Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain

It's my own fault for not keeping track of my book purchases, but I'm stuck this week waiting for Bolen Books to come through with the middle volume in Kim Stanley Robinson's climate-change fiction trilogy, Science in the Capital (or Capitol, depending on what link you follow). Apparently I only picked up the series' first and third novel, so with Forty Signs of Rain in the rearview mirror, I'm curbside with the hazards on, waiting for Fifty Degrees Below.

Overall this is a good thing, because it's forcing me to keep thinking about Forty Signs of Rain. I was seriously excited to start the series this summer, because I've enjoyed Robinson's novels so much and because it's so important to get climate change into people's imaginations and out of the uninspiring realm of factuality, so my initial reading of the novel wasn't particularly critical. At least, it wasn't particularly critical until some things started bringing me up short, so it's been helpful not to have been able to dive into the next volume.

Robinson usually gets categorized as an SF writer, and I guess technically this one counts as an alternative present (albeit barely alternative), but this is Science fiction with only the one capital letter, rather than SF or sf. This novel, too, comes out of Robinson's perspective that we need to move as quickly as possible into a postcapitalist future, so maybe it counts on utopian grounds as well.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Stephen Brain, Song of the Forest

Just click here already to read the full review, in which I reveal the depth and intensity of my nerdishness in the course of praising Stephen Brain's seriously valuable Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905-1953.

The third paragraph reads as follows:
In Song of the Forest, Brain gives readers a fascinatingly nuanced reading of the relative environmentalism of distinct approaches to forest management in Russia and the USSR in the first half of the twentieth century, and that’s what academic audiences should come for. Other readers, though, should stay for Brain’s interpretive frame that allows for the reinterpretation of popular attitudes toward both the environment broadly and resource consumption more narrowly. What makes Brain’s a powerfully theoretical model as well as an impressive work of environmental history is that he sketches out the trajectory of what he calls “Stalinist environmentalism” so effectively that we are left, to some extent, with a model for corporate capitalist environmentalism, without our having to adopt or support either Stalinism or corporate capitalism. Capitalist corporate forestry maybe isn’t so far from Soviet power structures, after all, and Brain’s study should intrigue anyone interested in how environmental actions are influenced by the relationships between power, science, and popular appeal.
In other words, yeah, pretty good book.

Monday, May 21, 2012

George Monbiot, Bring On The Apocalypse

I'm not going to wreck it yet by digging further, because I just know that there's going to be something in his political declarations that means I'll have to give him up just a little. Right now? I'm crushing pretty hard on George Monbiot, whose collection Bring On The Apocalypse: Essays on Self-destruction has over the last few days been making me unreasonably happy in the midst of my broad anger about matters environmental and political.

At bottom, Monbiot is a funny, wickedly smart guy who's not afraid of doing some research so that when he swings at a pitch, he swings for the fences. When you read his essays is great gulps, as you can here, it gets overwhelming, in all kinds of ways. To wit:
  • If someone who writes this incisively can be ignored by policy-makers, we really are screwed.
  • With Monbiot writing so effectively, why are the rest of us not just posting his columns on politicians' doors, or tattooing them on each other's skins, rather than mumbling away in what might as well be our separate premature dotages?
In 2005, for example, he seems to have written the following: "the staggering returns the banks made this year should not have been treated as profits at all, but as money that might have protected them, and us, against bad loans when the next recession arrives" (p.171).

Rather than repeating the standard conspiracy-sounding line about the World Bank being a tool for American hegemony, Monbiot goes through the archives to find its founders saying almost exactly this, thus defusing the tinfoil-hat objections normally deployed to good effect by neoconservatives (and I think neoliberals as well, though "neoliberal" is rather like "bourgeois" in being an apparently meaningful word for others and yet beyond my brain's ability to make sense of it).

He even offers a wonderfully compressed explanation of why it's such a mistake to use the "undiscovered medicines" argument in seeking to protect wild areas: "By arguing for biodiversity on the grounds of human need, ... conservationists play into the hands of their enemies" (p.54). Monbiot's answer, ingeniously, is to reach for aesthetics and the non-rational. If the world would be a poorer place if an old painting or a rare book were to be destroyed, the same argument can and should be made in defense of endangered species and places.

