Category Archives: Slack Off Saturday

Slack-Off Saturday: Book and Soup Weather

To be fair, it’s always book weather. But even though I’m in Georgia, the temperature took a dive to 10°C and the wind picked up, and my dutch oven and stew pots are both calling to me from the kitchen. Even the cat decided she didn’t want to hang outside, though perhaps she’s just interested in what I’m going to cook. At any rate, it’s time to make sure my bookshelves and my freezer are both stocked with things to get me through the next few months.

Finished:  Jim Harrison, The River Swimmer

I rated this 4/5 because there wasn’t a 3.5/5 button and I liked his past work enough to round up. Jim Harrison is one of my favourite authors, and one of my influences… he seems to take the stripped down-storytelling style of Hemmingway and infuse his language with more meaning and unpretentious symbolism than most other modern American authors. I’ve only read four of his books so far (though I’ve read Legends of the Fall twice) and I always feel a peculiar rush of adrenaline when I pick up another of his books. Up until now, I’ve never felt disappointed by anything he’s written.

The first novella, “The Land of Unlikeness,” is perhaps one of the best stories I’ve ever read about coming to a turning point in one’s life… a ‘shit or get off the pot’ moment, where you know without a doubt that you can’t go back to what you want, and you can either keep spinning your gears in neutral and survive, or you can find another pathway ahead. The plot is fairly gentle, the characters are sharp and realistic, and the voice allows Mr Harrison to say quite a few things about art and nature and memory without being overly intrusive. I’ve already read this novella one-and-a-half times, and I will most likely take it out of the library again in a few months, or buy my own copy of it. If I ever move back to my Michigan homeland, it will be in part because of his writing.

The reason I read this a half-time again was because the titular novella was just not worth being in the same book. I am a fan of magical realism (it’s one of my two favourite fantasy genres), yet, I don’t know if he just doesn’t have much practice in it, or was going for a surreal dreamlike effect, or something that completely sailed over my head. Because of the strength of his poetry and his writing, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, in this story (which is thankfully the shorter of the two) his characters generate no sympathy, the plot is barely even present enough for it to be called a picaresque tale, and the imagery clunks and clatters on the page like a fake petoskey stone. I only rated the story 2/5 because I finished it, and I really only finished it because I liked the first one so much, and because I wanted to mark the book off as ‘read’ in my challenge to read 60 books this year. If anyone reading this review liked “The River Swimmer,” please, please comment and tell me what I missed.

Recommendation: Read “The Land of Unlikeness.” Then read it again and tell yourself you finished the book. Then go pick up Legends of the Fall (the other two novellas in that book are equally good) or one of his poetry collections.

Cross-posted in “The Saturday Review of Books” at Semicolon.

In Progress: 

I’ll have more to say about Return of the Crimson Guard (Ian Cameron Esslemont) by the end of next week. At this point in my journey through the world of the Malazan Empire (six of ten books in the main cycle, two of six in second series) I always feel a strong sense of homecoming and nostalgia when I wade back in. This (at least The Malazan Book of the Fallen, the ten-book series by Steven Erikson) is shaping up to be my favourite fantasy series, and reading another author’s take on the same world, especially an author who helped create the world, is just as amazing. It would be like if Emily and Charlotte Brontë wrote novellas set in each other’s books. (And that would mean the existence of something set in the moors of Wuthering Heights that isn’t a pile of poorly-written dogcrap, but that’s another story.) I’m halfway through this new book and I’ve gotten used to the new writing style and am definitely enjoying seeing familiar characters from a different angle. More next week.

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools is a book I’ve heard of for years and years, probably since high school, when our class read the story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” We’ve all read books where, after we finish them, we just want to go up to people, tie them down to a chair (preferably a comfortable one with good lighting) and force them to read it. I’m just past the first section and everyone’s on the ship and I feel like I already know all of these characters. I can’t rightly recommend it to other readers until I’m finished, but I’m already feeling that urge to make sure everyone has the chance to experience this.

What’s everyone else reading today? Send me your recommendations.

