4 February 2017

january bookblogging.

1 & 2. Gerald Morris, The Squire's Quest & The Legend of the King. These are MG/YA, from a Gawain-focused Arthuriana series I used to be a fan of when I was younger. These two, which I never got around to (well—I might have read The Squire's Quest; I didn't remember most of it, but there was a gag about the filioque that I thought I recognized) cover the end of the story. The tonal shift from what had been a fairly lighthearted series is a bit awkward in places, but ultimately very well-handled. I especially loved the very end of The Legend of the King.

3. Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Note from log: "I repudiate it." A strange little book, twee and authoritarian and fundamentally deeply materialistic. Even her sensible tips are delivered in an absolutist tone that makes them hilarious. As everyone says, she's especially bad on the subject of books—the right time to read a book, see, is when you first encounter it, so any book you own that you've not read yet can be got rid of straightaway. She also doesn't believe in re-reading, though she does believe in feeling sorry for your socks.

4–10. C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. Re-reads, obviously. At this point I'm not reading for plot even a little bit, but just to discover all the delightful little details I've forgotten over time. Can you believe that I didn't remember Bism? or Reepicheep losing at chess because he makes all his pieces do the stupid self-sacrificing things he would do in a real battle? et cetera, et cetera. As usual, Dawn Treader is my favorite, Silver Chair is the most effective/successful as a novel, and The Horse and His Boy is much easier to love than to like.

11. David Lodge, Changing Places. I have a documented weakness for campus novels; this one is very funny, very self-aware, and very good.

12. The Lais of Marie de France. This was for a medieval lit class; I am pleased to report that it's really wonderful, and totally mental in that way all the best medieval stuff is. One of them is about a werewolf!

13. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing. This was for my Literature of the Digital Age class. Goldsmith is a poet who thinks, among other things, that we have so much text now that what we really ought to do now is focus not on rearranging and recontextualizing what we've already got—"context is the new content." Most of my classmates had mixed-to-negative feelings about all this; my final feeling, as expressed to a friend of mine in the class, is that I kind of want to beat Goldsmith up in a parking lot, but just the once, and after that I'll be more or less okay with him. I don't want to pass judgment now beyond the thing about beating him up, but he's always interesting and there's a lot here worth talking about.

14. Lev Grossman, The Magicians. What if Harry Potter, but anhedonic, and also consuming heroic quantities of alcohol? It's all a bit Donna-Tartt-does-J.-K.-Rowling, and while I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone else it worked for me on that score. I really like campus novels. Unfortunately the protagonist is intensely boring (some of the supporting characters are quite good, and I'm powerless to understand why they spend any time with him) and once everyone graduates, which happens a little more than halfway through, things get a lot less interesting. It turns from My Harry Potter Fanfiction, By Me, Lev to My Narnia Fanfiction, By Me, Lev—and Lev Grossman is not great at writing Narnia fanfiction. (There exists a version of this review that consists solely of the sentence "I could write better Narnia fanfiction than that," and in a lot of ways that kind of sums it up.)

15. Emma Donoghue, The Wonder. You know when you've read too many books by men, or one book that's extremely By A Man, and then you open a book by a woman and it's like you can breathe properly again? Coming straight off the back of The Magicians I was pre-disposed to like anything that didn't keep describing its female characters' breasts at me. I was also positively inclined because I'd read Donoghue's last-but-one book before this, Room, a novel about a kidnapping narrated by the victim's five-year-old son. It was very well-regarded, deservedly so; this one's been less talked about, but for my money it's better. I knew straightaway that it wouldn't be as praised generally—it's a historical novel, and it's very unusual. The protagonists here are Anna, an eleven-year-old Irish girl who's inexplicably stopped eating, and Lib, a Nightingale-trained English nurse who has been hired to watch Anna and get to the bottom of what's happening. Donoghue is one of the best in the game at writing child characters, and as such she manages to make Anna both believable and lovable and her story intensely gripping. This book is hard to recommend, because it's very upsetting in ways that are hard to warn for without spoiling the plot, but I loved it.

16. Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic. A gorgeous, timely little book about Japanese picture brides. It's written all in the second-person plural—I don't believe I've read anything else that uses that technique, but here it's surprisingly immersive and affecting.

29 January 2017

odysseus at o'hare.

ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροντῶν ἐς γαϊαν ικάνω;
ἦ ῥ' οἵ γ' ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεοθδής;
Odyssey 6.119-21

He clutches papers, wonders, who lives here?
True men like me, the sort who fear the gods?
When I washed up in Scheria, he thinks,
they washed me, fed me—then they asked my name.
But things are different here. They question you,
your place of birth, your business, your last stop.
They do not follow Zeus, the god of guests,
or do his rites of hospitality.

My wife is waiting for me, he says, please—
and others say the same. My husband's here,
my daughter, I have papers—languages
he does not know, for he speaks only Greek,
Homeric Greek at that. He is alone,
and prays this country has some kinder gods.

26 January 2017

double dactyls.

Wikipedia.

fig 1: King John.

Higgledy-piggledy
young Philip Faulconbridge,
son of his father he
wasn't at all—
learning his getting was
extracurricular
gave Phil a reason at
last to stand tall.

fig 2: Doctor Faustus.

Higgledy-piggledy
Faustus of Wittenberg
autodidactically
summoned from Hell
one whom the adjective
Mephistophelian
fit like a glove (i.e.
really quite well).

fig 3: Le petit prince.

Higgledy-piggledy
A. Saint-Exupéry,
flyer of planes and a
writer of books,
once drew a picture whose
idiosyncrasies
made it look hat-like and
earned him odd looks.

fig 4: Ninety-Five Theses

Higgledy-piggledy
Martin of Wittenberg
wrote out some theses and
stuck them on high:
reading this treatise most
multisyllabical,
many good Germans bid
Rome a good-bye.

16 January 2017

a small seasonal sonnet.

Or, lines written on the back of an order of service.

It's ordinary time that fills our lives,
not feast or fast but only keeping on,
a time of laundry, homework, butter knives,
of fitful nights that yield to weary dawn.
Green robes, library fines, week after week
(this season's so much longer than the rest)
till we've forgotten what we meant to seek,
that strange far thing we thought might be our quest.
But festive seasons still mark other times,
echoes of joy throughout the sullen year
to teach that truth that animates our rhymes:
this world is Christ's. We're meant to seek him here,
in striving to unpick each tangled thread,
in ordinary life, in wine, in bread.

7 January 2017

bookish resolutions.

I see this post was accidentally published early; on the off-chance anyone saw that, I apologize most earnestly.

I grant, Reader, that New Year's Resolutions are very silly; I do not grant that this is reason enough not to do them. I have several.
  1. Take fewer books out of the library. I do not mean by this "read fewer books" or "buy more books" or anything of the sort—what I mean is that I've a tendency to check far more books out of the library than I can realistically read. This is largely because I grew up without regular access to a public library, and so treat every visit as though it may well be my last. I often wind up returning books I've not read, which is just depressing. (It gets worse when I'm stressed—the less time I have to read the more books I borrow.) This year I mean to check out no more books than I can sensibly read and turn in on time. I can always go back.
  2. Read Crime and Punishment. Because I can. In general I want to read more of that sort of long thing I'm always meaning to get to, even if it means I read fewer books in total. (I'm not scared of long books, truly, but I seem to have fallen into a pattern of not reading many.) Also Dad's always nagging me about Russian literature, so. I'm also meaning to read some Bulgakov.
  3. Read more short stories. For no other reason than that I enjoy them, and in particular I should like to read more anthologies. I've historically had trouble with anthologies, because you wind up paying a great deal and often only enjoying a few stories, but I live near a library now, see point one. I think I've mentioned here that I believe a good short story a greater accomplishment than a good novel; I stick by that, which makes it even stranger that I read so few shorts in practice. To begin with I've been reading The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume One, and it's got in it one of the best stories I think I've ever read, Ellen Klages' "In the House of the Seven Librarians."
  4. Read more diversely. I've put this last because it's really the most important one. My reading lists are mostly women but still almost all white, and I'm ready to start doing something about that. I don't mean this in a grudging eat-your-vegetables kind of way—having a more diverse reading list is more fun. It only takes a bit more time and thought, which I'm usually too lazy for.

