Reading and Linking

Though the amount of interesting stuff online hasn’t diminished, and the rate of wonderful things being published by my friends has, if anything, sped up, I still have yet to put together and Tabclosing or My Friends Write Things posts in 2015. This is because my resolution to finish 100 books has most of my reading time happening offline. Usually, for those posts, I would go back and reread all that had recently caught my attention and pick the ones that seemed of greatest interest. Now that attention has been consumed by the Reading2015 process. I feel bad about no longer highlighting the work of my peers, though. I might try to start putting together more frequent, minimal link posts so the backlog doesn’t end up feeling as punishing to my book goals.

Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

His last tweet:

LLAP

Reading 2015: February

FebuaryBooks

Travel and illness slowed me down a bit this month. I had a lovely trip back to Iowa City, several less lovely trips to doctors’ offices and med labs, and a fully unlovely bout with strep throat and fever. As such, a lot of my downtime was spent on mentally undemanding television rather than books. Thanks to having read nine books last month, and by leaning towards graphic novels and shorter collections, I’m still on pace for 100 for the year. But I’ll have to pick it up in March (which was my best month last year).

  1. Tenth of December by George Saunders – As I expected from how celebrated it was when it came out, this collection is Saunders at the height of his incomparable game. The standout story for me was “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a science fiction tale with as nuanced a look at poverty as any I’ve read. Other memorable pieces were “Escape from Spiderhead,” which I’ve previously quoted on this blog, and the titular “Tenth of December,” which I had read before on it’s initial publication in The New Yorker. I also found myself tearing up occasionally, notably during the story “Exhortation,” which adopts the voice of an abusive person in power exhorting propriety when the request itself is really a plea for absolution, one that carries with it the sense that, just by making the plea, absolution is earned. The subtext, “I’m hurting you, but I know I’m hurting you and I feel bad about it, so that makes it sort of okay, right?” is one that reminds me of some of the more severe times I have found my trust misplaced, and so his fictional evocation of it hit hard.
  2. The Sculptor by Scott McCloud – There are few things I enjoy more than huge, trope-aware graphic novels that use narratives of waxing and waning interpersonal relationships to explore complex, clever themes. Books like Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. This new book by McCloud, his first fiction in 20 years, hits somewhere near the center of that aesthetic target. The main character is David Smith, a down-and-out, nothing-left-to-lose sculptor offered a deal by the personification of death: he can have the power to perfectly sculpt anything in the world using just his imagination and bare hands, but he will die in 200 days. What follows is a story of an artist interrogating what he values about art and life, and how his answers change when their relation to mortality is concrete rather than abstract. The story frequently seems only a step or two away from being overwrought, but for me it avoided ever tumbling over that edge. The art is a consistent pleasure, the story heartfelt. This is a completely earnest book, which redeemed narrative moves that I might have found cliched from another author.
  3. Get In Trouble by Kelly Link – I had read four of the nine stories in this collection before, because I am nowhere near patient enough to wait until the books come out to read Kelly Link. I’ve bought entire anthologies just because they contained a new short story of hers. It’s hard to pick standout stories from this one, because everything Kelly writes is so weird and fascinating. But “The Summer People” is a rare treatment of fairies that I don’t find annoying, “Secret Identity” and “Origin Story” are superhero fiction like nothing you’ve ever read before, and “Light” is basically what Welcome to Night Vale would be if it were exactly as crazy and yet somehow subtle at the same time. This is fiction to get lost in and come back changed. (A funny thing: I write these little capsule reviews after I finish the book, and post them at the end of the month. Since I wrote the preceding, my friend Carmen Machado has published a much more in-depth review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which she expressed an almost identical sentiment to my last one.)
  4. The Deep by John Crowley – Earlier this year I started reading Crowley’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel Little, Big. I got about 80 pages in, and thought the writing was great but the story mildly irritating. It seemed coy, like it was likely to be 500 pages of tiny glimmers of fairyland shining through the worn fabric of the mundane world, which I was not in the mood for. (As mentioned previously, fairies are a hard sell for me.) I’ll likely revisit it someday soon, but decided instead to go back to Crowley’s first novel, something more SFnal and thus more aligned with my aesthetic preferences. My copy of The Deep carries a glowing blurb from Ursula Le Guin, which makes sense; it has a lot structurally in common with Left Hand of Darkness. The writing is crisp and frequently lyrical, and the plot skips along at great velocity. Political schemes and reversals of fortune that would unfurl over 200 pages in, say, Game of Thrones happen in mere paragraphs, and the whole book is less than 200 pages long. Crowley also does a fascinating thing where early in the novel we are introduced to what strikes the reader as a primitive cosmology destined to be overturned by the visitor from space, but in the end, this cosmology is basically correct, and it’s the reader’s assumptions that are unfounded. But while I found this book intellectually interesting, I remain somehow passive to it. I feel the same way about a lot of Le Guin’s work, too: clearly brilliant, inspires great admiration, but fails to enflame my imagination the way my favorite fiction does.
