Reading List Apr-Jun 2011

I haven’t been reviewing, but I have been reading although even that has dropped off at the end of June with a combination of traveling, limited internet access, and irregular work hours. I will get back to the main business in July, I promise. I see that people get here by searching for Geisler’s book and I don’t want to leave the review unfinished.

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

This book has been the most fun thing on the recommendation list so far. It was entertaining and full of fantastic happenings – and what good is fantasy if nothing fantastic ever happens? There were a lot of opportunities for things to go ridiculously over the top – time travel, werewolves, beggar guilds, historical figures… but almost everything came together satisfactorily.

The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This was not a fun book; it felt like an accomplishment, both the impressive prose and the feat of finishing it. Admittedly, I was busy and tired when I read it, getting only a few pages in at night before falling asleep and having to reread the ends of where I left off because I’d started scanning without comprehension. It wasn’t a good way to read. There’s a lot of circularity and different memories of the same events. Dspite my failings as a reader, it was an amazing work. It did not strike me as belonging on an SFF list though, even accounting for how many books with clearly fantastic elements are classified as literature rather than fantasy. The surreal or magical elements seemed to me to be entirely internal.

Looking for Jake and Other Stories – China Mieville

The weirdness and overflow and indulgence of Mieville’s novels are some of my favorite parts, and the more abbreviated and concise nature of the short story didn’t work for me as well. There were a few good stories among this collection, but none of them left me stunned with admiration and I was anxious to move on to the next book.

Blindness – Jose Saramago

I was concerned that this would be a slow and dense book, and was happily surprised that the pages flew by. Although there wasn’t constant action – much of the book was a description of the difficult day to day activity of the suddenly blind, the situation was continually compelling. While the resolution was fitting and paralleled the introduction to the conflict, thinking back on the book a few months later I do feel a bit frustrated with the lack of answers.

The Book of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch) – Gene Wolfe

The author’s relationship to real world religion kept tugging on me as I was reading. It’s hard to know what exactly to say about this particular series. It was worth reading even though I don’t share the author’s worldview. Sometimes the symbolism was so explicit that I felt like I was being preached to, and sometimes the story was so self contained that I felt ashamed for equating it with an allegory. In The Sword of the Lictor, when I read “I found myself thinking how strange it would be if the New Sun, the Daystar himself, were to appear now as suddenly as he had appeared so long ago when he was called the Conciliator”, I felt like Wolfe might as well have written, “Hey, the New Sun is Jesus, you know, Jesus, hey it’s Jesus”. At other times, it felt more like an artifact than a story. It seems to me that it’s more a rebuilding of the connections that belief might take – and a thoughtful and intellectual rebuilding too – but one that I don’t connect to and one where I can’t share the author’s vision.

Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

An important book to the SF genre, easy and quick to read. After Book of the New Sun, the straightforward style was a relief.

A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

The reread! I started reading this almost at the same time as the Game of Thrones show on HBO, partly so that I could nitpick, which I must say is not an angry or frustrated or dissatisfied reaction for me but merely a hobby. It also coincided conveniently with getting through a reread before A Dance with Dragons comes out on July 12. A year ago, I would have told you that I was over it; I’d waited so long that I didn’t care if I never read the rest of the series. Turns out that wasn’t true.

Kraken – China Mieville

Awesome and flawed. This seems to be a fairly common opinion. The atmosphere, the setting, the equal parts familiarity and weirdness of the Kraken religion, Goss and Subby, and the looming threats and secrets all around make the book amazing. I got into the premise much faster than I normally do with Mieville – even though I love the Bas Lag novels, I had to work through the first few chapters to get into the story. Unfortunately, the opposite happened with Kraken, as I started falling out through the middle. The parade of new characters and groups through the plot gets to be a bit much and ultimately doesn’t contribute much, and the characters in the special police unit feel unnaturally stuffed into the plot as they become increasingly slow and irrelevant and until they’re needed at the end. If I’d stopped halfway through, then read the last few chapters, the book would have been just as good.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti – Milton Rokeach

This book is about three men in a mental asylum who believe themselves to be Jesus. The author is a psychologist who hypothesizes that even if a person is mentally confused about his own identity, he will still hold to the fundamental belief that only one person can have a given identity – he gathers the men for daily meetings to see if confronting them with other people claiming their same identity will cause them to reevaluate their own claims. The book is both funny and sad at the same time. In one incident, a man in their ward is disturbed by another man’s snoring. He yells, “Jesus Christ! Quit that snoring!” and one of the Christs sits up and says “that wasn’t me who was snoring!” While their collective insistence leads to funny moments, I think it makes it even sadder that for the most part, the three men could be extremely articulate and charismatic. One is an avid and intelligent reader, and he can recount details of the author’s lives and culture as well as the plots of the books, but then will end by claiming that he is the true author and the work was stolen from him. The author calmly mentions that he thinks he has some understanding of experiences with no external reality, since he had real seeming experiences doing LSD!

