Monday, December 31, 2007

2007, A Year in Reading: Worst Books of the Year

And now, finally, something that I really think more bloggers and newspapers should do: the year's least worthy reads. To be honest, this year's list is paltry, both in its length and in the awfulness of its members. With the exception of the year's biggest turkey, none of these books approach the awfulness of some of stinkers I've read in recent years. Perhaps I'm developing a better radar for awfulness.

Unlike the previous two lists, this list is presented in ascending order of suckitude:
  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley

    I'm not entirely convinced that this book is objectively bad so much as that I am the absolutely worst possible reader for it. Parts of it are not much more than a thinly disguised travel narrative, in which the narrator, his aunt, and an eccentric priest, tromp around Turkey in the fifties--but I don't like travel writing. Those parts of it that have more than a thin dusting of plot are concerned with one of three issues: the narrator's religious crisis and his aunt's attempts to bring Christianity to the heathens; the position of women in Islamic countries and the narrator's aunt's attempts to better it through missionary work; the narrator's crisis of conscience, brought on by an adulterous (and, as it turns out only a few pages before the novel's end, homosexual) relationship. All of these plotlines assume that the readers have a certain perspective--Christian, colonial, homophobic--that I simply can't sympathize with, and Macauley does absolutely nothing to persuade us that these are the correct opinions to hold (in fact, on occasion her unthinking condescension was almost enough to dissuade me from opinions I do hold--I do agree that the misogyny she describes in Turkey is worse than the Western kind, but her arrogant, wholesale dismissal of Turkish culture made it impossible for me to sympathize with her characters on this point). This may have been an enjoyable book for its time and place, but for me it was nothing more than an unpleasant glimpse of a mindset that I want nothing to do with.

  • The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

    Or, what happens when someone with barely a fraction of his talent tries to emulate China MiƩville. So, yes, elaborately detailed fantasy world ruled over by a morally ambiguous aristocracy, with lots of gore and gruesomeness thrown in and a main character who is refreshingly irreverent (refreshing, that is, if you haven't read any fantasy over the last five years). But: the writing is barely serviceable. But: the characters are mostly cardboard cutouts, except for the main character and a few of his friends, who are annoying. But: there are maybe 200 pages of plot in a 400 page novel, and that not particularly interesting. But: the worldbuilding here is almost nonexistent, veering wildly between unthinking acceptance of medieval fantasy tropes and supposedly revisionist innovations on same which clash horribly with one another, so that we end up, for example, with a society in which women can rule, own property, and go to battle, but in which it is still a terrible thing to have an illegitimate child. As far as I can tell, there's nothing here but some inventive creation of alien races and situations, and for the life of me I can't understand why this novel and its sequels have been praised so highly.

  • Till Human Voices Wake Us by Mark Budz

    I have a review of this dull, poorly written, incoherent novel forthcoming and I don't want to step on it too much, so I'll just sum it up with the SMS I sent Strange Horizons reviews editor Niall Harrison several weeks ago: "I just got off a plane to New York. I had to choose between finishing the Budz novel and watching Evan Almighty. It was a tough call."

  • Streaking by Brian Stableford

    I'm not entirely comfortable with awarding Stableford the year's biggest turkey spot. On the one hand, clearly I did not read a worse novel than Streaking in 2007. This story about a supposedly preternaturally lucky Yorkshire earl whose luck will turn if he doesn't father a child gets everything wrong. The characters are nonexistent, most of them are stupid, and the minor ones are so thoroughly enslaved to the demands of the plot that they might as well be aliens for all that their actions make any sense as examples of human behavior. The dialogue is atrocious, but only slightly better than the narrative voice, and about halfway through the whole story grinds to halt for the sake of interminable discussions of the genetic component of the protagonist's lucky streak. Not, that is, that the plot was worth paying attention to in the first place--for a novel that clearly seeks to emulate the jet-setting hi-jinks of Fleming and his ilk, it is singularly lacking in tension, and most of the protagonist's problems resolve themselves quite neatly without forcing him to lift a finger.

