Saturday, August 30, 2014

Craving fiction

I've been a bit irritable this week. There was a bit of stress in getting the kid back to school — her supplies, our routine — but not enough, I don't think, to account for my crankiness. I think it's because I'm not reading enough fiction.

Working from home a couple days and getting a lift a couple other days meant not reading on my commute. My days are regularly grounded, or framed, or inspired, or escaped, by those twice-daily quarter-hour immersions in an imaginary world. Their absence is felt.

I'm still reading, though, but nonfiction. I'm actively reading two nonfiction books, one because it's related to a MOOC I've been following, another is for book club; there's a third languishing on my nightstand — I read a page now and then. They're all very interesting. But they're not exactly entertaining.

I deliberately decided that I needed to supplement my current nonfiction reading with some fiction. Short pieces by Robert Walser (which I've been meaning to get to for a couple years) seemed to fit the bill. But I was wrong. These Berlin "stories" are lovely prose poems, meditative essays, descriptive vignettes; but they're not stories.

[I've even found myself craving (gasp!) television this week.]

But I feel compelled to finish all these books before starting something new. So, here's to a couple more days of restlessness, here on a fact-based Earth, before escaping to a fictional universe.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Vampires!

Importance of names —
Most appellations appear to displease them; they would prefer not to be discussed at all, I believe. The expression "un-dead" is often considered distasteful. (I use it privately here, but would never utter it aloud in the club.) "Revenant" will do at a pinch, though the connotations of burial and return are a little indelicate. I asked Verner what name he preferred. He said that I was considering the question from the wrong angle. "We don't need words for ourselves," he said. "It's the living we're always watching out for."

"What do you call us, then?" I asked.

He said that there were few names he would care to repeat — the kindest being "bleaters." "Blood bag" is another. A buxom human female, in low circles, might be termed a "claret jug." He added that amongst those with better manners, the most widespread term for us is "the Quick."

Then he smiled — an effort made solely to discompose me. "Not always quick enough, of course."

Lauren Owen's The Quick is a vampire novel. Why this should be a secret is beyond me. But I'm betting that:
1. If you've heard at all about The Quick through the usual internetted ways, then you already know there are vampires.
2. Readers of this blog would be more inclined to pick up this novel knowing it's actually a vampire novel, not just a romance steeped in Victorian gothic atmosphere.

(Quite frankly, while the jacket copy about secret societies intrigued me, it wasn't enough to get me to read this book. It's the vampires that grabbed me; I agreed to a review copy only after I'd heard about this twist.)

It's a hefty book, but action-packed and with interesting characters, so it's quick to read.

It's positively dripping with Victorian gothic atmosphere. It reminds me of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange (though I can't recall the details of that book, the mood stays with me) and Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black (which I loved for how it let the reader hover in uncertainty). The most obvious reference would of course be Bram Stoker's Dracula, but at the time of the events told in The Quick it was not yet written.

Owen's creatures fit nicely into the vampire tradition, building on fundamental notions we have, primarily via Dracula, but with a few qualities invented or borrowed from elsewhere. These vampires have not been reinvented into something unrecognizable; they are updated classic, and they are scary.

And as in Dracula, those affected by the creatures take up a scientific exploration of their nature, so fact and myths are affirmed and dispelled for the reader as they are learned by the characters. In both books we see the investigators turning to medical and technological innovations (even if to establish a scientific basis in folkloric remedies) to aid them in defeating, or curing, the monster. Certainly typewriters will record their accumulated knowledge for posterity.

Owen discussed some the themes in her novel in an interview with The Bookseller:
"In modern representations of the vampire, the vampire is a metaphor for sex and romantic relationships, but in earlier depictions of the vampire there is more leeway into folklore," Owen says. "There's the idea of the vampire coming back to his family and sickening them and the rest of the village with his attacks, so that was part of the choice.

"I think family relationships are very interesting; the idea of what you tell the people who are closest to you and what you don't tell them — or what you're able to tell them, and whether or not being able to tell them everything about yourself means that your love for your family is not complete."

The vampire as metaphor for sex is already firmly established in Dracula, and it's nice to see this fiction stretch a little further back into the lore. Owen explores a lot of different family relationships in this novel, which puts some store in the saying that blood is thicker than water. Vampires would live by that too.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday only ever existed at home

Park air welcomes me; the many thousand green leaves of the lofty trees are lips that wish me good morning: So you're up already too? Indeed, yes, I'm surprised myself. A park like this resembles a large, silent, isolated room. In fact it's always Sunday in a park, by the way, for it's always a bit melancholy, and the melancholy stirs up vivid memories of home, and Sunday is something that only ever existed at home, where you were a child. Sundays have something parental and childish about them.
— from "The Park" in Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser.

It's Sunday, and I find something heart-wrenchingly true in these words. Later, "Sundays only exist around the family table and on family walks." I can't reproduce my childhood Sundays. My parental Sundays waver; they are less grounded, still (still!) finding their way.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor

If you love freedom, if you think the human condition is dignified by privacy, by the right to be left alone, by the right to explore your weird ideas provided you don't hurt others, then you have common cause with the kids whose web-browsers and cell phones are being used to lock them up and follow them around.

If you believe that the answer to bad speech is more speech — not censorship — then you have a dog in the fight.