It's a whole series of case studies, this book, in how to unpack a shallow argument, explode it, and plant your own conception in its place. Brilliant stuff, and for once I don't think the blurbs are over-reaching. Andrew Nikiforuk, writing in the Globe and Mail, suggested that Monbiot's previous book Heat "throws out more intellectual challenges by the page than the Canadian media does in a year": unrealistic, sure, but this book demonstrates how public intellectuals ought to carry themselves, even if Monbiot's technically a journalist rather than an intellectual.

Bring on the revolution.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Michael Chabon, Thrilling!

I'm not clear, honestly, just how to take the title of this volume: McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales!, which has no exclamation mark but (if there were justice in the world) really should. Everything Eggers, of course, is ironic without being, you know, iRONic, and you're supposed to feel dumb if you can't find another name for it, but ... it's self-ironizing nostalgia whose structure is intended to protect the writer/lover from accusations of both empty ironizing and undue genuineness.

Which is fine, I guess. It's fun, and games make the world worth playing, if you will.

Where was I?

Right. Reviewing Michael Chabon's edited volume of McSweeney's Quarterly, from 2002, of avowedly genre short stories, with a distinctly genius introduction about contemporary fiction.

Someone recently pointed me toward George Orwell's thoughts on book reviews, in which he argues against spending 600 words on every volume, because while a few books deserve much more than that, the majority barely require notice be taken of them. Now, I really enjoyed the Mammoth Treasury, and not just because of its conversation-starting title and cover: some of the stories flat-out rocked. However, others ... filled their pages admirably. With that in mind, here's a sequence of capsule reviews of the volume's short stories.

  1. Jim Shepard, "Tedford and the Megalodon": a brilliant start, introducing the themes of (a) obsession and (b) nature's opacity, in the form of an unknown species of giant shark
  2. Glen David Gold, "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter": circus fiction, featuring elephants, vengeance, and clowning -- good stuff
  3. Dan Chaon, "The Bees": horror via the circularities of time -- meh
  4. Kelly Link, "Catskin": fantasy plus the collective unconscious, but otherwise WTF, in the bad way
  5. Elmore Leonard, "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman": all kinds of awesome fun, with riffs on racism, being A Product of One's Time, and odd characters
  6. Carol Emshwiller, "The General": SF or alt history, about an immigrant general turned mutineer who's hunted for his crimes -- a highlight of the volume, for me, even if I felt like I'd read it before
  7. Neil Gaiman, "Closing Time": the best pure ghost story of the volume, an absolute classic that's been steeped thoroughly enough in this hoary genre to seem both ancient and new
  8. Nick Hornby, "Otherwise Pandemonium": of which I was of two minds, both loving the concept and setting (both of which need to surprise you), but far from enamoured of the narrator (who I found tiresome)
  9. Stephen King, "The Tale of Gray Dick": another reason that Stephen King should just go to hell already and leave me alone, thank you very much, since I haven't forgiven him for the execrable, book-destroying trick ending of Under the Dome
  10. Michael Crichton, "Blood Doesn't Come Out": hard-boiled detective fiction like they've given up writing now, but with an ending that moves unhelpfully outside genre expectations
  11. Laurie King, "Weaving the Dark": a story that for me didn't at all fit with the others, but is nonetheless a really impressive work about a woman progressing toward blindness who still sees some things clearly
  12. Chris Offutt, "Chuck's Bucket": exactly the kind of thing that belongs in this volume, complete with time travel, madcap inventors, and metafiction
  13. Dave Eggers, "Down the Mountain Coming Down Slowly": explorer fiction, if I had to guess its genre, but it's a wonderful story about the ignorant climbing of Kilimanjaro, and one climber's coming to social awareness
  14. Michael Moorcock, "The Case of the Nazi Canary:" Hitler! unspeakable sexual peccadilloes! zeppelins! alternate history!
  15. Aimee Bender, "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers": chilling little noir detective action, combined with the macabre
  16. Sherman Alexie, "Ghost Dance": let me use capitals, so there's no mistake about what I mean -- HOLY SHIT, WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION ALL ON ITS BLOODY, ANTI-COLONIALIST, ZOMBIE-LOVING OWN
  17. Harlan Ellison, "Goodbye to All That": meh, though some will love it
  18. Karen Joy Fowler, "Private Grave 9": an awkward fit, though interesting enough, if I might damn the story with faint praise
  19. Rick Moody, "The Albertine Notes": slow to get going, but overall the second-best story in the collection behind Alexie's, and fricking awesome in so VERY many ways
  20. Michael Chabon, "The Planetary Agent, a Martian Romance": really a fun, Eggersy kind of story about a North America which never left Britain's orbit via revolution, and in which Custer died not at the Little Bighorn but in an attempt to revive the 1776 Revolution, but with zeppelins and hangings.

