Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reader's Block (David Markson)

Every now and then, we encounter books that can astound us because of its scope and sheer genius. I was fortunate to have read two such books in the past few months, and one of them was David Markson's modern classic Reader's Block.

Critics call Reader's Block an anti-novel. There is no spoken exchange here, no setting, no real conflict. What it is is a collection of facts about writers, painters, composers, a string of brief sentences about their lives (mostly their deaths), their sins, their beliefs, and their dementia. In fact, in this experimental novel, one of the most common facts you will encounter is who has committed suicide and who was anti-Semite (Carl Orff, Chopin, Roald Dahl, HG Wells -- and a few of my other favorite minds, apparently).

Here's a glimpse:
'Philip Larkin:
I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.


Edna St. Vincent Millay died at the first light of morning after having sat up all night reading a new translation of the

I have a narrative. But you will be put to it to find it.

None of Andrew Marvell's best poems was published in his lifetime.

The Queen of Pentacles, Reversed: Certain Evil, a suspicious Woman, a Woman justly regarded with Suspicion, Doubt, Mistrust.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine was an anti-Semite. (p78)'

But in between these facts is the sad life of Reader, who is writing a novel. As he constructs the world of Protagonist, giving him different names (Rasholnikov/Bloom/Mr Kurtz, among others) and placing him in different settings (a cemetery, the garage of an isolated beach house), so does he sift through a lifetime of data in his head. Very early on, the question is asked: 'How much of Reader's own circumstances or past would he in fact give to Protagonist in such a novel? (p12)' As we wade through the debris of Reader's mind along with him, looking for that promised narrative, we begin to construct our own image of him as well. We pick up on what he has chosen to reveal through these facts and ineluctably form perceptions about him.

Because of its fragmented nature, it seems fairly easy to consume Reader's Block in one sitting. I would in fact recommend it because I think you'd lose momentum if you decide to read it in small doses. But what wasn't easy for me was the intellectual digestion that came after. I'm the kind of reader who would look up names and words that are unfamiliar to me. I'll be honest and admit that I didn't look up every name or event listed in the book, but I did spend a good amount of time learning that Kristallnacht refers to a time when Jewish homes and shops in Germany were destroyed (the term means crystal night, or night of broken glass) and that the brilliant Roald Dahl did have his prejudices. But aside from that, what also wasn't easy was trying to see if I understood the book at all. The final paragraphs were an emotional and mental upheaval, perhaps as much of a climax as you can get from such a book, and the last word left me thinking hard about what I thought I actually 'got' from the whole reading experience.

I don't think I've ever read anything that has left me this way. Reader's Block truly shows that Mr Markson writes for writing's sake. He is unafraid to experiment with the medium, to push the envelope when it comes to how literature lets a story be told.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Love We Share Without Knowing (Christopher Barzak)

'A Novel,' it says on the cover of Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing but it can just as easily be mistaken for a collection of short stories. The book is created from seemingly disparate chapters, told from different perspectives, until you notice that a character in the first story will be mentioned in the next, and another character from that world will be in the succeeding one. Employing a style reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Mr Barzak presents a richly-layered genre novel that delves into the alienating nature of human interaction set in modern-day Japan.

It took me a while to warm up to this. After reading the first two chapters, I was wondering why this was nominated for the 2009 Nebulas -- not because of any lack of literary value but because there was not enough in the first pages to convince me that this was a genre novel. By the third story, I had resolved to stop expecting a speculative fic to jump at me and simply tried to enjoy it. It was a good decision, because I found myself drawn to that story, "Sleeping Beauties," the most out of the ten included here. It unfolded with poetry that felt both heartbreaking and real. The disconnection that had seeped in while reading the early chapters -- somehow Said’s theories on Orientalism were hard to tune out then -- was finally gone. As "Sleeping Beauties" drew to a close it became apparent to me that I had to begin reconsidering the lyrical as literal, and what I first thought was 'non-genre' was actually deeply rooted in the fantastic.