 

 

 

Slack-Off Saturday: My Week in Literature

Well, I can’t really call something a regular feature, or even a semi-regular feature, if this is the first time I do it. So for now, let’s call this an experiment. I like experiments. Being experimented on, not so much. But my confidentiaity agreement keeps me from talking about that, at least not before they offically make contact with our race and settle in North Dakota. And until that happens and life as we know it (and maybe even as we don’t quite know it) transforms utterly, I plan on spending every Saturday talking about what I’ve read, maybe what I’ve watched, and definitely about what’s next on my radar.

Finished:  Steven Erikson:  The Bonehunters (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Volume 6)

I started this series with Gardens of the Moon back in January of last year, and up until now, have been keeping a slow pace through it, even taking breaks between the ‘books’ that make up each volume. Not only do I not want to finally turn the last page and step away from this world, the series is amazingly complex (sometimes a little too much, but only rarely). The first book, in fact, is probably the most confusing introduction to a fantasy world, since Steven Erikson doesn’t believe in easing his reader in. From the start, you’re in the middle of a war of imperial expansion, with one campaign wrapping up before you even really know what’s going on, and then another one starting somewhere else. The magic system is nothing like anything else fantasy readers are familiar with. Amidst the talk of Ascendants, Decks of Dragons, and Warrens, the characters just go on talking like they know what’s going on and aren’t really concerned if someone listening in, like the reader, doesn’t quite follow. In retrospect, it lends the book a hint of verisimilitude; in real life, you don’t tell your friend “I’m going to drive north to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, which is a state in the Mid-Atlantic region. Yes, I’ll drive my car, that motorised gas-burning vehicle that gets me around.” Likewise, fantasy and science fiction often threatens to lose me if there are long passages of exposition. If they’re discussing something that at least one of the characters doesn’t know, fine. But not when it is, or should be, common knowledge.

Another bright side of the series is that the cultures are different and unique, unlike just about every other fantasy series I’ve read, and there are many different divisions. There aren’t just elves and trolls and goblins. There are three different races that could be called ‘elvish’ and there are cultural divisions among them. Ditto the other races. And there is no ‘common’ language! Because the saga concerns, among other things, an expanding empire, the empire’s language is more common than others, but there are a lot of language and dialect differences that often affect the plot. As a teenager first exploring the world of languages, I  often thought that was a weird feature of modern fantasy; there would be a human language, an Elven one, and maybe, just maybe, an “Old Tongue” that was spoken in a bygone era yet has no relation whatsoever to the languages that are currently on everyone’s lips. Some of the credit is due to Steven Erikson being an anthropologist, but he also just happens to be a talented and thoughtful writer.

Alright, on to The Bonehunters. I’ve heard many former readers of this series talk about how the first five books (which are more or less self-contained, though there are threads that run through them) are the best, but if the series really is going downhill, I don’t see it from this book. I’ve described the way Mr Erikson writes about the military and campaigns (especially in the second book) as being so well executed as to give me mild flashbacks; but nothing in the Malazan books I’d read before prepared me for the battle that takes place about a third of the way in. At turns frightening, thrilling, and heartbreaking, it might be one of the best descriptions of any kind of fighting I’ve ever read. (Well, up alongside Bernard Cornwell.) I had to take a week-long break afterwards just to process everything, and when I got back into it, I was expecting that nothing else could quite hold up to the intensity of that chapter. I was mostly wrong. Strictly as an individual novel, I think it might be ‘tied’ with Midnight Tides, the fifth book, but as a continuation of the series, it’s a very worthwhile installment. I don’t recommend starting with this book (though I can almost recommend starting with book 2, utilizing the TOR Read-along, and then picking up the first a little later… almost…) but I can definitely recommend the series. I’m already looking forward to the next one… more on that in the next section.

The Völsung SagaI already talked about this one a little bit, but I can never recommend or review the old epics too much, and this is one of the best that I’ve read. If you’re familiar with the story of the Ring of the Niebelungs (which is unfortunately not much like the awesome “What’s Opera, Doc?” though really, it should be) you know the basics of the Völsung Saga, though there are enough differences between them to make this a novel read for me. I still stand by my assessment that reading the old epics is like peeking under the hood or reading the source code of the program that makes up our modern world of fiction.

