Black & White by Lewis Shiner

I went and checked, and Lewis Shiner never did reconcile with his father. Terrible fathers feature so prominently in several of his novels — Glimpses (1993), Outside the Gates of Eden (2019) and Black & White (2008); maybe also the other three that I’ve read, but it’s been so long that I do not remember for sure — that it was impossible for me not to think that there was a real-life model behind them. In Glimpses the protagonist’s father is dead from the start of the book, so no reconciliation is possible. Eden the break between Cole and his father is also irretrievable, but the novel offers positive alternatives, particularly in the Montoya family, and it also follows its characters long enough that some of them become parents themselves, trying to do better.

Black and White by Lewis Shiner

Black & White changes the dynamic a bit: The father wants desperately to reconcile with his son Michael, or at least to explain, but cannot bring himself to say so directly. He is dying of cancer but insists on moving from Dallas, where the family had moved when Michael was an infant, to Durham, North Carolina for his final days. Robert, the father, and Ruth, the mother, met there, though they grew up in different parts of the state. Robert was from Asheville, where his parents had worked as servants on the Biltmore estate; Ruth was from rural Johnston County, where her father was a farmer and a local bigwig. They married in 1962, and Robert started a career in construction, working as an engineer for a company that was key to building the Interstate through Durham, before the three of them suddenly moved to Texas and cut off all contact with Ruth’s family. Michael thinks that his father is trying to say something by going back to Durham to die, something that will explain the cold home he grew up in, something that will fill in the blank pages where most people have a book of family history. Black & White is the story of what he finds out.

Intertwined with the personal story of Black & White are stories of power and race, and economic change, in the American South. Durham had been an agricultural center, and then a hub for collecting tobacco and manufacturing products from it, mostly cigarettes. By the early 1960s, though, the mills and the headquarters of the tobacco companies had all left, and the city’s economic lifeblood had nearly all drained away. North Carolina’s research triangle, which drives Durham’s economy today, was still sketches on a civic booster’s whiteboard. To make that happen, roads — Interstates — connecting the cities of the triangle had to be built, and those roads had to go somewhere. And where it went was right through the thriving Black business district of Durham, called Hayti (pronounced “Hay-tie”). Robert’s company was the one that tore down most of Hayti. As Ruth says when the time comes for her to finally tell her story:

Now Robert was the reluctant hand of that [destruction]. She knew it didn’t sit well on him, and she wished she could ease his mind. It wasn’t like there was another way for this to turn out. Durham needed the highway so people could get to the new business park. The city would die without it. The highway was going to displace somebody, anywhere you put it. It only made sense that it was the poor people that had to move. It would cost a hundred times more to buy up rich people’s houses.
They told Robert a new, better Hayti would rise from the ruins, and he wanted to believe it. Ruth let him, and never said a word about her father’s prophecy. Between the word of Mitch Antree [head of Robert’s company and devotee of Hayti] and the word of Wilmer Bynum [Ruth’s white supremacist father], she knew which would prevail. (pp. 288–89)

Black & White begins and ends in 2004, but goes back to the 1960s in two long sections that tell the stories of Robert and Ruth. Michael learns much about both of his parents, including many things that neither ever told the other. It is a rich and satisfying novel, one that explains people without excusing them, that shows the contradictions that people live with, and how people facing similar constraints and opportunities make different choices. Even within Durham’s Black community, for example, there were different views about Hayti, different responses to its destruction. Shiner captures both eras, bringing life and complexity to pictures that are often seen in black and white.

(Spoilers follow about what Michael learned.)
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When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

It isn’t true that the full title for When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain was originally meant to be When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain With Her Two Tiger Sisters and Considered Eating Cleric Chih but it could have been. Except that at that point it would have been politic to mention the mammoth and her rider Si-yu because without the two of them the tigers probably would have eaten Chih before they could even begin a proper conversation.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Cleric Chih returns from The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this time far up in the mountains. They are hoping to get up and over a high pass, and arrange for a member of the mammoth corps, Dong Si-yu, take them up, hoping to make the way station by dark. The two of them have ridden Si-yu’s mammoth Piluk through woods and snow, and the refuge is in sight when “A deep and jagged snarl erupted from behind them, like something tearing through the stretched and scraped skin between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. Piluk bugled with alarm as Si-yu swore.” (Ch. 1) Tiger! Not just one, for Chih soon sees streaks of orange on both sides.