  5. The Wilds by Julia Elliott – I was not previously familiar with Julia Elliott, but this was recommended by Janalyn Guo, who’s a fan of her stories. As am I, now. This is an excellent collection, and one that seems to be mostly off the radar of the Spec Fic community, despite many of these stories being science fiction. (I’d say entirely off the radar except the VanderMeers did publisher her in the inaugural Best American Fantasy.) It’s very “literary” science fiction, by which I mean that these are interiority-driven stories with ambiguous endings that resist plot resolution–cadences that are more common to realist fiction than SF. But here’s an incomplete list of the speculative conceits in this book: powered exoskeletons for the elderly, nanotechnological cures for dementia, urban society overrun by wild dogs, a biological regeneration spa that medicinally afflicts clients with suppurating infections, a mutated form of toxoplasmosis that causes internet addiction, a robot subjected to iterated biochemical simulations of love as its language database is constantly upgraded. She has a novel coming out soon, The New and Improved Romie Futch, which I’ll definitely be reading.
  6. Mail Order Bride by Mark Kalesniko – This graphic novel was bad in ways that make it tempting to psychoanalyze the author. The titular mail order bride is a Korean woman who moves to Canada to marry a 39-year-old, comic book store owning, geek loving, jock hating, virginal manchild. Obviously, he has an Asian fetish too, and spends two-thirds of the book volubly exoticizing her and complimenting her on stereotypical Asian traits she doesn’t actually possess. While his racist fetishizing and disinclination to learn anything personal about his new wife is positioned as a character flaw and the main driver of the book’s conflict, this criticism is undercut by the fact that the narrative never reveals any of his wife’s actual identity. This might work if the story was from the husband’s point of view, but it’s primarily from hers, and while she grows to hate her husband’s blunt objectification, “Doesn’t enjoy being objectified” is very nearly the only thing the reader learns about her that her husband doesn’t. In the end, after a violent confrontation, they are both too cowardly to leave each other, and persist in a loveless marriage. This unambitious, repetitive story is perpetrated at such length and with such little subtlety that I came away feeling like the whole thing was an act of self-flagellation. Looking around online, most of the contemporary reviews of this book are positive, which I can attribute only to the OGN readers of 2001 being so eager to celebrate the “literary” within the medium that even a work this meager–but with nudity and without triumphalism–would be feted as mature.
  7. Trash by Dorothy Allison – I had read about half of this before, and finally finished it. It’s a largely autobiographical collection of stories about poverty, abuse, and 1980s-era lesbian culture. The first story, “River of Names,” about how differences of class and traumatic history separate two women in love, was among the more memorable assigned in my first college creative writing class. My other favorite one was “Violence Against Women Begins At Home,” about schisms within progressive communities and how people grow apart. Some of the stories didn’t strongly grab me narratively, though I understood their importance as part of the thematic and autobiographical project of the whole. Tonally, I was more able to appreciate what Dorothy Allison was doing by having read Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For, the early parts of which depict a contemporaneous community similar to the ones in Trash (and were also published by Firebrand Books).
  8. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard – I’ve now read this book every year for the last three. I guess I like it.

I do not have fantasies. Fantasy opens me up; I become fantasy. I am the dangerous daughter, the thigh-stroking, soft-tongued lover, the pit, the well, the well of horniness, laughter rolling out of me like gravy boiling over the edge of a pan. I become the romantic; the mystic; the one without shame, rocking myself on the hip of a rock, a woman as sharp as coral. I make in my mind the muscle that endures, tame rage and hunger and spirit and blood. I become the rock, I become the knife. I am myself the mystery. The me that will be waits for me. If I cannot dream myself new, how will I find my true self?

–Dorothy Allison, “The Muscles of the Mind”

Asimov’s Has It Covered

It’s not out yet, but it will be soon. My novella “The New Mother” will be in the very next issue of Asimov’s, which means details have started to drop. If you take a look at their Next Issue feature, you’ll notice it leads off with this:

Eugene Fischer’s cover story chronicles a pregnant reporter’s investigation of a mysterious illness that has the potential to cause massive society upheaval and which will certainly engender repercussions for “The New Mother.”