That has to be one of the things I admire about Mr Barzak's writing. Chapter after chapter, he draws on very familiar emotions (loneliness, loss, isolation, indifference, even delusion) but situates them between the mundane and the otherworldly. Perhaps there is a certain quality inherent in the setting that allows these emotions to manifest themselves in strange ways, but I'd also like to think it is largely because of the author's skill. In the chapter "What They Don't Tell You," he moves further away on the speculative fic spectrum but loses none of the magical fluidity that has come to characterize the rest of the novel. The final chapters in particular are succinct and powerful. In fact, his style recalls three of my favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Elizabeth Hand, and Kelly Link), echoing their ingenious way of letting the slipstream into our world, often with lingering results.

Sometimes I thought his prose struggled with its own sentimentality and other times I thought it was perfectly restrained. There was a chapter that I thought was superfluous, but this still did not take away from the entire reading experience. I am a convert. This is exactly the way I want to enjoy my genre fiction (any fiction for that matter), and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be looking forward to more of Mr Barzak's deeply moving prose.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind has been bannered about with lofty terms such as 'instant classic' or 'the best fantasy book of the decade'. I may not readily agree with those praises but I will side with them in declaring that The Name of the Wind is certainly an engaging read, a well-drawn fantasy, and an impressive character study. Just not the best in recent years -- that's always such a subjective claim.

The Name of the Wind is an origin story. The subject in question is Kvothe, whose deeds as a magician, swordsman, and bard are only hinted at this early in the series, but who is now living a low-key existence as an innkeeper, his previous exploits carefully kept away from the simple folk who frequent his inn. But when he encounters a scholar known as The Chronicler, he is persuaded to share the truth behind his legendary life. In the next three days (one day for every book, I presume), Kvothe recounts his life as The Chronicler seeks to sort fact from fiction, revealing the hero's story from behind the scenes.

It was hard for me to get into it in the beginning. The prologue showed gravitas, which I often appreciate in a fantasy series, but Kvothe's new life felt uneventful. I was looking for the reasons that triggered the praises over Rothfuss' writing and couldn't find much to go on. It wasn't until Kvothe stepped foot into the University that the story gained a certain concreteness that truly hooked me.

I've always been intrigued by academia in a fantasy world. Kvothe's stay at the University reminded me a lot of the trials faced by Menolly at Harper Hall in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger and by Talia in Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen, when she enters the Collegium to learn to become a Herald. The Name of the Wind is far from being derivative, but as it delves into Kvothe's everyday life at the University, it echoes the other books in their unhurried pace against extremely detailed and well-imagined academic settings. But Mr Rothfuss does more than echo. Kvothe is a larger-than-life character and it is at the University when he begins to inch away from tropes like the Innocent Farmboy (Kvothe's demeanor is anything but) or Orphan with a Destiny (since there seems to be no otherworldly hand of fate at play during the almost episodic nature of the flashback years). Readers will appreciate the way that the events of Kvothe's life are layered to set the stage for a larger narrative, which in this case appears to be headed towards the hero's fall.

Outside of Kvothe however, I can only pick at a few other characters who appealed to me; the rest were rather nondescript. It was easy to group them into the pro-Kvothe and the anti-Kvothe. The women of his life all tended be unrealistically lovely, something which was pointed out by his sidekick (how meta!), who is listening to the tale along with the Chronicler. Time will tell if this will be improved on in the later books, because I really think this robs the novel of a little of its grandeur.

Still, I will have to hand it to Mr Rothfuss for crafting a high fantasy story that I really enjoyed. Though it is far from being the best in my book, it still accounts for itself rather well.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Across the Universe (Beth Revis)

I picked up Beth Revis' Across the Universe on the strength of my fifteen-year old sister's recommendation. She knew I liked sci-fi and YA and thought that I might appreciate something like this. Solid premise. Lovely title. Rest = history.

In the simplest terms, Across the Universe is a sci-fi mystery. Sometime in the unknown future, a powerful international alliance called the Financial Resource Exchange has made space travel possible. Amy's parents -- her father a military man, her mother a scientist -- have been chosen for its first mission to make Centauri-Earth a habitable place. Along with Amy, they have been cryogenically frozen, traveling three hundred years through space in the Godspeed. But Amy is mysteriously unplugged from her cryo-chamber fifty years before their scheduled landing and wakes to a ship led by an autocrat named Eldest. Before she can find out the truth about her re-animation, one that nearly cost her her life, she must first learn to live within the ship's rules. But Godspeed has its own people, its own culture, its own morals. With the help of Eldest's successor Elder, she uncovers the truth behind Godspeed and Eldest and the fate of everyone on the ship.

