Monday, 30 January 2017

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I try so hard to remember that characters do not necessarily equal the author. Just because a character does something, it doesn't mean the author would, or that they condone or approve. It's generally something you can ferret out from the book over all, but a singular moment may be in no way reflective of how the author sees the world. When you see things repeated over and over in several books, you start to assume that they in some way relate to who the author is, although not necessarily how.

(For example, I thoroughly believe that Spider Robinson's lung(s) collapse or have collapsed at regular intervals, causing him immense pain and debilitation, and also that he had very very painful surgery to prevent it from always happening. It's shown up in a lot of his books, in detail that feels far too specific.)

So I am trying not to infer too much about Paolo Bacigalupi, the person, from having read a couple of his books. But there are a few things I feel like I can say about Paolo Bacigalupi and what he writes. For all I know, in person, he's a kind and happy person who feels the need to warn the world repeatedly about impending ecological collapse, and the many many cruelties people will enact on each other in the wake of consecutive and concurrent disasters.

That's not even a bad thing to do. On the other hand, his books are not only pessimistic, they're remarkably nihilistic and verging on cruel. Cruelty to his own fictional creations, to be sure, but cruel nonetheless.

Of course, I can say all that without for a moment denying that he's a damned good writer - his writing is intense and urgent, his characters strong, the world he creates one that may shock his readers. Granted, no question. This is not me saying he shouldn't be read. This is, however, me saying that I find it very hard to choose to voluntarily choose to spend my time in a fictional world this bleak. I need some hope to leaven my reading experience, and I am strongly bothered by what comes through as an assertion in this book that not only is everything fucked, but moreover that kindness is dangerous, fickle, and worst of all, stupid and unrealistic. That hope for creating something better is holding on to the scraps of an obsolete past.

The characters end the book in a strong argument that in a fucked world, trying to create anything is foolish. The only thing to do is to feather your own nest as much as you can. Get out of bad situations no matter how much death and destruction you cause in your wake, because no one will do better by you. I don't know if Bacigalupi the author is saying this, but I do know that not only do his characters express it, but it's the final message on which this book ends. It might be a warning, but it feels as much a message.

(Oh, right, what's this book about? It's about the search for water rights in a world where the lucky and rich (synonymous, no?) live in arcologies, and everyone else in vast swathes of the interior United States lives in dessicated, dying squalor.  Three main characters - a "water knife" (hired gun who does whatever water controllers in Las Vegas tell him to do to keep the water flowing), a journalist, and a young refugee woman from Texas.)

I mentioned Spider Robinson earlier for a reason. It's the essay he wrote called "Pandora's Last Gift." You may be able to google up a copy, but it's also in at least one collection of his works. It's about the importance of hope, not only in life, but also in fiction. In doing something other than writing cynical works about us all "merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." That hope is hard and it hurts, but it's also essential, and why this leads him to write mostly hopeful works.

I go back to that essay a lot. Particularly these days.

This book might have been technically good, but spending too much time in Bacigalupi's fictional worlds would be extremely dangerous to my mental health. I prefer to think that something can be done, that the problems we face can be faced. So...I think it may be a long while before I can force myself to venture back into this bleakness again.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

I am procrastinating on starting this review, because it's one of those books I struggle to write about. If there's lots to love, I am effusive. If there's lots to hate, I rant. Then there are those books that are just fine, but that's all they seem to be, and you try to sit down to find enough words to make up a review worth writing, and they prove to be elusive little buggers.

Right. So. This is a book. It is pretty good. I am writing short sentences because it's hard to think of anything longer. Try harder, Megan.

Fine. This is historical fiction about Lady Duff Gordon, who travelled from England to Egypt to try to prolong her life when she had what appears to be tuberculosis, although neither that nor consumption are ever spoken by name. The dry hot air is expected to help whereas England's damp climate exacerbates her disease. Her faithful ladies' maid Sally travels with her, and the two enjoy life in Egypt, dressing with less concern for European fashion than other foreign visitors, Lady Gordon adopting Egyptian men's clothes, and Sally women's.

It is not, however, a story of a relationship between the two, but rather Sally's love affair with Lady Gordon's Egyptian manservant, and the consequent difficulties, including being dismissed immediately when Lady Gordon finds out Sally is pregnant. (To be precise, she finds out when Sally goes into labour.)

