Thursday, September 15, 2011

What I read last summer, part 1

Last December, when I was posting others' essays about their year's reading, listening, and watching, I never got around to writing my own. It's occurred to me that it would suit me better to write about my reading at shorter intervals-- say, seasonally. (Not, of course, that I don't already occasionally post here about what I'm reading.) So what have I been reading this summer, besides James Boyle's "Endowed by Their Creator" and David L. Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time? A hodgepodge, of course. To make the task of reporting a bit less daunting, I'll do just a few titles at a time.

Let me start with Tansy Rayner Roberts' Love and Romanpunk, which I read early in the summer. This slim, elegantly produced volume is the second entry in Twelfth Planets Press's "Twelve Planets" series, which will be offering up twelve small collections by twelve Australian women writers. These are reasonably priced, especially if you get a partial or half subscription to the series (which you can do at Love and Romanpunk features an alternate history that begins with the Roman Empire, in which certain individuals (for instance, Livia, wife of Augustus) are lamias. Lamias, in Roberts' fictional world, are dangerous, vampiric autocrats; but in that world, they are offset by the "Julias," who have "a strength that meant something beyond death to your enemies, and poison in a cup." As you might expect, the Julias engage in deadly, centuries-long battle with the lamias, which is in fact the theme bridging the volume's four stories, each set in a different time and place though all in the same world, whether in Roberts' alternate history or its resulting future.

The first story, "Julia Agrippina's Secret Family Bestiary" is a cleverly structured tale, told through the alphabetically organized "Bestiary" that despite its rigid principle of organization nevertheless facilitates the telling of a sly, dramatic narrative involving fantastical feats of swimming and the fierce assistance of naiads. I can easily imagine Suetonius's (contemporary) readers delighting in this first tale. (English male aristocrats, among the core of Suetonius's  later readers, would probably have loathed it.) I imagine Robert Graves, though, would probably have been charmed by it.
Livia separated the world into those who were of use to her, and those who were expendable. She had a particular hatred for Julias. How could she not, when we had a power she could never understand, a strength that meant something beyond death to your enemies, and poison in a cup? (15) 
The second story, "Lamia Victoriana," begins "The poet's sister has teeth as white as new lace. When she speaks, which is rarely, I feel a shiver down my skin." I don't think I need to add much more to give you an idea of the tone and style of "Lamia Victoriana." I'll merely remark that in this alternate history, the "poet" and his sister are never identified, though the story takes place in Florence, the poet's lover is named Mary, who is pregnant, and the narrator is Mary's sister, Frances "Fanny" Wollstonecraft...

The third story, "The Patrician," is set in the future, in a place called "Nova Ostia," while the fourth story, "The Last of the Romanpunks," also set in the future, takes place on board a Roman-orgy themed zeppelin tavern. As the narrator says, "Of all the watered wine joints in all the world, I had to let myself be trapped on this one. The newly christened Julia Augusta was a two hour round trip across the Sydney skies." (80) Trapped together on a zeppelin programmed to stay aloft for exactly two hours, a pair of ex-lovers, one a lamia, the other a Julia, fight it out to the death.

All great, witty fun. Recommended.

Very early in the summer (really, more like late spring), I read Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Sciencefictional Universe. Before I read the first sentence, I was intensely aware of that "sciencefictional" in the title. The novel begins with the narrator, Charles, holing up in a "time machine" that it is his job to repair. Before long, though, the narrator has classified the time machine in terms of the universe it is "zoned" for-- number 31-- and explicitly states that universe 31 is not zoned for "space opera." The universe in this novel is, indeed, sciencefictional. In fact, while exploring the sf trope of time travel, the novel tells the story of Charles's struggle with his past (i.e., his childhood) and with his feelings about his painfully distant relationships with his parents (who are separated). I will say only that repetition and time-loops take on a whole new meaning in Yu's hands. Everyone, the narrator tells us, has a time machine and is a time machine (though most of these are-- like his-- broken).

Thought-provoking; emotionally painful. Recommended.

At the end of Sycamore Hill, when Richard Butner drove Veronica Schanoes and me to Asheville, we had a bit of time before our flight departures, so the three of us had lunch and spent some time in Asheville's Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe. I bought three books, as I recall, all of them slim. I read one of them, Rikki Ducornet's Netsuke, on the flight back to Seattle, and another of them, Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town: lectures and essays on poetry and writing the week after my return to Seattle. Given its subject matter, Netsuke could have been painful, but the dazzling elegance of its stylish prose gave me ample emotional distance, as did the predominance of present-tense narrative. The tale the novella tells can pretty much be summarized by this description of David, a wealthy sociopath who passes himself off as a psychiatrist solely so that he can fuck emotionally vulnerable, hurting women:
For now all the rest is the edge upon which he glides. It is a necessary edge; he would not know how to live without it. But it is growing sharper and soon it will be razor thin.So there is this edge and on either side the dark water that will someday claim him. There is no way out of it. None that he can see. (28)
The novella shows us David manipulating his wife Aikio and his "patients," constantly juggling his many lies and teetering on the edge until finally, he leaps off it. It's all about treachery, baby.

Recommended for Ducornet fans, for those interested in obsessive personalities, for those who prize beautiful prose. Not recommended for those who find depictions of emotional abuse from the perpetrator's viewpoint triggery.

To be continued...

1 comment:

CJDevall said...

Thanks for the mini-reviews. I was just looking at the Ducornet in the library, wondering if it was worth a try. And you're reminding me to look for How to Live in an SF Universe. I write notes on what to look for, then forget to check them... -Carrie