The strength of novel lies in the way it boldly raises issues of freedom, race, and morality, among others. I find it very admirable that these find a place in the middle of an already engaging mystery. Similar to Paolo Bacigalupi's near-future scenarios that depict grim ecological consequences, the novel does not flinch from showing the darker side of good intentions. It is much more than the love story that the cover promises. In fact, I didn't find the romance essential to the story; I thought it would have been even more natural without it. I also thought that it tackles a little too much and that tying up all those loose ends resulted in a rather cramped denouement. I'm hopeful that in the succeeding novels, these issues can be better paced and further explored then.

I do have some misgivings. Ms Revis appears to have most of her work grounded in real science (or to be safe, reasonable conjecture on how science can develop years into the future). If it had been the science of a space opera like Star Wars, where interplanetary travel is a given and parsecs are a unit of time and not distance, then I probably wouldn't have the discomfort I have with it now. I think it's one thing to suspend disbelief about something that happens in a galaxy far, far away; it's quite another when a story grounds itself in something plausible and then misses the mark down the line.

There were tiny but very forgivable hiccups, like the mundane complaint I have on how Amy turned her bedroom lights on and off. She had to flick a switch and then speak to a computer program to make it work. I guess I just found the extraneous action off-putting because it didn't make a lot of sense for it to be developed in the first place. But I can set that aside. What really bothered me was an important piece of information revealed in the middle of the story. It's a pretty big spoiler so I won't discuss it here. Even though I'm not an expert I thought it was a rather significant flaw. If that had really happened, then Godspeed could have easily taken a better course of action than the one they ultimately did, which was presented as if it were the only solution available. I guess that really didn't sit well with me. But don't believe me; maybe I got the science all wrong.

Still, despite my apprehension over certain things, I believe Across the Universe is worth reading and recommending -- and not just to teenagers who would like a break from the dozens of paranormal romances on their shelves. There are a lot of other themes worth pursuing here and I really think it can inspire spirited discussions in classrooms everywhere. Like Amy, it is strong and fearless, and clearly echoes with the undying message of hope.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Break.

It can’t already be June, it can’t already be Monday, that’s what they say, that’s what people keep muttering to themselves this morning as they cradle the last of the sleep in their coffee cups, for the precious moments in which they huddle in themselves before they must sign off their lives to something they don’t believe in, to something they think they cannot escape from. - Mariko Nagai, from Many are Called

A few weeks ago, I went on a trip with my best friends to visit our other best friends. It hasn't been easy for us; half the group in Singapore, the other half here. A married couple on each side of the ocean. A bachelorette to keep them company. But we make do. Long-distance calls. Quick weekends. Birthdays and weddings and holidays rolled into one. We exhaust ourselves on trips like this, walking everywhere, doing everything, but we are never really tired. We gossip well into the night and sleep in during the mornings. We snap pictures like crazy.

We find time for coffee, too, during those lazy mornings and in roadside nooks. There is always much to talk about. We exist here, in these pocket moments, always in each other's company. I miss them.

Friday, June 03, 2011

2008 Nebula Awards Showcase (Edited by Ben Bova)

Been on a Nebula kick for the past few months so when I saw this anthology at a local bookstore, I grabbed it immediately. I'm very grateful that a number of the recent Nebula nominees for short story are accessible online and getting to read an anthology like this really helps me to broaden my range. Two of the 2008 Nebula winners are also favorites of mine, Peter S. Beagle and Elizabeth Hand, so purchasing this was a doubly easy choice.

The anthology opens with Ms Hand's "Echo," a post-9/11 tale addressed to an unknown 'you,' (at least in the story; Ms Hand makes it clear in her brief introduction that this short story was inspired by her own epistolary relationship with a journalist). I've always wished that I wrote as well as Ms Hand does. She has a very fluid rhythm that is tempered with the right amount of emotion. "Echo" is followed by James Patrick Kelly's novella "Burn," which takes place on the planet Walden, where a colony of humans live a very tech-lite existence and have to deal with the aliens still living with them. Okay, I really did a bad job of summarizing that. What I liked about "Burn" is that the characters are very flawed and well-realized and reminds me a bit of how Ray Bradbury approaches the sci-fi elements in his short stories. My favorite of course is Mr Beagle's "Two Hearts," a novelette which continues (or ends?) his famous The Last Unicorn. I've read this before and re-reading it still manages to stir the same emotions I had during the first time. Mr Beagle convincingly uses the young girl Sooz' voice in narrating this story. I think you have to know the characters of The Last Unicorn well to fully appreciate this, though.