All of which means ... awesomeness, but in more pages than it should have been. And some readers are harsher than I am.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Jim Lynch, Truth Like the Sun

The capsule review first: While Jim Lynch’s newly released novel Truth Like the Sun didn’t give me the sense of wonder that I got from his Border Songs, it ought to find a wide and interested audience. It offers a deeply engaging intersection of stories from the 1962 World’s Fair with stories from Seattle’s municipal election nearly forty years later, especially a young reporter’s efforts to bring these stories together, and in consequence it’ll excite readers with all sorts of interests. If I didn’t have Border Songs to compare it to, I’d call this a wonderful novel, because for most authors it would be -- but I’m left feeling like Lynch is a terrific writer whose current novel is very good, but who found magic last time.

Right, moving on to the longer review.

As it happens, my home equips me properly to review Truth Like the Sun, Jim Lynch’s new novel about (among other things) the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Attentive readers of this blog will know that I live just outside Seattle, really in the outer ambit of Greater Seattle.

And while by “just outside Seattle” I actually mean Canada, nearly three hours away by high-speed catamaran, I say this because Seattle -- like America more broadly -- has always been symbolically important for people in BC. It’s the closest outpost of America The Beautiful, and hence the largest city nearest to us; it’s Sleepless in Seattle, for Pete’s sake, and it’s both Microsoft (damn you!) and Starbucks (…reluctant appreciation…). Victoria novelists regularly take their characters to Seattle, most recently Robert Wiersema in his brilliant recent novel Bedtime Story, so it’s a shadow presence even at home here.

But I don’t know Seattle, not at all. Obviously Cherie Priest’s steampunk Boneshaker doesn’t represent contemporary Seattle, what with the zombies and the airships and whatnot, but I’m a little nervous about judging the verisimilitude of Jim Lynch’s Seattle in Truth Like the Sun. Specifically, I don’t have a clue about whether the assorted criminality has any connection to reality: I can’t imagine Lynch could get away with imposing criminal profiles on characters from the World’s Fair, since 50 years isn’t really that long, and it shouldn’t have mattered to me, but somehow I got distracted repeatedly anyway.

Let’s get past the quibbles, though. In Truth Like the Sun, Lynch generates a whole roster of believable, interesting characters, and routes them through a manageably complex plot that will keep readers engaged all the way to the powerful closing pages. The advertisers lionized in Mad Men weren’t the only people in the 1960s inventing the modern world, and Lynch delivers a wonderful portrait of an entirely different group of dreamers.

I do wish some characters at the Post-Intelligencer had been a little less stock, and I wish Roger Morgan’s closest family in 1962 had been portrayed with more precision, but you can’t have it all. It’s a novel that I kept imagining on screen, so I do hope it gets optioned, and not just because Lynch’s Meredith Stein is the sexiest 60s woman since Christina Hendricks’ Joan, though Meredith’s an example of how well Lynch can bring together all kinds of angles.

But I want to close this review, perhaps oddly, by remembering a different novel, namely Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road. The further I get from my reading of Hooton’s debut, the fonder I get of it, and Lynch’s Truth Like the Sun helped clarify my response to Deloume Road. Basically, Lynch’s novel is fast-moving and stuffed with characters and light on extraneous detail, and in consequence it’s an easy book to get excited about; Hooton’s novel is deliberate, and so short of characters as to be nearly claustrophobic, and obsessively detailed, and in consequence I came away feeling like I’d be a better person if I could just love it uncomplicatedly.

You know what? Hooton’s is a complicated, demanding novel, and I’m coming around to the idea that my relationship to it should be complicated as well. I didn’t devote the time to it that I might have, while I was reading it, but Deloume Road is a valuable enough book that it’s continuing to force me to devote time to think about it, weeks later.

Where does that leave Truth Like the Sun, given that I’ve just complimented Hooton’s novel for being hard to engage with, and given that I’ve called Lynch’s novel easy to get excited about? Can a novel be too easy to get excited about, and if one can, is Lynch’s that novel? Let me answer it this way: I really enjoyed Truth Like the Sun, and I’ll bet that it pleases just about everyone who tries it. Totally worth your time.
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Disclosure: I want to thank Inkwell Management for providing an ARC to a humble blogger, especially without offering even a hint of what they'd like a possible review to say. That's how you do literary PR, people!