I'm back from a relaxing break that included a trip to the coast. As anticipated, I did little besides read, knit, and eat yummy food for a couple of weeks. Now I'm getting back into the swing of writing, starting with a final batch of 2015 book reviews:
→ PYM by Mat Johnson: Chris is a black literature professor who doesn't want to be shoehorned into only teaching Black Literature. For this sin, he's denied tenure and has to leave the historically white institution where he's been teaching, but a hefty settlement provides him the money and time to pursue a literary obsession. Chris is fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In this perplexing and racist story, presented as a true account shared with Poe, Pym travels to the Antarctic region, stops at an isolated island of black inhabitants, and upon reaching the Antarctic mainland, encounters an enormous white creature in the snow. When Chris finds evidence that suggests Arthur Pym and his journey might have really taken place, he joins an expedition to Antarctica. What he uncovers there is just as bizarre as Pym's adventures.
Johnson's novel is funny, clever, and wonderfully strange. I love the premise of tracking down the truth behind a 200-year-old tall tale, and this story executes the premise in fascinating and unexpected ways. The book is a madcap series of adventures with a cast of unusual characters. It's also an exploration of black-white relations and the very blurred lines between these groups. There are many more amazing things happening in PYM, but I don't want to spoil any surprises. If the description I've given interests you at all, you should read this book!
Previous knowledge of the Poe novel isn't expected, and all the relevant details are entertainingly explained by Professor Chris, along with his speculations on what it all means. The full text of Poe's story is readily available online, though, and I did enjoy comparing certain sections as I read PYM to find echoes.
→ FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff was one of the big literary titles of 2015, making many year-end lists, including President Obama's. I'm glad I read this engrossing, unusual story of a marriage that's told in expertly chosen moments and details. And I'm glad, but amazed, that a novel of that description found such wide appeal.
The story opens the day Lotto and Mathilde marry, a mere two weeks after meeting. He loves her deeply and obsessively, and he feels his whole young life has led to their union. The early years of marriage are full of love but disappointment, as Lotto fails to make it as an actor and the couple struggles to make ends meet in their tiny basement apartment. When Lotto discovers his talent as a playwright, Mathilde helps guide him into a successful career. While there are still creative struggles to contend with at times, Lotto is at home basking in the fame he always imagined for himself, with his loving wife at his side. Then we get to see the marriage from Mathilde's point of view.
The he-said-she-said structure is a big part of the marketing and discussion around the book, and that plus its popularity led me to expect a story like GONE GIRL, with shocking reversals and thriller plotting. FATES AND FURIES is about a marriage with secrets, yes, and its second half is full of startling revelations, for sure, but there's nothing so conventional as a mystery driving this story. I was struck repeatedly by how unexpected it all was, and not just because I didn't anticipate the twists and turns. The varied narrative style was a surprise, the plot developments were out of the ordinary, and I didn't even guess at the types of twists the novel had in store. All these elements are well executed, with beautiful writing throughout. I recommend this book, particularly to those interested in relationship dynamics or depictions of the creative process.
→ I was looking forward to PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler, who will be celebrated as the Honored Ghost at FOGcon this March. Many of my friends adore this novel, but alas, I wasn't a fan. I often found myself bored, and I wasn't interested in the aspects of the story that received the most focus.
I did enjoy the worldbuilding that went into developing the book's setting, a slow apocalypse that's frighteningly plausible. The story opens in 2024 in a suburb of Los Angeles. Civilization is breaking down, with poverty and violence on the rise. Jobs are scarce, and so is water, since California hasn't seen rain in years. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives in a neighborhood that's walled off for protection against desperate criminals who want to steal and destroy what little the community has. As these dangerous intrusions become more common, Lauren prepares for the inevitable day it will be necessary to flee in search of safe haven elsewhere.
A major part of Lauren's preparation for the future, and a major part of the book, involves figuring out and refining a new belief system she calls Earthseed. This religious thread didn't connect with me the way it did with some readers. In addition, I was frustrated by the slow pacing and the repetitive nature of the plot. Despite many attacks and episodes of violence, not a lot happens in the story, and the characters don't change or do much besides fight back and debate Earthseed. I'll be interested to know if other readers have a different perspective on how the plot develops, and I'm still eager to hear more about Butler's work at FOGcon.
→ NOT ON FIRE, BUT BURNING by Greg Hrbek opens with the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed by a nuclear attack. I was excited to read the story that began to unfold as a frightened college student tries to make her way through the apocalyptic ruins of the city with the boy she's babysitting. But after the lengthy prologue that had me hooked, the story switches focus. It's years later, and we're in upstate New York with different characters. The strike on the bridge wasn't the start of a widespread apocalypse, but rather a 9/11-like event that changed attitudes throughout the country and set wars in motion. Much of the novel is about a bunch of preteen kids, some Muslim and some not, and how they react to each other and to the suspicious, high-alert culture of modern America.
So the story wasn't what I expected, but I was on board with this focus, despite qualms about certain characterizations. And then things became weirder. Some characters are the family of the young woman in the prologue, except not quite, because they exist in an alternate timeline in which she was never born. The family members are starting to have dreams and memories of their alternate past in which the girl lived and then died in the San Francisco tragedy, and it's an intriguing idea for a novel, but I never felt it connected well to the rest of the story Hrbek was trying to tell. On top of this, the writing style took experimental turns and switched from third to second to first person for no reason I could discern, creating an overall effect of weirdness for the sake of weirdness.
On a scene-by-scene basis, this is a gripping book full of exciting events, and I read eagerly, curious to know what would happen next. I kept setting aside my lukewarm feelings about many aspects of the story in hopes that all the pieces would come together in a spectacular ending. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed that the mishmash of big ideas didn't add up to much.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ In Interfictions Online, Alex Dally MacFarlane reports on how different translators handled the problem of gender when translating Ann Leckie's ANCILLARY JUSTICE: "We invited the translators of the novel into Bulgarian, German, Hebrew, Hungarian and Japanese to discuss the process, with particular interest in the translation of gender. What emerges is an insight into the work of translators and the rigidity and versatility of grammatical gender in the face of non-standard demands. Where necessary, translators turned to innovative and even inventive ways to write their languages."