For the past few years, January has been Potential Shortlist Catch Up Month for me, when I try to read all the big name books I overlooked the year before, in preparation for the 10-month SF book award season that’s about to kick off. So that I may have opinions on things. So that I may nurture my FOMO. So that I may mock the system I continue to participate in. So that I may mock myself.
This year is no different, though, to be honest, I’m not really feeling it this year: It all feels trite and meaningless compared to more important things going on, so I’m basically just going through the motions. I mean, why bother seeking out contrived experiences of estrangement and repulsion by reading SF when I see it played out in the political arena every day? I need respite, but books feel false. I experienced a similar plummet in enthusiasm after the 2000 election and 9-11 fallout, and it took me over a decade to recover interest in anything that involved critical engagement with the world, so… if this blog isn’t an interesting space to watch, at least my wobbling dedication to it might be.
Fortunately, things are coming up… BIG THINGS… and that’s enough to keep me active for at least another season. The kindly prods from other people have been unexpected and welcome.
I must say, though, it does feel nice to just sit down and get all this out finally. There is that.
Eesh, and it is a lot. I read an average number of books this month, but a collection of mini-reviews can be a big task. On we go…
2017 BOOKS I READ LAST YEAR
I briefly started my Potential Shortlist Catch Up reads back in November, with the intention that I would do a rundown like this in the nearer future. That didn’t happen, so I owe these two books a nod:
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
I was so taken by the swervy, swarthy satire in the second novel, Europe at Midnight, that I didn’t realize how much I missed Rudi. After a long absence, Rudi is back in this multi-character thriller, and although he’s often nudged out of the way to make room for the growing cast of characters, his charisma dominates the tale, coloring everyone else pale in comparison. Fortunately, there’s not much time for pining after the acerbic anti-hero because things keep exploding, the plot keeps darting, and chess pieces keep moving, even though we never see the hands behind it all. (And when those hands are finally revealed, I had to laugh. I can see how some might find this new turn a bit anti-climatic, but I’m still enjoying working it out in my head.)
This is definitely designed to be the most exciting Fractured Europe book– definitely the movie bait one– and while I truly enjoyed the darting about, it’s lacking what I found so special about the previous books: that imperceptible weirdness, where things aren’t supposed to always click together perfectly. Still, it worked for me up until the end, when the several buddy-buddy, backslappy get-together scenes between Rudi and his frenemies made it all feel too light-hearted and sentimental to match the tone of the rest of the sequence. After all, none of these people very likeable– not even Rudi– so seeing them pal around isn’t a worthy or valuable payoff. (Although I’m sure it’s meant up to the set up the next book in the series.)
Mainstream book readers, especially fans of the spy thriller genre, will be more comfortable with this one.
The Race by Nina Allan (2016 reissue with added appendix)
I reviewed the first release here.
Another return to a new favorite, this time a re-read! There is so much about The Race that feels so slippery and off-kilter, I was sure most of it went over my head when I first read it. Now that I’ve read it a second time, it feels more straightforward, and I feel much more confident about what I think it’s doing. The funny thing is, the new appendix, (which is actually another story, rather than what one might define as a traditional appendix) did less to clarify the purpose of this oddly-formatted tale than it did to disturb what I held as a satisfying mental pattern for this novel: fantasy, realism, realism, fantasy, with that meaty realism sandwiched between two of the most intoxicating semi-fantasy worlds I’ve ever encountered. I loved what that pattern represented about the real world and its permeable boundaries with fiction. Now, with that final, added story serving to explain things, the continuity seems less there, and my pretty little pattern has been disrupted. Leave it to Nina Allan to confound.
But that’s my theory for why Allan opted to call this added story an “Appendix,” instead of “D” or “Coda” or “Supplement”: because we have evolved away from needing such additional explanations, yet some people still want them… even if they rupture.
Cool things that happened while reading The Race for the second time:
- I noted the use of every dictionary definition variation of the word “race,” some of which were so nuanced and unexpected that I learned something new about this broad word.
- The moment I finished the novel, I switched off my ereader and looked out the window and a greyhound walked by. I kid you fucking not. (The story partially revolves around greyhound racing. Er, smartdog racing. Oh, why hello, synopsis!)
Cover art commentary: I much prefer the weird, warped first cover to this new girly yearning galaxy cover, which is funny because I used to dislike the first cover, but now that I’m ensnared by that world, there is no other cover that will do the novel justice.
Book award commentary: I have no idea if this new edition status qualifies The Race for any shortlists, but I hope so, because this novel deserves everything.
BOOKS I ACTUALLY READ IN JANUARY
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Essex Serpent carried me from 2016 to 2017, but I’m not going to fault it for that. With a title that includes both ‘EsSEX’ and ‘Serpent’, and taking place in Victorian England, it’s clear there’s going to be some high-collared hanky-panky going on, so I already had some assumptions from the start.