There are things that Pullinger does right. She has obviously researched her subjects (based on real people) and time period well, but does not data dump. I have a pet peeve when writers end up showing all their research instead of synthesizing it organically into their books. So, no problems there.

That's kind of a negative recommendation - this book doesn't do something that irritates me. And the thing is, there's nothing wrong with it! The story didn't annoy me, the characters were fine, the setting well done. But also the story didn't really grab me, the characters didn't weasel their way into my affections. I didn't mind reading this, but I was never champing at the bit to get back to it.

I think it's because the pacing feels so slow. I get that there's not a ton of exterior incident (although they are there during some fairly significant riots and dissatisfaction), but does that mean that domestic incident needs to be lacking as well?

The feeling of lassitude, of long days with not much happening - and more so, that even when exciting things are written about, they aren't done so in a manner to incite excitement. The promise of riots coming near didn't make me worried, the epidemic that sweeps through their area and Sally and Lady Duff Gordon end up nursing people through is written about as calmly as long days of nothing much happening.

If you want something pleasant, and enjoy historical fiction, this might be the book for you. I like the books I read to be a little more keen.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Science fiction readers have pretty much always been a contentious crew - it's amazing that any of us agree on anything, even given that we're talking about a genre we all love. But despite that, there was something I thought most SF readers would share, and was more than a little weirded out when it turned out not to be the case.

It is this - SF is, at its heart, the literature of possibilities. We can imagine a thousand new futures, introduce new technologies, and ask questions about what that might do to individuals, to societies, to experience. I come to the genre wanting to be challenged, wanting new viewpoints and ideas, to have the ground under my feet pulled away with regularity. That's, for me, a great deal of the fun. We take away the shared tyranny of the present day and do not let it limit our stories.

So when the Hugo kerfluffle came along, I am sure it shows how naive I am, but I was taken aback. It seemed that some people wanted their possibilities to extend only so far - to new technologies, but not to worlds that weren't white, male, cis, and hetero. Which, seriously, what the fuck? And honestly, if that's what you want, have fun, but don't demand others share the same viewpoint, particularly not when to do so you need to game a gameable system, instead of creating a genuine grassroots movement that is complex and contradictory.

Which is a long way to go to come to Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber. It's the second of her books I've read, and feels like a later book, in that while I enjoyed Brown Girl in the Ring, this feels stronger, more defined. It keeps what I liked and develops her style further. And specifically, it gives me a very rare SF glimpse into the worlds that could be imagined when you don't have a white person in sight - and why wouldn't I want to see what Hopkinson would do with that? I like being a little out of my comfort zone when I read. If all I want is comfort, well, I have comfort rereads for that.

This is the story of two worlds colonized by primarily or entirely Black settlers of, I think, Caribbean descent. They're not gotten to after long space voyages, but rather through colonizing alternate Earths. (I think, although it's possible I missed something and they space travelled to another planet, but can access an alternate reality version of it.) One (Toussaint) is well settled, with most labour done by nanotech, with virtually everyone on the planet connected through Granny Nanny in their ear, constant monitoring and support.

Many aspects of everyday life are folded into the culture they brought with them, in a world that is quite high tech without being densely populated. And what they have no tolerance for is crime - and the punishment is permanent exile to another version of Toussaint, no chance of reprieve. It seems fairly regarded as more or less a death sentence. Certainly, there is no coming back.

Tan-Tan, the main character, accidentally ends up going with her father when he is exiled from his position of power for killing a man in a duel. There, she learns to live in the jungles of New Half-Way Tree, helped by her connection to the douen, a small race of sentients with unusual feet. Tan-Tan can see them as equals, while others think of them as servants or slaves. The world that has developed on New Half-Way Tree varies from brutal power grabs to relatively settled towns that have developed their own social contract and way of enforcing the law.

We follow Tan-Tan as she grows up, and this is often difficult to read, as she becomes a victim of incest. Difficult, but not handled gratuitously. She eventually goes to live with the douen, discovering secrets of their gender binary previously unsuspected.

It's a story of finding strength, particularly when what is hurting you is deep-seated and undeserved self-loathing. Tan-Tan embraces the folklore she grew up with, casting herself as the Robber Queen as she explores the parameters of her world.