The way station’s barn is in sight, and it’s big enough to hold mammoths, thus offering a refuge from the tigers. Between them and the barn, Chih sees two figures on the ground. “On his back, face obscured by the hood of his sheepskin coat and arms thrown out as if he had hoped to catch himself was Bao-so [attendant at the way station and friend of Si-yu’s family]. A stocky naked woman bent over him, and she draped her arm over his belly with a casual ownership, immune to the blistering cold.” (Ch. 2) A hurtling mammoth with two passengers breaks up the sinister tableaux. “The mammoth’s speed was ponderous, but it was like a mountain had started to move. If it was coming for you, you didn’t care how fast it was coming, and that was apparently what the naked woman thought as well because in two bounds she was away and lost to the shadows.” (Ch. 2)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/28/when-the-tiger-came-down-the-mountain-by-nghi-vo/

Softcore by Tirdad Zolghadr

In Softcore a first-person narrator, annoyingly also named Tirday Zolghadr, relates the weeks and days before the opening of a new and arty nightclub in contemporary Tehran, interspersed with his remembrances of earlier times in and around Iran’s capital city. The book has some funny bits, such as a running gag about the splittist tendencies of Iranian leftist groups; at one point a friend of the narrator’s sums up the banalization of the many public portraits of Iran’s revolutionary martyrs, “It used to be art, now it’s Burger King.”

Softcore by Tordad Zolghadr

Unfortunately, the narrator is himself increasingly unable to distinguish between provocative art and banal gestures, even if they are banal gestures that fleetingly catch the fancy of art journalists and buyers. The narrator is ostensibly a curator — a profession he shares with the author, along with many other personal details — and in many ways the night club is very much like an exhibition that he is planning and curating. He does not find an overarching theme for the club and constantly toys with different visuals, presentations, and artworks that he considers for the opening night.

Insertion of the author as the leading character in a novel is a pet peeve, and I was sorry to see it happening in Softcore. Nearly 18 years ago, I wrote “How many times does one have to encounter the device of inserting the author into the fiction before it becomes tiresome? For me the answer was twice, and I read both of them more than a decade before [late 2004].” Softcore does not really do anything new with the author as character, though maybe it will be a novelty for some readers and lead them to speculate about the boundaries between fiction and reality.

Zolghadr is good with describing moment by moment flows of events, he is good at evoking moods and characters with quick sketches. I like how his narrator champions Tehran’s suburbs and invites readers into the life that’s teeming in modernist high-rise neighborhoods. In a series that’s set in global metropoles, it’s good to see more than just the historic centers and obvious locations being given center stage. I enjoyed the anecdotes about Iran before the Islamic Revolution, and even liked some of the author-narrator’s casual cynicism about how the old aristocracy got where it was. He’s also good at showing how a government that claims to be revolutionary can hardly sustain that claim forty years later.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/27/softcore-by-tirdad-zolghadr/

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson

Oh my heart. This was one of the sweetest, most tender, yet still emotionally honest and unflinching middle grade novels I’ve yet had the privilege of reading. Little wonder that Varian Johnson has won so many awards with prose and plotting like this!

Our hero is ten year-old Anthony “Ant” Joplin, who plans to team up with his best friend Jamal to win the local annual spades tournament, in the kids division at least. Joplin men have traditionally dominated at spades, which makes his first-round exit last year especially humiliating. Ant plans on spending the lead up to this year’s tournament getting in as many practice rounds as he can, and is confident of performing much better this year than last.

