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A Year of Reading (Books)

I measure my reading year from an undefined point in June, because that’s when I started keeping track four years ago, so it is time for the listing of the books, and perhaps some words on what I thought of them. I’ve read more this year than I have in quite a long time, because I work at a bookstore, and I really liked a lot of the things I read, to the point where I wonder, a bit, if I’ve started to read less critically, or if I were really ever reading very critically at all. If the former, it might be a consequence of trying to read more poetry and nonfiction, which requires me, in some ways, to relearn reading. If the latter, well, it’s probably valuable to realize that I am less clever than initially supposed.

Anyway, I’ve included some short reviews of some of my favorite books from this year below, with the complete list at the bottom. This is also the year I fell back in love with comics, but for the sake of space and because I want to go into the subject in more depth, I’m not reviewing any of the series comics that I read in collected trades. If you have any questions about any title on this list, whether I talked about it or not, I assure you I’d be delighted to discuss what I think. To see what I’m reading and get an abstract idea of what I thought of a book without any explanation of what makes the difference between three and four stars, follow me on Goodreads.

Read the rest of this entry

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Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Saga cover

I wish I had written Saga. It’s the kind of brilliant mash-up of science fiction and fantasy that I loved as a kid, complete with robot princes, adorable animal people, and a bounty hunter wearing a superhero cape. It’s so far from hard science fiction that the moon people cast magic and the space marines have giant feathery wings. As far as I can tell, every starship in the galaxy runs on an abundant supply of handwavium. And with all due respect and affection to the hard stuff, this kind of space opera is where my scifi heart lives. Brian K. Vaughn has taken the idle imaginings of a kid and turned it into a mature, fantastic, slam-bang epic of a story. And I can’t get enough of it.

Gwendolyn doesn't trust reviews

The setting is a galaxy locked in a seemingly endless war between the winged and tech-reliant inhabitants of Landfall and the horned and magical inhabitants of its moon, Wreath. Unwilling to risk catastrophic damage to their homeworlds, the belligerents have taken their war into the galaxy at large, fighting on remote worlds and dragging nearly every other intelligent race into a genocidal, galaxy-wide proxy war. And into this hostility, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love, conceive a child, and run.

Meet cute

The story is intermittently narrated by Marko and Alana’s daughter, offering reflective commentary and the occasional foreshadowing. It’s clear from this – and the title, I suppose – that this is the beginning of a long arc, an epic tale, and it’s likely that not everyone will make it to the end. The pace of the story, however, is action-movie quick and the retrospective narration never intrudes on the immediacy of events. The action rises and falls like the perfect rollercoaster, and I’m so caught up that I keep re-reading as if hoping that one day I’ll turn to the end of the second volume and find the next issue picking up where it left off.

robot sex

The writing is Vaughn at his best, maybe better than he’s ever been. The dialogue, even the expository passages, is quick and punchy, unencumbered by archaisms or futuristic slang, no matter what strange creature you’re looking at. Marko and Alana are strange aliens in a strange alien war, but they are recognizable as young people in love, as new parents, as people. Even the Stalk, an alien Freelancer who I think is best described as unsettlingly beautiful, speaks profanity-laced contemporary English like a Hollywood assassin or Elmore Leonard hitter. And this comfortable Leonard-quality dialogue meshes seamlessly with a wonderfully strange galaxy of creatures and events, incorporating death threats, incorporeal babysitters, and cosmic eggs as easily as observations on love, politics, and parenting.

Izabel babysitter

I sometimes have a hard time evaluating art in comics, but the art in this book is goddamn beautiful. Fiona Staples is really more of a co-author in visual form, her style integral to the telling. Lying Cat communicates whole stories about her and her relationship with the Will, even though she never says more than “Lying” or “Mrrn”. When ghostly babysitter Izabel complains that Alana is being dumb, the way Staples draws her is what kicks her voice in my head to an exasperated teenage whine. The narrative itself is punctuated by broad panels and full page illustrations that drive the drama home. Every now and then we’re even treated to a double-page splash of some amazing beautiful thing. It’s a perfect match between writer and artist, and just completely gorgeous to look at.