As with Brown Girl in the Ring, Hopkinson's writing is richly tactile, but with an additional sense of confidence in weaving a complicated, difficult, and satisfying story. Please let more authors push me this way. This is what I come to science fiction for.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

If you look closely at the cover of this book, it's a fairly lovely image. Unfortunately, and entirely unfairly, every time I saw the cover, I briefly wondered "why is there a bloody Q-tip on the cover?" Every single time, out of the corner of my eye, that was what it reminded me of. Unfortunate, and probably unfair, but still, not the best impression.

I am kind of at a loss with Scott Westerfeld. He's never once irritated me enough to make me want to stop reading his books.  But on the other hand, I've now read quite a few of his works, and there wasn't a single one that made excited to be reading it. He skates by on "fine," and it hasn't really changed with this book. Although there were a few moments early on that made me think that maybe this would be his breakout book in my affections, in the end, it was...fine. Not bad. Just not great.

It's two books, neither of which is long enough or in-depth enough to quite stand on its own. Put together, it's an interesting experiment, and it doesn't not work. We have the story of a young woman who writes a book for NaNoWriMo and gets it accepted for a six figure advance, as well as another six-figure advance for her next book. It may not be clear, but this is almost as much fantasy as the book she wrote (the other half of the book). As a wish fulfillment for everyone who participated in NaNo, I get it, but the very few times this has happened in real life is outweighed by all the other publishing "debs," as they too cutely call themselves, getting deals that are not as good, but still way better than you could expect for an unknown author.

And of course, it's also the fantasy that to be a "real" author you have to live in New York. So the main character promptly packs up and moves there, instead of going to college. Which, again, fine, but let's be clear - this is fantasy. Most authors write wherever the fuck they are, and only long into their careers can they give up their day jobs, if ever they get that lucky.

The other half of the book is Darcy's first novel that netted her the $150K for it and a sequel. We flip back and forth between the novel and Darcy's time in New York as she falls in love, splurges money, and writes and tries to write. The novel is a YA paranormal romance between psychopomps, one a teenage girl newly minted after surviving a terrorist attack, the other an incredibly old Indian young man. Of course, they fall head over heels in love.

What I did think was clever was the moment when you become aware that you're reading, not the crude first draft that prompted the huge advance, but the more polished copy that will eventually be published. Darcy is given edits, and as she goes through them, you see how she had changed the book. It's fun, and was the one moment I almost entirely bought in.

Other than that, it's two YA romances for the price of one, neither enough to fill out an entire book on their own. And they're both...fine! Neither pissed me off or made me upset. But neither filled me with delight either.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

When I read Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. An author I hadn't read yet, with a book that good? Creepy and literary, not giving answers and yet not frustrating me with the refusal? That's a good start.

Now I've read the second book (picked up at the library book sale this past autumn), and it's almost a complete genre change in the same world - where the first was very remote and about direct experience, the second is about mediated experience, the experts on the outside who have never had first-hand exposure. And it's kind of a spy novel.

We do get more answers - sort of, since in all the years after the arrival of Area X, no one has satisfactorily explained why it came, who made it, or what it's doing to the expeditions that go past its borders. We do, however, get some answers about the lighthouse, the expeditions, why the characters in the first book are simply referred to by their functions, and some light is shed on some of the interpersonal behaviour we witnessed.

Have I mentioned that I really, thoroughly enjoyed this? It kept all the creepy thrills of the first book, added in some homage to SF classics, and turned its attention to espionage.

The new main character has a name! But he prefers to go by a title, Control, which he instructs the staff at the Southern Reach station in charge of both protecting Area X from people and people from Area X to call him. It's a little disconcerting when you find out that this was his own idea, to be called that, and like the first book, you quickly become convinced that the characters you're travelling along with are not all that emotionally stable.

This is not really altered when you meet the resentful assistant director of Southern Reach, sure her boss is going to come back from the last expedition (and there's a small reveal about the numbering of the expeditions that I just loved, since it again moves the ground under your feet just enough to make everything a bit surreal.) Or the scientists, who seem to be in various stages of losing it.

The ex-director's office is a mess, papers everywhere, a strange plant that seems to be unkillable locked in a dark desk drawer with the corpse of a mouse, and words written on the wall that readers will recognize from Annihilation. But not glowing this time.

Control tries to get on top of a situation that is deteriorating, having to deal with office politics even as there are alarming signs from within Area X, which increasingly seems to be an homage to Roadside Picnic, although maybe with different complications.

We also throw in an extended interrogation with the biologist from the first book, and her conviction that she is not really herself.