But when Jamal is barred from playing in the tournament after getting into a fight at school, Ant has to come up with a new partner fast. With his beloved older brother Aaron away at boarding school, and his other guy friends either not very good or unavailable for that date, it looks like the only option he has left is Shirley, the new girl, whose skill at the game impresses even him. At first, he’s reluctant to admit to anyone that his new partner is a girl. But trouble at home could render any concerns about cooties moot, as Ant discovers that spades aren’t the only legacy Joplin men have held onto.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/26/playing-the-cards-youre-dealt-by-varian-johnson/

The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky

The subtitle to The Invention of Russia — From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War — unfortunately now has to be followed with a question: which one? Even when the book was published in 2015, his wars were already plural (Chechnya and Georgia) but the author clearly means Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Not many books that get blurbed as “timely” are worth reading the better part of a decade later, but Ostrovsky’s is because it tells several of the deep stories about why post-Soviet Russia is the way that it is and how it got that way. As he explains, “My main characters are not politicians or economists but those who generated the ‘meaning’ of the country, who composed the storyline, who produced and broadcast it and in the process led the country from freedom to war.” (p. 6)

Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky

The stories of Russia add up to the story of Russia, and the way that story turns out matters for the whole world. A different Russia was possible, but its leaders and leading storytellers made choices that led to its present state. A different Russia will be possible, but not until it has different leaders telling different stories. Ostrovsky knows the influence of the past, so he starts The Invention of Russia (more properly the re-invention of Russia, as it never went away and was only partly subsumed in the Soviet Union) well back in the Soviet period.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrestled with the Soviet system, knew there was only one way to defeat it: “Live not by lies,” he wrote on the day of his arrest. The paradox was that the opening-up of the media could be achieved only by engaging in half-truths. But when reality burst through that opening in the form of live television broadcasting and uncensored publications, the Soviet Union crumbled.
Whoever controlled the media also controlled the country. “To take the Kremlin, you must take television,” Alexander Yakovlev, the main ideologist of perestroika, once said. This was no metaphor, for the fiercest and deadliest battles that unfolded in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Soviet disintegration were for the television tower. In the 1990s television and newspapers were in the hands of pro-Western liberals who set out to project a new reality by means of the media. But in the end they used the media to enrich themselves and to consolidate power. (p. 7)

Then when it was consolidated, power in the Kremlin came and took the media from them and started telling entirely new stories about Russia.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/22/the-invention-of-russia-by-arkady-ostrovsky/

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Hurray, only one more book to read and I’ll finally be done with the 2020 Hugos, glargh!

So this was an interesting novel. Good, but I can see why I never hear of it outside of this nomination, even as plugged in as I generally am to publishing and particularly genre circles. The Vanished Birds is deeply human to the point where, while you understand the motivations of many of the characters and particularly the villains, they’re mostly so irrevocably flawed that it’s hard to make yourself care very deeply about them. Our heroes shake out better, even if everyone has a decidedly bleaker and more narrow ending than you’d expect. I don’t mind a sorrowful ending — Gideon The Ninth and Jude The Obscure are two of my favorite books of all time, after all — but there’s a particular balance to be struck when trying to get the reader to emotionally invest in the proceedings, such that even an unhappy ending still needs to make you feel something more than primarily impatience with what’s just transpired.

Fortunately for our two main characters, patience is their stock in trade. Nia is a space captain running from her own past, a woman perhaps too willing to cut and run when times get emotional or tough. A sexual liaison on the resource planet of Umbai-V leads to her becoming the caretaker of a boy who falls out of their sky one day, as she’s entrusted by her lover to bring the strange child back to the galactic authorities she represents. In the span of the months-long trip home however, she and the boy grow attached, a relationship that will serve them well when one of humanity’s greatest thinkers comes to Nia with a proposition that will keep the duo together despite bureaucratic interference, at least for a few more years of travel.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/17/the-vanished-birds-by-simon-jimenez/

Good Game, Well Played by Rachael Smith, Katherine Lobo & Justin Birch

As the 20th century draws to a close, Sienna is intent on having one last perfect summer with her friends, who are all her co-workers at the Game Champ video game store. Sienna is a bit of a control freak, but she gets along fine most of the time with Art, the aspiring comic book artist; Hope, the grungy tough girl; Jo, the conflicted kid with controlling parents, and Sid, the wannabe rock god. They all work (or “work” as the case may be) for Tim, a kind-hearted middle-aged dude with an adorable dog.