If you’ve never read an epic before, this is a great one to start with. (Yes, better than Beowulf, I think, and for a lot of reasons.) Get an annotated version, sit down with a mug of wine, bookmark the glossary, and go for it. Don’t read straight through like you would a 150-page story written in modern English. Keep in mind that these stories were meant to be told around the fire or after a banquet, and read them slowly. The language is descriptive but not often very dramatic, so fill that in on your own. Take breaks after every few chapters. Try to think about what the characters are doing when they’re not on the page, since a lot is indeed left to the imagination. And the next time you read a fantasy novel with barbarians or trolls or fighter-princes, you’ll know exactly where they came from.

Jim Harrison:  The Land of Unlikeness (From The River Swimmer)

I plan on reading the second novella in this collection tonight or tomorrow but this first one was an amazing description of Michigan, which I still consider ‘my homeland’ even though I’ve now lived outside of Michigan much longer than I lived inside of it. (Aside:  Yes, Jen, maybe I’ll fix that someday soon.) I’ll review the entire book when I’m finished, but, like all of his short novels, it is full of rich language, though not pedantic and arrogant, and the characterization of its protagonist is painfully  relateable. Highly recommended.

On Deck: 

I can always use suggestions and recommendations for my reading list. Next week should see me finishing The River Swimmer, and possibly reading another Malazan book, Return of the Crimson Guard; I almost always take breaks between volumes in a series, but this one was written by Steven Erikson’s collaborator and world co-creator, so it’s kind of like reading a different series. Next month, the excellent Sword and Laser podcast/ Goodreads group is reading a book I’d never heard of, Alif the Unseen, so I had to pick that up as well. If you’re not a member  of their group, go check them out. Whenever I finally decide on a format for a podcast, it will probably be heavily influenced by them. They’re very good at what they do. It’s for that reason that I had no problem picking up a book they recommended without a second thought, and will probably keep doing that in the future.

So, that’s my week. What did you read this week, and what’s sitting next to your reading chair? What are you drinking alongside? And what does your favourite cat think about your reading habits?

Have a great weekend, everyone. L’shanah tovah!

Cross-posted on The Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon.

Slack-Off Saturday: Banned Books Month

I’m spending this morning working on two stories, an old one that needs revision and a new ending, and a new one that I think might have started out as an homage to 1950s-era creature features before making a left turn somewhere in the Inland Empire and downhill to Innsmouth, perhaps. Both stories are frustrating me, but I feel pushed to finish them as well. Rarely has my Muse been so insistent that I finish something. Usually she figures that her job is to just tell me the stories; it’s up to me and the squad of Editorial Elves that live in the basement of my head to turn it into something people might want to read. This time, however, she is bound and determined to make sure I type “THE END” on these things, and in a good location, too… I’m not allowed to get away with just slapping an ending on after the main plot thread is resolved. In fact, that’s the problem she had with the story I’m revising, and I believe she is holding all of the rest of my ideas hostage until I finish it.

However, this isn’t fiction, so I can get away with typing it. This is yet another rant about Banned Books Week here in the US, which starts tomorrow. Or, as I’d like to call it, Spoiled Readers Equating Mild Inconvenience With Censorship and Fascism.

First of all, let me be clear that I think nearly any kind of censorship by any government is bad. Yes, I’m sure the contrarians among us can find edge cases where censorship is justified; works that specifically and purposesly incite violence against a person or group are one such case, stolen nude pictures of celebrities would be another. But by and large, governments have better things to do than block private consenting individuals from reading what they want to read. Parents and private companies censoring things? I don’t like it, but I also don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to intrude, either. And regardless of who or what is doing the censorship, it would seem that unless your control is complete and absolute (and in the USA, and thanks to Internet disemination, TOR browsers, WayBack machines, and vast caches of deleted material, it rarely is) the only thing an act of censorship will do is drive up demand for whatever is considered naughty. I think I’ve read two or three Playboy magazines since turning 18, and yes, I mean I really did read them, unlike the way I, err, perused them when I was 12 or 13. And the first time I tracked down a supposedly dirty book, I was bored with the blandness of it. (Then again, I started reading Stephen King when I was almost 12, so by the time I was in my late teens, I’d pretty much read it all, from canine-induced castration to sewer orgies.)

