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book review: flight from neveryon

Reading a Samuel R. Delany book is something I do very slowly. I’ve learned it’s necessary to really think about what’s on the page to appreciate his work. I don’t know if I got that when I first read Dhalgren a decade ago, but I’ve got it down now.

Flight From Nevèrÿon is Delany’s third and final sword & sorcery book. There are three parts to the book. The first is about a young smuggler who collects stories of Gorgik the Liberator. He has a sexual encounter with a man who might be Gorgik’s companion. He meets more people who might be Gorgik or know Gorgik and all of them disappoint as new versions of stories get recreated in the smuggler’s mind. It’s very much a story about shifting perception. Then there’s the Mummer’s Tale, which is also about making up stories and performing them and the ways the subjects of those stories are represented.

But the big thing about this book is the story of Nevèrÿon mixed with the story of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s and the story of creating this story. There’s a plague in Nevèrÿon and a plague in New York and no one knows what is happening. The numbered sections fragment everything into this multifaceted beast of a story that seems like it could have no possible ending. It’s very different from most sword & sorcery.

I’d have to think much more carefully about it to be able to do the book justice in my own analysis/response, but for now I’ll just say it does reward slow reading. If you have the time, it’s a great book about power and sex and story.

book review: best shot in the west

Best Shot in the West is the story of Nat Love, a former slave who became an expert cowboy. The comic is taken from his autobiography, so it’s basically a pile of anecdotes of the cowboy life. It’s good cowboy stuff that isn’t about some kind of criminal life. He talks about the danger of stampedes and the work it is to deal with cattle rustlers. Very nice little introduction to cowboy-dom.

book review: the freedom maze

Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze isn’t the kind of YA book I normally read. It’s a story of a 13-year-old southern girl named Sophie in the 1960s who goes out to her grandmother’s manor for the summer. Her mom is all about Sophie behaving like a proper white lady. Then she travels back in time 100 years (through the intercession of a Creature in the maze) and is taken in as a slave on the sugar plantation. The plantation owners think she’s the misbegotten daughter of their dissolute New Orleans brother.

The story is about Sophie learning to be a slave. She starts off in the house but gets framed for stealing and has to do much crappier work. She makes friends and comes of age and doesn’t get to go home when what she thinks was a fine adventure is done.

It was a pretty good story, and it was easy to be mad at the characters you were supposed to dislike, including Sophie’s bitch of a mother. It didn’t feel preachy though. I was a little bored, but I’m not a huge slice of life historical fiction person in the first place. It felt well-researched, and I was very happy that Sophie’s physical changes from living six months in the span of twenty minutes weren’t taken back, Narnia-style.

book review: paying for it

Paying For It is Chester Brown’s comic-strip memoir about being a john. It is a fascinating look at prostitution and the arguments for and against it. Brown documents his decision to start paying for sex and each of the prostitutes he visited (with obscuring details) and the discussions he had with his friends about it.

Basically, Brown decided that romantic love was bullshit and why shouldn’t people have sex with people for whom it is a job? His companions tend to be more romantic (or as the cartoonist Seth says in the afterword, they “experience human emotions”). I should clarify; it’s possessive monogamy that Brown feels is the problem. We can have lots of friends, but why only one sexual partner? The afterword is filled with more information and notes about the book, and even if it doesn’t convince you to go pay for sex, it will make you think about the standard shortcut ways of thinking about prostitution.

Reading this book right after Debt: The First 5,000 Years was interesting, since that one was talking so much about how slaves are people who are removed from their social context, and Brown spends a good amount of time in the afterword debating whether any of his prostitutes were sex slaves (he doesn’t think they were).

book review: the years of rice and salt

I have had Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt on my “To Read” list for ages. Now it isn’t there anymore, having moved to the “I must bore everyone I know talking about this because I love it” list.

The book tells the story of a number of souls. Well, they’re more Buddhist than that, like assemblages of characteristics. They encounter each other and try to make the world better. They’re Persian or Chinese or Japanese or other subjects of the great empires of the world since the 14th century. There’s one who is a dreamer and one who desires justice and one who is happy. They find themselves on opposite sides of ideologies from their previous lives and in bodies of different genders and cultures and occupations. Sometimes we see them after they have died and they’re getting their souls redistributed in the bardo where they can have a bit more meta- attitude about the point of their lives and going back again and again and how they should do better the next time.

Each section takes place at a different critical point in history when these souls (whose human names begin with the same letter every life as a mnemonic) try to live and improve the world. It’s so good, and makes me so sad that all my conversations with friends are about what kind of jobs we’ll be able to find. The scale of the story is so big, so pan-human that anything else feels so petty.