1 January 2017

2016 reading summary.

I don't know exactly how many books I read in 2016. It was at least 183, which is much less impressive when you take into account how many comics I read. But those records end in, at the latest, very early December. For some reason, I've been having a bad couple of mental health months. Upshot is that I've been not only struggling to read books but also forgetting to write them down. In the end I still managed to read quite a bit, but by the time I got back onto my horse I had entered a shame cycle whereby I couldn't write books down because I couldn't bear to look at the list. I reread The Phantom Tollbooth in the weeks after the election, because a quest for Rhyme and Reason sounded about right just then, and I did a lot of Edward Gorey comfort reading. I propose below to list a some things I've managed to get through lately, and then note my favorites from the year as a whole.

What I have finished lately has been short. I read Laurie Penny's Everything Belongs to the Future, which was as intelligent and absorbing as I've been led to believe, and also Paul Cornell's Witches of Lychford which was very good in what felt like a very Paul Cornell sort of way. (Are you into Anglicanism but also kind of into paganism? Yeah. And this one starred a female vicar, which is a good bit of the way to my heart.) I read David Davalos' play Wittenberg—a story about Hamlet and his professors Faustus and Luther, because of course it is—because I was worried it was too similar to something I've been making a tentative start on writing. It isn't, and it was quite good fun.

I did my traditional seasonal reads: From Hell (Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell) for Thanksgiving, Hogfather (Terry Pratchett) for Advent, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Christmas. That last I read out loud with my father, who is kind about my pronunciation and very patient when I collapse giggling about how much I love the Pearl Poet. We also organized a small reader's theatre of The Second Shepherd's Play, and I decided that I wanted to be the Wakefield Master when I grow up. Besides that there's the venerable tradition whereby straight after Christmas I steal and read a book I gave as a gift to one of my family: this year it was Dad's gift, Robert Farrar Capon's posthumous More Theology & Less Heavy Cream. Very light indeed, a collection of humorous columns for the late lamented Wittenburg [sic] Door.

Those are all worth noting because I liked them—one that's worth nothing for the opposite reason, though it saddens me to dwell on't, was Connie Willis' new book Crosstalk. Here's what I wrote about it in my journal at the time: "a cross b/t Bellwether & Lincoln's Dreams & so disappointing it soured me retrospectively on both. The thing about the Irish is stupid, Twitter does not work that way, & CB makes very little sense as a character. 'I assure you that parts of it are excellent'—but even the good bits made me feel that I was reading a draft of a much better book, one that would be half as long." Naturally this was all rather crushing. So, counterpoint: December's standout! It was a sci-fi novel which I can't talk about—or anyway I don't know how much I'm allowed to say so I'm keeping mum. This is because it isn't published yet, and I was a test reader on it. It is very, very good and I'm excited for when it comes out and I can review it properly here.

So: Favorite reads for the year as a whole. I make a habit of marking my favorites with asterisks, so this is easier than it might otherwise be. Here are some of my favorites, excluding re-reads, and including nothing that I didn't mark as a favorite at the time: 

Nox, Anne Carson — for school; my term paper on it ruled.
The Core of the Sun, Johanna Sinisalo
Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne Valente
Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner
A Humument: A treated Victorian novel, Tom Phillips — for school, the same seminar that read Nox. It was a course about texts that interrogate the technologies that produce them, and it changed my thinking about books and reading in a really major way.
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, Steven Brust
Digger, Ursula Vernon
Liar, Justine Larbalestier — I'm not sure on this one of how good it was versus how well it pushed my own personal buttons. But it pushed those buttons very effectively.
Hitchers, Will McIntosh
The Rabbi's Cat 1 & 2, Joann Sfar
Games Wizards Play, Diane Duane — similar caveats as for Liar. This is a book aimed at my thirteen-year-old self with a ludicrous degree of precision, and I loved it largely on her behalf.
Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer
Antigonick, Anne Carson & Bianca Stone
Speak, Louisa Hall
The Parliament of Fowls, Geoffrey Chaucer (& the Tales)
Brendan, Frederick Buechner (& others of his)
Still, Lauren F. Winner
Glittering Images, Susan Howatch — and some but not all of the ensuing series, which I devoured at lightning speed this summer. Ultimately my favorite was probably Mystical Paths, the second-to-last.
As You Like It, William Shakespeare
The Fate of Mice, Susan Palwick (and Shelter and The Necessary Beggar: Susan Palwick was my real discovery of the year)
Necessity, Jo Walton
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories, Ken Liu
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey
The Secret History, Donna Tartt — did I tell you I'm a Classics major now? and yet still not a murderer.
Joe Gould's Teeth, Jill Lepore
Telling Tales, Patience Agbabi
Owl in Love, Patrice Kindl
Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