The Will and Lying Cat

Although Star Wars is a pretty good comparison in terms of genre, Vaughn doesn’t seem to be telling a story of predestined heroes and plucky rebels trying to change the course of history. Firefly might be a closer comparison in terms of stakes, as right now it’s tightly focused on this one family and their survival rather than the fate of a free galaxy. Vaughn already told his Most Important Boy in the World story with the excellent Y: The Last Man, and although Saga has some similarities, it’s clearly a very different tale, and not just because it’s set a million lightyears from Earth. Alana and Marko are not exceptional through a quirk of fate like Yorick or Mitchell Hundred, but because they decided they wanted a life different from the ones chosen for them. Even when being pursued by gray-moraled assassins, war-scarred aristocrats, and vengeful ex-girlfriends, even riding a magical rocketship from a planet full of psychic ghosts, it’s a story about romance, family, and people. Vaughn and Staples have put together a brilliant world full of amazing characters, and they are telling a fantastic story. If you aren’t already aboard, now is a terrific time to hop on.

harp seal and walrus

Buy Volumes One and Two on Amazon(1/2) or Barnes & Noble (1/2), or pick them up with the latest issue at your local comic shop.

 

Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013)

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl is dead. I’ve looked for his name in the used book store for as long as I can remember buying my own books. Science fiction has a not entirely undeserved reputation for humorlessness, Douglas Adams excepted. For every Bill the Galactic Hero there are a dozen Dunes and Foundations demanding to be taken seriously and scowling mightily at those who would go to space on a lark. I’m not saying that Pohl didn’t take his writing or his stories seriously, and he certainly wasn’t writing comedy. His subjects are often world-changing events, political upheaval on a planetary scale, and the fate of humanity. But his characters feel more recognizably human than anyone on Arrakis, and even his aliens are easier to empathize with than Harry Seldon. That may be what has always made him stand out for me in the field of authors: he never elevates the Grand Idea of a story to the point at which he loses sight of the human beings caught up in that story. The characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune are well-drawn and intensely memorable, but they are also explicitly at the mercy of something larger, and more important, than themselves. I don’t think that Pohl ever believed the plots of his books were more important than the people in them.

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One of these books approaches its subject with substantially less gravitas.

Of course, I’m basing this analysis on a hilariously small sample, considering that Pohl published almost continuously since 1937, writing more than 40 novels, and I have read five of his books. I think the first was Black Star Rising, because look at the cover art, followed by Jem, which is considered one of his best works. I remember liking them well enough, though I feel like I was vaguely dissatisfied by their endings. Maybe they were more cynical than I could appreciate at that time in my life. It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember any of the details of the stories or characters, but at the very least I liked them enough to pick up Gateway.

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Gateway is an asteroid riddled with alien-made tunnels and starships. The starships go to any number of preset destinations, but the human prospectors who ride in the craft don’t know where that destination is, how long it will take to get there, or what will greet them when they arrive. If the explorers don’t starve to death on a decade-long trip, their ship may still return to Gateway full of corpses, its occupants killed by radiation, gravitational stresses, or some inexplicable anomaly or mysterious accident. Survival is more or less random, and coming back alive but empty-handed isn’t much better than dying in deep space. But those who return with an artifact or scientific discovery that the Gateway Corporation can exploit can retire to a life of luxury back on Earth, the envy of billions.

Into this walks Robinette Broadhead, a young man from the food mines of America, looking for his big break. His story is confessional, from the perspective of an older Broadhead confiding to his holographic psychiatrist. Although the absent Heechee, classic precursor aliens who have all but completely vanished from the galaxy, are an important part of the novel’s setting, this isn’t a story about unraveling ancient mysteries, or saving the galaxy, or even interfering with the intrigues of corporations and nation-states. It’s story of personal risk, adventure, and romance, and all the fear and wonder and heartache that comes with that. Gateway manages to inhabit a rich setting complete with alien mysteries, environmental catastrophe, and multi-national power struggles without ever losing sight of the human story Broadhead painstakingly reveals from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

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Gateway is terrific, but Broadhead’s story doesn’t end there. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is a more traditionally plotted novel, bouncing among several viewpoint characters converging on a climactic confrontation. The story is full of brilliant and well-executed ideas, though, and it’s refreshing to see the Heechee universe from outside of Robin’s head. More fantastic Heechee technology is discovered, with dramatic consequences, and we begin to see the outline of the void that the Heechee left when they escaped the known Universe. It’s a more traditional novel, but it also captures more of that traditional cosmic wonder and awe of discovery that I find in more traditional space exploration science fiction. It satisfies that Star Trek itch to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, to go someplace, as a reader, that I’ve never gone before.

