Monday, December 31, 2012

I have waited my whole life

Deckles stands, straightens his robe, braces himself, and gives the shelves behind the desk a sharp shove. They swivel smoothly and silently — it's as if they're weightless, drifting in space — and as they draw apart, they reveal a shadowed space beyond, where wide steps curl down into darkness. Deckles stretches an arm to invite us forward. "Festina lente," he says matter-of-factly.

Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.

— from Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Until the end of the world

Some things we plan,
we sit and we invent and we plot and cook up;
others are works of inspiration, of poetry;
and it was this genius hand that pushed me [...]

— from "Until the End of the World," by Nick Cave.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I mused on my mistake

Last week I read The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul.

I saw "lust" where the text said "last." I tried to continue reading, but couldn't. I mused on my mistake, marvelling at the ability to read in the first place. How did the eyes work? And the brain? Just as I wobbled on a bike if I allowed myself to think about balance, my reading became shaky if I wondered about the mechanism of reading. I loved reading and had always thought of it as a refuge. I even read the labels on bottles, if only to keep myself occupied on trains or in restaurants. I read in bed at night. If I lay awake for more than two minutes after switching off the light, I switched it on again to avoid lapsing into thought. To avoid thinking.

And so I read this book, on my commute, in bed at night, without ever caring what it was about. To keep myself occupied. I kept myself occupied a little longer as I walked from the metro to my office, wondering, what is this book about? it's certainly not a muder mystery, and I'm not even sure it's a mystery of any order. It's about, well, just her, maybe her writer's temperament, maybe that annoying way of focusing in or out just when it doesn't quite suit the reader. Most people say it's about grieving, but I've seen many people grieve, and if that's what this book is about, it's not entirely genuine, or at least complete.

For the longest time, and pretty much from the start, I thought it was about her relationship with her estranged daughter, the one she'd essentially abandoned when she left her husband for another man. It seems to me to be the emotional centre of this book anyway.

Mostly it was just boring.

Several of the reviews listed below found this book rich in emotion and character, and even worthy of a second reading. I don't get it. And I doubt I'll be reading it again to try to figure it out.

The review that originally turned me on to this book, which I'm sadly unable to track down now, was, ironically, a fairly negative one. I gambled my tastes against that reviewer's and lost.

I'm all for "literary" and "genre-subverting" and "ambiguity" — even in my murder mysteries — but I'm not convinced this book succeeds on any of these counts (and it's not a murder mystery).

Andrew Blackman
Book Snob
Necessary Fiction
Reading Matters
Tony's Reading List

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sheckley's store of worlds

"But your skin is made of metal," Melisande said. "And metal can't feel."

"Darling Melisande," the Rom said tenderly, "if flesh can stop feeling, can't metal begin to feel? If anything feels, can anything else not feel? Didn't you know that the stars love and hate, that a nova is a passion, and that a dead star is just like a dead human or a dead machine? The trees have their lusts, and I have heard the drunken laughter of buildings, the urgent demands of highways..."

— from "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?," in Store of the Worlds, by Robert Sheckley.

(That story was originally published in Playboy, and yes, the title means what you think it does.)

I've been reading the stories of Robert Sheckley since early summer. This collection, issued by NYRB Classics, has been my go-to book when I needed something short or witty or thoughtful, as a palate cleanser between books, sometimes during other books, or just because.

As I've mentioned before, the stories have a very Twilight Zone-y feel. Some of the details are dated (for example, references to Fuller Brush salesmen), but the ideas themselves are not. Some may call the prose naive, but I find it refreshingly straightforward.

I'm sorry to have finished this collection. I wish only that there might be another to get me through next year.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

We don't notice things change

OK, wow. This is some of the most interesting sci-fi I've ever read.

I first heard about Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a handful of years ago, in the context of it having served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (which I hope to see someday soon). It came up again last spring, as a new translation was being published in English.

The few reviews I saw haled it as a classic, and while it was generally revered as such by sci-fi fans (on various blogs and forums, as well by fans among my personal acquaintance), that seemed to be the result of the book resting on its reputation, not because many people had actually read it.

I picked up a copy this summer, but it's not till a few weeks ago when I heard the news that Boris had died that I was inspired to read it.

I was not prepared for this.

The problem is we don't notice the years pass, he thought. Screw the years — we don't notice things change. We know that things change, we've witnessed things change ourselves many a time, and yet we're still utterly incapable of noticing the moment that change comes — or we search for change in all the wrong places. A new breed of stalker has appeared — armed with technology. The old stalker was a sullen, dirty man, stubborn as a mule, crawling through the Zone inch by inch on his stomach, earning his keep. The new stalker is a tie-wearing dandy, an engineer, somewhere a mile away from the Zone, a cigarette in his teeth, a cocktail by his elbow — sitting and watching the monitors. A salaried gentleman. A very logical picture. So logical that other possibilities don't even occur.

In many ways, this is not a science fiction book at all. It's not exactly a crime novel either, but it circles round a group of scavengers and thugs and the black market economy they've helped build up around alien artefacts.

The Earth has been visited by aliens. The several landing areas are zones of total devastation, now with weird gravitational properties and other physical abnormalities, and littered with alien crap. Stalkers risk their lives to venture out into the zones, to retrieve this junk. Much of it is destined for genuine, institutionalized scientific research, but not without it first passing through the hands of several interested parties and generating some profit along the way. But pretty much nobody has any idea what all this crap is for or what purpose it can be set to.

