book review: zone one

I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.

First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.

Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).

Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.

Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.

Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.

In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.

book review: kafka’s hat

Kafka’s Hat is Patrice Martin’s story of a man who embarks on a quest to pick up the hat that once belonged to a famous writer for his boss. It’s much lighter than anything actually by Kafka, and also owes a great deal to Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. In the end it becomes a story about all those writers, but with a very light touch. It feels less substantial than those great writers’ works but a good complement.

I have a couple of quibbles with the characterization of P. one of the main characters. I don’t know if, even in the post-hoc rationalizing way that makes sense when you’re writing Kafka pastiche, a couple of the decisions P. made were actually earned by the character. At several moments P. felt less like a person caught in greater machinations than a playing piece being pushed by a writer. This is, obviously, a fairly fine distinction, as all characters are caught in the machinations of their writers, but I feel like if you’re drawing Kafka comparisons you’d better bring your A game.

But the problems I had were minor quibbles. The book is slight, yet solid. I would argue with the promotional copy about it being “delightfully absurd” (Jasper Fforde’s work seems more dlightful than this) but I definitely enjoyed my time reading it.

book review: zeitoun

Zeitoun is a Dave Eggers book about a Syrian-born house painter and his family and their experience with Hurricane Katrina. It’s a nonfiction book, told as a story. There are flashbacks to how Abdulrahman and his wife Kathy met, and stories of his older brother who was a long-distance swimmer, but most of the story is about how Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans and took his canoe around helping people and was thrown into Camp Greyhound and then prison for his trouble.

I haven’t immersed myself in a lot of the post-Katrina story of New Orleans, so while I knew that there was a lot of terrible stuff that happened, I didn’t know about the Guantanamo-esque prison camp that they built while people were trapped in houses and the water rose.

It’s not the kind of book that would make you feel much sympathy for anyone in charge of any kind of bureaucracy ever, but it seems to be a really good story about what being Muslim in 21st-century America is like.

I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t really like Eggers’ writing style. It seemed too basic and earnest. Which is fine, this isn’t a story you really want to be injecting a lot of ironic distance into, but I just didn’t like the writing very much.

book review: the left hand of darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those science fiction classics I hadn’t ever read. And it’s really good and I’m an idiot for not having read it until now, blah blah blah get all that stuff out of the way.

The protagonist of the book is not quite an ambassador from an interstellar consortium of humans. He is the only one on this planet called Winter. He’s there to ask the planet to join them. He’s not there with a fleet of ships, just by himself so that he can be a curiosity instead of a threat. That’s the idea at least.

The planet is interesting for its sexual dynamics. They’re human but strangely modified sometime deep in the past, so out of their 26 day months they are mostly androgynous. When they go into kemmer (which is sort of like estrous) their sexual characteristics come out, randomly male or female. This non-attachment to their gender is the fundamental strangeness of the people. Otherwise we see two nations: one is a monarchy led by an insane king. The other is a civilized Kafkan bureaucracy. Everywhere is cold. The last third of the book takes place on a thousand-mile hike across glaciers.

It was a beautifully sad book. It’s about friendship and gender and the complete blindness a person has when dealing with the foreign. The language is a bit interesting for a book dealing with gender so strongly. The masculine pronoun is used for all the androgynes because the neutral would have had too strange of connotations, says the narrator.

I believe it won a Hugo and that there are more books in the same universe, which I will now slowly read.

quashing participation

Information professionals should be using social media if they care about the rest of the world. I mean, I’m a fan of cataloguing in a cave, but engaging with your community is important. Even if you’re the most locally focused librarian ever in a community where none of your users give a shit about Twitter it’s important to be using it to pull in information and to show off the knowledge being created in your community.

One thing we learned in our Community-Led libraries course with Beth Davies and Annette de Faveri was the importance of not coming into a space with an agenda. Not showing up and saying “Here are some awesome things the library can do for you!” but hanging out and asking what is happening with them, letting the community lead the library. That takes a long time. I think participating online requires a bit more push than that, because if you’re just hanging out as a library, not talking on Twitter, you’re invisible (in a way you aren’t when you’re sitting in a halfway house with a box of donuts).

I also think the idea of a limit to our participation in social media is stupid. I mean, sure, posting pictures of patrons on Facebook without their permission is a bit sketchy. But stopping information professionals from being part of the world just because of who their employers are is bullshit.

A story from work: A library in Northern Australia was making use of some of Koha’s features to integrate a blog onto the front page of the OPAC. The library staff were creating this information to participate in the wider world and were really proud of it. And then their Communications Department found out and shut it down. Not because of something bad that happened but because of stupid bureaucratic power disputes that said librarians aren’t authorized to create publications. That story makes me incredibly angry. To have participation curtailed by the communications department who wanted more control over messaging is kind of terrible.

Part of my visceral reaction to that story has to do with my personal history working at a public library that had a regressive attitude towards people talking about things online. I was disciplined for blogging about work on my personal time. The disciplinary hearing involved the director of our library telling me I was not fit to be a librarian and shouldn’t go to library school because of my disrespectful attitude. This experience led to my disclaimer/explanation page you can see linked to on my library blog’s on Opinions page, and you can read some of my other ruminations about privacy and the like when that former library actually created a social media policy because of me. That link includes a response to a danah boyd article.

book review: cloud atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is probably the book I’d heard his name connected to first, years ago. I remember shelving it as a page and remembering people saying it was one of those literary novels that was also science fiction but got to be in the literary fiction ghetto because of his previous work. And I remembered something about a note having to go into editions of the book saying “part one is supposed to end in the middle of a sentence. Don’t worry guys.” And that’s what I knew going in.
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