Last Week’s Reading: April 16-22

A light week, Dear Readers, for the best of reasons: a delightful post-Easter visit from family. Hope you’re all enjoying spring (or autumn, for you Southern Hemisphere folks).

Afterland, by Mai Der Vang: A haunting debut poetry collection; full review to come.

Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar: Like Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Spaceman of Bohemia is literary sci-fi that explores questions of surveillance, ambition, and love, but it’s quite a bit weirder and much less invested in realism. In 2018, Czech scientist Jakub becomes his country’s first astronaut, sent into space (in a ship whose components are named after various sponsoring companies) to study a cloud of cosmic dust near Venus. The mission takes Jakub from his beloved wife Lenka, but offers him the opportunity to rise beyond the taint of his Communist informant father’s past. However, lonely days in space  start to feel less like heroism and more like insanity; soon Jakub is conversing with a Nutella-loving giant space spider (Imaginary? Maybe, maybe not) and sharing, almost re-living, his childhood memories of the rural village where his grandparents tried to protect him from the consequences of his father’s sins. Spaceman of Bohemia is an odd and touching debut novel, and I recommend it.

Float, by Anne Carson: I bought Float last fall as a birthday present to myself, but after paging through it, decided to wait for a quiet day to take it all in. That day was Saturday, but I think I’ll need quite a few more before I process the whole thing. Float is a collection of 22 chapbooks that can be read in any order. Poetry, essays, lectures, performances, hybrid forms—they’re all here, in that inimitable Anne Carson style. It was the prose that drew me most this time, especially a gorgeous essay on translation (“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”) and “Uncle Falling: A Pair of Lyric Lectures with a Shared Chorus.” If you’re an Anne Carson fan, Float is a must-read.


Last Week’s Reading: April 9-15

Honor’s Knight, by Rachel Bach: A solid follow-up to the very entertaining Fortune’s Pawn, which I talked about last week.

Outline, by Rachel Cusk: I enjoyed this unusual novel, which focuses on characterization over plot. The narrator, an English woman teaching a writing course during a hot Athens summer, reveals little about herself directly, instead recounting a series of conversations with friends, students, and acquaintances. Bit by bit, as her interlocutors reveal the details of their histories and surroundings, we piece together the narrator’s own character and experiences–just enough for an outline. The old dictum in writing is to show, not tell, but this book is almost all telling (and stylized; the conversations are unusually detailed and tend to lack context), but somehow Ms. Cusk has found a way to show the emotional truth of her narrator’s life. Outline won’t appeal to all readers, but I recommend it to anyone looking for a thoughtful, slow-paced reading experience.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin: Baldwin’s prose is so good—it just moves the reader along effortlessly, like a swift current. The Fire Next Time reminded me of how I felt reading Baldwin’s earlier Notes of a Native Son and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and though much has changed since The Fire Next Time‘s publication, much, alas, has not. It’s still essential reading on race in the United States.

Last Week’s Reading: April 2-8

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett: I requested this book on the recommendation of my friend Mary, who owns Newtonville Books, where Ms. Hartnett once worked. Rabbit Cake is narrated by precocious but not precious Elvis Babbitt, who recounts the events after her mother’s untimely death by drowning due to sleepwalking. As Elvis and her sister and her father try to hold their family together, each takes on different coping strategies of varying effectiveness (there’s a talking bird involved, and dozens of cakes). There was potential here to veer into over-stylized Wes Anderson territory (I love Wes Anderson, but I do not think I would care for his work in novel form), but Ms. Hartnett’s assured debut remains grounded in the Babbitt family’s frailties and love. Recommended.

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar: This slim, striking collection whetted my appetite for Kaveh Akbar’s full-length book of poems Calling a Wolf a Wolf, coming this fall. The poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic are intimate and beautiful, a catalogue of desires—for drink, for God, for understanding—fulfilled and unfulfilled.

Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach: I’ve been on the lookout for Fortune’s Pawn ever since Rory recommended it years ago, and after striking out at bookstore after bookstore, I finally requested it from the library. Devi Morris (think Starbuck meets Ripley) is an armored mercenary with a big ego and the skills to match it. Ambition leads her to take a position on the Glorious Fool, a ship that gets into even more trouble than its name suggests. Devi thinks she can handle it, but she has no idea what she’s in for. This is a fun, action-packed sci-fi novel with a bit of romance—a perfect palate cleanser if you’re between more serious reads.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: I’m on a bit of a sci-fi kick, as you see. I adored this novel, which is like a whole season of Firefly packed into a book, only with more aliens. The setup is conventional: Rosemary Harper wants to escape her past, and what better way than be joining the crew of a ship that tunnels wormholes through space? Of course the crew is completely unconventional, from the reptilian pilot Sissix to the friendly AI Lovey and the cook/doctor, six-limbed Dr. Chef. On a long deep-space assignment, the crew faces adventure and loss and meets some of the most interesting sapients in the galaxy. The concerns of the novel are serious—how families are made, what sentience means, how gender and sexuality might look in a galaxy filled with different species, how risk should be valued—but the tone is lighthearted and warm. It’s a delectable book, and highly recommended.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes: Another entry in the “poets I should have read years ago” category. I’ve run across Terrance Hayes’s poems before, but this is the first time I sat down to read a whole collection. Lighthead is such a good collection: playful, melancholy, and multifaceted. These poems felt full to bursting with the richness of their language. My favorites included “The Golden Shovel,” a riff on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”; “Carp Poem”; “God Is an American”; and “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Highly recommended.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (not pictured since I read it as an e-book): This 2008 essay collection fell a bit flat for me; I’m used to breaking out into the kind of chortles that alarm small children and passersby when I read David Sedaris, but no one near me was the least bit startled while I read this book. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t worth reading—a few essays are quite moving—but I don’t feel the need to buy it for my own library.

Last Week’s Reading: January 22-28


January 22-28, 2017: A sci-fi classic, a new feminist classic, vignettes in verse,  a much-awarded novel worth the hype, and thirty-year-old poetry that’s still fresh.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The perfect primer on feminism, eloquent and brief. This would make an excellent gift for high school students in need of a brief introduction to the concept and will rally, I think, those who hesitate to call themselves feminists.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve had this 1969 sci-fi classic  on my shelves for twenty years, but I’m rather glad I didn’t read it at twelve. Though short—my mass-market paperback is 300 pages—it’s dense, complicated, and incredibly intelligent. Genly Ai is an envoy from a group of planets (think the Federation, but more abstract) assigned to persuade the inhabitants of the planet Gethen (translated, it means Winter–it’s essentially a populated Hoth) to join the Ekumen. Gethenians have a complicated system of etiquette and honor called shifgrethor, but even more confounding for Ai is their lacked of fixed sexuality; they are neither male nor female (all characters are called “he,” a convention Ann Leckie reverses in the excellent Ancillary Justice). The world-building is sublime, the pace of revelation superb–we struggle to understand this culture as Genly does, and in the process Ms. Le Guin asks us to think deeply about exploration, friendship, and patriotism. Highly recommended.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff: The world lost a funny, sad voice when David Rakoff died in 2012 at the age of 47. If you loved his essay collection Fraud (I did), you’ll find this book quite different–it’s a short novel made of vignettes in verse. It’s grim and witty at the same time, a catalogue of cruelties and kindnesses and most of all, I think, our vulnerabilities. Those looking for an unusual reading experience should pick it up.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: Deserves every accolade it’s received, and then some. I put off reading this novel because I have limited patience for the male bildungsroman, but my expectations were confounded. Oscar is lovable and tragic, but the story doesn’t belong to him alone; Mr. Díaz takes long excursions into the backgrounds of his mother and sister, giving the book a roundedness and depth I didn’t anticipate. Yunior, the narrator and sometime authorial-alter-ego, is a fantastic narrator, steeped in nerd culture, frenetic, profane and and so full of life that it seems he’s physically propelling words across the page (even in the footnotes). I loved, loved, loved this novel.

To The Quick, by Heather McHugh: Heather McHugh’s wordplay (see “Etymological Dirge”) is fantastic, almost dizzying. This 1987 collection is beautiful and smart and tough. These poems will cut you to the quick. Need proof? Just read “The Amenities.” 

5 Reasons to Read: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

5 Reasons to Read Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes, the first in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series (set to be at least nine novels now, and also the basis for a new show that’s apparently pretty good) was published in 2012. I bought it in 2013, and read it . . . last week. Such is the fate of books in my house.

IMG_7416The book follows James Holden, the executive officer on an ice hauler working the rings of Saturn, and Detective Miller of the Ceres security service, who’s handed a missing persons case that looks ugly. Both men are drawn into a web of intrigue that extends throughout the solar system. This is space opera, after all.

Leviathan Wakes is a sci-fi mystery, and it’s a great read. I’m definitely going to pick up Caliban’s War, the second book in the series, probably next summer—this kind of novel is a treat, like a yearly walk down to beachside clam shack.

