. That device is the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, but it ends up not actually being so singular: a copy also ends up falling into the possession of a lower-class girl named Nell (and later, there end up being other copies/versions, too).
Nell’s dad is dead, and she lives with her brother, her not-very-present mom, and a string of her mom’s boyfriends, almost all of whom are awful and abusive. Nell finds solace in the Primer, and then some: she learns to read from it, and it basically raises her/she raises herself, with its help. Nell’s story, including the stories-within-a-story (we get to read a bunch of passages from Nell’s copy of the Primer), was totally my favorite thing about this book: Nell’s an intrepid and appealing heroine, and watching her grow up is pretty delightful.
We also get bits of other stories, largely Hackworth’s, but also other characters connected to him and/or to Nell, and/or to the Primer, and these other stories are variably interesting/fleshed-out. There is a lot of plot in this book, and not everything is resolved at the end: there are several side characters whose fates I found myself wondering about. Still: once I got into it, I quite liked this book and am glad I let my boyfriend convince me to read it. (He also convinced me to read Cryptonomicon, which I didn’t like so much, so I was somewhat skeptical about further Neal Stephenson books, but now maybe I am less so.)
May 10th, 2016
In some ways, I feel like I’m the ideal audience for this book: I’ve read Keri Smith’s blog for years and I like her art, and I like walking, and I like art about walking. Five years ago I took part in a learning experience called the Walk Study Training Course, which involved reading about walking/art and then walking and talking about what we’d read. But maybe that makes me not quite the ideal audience: I don’t need to be convinced that walking and unplanned wandering are pleasurable things that can give you room to think and let you see things anew, and I think I am pretty good at being in the moment and paying attention to my senses (though it’s always good to be reminded of the usefulness of that).
The exciting part of this book, for me, was the “Assignments/Research/Field Work” portion, in which Smith presents assignments/suggestions for kinds of wandering to try. Some of it is stuff I have heard of or done before: one of the suggestions is to follow someone (stopping if they notice you), which is reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s “Following Piece,” in which he set out to follow someone passing by until they went into a private space he couldn’t enter. (One of our assignments in the Walk Study Training Course was to recreate this, and wow it’s an uncomfortable experience, even in a busy city like New York where it’s relatively easy to follow someone in a relatively inconspicuous way. It’s also a quick way to be reminded of white privilege and the privilege that comes with being cisgender, etc. But I digress.) Other suggestions were new to me, like: “On a windy day, follow a leaf that blows wherever it goes” (119). Or: “You are to go out in search of something that has been transformed” (106). Smith often suggests documenting your wanderings in your preferred method, whether that’s text/photo/video/drawing/something else, but there are also some suggestions that include prompts for more specific documentation, like the idea of making a video based on “found shapes” or “secret locations” (97). I’m planning to try several of these, and am looking forward to seeing where my wanderings take me.
I was less into the framing device of the book—the idea that Smith had discovered a mysterious group called The Wander Society by chance and then gotten really into finding out everything she could about them—though some of the side-bits related to this are fun, e.g. a phone number you can call to hear a pre-recorded message about The Wander Society, plus a few websites and a Twitter account to peruse. I also was less into the craft-activities/how-tos at the end (e.g. making an embroidered badge, carving a stick, or sewing a neck pouch or belt pouch), and could have done without some of the talk about “wandering as a way to transcend the problems of modern society” and “access a higher plane of consciousness,” which sometimes felt a bit heavy-handed (XXV). Meanwhile, I am pleased with the way this book points to other relevant books and such—it reminds me that I’ve been wanting to read more Robert Walser, and makes me want to read some Walt Whitman (he is quoted/appears often in the text), and makes me want to watch The London Perambulator. Also, I love this, on choosing to be invisible: “You may also want to go unnoticed by others because it is like a superpower of sorts (that is, you are experimenting with being a spy)” (64).
