Reading Slowly

In spite of having a lot of extra time, I feel like my reading speed has slowed way down. It’s not that I’m reading any less than I normally do–though I’m not reading more–but I’m making my way through books much more slowly. I don’t think this is a good or a bad thing, but simply an observation. Still, I’ve read a fair amount, I suppose.

Erasure by Percival Everett: I think his book of short stories, Half an Inch of Water, is still my favorite book of his, about people living in extremely rural settings. This one, Erasure, is some pretty brutal satire about a black academic who deliberately writes the worst book he can about a street thug and drug dealer. The book goes on to become a runaway success and win a prestigious national award. Dark.

The Monkey’s Wedding: and Other Stories by Joan Aiken: Delightfully weird and charming and funny little stories, mostly about love and relationships. Definitely worthwhile. I especially liked the title story and “Spur of the Moment”.

Die: Split the Party (v2) by Kieron Gillen: People from our world go into a fantasy world, only it’s the fantasy world they cooked up as kids for their roleplaying game. Mostly about hurting people behaving badly in desperation. The art is pretty slick. I don’t really know where the story is going at this point.

Jade City by Fonda Lee: An organized crime story set in a fictionalized Taiwan (maybe? I’m not really sure) with magical powers–bestowed by jade jewelry, but also addictive and destructive. I don’t normally go in for organized crime stories, but this was solid and I enjoyed it.

The Vorrh by Brian Catling: Super weird. There’s a cyclops with miraculous and contagious healing powers and a hunter with a sentient bow and a photographer who’s mysteriously affected by light and a group of zombies exploited by capitalists, to name a few things. Fascinating stuff, but pretty dark, and definitely not for everyone.

Potted Meat by Steven Dunn: Exactly the type of book being skewered by Everett in Erasure. So, I had that in the back of my mind the entire time I was reading it. Still, not without some merit.

The Invisibles (Book 1) by Grant Morrison: I hadn’t read this since about 2000 (or maybe 2006?). It holds up pretty well, I’d say. It seems less sophisticated and groundbreaking since then, but I think that’s because so many have borrowed Morrison’s writing techniques and subject matter since these first came out.

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by same. Weird like Aiken, but without the warmth and humor. That seems harsher than I intend, but the starkness of these stories caused them to hit harder for me. Some days I want warmth and humor, some days I don’t.

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea: Sometimes I want a quick dumb read. This science fiction action story fit the bill. This would be a perfect beach book. Koko is a semi-retired assassin/mercenary who gets roped back into things when a former colleague decides to take her out. Had some good action scenes and a sort of sly humor.

Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett: If you like historical fiction, Dunnett’s up there at the top of the list, I’d say. (I don’t read a ton of this genre, so I’m sure there are many writers I’m completely ignorant of.) The writing is superb and the characters are fascinating, especially Francis Crawford, who is sort of like a Bruce Wayne of the 16th century. Some very funny scenes. Also, the rooftop chase is an exceptional piece of writing and makes the whole book worth reading just on its own.

Permutation City by Greg Egan: Reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or, Dodge in Hell. Explores the question of the nature of consciousness when that consciousness is being simulated in a computer. This book gets pretty science/mathy and I’m not sure I was in the right headspace to grok it, but there’s some pretty fascinating stuff here. I’m pretty sure I read his book Diaspora too and enjoyed it slightly more than this one. If you like crunchy science fiction, Egan’s worth checking out.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: I’d been meaning to read this book for years. I think I’ve perpetually had it checked out from the library for basically years. (It’s amazing how many times you can renew a book when no one else wants to read it.) I finally got around to it and I’m glad I did. I’d put Mantel up there with Dunnett as far as historical fiction goes. There’s no one like Mantel for putting you in the headspace of a 16th century Englishman. And Thomas Cromwell is a fascinating one at that. Everything in this book underscores how important being able to be in a room with someone else is for understanding…. well, everything. I’d certainly recommend reading Wolf Hall before this one, but I think it would stand on its own pretty well.

More Time for Reading

I’ve had a little extra time for reading, but haven’t felt much like writing. I thought I’d remedy that.