If you believe in a society of laws, a land where our rulers have to tell us the rules, and have to follow them too, then you're part of the same struggle that kids fight when they argue for the right to live under the same Bill of Rights that adults have.

This book is meant to be part of the conversation about what an information society means: does it mean total control, or unheard-of liberty? It's not just a noun, it's a verb, it's something you do.
This is an excerpt from the introduction to Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow.

This is a very puzzling novel. Doctorow has a message he wants to spread, and he's not very subtle about it.

A terrorist attack in San Francisco gives rise to a state run by the Department of Homeland Security, by which 17-year-old Marcus is tortured, his right to privacy confiscated, his entire way of life threatened.

This novel was on the reading list for the MOOC Fantasy and Science Fiction: the Human Mind, Our Modern World. One of the issues to arise in the discussion forums was whether this novel should be considered science fiction. The professor posits that it's a thought experiment, a what-if novel. But some students observe that there's no what-if about it.

This is not a novel for readers. This is a novel for schoolchildren. It includes a history of civil rights movements and discussion of civil liberties, as well as a history of underground communications and Internet computing. I believe the tiresome explication is a desperate plea to be taken seriously.

Little Brother is a contradiction. It is free for download while being a marketing brochure for the bookstores of corporate America (every chapter is dedicated to a bookstore deemed significant by Doctorow, including Amazon and several large chainstore). It is didactic enough for inclusion on school curricula, while purporting to be a defense of autodidacticism. Its intent can only be to subvert from within. It is a how-to guide to hacking. It is a call to revolution.

This is not a novel. This is a manifesto. It is not about the future; it is about the now.

In many ways, I think this is not a very good novel. But I think it's a necessary book. It lacks subtlety, because the world of today lacks subtlety. It is attempting to equip the youth of today, who through our overprotection are sadly ill-prepared to face some social and political realities. What Doctorow has to say is more important than how he says it.

"Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some books might be better off as movies

There are some notable exceptions to the generally accepted truth that a book is better than its movie adaptation. Jaws comes to mind. Children of Men. Bladerunner. And there are other titles that stand as art in both mediums; arguably they are not adaptations, but interpretations. I'm thinking of films like Kubrick's 2001 and The Shining and Tarkovsky's Solaris and Stalker, that are equal to but different from the books they were inspired by (with credit to Clarke, King, Lem, Strugatsky).

But every know and then I encounter a book that should've bypassed its print incarnation entirely. Archetype and its sequel Prototype, by M.D. Waters, fall into this category. I enjoyed Archetype when I read it last winter. I started Prototype earlier this summer and was interrupted by life, but I've spent the last couple days complaining about this book that I couldn't stop reading.

The dialogue lacks prompts, which helps with immediacy, but for extended conversations leads to confusion. The action sequences are full of vivid description, but are somehow overly visual; the angle of the kick, the position of the gun, the bodies in motion — too many details and I lose my spatial orientation.

I'm not sure who the intended audience is. There's steamy romance (with cheesy, soap opera-like "lines") and there's a militia resistance enacting covert operations and raids. One chapter to the next didn't quite feel like the same book.

However, I would've gladly given over two hours of my life to watch this onscreen. A futuristic dystopian sci-fi action adventure romance. Something for everyone. A real blockbuster.

There are some great themes of identity and memory in these novels related to cloning, with an undercurrent of feminism. But to my liking, these are underdeveloped. And in fact, Prototype never delivers on one subplot that it is hinted at throughout (whether one of the main characters is himself a clone).

The books were really unputdownable, but with the sequel clocking in at 384 pages, I resented it.

Have you read any books that should've gone straight to film?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Jetsetting, Helena-style

She's gone now, for a week. But she left me this picture on the whiteboard.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Still life

It happened far too often. Normally death came at night, taking a person in their sleep, stopping their heart or tickling them awake, leading them to the bathroom with a splitting headache before pouncing and flooding their brain with blood. It waits in alleys and metro stops. After the sun goes down plugs are pulled by white-clad guardians and death is invited into an antiseptic room.

But in the country death comes, uninvited, during the day. It takes fishermen in the their longboats. It gabs children by the ankles as they swim. In winter it calls them down a slope too steep for their budding skills, and crosses their skis at the tips. It waits along the shore where snow met ice not long ago but now, unseen by sparkling eyes, a little water touched the shore, and the skater makes a circle slightly larger than intended. Death stands in the woods with a bow and arrow at dawn and dusk. And it tugs cars off the road in broad daylight, the tires spinning furiously on ice or snow, or bright autumn leaves.
Still Life, by Louise Penny, is a wonderful palate cleanser of a book (a little too much SF for me lately). We've had cool, rainy days lately, and the leaves are starting to think about turning. The perfect backdrop for a perfect cosy mystery.

Louis Penny brings death in the morning to Jane Neal, lovely, likeable old woman who'd just had a piece accepted to the community art show. And, like most of the villagers, there's a secret hidden in it.

I've read a few of Penny's novels before, but Still Life is the book that started the series of mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Her first book is every bit as assured in tone, plotting, character, and wit as the others I've read. There's only less Montreal (where Gamache's home and office are) and less departmental politics.

Excerpt.
"Life is change. If you aren't growing and evolving you're standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead 'still' lives, waiting."
Perhaps the sentiment is a little anti-zen. More like stagnant stillness as opposed to being in stillness. But worth thinking about, no?