And Victorian hanky-panky it is, with an Edenish setting, replete with forbidden fruits, social restrictions, and sin to the OG (picture a rector wanking into a serpent-infested marsh), and it all culminates in one of the most disgusting not-quite-immaculate birth scenes I have ever read. (You must read it, if only for that disgusting not-quite-immaculate birth scene! It’s so gross!) But I’m making it sound wilder than it is: it’s actually a nice book, a satisfying holiday read, but it didn’t really blow me away like I expected. I’d say the cover is more intricate than the story, the symbolism is clever but ordinary, and maybe the hype set me up for disappointment. Perhaps I’d have loved it more if I had never read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I feel is taking up the same space in my mental library (in terms of being tales about competing English social narratives), even though the two books have little in common.
In a way, The Essex Serpent reminds me more of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (which enthralled me a great deal more): They are both historical fictions that I doubt would qualify as SF, even though they both have attracted dedicated SF readers. Books like these are so historical, they’re more like probable real history; more like a microlens, than a loose interpretation of facts. They both zoom in on a time and place and people that are often misrepresented in popular culture, though, of course, Cold War-era Jamaica has less correctionism going on than Victorian England, and is therefore more enlightening and necessary to examine. (And this coming from a person who spent much of her undergrad career focusing on Cold War-era Latin America, where Caribbean history all but hopped over Jamaica’s existence as a Cold War player.) In this sense, The Essex Serpent didn’t really cover new ground, historically or symbolically.
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
I’m a bit perturbed that I overlooked the fact that The Last Days of New Paris is a novella, which means it likely won’t land on any of the shortlists I watch (which is a good thing, as SF shortlists are oversaturated with Miéville’s work), so it didn’t really put a dent in my 2017 TBR. I’m not unhappy I read it, though. The City & the City is still his best work by far (and the least Miévillian; interpret that how you will), but brevity is a nice look for this author: it makes the surrealism more powerful, and less trying.
It’s not that powerful, though. It’s contrived around a neat idea about surrealist paintings coming to life after the detonation of a Nazi-era ‘S-bomb,’ while resistance fighters and fascists race to use the monsters against one another. It’s a cute idea, achieves its purpose and all that, but the story itself was just a bunch of running around and figuring things out, while, unexpectedly, vocalizing through quite a bit of clichéd movie dialogue, which is not something I’ve noticed from Miéville before. (Though I may have been previously distracted by all those other… tendencies.)
I think the novella would have worked better–for me, at least– had it been arranged differently. The story ends with the beginning: a first-person explanation about how this story ended up in the author’s lap in the first place, and it’s so… Silverbergian in the way it’s set up, that it would’ve hooked me immediately had it opened with that. Instead, I gotta wade through all these imaginary monsters before I’m even given the chance set aside my disbelief. That Afterword could have been my motivation.
Upon finishing it, I gave the quirky layout a pass for being what it is: surreal. I’m sure the author debated this arrangement himself, however, it’s a month later, and I’ve only got bland memories of the tale, so feelings of meh must be articulated.
Meh aside, there happens to exist a very special gem within these covers: the Notes section. Ah, the Notes! The best part! And the ‘meh’ tale works to supplement the Notes, rather than the other way around. So it is worth it to read the entire thing, if only to enjoy the author’s annotations about influential (and non-influential) surrealist works, and it really gets good when he just lets loose about his own pontifications about certain works of art. I was rapt at “a great sickle-headed fish…”, which involves some personal theorizing on Meret Oppenheim’s arresting 1938 painting Stone Woman.
Still, you know, action-y monster story. So…
Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin
Speaking of gems, get Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin into your head now because I am going to be talking about it all year. I stumbled upon it when LitHub linked to an article about fiction written by immigrant citizens at (shut up) Vice dot com. (This is particularly embarrassing to admit because I have spent too many evenings trying to explain to my husband why Vice’s MTV-style, sexy hipsters reporting from the underground model of journalism is a bad thing no matter how interesting those reports on Mexico’s Missing 43 and Juggalo Kids turned out to be.) Anyway, the article mentioned Unbearable Splendor and cyborgs and Borges and I’m not sure I read beyond that because I had to go find it immediately.
Unbearable Splendor enriches and defies every literary category and, for that reason alone, we should celebrate its existence. It’s also incredibly interesting.
More on this later. A mini-review won’t do.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Maybe you’ve heard of this book? The 2016 National Book Award winner and one of Oprah’s favorite things, it’s kind of hard not to want to read it, given the critical clamor and SF-y nature. I thought I would love it, and I did, at first, but by the end, I had to download the audio version just so I could power through what started to feel like “the story that would never end.” I want to say Whitehead does this on purpose, in order to foster the sense of oppressive unpredictability that an escaped slave– a refugee of the plantation-era South– must feel when everything’s fine until it’s suddenly not again… and again… and again. Toward the end of the novel, it gets to feel like Whitehead intentionally ends every chapter with a misleading conclusory note… only to interrupt it with new, violent actions in the next paragraph.