Fortress in the Eye of Time by C.J. Cherryh. This very much felt like Forrest Gump, but in a medieval, fantasy world. There’s a protagonist who is simple and foolish, at least from the perspectives of all around him, but whose goodhearted nature and positive intentions generally work to the good. A charming, quiet book that spends a lot of time ruminating about life and what it’s all about.

Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire (v. 10) by Brian Clevinger. This might be my kid’s favorite comic series and I like to have stuff to chat about with him. I certainly wouldn’t start with this one because it builds so heavily on what came before, but if you like giant robots fighting giant monsters, you’ll probably dig this.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. I didn’t read this book for its advice, such as it is, but I did find that I met a kindred spirit. Jacobs enumerated what I get out of reading books more than just about anyone else I’ve read. His inclination to read at whim is one well worth modeling, in my view. I’ll definitely look for other books by him to read.

Batman: The Fall and the Fallen (v. 11) by Tom King. As with most comic books, I barely remember the plot of this. My impression was of rising up from bleak desperation, as is true of many of the best Batman stories, implacability in the face of impossibility.

Black Widow: Welcome to the Game by Richard K. Morgan. A pretty decent spy story. I picked it up for the art by Bill Sienkiewicz, who doesn’t disappoint here, but only did a couple of issues in this collection as far as I could tell.

Agency by William Gibson. I had this feeling of wanting to start over again with this as soon as I finished it. A bit more of a sequel than some of his others. From his most recent books especially, I get this visceral sense of the strangeness of the time we’re living through. High recommended, of course.

Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof. There are some painful similarities in 1919 to our present moment it turns out. A flood of criminals and scoundrels skirling around trying to make a buck with no compunctions for legality or decency. The elevation of the wealthiest to a place of preeminence which they don’t deserve. The fools and saps and patsies who let themselves be led around by everyone else. The legal system that only seems to come down hard on the lowliest and least informed, while ignoring the career criminals who snub their nose with impunity. Also, there’s a lot about baseball too. Not a lot has changed in a 100 years, it seems, or there are just certain cycles that repeat themselves.

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin. I definitely felt like I was crashing a party when I read this one. A lot of food for thought, but the book wasn’t written for me. Not at all. As it should be, probably. Jessa Crispin’s podcast, Public Intellectual, is well-worth listening to, by the way.

Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao. My kid asked me about this book when I was about 50 pages into it. I said, I’m not sure I’ll finish it. He asked me about it again when I was about 100 pages into it. I said, I’m going to finish it now. He asked me why. I said, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first, but the book makes sense to me now, so I’m going to finish it. Sometimes a poet writes a novel and it can be a lot of work. In this case, I think it was worth it. Navigating the loss of children through a kind of mythologizing. The sentences reminded me of John Ashbery’s poetry.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Epic, millenia spanning science fiction. Clearly inspired by David Brin’s Uplift novels (a craft in the novel is explicitly called the Brin). Sentient spiders, crazy AI computer systems, the slow social-breakdown on a generation ship traveling for hundreds of years, and more: this book has so much going on. I very much enjoyed it.

Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser. I keep reading detective and spy stories. (And also watching things like True Detective.) I’m not sure what’s driving this, what I find comforting in these fictions about people attempting to conceal and reveal the truth. This novel’s detective, Van Veeteren, is delightfully world-weary. There’s a pretty satisfying courtroom secene, too.

Death Will Have Your Eyes by James Sallis. What if a poet wrote a spy novel? This is about what you’d get, I think. Not sure why I’ve been reading so many spy and detective novels lately. Perhaps there’s some solace in these archetypal roles. An escape from the tyranny of the real. Perhaps they just suit my current melancholy frame of mind.

Books from 2019

I kept reading books. Here are some from 2019 that stuck with me in a big way. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of them too? (I realized as I put together this list that there were a LOT of books I really liked this year. An embarrassment of riches, really. There were even some books I left off, not because I didn’t think they were worth mentioning, but because this list was getting foolishly long…)

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu: There must have been dust or something in the air when I was reading the title story in this book because…. OK, there wasn’t any dust. I was full on crying. This guy can really write. (They’re mostly science fiction, fantasy, and such.)