Also included in this collection are three science fiction poems (a first for me to read), nominee Eugene Mirabelli's "The Woman in Schrodinger's Wave Equation" (which I also enjoyed), Grand Master James Gunn's "The Listeners" (a sad yet lovely story for any SETI supporter -- yes, I have SETI@home), and an excerpt from Jack McDevitt's Seeker, the Nebula winner for best novel. This is really making me look forward to seeing and reading more Nebula anthologies available locally. I know there are more riches and depths waiting out there.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)

This is not a review.

I first heard of Patrick Ness thanks to an old Amazon recommendation in 2009. Later, he was mentioned in an io9 article, which somehow legitimized my desire to find his books. In 2009, I found both The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer in Bibliarch Glorietta, and the rest was history. I remember not even managing to climb the stairs of my lonely apartment because I was too engrossed in his books. I read them straight. I don't even remember fixing myself dinner. After the release of Monsters of Men last year, I had been eagerly awaiting his next title.

Then came A Monster Calls. Like I said earlier, this is not a review.

A Monster Calls was really the brainchild of author Siobhan Dowd. I am sorry to admit that I've never read anything she has written before this. But Ms Dowd passed on before she could finish it, and Mr Ness was left with the task. In the story, Conor comes face-to-face with a walking nightmare. And whether Conor likes it or not, the monster is there to tell him three tales -- and expects one in return. And what Conor has chosen to tell literally shook me. I cried. I had been in his shoes before. I knew that life. This is what I mean when I say this is not a review. I am not the right person to ask.

The spark which belonged to Ms Dowd was shaped by Mr Ness' way of writing powerful coming-of-age stories and Jim Kay's brilliantly dark illustrations. A Monster Calls knew, with its honest and simple prose, how to reveal a carefully layered story, one that is brimming with emotion that is neither put-on or pretentious. You have to be there, at 12.07, to know what I mean.

If you've faced sickness and death and loss and regret in your life, read it. This is not a review. This is an exhortation.

A very special thank you to Tina of One More Page for my lovely copy.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Eye of Jade (Diane Wei Liang)

Joining the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Gathering Books has really encouraged me to read more mysteries, even if my challenge is technically over. I tried to widen my reading range when it comes to the genre, and one of the authors I discovered is Diane Wei Liang, whose The Eye of Jade was quite satisfying -- but not exactly for its mystery.

Mei Wang is an independent woman who has resigned from her job at the Ministry of Public Security to be a private detective (or information consultant, since detectives are banned in China). Aside from dealing with the challenges of debt collection, she also struggles with her younger sister Lu, a TV personality who is prettier, richer, and clearly their mother's favorite. When her Uncle Chen, an old friend of her mother's, asks her to find a very important artifact, Mei doesn't hesitate. The search takes her to antique stores and train stations, to hutongs and gambling dens, and even into her family's past.

Ms Liang's book is a sharp look into modern-day China. It paints a grittier Beijing, one that exists beside the grand structures of the Forbidden City or the tourist-perfect scenery of the Summer Palace. But in Ms Liang's case, 'gritty' takes on an almost beautiful quality: detailed in some places (Tofu Flower Soup was now all over the floor, white jelly-like chunks wobbling on top of thick brown broth (p76); poetic in others (' moment a caked face with smudged lips, and another, with the street lamps abandoned behind them like used-up chopsticks, just a pair of glowing eyes (p153).'

She takes her time with the first chapters to establish Mei's character and the kind of life she has by giving the reader a clear image of Mei's agency, her family, and even her friends. The mystery is only really introduced in the sixth chapter but because the chapters are relatively short, I didn't feel that the introduction was dragging. But as I kept on reading, I began to realize that the pace is deliberate; the artifact is a McGuffin and the real mystery involves Mei's own family. Readers who are looking for a throwback to the hard-boiled detective mysteries of old might find The Eye of Jade more of a family drama, but I think that Ms Liang and Mei Wang add a delicate and exotic touch to create a series that successfully marries the old with the new.