In the prologue of Lagoon, we see a swordfish swimming through the waters off Lagos, where something extraordinary is happening. The fish hears the loudest sound she’s ever heard, and then looks down and sees “something large and glowing” in the water: it’s a giant spaceship (5). “When a golden blob ascends to meet her, she doesn’t move to meet it. But she doesn’t flee either” (6). And then there’s this: “When it communicates with her, asking question after question, she hesitates. It doesn’t take long for her apprehension to shift to delight. What good questions it asks. She tells it exactly what she wants” (ibid.). It’s a great start to a great book: it’s pleasing to read a first-contact story where the aliens are interested in everything around them, not just people.
Of course, the aliens do make contact with people shortly thereafter. A marine biologist named Adaora, a soldier named Agu, and a Ghanaian rapper named Anthony all find themselves on Bar Beach, right where the ship is, the night the aliens appear. Adaora’s been fighting with her husband, Agu fought with his commander to try to stop the commander from raping a woman, and Anthony just needed some fresh air after his show. Or that’s why they would say they ended up where they did, but it becomes clear that the aliens brought them together, and that they want help making a nonviolent entry into human/Lagosian/Nigerian society. When Adaora and Agu and Anthony leave the beach, they’re not alone: one of the aliens, who’s taken the form of a Nigerian-looking woman and says they can call her Ayodele, is with them. “We are change,” Ayodele explains: the aliens can change their own forms, but they change what’s around them, too (39).
Not surprisingly, when word gets out that aliens have landed in Lagos, things get a bit crazy. Adaora’s husband’s priest sees the chance to convert an extraterrestrial to Christianity as a great publicity opportunity; the LGBTQ group at the university sees a chance to gain greater acceptance; others see the chance to maybe get rich. Others are afraid, and just want the aliens dead or gone, even though Ayodele assures them that her people come with good intentions: “We are guests who wish to become citizens…here” she says, and later explains that her people have an environmental message/mission, too (110).
I like how much there is going on in this book, how it’s a fast-paced adventure that also takes detours into side plots and explorations of figures/beliefs from Nigerian myth and folklore, how it tells snippets of many stories—the story of someone in an Internet café when the aliens arrive, the story of a bat, the story of a road. It’s smart and funny and moving and exactly what I was in the mood for, and I will definitely be reading more by Nnedi Okorafor.
June 22nd, 2016
I kind of enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry despite feeling somewhat resistant to it, and I don’t really know what to say about a book that I found overly sentimental at times, but that also totally made me teary-eyed on the subway one day.
OK, so, the premise: Harold Fry is 65, recently retired, and unhappily married. He gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he used to work with but whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. She has terminal cancer and is writing to say goodbye; Harold writes her a letter in reply, but then feels like it’s horribly inadequate. He decides that he’ll walk from where he lives (which is in the very south of England) to the hospice (which in the very north of England) and also decides that if he does so, she’ll stay alive.
I wonder how I would feel about this novel if I hadn’t already read and really liked Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice, which is his true account of his 1974 walk from Munich to Paris, which he undertook because his friend Lotte Eisner had cancer and he felt that by walking, he would keep her alive. Herzog’s journey is like the misanthropic version of Harold’s: he tells one guy he meets that he likes the guy’s dog better than he likes the guy himself; he breaks into summer cottages to sleep in them and says that in one of them, he peed in a rubber boot. Herzog writes a lot about the physical pain of his walk, and about the loneliness he experiences. Harold’s walk has some of that, too, and is not without its other conflicts, but overall it’s a lot more twee: Harold gains confidence through walking, and learns life lessons along the way. He learns to trust himself and others, and not to make assumptions about other people’s lives/sadnesses/secrets/hopes/loves. His wife Maureen, meanwhile, also learns things in his absence, including how much she still loves him. I was mostly OK with all of this, while also rolling my eyes a little at some pieces and being legitimately moved by some of it, and then I was deeply annoyed by a scene near the book’s end that just tipped the sentimentality meter way too far for me, leaving me a bit grumpy.
I do still like some of the descriptive passages, though, like this, from when Harold’s walk becomes a slog:
His clothes no longer dried. The leather of his shoes was so bloated with water, they lost their shape. Whitnage. Westleigh. Whiteball. So many places beginning with W. Trees. Hedgerow. Telegraph poles. Houses. Recycling bins. (120)
Or this, from a more satisfying portion of the journey:
The evening shadows lay long beneath the trees, like a separate forest that was made of darkness. He walked against an early-morning mist and smiled at the pylons poking their heads through the milk-white smoke. The hills softened and flattened, and opened before him, green and gentle. He passed through the Somerset wetlands, where waterways flashed like silver needles. (156)
June 14th, 2016
As I was reading this book (which was originally published in 1908, but is set during the Napoleonic Wars), I kept thinking about Hamilton, probably not surprisingly. Specifically, I kept thinking about the part of The Ten Duel Commandments that goes like this:
Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?
But your man has to answer for his words, Burr
With his life? We both know that’s absurd, sir
Hang on, how many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous?
