Trapunto’s Summer Reading

August 31, 2010

July was going to be my catch-up month, but it only caught me up to the middle of spring.  Since then the ranks of the bookish unblogged have grown to mountainous proportions.  Reminding myself that this is a replacement for my handwritten reading logs, I’m going to take the easy way out.

Building Porches and Decks from the editors of Fine Homebuilding
Taunton Press, 2003

I didn’t mean to include any of my nonfiction research reading on this blog, but Building Porches and Decks became my holy text for several months, so I guess I’ll make a note of it.  It’s a compilation of articles that appeared in Fine Homebuilding prior to 2003.  It’s the best reference I could find on how to design a porch or deck that isn’t a disposable pressure-treated pine Home Depot jobber constructed to start rotting itself apart in 3-7 years–like the one attached to our house when we moved in.  Information you simply won’t find anywhere else.

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
Vintage of Random House, 1990; originally published 1969

I loved this too much to have anything to say about it right now.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
BBC Audiobooks, 2006
Read by Stephen Crossley

Sub-standard reading.  Crossley muddied Atkinson’s comedic timing, but that’s okay, since I only sort of liked the book.  I feel Atkinson gives in to the lazies when she writes mysteries; hard boiled silliness comes too easily to her.  She is like her main character in Emotionally Weird that way.

Didn’t finish:
The Gone Away World by Nick Haraway
Knopf Borzoi, 2008

Can I safely call this post-modern science fiction?  I went back to Gone Away World again and again and again but never got on board with the characters or premise. Now I am halfway through the book and simply can’t bring myself to care whether the main character makes good.  I enjoyed the silly martial arts descriptions and lore more than anything.  Akin to the soup that eats like a meal, this is one of those books that reads like an action movie, for me.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire is a supernaturally lovely human-formed demon-creature with a subtly ruthless (now dead) human-formed demon-creature father.  That father-daughter relationship was the only thing that stuck out pleasantly for me in Fire, since its the only thing I remember clearly a couple of months after reading it.  That aspect was quite good.  Cashore doesn’t hold back on the evil.  But I get kind of yawny when faced with mind control powers in books, and the angst that surrounds them.  “I’ve read–YAAAWN–so much–YAWWN–science fiction and fantasy where the helplessly gorgeous heroine is emotionally tortured by the alienating effects—yaaaaaawn–of her awesomely awesome powers.”   (I yawned just writing that.)   Women go all pawing and worshipful and men get all weird and fight each other to rape her when they see Fire’s long flame-colored hair–which for purposes of authorial convenience can’t be cut.  I disliked the reverse-chauvinism feeling this gave the book: some girls may be demons, but all men are animals.  Demon-creatures have this sexual magnetism thing going on in Cashore’s world.  Even though Cashore does the poor little demon-girl song and dance pretty well, I’m not in a position to be properly appreciative.  And Big Doings in the Kingdoms doesn’t work too well for me in a book this short.  Not enough time to give them the politics their proper weight.  You have to use a particularly clever short hand–make your macro, micro–if you want to make politics work in a YA novel.  Cashore isn’t quite there yet.

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones
Tor, 1999.  First pub. in Britain 199_?

A re-read of one my least favorite Jones predictably made it climb the charts.

Idlewild and Edenborn by Nick Sagan
G.P. Putnams, 2003 and 2004 respectively

I tease Der Mann about his nerd-crush on Carl Sagan.  Nick Sagan is Carl Sagan’s son, but I can’t get Der Mann to read Idlewild.  Even though I know he would love it.  Maybe he will, after reading this.  A little bit solipsistic and stagey–as a lot of things were back in the good old early 00’s, but those are my only complaints about this competent virtual reality novel.  I don’t usually like them much, and I liked Idlewild.  It had something unusual.  It helped that the protagonists were precocious teenagers, and seemed like it probably ought to have been packaged as YA.  I liked Edenborn less.  The Sufism didn’t enthrall me the way I’m pretty sure it did the author.  The kids were dumber than the last batch, and the grownups hadn’t grown up, just translocated their fantasies.