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The last novel, Heechee Rendezvous (there are other Heechee-related books, but I believe they are supplemental to the main trilogy), is the weakest of the series, but still explores some fascinating territory. Pohl experiments again with a less straightforward narrative; Broadhead looks back on recent events from the perspective of one who has been “vastened”, which has the effect of creating an omniscient first-person narrator whose point of view is sometimes interrupted and counter-balanced in tidy inserts by the advanced artificial intelligence known as Albert Einstein, a creation of Broadhead’s wife. In spite of Essie Broadhead, the writing is at its most dated with regard to women, featuring just a bit too much sex-as-survival-mechanism for my tastes. Pohl also attempts to up the stakes, both for the Earth, which is increasingly gripped by political and social turmoil despite the advances brought about by adopting Heechee technology, and for the Universe, as the threat that caused the Heechee to retreat from normal space is finally revealed. It’s clear, however, that Pohl’s real interest is in Broadhead and his companions, and the story’s real strengths lie in its meditations on aging and death, the potential implications of technology that grants a kind of immortality, and what I found to be surprisingly endearing relationship drama. It’s an uneven story, bouncing between fascinating alien races and the emotional burden of being a burgeoning AI to cringeworthy passages subjecting various women to the intolerably selfish Wan. Despite this, I found it more consistently enjoyable than Dark Knight Rising, and a more satisfying capstone to a trilogy I quite enjoyed.

Frederik Pohl was active in science fiction from his first publication in 1937 to the present, and he blogged about life, science fiction, and politics right up until his death at age 93. It’s an all but unsurpassable accomplishment. I will still look for his name on the shelves of old bookshops, and look for his influence in my own spacefaring tales. I will reread Black Star Rising and Jem. I will recommend Gateway to anyone who will listen. I will remember Frederik Pohl as one of the Grandmasters of the Golden Age, who left a mark on my favorite genre that will not soon be forgotten.

FrederikPohl2

Visit his website, or his blog, where you can read the obituary from which I got whatever personal details I included in this post. Buy his books from Amazon, especially Gateway.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Sorry about the prolonged hiatus! It turns out that deciding to quit your job and move to Chicago to be a writer takes up a lot of time that could have been spent reviewing Pacific Rim or Luther or something else with Idris Elba in it. July was a panic of goodbyes and packing and discarding the accumulated Stuff of Life, and I’m still settling in, still grappling with the reality of uprooting my life and moving it to another city. A city with winter. But now I’m back, and writing is back, and it’s time to talk about books and movies and other such things.

The Tiger's Wife

When I think of the craft of storytelling, I often compare it to weaving, with characters, plot elements, and recurring imagery as threads bound together to create something intricate and beautiful. Writers weave tapestries out of moments of life, images of violence, the voices of characters, and the reader is drawn inexorably to something whole and emotionally satisfying. There is a special kind of joy that comes from seeing all the threads of narrative converge and the finished image at last revealed.

The Tiger’s Wife is very much a woven story, a tapestry of convergence. Natalia’s story, as she tries to understand her grandfather and why he chose to die in a remote village far from home, intertwines with the stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and those stories are supplemented by still other stories nested within them. It’s not meta, exactly, but Story, it’s importance and relevance, it’s living nature, is a central theme of the book. It is Natalia’s story and it is her grandfather’s. It is present and past, mystery and myth. The deathless man and the tiger’s wife are set against the bombing of Belgrade, glimpses of life under Tito, borders shifting with the collapse of empires. It is a vast story contained in a slim volume of words, and finds space to grapple with profound questions of destiny, death, and truth.

Though the two central characters are both physicians, this novel is about death, or more specifically, how we die. Our protagonists are in the business of fighting death, gaining mastery over it, and the narrative often confronts them with situations that show contempt for that mastery, like the diggers who refuse medical treatment for their illness, or the NATO bombing campaign, or the riddle of a man who simply will not die. Natalia grapples with this in the form of her own grandfather’s death, retracing his steps forward to the foreign village where he died, and backward to the remote mountain village where he grew up. The story is driven by the metaphysical question of why, but the narrative itself is deeply physical. Obreht provides no easy confirmations of magic or evidence of life after death. The most blatantly supernatural element, the deathless man, is experienced second-hand, through the grandfather’s tales, and even then everything is rooted in the material world, so much so that the clear defiance of natural law is frustrating both to the reader and to the characters. Obreht’s imagery gives her story the weight and presence of the real world. I am left with indelible images of the fevered touch of the diggers in the orchard, the profound cold of the mountain village, the sight of blood on snow. Her command of language is poetic, but also visceral; you feel the truth of it in your gut.