Okay, so we’re doin’ this
So, right: at the start of this book, D’Hubert and Feraud are both young lieutenants in Napoleon’s army, stationed in Strasbourg, and Feraud has just had a duel with a civilian. D’Hubert seeks Feraud out to deliver a message from the general: the general is not pleased with Feraud’s dueling, and wants him to go to his quarters and stay there. Feraud is incensed. “I can’t call the general to account for his behaviour, but you are going to answer to me for yours,” he tells D’Hubert, who asks what he means exactly (14). To which Feraud’s answer is this: “”I mean,” screamed suddenly Liet. Feraud, “to cut off your ears to teach you to disturb me with the general’s orders when I am talking to a lady!” (ibid.). D’Hubert thinks this is nuts, but he can’t just not fight Feraud at this point. But the fight, once started, won’t end: Feraud is wounded but sends a message to D’Hubert saying it’s not over, and they proceed to have rematch duels over a period of years, as they both rise through the ranks of the army. Their duel (which Conrad apparently based on a true story) becomes the stuff of legend: no one knows what started it, they won’t talk about what started it, and so everyone assumes it must be some huge/deep thing. D’Hubert, meanwhile, is caught up in the momentum of it: even as he despairs over “the imbecility of the impending fight” at one point, he can’t just stop (51). Or even if he stops, it’s just temporary: at one point, a superior imposes a 12-month truce on the pair, and they also don’t fight each other when they’re retreating from Moscow together, since they’re too busy nearly dying of cold and starvation and also too busy fighting off Russians (the retreat from Moscow is probably my favorite part of the book, or maybe is tied with the pair’s final duel as being my favorite part).
There are five different books called The Duel in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and this is the third I’ve read and maybe my favorite so far, but that may not be saying much: I may just not be a fan of books about duels? We’ll see how I feel if I eventually read the other two in this set.
The Dirty Dust (Cré na Cille) by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Translated by Alan Titley
Yale University Press, 2016
June 12th, 2016
The key things to know about this book, which was originally published in Irish in 1949, are explained by Alan Titley in his Translator’s Introduction. First: “In The Dirty Dust everyone is dead” (vii). And next: “It is a novel that is a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial, matters of life, which are often the same thing. It is as if, in an afterlife beneath the sods, the same old life would go on, only nothing could be done about it, apart from talk” (ibid.).
So, right: it’s set in a cemetery, under the ground, and opens with a newly-buried woman, Caitriona Paudeen, wondering whether she’s been put in one of the expensive plots or one of the cheaper ones. “Say the same things here as you said at home,” says a woman in a neighboring plot, and Caitriona does (and so does everyone else) (6). Caitriona is bitter about having died before her sister Nell, and isn’t at all pleased about being buried near Nora Johnny, her son’s wife’s mother (she clearly sees her son as having married down). Other people go on about the things they’ve always gone on about; everyone is at the center of his or her own world. There’s a French pilot whose plane crashed; he doesn’t speak Irish and mutters in French. There’s the schoolmaster, who tells Nora Johnny stories from romance novels, and is enraged when he hears that his younger wife has gotten remarried. There’s a guy who’s convinced that his favorite team won the All-Ireland football match the year he died, and someone else who died later who keeps trying to tell him that they didn’t. People go on about how they died—the guy who was stabbed, the guy who fell from something, the guy whose heart gave out. The book is nearly all dialogue, snippets of conversation, and there are parts where everyone’s talking about the same thing, communal fixations rather than individual ones—thievery/things that got stolen, or how the postmistress steamed open everyone’s letters, or competitive banter about whose death notice/wake/funeral was more impressive, or what they would have done if they’d “lived a bit longer” (281). The graveyard has elections, and there’s talk of starting a Rotary (with a hilarious proposed list of talks, with each speaker going on about his/her personal fixation), but mostly it’s a free-for-all of conversation and argument.
While I was reading this, I kept interrupting my boyfriend to tell him about various funny bits, and at one point he said the book sounded interesting but that he doubted he would read it. I’m not really surprised: in general, he cares more about plot than I do, and this book is definitely not plot-driven. As a character-driven/atmospheric read, though, it’s a lot of fun.
May 30th, 2016
This book (which was originally published in Japan in 2011) came out in the US in 2014, and I’ve been meaning to read it since then—prompted partly by this NY Times piece, and then by friends who read it before I did. The main idea of the book appears on the first page: the idea is to “Start by discarding. Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” This may be more practical for some people/spaces than others: I live in a one-bedroom apartment and this approach seems reasonable to me, but if I lived in a big house, maybe it’d seem overwhelming.
Kondo’s other main points are 1) the idea that you should deal with your stuff by category, not by place (e.g. don’t clean out your closet: deal with all your clothes at once, or at least all your tops at once, all your bottoms at once, etc.) and 2) the idea that you should take each thing in your hand and decide if it sparks joy, keeping it if the answer is yes, and getting rid of it if the answer is no. She argues against sorting through/discarding things little by little, saying that it’s hard to stay motivated that way because you don’t see immediate results, and she also argues that asking yourself if each thing sparks joy is a way to get better at knowing/recognizing what you like, and a way to get better at making decisions, both of which can then have positive ramifications in your life as a whole.
There’s a lot of stuff in this book that I like, enough that I’m happy just ignoring the bits that don’t resonate with me (like the exhortations not to wear sweatpants, if you’re a woman, and the weird weight-loss encouragements at the book’s end). I like that Kondo’s ultimate goal is happiness: “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things,” she says, “is to be happy” (38). She has a specific order for sorting things (clothes, books, papers, miscellany, mementos), which roughly makes sense to me (the idea is to do the easiest categories first, so you get better as you go and are used to the process by the time you get to the hard stuff), even if I don’t actually have interest in using her method on my books. (She says if you haven’t read a book you own by now, you’re not going to. Not true!) I think I’m most interested in trying her method on clothes: I realized when my boyfriend and I moved into our current apartment that the amount of clothing I found useful/appropriate to have when doing laundry meant having to go to the laundromat is different from the amount of clothing I find useful/appropriate to have when I can do laundry without going outside, but I haven’t actually pruned my wardrobe accordingly. Now, maybe I will.
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