Running Press, 2009

Finished: July 19, 2010

Source: Jodie at Book Gazing

Genre: historical adventure/romance in frock coats, with swords.

On the Scales: feisty featherweight

“Get your men under control now or I will see you disrated for this!”

The storm flared in Alfie’s eyes.  A storm raged about the two of them.  Lightning cracked overhead and the prickle of it made John’s hair stand on end, stirring like a live thing.  His skin tightened with shock and static, his heart thundering.  He was a galvanic rod, fully charged and set opposite its mate.  Any moment the spark would leap, and until then the tension mounted and mounted.  He felt alight with power and perhaps this showed, for Alfie surrendered.

“Alright, lads, leave it now.  That’ll do.”

Running Press is calling this line “M/M Romance”–which I joked to Der Mann stands for “Mmmmm, mmmm.”  Though I had never heard the term until I read Jodie’s great review, I knew the genre existed.  One of the characters in Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 is a secret writer of gay romance married to a closeted gay man.  I assumed this sort of fiction must be straightforward soft porn, since the traditional will-they/won’t-they? romance stories with gay guys usually end up getting published as fantasy and sci-fi.

If you are a fan of anime or manga, you may know that gay romance written for straight girls, known as yaoi, is already a well-developed genre in Japan, with many subgenres.  Some yaoi is dumb and porny, more is cute and corny, and a small amount is sweeping, complex, and operatic.  Japan has a longstanding tradition of variations on same-sex crushes (and love) in theater and literature, intended to appeal to various audiences in, ahem, various ways.

Der Mann and I, who are the arty, snobby kinds of anime fans (and possibly also overwrought Japanese teenagers at heart), have enjoyed some of the non-porny yaoi.  We both read False Colors, and while I can’t speak for Der Mann, I came to this book expecting yaoi on the high seas, and found something quite different.  You should read Jodie’s review for the plot, which I won’t go into.  For me this heartfelt novel doesn’t seem to fit into a genre at all.  It is bumpy and earnest, and as much about the psychology of the characters as it is about their romance.  Typical yaoi is polished.  False Colors is a gem in the rough.

I wonder whether Alex Beecroft set out to write a lesser book and just couldn’t do it?  What a sweetie!  I can’t see this genre sustaining itself if every book is a story of the characters’ struggles with their particular culture’s response to their sexuality–which is what False Colors turned out to be.  I sensed Beecroft’s growing respect for her characters as the story went on, and in her respect they grew more real.  The naval action was disjointed and brief, taking place in several locations; it was exciting, but there simply wasn’t enough of it to provide the ingredients for a plot.  That fell to John, the icy Methodist virgin who had just been awarded his first ship, and Alfie the roguish lieutenant he had been awarded along with it, each coping separately with the unhappy consequences of their mutual attraction.

If you take this as a historical novel, yes, there were quite a few anachronisms.  Beecroft’s fiery descriptions of naval warfare made up for them.  As for her other descriptions…

I’ve never got through a straight bodice ripper (don’t find them interesting), so I don’t know the requisite number of sex scenes, or how well they’re supposed to blend into the story.  In most of the fiction I read the sex is either off screen or described rather modestly–leaving all but a few carefully chosen erotic details to the reader’s imagination.  When there’s graphic sex, it’s for dramatic impact, or to communicate something about the characters, so there’s usually only one big scene.   (This is the way most yaoi anime works, too, and even most pulp fantasy.)

False Colors had several graphic sex scenes, and a lot of shorter ones in the characters’ imaginations–a clever way to work around the old will-they/won’t-they romance novel taboo against actual sex (you can’t keep on with the will-they-won’t-they once they have).  Mostly it is about flirtation and lusty looks (Alfie), and aching sinful thoughts (John).

Was it sexy?

You know, before I answer that question, I will tell you something I kept wondering while I read this book: what would a gay guy think of it?  Would a gay guy even pick it up?  Would he recognize the brooding looks?  The brushed pinkies?  The fluttering hearts?  The nit-picky overanalyzing and fantasies of domestic tenderness so familiar to readers of chick lit?