    All that said, some novels are so bad that they go through bad and out the other side into delightful camp. Streaking is almost a parody of itself and of the kind of male wish-fulfillment fantasy it so obviously is. After all, how can you hate a novel that gives us such lines as "his former way of life was coming to an irrevocable end, within a maelstrom of possibilities and impossibilities that was dragging him inexorably along into an unanticipatable future," or "The food for thought she had fed him had given him terrible mental indigestion"? This is bad writing brought to the level of an artform.
Dishonorable mentions:

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 64 books in 2007, which is once again a drop from the previous year. Given, however, that in 2007 I started working full-time for the first time, I think the drop was to be expected, and that it is a great deal smaller than it might have been. More importantly, if 2006 was a disappointing reading year, with barely any remarkable reads to report, 2007 has been, on the whole, a great improvement. Most of the books I read this year were worthwhile--not always exceptional, but almost always worth the time and energy I had invested in them. In last year's best books post I sadly reported the many occasions on which I'd turned the last page in a book and put it aside without sparing it another thought. That was a less common occurrence this year, which pleases me immensely. I'd like to read more books in 2008, but I'll settle for reading just as many worthy ones.

And so, the year's best reads, in alphabetical order of the author's name:
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

    Octavian Nothing is a book that subtly, quietly, without drawing much attention to itself, breaks your heart. It's an almost impressionistic narrative of sorrow and despair, a muted, soft spoken account of horrific cruelty. It's got a plot worth noting, too: narrator Octavian is brought up in pre-revolutionary Boston by natural philosophers seeking to study the African's susceptibility to education and culture. In the wake of the discovery that he and his mother are slaves, Octavian makes several attempts to rebel against his fate, at one point even running away to join the revolutionary fighting forces (an interesting sub-plot in the novel focuses on the importance of capitalism--and the right to own people--to the revolutionary cause even as some of the people fighting for it repudiate slavery). But the novel lives in its quieter moments, in its exploration of Octavian's misery and the hopelessness of his situation. A sequel is in the works, and the title suggests that Octavian has adventures ahead of him, but even if neither of these were true, Anderson's novel would be worth reading simply for the unflinching way it gazes into an unspeakably ugly chapter of human history.

  • Ink: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan

    Or, to be precise, the entire Book of All Hours, comprising Ink and its preceding volume, 2006's Vellum. Neither stands on its own, and in fact I was somewhat underwhelmed by Vellum when I read it last year--Duncan's literary pyrotechnics impressed me but left me cold. Ink not only resolves and ties together the many plotlines established in Vellum, it also creates a more-or-less coherent narrative out of them. The result was to retroactively raise Vellum in my estimation, to suck me into its world and make me care about its characters. From a cool, yet ultimately cold, work, Ink turns The Book of All Hours into a sweeping epic, a genuine joy to read. The plot is far too tangled to describe--it involves parallel universes, alternate histories, gods, demons, a book that describes all of human history and the people (usually multiple versions of the same archetype) who seek to rewrite it. Miraculously, it all comes together into something that not only makes sense but is appealing on the simple level of a love story--the whole grand exercise can be said to boil down to two people finding each other. A significant portion of what makes Ink (and Vellum) worth reading is the satisfaction in watching Duncan accomplish something very difficult with only a few missteps, but in the end he's also told a good story--which elevates The Book of All Hours from admirable to excellent.

  • Intuition by Allegra Goodman

    I think this is probably the book of 2007, and all the more enjoyable for coming completely out of left field. I wasn't expecting great things from a novel about political maneuvering in a cancer research lab, but Goodman's novel blindsided me. Devastatingly smart, impeccably well-written and characterized, and never less than fascinating, it's a cut above not only the rest of the books I read this year but also most of the other books on this list. Goodman has the gift of delving into a pocket universe--in this case, a lab thrown into turmoil when one post-doc's promising results are questioned by another--and making its insignificant squabbles seem momentous and earth-shattering. Intuition is a passionate novel about a subject that most of us tend to think of as dispassionate and even boring. With a minimum of fuss, Goodman explores everything from the politics of alleged meritocracies, through gender dynamics in academia, to the chaos that ensues when outside interests start interfering with research. She's also a dab hand at characterization, peopling her novel with vivid, three-dimensional characters, most of whom are unlikable but also so true to life that we can't help but feel for them. Reading Intuition is like examining a drop of water under a microscope--what seems like tranquility is actually teeming chaos--and once you've taken a look, it's impossible to turn away.

  • Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

    Millet's novel--equal parts political tract, historical pamphlet, relationship drama, religious fantasy and rollicking comedy--is not the kind of novel one reacts to moderately. In 1947, three scientists intimately involved with the development of the American atom bomb--Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard--are whisked away from the first atomic test and deposited in 2003 Santa Fe. They team up with a depressed librarian and her dubious landscaper husband, and set off on a globe-trotting adventure to explore the ramifications of nuclear proliferation and, ultimately, campaign against it. Take it or leave it, and whatever you do don't read this novel expecting an explanation of the above-mentioned weirdness. Do, however, read Oh Pure and Radiant Heart for Millet's exquisite prose and her sharp sense of humor, for her delicate exploration of characters both historical and imaginary, for the fascinating history of nuclear proliferation she interweaves with the narrative, and ultimately, for her courage in telling such a ludicrous, nonsensical story and never losing faith in it. I have reservations about the novel's ending, which reestablishes the familiar status quo, but even they aren't enough to undercut its powerful effect.

  • James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

    Talk about unoriginal: everyone and their sister have praised Phillips's biography to high heavens, most of them when it came out in hardcover last year, and I'm such an infrequent reader of both nonfiction and biography (I think it's possible that Phillips's book is the first biography I've ever read) that I don't know what I can add to their words. Phillips takes a fascinating story--the life of Alice B. Sheldon: explorer, artist, soldier, intelligence agent, psychologist, author--and presents it with a comprehensiveness that is all the more impressive for seeming so effortless. She covers everything from Sheldon's family history (her parents, and mother especially, were as fascinating as she was) to analysis of her fiction and correspondence, under the Tiptree alias, with luminaries of the 70s SF scene. The picture she paints of Sheldon is that of a brilliant, conflicted woman at odds with her upbringing, her sexuality, perhaps even her gender. I'm not sure how accurate Phillips's reading is, but it is certainly well-presented, and for those three of you who still haven't read this book: do so now.

  • Whites by Norman Rush

    I've already listed two of the six stories from this collection in yesterday's best stories post, so it is perhaps not too surprising that the collection itself gets a nod on the best books list. Rush, the author of two sprawling, digressive, borderline-plotless and utterly brilliant novels, turns out to be equally--perhaps even more--gifted at writing short stories. The pieces here are polished to a jewel-like sheen, every word and sentence in their place and not one unnecessary instance of either. Rush's strongly-plotted stories explore the lives of ex-pats in 1980s Botswana without ever descending into moralizing. Story comes first, and it is through story, not in spite of it, that Rush makes his political points.

  • Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery

    Possibly the most benevolent, kind-hearted novel I've read this year, which is an odd thing to say about a story that ends with the alien conquest of Earth. The truth is that plot is the least compelling reason to read Spaceman Blues, and even its main character, Wendell Apogee, is less interesting than the stuff that goes on the novel's sidelines and borders, the minor characters whom Slattery explores with an intimacy that belies the novel's slim page count. Slattery loves his characters--victims and villains, criminals and cops, native New Yorkers and immigrants, humans and aliens. He delves into their souls and exposes their secret desires, makes us love them too and wish for good things for them. But the greatest love in the novel is towards New York itself--or at least Slattery's somewhat fictionalized and mythologized version of it, complete with an underworld suspended by steel cables from the city's roots--which Slattery explores with painstaking affection, describing its neighborhoods, history, rivalries, and landmarks. The result is an exuberant, exhilarating, intense novel.
Honorable mentions:

Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007, A Year in Reading: Best Short Stories of the Year

Earlier this year I read Annie Proulx's third short story collection, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2. Most of the pieces in it were appealing but underbaked--too long or too short, too detailed or not detailed enough. None of them had the power of the story that still has me fascinated with Proulx as a writer, "Brokeback Mountain." Reading Bad Dirt made me realize that it is possible for a writer to peak with a work only a few pages long, and I think it's worth recognizing accomplishments on that level even when the collections or anthologies they were plucked from aren't worthy of the same notice.