I don't want to give any more away, but after a first book that delighted me, this even more firmly cemented Vandermeer in my literary affections.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

*Small Spoilers Below*

There are books where it's obvious what they're trying to do. Tell a good yarn, or argue a certain point, or keep you speechless with the amazing prose. Then there are those where you have to dig a little, sit and think a little, let the meaning dawn on you. Then there's this book, which both tells the attentive reader outright what it's trying to do, but still requires some time sitting and thinking and puzzling.

The easy part comes when the main character, Nick, who is doing a doctorate on Henry James, tells another character about what James does when he writes about rich people, pulling the reader along until near the end, he shows that he knew what they were about all the time, and eviscerates them. (Eviscerates may be overstating the argument Nick is making.) When Nick bothers to tell you and the person he's talking to this theory, you figure it's maybe the author talking about how he's trying to be like Henry James.

So, in this delve into the world of rich people in Thatcher's England, we have as our entry Nick, a gay friend of the son of the household, brought on as a boarder in a newly-elected Tory MPs house as both a renter and a sort of guardian for the daughter, who tends towards excess and self-harm. The family all seems to know he's gay, and that's mostly fine, as long as they don't have to see it, although at least once they try to prove their open-minded bona fides by encouraging him to bring his new boyfriend over. (He waits till they're away to actually do so.)

While pursuing his identity as a gay man, which seems to be without particular angst over his identity, although he is not out to his parents, Nick gets the additional perks of living with the rich - parties, semi-inclusion, access to contacts he wouldn't otherwise have had. We drift with him through this life, through his first love affair with Leo, a black man, and later, with a rich Lebanese heir, with whom he tries to launch a magazine.

It's all very glittery, at the beginning, even though you see the small fractures that are papered over by society and parties and pretending they're not there. Everyone can pretend not to notice the small hypocrisies that surround them, little disasters can be ignored. It's Thatcher's Britain, and it's a great time to be rich. Or close to the rich, as Nick, not exactly poor, but not rolling in it, can occupy as a separate space almost but not quite his own.

Then, of course, corruption is exposed, and we get to see the inequality of reaction to different forms of crimes and predilections. Dying of AIDS, or simply being publicly exposed as gay? Far worse in the the reaction of others than financial misdeeds or heterosexual adultery. Nick finds himself abruptly on the outside, not because who is is has changed, or even that people he knows has discovered (they always knew) but because it became an issue in the press.

Hollinghurst skewers appearances as substitutes for morals in ways that are fairly subtle until they're so blatant they can't be ignored. It takes a while, not helped because Nick is not the most likeable of narrators - he's often coked out, selfish, as enamoured with wealth and the wealthy as the rich themselves, perfectly content to be part of Thatcher's Britain until it rejects him. Even then, he doesn't really know another way to be.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

I'm a little particular in my YA, as so much of it seems to be the same, same story, same beats. I'm always happy when someone breaks out of that mold into something more exciting, and when I read the first Laini Taylor book in this series a couple of years ago, I was delighted. There was a love story, but it wasn't insta-love and goddamn, was it complicated. By the end of the book, there weren't fake reasons keeping them apart, but damned good ones, ones I didn't know how they'd ever be surmounted.

The world too, was likewise rich, and the main plot intense, and all and all, this felt like it was its own thing within a genre that is not necessarily noted for that.

Much, much later, I find myself back here, and you know what? I enjoyed the second book almost as much, although I was sitting and trying to summarize the plot and realized that of the two plots, not a ton happened in one, but it was all so well done I didn't mind. Things needed to be a bit unchanging, the badness getting ratcheted slowly up, to both explain why Karou did what she did for so long, and to get to the point where she snapped.

Karou, the blue-haired former chimaera in a human body, is the new resurrectionist for the chimaera in this one, after the deaths of everyone she loved in the last book. Except, of course, for Akiva, the seraphim, but she has good reasons to hate him. He's back fighting the chimaera as one of the conscripted soldiers of the Emperor, well, actually, bred soldiers. All bred by the Emperor, given no rights, not even permanent rights to their names. He's cannon fodder.

The war intensifies as the chimaera fight back, killing first seraphim forces directly, then attacking civilians. The seraphim are doing the same. On both sides, a few, pitiably few, see the insanity of unending wars for revenge and power, but don't know how to make it stop - previous attempts have not gone well.