If I thought there were any gay guys reading this (statistically unlikely, given the number of hits I get) I would do a survey.  Whose book would you take on vacation: Georgette Heyer’s (the only verified gay-guy-approved romance author I happen to know of) or Alex Beecroft’s?  And if Beecroft, what about the military metaphors, the swords and cannon fuses and yardarms?  The manly pitting of physical strength turning to bruising kisses?  Does this turn you on, or just make you laugh?

I know it doesn’t really matter, but based on gay novelists writing about guys in love, I think the answer would be the same as mine; some of it is silly, some of it is sexy, and some of it is kind of both.

The real question is, was it romantic?

Harder to say.  Between them, Alfie and John take turns filling all the traditional romance roles.  They get to do the sword fighting and the lace-and-cologne wearing.  One is the tender nurse and the other is the stoic patient, one is the damsel in distress and the other is the agonized rescuer.  Then it all reverses in the next scene.  They go weak-kneed with lust, or demanding with it.  Masterful or overwhelmed, needy or implacable, ravished or ravisher.

Their experiences are very much like the experiences of a reader of traditional romantic fiction, who can empathize with any character they choose, switching allegiances in the blink of an eye.  It’s disorienting to see what is usually an audience experience lifted right up onto the stage. The changes can feel a bit random and fast.

The part I thought was most romantic of all actually had to do with the characters’ consistency, not their fluidity.  Neither John nor Alfie are really my “type,” but John’s moral agonies were very convincing.  When, for love of Alfie, he immediately and efficiently gave up the part of his self-image he had clung to all through the book–his steely integrity–and did so in such a mundane way as running around talking to people, it made me weak in the knees.

Harcourt, 2006

Finished: July 11, 2010

Source: blog (forgot to write which one)

Genre:  chick lit madwoman in the attic feminist revenge tale

On the Scales: lightweight

I didn’t love this book, but I loved the ending.  If you have read it you will know what I mean, and what a meanie I am.

That is all I really need to say.  However, since you took the trouble of bringing me up in your browser I will also say:  Maggie O’Farrell does some fantastic writing.  She won my heart with this passage.

Iris and Luke came across each other two months ago at a wedding.  Iris hates weddings.  She hates them with a passion.  All that parading about in ridiculous clothes, the ritualized publicising of a private relationship, the endless speeches given by men on behalf of women.  But she quite enjoyed this one.  One of her best friends was marrying a man Iris liked for a change; the bride had a beautiful outfit, for a change; there had been no seating plans, no speeches, and no being herded about for horrible photographs.

Much my own feelings about weddings.  Thank God I’ve only got a few more half-siblings and cousins left to go.  She continues:

It was Iris’s outfit that had done it–a backless green crêpe-de-Chine cocktail dress she’d had specially altered.  She had been talking to friend for some time but had still been aware of the man who had sidled up next to them.  He was looking about the marquee with an air of calm assurance as he sipped his champagne, as he waved at someone, as he passed a hand through his hair. When the friend said, “That’s quite a dress, Iris,” the man had said, without looking at them, without even leaning towards them.  ”But it isn’t really a dress.  Isn’t it what used to be called a gown?”

Hee, hee!  What a line!

I have also (just once) experienced the magical effect of a Really Good Outfit on a nasty social event: a January wedding to which I wore a mid-sixties textured wool suit with three-quarter length sleeves which I had mended and altered myself, a new silk-satin scarf which complemented it perfectly, and a pair of very tight, unlined, never-worn, vintage 3/4 length kid gloves.  Still hated the wedding, but it was like I was floating through the awfulness on a cloud of fashion confidence.

Introverted party-goers, I recommend gloves.

Then we learn Iris runs a vintage clothing store.  After an extremely sensuous window dressing scene with with a red velvet haute couture gown, I began to think I was in for a bookful of the same ecstatic antique apparel fan-service I enjoyed in These Granite Islands.  It was not to be.  We never went back to Iris’ shop!