Though many of these stories were originally published in magazines, I read them almost exclusively in collected form. Which means that almost none of them were published in 2007 (and that this list is therefore useless as far as Hugo or Nebula nominations go). My rules, however, are the same ones I use for my lists of best and worst novels of the year: I have to have read the work for the first time in 2007, regardless of when it was published. Unfortunately, this means that Dorothy Parker's miraculous piece "The Standard of Living," which I first read in high school, and rediscovered this year in the otherwise enjoyable but not stellar The Portable Dorothy Parker, didn't make the cut. I urge you to track it down regardless--it's a smart, funny, and deeply sad story about the way we use imagination to deal with our quiet desperation.

And now, my favorite short stories from 2007:
  • "Yellow Card Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi, from Asimov's, December 2006

    Paolo Bacigalupi has been showing up in the short fiction categories of SF awards ballots for several years now. He's well on his way to demonstrating, yet again, that within genre it is still possible to make a name of oneself by writing exclusively in the short form. I've never disliked any of his pieces, but I've also never loved them as much as some people (most especially the Hugo and Nebula voters) seem to. Until, that is, I read "Yellow Card Man." Writing about this year's Hugo-nominated novelettes, I found it difficult to choose between Bacigalupi's story and the other two standouts on the ballot, Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" (PDF) and Ian McDonald's "The Djinn's Wife." Six months later, the other two stories have faded, but "Yellow Card Man" remains as vivid in my memory as it was the day I read it. It's a brutal story--in its description of the massacre that sends its protagonist, the Malaysian-Chinese Tranh, into exile in Thailand, leaving behind the bodies of his family and the ruins of his business; in its depiction of the lives of refugees, the titular yellow card people, in near-future Bangkok; in its exploration of the toll that poverty, hunger, fear and desperation take on men's souls. "Yellow Card Man" is, at one and the same time, a story about the triumph of the human spirit, and about the dehumanizing effect that cruelty can have on its victims. What's truly exceptional about it is that both themes are expressed through the same person, and through the same breathtaking choice he makes at the story's end--which has continued to trouble and fascinate me for months. With a single story, Paolo Bacigalupi has made me into a fan, and I can't wait for his upcoming collection, Pump Six.

  • "Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower" by Susanna Clark, from The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
    Runner-up: "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham, from Logorrhea, edited by John Klima

    Some stories just hit your buttons in all the right ways. Both of these stories are variants on the folk tale convention of a simple, unimportant person triumphing over a great and powerful ruler. They struck a chord with me because in both cases, the protagonist is slightly geeky person living a quiet, perhaps even dull, life, who triumphs over adversity not by rejecting either their geekiness or their dullness, but by embracing it--by using their brains and the knowledge they've accumulated. Clarke's story is told through the diary entries of the young vicar Mr. Simonelli, who, upon his arrival at a new living makes the acquaintance of a local fairy and soon finds himself forced to protect the women of the parish from his attentions. Abraham (author of the impressive Nebula-nominated short "Flat Diane") centers his story around Olaf Neddelsohn, dedicated public servant and money changer, who has the misfortune of crossing paths with the debauched and amoral Lord Iron when the latter tries to use him as a the butt of a joke. The result, in both cases, is a thoroughly satisfying yarn that also says some interesting things about human nature. It's not just good that triumphs over evil in both stories, but ordinariness coming face to face with wonder and making a compromise with it--one that leaves both Mr. Simonelli and Olaf Neddelsohn altered, but still fundamentally geeky, quiet, and utterly admirable. Clarke's story wins out because it also features her trademark pastiche of the regency novel, which never fails to win me over, but both stories are worth reading.