I was delighted that Zuzana, Karou's human friend, was back in this, and thoroughly enjoyed her relationship with her boyfriend, Mik. Every time they were around, the story started to sparkle just a little bit more, as Karou is understandably not in a cheery mood. Taylor excels at writing joyful dialogue, even if she's written a story where it's in short supply.

This is not YA where the main character hides things from her parents and can go home at the end - Karou has no such safety net, and neither does the world. Bad things happen, and continue to happen - including attempted sexual assault, which was upsetting but didn't feel gratuitous. And the twist that came out of that moment was a really excellent one I would not have seen coming.

It still feels as though, of course, Karou and Akiva will find their way back to each other by the end of the third book. But given what Taylor's been putting them through, they'll have earned it. I'm also not as sure about the ending as I would be if this were many other YA novels.

This isn't deep literature. But as fantasy adventure, albeit fantasy adventure aimed at teens, it's really very good.

Friday, 13 January 2017

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

I think I am harder on memoirs than on other types of books. When I sit down with one, I want the book to justify its own existence, which doesn't happen with a novel. I'm not nearly as on guard against fiction, because fiction could be anything - good or bad, gripping or boring, but somehow it always feels to me that it has a right to be there, even if I don't like it. (Okay, there are a few notable exceptions, but those are books that really pissed me off.)

In contrast, with memoirs, I'm always faintly suspicious - what happened in this person's life to make it worth writing about? Was it more remarkable than most people's lives? Does it capture an experience I've never seen before (without resorting to exoticization)? Is the writing particularly good, or the person particularly perceptive about how their life relates to the greater human condition?

There are a lot of lives in the world, and not everyone is cut out to be a writer. However, not only do a lot of people think they're novelists who can't write worth shit, everyone has a right to shape their own story - but what makes it publishable?

With this cynical attitude, I sat down to read Plum Johnson's They Left Us Everything, a memoir about cleaning out her parents' house in Oakville, Ontario, as well as bits about her relationship with her parents, her brothers, and what she knows or discovers about her parents' marriage.

And it's...okay. I'm not going to be so grumpy as to say it shouldn't be published, but neither am I entirely sure that this is world-shaking. It's a small story, told in a way that doesn't intrude with the prose, and that is both good and bad.

Two things I wondered about: in telling the story of her parents, it feels like she's telling her brothers' stories, too, and that sits oddly. What would they write? This book made me more aware of how stories overlap - my story is not my husband's story, nor my mother's, nor either of my sisters', but they overlap in significant ways, and if I tell mine, am I obscuring theirs? There was something about this book that made me think about how who is writing changes a life.

Particularly since, in this case, she's writing about a shared childhood. It doesn't make her perspective less valid, but it does make me wonder if the brothers who were frequently beaten with a strap have the same feelings of forgiveness for their father as she does, because she confronted her father after he'd been punishing her brothers and told him he was cruel and seen a flash of recognition and he never did it again. She was never hit that way, and has the memory of stopping it and a belief that her father hated doing it. Do her brothers? Can she forgive him on their behalf?

This also falls into the camp of one of those memoirs where things about her family life seem, if not outright abusive (but maybe so), certainly strongly controlling and unduly harsh and erratic. One where you feel like the author would resist the labels that might apply to them, yet the story that is told, it's hard to come away from it with as much affection for her parents in hindsight as she herself musters.

So, this is a memoir, and it's fine. But not a lot more. Perhaps it's just not that I'm at that point in my life, although I have already lost one of my parents, and helped my mother move once.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Market Forces by Richard Morgan

This book is ludicrous. The premise really doesn't hold up to the minutest bit of scrutiny, and yet the writing isn't quite as pointed as necessary for a satire. But for all that, it was an enjoyable read, once I resolved to stop trying to think if anything like this would ever happen. Because, after all, even if it's ludicrous, Mad Max in the modern corporate world is pretty fun.

It's a world where it's perfectly legal (within certain vestiges of control) to duel it out with cars on the way into the city to the big corporation where you work, and in the process, spin the other person out or even kill them after they've wrecked. It's a world where the envelopes are being pushed further and further towards outright legalization of hunting people down and killing them...but, you know, only if you're going for the same job, or someone pissed you off at work. Or if you're a suit and you venture into the urban wastelands populated by those who have no jobs, no social security net, and nothing to lose, and they try to challenge you for daring to come into their territory, and you kill a bunch of them.