My favorite part of the novel on this first read through was, as seems appropriate, the story of the tiger’s wife. Something about a tiger haunting a mountain village during the fierce winter before World War II, the mixture of rational explanation by Natalia and the demon-haunted terror of the villagers creates the best kind of legend, one that even stripped of supernatural explanation is remarkable, thrilling, and beautiful. In the midst of the villagers’ fear of what they do not understand, the boy who would become Natalia’s grandfather learns about beauty and the proximity of death, and that sometimes no amount of effort or love can save those doomed to die. Framed as a historical investigation by the backward looking Natalia, the story also includes brief histories of characters such as the butcher and the apothecary, men integral to the grandfather’s story but about whom he probably knew little in life. They are revealed as heroes of their own tales, tales which lead inevitably to the winter-locked mountains and the tiger. Their stories are their own, but are also intricately woven into the greater story of the novel. There are many threads, but only one tapestry.

The Tiger’s Wife satisfies a deep narrative longing in me. It is rich with history and humanity. Obreht’s stories and substories are keenly crafted and transport me to another time and place, packing multiple layers of detailed narrative into a novel of less than 400 pages. Téa Obreht has created something complex without being complicated, deep without being unfathomable. It’s a story that can be enjoyed once or reread and studied closely for greater rewards. It is a true accomplishment.

Purchase the novel on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Visit the author’s website here.

Feminist Perspectives on Culture and Media

So yesterday was a travel day, and today is a wedding (not mine), so there’s no regular review for today. Instead, have some links to various feminist perspectives on popular culture that I’ve found helpful.

To start with, here’s how to be a fan of problematic things.

Feminist Frequency is a project by Anita Sarkeesian in which she analyzes the portrayal of women in movies and popular culture, which often employs sexist tropes and stereotypes, such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or The Mystical Pregnancy. Recently, she’s also embarked on an analysis of similar tropes in video games, which you might have heard about because the virulent wave of sexist attacks against her before the first video even went up.

Maureen Johnson challenged her Twitter followers to flip the gender of various books to illustrate how differently books are marketed based on the gender of their authors. Related: John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines have a pose off. See also: Escher Girls for the way women are portrayed in comics and illustration.

Miri at Freethought Blogs doesn’t focus on pop culture, but she does have a good article on the role of feminist criticism, and how to write a better love story.

N.K. Jemisin writes about how there’s no such thing as a good stereotype, with particular emphasis on Strong Female Characters.

Speaking of which, the Mary Sue has a great review of the new Tomb Raider game, and how it manages to portray a strong female character without her being a Strong Female Character.

Lastly, as a writer, I loved this article by Kameron Hurley about the pervasiveness of sexist portrayals of women, how they are based on false historical narratives that erase the stories of women who didn’t conform to patriarchal notions of what women could do or be, and how, as writers, we need to change that.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods

I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by way of The Sandman in high school, and it opened up this whole other world of literature and media to me. I went from being purely classic rock and sword and sorcery to moody alternative, 80s post-punk, horror and dark fantasy literature, cult film and banned books. The repurposing of ancient myth and legend, the darkness and humor of that series, as well as Neverwhere and Stardust, changed everything for me, and opened me up to the wider world. I hope that I’ve written and read enough now that my Gaiman influence isn’t quite as blatant as it was back then, but he is still, obviously, foundational. And, as I found with this second reading of American Gods, still very much a pleasure to read.

The basic plot follows Shadow who, immediately after being released from prison, is dragged more or less against his will into a world of gods and monsters that overlays the more mundane world he left. Shadow has a job to do, but he’s not exactly sure what it is, and meanwhile grifter gods and unemployed magical beings are forming a conspiracy around him, his dead wife is warning him that a war is coming, and his television is offering to show him Lucille Ball’s tits. It’s a dark, fantastic story set against the grim realities of contemporary American life, while in the interludes, the entire history of humans and their gods on the North American continent unfolds, revealing the often gruesome depths beneath the surface of the tale.

The idea of ordinary people finding themselves a part of extraordinary events is a staple of fantasy literature, and has been a favorite of mine since Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George. Something about being whisked away from an ordinary life to a fantastic world of alien conspiracies and dragon knights strongly appealed to my teenage self, who often wished, as adolescence wore on, that he would be abducted by space pirates. Gaiman’s stories, however, took this teenage fantasy and matured it, allowing me to see the darker side of losing everything one thought was true. For Shadow, like Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere, the magical world in which he finds himself upsets his sense of self and his view of the world, and puts him in terrible danger. Unlike Mayhew, however, his loss isn’t abrupt. Shadow has been in prison for five years. When he emerges, the world he thought he’d come back to simply isn’t there.