Again, I believe this is all intentional, although it deadens the suspense and lowers the stakes after so many times. But I’m not interested in suspense. My own disappointment hails from, I think, the loss of Cora as a person. Cora is so well-drawn and understood by the author in the earlier chapters of the novel, but after her later, fragmented experiences masquerading as other personalities in other settings, it feels like Whitehead loses Cora’s sense of self. Again, this is a narrative turn that can be explained by Cora’s tragic predicament after each escape, but even so, Cora never quite feels three-dimensional again after her first trip on the railroad. She’s too clear. I’m not one to prefer fiction that depicts women as ruminative creatures overwhelmed by their circumstances, but I’ve seen fleshier accounts of traumatized women (and men), even when their personalities have been reduced to mere survival. I can’t help but compare this novel to Toni Morrison’s superb and heady Beloved, or even Octavia Butler’s above average (for genre) Kindred, or even, The Race, which I cite above; all three of which do better justice to the interior worlds of their women characters, while at the same time being hands-off. This loss is particularly evident in Whitehead’s handling of Cora’s interactions with male suitors: he’s got the right idea, but there’s something missing. The depiction of Cora feels shallow and inauthentic by story’s end, which causes the story to feel generic and less enthralling.
From another perspective, I suspect lot of SF readers will be disappointed by the use of the literal underground railroad, which is underused and feels kind of gimmicky once you figure out that’s really all there is to it, but I also suspect this is also due to Whitehead’s entire purpose: to demonstrate that there is no true escape from slavery, that it never ends, that its violence reaches beyond state borders and time periods, all of which is illustrated quite well. In fact, the actual underground railroad might be the least skiffy element of the novel when juxtaposed with the timeline/reality skewing nature of each of Cora’s stops. This is the actual strength of the tale, even though it also erodes as the story goes on.
Erosion is a motif, I suppose. I suspect future analysis of this novel, if it hasn’t already, will cite this as a strength, and it will be interesting to see how deep scholars will take it.
Against Empathy by Paul Bloom
I know, right? Click-baity nonfiction by a commercially ambitious academic. UGH. I’ve seen this title bounce around in my online and offline life and I finally just had to know what the hell this guy is on about.
It’s not quite what he’s selling, it turns out, as anyone familiar with click-baity nonfiction by commercially ambitious academics should expect. It should really be titled Against Tribalism, or as he sometimes calls it, “parochialism,” or what others prefer to call “identification,” or better yet, Against Bias. Bloom says he’s sticking close to Adam Smith’s definition of empathy, historically called sympathy, and although his biggest frenemy critic, Simon Baron-Cohen charges that this definition is too restrictive to encompass what he’s really addressing, I find the opposite to be true: Bloom himself, although married to Smith’s definition, alters his understanding of empathy to fit each of his arguments. Sometimes he’s critiquing sentimentality, sometimes he’s critiquing cognitive empathy, sometimes he’s critiquing emotional manipulation– and he’s quite open about how he keeps blatantly changing the definition. He even mocks his own title at one point.
It would benefit the book (though not Bloom’s wallet) to have a less misleading title, and more Martin L. Hoffman (a legit academic) and less Steven Pinker (all the touring pop psychologists come out to play in this book), and less questionable evolutionary psychology. Overlooking those things, Bloom’s argument is an engaging and persuasive examination of how social emotionality influences public reaction to political and global events, and not always for the greater good. It’s a good argument, worthy of public discussion, and not completely shrouded in less-is-more Libertarian philosophy (as I had originally suspected), but, too often, he stops just shy of more powerful conclusions. One of his first examples of this harmful tribal/parochial slant in public reaction is his comparison of public sentiment surrounding the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre versus public sentiment surrounding other, more persistent instances of gun violence against children. Bloom blames this hypocrisy on what he calls ‘empathy,’ but as Cornel West, as well as many others have long ago and more accurately argued, this difference in public sentiment (and media attention) is simply due to racism.
Many of Bloom’s arguments can be distilled in such a manner, so perhaps this book could best be described as “Elite White Speak for What’s Wrong with the World Because Other Words Have Been Taken”. Bloom would probably argue that his point is still valid because, as he frames it, empathy is the root of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and all other forms of bias, because people narrow their empathetic lens to whomever they most identify with. Interesting point, but that convinces me that we need more empathy, not less. We need to teach one another to cast our empathic nets wider, and to question our emotional allegiances to those most like ourselves.
What Bloom is describing is problematic, but it’s not empathy.
A final note on the book, and an illustration of the kind of fact cherry-picking Bloom engages in, he cites a number of small, dead end studies that uncover correlations between circumstance and identity, in order to demonstrate the human tendency to identify with the familiar and reject the rational. All of the correlations, he admits, are tenuous and, I’ll admit, his point is a good one even so, but then he concludes this particular argument with a study that correlates names with professions, and he points out that he, Paul-with-a-P, became a Psychologist, without addressing that, in a previous chapter, Mr. Bloom points out he hates gardening. (And the many M’s in my life… that’s just confirmation bias.)
Right now I’m listening to The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen and reading Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain, while my nonfiction book of the month is a university textbook I unearthed while looking for something to combine my personal and professional interests: Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies by Henk De Berg. That’ll do. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for my favorite romantic February holiday, BSFA Shortlist Release Day, which will deliver to me a fresh box of chocolates (and let’s hope they’re not all filled with artificial goo).