Didn’t finish:
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press, 2006

I’m going to call it a night on this one.  I haven’t been in the mood, and it should go back to the library.  It’s a winter book.  Manguel sniped at Andrew Carnegie in one of his essays, and I never recovered my enthusiasm.  Too, this book is less an inquiry into what libraries are, than it is one man’s (who also happens to be a natural collector both of books and ideas) idea of library-ness.

Pyongyang: a journey into North Korea by Guy Delisle
Drawn and Quarterly, 2003, 2005 (distributed by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Graphic memoir by a Paris based French Canadian animator about his experience working on an animation project in North Korea.  This is a very narrow slice of life, as he rarely leaves his foreigners’ hotel (where he also works) much less the capital city, and is carefully kept out of contact with anything he could besmirch, or that could besmirch the facade of national perfection North Korea shows visitors.  The angles are all hard and architectural, the artists’ drawing style is spare and humorous.  He chafes ineffectually at these constraints.  It’s more a blackly humorous study of the aesthetic of totalitarianism than of an actual country.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Candlewick, 2008.  First UK edition, 200_?

I perceived all its advertised virtues of structure, style, pacing, and message, but the dialect did this one in for me.  And the shore’nuff religious fundamentalists.  On another planet.  Same thing happened to me with Molly Gloss’s Quakers in space.  I just can’t believe Earth religious subculture would survive interplanetary travel intact, the way authors always seem to want it to.  I also found this book heavily didactic, which rarely happens to me, since I like ethical musings and have no warm fuzzies for either fundamentalists or militia-ism.  Still not sure what-all went wrong.  Nosir.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
William Morrow and Co, 1970

I liked the first half of it then bogged down for MONTHS and MONTHS in the last little bit.  This is the first Stewart that let me down.  My favorite thing about Mary Stewart is her descriptions of place.  She is the champion place/atmosphere writer.  Her characters are less dependable.  First her Merlin felt like a real person, then he felt completely unreal.  Most peculiar.

Didn’t finish:
Soulless by Gail Carriger.

Supernatural Victoriana.  I meant to read the whole thing, just because I wanted to get my head around it.  I couldn’t.  I have never read such twee, dead-horse-beating, anachronistic, unfunny SHITE.  This is the first and last time you will see me let loose at a book this way.  I was stupefied by its badness coupled with its pretensions.

Unconquered Countries, Four Novellas by Geoff Ryman
St Martins, 1994.

I love Geoff Ryman and you should too.  Even these revivified early works are excellent.  Since I didn’t look at the publication date, I didn’t know how old they were until I read the Afterword.  I thought they were contemporary, and that for some he was writing in an alternate history eighties nostalgia mode.  Even the technology was strangely believable.  What would we have ended up with if we hadn’t ended up with Windows and the Internet?  Read “Fan” and see.

Stories were about: immortal disembodied intelligences exploring space meeting alien life, a poor single mother’s relationship with an AI program simulating former folk-rock-star in London, gay concentration camp workers in a gender dystopia, and futuristic war from a peasant woman’s perspective in an unnamed part of Southeast Asia.

From the Afterword:

A Fall of Angels was written about 1976 as a show of strength.  Fan was written in 1988 or ‘89.  Both O Happy Day! and The Unconquered Country were finished in 1984, a year in which I could do no wrong.

It has been very strange rereading them, as if I had run across my younger self.  There is the embarrassment of reliving youthful inadequacy; grief for departed energy; a kind of sympathy for the awkwardness and seriousness and pomposity of youth.

There is also the embarrassment of old friends.  Here they come, like certain kinds of fan.  Here comes Teenage Megadeath, envisaging the slaughter of millions and imagining that this is an effective protest.  Here comes the Expository Lump, covered in spots and determined to back you into a corner to detail at length his brilliant ideas.  Here comes Unperceived Sources, all agog with Star Trek and unaware of it.  Here comes Style, all done up in German Expressionism, or Brechtianism, or whatever mainly visual or musical trend has caught his attention, his hypersensitivity to fashion.  These are among the usual embarrassments of writing Science Fiction, a genre that is at its most flaming, its most colorful, the less you know, the ruder your taste.

and later:  “It really should not come as a surprise that you were sweeter, kinder when young.  Somehow it still does, rather as though you had grown more rebellious and adolescent as you grew.”