The book was written in the 60s, and the author added some comments twenty years later, expressing regret for overstepping his patients’ autonomy in rearranging their lives in such a way. He says that the study was really about four men who thought they were God in a mental hospital, but by the end of the study, he himself had been cured of the delusion that he could interfere with their lives.

Embassytown – China Mieville

I wanted to love this book, but couldn’t. It’s a work of talent and intelligence, and is probably worth reading for the ideas. There are a lot of things to think about floating around, from the structure of language and how we think about language to how a society would be arranged when in proximity to a culture that cannot be fully understood or participated in. Unfortunately, the plot is haphazard, poorly paced and full of holes. The conflict, its resolution and the narrator’s part in it failed to convince me, and with many of the characters being either alien with a different concept of language and meaning, or pseudo-alien, having been altered to imitate the alien language, it didn’t help that I found all the characters who might have been relatable to be repugnant. It was hard for me to keep reading the narrator’s tone of petty superiority. I wouldn’t mind talking about the book, but I don’t want to reread it.

Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy

Bleaker than Blood Meridian or The Road, and both are pretty bleak. But it gave me pity and compassion for the characters in a way that McCarthy’s other books have not, and left me with a lingering desire for goodness to prevail rather than merely shock, horror, or in the case of Blood Meridian, dumbfounded awe. I thought that the book captured the Appalachian landscape and dialog better than The Orchard Keeper, although the theme of incest and fatalistic guilt may be a stereotype that wasn’t entirely transcended.

To steal from an earlier review, the theme of the absent father is always present and the parable of the murdered traveler in Blood Meridian can fit both the Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, but the scope of these stories falls short. Outer Dark does contain a moving and shocking story, complete with symbolism and references to many myths and older stories, but at the end, I was left feeling that the references were more a curiosity and an intellectual exercise than something that lent much lasting meaning. For me, it’s a preparation of all these things to be distilled into the figure of the Judge. (I like to write the list a few months after reading because sometimes my perception changes with time, but for this group of books, my opinion has stayed pretty much the same as with the first reading).

A Clash of Kings – George R.R. Martin

This is the book in ASOIAF that I really love because it’s the book where I first became so engrossed in the series. The politicking in King’s Landing is my favorite part, particularly as Tyrion begins to set into motion his plans for the younger Lannister children, believing that he’s starting to outsmart the councilors, figuring out who’s trustworthy, and putting his own people in place. The fact that he’s entirely wrong doesn’t make the setup any less enjoyable. The book also contains by far the best Dany section, in the House of the Undying, and the best battle, at the Blackwater. 

Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

This is the first McCarthy book where I’ve felt disappointed after finishing. It wasn’t difficult to read, and in many instances the prose was beautiful and deliberate and well crafted, but there was an insubstantial voyeuristic quality. It was a story about a necrophiliac serial killer. I felt that there was something of a moral to it, explicitly stated at the beginning that the man was another human like every other, and also that the life of such a person was not a series of packaged explanations or consequences of how he became that way and that his life resisted such a tidy summary – but the fact that I see the book as being one that can be explained in terms of having a moral is enough to make it less of a book than his other works. Ultimately, although it illuminated the material in a unique way, there wasn’t anything new or different about the material itself to the point that it boiled down to being just a serial killer story.

A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin

One of the best things about this book is how it fits in seamlessly with the events started in ACOK and the action flows naturally from the setup. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s that I find the stories located outside Westeros to be irritating and simplistic in comparison to the events without Westeros. The Jon events at the beginning are the most interesting, with some characters that hold their own against the problem that in the first three books, Jon’s story is always all about Jon and everyone else is a sidekick or plot device who mainly exists to advance Jon’s arc. And that just makes the second half of  his Gary Stu story that much worse. I’m not a fan of the blond chick frees a literally nameless mass of brown people bit either. My biggest hope is that the story continues to be about internal Westerosi events instead of the Jon and Dany show.


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