The other thing about this book is that it is an alternate history. In the 13th century plague wiped out most everyone in Europe, so all the history is different from that point on. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known, but Christians have been lost to history (much like we’d think of druids today). The whole colonization of the New World is a competition between China and the Muslim world coming at it from opposite oceans. Things are different but similar all throughout the book. The indigenous people of North America resisted colonization in different ways because being exposed to smallpox in smaller batches meant there was less genocide by germs. And feminist Islam is different and the development of nuclear power is there but different.

I’m sure that if you wanted to examine the choices Robinson made in creating this alternate history critically you could see it as its own exoticizing racist colonialist terrible thing. I read it more as a book about possibilities and loved it. The language wasn’t systematic in what it made unrecognizable but it was enough to remind you that things are different in this world even as the beings living through it feel like nothing is changing. It’s exactly what I want fiction to do so I loved this book.

book review: the ask and the answer

The Ask and the Answer is the second book in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series. I didn’t like it as much as The Knife of Never Letting Go, but it is definitely worth a read. (There will be spoilers ahead for TKoNLG ahead. Be warned.)

If the first book is about Todd becoming a man, this one is about the kinds of choices an adult has to make. Todd thinks that Mayor Prentiss is his enemy but through this book he has to work with him at the cost of most of his soul. Viola gets to be a viewpoint character through this story and she’s in with the rebel/terrorist organization trying to stop Mayor Prentiss using bombs. The two of them are stumbling separately through terrible morasses of gray moral areas, so the adventure of the first book, with its clear goals and antagonists is largely gone.

There’s a lot of torture in this book. At least it felt like a lot. It’s much bleaker than the first. There’s more distrust between Todd and Viola but it isn’t pushed to such extremes that you have to yell at the characters or anything. They’re the only ones they really can trust, but it’s hard. Viola is being used to ferry bombs around to blow shit up and Todd’s being used in concentration camp duty branding the aliens. Nothing really good happens in this book, which is mighty oppressive (and that’s from a person who enjoys Empire Strikes Back downer endings, especially in the middle book of a trilogy). Oh no, the interactions with the horses were a tiny bright spot.

Also, I hated the fact that the publisher used a different font for Todd and Viola’s narration, especially since they were also labelled [Todd] and [Viola]. It was redundant and Viola’s font bugged the hell out of me.

I’m looking forward to finishing the series to get a fuller perspective on it, but yeah, so far bing an adult on New World sucks.

book review: the hollow earth

Rudy Rucker’s The Hollow Earth is a creative-commons licensed novel about a 15-year-old Southern gentleman and his slave and his dog and Edgar Allan Poe who go on an Antarctic expedition to the centre of the Earth. So yes, this is a continuation of my December Antarctica story binge, but I swear I didn’t know ahead of time.

It’s kind of a rollicking adventure tale that takes place back in the 1830s and is written in that sort of voice, but by a late-twentieth century writer. It’s startling how much of a difference that makes to the readability. It’s recognizably written in that impossible science style of exploratory wonder and 19th century diction but doesn’t require the same amount of reading through the gratingness. I’m going to have to come back to this to figure out how he pulled off the trick.

Not to say it’s a perfect book. Any of my difficulties with it were made up for in the afterword where some of the science and history behind the hollow earth theory (and the particular oddities of the construction in this tale) were laid out as proof of how this is a true story. Very neat.

book review: facing the bridge

I enjoy the length of Yoko Tawada’s stories. Like the other books of hers I’ve read, Facing the Bridge is a collection of three longish short stories, like 60 pages each. It’s an oddish length, which works because they’re oddish stories. The perfect kinds of things to sit down with on an afternoon and read.

In this book the three stories are about a Japanese exchange student in Germany and the first African to get a PhD in philosophy (back in the 1700s). The two parts to the story blurred into each other at the edges. There were no breaks between talking about Amo (the Ghanian) and Tamao (the Japanese student). The second story is about a Japanese tourist who goes to Vietnam. This was my favourite in the book because of her talking about what a tourist’s role is as she buys coconuts and goes to see temples. And there are these wonderful non sequiturs about fearing becoming pregnant. The last story is about translating and living in the Canary Islands. It was the weirdest of the three (though all were plenty odd).

There’s just so much in Tawada’s odd characters and their not entirely rational decisions they make that I find very attractive, in an intriguing kind of way.

book review: nat turner

I enjoy working at the big library’s reader services desk when I get the chance, as the proximity to the graphic novels section gives me more of a chance to be distracted by and grab something to read. One guy who works down there told me Kyle Baker’s book Nat Turner was good so I read it on my lunch. It’s the historical story of a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner who’d taught himself to read and write and then became an agent of God who killed (with the help of the slaves he freed) 40 some odd people. The book starts off in Africa where it’s nearly wordless (at one point a man is stopped from shooting a slave by a slaver saying “$!”). As it goes on the pictures are embellished with Nat Turner’s own explanation of what happened. Axes are used quite a lot. People go back to kill the infants they forgot about. The whole thing was a quick read and brutal.

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