If you’re  on the fence, here are five reasons to give Leviathan Wakes a try:

  1. It’s a doorstop at 561 pages, but it reads fast: I stayed up late and then woke up early to finish it, and I love sleep. Each chapter is chock-full of tension, and the action almost never lets up.
  2. The setting is way cool: Leviathan Wakes is set in a middle future—earlier than Star Trek, later than The Martian. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but hasn’t reached the stars or other species yet. Corey (the pen name of two writers) does a great job exploring what it would take to get us to that point, and what the costs would be.
  3. It’s smart but not inaccessible: This isn’t a Michael Bay summer blockbuster kind of book, but it’s not as cerebral as Ancillary Justice (which I loved). There’s a nice balance of action with consideration of how race and class—and war—might look in our future.
  4. It’ll remind you of classic sci-fi movies and TV: Are you a fan of Alien, Blade Runner, The Abyss, or Firefly? Then Leviathan Wakes is going to ring your bell. It’s got the gritty noir of Blade Runner, the misfit crew of Firefly, the atmosphere and tension of The Abyss, and some serious callbacks to Alien and Aliens.
  5. It stands alone: I like a good series as much as the next person, but I dislike cliffhangers that try to force me to pick up the next book. Leviathan Wakes has a satisfying ending that whets the appetite for the next book. Just right.

Have you read any good sci-fi lately?

“the little Mars rover”: Matthew Rohrer’s “There Is Absolutely Nothing Lonelier”

photo (74)A couple weeks ago, Mr. O and I were able to go see The Martian in the theatre (a rare treat); I absolutely loved the book and heartily endorse the movie. There was a catch, however: now I want to re-read the book, and since this is the season when my desire to read all the books smashes up my need to knit all the things—Houston, we have a problem.

To satisfy my sci-fi craving, first I tried to convince our four-year-old to watch WALL-E, but no dice; he’s preemptively scared of most movies. You’re thinking that maybe I should just look forward to the next Star Wars, but I say unto you: thrice bitten, still shy (and still going, but that’s beside the point).

So then I started thinking about poetry, and while I continue to commend Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars to you, I have a new poem for your perusal. I owe a tip of the hat to poet Simeon Berry on this one, who posted a link to Matthew Rohr’s poem “There Is Absolutely Nothing Lonelier” a few days ago.

You will never read a JPL press release quite the same way again.

Recommended Reading: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has won essentially every sci-fi award available–and justifiably so. It’s one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, an intelligent, gripping tour-de-force that demands and rewards the reader’s undivided attention.

photo (5)I’m going to say almost nothing about the plot because I’m hoping you’ll read this book and I want you to get the most out of the experience. In brief, two stories run side by side.

Breq is the sole survivor of a twenty-year-old disaster. She’s out for justice, or maybe revenge, but a figure from an even more distant past might complicate things.

The Justice of Toren is an enormous starship, its artificial intelligence nearly omniscient and able to “be” in many places at once, both on the ship and off. The ship serves the Radch, a human empire that has been conquering the galaxy, but Justice of Toren’s mission is one of the last of its kind, and something’s afoot that’s resisting its analysis.

This book is so smart, so original, so interesting. What’s been getting the most play is Ms. Leckie’s take on gender; the Radch do not recognize gender at all, so the only pronouns in use are female. Every character is “she”; it’s jarring at first, and I found myself, ardent feminist though I am, analyzing characters for hints of their “actual” gender, when of course no such “actual” gender exists in the world of the novel. I suspect Ms. Leckie knew readers would do this; it’s a subtle critique of our own gender-obsessed culture, and a commentary on the way in which for many hundreds (if not thousands) of years, humanity accepted “he” as the universal pronoun for people and for God.

[I have utterly no idea how they’re going to make TV series out of this book, let alone cast it. Well, I can imagine Ronald D. Moore doing it, but he’s otherwise occupied right now. The book has been optioned for TV, which you can read about here. Don’t read the last paragraph–spoilers, sort of.]

Gender aside, Ancillary Justice has a great deal to say about consciousness, psychology, empire, and cultural assimilation — we’re talking Battlestar Galactica-level nuance and interest (you knew I was going to bring BSG into this eventually, right?). Thematic concerns aside, it’s action packed and suspenseful, and a treat to read.

Ms. Leckie’s world-building is fascinating — it’s minimalist compared to some of the overwrought work that pops up in speculative fiction. Details are carefully placed, and often mysterious — I can’t wait to read the next book in the planned Imperial Radch trilogy to learn more (saga-phobes, never fear: Ancillary Justice works just fine as a standalone).