Ha! “Engender” indeed. This’ll be my first time being on the cover of, well, anything.

The Fundamental Problems With On/Off Statistics

A lot of modern so-called “advanced” basketball analytics, like RAPM, are attempts to ignore traditional statistical measures and use on/off or plus/minus stats to holistically capture performance. This method doesn’t work particularly well without secreting arbitrary, consensus-affirming weightings into the mix, but it’s growing in popularity anyway. Over at Boxscoregeeks, Patrick Minton has published a very simple set of thought experiments that show why on/off NBA analytics are flawed.

It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.

–George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead

“Adrift” Now Online

Asimov's Science Fiction (April-May 2010)Eons ago in 2010 I had my first publication in Asimov’s, a near future SF short story about oceanic technology and global politics titled “Adrift.” I wrote the first draft as part of my Clarion application, and revised it through a haze of pain and drugs during the ten post-Clarion months I was bedridden with Crohn’s disease. I sent it out, got rejected, sent it out again, just going through the motions, the vast majority of my attention consumed by the slow struggle back towards health and the contemporaneous crumble of my long term relationship. September of 2009 found me living alone in an apartment, in a body warped beyond recognition by a long course of prednisone, wondering where the last year had gone. So when I heard from Sheila Williams that she wanted to buy this story for Asimov’s, the good news struck me as a sparkle from very far away. It was like being gifted a fragment from the life I’d thought I’d have, the one where I left Clarion with artistic momentum, wrote more stories, applied to graduate school, began to focus on having a writing career.

Now, half a decade later, I feel I’ve finally arrived at where I thought I’d be in 2009. I’m healthy, I’m writing, I have the momentum of an inspiring fiction program behind me. And in April I’ll have a new story in Asimov’s, my novella “The New Mother.” But being here inspired me to look back at where I was, to reread “Adrift.” To my eyes now–eyes that have been trained by years of graduate workshops and teaching fiction students–it is apparent how the circumstances of its creation influenced the writing. I see, in its mannered sentences, a young man struggling through pain and fear to focus on the version of himself that he hopes, in his best moments, he may still get the chance to be. I see the first examples of some themes and concerns that would recur in my writing through grad school. I see things that make me cringe, and things that make me proud of my own strength. I see the intersection of so many circumstances still echoing in my psyche that, to me, reading this story is like traveling through time. And now, five years after it was originally published, I’m offering it again to you.

Read “Adrift” online here.

The experience of being fictionalized can be like overhearing people talk about you when they don’t know you’re there. The temptation is to give what you overhear great credence, as if people would only say what they really think about you behind your back. But behind your back is also where people are most free to vent, to be peevish, unfair, sniping, and slanted; behind your back is where they are most apt to try out imprecations and outlandish opinions and, in general, to be far less generous or compassionate or accurate than they probably are.

–Michelle Huneven, “You’ve Been Fictionalized

Reading 2015: January

January books
Rather than record the books I read in groups of 20 as I did last year, I think this time I’m going to track my reading month by month.