I was much more interested in modern-day Iris than I was in poor Esme’s past.  For one thing, I was embarrassed by the anachronisms in O’Farrell’s portrayal of 1930’s Edinburgh.  (Or whatever you call them; really they are anti-anachronisms–I mean when the past is more stiff-upper-lip, “In your place, young lady!”, dour past-y than it ought to be, given the setting.)  The mistakes weren’t horrible, but they were, well, agenda-ed.  It’s not a criticism I like to make, but since O’Farrell is actually a bit older than me, I will: this seems to be an especially noticeable fault in young writers.  A subtle ideological mishandling of the past, even when they’ve done their research.

The narrators of this past are a couple of old ladies, sisters.  Kitty has Alzheimer’s.  Esme seems to have something like Asperger’s.  This means you have to piece the story together, which is the point.  You, reader, are to be all the more horrified at what happened to Esme (who has spent the last 60 years locked up) because it is presented as the emotional equivalent of a strip tease.  Pretty gruesome.

A. A. Knopf, 1957 (first pub. Japan, 1948)
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Finished: April 2010
Source: heard about the author at Chasing Bawa
Genre: Novel with a capital N
On the Scales: heavyweight

The plot was quiet and multi-streamed. The characters were both recognizable and completely themselves. If I tried to describe them, I’d never talk about this book at all. But I did want to tell you what reading Junichiro Tanizaki for the first time felt like: it felt like finding out about a cache of never-before-seen completed manuscripts by Jane Austen.

If you have ever sat around around sighing, “I’m sad that I’ve read everything Jane Austen wrote,” be happy! Because you can read something oh-so-much-closer to Pride and Prejudice than Regency spinoffs.

Tanizaki was known for his European sensibility, but that’s not the connection. Neither is the way the story revolves on a shabby-genteel family’s anxious preoccupations with eligible batchelors, reputation, and the need for daughters be married in the proper order–though it was an uncanny parallel for two cultures so far apart. I believe what made reading The Makioka Sisters so like reading Jane Austen was the way both writers set up the tension between individuals and the constraints of their social circle without placing their authorial selves outside the circle. Instead they draw us in, and they do this so expertly that we can take even the most alien cultural imperatives for granted. I guess what I’m saying is that Austen and Tanizaki have similar voices. Sympathetic omnipotence?

Restrained empathy?

Quite often when I am reading a piece of emotionally complex fiction, I get the feeling that there is no backstage; the author is sweating and strutting along with his characters–which can be fine, but there is a special pleasure in the kind of book where someone is very definitely behind the scenes running the show, and an almost sublime pleasure in the best examples.

The Makioka Sisters is most excellent capital-N Novel I’ve read for years. I am going to parcel out Tanizaki’s other work slowly. For emergencies.

Disclaimer: I’ve seen reviews of this book on several blogs I enjoy.  I haven’t read them.  At first I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to risk a spoiler.  Later I didn’t read them because I knew I was going to do some nit picking here. I expect some of the nits I pick will be things other readers particularly liked about this book.  I wanted to be sure you know: I’m not responding to your reviews contrary-wise.  Just being my nit picky self.

Turner neophytes: No spoilers.  Read with confidence.

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished: late April

Genre: YA fantasy that reads like historical fiction

On the Scales: middleweight

Inside the room, opposite the glass doors, were carved wooden ones that remained closed in all my visits.  I had no idea what might be beyond them, probably because I had no interest.  Everything I desired was in the room with me.  Between these doors, and on  every other space of wall, were shelves for books and scrolls and packets of papers and every kind of writing you can imagine, even tablets impressed with minute scratches that I not only knew were writing but could read, by the magic of dreams.

You may be shocked to learn how badly things have gone for Sophos since we saw him in The Thief.  A quest for a magic talisman is just the thing to set a boy on track, isn’t it?  And he’s still got the Magus, hasn’t he?  But as so often happens after adventures, Sophos’ home is still what it was when he left it.  Life remains a series of humiliations for the worst-case-scenario back-up heir of a petty king.  Now in his late teens, with the Magus’ excellent education under his belt, is it any surprise that Sophos’ coldly reasoned self-knowledge has hobbled his spirit?  Failure is so inevitable he hardly bothers about it anymore.  Sophos is a poet and thinker rather than a bully.  In Sounis, bullies make good rulers.  Sophos father and uncle are bullies.  Their noblemen are bullies who have to be bullied to be kept in check.  Sophos’ sword master is a bully, too.  He is surrounded by them.  He suffers them in shamed silence.