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Almost everything I love (and some of what I hate) about California is in this book. It’s a weird sort of noir mystery story.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra: A history of mostly forgotten thinkers from the early 20th century. A fascinating take on where our world is at today (and has been for a hundred years or so) and suggests an answer to why so many men are determined to find their answers in violence.

The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson: The type of story that isn’t much written anymore. All the action swirls around the progonist’s rejection of his social and cultural and religious role. Mystical and numinous and long out of print. (The library is your friend. My copy hadn’t been checked out in about 20 years.)

The Quatrian Folkways by Tim Boucher: A friend of mine has been writing these alternate universe myths, history, what have you that remind me quite a bit of some of Tolkien’s more obscure writing. Worth checking out, for sure.

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier by Michelle Cuevas: Sometimes I read a writer and I’m jealous of how exceptional a writer they are. This one is for kids, but the writing is so good, I think anyone would get something out of it. After this one, I promptly read everything else she wrote.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Read this for my book club. I’d been meaning to read it for years, but sometimes you need an extra little shove to read a 600+ book of history. An excellent work of history. A good reminder that there are no giants in history. Only people who choose to do the best they can and those who don’t. (A vast oversimplification, I realize.)

Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White: A few unlikely people bounce off each other in 1950s Australia. Fascinating and weird and deeply mystical and, I guess, totally my cup of tea. Also, this one had some beautiful sentences in it, if you’re into that kind of thing.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: Another book club book. The story of a friendship between two girls in 1950s Italy. Yeah, this one’s great.

There There by Tommy Orange: Many different characters converge on a Native American powwow in Oakland. Its multi-character viewpoints are used to excellent effect (sort of like GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones, but I’d say more effective and not needing several volumes to get there).

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K. Chess: What if you were a refugee from an alternate reality? I was beguiled by the title, but the rest of the book had me. There’s also a bit of a mystery here. The author’s first book, it’s got some first book-y problems, but impressive.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe: (Really four books.) I’d been hearing about this book for a long time, but a friend finally pressed it into my hands. Some of the strangest science fiction I’ve ever read. It never went where I was expecting and eventually I just gave up trying to predict and went along for the ride.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil: Sometimes a book has a kind of echo with the present as this one does from the 1930s. I only got through volume 1, because it’s quite long. Also, there were some sentences that made me laugh out loud, which is pretty great.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton: Whodunnit as video game or Quantum Leap, basically. For how much I seem to love the whodunnit genre, I read precious little of it. This was a perfect airplane book. (Shoutout to Knives Out, another whodunnit, and maybe my favorite movie of 2019.)

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson: Aliens (or their representative) show up, abduct a science fiction author, and technomagically prevent all violence on Earth.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: Another excellent airplane read. A SF novel about an ambassador making her way through an extremely alien culture. A bit of a mystery here, too.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: A memoir of a woman training a hawk and wrestling with grief at her father’s death. Raw and deeply personal, but also extremely well-written. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang: Stories by one of my favorite science fiction writers. Didn’t disappoint.

Lolly Willowes, or, the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner: One of those old books that might’ve been written yesterday. Not much happens and everything happens, or, a woman finds her place in the world.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: Sometimes books deserve their popularity. This is one of those.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: (I’m definitely getting tired of writing this list, but I’m almost done…) If you like Tim Powers, you’ll like this one. Also, it’s got a kind of time travel thing to it, which I always love.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: A short book, I would’ve happily read several hundred more pages of it. Two secret agents fight each other through time and space, writing letters to each other, and eventually falling in love. Sounds cheesy, yeah, but the writing is so so good.

The Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History by John M. Ford: Another one that’s long out of print. (Interlibrary loan, y’all.) An alternate history 15th century Europe with a drop of magic in it. Many good things to say about this one.

Gideon the Ninth by Emily McGovern: The last book I read in 2019. Space necromancers + a whodunnit. What’s not to love? Also, some really top notch sword fights. Entertaining, just a lot of fun.