  • "A Billion Eves" by Robert Reed, from Asimov's, October/November 2006

    Reed's meaty, thought-provoking novella is everything that political storytelling should be but so rarely is. It's a story about rejecting religious dogma and escaping religious persecution that manages to bring across the dangerous power of both without resorting to wild-eyed, froth-mouthed priests. Its protagonist, Kala, grows up in a permissive, liberal branch of a church founded by a terrible crime--the kidnapping of a hundred women into a parallel Earth to act as unwilling 'wives' to one man--which, over the years, has come to be glorified as the ultimate form of religious worship. In Kala's society, such 'colonizations' are common--and though such acts are officially frowned upon, so is kidnapping women in order to populate these new worlds. Without resorting to Handmaid's Tale-esque histrionics, Reed describes a world in which women have rights and opportunities, but whose culture is permeated by the perception of them as, first and foremost, a commodity--something to be carried, or bought, or stolen. He also draws a parallel between the unthinking misogyny of Kala's society and the rampant ecological destruction it wreaks when dominant weed strains are carried from one Earth to its parallel. Ultimately, it's up to Kala and her friends and family to find a way to escape the conventions they were raised in--to make a truly new world, not just another copy of their imperfect one.

  • "Bruns" and "Thieving" by Norman Rush, from Whites

    There's something slightly misleading in saying that these two stories are the best of Rush's short but exceptional collection--it's not as if the other pieces in it are bad or even less than fantastic. Nevertheless, in a field of excellence--characterized by Rush's beautiful prose, his sharp sense of humor, and his seemingly boundless compassion for human frailty--these two stand out. As I've said before, "Bruns" reads like a dry run for Rush's 1991 novel, Mating. Like that novel, it's narrated by an anthropologist who reports in a tone that is both dry and exuberant on the happenings in a small Botswana town, torn between the impulse to render an objective report and her own moral judgments of the people involved. The title character is a dedicated, possibly deranged foreign aid worker who manages to defeat a local Boer power-broker by making an unbelievable sacrifice. "Bruns" is either a terribly grim comedy or a slyly funny tragedy, both hopeful and hopeless. It's an insane story about an insane situation. "Thieving" is less hyperbolic but no less powerful. It's the story of Paul, a young man who becomes a thief in spite of himself (because, as he ultimately becomes convinced, God wants him to be one), and through him an examination of the question of property and morality in post-colonial Africa. Is the injunction against thieving a fundamental moral truth, or is it something imposed by Africans by their colonizers? Either way, is it really wrong for Africans to steal from people who have stolen so much from them? This is not to create the impression that "Thieving" is an earnest, philosophical piece. It's as funny, irreverent, and direct as "Bruns," and its conclusion is just as triumphant.

  • "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell, from Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King, and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

    I don't know what I can add to the gushing praise I heaped on this story only a few weeks ago, so I'll just say again: this is a remarkably self-assured piece of genre writing from a non-genre author, a refreshing twist on the many stories about young children and the social strata they form when they come together, and, mostly, a really good story about wolf-girls being trained to act human. What's remarkable about Russell's piece, apart from the fact that she's a good, and occasionally quite funny, writer, is her confidence in her imaginary premise, her willingness to sustain its integrity all the way to the end. At no point does she offer the readers a decoder ring--they have to accept the story as it is told (and then note the ways in which it reflects real-world issues, such as 'educational' institutes in which Inuit or aboriginal children were forced to forget their native culture, or the role of education in enforcing traditional gender roles). But Russell's story isn't remarkable simply because it originates outside of genre. It's a touching, exceptionally well-made story, and I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

  • "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton, from The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, edited by Roxana Robinson