Ah ha!  But in Megan Whalen Turner’s world, rulers must rule whether they are suited to the job or not!  This is what creates the dramatic tension in her books.  For the kings and queens who maintain the delicate balance of power between the Classical Greek-themed kingdoms of Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis–with the Medes looming on one side and the occidental kingdoms on the other–the personal and the political are always intertwined.

As soon A Conspiracy of Kings began, I could it was going to take a big jolt to shake Sophos out of his rut.  In fact, it took slavery and a third of the book.

This was the third of the book I enjoyed.

Now, in the eyes of Ochto, sitting on a stool by the door, slurping his own soup, I was no different than any of the men around me.  My freedom was like my missing tooth, a hole where something had been that was now gone.  I worried at the idea of it, just as I slid my tongue back and forth across the already healing hole in my gum.  I tasted the last bloody spot and tried to remember the feel of the tooth that had been there.  I had been a free man.  Now I was not.

To explain why this novel disappointed me so, I will have to explain why I think Megan Whalen Turner’s skills and sensibilities as a writer are on a par with Ursula Le Guin or Katherine Paterson–far exceeding (with the exception of Elizabeth Wein) any other American author of her generation whose books are marketed for children and young adults.

So here goes.

Imagine a mystery in which no crime was committed and no detective solves it.  There are no red herrings.  In fact, the author leaves no clues.  The characters leave them instead.  I say the characters rather than the author because–unlike a mystery novelist–there is no catching them out, no learning their game. They aren’t playing one.  They’re living their lives as they find them.

Until you learn to track these characters’ emotions and motivations like wild animals in a forest, you will feel like you are just reading a “normal” fantasy adventure–a children’s story.  The scenes and pacing will be familiar.  You will recognize the cast at a glance: impatient scholar, bluff soldier, haughty noble son, weakling.  Amazon.  Trickster.

I was lying when I said the characters aren’t playing a game.  They are playing Turner’s game!  By submerging her construction so completely in her characters and setting, Turner plays the deepest game of all.  Chances are you won’t even see it until the story is over and the book is shut.  If you are lucky, you’ll be left with a strange, rubbing-your-eyes feeling that you missed something because . . . you did.  Everything was a clue to a deeper emotional reality.  Every choice of words, every gesture, every odd detail you just put down to atmosphere was part of the overall construction.  Then, as though a ruined temple had just risen out of the sea, you will begin to see Turner’s genius.  You will marvel that she was able to build this huge thing, and at the same deploy her characters so confidently and compassionately to do all the work of hiding it: secret agents in stock-character disguise.

Your discovery will be all the more delightful if you realize that she has chosen to build her temple inside a young person’s novel not for the shock value of the contrast between big ideas and little heads, but because she truly respects the form.  She didn’t see its conventions as a handicap; they were a natural set of tools for her as a writer.  It didn’t seem at all strange to her to build her temple on Atlantis where it would sink beneath most grownups’ notice.

The problem with builder-architect type authors is that their work takes an enormous amount of energy and focus.  Contrast this with yarn-spinning authors, with the literary equivalent of amateur carpenters (there are a lot of these), or even authors who just sit around playing Sim City.  If an author sets out to hammer up a tool shed of a book and things go badly, chances are they’ll still end up with a tool shed.  It may be leaning sideways and there may be gaps between the boards, but it will keep the rain off their tools.  If an author runs short of focus or energy when she is trying to raise a temple out of quarried stone. . .

Four books take place in Turner’s world of The Thief.  The first two, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia were completed buildings, the second two, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings were construction sites.  Right now I’m trying to figure out how a writer for whom I have such profound respect could have written two books that never came together, when her first two books were all about things coming together.