Shadow sort of holds our proxy in exploring the hidden, magical America revealed here. He goes where Wednesday tells him to go, and with few exceptions, does only what he is told to do. When he gets into trouble, which is often in this unfamiliar world, he needs rescuing, usually by his wife, Laura, who in undeath is capable of seemingly terrific violence. But this isn’t to say that Shadow is some kind of everyman character. He’s pretty far from it, in fact. Shadow’s greatest strength is his essential selfhood, which protects him and draws people to him. His apparent lack of agency is a defensive reaction to the loss of everything he knows, but he maintains a quiet strength and sense of decency that keeps your sympathy with him as he passes through scenes of wonder and horror. In the end, those essential qualities and the friends and allies he gathers along the way, from young hitchhikers to mad sun gods, are the power with which he faces the dramatic confrontation in the story’s climax.

This America, filled with gods and monsters, is beautiful, even at its most terrible. Some of the most striking sensory images come from nearly freezing to death, or the appalling effects of severe deprivation, or the kiss of Shadow’s dead wife after a cigarette. But there are other, more enchanting things as well, like the moonlit scene on the roof with Zorya Poluchnaya, or the strange vision of the world backstage. I’ve always appreciated Gaiman’s ability to make terror, horror, and strangeness beautiful. He creates a world that is strange and terrifying, and makes me want to live there. I remember wanting to step through a door and into London Below at the end of Neverwhere, or to find a Wall to cross like Tristan in Stardust. I wanted to believe in the Endless, and by the end of American Gods, I wanted to believe that if I looked closely enough, asked all the questions that Shadow didn’t, I could find the secret magic underlying the world. Gaiman’s writing makes me feel like I could touch magic, and I think that’s why it’s always been compelling to me. American Gods, even more than the others, makes magic gritty and real, something touchable if you just know the trick of it, like pulling a golden coin from thin air.

Shadow’s journey is mythic and contemporary in equal measure, and the characters he meets along the way, gods and mortals, are genuine and memorable. Gaiman’s imagery creates an immersive, magical world that I want to live in despite its terrors and quiet horrors. While I think Neverwhere might still be the secret world I hold the most affection for, American Gods feels richer and deeper, with so much to talk about in individual chapters and scenes that I found it hard to decide what to discuss for this review. The quiet magic of the Lakeside chapters or the ecstatic vision of Shadow’s vigil? The unexpected and brutal heroism of Laura or the charming, subtle villainy of Mr. Wednesday? What about the many interludes and what they reveal about the larger world of the novel? The story rewards close reading while also being just a pleasure to read. Through Shadow, Gaiman reveals the gods to us, the old and new magic, and the secrets rooted in the history of the land and its people. That’s why he remains one of my favorite writers, and why his influence lingers in my own writing, despite all the other books I’ve read since.

Buy American Gods from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Why is this even a thing?

Well, I think the problem is that I can’t leave a thing alone. It’s not enough for me to just enjoy something and kill some time; if I read a book, watch a movie, or play a game, I have to think about it afterward, talk about it with friends, even write something about it. Otherwise, I feel like those hours were just lost. I feel guilty, in other words, if I’m not thoughtful about my interactions with culture and the media I consume.

When I was really small, single digits, my teacher assigned book reports. I’m not  sure how many book reports I actually had to do, because I started to write about every book, every last one I read. At that age, the “about” of a book was pretty much just a summary of the plot, but I was driven to acknowledge the accomplishment, to say, “I read this!” I want to do that again, although hopefully my thoughts and analysis are a little more mature and in depth than they were at 9 years old. No promises though.

Pop Culture Pillow Talk is about the conversation I have with culture, and with others, after I’ve immersed myself in it. Topics will include whatever I happen to read, watch, or play, from Skyfall to Hagakure, from the Pathfinder RPG to The Wire. My purpose is to think the thing through, explore not just how I’m feeling, but why I’m feeling it. Often when reading or watching something, I let myself get caught up in the world of the story. I get surprised by entirely predictable plot twists, let myself be caught up and sucker punched by funeral scenes, homecomings, and other easy emotional payoffs. Only afterward do I start to really think about what I’ve experienced. This blog will be about what happens after. It will, obviously, be highly subjective. If you have a different take on a thing, I encourage you to offer it in the comments. These posts aren’t intended to be the Final Thought on a subject, and I reserve the right to revisit my opinion of something later in a future post.

This is not about ratings, and I’m not going to give anything a thumbs up, thumbs down. I’m not doing this to shit on the things you like, or to tell you you’re wrong for not liking something. If those things do happen, you should feel free to call me out. This is about my enthusiasms, and I hope yours too.

The plan is to update once a week on Friday. We’ll see how that goes!

Update: the plan didn’t go very well, so we’re updating on Saturdays now. Hurray!