    In my short fiction reading, 2007 was Edith Wharton's year. I read several dozen of her pieces, from stories to novellas, and though all of them were worth my time it was only at the very end of my forays that I found a piece I considered remarkable. I think Wharton's talents were better suited to larger canvases. She has a tendency towards melodrama that is tempered in her novels--perhaps because the longer format forced her to explore her subjects and characters more intimately and in greater detail--but which comes to the fore in her short fiction. "Roman Fever," though an unoriginal choice, is the exception. It's very different from the other Wharton stories I read this year--concentrated, intimate, stripped-down. There are no elaborate family histories, no framing devices, no lengthy narrative passages. It's almost modern. It takes place on a single afternoon, in a single location, and describes two middle-aged women as they, motivated mostly by boredom, expose the rotten foundations of their decades-old friendship and tear it asunder. From its gorgeous opening sentence, the story never lets up, and it is absolutely devastating.
That's it for 2007's short stories. I have high hopes for 2008, which will see the publication of not only Paolo Bacigalupi's previously mentioned collection, but also a new collection by Kelly Link. Tune in tomorrow and the next day for the year's best and worst books.

Friday, December 21, 2007

World of Warcraft Courts the Geek Demographic

Which seems redundant.  But then, so is saying "I'm William Shatner, and I'm a shaman."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Well, They Are Back

Following up on previous reports to the contrary, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh are back onboard for the Hobbit movie.

Two things in that press release that trouble me:
  1. A Hobbit sequel is in the works as well.
  2. Jackson and Walsh are acting as executive producers. There's no word on whether they're going to adapt the book as they did for The Lord of the Rings, or whether Jackson is going to direct the films.
To be honest, I don't care that much about The Hobbit and whether it gets a decent film treatment, but I'd hate to see Jackson and Walsh wasting their time. One King Kong was bad enough.

(On a personal note, I realize it's been quiet around these parts. That may not change until the end of the month--though obviously the end-of-year roundups will appear on schedule--but I have lots of good stuff planned for January.)

Monday, December 03, 2007

In Which I Am Curmudgeonly

First a bit of background for non-Israelis: YES is an Israeli satellite TV carrier known for their elaborate, lavish commercials. Two years ago, I thought these had hit an ethical nadir with the following (the commercial is mostly in English, which is something else I tend to grumble about):

Impossible though it may seem to top a commercial set in a Vietnamese torture camp for crassness and insensitivity, I believe this one, for YES's upcoming HD transmissions, ably manages the task:

(This one might need a bit of explaining for non-Hebrew speakers: the ultra orthodox characters have condemned HDTV as an abomination, and are singing about how it's against the Torah--because all the Shiksah women look so great--and we'll all go to hell because of it.)

Now, at first glance it may seem that a commercial mocking Orthodox Jews' tendency to exclude and denounce anything new and unfamiliar is a great deal less offensive than a commercial in which POWs sing and dance with their (offensively drawn) captors, but at least with the YES Impact commercial I could tell myself that the people involved were too removed from the reality of this particular experience, which enabled them to make a joke out of something horrible (I believe something similar happened with a commercial in Asia, which made light of the Holocaust, though I can't remember the exact circumstances). The HD commercial doesn't have that excuse. It is, quite deliberately, attacking a segment of the Israeli population, and it can do so with impunity because a) the segment in question doesn't watch TV and b) the rest of us don't like them very much, for a whole host of good reasons which include, but are not limited to, the fact that they don't want us to watch TV either. Or vote, or wear the wrong kind of clothes, read the wrong kind of books, get married later than 19 or have less than 12 children, worship according to our own conscience, and so on and so forth.

But therein lies the problem. As my mother likes to say, one has to live in Israel to be properly anti-semitic, and the divide between justifiable resentment of the Ultra-Orthodox's determination to impose their worldview on the rest of us (such as, just recently, when their protests managed to scuttle the Jerusalem gay pride parade, protests announced with posters much like the ones the characters in the HD commercial are seen putting up) and statements like why do they have to have so many kids, and why can't they get jobs, and why do my tax shekels have to support them, with their attendant disturbing undertones, is extremely permeable. Commercials like the one above feed on what's ugliest in Israeli society (in any society, I suspect). Worse than that, they manage to turn people who simply do not deserve my sympathy into underdogs.

If any company but an Israeli one had made such a commercial, they'd be called anti-semitic. It's not alright if an Israeli company does it.