In The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, quite apart from the hidden structure of the story and hidden depths of the characters, Turner handles the interplay between love, friendship and statecraft with a conjuror’s lightness.  Because this kind of close interplay is peculiar to the “time” she’s writing about in her fantasy world, pulling it off requires a firm–even academic–sense of history most fantasists lack.  In the both The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings the political situation is more settled.  The stories concentrate on the personal burden of rule and the social forces that determine the success or failure of a head of state.  I don’t think Turner’s history failed her in these recent books.  Rather, I think her careful creation of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis as realistic ancient kingdoms forced her kings and queens into such tight corners of royal responsibility, they had no more room to maneuver the plot.  Now the derring-do is done, how can they break out?  How can they surprise us?  How can they turn on a dime and change the whole story?

I see Turner trying to solve this problem with her naïve first-person narrators.  The young palace guard Costis watches events unfold in The King of Attolia, providing a sense of dramatic irony (we know something is up that he doesn’t; we just don’t know what it is), and in Conspiracy of Kings, there is Sophos.  It isn’t enough.  Sophos may be at the center of political events, but because of his deliberate intellect and morals, there is really never any question of what he’ll do, only what will happen to him–and by the second part of the book, we are no longer in much doubt about that.

Gen and Attolia were capable of anything.  Sophos is another breed.  That doesn’t make me like him any less, but it does make it necessary to write him as the hero a different kind of book, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen with A Conspiracy of Kings.  Turner’s trademarks are her reversal and her reveal.  Whole interpersonal crises turn out to be edifices of deceit.  Whole characters.  Whole strategies.  Whole relationships.  The two reveals in A Conspiracy of Kings–the contents of a heart, and the contents of a box–were quite small and forced.

The prologue in A Conspiracy of Kings hinted at the possibility a much greater reversal, like the ones in The Thief or The Queen of Attolia (think Judas kiss).  It would have booted Sophos off center stage, which seemed unfair after all he’d suffered, but halfway through the book, I was still trusting her to have something so amazing up her sleeve that it would make the odd switch from Sophos’ first-person narrative to an authorial third-person narrative worthwhile.  The third-person section takes place entirely in Attolia’s palace, and features cool, uninformative descriptions of political negotiations with a couple of cryptic forays into the Queen of Eddis’ head.  It was not compelling reading.  I couldn’t believe that Turner would mark time so awkwardly unless it was for a good reason.

The reversal never materialized.  Changing the narrator was a big mistake.  It had the same effect as ripping a microphone out of Sophos’ hands when he had just started telling his story.  It was an even bigger mistake to suddenly give it back to him for the last part of the book.  At that point we are shown how it was all part of the plan, but in my opinion the plan was too unformed to be worth the stylistic bumps.

Perhaps if Turner had taken this book through more drafts it would have turned out quite differently.  I can think of several versions encompassing the same characters and events.  For example, Sophos could have been a truly naive narrator–an imperiled pawn as he pleads his case in Attolia and the threat of the Mede slowly materializes on every side.  Or she could have focussed on the military campaign.  Instead of a book standing still it could have been a book in motion, with the rulers frantically massing their troops and acting out their personal dramas on the fly.

My vote would have been to trust Sophos’ voice, trust him to carry the book, and let him spend most of it as a slave.  There’s no reason he couldn’t have stepped up to his responsibilities while he was still in captivity (or later pretending to be, as at the Baron’s banquet).  A slave moved to another household, perhaps?  Taken along on a trip?  This would have been a good way to put Sophos’ inner transformation at the center of the story and add a little much-needed intrigue.  I believe the other characters could have fallen in line with the slightly altered plot, and perhaps grown in some surprising ways themselves as a result.

The strongest conventional fantasy element in Turner’s books are her gods.  They are subtle: just a whisper of the supernatural that raise the moral stakes and clarify the inner lives of her characters.  Sophos dreams of the library in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review.  With his past life buried in days of mind-numbing labor, Sophos’ intelligence bursts out in vivid dreams where he argues with his new “tutor” amid the books of the library.

