Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Month In Review and of Things to Come

This has not been a happy, nor productive, month. Second job? Check. Eight to twelve hour days? Check. Forty one days straight? Check. Less pay, time off, and benefits than before? Check. End rant.

I read and reviewed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed this month (which as a hopeful sociology Ph.D. candidate I couldn't help but love) and in a catastrophic computer FAIL, I have nothing to show for it. (I will never trust those work computers again!) I was really happy with that review. I will recreate it as best I can soon.

Fail filled as the month may be, I'm happy with my new book review series, I scored the mother-load from Subterranean Press, (FINALLY!!!) and Franklin Press ( stay tuned...).

In the immediate future I see a beach, and glassware filled with rum and small umbrellas. Past that there is work, Edward Whittemore and Michael Swanwick. If I can persevere through the bad, I think there are better days ahead.

Let the brevity--and heavy overuse of parenthesis--be a sign of my overwhelming exhaustion.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a book of 'ism's: capitalism, socialism, sexism, anarchism, egoism and all of the inherent goods and bads that go along with each. There is apparent allegory between the stories settings and factions with real world powers, civil unrest, and global conflict at the time of the book’s writing, but the strengths of the work can be appreciated far removed from their possible inspirations.

To call the book a work of science fiction will turn some readers off right away, and to the reader who is that shallow and closed minded I say they wouldn't enjoy the subtext anyways. Shevek is a physicist and quiet possibly the brightest of his time. He is a man made by the world he grew up on, Anarres. He seeks a larger community of scientist to push his intellect and expand the development of his field, and such a community can only be found on Urras. What Shevek finds, and what the book develops, is a culture clash that opens eyes to different perspectives and exposes what Shevek thought to be a perfect world to be as marred and flawed as any other.

Anarres, Shevek's world, is one of sharing: everyone works for one another. That shared pain is humanities' bond is Shevek’s defining ideal. There is no such concept as ownership or profit. (Possessive pronouns are foreign to this world. Even when it comes to things as children or ideas; which in turn made me think of many a Bible verses though religious themes are never explicitly explored.) Even Shevek, who has the aforementioned unique knack for physic, spends regular rotations working odd jobs ranging from janitorial to day labor; all for the state.

The people of Anarres see Shevek as a deviant when he expresses a wish to visit and study with the ‘profiteers’ on Urras. He, and his family by association, are made outcast of both thought and reality and deemed ‘egoist’ of the highest degree; the most depraved of insults on Anarres. Anarres prefers isolation as to avoid outside influence on their socialist state and aberrant thinking stands out. Yet it is only in Shevek's leaving Anarres that we see oddities in the system: hierarchies where there previously were none, and people in positions of power when all should be equal.

In his time spent abroad he is shown capitalism, in addition to being introduced to deception and abuse of his naivety. Shevek sees capitalism as a 'prison' that people can afford. It is Le Guin's
presentation that yields such great credibility to the multitude of concepts she explores. There is only explanation of a thought or cultural quark when necessary and 'back-story' as to how things came to be is minimal to non-existent. Since the characters simply act as they do, and all involved treat what may seems a peculiar incident to the reader as the way things are, the reader willingly accepts many a foreign concept. Writers on Le Guin's level don’t seem to need to work as hard as others to suspend disbelief.

I would go so far as to say that world building is Le Guin’s strongest achievement in The Dispossessed; even greater than her social commentary. The level of education on Anarres, or the sexual freedom are easy to digest as no character is ever taken to task over such issues and made to explain a history of how things came to pass or why they live as they do. It’s just the way things are. Le Guin has been a genre writer for so long that perhaps the definition of world building has changed since The Dispossessed publication. The modern overwrought, back-story and history that seems to define world building today is completely absent here and it is that absence that lends strength and believability to the prose. I think it is more of Le Guin’s ‘literary’ merits which lean towards concision and active thought on the reader’s behalf that may keep the majority of modern genre fans away more so than the complex social dynamic she constructs.