How can you not love an author who is able to talk about himself this way?  And guess what?  He’s writer-friends with Lisa Tuttle, which makes perfect sense.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
Viking, 2010

Like Lisa Tuttle, it seems Elizabeth Hand is going to be one of those writers who keeps confounding my expectations in a good way.  Each of her books that I’ve read so far has felt like it could have been written by a different person.  I found it very hard to place this particular story in time with its dearth of cultural references, though I believe it was meant to be the late 1970’s.  It could have been taking place anywhere from the 60’s through the 80’s.  A short coming-of-age tale featuring love, theater, magic, and dysfunctional family life, with a dash of addiction.  The love is never delineated and the art/magic is never explained.  They merge sublimely.

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous
Harper Perennial, 2010

After The Makioka Sisters this will probably turn out to be my favorite book of the year; I can’t see myself reading anything better.  The central metaphor: a young American woman teaching English in rural Japan refuses to deal with her own garbage.  Obvious and brilliantly executed.  Watrous is already ten times the writer that anyone I can think of who launched herself in the same brainy style is–say a Laurie Moore or a Megan Daum.  One of those interesting times when I was pretty sure I would have nothing at all in common with the author/her protagonist if I met her in person and yet loved the book.

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
Grove Press, 1995

Angry magical realism.  It didn’t quite gel as a novel, though it was great to read, and I kept finding quotes I wanted to pull out.  Alexie shows he was a poet and short story writer first, novelist second, back when he wrote this one.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
William Morrow of Harper Collins, 2000

I thought about this book so long and hard, it’s now impossible to know what to say about it.  I was the bad blood in my family, and a great many of Sage’s perceptions–and not only of her family life–were eerily similar to my own.  I’ll have to give it a careful reread.

Coronation Summer by Angela Thirkell
Moyer Bell, 1998. First pub. 1937

Social history of the summer of 1837 (it is illustrated with period engravings from brochures, like a history book) rough-cast as a girl-gets-boy novel with a lot of jibes at the conniving, air-headed protagonist’s expense.  Thirkell seemed to be getting her kicks with the idea that 19th century “culture” was entirely childish and ridiculous.  There were a couple laugh out loud pieces of risque irony (“Did she really mean that?  She can’t have meant that.  She meant that!!”), but overall probably not the best Thirkell to start with.  Know a better one?

Gateway by Sharon Shinn
Viking, 2009

So, why do I keep coming back to Sharon Shinn’s books like a dog coming back to its–  Never mind.  It’s a mystery.  Shinn writes like a journalist: who-what-when-where-why-goodbye.  She has some phenomenally good ideas and striking imagery, but (with the exception of her first novel) not enough emotional oomph to flesh them out.  Sex and sexy images sub for emotion in her books.  Or, really, desire.  Because the sex is the deferred kind.  I find her heroines particularly disappointing.  I thought she might do YA better, since her adult novels had a certain speediness and thinness I thought might benefit from being squeezed into fewer pages of text.  Nope.  She just made even things speedier and thinner.  Though I really did love the alternate-Chinese fantasy setting.

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow 1994, first pub UK 1993

My new favorite Jones.  I must have read it very quickly in my mid teens.  I hadn’t thoroughly uncovered the Arthurian references.  It was like reading a new book this time.  I had just been looking at a biographical article that told a little about Diana Wynne Jones’ childhood, and I believe she drew heavily on it for Mordion’s.  I’m disturbed by the idea of a hero who looks like a grinning skull, though; maybe the ugly cover exaggerated what Jones meant by her description of his looks . . . or maybe the heroine really was someone who could fall in love with death.  I can’t be sure.  I sort of had to forget about Mordion’s shriveled-up-skullness in order to sympathize with him.  I’m just not goth that way.

Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar
Soft Skull Press, 2008

I should tell you that this is only “about” a lonely werewolf girl in the way that a shaggy dog story is about a shaggy dog.  Kalix, the lonely Scottish werewolf in question, is a slyly understated cliché.  I found her hilarious then wondered if I should; possibly I am just a bitch that way.  I am completely puzzled as to how Lonely Werewolf Girl got shelved as YA in my library because it seems very much catering to non-young adults in its references and humor.  Kalix is a minor player in a cast of immortal fashion slaves, assassins, were-people and people-people shuttling themselves around London doing this and that (and sleeping with each other), and werewolves beating each other up, drinking whisky (a lot of whisky–was Millar on the wagon?), and discussing werewolf clan politics.

8 Responses to “Trapunto’s Summer Reading”

  1. zibilee said

    Wow, you have been doing a lot of reading, though it sounds like quite a few of these failed for you. I am so thrilled that you loved If You Follow Me! So many people didn’t like it, but I thought it was brilliant.
    Very funny in a dark way. There are some others on your list that I want to read as well, but I don’t know when I will get around to it. Sorry to hear that Soulless was so crappy, because I got that one for Christmas, but haven’t read it yet. Oh well, that’s one I can remove from the stacks! Great mini-reviews, I loved them!

  2. Jodie said

    Lots of things to avoid and add to my reading list here. ‘Illyria’ sounds excellent.

    I am very curious about exactly what you disliked about ‘Soulless’. I’ve heard mixed mutterings about it, but no one else who almost swore about it.

    So you had a good time with ‘Reservation Blues’ then. Yay I love that book. And there are lots of beautiful quotes you can pull out to illustrate any kind of angry mood. It’s one of those books that uses the confusion of magical realism to create great poignancy (the record producers morphing into generals was so affecting I thought). And despite wondering what’s going on a bit at times, so many of the scenes remain clear in the mind. Oh and that ending is so sad(the ‘I can do it too’ quote). My stomach dropped.

    I keep thinking Martin Millar is not a YA writer. His characters feel like they are less concerned with growing and changing and are more set in their ways, drinking their lives away. They already feel like they’re at that point where their lives are marred, like they’ll never be fully ‘better’ which is something YA authors don’t usually do – bad things happen, but they teach, or they go away and everyone starts again. I’m sure there are lots of examples where that doesn’t apply, but it kind of feels like a general rule. Ish 😉

    Oh and I just thought it was Millar using the Scottish national stereotype about Scots being drunks with the whisky.

  3. Jenny said

    Well, of course I am pleased that you like Deep Secret so much better now, but that is all outweighed by my very great sadness that you didn’t care for the Patrick Ness. I love him in the face. Maybe try reading the second one? (she said hopefully) It’s good! And really no religion in it at all, so you wouldn’t be plagued by that consideration.

  4. Jeanne said

    I was so excited when I saw the cover of The Gone-Away World coming up as I scrolled down. How can anyone not love this book? It did take me about 70 pages to get into it, but then I was beguiled. And the secret! Did you get to that part?

  5. daphne said

    I love Mary Stewart too, and have tried to read The Crystal Cave many times. I might try again… and The Lonely Werewolf Girl comes highly recommended!! If my new library has it, I am totally reading it for the R.I.P challenge this year!

  6. I’ve never read anything by Mary Stewart, though my best friend in high school said the Crystal Cave series were in her top few favorite books – sorry to see there is not universal acclaim, because I would so love a human, believable Merlin (and Morgana, and Lady of Shallot, and Niviane…).

    So is that the Dianne Wynne Jones I should read first?

  7. This is odd, but out of all those books you’ve listed, the one I am adding immediately to my wishlist is the book about building decks! My husband and I have been talking about doing this for, oh, five years and we’ve really needed a good book to consult. Thank you!

    My Sunday Salon is here:

    Hope you will drop by!

  8. Care said

    wow is that a lot of books.
    I think I will take soulless off my tbr. I liked the cover.

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