  1. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon – I read Last and First Men several years ago, and quite liked it. Star Maker is a companion work, and references Last and First Men (which I think I enjoyed a bit more) several times. They aren’t novels in the traditional sense; these are philosophical fabulations of different ways human life, nonhuman life, and the universe itself could exist, stitched together with thin threads of narrative. One particularly interesting thing about Star Maker is how much time Stapledon devotes to explaining in detail concepts that have become very familiar in the last 100 years. For example, he devotes many pages of imagistic text to the changing appearance of stars as one travels closer and closer to the speed of light. The writing clearly expects a readership that’s never seen such things visually depicted. It’s rare to read cosmologically rigorous science fiction from before the space age, when these things began to be tropified, then commonly visualized. (While I own the physical copy of this book pictured above, I actually read this on my phone as an ebook, using the excellent app Marvin.)
  2. Off Course by Michelle Huneven – I read this on the strength of her previous novel Blame, which was among my favorites I read last year. Off Course is a novel of much narrower scope, following a woman with mildly fraught family relationships and an incomplete dissertation who lets a few years of her life disappear into a rural affair with a married man. An enjoyable read, but it didn’t blow me away like Blame did.
  3. Saga vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples – I could easily just repeat what I said for volume 3. I don’t follow comics the way I used to, but Saga awakens my old fervor. Like science fiction or fantasy or gorgeous artwork? Read it.
  4. On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch – The third novel by Disch I’ve read, and longer than the other two combined. This is a 1979 Bildungsroman set in a fairly recognizable satire of the future United States dominated by ecological disaster, urban economic collapse, and rural religious fundamentalism. Also, in this world, some people who sing while hooked up to a particular device can leave their bodies and psychically fly around. I find Disch’s writing fascinating, though I haven’t  been able yet to exactly articulate why. Part of it just the manifest confidence and intelligence shining through the pages; Disch doesn’t apologize, doesn’t waste any time on bashfulness, and even his expository devices operate at a sprint. He was clearly among the most technically and verbally gifted writers of his era of science fiction, and yet his fall from the modern conversation is starting to make a kind of sense to me. Not because he isn’t worth being talked about, but because so far each of his novels have come to rest in my mind as somehow amorphous. Most books I’ve read sit in my memory as a sort of solid aesthetic crystal whose facets encompass the shape of my reading experience even as the textual details fade. Disch’s books, though, have blurry borders. The moments that sparkle in the mist are dazzling, but the formlessness is somehow mildly, naggingly dissatisfying. As is this description, even to me, because I nonetheless find his books fully compelling and intend to read more.
  5. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce – Merritt left Iowa just before I arrived, and while we have many friends in common and were once both in the same reading, I don’t think we’ve ever actually met. But I thought the piece she read at our joint event was memorably great, and only ever heard good things said of her and her work during my years in Iowa City, so was excited to read her first novel. I consumed it in one go, mostly while sitting at a bar, which ended up feeling appropriate as this is a novel of sex and search for self definition set against a constant backdrop of the food service industry. This is a book that resists tidiness, moralizing, or resolution, and if you enter it expecting the glimmer of redemption to ever arc toward the horizon you will be disappointed. What’s on offer here instead is a sort of fierce snowfall, a four year blizzard of cutting fragments, each slice an attempt to figure out how to manage existing in the world.
  6. The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter – In my last year at Trinity University my attention began to swing away from physics and back toward fiction, and so I signed up for the undergraduate fiction writing workshop. My professor was Andrew Porter, a soft spoken and knowledgeable Iowa alumn who explained on the first day that he discouraged writing genre fiction in his classes, as genre fiction lacked the attention to character which he wished to cultivate. When I inevitably chose to try to prove him wrong, writing what would eventually turn into “Husbandry,” his enthusiastic reception of what I’d done completely won me over. Years later, when I wrote to let him know that one of his students had been accepted to Iowa, he could not have been more excited for me. Which is all to say: Andrew played a big role in shaping the path of my life, and I have been meaning to read this book for years. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get to it until now, though. These are quiet, unadorned stories of ordinary and largely suburban life, the conflicts mostly struggles of self definition. It is exactly the sort of writing I would have been least able to appreciate back in 2006, when I was indignantly launching zombies across the workshop table. Now though, post-MFA, I have a much greater understanding of space this kind of fiction occupies.
  7. Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill – About halfway through reading this book I realized that I had unconsciously decided, without ever previously articulating it to myself, that I would read everything Mary Gaitskill has ever published. To borrow a phrase, her writing is like an exposed nerve. Her stories are twitching and lucid and sharply felt, unsanitized and unsentimental, full of analytical language and twisting images that knot around emotions I find achingly familiar but wouldn’t have known how to begin capturing with words. This collection is an unflinching look at how impossibly, fractally complex sex and relationships are, even in circumstances where we tell ourselves they are straightforward. I think my favorites from this volume were the four part novella “The Wrong Thing” and the short story “Blanket,” which seems to me almost like an opposite direction companion piece to “A Romantic Weekend,” my favorite story from her first collection.
  8. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – I was feelingly weirdly intimidated by long novels, as though, having decided I wanted to try to read 100 books this year, I feared I would only manage it by sticking to shorter works. That seemed like the kind of avoidant psychology which can spill from its container and paralyze you, so I decided the thing to do was commit to a giant brick of a novel. Wolf Hall turned out to be the perfect choice. It’s a historical novel focusing on Thomas Cromwell, a man who became a chief aide of King Henry VIII, but in my mind it’s Game of Thrones except all the people are real and instead of blood magic there’s clever banter. It’s easy to see why this won the Man Booker prize. I couldn’t put it down, and read it nearly straight through, stopping only to sleep, and that less than I should have. I was so absorbed, when I finished it I went immediately out and bought…
  9. Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – The sequel to Wolf Hall, which also won the Man Booker award. This book picks up right where the previous one ends, and I continued my three day Mantel binge straight through to the end. Her writing is poised, layered, funny. I feel gluttonous reading these books, and moved to stay up until sunrise finishing them, which I discover my body doesn’t handle nearly as well at 31 as it used to. So thanks for making me feel old and busted, Hilary Mantel. Jerk.

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