When their evil landlord insists on hiking up the rent or shutting down Game Champ for good, the employees brainstorm ways to raise the required funds. But each of the teenagers has personal issues that threaten to derail all their plans. Will Sienna be able to keep them all together and on task, or will everything blow up in her face despite all her best efforts?

Six years later, Sienna is coming back to her hometown to attend the funeral of one of her former friends. She worries that no one will want to see her again after everything ended so badly. But the reunion has more than one surprise in store for all the former Game Champ employees.

Give logic the evening off when you’re diving into this mostly gentle (by adult standards anyway) coming-of-age tale of five different kids struggling to make the best of their lives. Hope and Jo are easily the most sympathetic characters, having gone through the most. I also really enjoyed spending time with Art’s large and subtextually Jewish family. Katherine Lobo’s art in the pages showcasing his apartment and its building seem to have a bit more verve than elsewhere, tho it’s easy to be charmed regardless by his entire situation (with cute kids and animals galore!)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/16/good-game-well-played-by-rachael-smith-katherine-lobo-justin-birch/

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Finally reading The Sorrows of Young Werther closes a gap in my education as a German major, a mere thirty years or so after I earned my degree. Because my institution only had two professors of German, an upper-level course in Goethe was only offered periodically. And the one time it was offered when I had enough language skill to appreciate Goethe, I was in Germany. It was the last summer of the Berlin Wall, and I went to the People’s Republic of Hungary just weeks after that country began dismantling the Iron Curtain, so I can’t say that I would have preferred to stay in Tennessee and read Goethe. Werther remained one of those things I figured I would eventually get around to, and now I have.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel first published in 1774. Werther is young, gifted, of good but not noble birth, and sensitive. Most of the story is told through his letters to his friend Wilhelm. For the first third of the book, Werther is not suffering at all. He is living on his own, practicing his arts, taking long walks, and reveling in the beauty of the world. One evening, friends are taking him in their carriage to a dance when they stop to pick up another member of their circle, a young woman named Charlotte, usually called Lotte in the German style of the time. Be careful, one of them says, you might fall in love with her but she is engaged to someone else, someone who is temporarily in Switzerland on family business. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Werther took heed of the warning, so of course he does fall in love.

Charlotte has her own tragic history: her mother died not long ago and made Lotte promise to raise her numerous siblings (all the way down to a mere six months) as if they were her own children. Far from being weighed down by this burden, she revels in family life, and the younger children love her for it. They won’t accept their evening bread from anyone else, they ask for stories, they follow her instructions. Goethe presents her as an avatar of feminine virtue: she’s beautiful, intelligent, skilled at music and dance, has an open and generous heart. Thanks to her mother’s legacy, she’s even managed the neat trick of being young and unspoiled while also being an idealized mother. Is it any wonder that Werther falls hard and fast?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/15/die-leiden-des-jungen-werthers-by-johann-wolfgang-von-goethe/

Reading Backwards by John Crowley

There are still 148 copies available of this gorgeous, autographed collection of John Crowley reviews from 2005 to 2018. It’s a lovely object, a reminder of what the making of books, even commercially published books, can be as a craft. I’m even a little sorry that the dust jacket betrays that this book has actually been read, not just admired. Only a little bit, though, because otherwise what’s the point?