This book is the third in a middle-grade historical fiction/fantasy trilogy, and I found it a pleasing conclusion to the story of Alfred Bunce, who kills monsters (bogles) for a living, and his various young friends/apprentices. Each book focuses on a different one of the kids, and at the center of this one is Ned Roach, who’s a bogler’s apprentice somewhat reluctantly. I mean, it’s better than being a mudlark or a fruit-seller, but it’s scary and dangerous and Ned doesn’t particularly think he wants to actually be a bogler when he grows up, though Alfred thinks he has the required thoughtfulness and cool-headedness. But in this book, other options open up for Ned, thanks to Alfred’s position on the newly-formed Committee for the Regulation of Subterranean Anomalies, which is employed by the Board of Works and includes an engineer who notices and admires Ned’s intelligence and interest in all things mechanical/infrastructural/logistical.
As with the other two books, this one alternates between bogle-hunting expeditions and other events, and it makes for a fun mixture of adventure and other aspects of the plot. And as with the other books, the details of Victorian-era London are satisfying: I love that at one point, the characters are looking at a map of all the bogles that Alfred has killed, which they then overlay with a map of the sewer system in a scene that feels like a nod to John Snow’s map of the 1854 cholera outbreak.
April 30th, 2016
If I’d known beforehand that Slade House is a kind of companion to The Bone Clocks (which I haven’t read—James Wood’s New Yorker piece about it made me unsure if I wanted to), I’m not sure I would have picked it up. But I think it works as a standalone piece, and, I don’t know, maybe I’m more curious about The Bone Clocks now?
Slade House is divided into five sections, each of which is set nine years after the previous one, and the first of which is set in 1979. In that first section, we meet 13-year-old Nathan Bishop and his mother, Rita, as they make their way to Slade Alley, looking for Slade House, where Rita is meant to be playing the piano at an afternoon “musical gathering” to which she’s been invited by Norah Grayer, the rich lady of the house. Nathan’s a bit buzzed from the Valium he’s snuck from his mother’s supply, so when things get weird after they arrive, he assumes it’s the pills. But no, it’s Slade House. It’s hard to say more than that without being spoiler-y, but each section of the book is a story like Nathan’s, of someone going to Slade House—though each section has some key differences.
When this book isn’t busy being pleasingly creepy, it’s often pleasingly funny, like in this passage, when Nathan’s thinking about Godzilla (which he catches a glimpse of on someone’s television, in a window he passes) as he and his mom are hurrying to try to find Slade Alley:
Now Godzilla’s picked up a train, which makes no sense because amphibians don’t have thumbs. Maybe Godzilla’s thumb is like a panda’s so-called thumb, which is really an evolved claw. Maybe—
“Nathan!” Mum’s got my wrist. What did I say about dawdling?”
I check back. “‘Chop-chop!’; ‘Don’t dawdle.'”
“So what are you doing now?”
“Thinking about Godzilla’s thumbs.”
Elsewhere, one character refers to another as a “dim corgi who fancies himself a wolf” (228). Ha/ouch!
There are also some pleasing descriptive passages, like this:
The streetlights are coming on. The sun sinks into tarmac-gray clouds, over one-way mazes of brick houses, gasworks, muddy canals, old factories, unloved blocks of flats from the sixties, multistory car parks from the seventies, tatty-looking housing from the eighties, a neon-edged multiplex from the nineties. Cul-de-sacs, ring roads, bus lanes, flyovers. (p 146)
April 24th, 2016
All the Birds in the Sky is the kind of crossover genre book, like, say, Lev Grossman’s Magicians books, that I can really get into. It’s smart and funny, and self-consciously places itself in/plays with genre conventions (quest narratives, saving-the-world stories, stories of outcast geniuses) and other literary conventions (star-crossed lovers, a sort of fairy-tale trope of terrible parents) in a satisfying way.