She was amused by my interest in the system of natural categorization that the magus had taught me.  I explained the importance of understanding how things are connected.

She only smiled at my earnestness and said, “Everything is connected, Bunny, to everything else.  If a man tries to transcribe each connection, thread by thread, he will only make a copy of the world and be no closer to understanding it.”

I am afraid Turner got a little lost in her own connecting threads.  The dream-tutor is a beautiful concept she used only briefly, for a specific purpose, before racing on to other things.  Sophos could have learned more from his tutor.  Their talks could have been the mortar that stuck the story together and let it stand whole.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

February 27, 2010

Harcourt, 2008

Read February 15, 2010

Source: Nymeth’s year in review post

Genre: historical fiction

On the scales: heavyweight

I am so, so happy Le Guin wrote this book.  The “feminist retelling” moniker is laughable.  Lavinia is so much more than that.  And such a much better book than the other two recent ancient-Greek’s-wife-tells-all novels that I could wish The Penelopiad and Black Ships had never been written, just to forestall the comparisons.

From her afterword:

The setting, story and characters of this novel are based on the last six books of Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid.

For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas’ story: his travels from the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers.  From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin, was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential.  That’s no longer true.  During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into  a scholarly specialty.  So, with the true death of his language, Vergil’s voice will be silenced at last.  This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world.

His poetry is so profoundly musical, its beauty so intrinsic to the sound and order of the words, that it is essentially untranslatable.  Even Dryden, even FitzGerald couldn’t capture the magic.  But a translator’s yearning to identify with the text cannot be repressed.  That is what urged me to take some scenes, some hints, some foreshadowings from the epic and make them into a novel–a translation into a different form–partial, marginal, but, in intent at least, faithful.  More than anything else, my story is an act of gratitude to the poet, a love offering.

I read the translated Aeneid for a class in college.  I was overloaded and exhausted.  I had no particular expectations . . . and I loved it.  It is one of those texts that jumps right out of history and leaves you as breathless as a first kiss; sure that time doesn’t matter–a year, fifty, two-thousand: ideas go the distance, and the right words go straight to the heart.

Le Guin reminds us that falling in love is a reasonable response to a great work of the imagination, whether one falls in love with Vergil, Aeneas, or the very words of the poem.  No wonder I respond so strongly to her own work.  As Le Guin makes her, Lavinia is simultaneously a creation of the poet Vergil and a living woman who knows herself to be a creation of the poet.  Is Lavinia in love with the poet who wrote her?  Is she in love with the hero he loved?  Or the begged question: What would Lavinia think of Le Guin, the woman who loved Lavinia enough to tell her story?

If this sounds unbearably literary, don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book.  Le Guin is too good an author to let her love offering to Vergil be anything but the best book she can write, and you certainly don’t have to have read the Aeneid to enjoy it.

Vergil, who is nearing the end of his life, visits the young Lavinia as a ghost.  Lavinia reacts with surprising calm to the news that she is his creation.  They talk, and the poet realizes–to his great regret–just how much he has underestimated her character.  He tells her the story of his poem.  Their short conversations are some of the most touching scenes in the book.

The result?  Lavinia has foreknowledge of the exiled Trojans’ arrival in Latium and the gist of the blood baths that follow.  The grace and courage with which she approaches her not-too-shiny future make her a profoundly sympathetic character.  Lavinia describes a life that doesn’t look like much from the outside: the acts of ordinary, face-to-face nobility that come between the battle scenes that occupy the poets.  Her peculiar childhood gave Lavinia the strength to meet her author without flinching, and meeting her author gave her a rare objectivity.  It allowed her tell her own–and Anneas’–story in a time and place where women were not usually the ones doing the telling.

Silvius suckled insatiably, had almost no colic, slept a great deal, and when awake was wide awake and full of good cheer.  There is not much you can say about a baby unless you are talking with its father or another mother or nurse; infants are not part of the realm of ordinary language, talk is as inadequate to them as they are inadequate to talk.