I’ll leave you with a few questions from the novel, ones I’m still thinking about, weeks after I finished it:

“[. . .] is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really fiction?” (207)

*Special hat tip to Mr. O, who got me this book for my birthday. Well done, sir.

Recommended Reading: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water

photo (107)If you’re looking for a thoughtful, surprising dystopian novel that will make you see your preferred summer body of water — ocean, lake, swimming pool — in a whole new light, look no further than Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water*.

Ms. Itäranta, who is Finnish and lives in England, wrote the novel in both Finnish and English (the translation of the novel’s Finnish title is The Tea Master’s Book), and readers will find both a Scandinavian setting (albeit much different from today’s region) and lyrical prose, setting Memory of Water apart from what has now become rather standard dystopian fare.

What also sets the novel apart is Ms. Itäranta’s use of conventional dystopian tropes — a world changed after environmental disaster, an authoritarian government wielding violent power, scarcity of basic resources — without following standard plot-lines. Noria Kaito lives in a far-flung village of the Scandinavian Union, which is ruled by New Qian. Her mother is a scientist, and her father is a tea master, performing the traditional tea ceremony that has been handed down for generations; Noria is his apprentice. One day, her father shows her a dangerous secret: a hidden spring that only the tea master’s family knows about. With fresh water scarce — the rest of the village drinks desalinated seawater — this knowledge is illegal, and before long, a commander from New Qian arrives in town, suspecting the tea master’s secret.

When her father dies, Noria becomes the tea master — unprecedented, since she is a woman — and must decide what to do with her knowledge. At the same time, she’s navigating her friendship with Sanja and exploring old technology that they found together in the “plastic grave” near the town, technology that leads the pair to yet another dangerous secret. The military’s hold on the town becomes more brutal, and Noria is faced with extremely difficult choices about what’s best for her, for Sanja, for their village, for the world.

I loved Memory of Water for its musicality, its lyric attention to water, its innate feminism, its conjuring of a world very different from our own, but shaped with its ghostly imprint. I loved Ms. Itäranta’s refusal to grant the reader a happy ending (reaching instead for realism) without diminishing the power of hope. Highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which does not affect the content of my review.

Writer to Watch: Anne Leonard

Recently, I had the unusual experience of reading a book that didn’t really work for me as a whole, but that also ensured I’ll read the author’s next book.

photo (86)The author is Anne Leonard, and the book is Moth and Spark*.  Here’s the summary from Ms. Leonard’s website:

For three years, Prince Corin of Caithen has been waiting nervously for the Sarian army in the east to invade his kingdom. Now it is finally happening. But there are gaps in his memory and blank spots in his mind, his father is keeping secrets, and the Emperor’s dragons appear to be spying. The Empire which should protect Caithen may even be allied with the Sarians. If all that weren’t enough, the pressure is on for him to get married.

While Corin faces a world gone awry, Tam, the commoner daughter of a respected doctor, arrives at court as the guest of her sister-in-law. It is the season for making matches, but Tam has not come husband-hunting; she is insatiably curious about the court instead. Trying to control her impertinent attitude seems like enough of a challenge – until she begins having visions.

Chance leads Tam and Corin into meeting, and Tam is swiftly pulled into Corin’s life of war and politics. While they are falling into forbidden love, they learn there is another player in the war: the dragons themselves. Seeking to break free of their slavery, the dragons intend to use Corin and Tam as their tools. And the dragons demand whatever it takes, without regard for love or life or loyalty.

When I picked up the book, I had just finished Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State (review coming next week), and I needed a bit of a breather. I was expecting a literary-but-light read with plenty of escapism (see: dragons).  Moth and Spark confounded those expectations, since it is, at heart, a novel about court intrigue, through the lens of an accelerated Elizabeth Bennet/Mr. Darcy relationship. Yes, there were a few dragons, but not as many as you’d think, given the description of the book. The long middle section, which takes place at court, is quite tense.

Essentially, there’s so much going that the action sometimes felt truncated, and opportunities to elaborate on the culture, customs, and history of the world Ms. Leonard created simply passed by. Much as I love a standalone book, particularly in SF/F, I think Moth and Spark could have been and perhaps should have been three books: one that followed Tam and Corin in parallel, ending with their meeting; one about the intrigues at court and in the capital city; and one in the world at war.

