Dec 21 2016

Wrapping Up

Both reading and writing have slowed significantly since November 8, and not only because of the election, though that has certainly played a major part in my slowdown. Time for some short takes, to clear the desk for the coming year.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I read this in the summer, and I’ve been searching ever since for something new, or at least new-ish to say about the book. I haven’t succeeded. It’s as great as its reputation: bleakly, mordantly hilarious, with a core of humanity amidst the random and heartless horror of industrial war. The edition that I read has a preface that Heller wrote in 1994, detailing the combination of hard work, crafty promotion and good luck that built the book’s initial success and opened the door to perennial sales. I found that fascinating for its insight into how culture is produced. I wondered about the character of Milo as an anti-Semitic stereotype; I’m still not quite sure what I think on that score. A major major book.

Necessity by Jo Walton. The third in her Thessaly trilogy, in which Apollo and Athena set up a society for people to try to live in Plato’s Just City. I’m glad that I read these three as they were released, because the beginning of each successive volume is a huge spoiler for the ending of the previous book. Knowing that there are three, and knowing a little bit about each in advance will change the experience of reading the set. (Like knowing there’s Before Midnight and Before Sunset that follow Before Sunrise.) The other two did more for me, especially The Philosopher Kings. I think that’s because in this third volume Walton, of necessity, widens her focus. I preferred the tight constraints of the first two stories; I found that they gave an emotional sharpness to the events. There are some terrific moments in Necessity, especially the style of writing taken up by one point-of-view character, but I think I am more likely to return to either of the first two books.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. I’m still hoping to write a full review of this one, to continue my consideration of all of the Discworld books.

Judenstaat by Simone Zeltlich. What if the Jewish state provided by the Allies in the aftermath of the Second World War had not been set up in the British mandate of Palestine but in conquered Saxony instead? What would it have been like? Who kinds of people would have been its leaders? What choices would they have made? What would its mistakes have been? What dark sides would it have had? What would have become of the Saxons? Zeltlich wrestles with all of these questions and more as she tells the story of an assassination in the Judenstaat, and the archivist who is the victim’s widow. Fascinating, oblique, compelling.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. “Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.” The Fangs are performance artists who take their actions out of controlled spaces and bring chaos into the world at large. Their children, Annie and Buster, are both inseparable from the Fangs’ art and deeply damaged by it. The book alternates between a present-day (2011) story of the adult children coping with their upbringing and scenes from the Fang oeuvre. Both are darkly funny. Annie and Buster escape from the art of their childhood into acting and writing, respectively; it’s a limited escape. They are drawn back into their parents’ life by a call from the police that the Fangs are missing and very likely dead. Is it one last performance work? Annie and Buster rediscover themselves and their parents as they try to find out what happened, whether it was art, and whether there is any difference.

Making Book by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. I’ve read TNH’s blog for more than a decade now, and had heard about this 1994 book for a long time before finally acquiring a copy. It’s a collection of essays written between 1980 and 1994, many for science fiction fanzines. They are conversational, part of the ongoing discussion in which fandom keeps itself amused, writes its history, creates its culture. Some essays touch on larger events, some are very insider-y. A few people I know marginally online make cameo appearances, it’s a small world after all. I enjoyed it immensely, though I am the sort of person who enjoys a 26-page essay on copyediting. She eviscerates American Psycho from the point of view of a publisher:

This book functions most vigorously as an implicit denunciation of modern [1991] publishing practices, though that was not the author’s intention. Even considered without the violent sex crimes, it’s still so bad that it disgraces everyone connected with it. Seriously, if it had come into Tor as a no-name slush, not only would it have been rejected, but a representative chunk would have wound up in Editorial’s Happy Slush Log (a very large three-ring binder), in company with the “Adolf Hitler in Oz” proposal and the horror novel about the dull accountant who never knew true love or friendship till the day he heard the compost heap call his name. (p. 146)

There’s also a terrific essay on how she came to be an excommunicated Mormon, about which she writes:

When I wrote this on-stencil for Telos 3, back in 1980, I thought it was amusing enough—you know, one of those stories about what you’ve been up to lately. More than a decade later, if I meet someone for the first time and they say “Oh, I love your writing, there was this one piece…”, I figure they’ve read “God and I.” I’m glad everyone likes it, but I’m thinking of changing its title to “Nightfall.” (p. 13)

Now I’ve gone and called attention to that one piece, too.

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. A different type of family antics than the Fangs’. The Gilbreth parents were among the first people in the scientific management field in the early 20th century. Cheaper by the Dozen tells tales of the life of the family with 12 children, growing up at a time when automobiles were newfangled and the twenties were just beginning to roar. Hijinks abound. The book was originally published in 1948, and while it’s full of fun, it’s also from another era chronicling an even older era. There’s much that’s funny, much that’s loving, but also much that revolves around the father — clearly loved though he was — as the center of everything and the other people more or less extensions of him. I’m told that the sequel, Belles on their Toes, is different, not least for taking place after Gilbreth, Sr. has died.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle. Decades after reading the first three Wrinkle in Time books, I have picked up the fourth and fifth in the set. The Murray twins, Dennis and Sandy, blunder into one of their parents’ experiments and find themselves on what at first appears to be a mysterious, near-desert planet. About a quarter of the way through the book, they realize they are amidst Noah’s extended family shortly before the flood. It’s well done — Noah himself plays mostly a secondary roles and is, not unexpectedly, a bit of a crank — but I couldn’t help wondering what this bit of Old Testament exegesis is doing in the middle of the Murrays’ stories.

I am making my way through Postwar, by Tony Judt, which is terrific; The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov, which is weird; and Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherly, which is a bit of both. I am also part of the way through Schiller’s Wallenstein plays, though those do not lend themselves to reading in small bits here and there, at least not for me. The TBR shelf is nearly full. Maybe I will read more than I buy in 2017. We shall see.

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