It's a world where money owns justice, a new precedents in brutality are constantly being set.

Our entry into this world is through Chris Faulkner, an up-and-coming executive renowned for not only taking out a rival some years before, but backing over him five times afterwards. He is recruited into a company even more interested in bending the rules until there really aren't rules anymore, disliked by some executives, befriended by others. His portfolio is in Conflict Investment - making money off of small wars all over the planet, by backing successful ruthless dictatorships/coups in return for hefty concessions.

Yeah, okay, maybe this is satire. There's just something about the writing I'd like to be a little more pointed. However, even without that, there's a lot Morgan is saying here about cutthroat corporate culture and how it goes hand in hand with toxic masculinity. The few women around have to buy into the culture to succeed, just as the men do, but it's impossible not to trace the roots back to the word macho.

It's a world where being so macho you'd kill for position consumes everyone who opts into that life and condemns everyone who doesn't. (In England and much of the world, anyway - Scandinavian countries seem to have retained some semblance of sanity.) Those who refuse to buy into that murderous paradigm are painted as weak losers, because to kill is what makes one a good businessman.

That's where it begins to break down for me a bit on a practical level - sure, you may be able to drive well and kill people in a car or shoot them, but...how exactly does that play into being a good investment banker? We talk about cutthroat worlds, but is that really a directly transferable skill rather than a handy metaphor? This world feels like it would fall apart far more quickly than it even appears to be doing.

In the end, too, the Mad Max races and death matches are just a little too exuberant to have the edge they would need for satire, but Morgan's approaching some interesting ideas under all that. I didn't love this, but it was never a boring read or a bad one.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Knowing only her public persona, Amy Poehler is one of those people that you joke you'd like to be friends with. She seems funny, accomplished, friendly, and who knows if any of it is true? Just presume a slightly dialed-down Leslie Knope, showing that we often have trouble differentiating actors from their roles.

I'm as guilty as anyone of this - I love Parks & Rec with a fervent passion, a show with an entire cast just as funny as Poehler is. But then you get to her book, and even though it gets sort of but not entirely personal, that feels like maybe more her own voice. Is the mythological beast Amy Poehler the same as Amy Poehler in real life?

I'm not sure I can answer that question any more now than before, but I can say this - I enjoyed Yes Please a hell of a lot, and it did nothing to dissuade me from my overall impression of Poehler.

There was some trepidation, I confess, in sitting down to read it. I enjoy Tina Fey quite a lot as well, but her Bossypants did not tickle my funnybone. It was enjoyable but slight. I've been told since that it gets much funnier if you listen to the audiobook version, and imagining it in her voice, I can see how it would get much more amusing and even laugh-out-loud funny if I heard her delivery.

Would I have the same experience here? Fortunately not. I didn't find this funnier, but it also didn't feel like it was trying as hard to be funny. The parts I was drawn to were Poehler's look at her time training as an improv actor, her stories about her childhood and university years, her work with the Upright Citizen's Brigade, and of course, the stories about Parks & Rec. (Also loved the stories of moonchasing with her sons.)

Rather than just being sketches about things, this book felt like it was Poehler trying to put her experiences into order, to think back to her childhood and early adulthood, impose some order on it, try to figure out what it meant. It doesn't hurt that she had things like Saturday Night Live to propel her along, a show I've only seen the barest amounts of, but hearing her write about the late nights writing, it sounds like a training ground that might do you in, but might also make you more than you were before.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Parks & Rec, where the creator, Mike Schur, annotated what she wrote, giving amusing depth to her more recent memories of the show.

The books steers very clear of parts of her personal life that Poehler obviously does not want to talk about - this is not a "tell-all." Her divorce, in particular, is alluded to a few times, but clearly off the table. There's still a distance between Poehler and her audience, as though she's warning off all those women who think she's her best friend when they don't even know her.

It's intimate in some ways, distant in others, but a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading about projects undertaken with daring and heedless enthusiasm.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Baudolino by Umberto Eco

Image result for baudolino
People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Ben

In that curiously relaxing time between Christmas and New Year's, when there's not much to do except sit around and read (if you're lucky enough to work somewhere that shuts down between the two), I picked up Baudolino. It was one of the pile of books I plowed my way through while visiting my in-laws. I hadn't had that much concentrated reading time in quite a while. Gosh, it was nice!