Oh, right. And reanimated corpses. Corpses buried near the Zone just get up and go home. They move pretty slowly and the stench is overwhelming at first, but you get used to it. Also, a ban on emigrations from the Zone, as weird and unlikely mass disasters seem to follow those people who were inhabitants at the time of the visitation.

Our protagonist, Red Schuhart, is a stalker with a heart of gold. Sure, he wants to promote science, but at the end of the day, he just wants to make an "honest" buck.

Certainly, this is one of the most tension-packed novels I've ever read. The job of stalker is tougher than driving truckloads of nitroglycerin. I'm pretty sure there's an actual reference to nitroglycerin in the text, though of course I'm unable to track it down now. Have you seen that great Yves Montand film, Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), where they drive the nitroglycerin along extremely rough roads, and they might blow up at every bump, every turn? This novel is like that, with the stalkers inching along on their bellies, only they don't know if they'll explode or implode, disintegrate or melt. This edge-of-your-seat tension is what made that movie and this book excellent thrillers, aside from whatever political or social commentary they want to make. I mean, take the aliens out of this book, cast Humphrey Bogart as Red, and you'd still have an excellent story.

The scenes where Red goes into the Zone are unforgettable.

Highly recommended.

Shelf Love
Wuthering Expectations

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Punch in a bowl

Helena's been invited to a Christmas party this weekend, and I've been trying to impart to her the concept of a hostess gift — a nice thing to do despite having been told no presents are required.

Maybe a Christmas ornament, or at the grocery store this evening I suggest fancy chocolates to share with the girls. Helena's look says I'm being lame.

She tells me, "Just so you know, Mom, when I'm a teenager, I'm going to be invited to lots of cool parties. Really cool. Like where they serve punch. In a bowl." I don't see how this precludes a hostess gift, but I suppress a laugh, and for the time being I let it lie.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Books for play

Here are three books on my Christmas shopping list that aren't exactly books; that is, they are books, and just a little bit more — art, games, puzzles, adventures, playthings, exercises in deduction.

1. Color Your Own Graphic Novel: Sherlock Holmes The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by John Green.

The classic detective story is done up comic-book style, and you get to colour it yourself. We're big fans of Sherlock in this household. I suspect Helena would find Arthur Conan Doyle's original text and little daunting at her age, and I hope this abridged text will be a little more accessible. Plus (did I mention?), it's a comic book! And you get to colour it yourself! OMG how perfect is that when you're 10!

2. The Worst-Case Scenario, An Ultimate Adventure: Amazon: You Decide How to Survive!, by Hena Kahn and David Borgenicht, with Ed Stafford, Amazon consultant, illustrated by Yancey Labat.

Helena and I worked through a previous adventure in this series, to Mars. It's a choose-your-own-adventure-type story, but your life depends on it. Not only do you have to identify which choice demonstrates bettter science, but you need to perform risk-benefit analyses and manage some complex relationships. We spent more time talking — discussing our choices and the factors that played into them — than reading. Also, we made the wrong choices, and failed several times.

It's not just about decision making, and it's not just about a fun reading experience, though it is those things. I love that the series is based on real, true-life facts.

This Amazon adventure promises piranhas, tarantulas, mosquitoes, monkeys, and jaguars..

3. Penguin Classics Mad Libs, by Roger Price and Leonard Stern.

I admit: I'm stuffing my own stocking with this one. This collection of Mad Libs borrows the openings of literary classics, and leaves you to fill in the blanks. "It was the best of times, it was the ____ of times." The kid may not appreciate the classics yet, but she enjoys Mad Libs. The rest of my family is tolerant of my enthusiasm for both these things. I'm crossing my fingers that someone will play with me.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Like a locust

Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is big, really big, with a big heart, and a big vocabulary. It starts off as an adventure — gangs of criminals, New York's immigrants and destitute. But before you know it, it's a love story, very possibly a tragic one. Oh, and there's a magic horse. Then suddenly you're jumped forward in time to what appears to be a more contemporary setting, and you're very sad that you won't be spending more time with the characters you came to love in part one. But there's this crazy old lady who keeps a rooster like a cat and whom you need a dictionary to keep up with, and her charming daughter. Some more new characters, and it slips into slapstick. A couple chapters later you're back in New York, and then it's a newspaper novel, you can smell the ink rolling off the presses as the wit rolls off their tongues. But lo, there appears to be a rift in the space-time continuum. And it's mostly very lovely and uplifting, even when people die.

It's all a bit fantastic, in every sense. See, there's this thing with the dead, who've returned, or who just keep on, and the eternal city, and the bridge of pure light that need be built to get there. I don't think anything directly offended my atheist sensibilities, but till the very end I was afraid it might give way to something more overtly religious than the vaguely mystical. I'm pretty open-minded about what I read, I read broadly, and I'm generally happy to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story or an interesting idea; but I was never fully comfortable with where I felt this book was trying to lead me, even though I ended up a little to the side of the destination I'd anticipated. But it is a good story, and very well told.

The love in this novel for New York and for winter, for New York in winter, for language, for life, is immense. I loved reading Winter's Tale a lot, and I feel it deserves to be loved better than I was able to. Which is a pretty powerful thing for a book to inspire. I'm curious about Helprin's other novels, and I'll be happy to read this one again in my old age.

A warning: if you can help it, don't read this as an e-book. The proofreading job on the OCR to digitize this book was atrocious, far past distracting and well into confusing; e.g., "haifa" for "half a", "mat" for "what", "silendy" for "silently", and many others, including some permutations which I abandoned as unsolvable. And the apostrophes are missing.

"A benevolent act is like a locust: it sleeps until it is called."