Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 10: Jeffrey Ford and Lucy Sussex

Yes, I do actually still have a few more pieces to offer you.

Jeffrey Ford:

Here are some of the books that I enjoyed in 2007. They are in no particular order of preference save the first.

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov was the best book I read in 2007. It’s a collection of stories based on the author’s time spent in the Siberian labor camps. It’s both a testament to survival in the face of the most brutal and degrading existence and an incredible work of art.

Lunar Park by Brent Easton Ellis is a title Jeff VanderMeer turned me onto – a contemporary horror story of psychological and supernatural terror. There are some parts of this book that are hysterical and some that are out and out creepy. Ellis delves into the themes of family and fame and the writing life. Way better than I ever thought it might be.

Generation Loss by Liz Hand is a dark, gritty thriller from one of my favorite writers. Hand expertly navigates new territory here. Maine, the setting of the novel, becomes a kind of threatening character itself. The tension builds throughout but doesn’t dissipate even after the final revelation.

Black Sheep by Ben Peek, a first novel from an Australian writer, is a dystopian tale with a great irony at its heart. At one and the same time, it is about the loss of identity at the hands of a totalitarian racial protocol but also, and more importantly, a journey of self-discovery for the protagonist, Isao. Peek’s got a good, clear, writing style. Looking forward to seeing further books from him.

Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson was a re-discovery for me, literally. I found my copy when I was cleaning my garage this past summer. Poetic, funny, surreal, and beautifully grim, this book’s stories explore the physical realities of the body in metaphor. Just a wonderful book in every way possible. A classic.

Softspoken by Lucius Shepard is an idiosyncratic turn on the Southern Gothic; a quiet, subtle ghost story that slowly builds to an explosive resolution. Great writing here – spare and beautiful. Terrific descriptions of the everyday.

Tin House, vol.#9, Fantastic Women Issue has great work by Kelly Link, Shelley Jackson, Lydia Millet, Rikki Ducornet, etc. This single issue of the magazine is every bit a great anthology.

Under My Roof by Nick Mamatas is a crack and a half. Having grown up on Long Island, I can tell you that even though this novel is a kind of satire, Mamatas captures the heart of the place and these times. Great facility with language.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard was listed number one on National Geographic's list of the best hundred non-fiction adventure books of all time. The author was the youngest member of the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole. Read this one in summer and you won’t even notice the heat. Unforgettable.

The Dog Said Bow-Wow by Michael Swanwick. I was a big fan of Swanwick’s Tales of Old Earth collection, but I think he outdoes himself in this new one. 16 stories that run the gamut from Science Fiction to Fantasy to Horror – dinosaurs, voodoo, Venus, a fairy land bordello, and the great Surplus and Darger.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada is a subtle, quiet, but altogether harrowing horror story from the newish line of Japanese titles from Vertical Books. A man who is recently out of a job and a marriage takes up residence in an office building. During the day there are people there working, but at night he and one other person, a strange woman, live in the giant complex. In his searching for a job he travels back to a neighborhood he used to live in as a child and discovers his parents, who he knows died many years earlier. A dreamy creep show. Loved this book.

The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron. Barron is stylistically versatile and his stories cover a wide range of dark themes. His writing draws you in from the first line and you’re hooked just by the flow of language before the plot even kicks in.

Lucy Sussex:

The Archimedes Codex: Revealing the Secrets of the World's Greatest Palimpsest by Reviel Netz and William Noel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Netz is an expert on science history, Noel is a curator of rare texts. What draws them to collaborate here is the Archimedes Codex, a major work by the founder of science. It was thought lost, until rediscovered as a palimpsest—a manuscript partially erased, then written over by a medieval monk. The Codex was bought by an unknown collector for 2 million dollars in 1998. He deposited it at the Walters Art Museum, and a major conservation process began. How much of Archimedes’ thought could be retrieved from the palimpsest? As Netz and Noel reveal, a surprising amount, using cutting edge imaging from the spy and astronomy fields. They contribute separate chapters, Netz on the significance of the Codex for science, Noel on the history of the book. He tends to a jokey self-deprecation, while Netz writes with the simplicity and directness of the science explicator. What the reader gains from Netz is amazement at Archimedes’ pioneering thought, and from Noel equal amazement that the book exists at all. The Archimedes Codex survived the collapse of ancient civilization, fire, wars, and near obliteration. A fascinating read.

New Legend: A Story of Law and Culture and the FIght for Self Determination in the Kimblerey by Kimberley (Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre)

Unlike many books on Aborigines, this project originated with the people themselves. The purpose is to transmit the Indigenous voice and issues of the Kimberley region. Thus legends and oral history appear, but also the fight for self-determination, and to maintain their culture. Some voices are well known in the white culture, like Pat Dodson and Peter Yu, others are respected elders. From New Legend the reader gains a sense of the Kimberly history, the work of Land Councils, arts and language preservation. The past is important, it defines the speakers, but they also have an eye on coming generations and the region’s future. Part of the process of celebration and rejuvenation is festivals, which are lavishly and beautifully illustrated here. The only criticism is that it should come with a DVD.

When Red Is Black by Qiu Xiaolong (Sceptre)

Qui Xiaolong’s subject matter is China, as seen through the prism of police work. His title refers to Cultural Revolution terminology, red meaning virtuous, black for class enemies, capitalists. The irony is that now the categories are reversed. Xiaolong’s detectives Chen and Yu investigate the murder of a dissident writer. Is her killing merely criminal, or politically-motivated? The book is rich in the depiction of ordinary Shanghai citizens, striving to live in a changing China; and also with the sense of the nation’s past. Chen is a writer as well as policeman, fond of quoting classic poetry. Yet he is aware that in the new China both of his professions are being devalued by money-grubbing. At the end of the book, Chen has made his own small step towards dissidence; but also perhaps towards corruption. When Red is Black is crime fiction as mirror of society, the genre at its best.

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