Baudolino, in particular, was a very enjoyable way to spend my reading time. It frequently made me grin with the medieval excesses of Baudolino and his compatriots. I described it to my mother-in-law as a romp, but while it is certainly that, it is also an intelligent and incisive look at legends and myths, stories that justify power and how they can be manipulated, and how even those who are creating the stories can come to believe in them.

And, of course, we get the preparation for and an expedition to the Kingdom of Prester John, a fine and fascinating medieval legend. Having visited already (in a fictional way) through Catherynne Valente's Habitation of the Blessed, it was extremely enjoyable to see another author's take on the same elements, the same fantastical creatures.

There's one section I loved a lot, where on the outskirts of Prester John's kingdom, surrounded by fabulous creatures, where Baudolino tries to tell the son of Prester John about the quite usual animals that exist in the world as Baudolino knows it, and from the words alone, no pictures, one can see how they might be confabulated to be just as fantastic as the blemmyae or satyrs or any of the other creatures we dismiss as the medieval imagination not knowing the difference between fiction and fact.

It is also the story of Baudolino's surrogate father, Frederick Barbarossa, and the struggles between Frederick and the Catholic Church, the other European leaders, and the smaller villages that still might be rebellious, for all that they're populated by ordinary people. In the midst of a few anti-popes, Frederick looks for divine proof that he should have supremacy over the church, and from this Baudolino creates reality by creating fiction, both in how he helps Frederick solve the siege of a city and in giving metaphorical support for his kingship from Prester John.

Baudolino gathers around him a group of friends, notable in its diversity - Eco has less trouble with the idea that there was diversity in the medieval world than many a fantasy author, possibly because he knows a bit more about it.  Many are in love with the idea of Prester John and help Baudolino craft a letter from Prester John to Frederick, even as they come to believe in what they're writing must be true because they want so badly for it to be true.

Introduce the Holy Grail in there, and it gets even more complicated and delightful. As a trip through medieval thought, legend, science, and politics, Baudolino is rich, and on the level of pure story, it's so much fun. I am sometimes intimidated by the idea of Umberto Eco, but not so much by his actual books.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust

Image result for guermantes waySo, I'm almost halfway through Remembrance of Time Past. I am nothing if not stubborn - I'll read the other four books just so I can say that I have. There's pride on the line, and sheer pigheadedness. Honestly, though, it's a little wearing, and I need a break before book #4.

It took me months to slowly work my way through The Guermantes Way and at the end, I was left a bit nonplussed. It's mostly about Proust's narrator/self entering into high society through a small number of gatherings, either at-homes or parties. As such, it's 800 pages of characterizing the people he finds there, their small cruelties, their attention to position and how they jockey for it while trying to look like they couldn't care less.

In the early going, there is a while spent in what society looks like when you're socializing with other young men exclusively, and while homosexuality is hinted at, it's done very vaguely. The main character, of course, is still a nervous mess, and when going to visit a friend of his in the military, he is shaken by the thought of spending the night in a bed not his own, and must see his friend as much as possible to calm his nerves.

Then, back in Paris, he falls slowly into the circle of Mme de Guermantes, first through an unrequited crush, which throws him further into the orbit of his military friend and his military friend's mistress.

His grandmother dies from a series of strokes over several days, and that was probably the most affecting part of the book, although it is leavened with M. de Guermantes showing up and not understanding why people are too sad to turn all their attention to him.

From there, we go from party to party, are introduced in exquisite detail to all the undercurrents of feeling between all of them, including many references of the cruelty of M. de Guermantes towards his wife, his wife's reputation for wit, and who is allowed to be invited to which party, which rules of society can be bent, and which are still inviolable, all mixed up with a hefty dose of the anti-Semitism that accompanied the Dreyfus affair.

Without knowing who these people were based on, there are times this gets very wearing. Every moment is detailed, and there's something admirable in that, but also something incredibly obsessive. While I admire the moments when Proust is able to capture moments that I've never seen captured so well in words, we get there because he's trying to capture every goddamned moment of every goddamned day.

I'm a little tired of it, at the moment. I'll take a break, and come back in a few months to the next volume and slog my way through that.

Monday, 2 January 2017

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Image result for h is for hawkI came to H is for Hawk looking for commonality. Most of what I knew about it was that it was a memoir about the time after Helen Macdonald's father's death, and that it involved training a hawk. I have absolutely no hawking or falconry experience, but it was not so very long ago (six years) that I lost my own father, and so I expected to find moments that rang true with my experience, that gave me a sense of connection and solidarity in the wake of sharing something terrible with the author.