It’s this sense of missed richness that makes me think Anne Leonard is a writer to watch. The Tam/Corin relationship is drawn from Jane Austen, as Ms. Leonard takes care to point out (though, for my taste, Tam is so perfect that she’s often annoying; “impertinence” is not something a character needs to overcome). The court politics and factions had some Dune-like overtones. The setting was a nice mix of the medieval and Victorian periods, with a few Gothic touches. The fantasy elements of the novel owe debts to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, Greek mythology, and Tolkien (just a bit). It’s an unusual writer who can draw so many disparate threads together, and that’s why I’m looking forward to Anne Leonard’s next book.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

An Interview with Chris Beckett, Author of Dark Eden

Yesterday I reviewed Chris Beckett’s excellent new novel, Dark Eden. Mr. Beckett graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Dark Eden? What was the writing process like?

Chris Beckett Photo courtesy of the author.

Chris Beckett
Photo courtesy of the author.

CB: As is often the case with my stories, Dark Eden grew very slowly.   In 1992, I came up with a short story called ‘The Circle of Stones’, which included one of the crucial scenes from the book, was set in a sunless world, and centered on four characters who were to evolve in the book into John, Tina, Jeff and Gerry.  In 2006 I wrote the short story ‘Dark Eden’ which provides the back story for the novel (it can be found in my collection The Turing Test).   Although I had the idea from the beginning that there might be the basis for a novel here, the prompt to start work on it in earnest actually came from my daughter Nancy, who saw the title ‘Dark Eden’ and said it would be a great name for a book.  (So it is!  So good that there are at least two other books and a computer game with the same name!)

As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe the idea for a sunless world with luminous trees probably came from staring at the screen of the antiquated computer I owned in 1992: one of those ones with shining green letters on a black screen.   But at the core of the book were two things: the idea of a loss which cannot be undone (the loss of Earth), and the idea of a violent, ugly transgressive act which is nevertheless in some way necessary.  These were the things I needed to write about (for whatever reason), the incentive to keep going I suppose you could say, and the sunless world proved to be a perfect setting for what I wanted to do.   Once the book was underway, it seemed to flow pretty easily.  Perhaps you’d expect that, since it had been marinating in my head for the better part of twenty years!

You write on your website that your experience as a social worker has informed your writing. Was this the case for Dark Eden?

photo (65)CB: The book that is most obviously linked with my career as a social work is my second novel Marcher (which will come out later this year in an extensively rewritten new edition).   However, since my social work career involved dealing with unhappy families, that may well have made a contribution to my conception of the troubled Family of Eden, clinging together in their dark world.   (I don’t know though.  That could just have come from my own childhood!)

How did you go about conducting research for the novel?

CB: I did no serious research at all.   I think I’m a reasonably well-informed person, and I just relied on my own knowledge, imagination and my ability to think things through.  (I knew for instance, that bioluminescent life forms are found on Earth in the depths of the sea where the light of the sun can’t reach.)  I’m rather proud of the fact that some of the things I dreamed up back in 1992 turn out, on further reading, to have a scientific basis.  There really are rogue planets without suns, it really is possible that a planet with a hot core could sustain life and liquid water, there really are whole ecosystems, right now and here on Earth, which are powered by geothermal energy rather than by sunlight.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

CB: I don’t have a conscious strategy about what to read while I’m writing.   I guess I avoid reading anything too similar to the project I have underway, so as to avoid getting my own ideas tangled up with someone else’s.   I think it may also be the case that when I’m in the thick of writing a book, I become less interested in reading fiction generally, and more inclined to read non-fiction. (The fuel for fiction-writing should be reality, perhaps, rather than other fiction?)   Sometimes I don’t read at all.  At night, my wife will lie in bed reading a novel and I’ll just stare at the ceiling mulling over the story I’m working on.

I understand that a sequel to Dark Eden will be published in the UK this year. Are there any other writing projects on your horizon?

CB: Yes, the sequel to Dark Eden is called Mother of Eden, and is set some two Earth centuries on.   It will indeed be coming out in the UK later this year – and in the US also, though the date has not yet been fixed.

As I mentioned above, my novel Marcher will also come out in a new UK edition this year, and I have begun work on a new novel, provisionally entitled Slaymaker, which is set on Earth in the near future and deals with the politics of a hotter and less habitable world.   But it’s early days on that one, so I won’t say any more about it at present.

I have the beginnings of an idea also for a third Eden novel, but let’s see how the second one goes down first.

I hope to find time to write some more short stories too.  Short stories were what I was first known for and I love writing them, but I haven’t done many for a while.

My thanks again to Mr. Beckett for his time and generous answers. You can read an excerpt from Dark Eden here, and you can learn more about Mr. Beckett and his work on his website,