A compilation of my reading blogs from 2018 (migrated from my old website).
It isn’t often that I get to add a writer to my pantheon of favorites, but this winter I did. Tove Jansson’s writing for adults is a wonder (and I only say “writing for adults” because I’m still working my way through the Moomintroll books). If I ever understand people as well as Jansson did, I’ll count myself wise.
Fair Play (novel, 1989): These linked vignettes follow an elderly lesbian couple, Mari and Jonna, whose delightfully cantankerous love is stressed but never broken by weather, travel, technology, and irritating houseguests. Stories about artists usually annoy me; I find them self-absorbed or precious. But Mari and Jonna—a writer and a painter, respectively—see art as sharing the beauty of the everyday, from rowing together through a foggy bay to bickering over a bad B-Western. Their love, for the world and each other, is an act of reverent attention. The same is true of Jansson’s prose. I read this book twice and I’ll probably do so again in 2019.
The True Deceiver (novel, 1982). In Fair Play, Jansson’s artist Jonna remarks that no person is ever completely consistent; we are more believable to the extent that we sometimes act against our own characters. The True Deceiver illustrates this principle through a woman so unsettled by her own occasional inconsistencies that she angrily suppresses them. Her approach to life is nakedly Machiavellian, and her machinations mostly aim to make a secure life for her beloved younger brother. Cruelly, her rigid adherence to her principles finally distances her from him.
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (collected short stories, 2014): A set of understated yet eerily perceptive character studies whose insight has the fidelity of direct observation. Jansson renders the murkiness of people’s motivations clearly without clarifying them. Her characters feel real rather than built (and I say this as someone who appreciates the visible labor in good character-building).
Ursula K. Le Guin
I never did get around to writing my final reviews of the Earthsea cycle. I still intend to do so, sometime. Until then, these placeholders:
Tales From Earthsea (short stories, 2001): Le Guin’s Earthsea writing is at its strongest and most innovative here. Tales perfects the balance she achieved in Tehanu between intimate character moment and epic story—especially the novella “Dragonfly,” in which a dragon-woman named Irian upends Earthsea’s entire cosmology. The book also contains an Appendix which (happily but also frustratingly) contains the only clear evidence of queer people in Earthsea: witches who marry in a “witch-troth,” and the heroes Maharion and Erreth-Akbe, whose brotherly love is clearly—although again frustratingly, never named as—more than that.
The Other Wind (novel, 2001): It’s a testament to Le Guin’s imagination that this final book in the Earthsea cycle feels like the only possible conclusion to the series, though she did not plan it that way. The novel admits the inhumane horror of the “dry land,” Earthsea’s cold, dim, loveless afterlife, and pointedly identifies it as a consequence of human greed, the mages’ desire to own the landscape of immortality. The book’s heroes destroy the dry land, but at a heavy cost: dragons have to leave Earthsea forever. I won’t get into the mechanics, as they’re too complicated, but the symbolic point is clear. What we buy in greed we pay for in wonder, even if we’re too dull to recognize the currency.
Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat (novel, 2001): On its surface a quiet portrait of a thirty-something couple and their adopted cat; actually a love-letter to the traditional Japanese architecture that disappeared in the condo boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s, which Hiraide parallels with the disappearance of a certain kind of appreciation for slow life: “useless” beauty, refusals of capitalist ownership—the carefully-groomed garden, the cat who belongs to no one.
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (novel, 2016): This short, odd novel follows a woman whose phlegmatic allegiance to the routines of her workplace is tested when she lets a leeching incel move in with her to stave off her family’s harassment about marriage. That their relationship remains platonic, and that his whiny misogyny bounces right off her teflon disinterest (she treats him as a housepet and respects him about as much), is one of the book’s quirky surprises.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling (novel, 2017): LaValle’s novel is a fascinating genre experiment. As a mystery, it teases fantastic answers to plot questions it resolves mundanely, and those answers are all the more terrifying because their realism comes as a surprise. (What’s scarier than magical omniscience? Digital omniscience). Yet its final mystery, revealed in the last twenty pages, is answered fantastically: a basement-dwelling reddit troll is feeding immigrant children to an actual troll living below Queens. This literalized metaphor inverts the novel’s prior structure, underlining the point that fantasy, though it might estrange, cannot exaggerate the monstrous logic of racist nationalism.
Daisy Johnson, Fen (short story collection, 2016): Johnson’s stories recount the gooey, awkward, and traumatic sexual awakenings of teens living in a town in England’s fenlands. As sometimes happens in weird fiction, a few of these stories meander, assuming their speculative elements perform more emotional heavy-lifting than they do (often because those elements require sharpening to be more than abstractly evocative). But Johnson captures feeling so viscerally elsewhere that most stories punch hard enough to be memorable even when diluted by insufficiently-honed weirdness. Her prose is vividly imagistic, though sometimes a triply-displaced metaphor gets in the way of coherence.
Howard Norman, The Bird Artist (novel, 1994): Norman’s ear for the rhythms of life in a Newfoundland fishing village is so clear that it unfortunately magnifies the failure of the novel’s emotional arc to quite cohere.