I do like how Banned Books Week calls attention to books that school districts have seen fit to remove either from their libraries or their reading lists, since it provides a window into what kids are reading, what adults are writing for them, and what scares their parents and teachers. And, well, those of us who remember their childhood… actually remember it and haven’t just painted a pleasant mural and plastered over the bad things… when we were in Junior High and High School, we all knew at least something about how people looked, how things worked, what drugs were, what abuse was, and how sexual and personal politics and bullying worked. We also all knew that it was hard to talk about it. Finding out that the adults allegedly in charge not only didn’t want us talking about it, they didn’t want other adults talking to us about it, lest we get ‘ideas’ or some such waffling and weak excuse, just made it that much harder to acknowledge or escape a bad situation. Indeed, at least one person I know had no idea she was being abused until she had a grade-school sex education class, and I’d be very surprised if her story is unique.

However, I still draw the line at calling what we do in this country ‘banning books.’ The books are still available. No one is getting jailed or killed because he has a copy of The Catcher in the Rye or Deenie. Police aren’t entering homes looking for copies of Ulysses. For that matter, when the people behind the publication of Ulysses wanted to force a court case in order to challenge its ban, they had to point out the book to the customs officer and insist he confiscate it. Even in the early 1980s in my tiny one-square-mile-town of Vernon, Michigan, we were able to find books if we really wanted them. And now, with more libraries than McDonalds in the US, and with many diverse sources of Internet distribution, it’s silly to say that a book is ever ‘banned’ in the US. It’s akin to a five-year old scraping his knee in the driveway and then screaming that his leg was chopped off. And one further note to school administrators:  kids and teens know about the Internet. If there’s a library in their town, or if they have a friend with Internet access (or if they have it) they are most likely going to find whatever you ban. Sorry to have to break it to you this way. It’s hard to plug a hole in a chain link fence.

Do your part to fight the removal of books from school and public libraries. If you have children, talk to them about what they read. That’s what my parents did. They only once told me that I wasn’t ready to read something yet but they also took their time to explain why, and I took their word for it. (Yes, this was before the hormonal shitstorm that was my combined experience of incipient bipolar disorder and puberty hit; I was able to talk rationally once in a while.) With other books and shows, they would explain what they didn’t like about it, or what they did like. That’s the absolute least you can do for your children, really. The same directive goes for librarians and teachers and administrators. Don’t ban the books. If you think it’s a piece of sensationalist sexist racist trash, explain why you think that and let people decide for themselves. And please, please, PLEASE stop calling the mild inconvenience of people living in the age of greatest literacy, intelligence, and information distribution ‘banning,’ or ‘fascism.’ You do nothing but show your unawareness of what the rest of the world is up to when you do that.

For my part, I’ve decided how I’m going to spend the rest of Banned Books Week. Every day I’m going to highlight (and in at least two of the cases, review) a book that was really and truly banned… meaning, people went to jail or died for publishing, diseminating, or reading this book. This is my effort to show that we really and truly are spoiled here in the US when so many cheap or free books are to be had virtually anywhere. Also, I hope to point out, as citizens of the world, that there is still work for us to do when it comes to setting information free. Comments are of course more than welcome.

Have a great week!

 

Non-Slacking Saturday

So after a good evening of reading and working on the new story, I decided to hold off on my book reviews until this morning. when I could focus on them a little more. Starting some time last night, a rash started to spread around the left side of my body, starting with the back of my neck and spreading to my face, scalp, and now my upper back. I have no clue what it is. I haven’t been rolling in anything rotten (lately) and while we did find poison ivy in our back yard last week, that was a week ago,  and I’ve never reacted to poison ivy before. (Poison oak is another story entirely…) So, since my plans for today involved going out and hanging out with some friends in the park, I’ve decided to play it safe, slather my body with cortisone, and work on book and site reviews today. Also, writing about itching is the worst thing one can do when one itches. Just putting that out there.

The Art of Quotation: Edith Hamilton

This awesome woman, and the D’Aulaires, are what really inculcated my love of mythology. (Though, I did have to relearn a lot of things that I learned in the D’Aulaires book… I remember being shocked when I found out that Greek Civilization expanded up into the Balkans, the Black Sea, and a good part of Asia Minor, and we won’t even talk about the mental rewiring I went through when I learned about Magna Grecia. But that’s another story, perhaps for my own books.)

“Great art is the expression of a solution of the conflict between the demands of the world without and that within.” – Edith Hamilton, author