At the start of the book, we see six-year-old Patricia caring for a wounded bird, and then, somehow, realizing she can speak to it, and vice versa. Her new avian friend asks her to take him to the Parliament of Birds, which meets in a giant tree in the forest; there, the birds say she has to prove she’s a witch. One way of doing so, they say, is for them to ask her what they call the Endless Question, which turns out to be this: “Is a tree red?” Patricia asks for more time to answer, but then wakes up at the edge of the forest and gets taken home and locked in her room before she can figure out what her answer might be. Next, we meet Laurence, a geeky kid who’s figured out how to build a 2-second time-machine from plans on the internet, and who skips school to try to see a rocket launch. Then we jump forward: Patricia and Laurence are 13 and at the same school, where they’re both bullied incessantly. They become friends, sort of, but then both end up elsewhere for high school, though not before Laurence manages to build a supercomputer/AI in his closet, which Patricia helps shape by chatting with it. We jump forward again: Patricia and Laurence run into each other at a party in San Francisco, where they both live; they’re 23 now and the world is pretty much a mess, with climate change and pandemics and superstorms and threats of war. Laurence is working for an Elon-Musk-like tech genius who wants to colonize another planet; Patricia is trying to make things better for suffering individuals, through magic. Things happen, and they find themselves drawn together, while also apparently being on opposite sides in a conflict between science/technology and magic/nature. I don’t really want to say more about the plot—there’s a lot going on and I don’t know that I can adequately describe it without getting overly detailed—but I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that Patricia and Laurence’s shared history makes them realize the falseness of the us-versus-them dichotomy in which they find themselves.
I like the way this book examines empathy, which seems in some ways to be at the core of how magic works (or can work)—there’s a scene in which Patricia does something magical, when she’s a kid, where the magic is brought about, basically, by imagination and empathy, but then also, later, there’s a scene in which Patricia and Laurence talk about how problematic it is that the most powerful witches are the ones who are, by circumstance, most removed from everyone else, most “set apart” (291). (And on the science/tech side, another character who has been working on emotional robots says she scrapped them because she realized that “We don’t need better communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy” (265).) Relatedly, I like how the book examines the limited nature of any one person’s perspective on anything, or any group’s: it’s there in the science-versus-magic conflict, and in an argument Patricia and Laurence have about the nature of ethics, and then again when Patricia finally answers the birds’ Endless Question.
Also: I love that this book includes a bookstore whose section labels are things like this (pp 159-167):
Exiles and Stowaways
Scary Love Stories
Parties That Already Ended
Ideas Too Good To Be True
April 18th, 2016
Lately I seem to be alternating between reading The New Yorker and reading middle-grade fiction, which is pretty satisfying. (The April 11th issue of The New Yorker was amazing! It had zero long articles about politics or economics, but had long articles about: an Icelandic artist, a walk in the Alps, a motel owner/voyeur, and Filipina domestic workers in New York. It was basically my ideal New Yorker issue.) For my latest middle-grade read, I found myself picking up The Wright 3, even though I didn’t really love its predecessor, Chasing Vermeer, and hadn’t planned to read any of the sequels. (What happened is, I found a copy of the third book in the series on the sidewalk and took it home, and then figured if I was going to read more Blue Balliett, I might as well go in order.) The good news is, I think The Wright 3 is better than Chasing Vermeer: the writing’s less clunky, and the supernatural/unexplained elements didn’t bug me this time around, maybe because I was expecting them, or maybe because they’re introduced right at the book’s start.
So: Petra, Calder, and Tommy are in 6th grade, and are figuring out if/how they can all be friends—Tommy and Calder used to be best pals, but Tommy moved away, and Calder and Petra got close in his absence, but now Tommy’s back, and he kind of wants Calder to himself. But a cause bigger than the kids unites them. One day their teacher tells them that the Robie House, a Frank Lloyd Wright creation in their own neighborhood of Hyde Park, is to be disassembled and sold, in pieces, to four different museums. She’s outraged, and so are the kids, who have been studying art and architecture. The class stages a demonstration against the house’s dismantling, and Petra, Calder, and Tommy decide they want to figure out a way to save it. Meanwhile, some weird things are happening: a mason has fallen from the house’s roof, and Petra finds not one but two copies of an H.G. Wells book (The Invisible Man), and when the kids look at the house, they see weird flashes of light, or hear weird things: it’s almost like the house itself is trying to communicate with them. But what is it saying, and can the kids figure out a way to save it?