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black (novel, 2018): Edugyan’s novel is a brilliant portrait of the psychological damage wrought by white supremacy, even the well-meaning, abolitionist kind. Born into slavery, the novel’s protagonist Wash is adopted, then abandoned, by a gentleman scientist whose painful family problems obscure Wash’s own suffering during their time together. Wash has been so trained to see white pain as more deserving of compassion that he—and so readers, in the novel’s first half—spend more time pondering the scientist’s family drama than how Wash will navigate the world as a freeman, or cope with the trauma of his enslavement. Brutally, when Wash finally recognizes this injustice, he’s the only one who does. The scientist can’t, or won’t, for all his good intentions.
Mini-reviews of some of the books I read during and after Clarion West, not including, for obvious reasons, the work of my instructors. Tommy Orange, Kaveh Akbar, Karin Tidbeck, JY Yang, Christopher Isherwood, and Sofia Samatar. Spoilers for the Orange.
Tommy Orange, There There (novel, 2018): There There is as canny and formally ambitious as the work of a writer five novels in; it’s astounding that it’s a debut. The book’s plot advances by slowly drawing together a series of character portraits like a cinched bag. By its climax, everyone is trapped inside—literally, at a powwow with a mass shooter; metaphorically, within one another’s lives. Short, lyrical nonfiction essays punctuate the novel, and they’re as good as (sometimes better) than the fiction.
Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (poems, 2017): Akbar’s free verse is the purest strain of cannily self-destructive romanticism I’ve read in a while, and it’s done very seductively—so much so that its few brief, compromised glimpses away from the pull of the toxic sublime feel hackneyed, as I think Akbar intends them to be. I can’t trust this collection at all, but I enjoyed it very much.
Karin Tidbeck, Amatka (novel, 2012) and Jagannath (short stories, 2018): Tidbeck’s prose is precise and graceful, her premises so innovative and her plotting so tight that she earns her way out of necessitating full answers to the questions her works raise. I am often let down by weird fiction, as its amorphousness feels lazy rather than deliberate. Tidbeck’s is not. What she omits is as controlled as what she includes, at the level of plot as well as wording.
JY Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven (novella, 2017): A satisfying capsule-portrait of a world on the brink of political turmoil—but what I really loved were the relationships, romantic and otherwise, that were rooted in mutual respect while acknowledging profound (sometimes irresolvable) difference. Yang handles their characters with a moving emotional maturity, even when those characters are themselves very immature.
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man (novel, 1964): I usually dislike books about university English professors (they hit too close to home). But this one broke my heart. What begins as an exacting portrait of loss—the lead, George, has just lost his partner Jim to a car crash—becomes an unflinching meditation on friendship, mentorship, desire, ageing, and death. Isherwood neither excuses nor apologizes for the extremes to which George is driven by grief. And while George’s sympathies are limited—he can be a petty old asshole—you never get the sense that Isherwood’s are.
Sofia Samatar, Monster Portraits (poems?, 2018): Monster Portraits is a series of flawlessly-controlled prose poems whose every word does triple work. The book captures the eerie feeling of elsewhere I associate with 19th/early 20th-century Faerie geographers like Mirrlees and Dunsany. But Samatar brings a critical edge to that feeling whose sharp blade folds seamlessly into her lyricism. Her elsewhere is compelling because it’s here, too.
Brigid Brophy, The King of a Rainy Country (novel, 1956): An odd, aimless, but compelling novel about a young woman who enlists her platonic(?) roommate on a trans-European quest to locate her childhood crush, a girl who now poses for nude magazines. While questing, the lead characters enlist as guides for a group of boorish American tourists. Brophy’s portraits of them are hilariously mean. But the book’s overall mood is melancholy, perhaps because its main emotional movement is the protagonist’s dawning sense of how stifling her world is.
Laurie Penny, Bitch Doctrine (nonfiction, 2017): A solid collection of Penny’s older writing. Penny is one of my favorite commentators, somehow managing to be simultaneously blunt and nuanced. She is also willing to apologize and reconsider her own positions, which, when done publicly on the internet, requires a lot of courage.
Patricia Smith, Incendiary Art (poems, 2017): Smith is a flawless formalist with a sensitive ear and a staggering creative range, speaking believably in many voices, writing terza rima, sonnets, free verse, and ghazals with equal ease, at once forcing you to think and punching you in the gut. If you like poetry, go read her. If you don’t like poetry, go read her.
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (novel, 1952): A quiet, lovely queer love story that, because it’s Patricia Highsmith, becomes a thriller ¾ of the way in.
Rachel Cusk, Outline, Transit (novels, 2014, 2017): Cusk writes beautifully, and she’s a penetrating psychologist in the Doris Lessing vein, temporally as well as stylistically: take away the cellphones and these novels could have been written in the 1950s. That’s a flaw. Neither Cusk nor her characters can think systemically, or see much further than their own tangled domestic crises. By the second novel (Transit), I could no longer suspend my disbelief that the female protagonist, a writer, never read the news, or that she felt anything more than a disaffected ennui at the several men who kiss her without her consent.
Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories (novellas, 1945): Isherwood’s eye for character is as good as Cusk’s (and his prose is more refined), but he’s equally interested in documenting what a country slipping into Nazism looks like. Nor is he forgiving. These novellas are alternately chilling and heartbreaking, and they’re filled with keen, unflattering portraits of the poses self-considered intellectuals take towards fascism.