Reading Backwards by John Crowley

In contrast to the book’s title, I read it forwards and — unusually for me and a collection of essays or stories — straight through. (I know that authors construct their collections with care, but that’s not how my magpie mind works.) Crowley has divided Reading Backwards into three parts, with a couple of extra appendages at the beginning and end. The first is “A Voice from the Easy Chair,” essays from his time as a columnist for Harper’s Magazine. The second, “Fictional Voices” collects Crowley’s reviews, which are mainly but not exclusively about authors who write science fiction and fantasy. The third, “Looking Outward, Looking In” is more miscellaneous, more wide-ranging, and not constrained by the lengths of a particular column. I would have enjoyed knowing when and where all of the pieces were published, just to have a bit more context; these are occasional pieces, and sometimes it’s nice to know the occasion.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/14/reading-backwards-by-john-crowley/

Das Haus an der Moskwa by Yuri Trifonov

Das Haus an der Moskwa, known in English as The House on the Embankment and with the original title Дом на набережной, poses a question that it doesn’t really answer, or at least not directly. On a hot August day in 1972 Vadim Glebow has traveled out to a distant corner of Moscow to get some furniture that he heard might be available, if he could find the right place and talk to the right person. That was the middle of the Brezhnev years, when you could get a lot of things if you knew the right people, when the Soviet system had settled out of terror and revolutionary fervor and into lethargic corruption. At the warehouse, Glebow doesn’t get the furniture but he does encounter a man who had been a friend back in elementary school. He is doing a menial job, and clearly in a bad way, probably deep into alcoholism. Glebow can’t immediately remember the man’s name, and he pretends not to recognize Glebow.

Das Haus an der Moskwa by Yuri Trifonov

Most of the novel is told through Glebow’s recollections across a variety of periods: childhood and early school years in the 1930s, a little bit about the war years, as a young man at a literary institute in the post-war period, and something of a coda in the novel’s present of the 1970s. Upon returning from his fruitless quest, Glebow remembers the name in question: Lev Shulepnikov, although he was usually called by one of the diminutives Lyovka or Shulepa. He lived in the titular House, which is also sometimes called in English the House of Government. At the time it was built, the House was the largest residential building in Europe, meant as a model Soviet achievement, and home to the all-Union elite that was not quite elite enough to live within the walls of the Kremlin. Glebow lived across a small part of the river from the House, in a pre-Revolutionary house that had been subdivided to accommodate more families. Glebow’s family lives in reduced circumstances, up a set of stairs that is constantly threatening to give out.

Throughout his childhood, Glebow envies the kids in the House on the Embankment who have much more space and unheard-of luxuries at a time when deprivation was the Soviet rule and famine not far in the past. One time, Glebow saw Shulepa’s mother send a cake back because it wasn’t fresh. The concept was alien to him. In his family, cakes only appeared at special occasions such as birthdays or the new year. They were devoured quickly, and had no opportunity to be anything but fresh. By contrast, not only were cakes commonplace for Shulepas, but they could be rejected! That makes almost as much an impression on Glebow as the blank pistol that Shulepa produces and fires during some kind of schoolyard tussle. If regular cakes were an astonishment, a gun for a kid was unimaginable.

The House on the Embankment is one of those novels in which what the characters don’t say is at least as important as what they do say. It’s a reasonably common feature of works set or written in closed societies, but it means that the further readers are in time and space from the time and place of publication, the harder it can be to catch what is happening. Shulepa’s stepfather clearly works for the secret police, although that is not only never stated by any character, it’s not even implied in speech. For Soviet people of the 1930s, or indeed the 1970s, it would be too obvious to need saying. The apartment, the food, the pistol, the obvious fear that teachers and administrators show when some kids take it on themselves to pick on Shulepa — all of these show that Shulepa’s stepfather not only works for the secret police, he’s a very senior figure and could have any of them sent to Siberia or shot with no questions asked. As far as I could tell, the novel does not imply that his father fell victim to machinations of the secret police, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. It’s possible that his mother conspired with the future stepfather to ensure that the father was gotten out of the way. That sort of thing certainly happened in Soviet history. A second stepfather shows up later in the book, with little or nothing said about the fate of the first. That was often the fate of high-ranking secret policemen, and hanging on to memories could be dangerous for anyone left behind. That Shulepa’s mother managed to remain in the House implies that she could play the Soviet game with considerable skill, but Trifonov does not show much of her, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/13/das-haus-an-der-moskwa-by-yuri-trifonov/