I like the pacing of this book, the way its mysterious events unfold, and I like the characters, including the kids’ teacher, who has them exploring questions like “Is a building a piece of art when you can’t see all of it at the same time? Can a building be a piece of art on the outside but not on the inside, and vice versa?” (11). I like how Petra sits in her room, facing the train tracks, and writes down what she sees as trains pass, and how Tommy is a collector of all things fish-related, and how Calder thinks spatially/mathematically with his set of pentominoes. This book was solidly pleasing, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
April 13th, 2016
This is the sequel to How to Catch a Bogle, and like that book, it’s middle grade historical-fiction/fantasy: Victorian London, with child-eating monsters called bogles. Birdie McAdam was the child protagonist of that book, and she’s still present in this one, but now her acquaintance Jem Barbary takes center stage: Birdie is no longer an apprentice to the bogler Alfred Bunce, and Alfred is maybe not even killing bogles anymore anyway, though Jem would love to be his apprentice if he were. Early in the book, a barmaid changes Alfred’s mind about his decision to stop bogling: a scullery maid has gone missing in the basement of the place where this barmaid works, presumably eaten by a bogle, and the barmaid harps on how she’d hate for the next child her boss hires to suffer the same fate. Alfred is a tender-hearted guy and can’t say no, and ends up taking Jem along to help with the job.
Once word gets out that Alfred is killing bogles, he keeps getting requests for further jobs: lots more kids have gone missing, all in the same neighborhood. Which is weird, because bogles are normally solitary creatures who don’t live too close to one another. Jem is excited to be working as Alfred’s apprentice, but also having kind of a hard time: being a bogler’s apprentice means acting as bait to lure the bogle from its lair, and that’s pretty terrifying. But his athleticism serves him well: he has tumbling skills and uses them to get out of a bogle’s reach more than once. Meanwhile, though, he’s not just thinking of bogles: he wants revenge on his former master, Sarah Pickles, who ran a gang of child pickpockets. Some people say she’s dead, but Jem doesn’t believe it, so he’s keeping an eye out for her as he and Alfred go about their bogling work.
While I was sad, at first, that this book had shifted focus from Birdie to Jem, I was won over pretty quickly. I like how the book explores how Jem’s past has shaped him (he’s shrewd, and doesn’t trust adults; it’s not until the end of the book that he realizes he can actually trust Alfred, who really is a good guy), and I like the descriptions of how he uses his physical skills in his work: there’s a whole section of descriptions of Jem climbing up things that made my rock-climbing self really happy because it captured the experience/focus of climbing so well. I also like how much cool Victorian infrastructure this book has in it: the newly-constructed Holborn Viaduct, and sewer tunnels, and the railway sidings at Smithfield Market.
This was a slow read for me, and mostly not because I was savoring it. I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, or maybe this just isn’t the book for me: maybe I wanted a travel book more than I wanted a book about globalization and multiculturalism, or maybe the ways things have changed since this book was written/published (it came out in 2000) mean that it hasn’t aged that well. There were things in this book that made me think of Alibis by André Aciman, which I really liked: Aciman and Iyer both write in part from/about their experiences of living between or across different places and cultures, and there’s a concern, in both, with connection or disconnect, but chunks of Iyer’s book felt more reportorial than personal, which perhaps made me like it less.
Of the seven chapters/essays in this book, my favorites were The Global Marketplace, in which Iyer, jet-lagged, wanders a bit in Hong Kong, and The Alien Home, in which Iyer writes about living in Japan as a foreigner, though there were bits I liked in the others as well. I appreciate Iyer’s eye for the humorous or quirky or telling detail, like when, in “The Airport” (which is about spending a bunch of time at LAX sometime in the late 1990s) he writes this:
Around us, in the free-for-all chaos of the Customs Hall, beagles were sniffing busily (in coats that said AGRICULTURE’S BEAGLE BRIGADE on one side, and PROTECTING AMERICA’S AGRICULTURE on the other), and a voice on the PA system was calling out for one Stanley Plaster; on a bulletin board, there was a letter from a child (bewildering, surely, to a person just arriving from Guangzhou) that began, “Dear Taffy, We liked your show. You are cute, smart, and a good sniffer. . . .” (68-69)
I wanted more little snippets, details seen or overheard, like in The Empire, when there’s this, about a player on England’s cricket team: “he grew up in the East End, and his father used to stand on the street selling birds. The trouble was, they were homing pigeons” (241).