I've not done statistics on the whole list, because of the record-keeping errors noted earlier, but I'll say that this sample is mostly science-fiction and fantasy, almost all by women, and fewer comics than I might have expected. (Although this really is the year I got heavily into Saga and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.) If I had to choose a favorite from all of these it'd be—difficult, since I love all these for very different reasons, but probably Antigonick. It's breathtaking.

I'd meant to include here my reading resolutions, but this post has gone a bit long—expect them here within the week, and then a return to regular monthly bookblogs. And, while I didn't want to go into too much detail about all of the books I listed here, in the comments I'm willing to talk about any and all of them with possibly excessive enthusiasm.

30 November 2016

the uncanny valley.

explained for English majors, by an English major.

Right, you know when you're in a used-book store, one of those wonderful tiny ones where the books are organized by subject matter and nothing else, and the shelves are improbably high and if you tried to take a book down off the top shelf everything would fall down and kill you, probably? And there's a cat, because of course there's a cat, and it's absurdly satisfied with itself? Which it deserves to be, if you lived here you'd be satisfied with yourself too. You wouldn't mind trading lives with that cat for a week or so.

You circle the store in no great hurry. You poke through the section labeled Esoterica, hoping to find some Charles Fort (you've been re-reading From Hell lately) but all you can find are dusty paperbacks about astrology and candle magick and that sort of thing. You almost buy a translation of The Golden Ass, but you're trying lately not to buy books that you can trivially find from the library, so you leave it, even though it's by a translator you admire a great deal. In general living so near a public library rather punctures your enthusiasm for book-buying; what you really covet is that lovely bust of Hippocrates, which isn't for sale. Textbooks you still buy, though, so you dutifully (futilely) examine all the New Testament commentaries in hopes of finding the ones you've been assigned for Advanced Koinē next semester.

You also seriously consider a novel by A.S. Byatt, but your mother loves Byatt and so you reckon she probably owns a copy—you can borrow it over Christmas break. If she doesn't have it you can just re-read Possession; it's been over a year. In Drama you accidentally pick up some anti-Stratfordian literature, and because you're absurdly overdramatic you make an audible noise of disgust when you realize what it is you're holding. This is by far your favorite bit of the store, in the absence of any discernible sci-fi shelves, and in between looking at nice editions of your favorite Shakespeare plays you reiterate to yourself your long-standing intention to finally read The Revenger's Tragedy. 

Another thing that catches your eye over here is a little hardback of the first quarto of Hamlet, the bad quarto of 1603. You take it down and open it at random, and the first line your gaze falls on is Corambis (the bad quarto's equivalent of Polonius) saying "He hath, my lord, won from me a forced grant." The Folio line, you know very well, is "He hath, my lord, won from me my slow leave." It's almost exactly the same thing—scans the same, means the same. But this version is completely nails-on-chalkboard wrong to you, so wrong that you can't even judge on its own merits how good a line it is. It's the wrong line, end of, and it feels even more wrong because it's so close to the line you already know. You've always thought of Shakespeare as a binary state, whereby any given text is either Shakespeare or not-Shakespeare, but this is almost Shakespeare, and it makes you physically uncomfortable.

And, yeah, the uncanny valley is that feeling but with robots.

you thought I was joking about the cat, didn't you?