book review: chronic city

I was a little disappointed in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. It was a bit too aimless for me to really get into, and not weird enough for me to appreciate on those merits. It’s also so specifically about upper-class New York City, I couldn’t really connect to it.

It’s the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star in a weird New York, where fog enshrouds everything beyond some street and a giant tiger is on the loose tearing up the subway. Insteadman has a fiancee astronaut who’s dying in space and he hangs out with Perkus Tooth, a former film critic, and smokes a lot of weed.

It wasn’t bad, but nothing about the book really got into my head or my guts. I feel like it might reward rereading, but I didn’t like it enough to really want to put in the effort.

booklog summary: august/september 2013

Every so often I get far enough behind in my book blogging I just declare bankruptcy and start fresh. This is one of those times. Here’s what I’ve read since my last book review:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: Good post-apocalypse stuff. Realistic but not too depressing.
  • Time and the Batman by Grant Morrison: Kind of bullshit. Can’t remember why.
  • Zoo Station by David Downing: A cold war spy novel set in Berlin. I think I’ve now conflated an article I read by LeCarre into the plot, but I liked it.
  • Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire: Good rough early work, but man is his current stuff ever better.
  • Poor Yorick by Ryan North: Good, but not as crazy as To Be or Not To Be, which is gonads-out amazing and will get its own review.
  • 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa: I loved this 22 volume manga, even if the end is a little abrupt.
  • Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin: It took me forever to read this book, but that’s just because it’s oppressive and painful like the history it’s based on.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Really good. Different from Mechanique, more grown-up, but I can’t hold that against it.
  • The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno: Not as Encyclopedia Brown grows up as I wanted deep in my heart, but still more than decent.
  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: Kidbrarian confession time. Before September I’d only read the first Harry Potter book and only knew the rest of them through Wikipedia. I have rectified that (and think the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite) (and was a little chagrinned that my MBTI says I’m Hermione when I wanted to be Sirius Black).
    Harry Potter MBTI chart

    Harry Potter MBTI – makani.deviantart.com | simbaga.tumblr.com

  • The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: The earlier stuff was more interesting before it got to the states.
  • The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson: A sort of post apocalyptic noir thing in a similar vein to Gun Machine, but not quite as good. Still decently readable.
  • Sorry, Please, Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu: Very good George Saunders-esque short stories. Highly recommended.
  • Penguin: Pride and Prejudice by Gregg Hurwitz: A comic depicting Gotham’s Penguin as a tragic villain. Much better than I expected, but not amazing.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I love love love the Tines (pack mind aliens. The story was fine but the politics got me angry. Totally worth it if you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep.
  • By the Balls: Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender: Noir stories set in Nevada in the late-90s. Good pulpy stuff.

The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.

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: 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: gun machine

Gun Machine is the new book by Warren Ellis and it is great. It’s less weird than Crooked Little Vein, but is a tight little police story you can tell is from the same guy who wrote Fell.

John Tallow is a New York City cop who accidentally finds an apartment full of guns. Not just a few shelves of them, but guns arrayed on the walls and floor like a shrine. Once they start getting analyzed it becomes clear that this isn’t just a gun nut’s shack; each weapon has been used in an unsolved NYC murder. Investigation ensues.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Tallow is a detective who is very believable in his “just going through the motions” before he starts working the case. Ellis writes likable foul-mouthed weirdos as Tallow’s sort-of assigned partners. The story (and the case) moves quickly, but it works. I bought that this didn’t need to be five seasons of a TV series (though The Wire made me right at home with the police politics on display in the story). There are a few coincidences at work that might make your eyebrow raise but Ellis is playing fair with you. It all works.

My least favourite part is the Native American history that gets bandied about, and that was mostly because I know Warren Ellis is an Englishman and this stuff is easy to get wrong. But anything here is way less problematic from my point of view than Johnny Depp as Tonto.

Though Pappa Warren writes great violence — “From his vantage, three steps back and to the right, Tallow could see Rosato’s eye a good five inches outside Rosato’s head and still attached to his eye socket by a mess of red worms.” — I think my favourite bit of pure wordsmithery was a cooking scene late in the book. There are all these details that work into Tallow’s mental state and the realization he has works so well with them, I wanted to applaud.

It’s a pretty quick read so if you’re not a huge Warren Ellis fan, you might want to go for an ebook edition, but the jacket design is great. There’s also a website with some interesting supplemental materials.

book review: a visit from the goon squad

My friend who teaches grade 12 English recommended I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It took me a while to get to it but I’m glad I did.

It’s a novel centred around music, but centred is a bad word. It’s much more scattered than that, bouncing itself about in time telling stories of people tangentially connected to each other. Each of the sections could stand alone as a short story (and I gather that at least some of them were published that way) and that’s part of why my friend is teaching it. He could give each person in class responsibility for becoming an expert in one chunk and then Voltron everything together with presentations in class.

Most of what I liked about the book was the shifting form of it. A different friend of mine has no patience for this kind of thing. She just wants a story that keeps her interested and makes her feel something. This book doesn’t do that per se. But there’s a chapter that’s done as a slideshow, which is amazing and inspiring as a writer looking for a form to be most comfortable in.

book review: mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore

There are a great many things to love about Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A great many things. What I love best about it is how perfectly “now” it feels. It’s a book I will use to say “this is how 2012 felt to me.”

The narrator of the tale is a designer who can’t get work because of the economy, and takes a job as the night clerk in a 24-hour bookstore. It’s a weird bookstore though, with three storeys of tomes (and to the delight of library-nerds rolling ladders for access) in the back which are arranged in no clear order and have eccentric people coming to trade for them. And these eccentric folk must be kept track of and observed, written about in the log for each shift. So yes, there is the old and odd to this story.

And then a woman who works at Google walks in (the bookstore is in San Francisco) and the story becomes this beautiful melding of all that old weird stuff with data-visualization schemes and parallel processing power to break codes and dreams of the Singularity. Plus of course the digitization of books.

Put it together with a fantasy novel overlay, that has our narrator using the D&D character name of his best friend since they were 12 when he needs him to really do something and I’m in heaven.

It’s about the intersection of these worlds of tradition and innovation, design and shortcuts that make it amazing. If you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there are echoes here, but it’s mostly in the shared nerd culture aspects. It’s a much less heavy tale. The narrator doesn’t take all the robes and mumbo-jumbo or the Googlarchy so seriously as anyone in The Magicians would. It’s more like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It was a quick read. It didn’t change the way I thought about the deep mysteries of life. But it was so damned enjoyable.