Other pieces, like The Multiculture (about Toronto, immigration as vibrancy, Canadian literature, the literature of exile) and The Games (about the Olympics and their ideals/tensions, focused largely on visits to Atlanta in advance of and then for the 1996 Games) felt way too long to me, though I liked Iyer’s description of how he tries to step away from the pageantry and big events at the Olympics to experience something else, whether that’s curling in Japan or baseball in Barcelona.
I think I appreciate the final piece, The Alien Home, for being one of the more personal-feeling pieces in the book, and also for being one of the most lyrical, with sentences like this: “And sometimes, on these sharpened sunny days, when the cloudless autumn brightness makes me homesick for the High Himalayas, I fall through a crack somehow, and find myself in a Japan of some distant century” (272). Or this, about Kyoto: “I still catch my breath when I see the lanterns in the autumn temples, leading up into the bamboo forests, as into another life, or hear the temple bells ringing along the Philosopher’s Path at dusk” (285-286). There’s also a beautiful description in this piece about driving up Mount Hiei after a snowstorm, the world made silver and white and quiet. I would read a whole book of this, gladly.
March 27th, 2016
Code Name Verity is one of those books I had sort of put off reading, and I’m not sure why. Because there was a lot of hype about it? Because historical fiction set in WWII isn’t necessarily my thing (with the exception of Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis)? I don’t know: it never seemed like the right time to pick this up, but I am glad I changed my mind and finally got around to it.
Because of the nature of the plot and the narration, it’s hard to talk about this book without venturing into spoiler territory, so I won’t say much. From the start of the book, what you’re reading is framed as a confession: the narrator is British but is being held prisoner by the Gestapo in occupied France, and she’s been given two weeks to write her story/tell her captors everything. Part of the story she tells is of how she ended up in France, and part of that story is about her friendship with Maddie, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who flew her across the Channel. Her recollections of how she and Maddie met, and how their friendship grew, are totally excellent and sweet and charming, and make her current separation from Maddie that much more poignant. (Also excellent is the narrator’s brother, Jamie, who’s also a pilot: her stories of him, and the moments we get to see him, elsewhere in the book, are totally great.)
The pacing of this book felt somewhat uneven, but not necessarily in a bad way: it starts off slow, but once it gets going, it really gets going. Part of the reason for this is that it goes from being not that plot-driven to being very plot-driven, but in a way that worked for me: once the plot picked up, I was emotionally invested in the characters (this book made me cry, multiple times).
March 20th, 2016
This graphic-novel featuring a middle-school theater production and its cast and crew is a fun and quick read: its characters are in seventh and eighth grades, and it’s written for a middle school/junior high audience. Callie, the pleasingly-purple-haired protagonist, is the set designer for her school’s spring musical: she’s loved musicals since she was little, but she can’t sing, so has found her way to the stage crew. Her best friend, Liz, is the costume designer, but Callie is sometimes a little distracted from friendship by boy drama: she’s initially smitten with Greg, but hm, twins Justin and Jesse are awfully cute, and meanwhile, why is Greg’s younger brother Matt being such a jerk to Callie lately? Callie sometimes is gossipy without meaning to be, but can be trusted with secrets that matter: when one of the aforementioned boys comes out to her as gay, she assures him she won’t spread the news around. Meanwhile, Callie’s not the only one with romantic drama: the play’s leading lady keeps getting broken up with, and other characters are slow to figure out who they are or aren’t interested in. More interesting, to me, were the logistical challenges of putting on a play: costumes and sets and possibly-malfunctioning props, and is anyone coming to see this thing, anyway?
I like Telgemeier’s art, which is a little manga-style (in the characters’ exaggerated facial expressions, with bulging eyes and wide-open mouths at moments of emotion or humor), satisfyingly crisp, and beautifully colored. The wordless “Overture” and “Intermission” sections are fun and attractive, and overall the balance of text and pictures felt right on to me. The book is mostly straightforward panels featuring dialogue via speech bubble, but I especially liked some of the more playful bits, including one section where Callie and Jesse are portrayed inside the pages of a book they’re flipping through, and one panel where Callie frustratedly increases the volume on a movie she and Liz are watching to drown out her little brother’s distracting (and nonstop) conversation.