While Vergil’s Lavinia is a typical milk-toast princess–convenient for swinging over a saddle–Le Guin’s Lavinia is only too conscious of the role she’s been cast to play.  The unusual freedom of her Tom-boy childhood never blinded her to what it means to be the king’s daughter.  Her mother showed her the wrong way to be a queen.  Lavinia is determined to do right.  Her own marriage will be a vehicle for peace.  She must take a horribly unpopular stand to achieve it.

My mind went round and round on these thoughts and my heart was torn and miserable, wanting to rejoice with the people around me but unable to.  I felt myself a traitor, as if I had done the great wrong, had caused it simply by being who and what I was.  My mother had taught me that self-pitying guilt, and I had known it most of my life.  Thought I fought against it, knowing it childish and mistaken, under this stress and pressure it was all to easy to be childish, to be mistaken, to drop back into it.

Le Guin loves the home-and-hearth piety of the Latins.  It shines through her whole book.  She uses the contrast between the bickering, anthropomorphized Hellenic pantheon imported by the Trojans and the Latins’ little household gods, the Penates, to illuminate the difference between war-culture and peace-culture.  As Lavinia describes the clarity she finds in performing the household rituals that are her duty as the daughter of her house, Le Guin shows us a piety which has little–if anything–to do with religion, and much to do with goodness.

Goodness has a way of being very boring in fiction.  Goodness is Le Guin’s genius.  She can unfold it so powerfully, with such a light touch, that it is positively enthralling.  Only a few other authors can do this, and Le Guin is the only one I know who can also convey everything that stands against goodness without either glamorizing it or watering it down.  Her chilling descriptions of the war-gate, which is kept closed in times of peace, are some of the best in the book.

Lavinia’s goodness is up against a lot.  Her mother Amata (a clear case of Borderline Personality Disorder) is just crazy enough to cause trouble for everyone, while having too little real power to be taken seriously by the only people (namely, the men) who could have stopped her, until it’s too late.  If there is a villain, it’s Amata–but there is so much to pity in her situation, it’s really no more fun for the reader to hate her than it is for Lavinia, who both fears and understands her mother.

I think Le Guin has a special axe to grind for Amata.  She does not believe weakness is an excuse for people who allow their frustrations to become cruelty, seizing power over those even weaker than themselves.  When such an even-handed writer gives in to some exquisitely controlled indignation, it’s a glorious sight!  I am thinking of the passage where she describes Amata’s last-ditch effort to force her will on Lavinia by organizing a violent, ugly bacchanal.  Because her mother has framed this excuse for getting Lavinia up into the hills as a women’s religious mystery, Lavinia has no way to escape.  Amata’s egoistic appropriation of ritual makes a wonderfully twisted mirror-image for Lavinia’s grounded devotion to her Penates and her father’s farmer folk.

Everything I’ve said is just skimming the surface of this deep, lyrical book.  Le Guin’s usual themes are in evidence.  Her own brands of pacifism, humanism, feminism are as freshly presented here as they are easy to recognize after reading her others.  But she really doesn’t do -isms.  She does people.  Say instead peace, humans, women.  I can’t tell you how much I love what she writes, even when it’s not her best stuff.  This is her best of the decade.

There was a great sound like a deep breath, like the earth breathing, all around the walls.  I thought it was earthquake, the sound earthquake makes as it comes.  But it was the sound of the end.  The war was over.  Turnus was dead.  The poem was finished.

No, but it was left unfinished.  Didn’t you tell me that, my poet?  here in the sacred place, where the stinking sulfur water comes up from under the earth to make pools on the earth, and the stars shine between the leaves?  Once you said it was not complete, and should be burned.

But then again, at the end, you said it was finished.  And I know they did not burn it.  I would have burned with it.

But what am I to do now?  I have lost my guide, my Vergil.  I must go on by myself through all that is left after the end, all the rest of the immense, pathless, unreadable world.

What is left after death?  Everything else.  The sun a man saw rise goes down though he does not see it set.  A woman sits down to the weaving another woman left on the loom.