That's not really what I got, and it strikes me now that both the memoirs I can think of that I've read about reactions after losing a parent (Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the other one) are about rather extreme reactions to that loss. I suppose the way I coped with it wouldn't make a very good book - I didn't hike the Pacific Northwest. I didn't pour all my energy into connecting with a wild animal. I simply cried. A lot. I didn't get much done on my dissertation that year. I still taught, both as a teaching assistant and a lecturer. I delivered my first paper at a history conference. I still hung out with my friends. Most of my life stayed surprisingly and heartbreakingly normal.

There were just a lot of tears mixed in with the normal, moments where grief swept in like a tidal wave and knocked me down. But every time I got back up, and I didn't resort to substances to cope. I didn't lash out at people. And I didn't undertake any crazy projects.

Of course, what I had was the rock of my husband through all of that, a stable place to come back to as often as I needed to, who wrapped me up in his arms and let me cry more times than I can possibly count. That I survived that grief, continue to survive that grief that is much less sharp now, but still surprises me with its sneakiness, is largely because I have him and I have my mother and sisters, and we grew closer in the wake of our loss, not further apart.

I am not saying other people are doing grieving wrong - I'm saying that I was extraordinarily lucky to have as strong and stable a base as I did, to help me get through it. And that what gets published is probably never going to be that story.

So when I read H is for Hawk I didn't recognize myself in it. The ways she dealt with the loss of her father made sense to me intellectually, but not on a visceral level of recognition. She looked for a way to control her life, and in many ways, a way to not be human for a little while, as though to identify so strongly with a wild creature would let her be that creature and not the pain of herself.

I know nothing of taming wild hunting birds, and that was all interesting, as were the ways it was intertwined with a biography of T.E. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King. It felt like maybe at times it was trying to be too many things, although that perhaps could be something I would identify with - the inability of the mind to stay too long on one topic, the way quiet can feel like inviting pain.

While I never connected emotionally with this book, and recognized little of my own experience in Macdonald's, it was still an interesting read, if only because it is so different, a glimpse into a realm that I never quite entered, and don't know what my own way in would be.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Red Branch by Morgan Llywelyn

Image result for red branch llywelynThe way I read has changed dramatically from when I was a teenager and child. Our house was packed with books, and I read a lot, but mostly, I reread the books we had over and over again. I didn't go after new books with an acquisitive air, adding to my repertoire only occasionally. Don't get me wrong, I read a lot. But a lot of that was rereading.

When I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband) and we lived a block and a half from the central branch of the local library, I started to venture into more new books, and that eventually became the main focus of my reading, only exacerbated years later when I started reviewing books. Now I struggle to find time to reread books, and I miss the cozy familiarity of slipping back into prose you know even more intimately than you realize.

Back when I was rereading a lot more, Morgan Llywelyn was one of my go-to authors. I just devoured her novels on Irish myth and history, every one I could find in a used bookstore, or very occasionally new. Somehow, though, I never found a copy of her novel about Cuchulain to read.

So after I had taken the day off to go to the library sale in my new city this year, when I found Red Branch on the SF/F table for a buck, I snapped it up. A chance to return, not to books I knew and loved, but to an author that I was very familiar with and subject matter I enjoyed. It always takes me most of the year to make it through my pile of library book sale books, since I mix them in with my other lists, but this was one of the first I cracked open.

There is that particular pleasure of slipping into prose you know although you don't know the words, to themes and even characters that seem so familiar because honestly, the author does tend to rely on some of the same tropes and character quirks across books. It might not be a sign of stretching yourself as an artist, but there's something deeply comforting to come back to an author (one of her older books, admittedly) and enjoy it.

This is the story of Cuchulain, drawing heavily on Irish myth and fleshing the characters out in ways that are not new or surprising, but then again, that was never what I went to Llywelyn for. We get the pangs of Ulster, the Gae Bulga, the overweening ambitions of Maeve of Connaught, Cuchulain's own Rage, and little vignettes from the Morrigan.

You know early that Cuchulain will die young, and that it's a fate he chooses himself - where Llywelyn drives the knife home is through his own gradual realization that life is not about a blaze of glory - but by the time he realizes that, it's far too late.

Reading this was like coming home again, and not much had been moved on the mantel, but that's exactly what I wanted.