How the many social issues manifest themselves in the plot is amazing. Shevek’s meeting of Vea, a beautiful married woman of Urras, is the culmination of opposite views. Vea’s beauty—and all she does to enhance it—forces Shevek to reconsider a popular saying, on Anarres, “Excess is excrement.” Yet it is Vea’s people that consider Shevek amoral even when it is she who suggest a tryst. Vea, and her ideas can perhaps best be summed up with, “Morality is a superstition; like religion. True human nature is to be selfish and to be able to admit it. I don't care about other people and don't want to.” Her willingness to look the other way, and views on the role of the individual and what is their expected contribution to society make for a powerful attraction of opposites with Shevek. And lest you think all matters of conflict are philosophical it is a sexual encounter between the two that, for me, not only drove all points home but also exposed the weaknesses in both their ideals and comes close to a colossal loss of identity for one of the two.

The reader is given a very limited view of the overall story as the chapters alternate between events on Anarres and Urras in addition to not flowing in sequential order. While it is temporarily jarring this approach makes the reader focus on what is given at the moment and any ‘gaps’ in the narrative are resolved in forthcoming pages, or a chapter previously read. The Dispossessed is the only book I can think of that makes a case for breaking strict chronological order.

While the people of Anarres and Urras are exposed to many things, little is learned. What the characters miss is perhaps to the readers gain. We are treated to an amazing story and a critical examination of the social differences that will remain pertinent as long as there is structure in the world we live in.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Easton Press; a book Review.

In this series I'm going to evaluate the quality of book manufacturing from various publishers. I intend only to focus on the quality of the physical book itself.

Easton Press is to books what Bösendorfors are to pianos: perfection. No expense is spared, nothing is left wanting, and long after the novelty of initial acquisition has faded appreciation can still be wrought. Many books in the Easton Press Library composes of public domain works and "the classics," but they also publish newer fiction; works they feel will be classics in years to come. In terms of contemporary fiction it's nice to see Gene Wolfe, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel García Márquez given the same treatment and held in equal regard as Fitzgerald, Proust, and Faulkner.

Full disclaimer: I own three works from Easton Press; all of which were bought from Atlanta Vintage Books, in 'mint' condition as defined by a book antiquarian. All have full genuine leather binding, 22 karat gold lettering and art on the front and back covers as well as guilt pages, thread sewn pages--not merely glue, raised bands on the spine that add a visual interest and an antique look, and a silk page-marker sewn into the binding. Think of Easton Press as the Henle Edition of literature: these books aren't going to fall apart, unless you try to take them apart.

While the books are expertly made, ironically the end result is that of a really old looking book. The gold trim, and cracked leather binding instantly give off the vibe of a much older product. The nicety of these products is that they are brand new, have the antique feel, and are heirloom quality.

There are discrepancies though. Oddly enough paper is the issue when most in publishing bemoan the cost of ink. Not all books come with the moiré silk pages in the front and back. (And if you've never experienced a silk 'page' it really is something to see. It's as decadent as it sounds.) The paper quality--texture and thickness--varies. All of the paper Easton Press uses is phenomenal and head-and-shoulders above other publishers, but it isn't consistent from book to book. Again, the 'poorest' of their paper is far better than most; the issue is only noticeable when multiple volumes are compared.

The price of these books will knock a casual book buyers on their ass, but for a collector or those who really appreciate a job done to the highest degree of quality Easton Press is worth the money. The summary is easy: There is no better book being made today.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Novels, Short Stories, and Interruptions

These thoughts were inspired by an entry at Stomping on Yeti.

Much as I love them, short stories really slow down my reading. There is, for me, an acclimation period in starting to read a book, or short story. When I sit down to read a novel I've never read before, I go through fifty pages before I put it down. After that many pages, I have a feel for the writer's style and can tell if the book is holding anything of interest for me.

It's very difficult to find a similar arbitrary page count for short stories. Ideally, I'll read a short story in one sitting (anything around 100 pages or so.) That's a combination of my reading preference and finding the time to knock it out. That acclimation period for short stories in anthologies or collections from multiple authors makes getting through the collection that much longer than it should for me; even if the stories are great.

I don't mind interruptions in reading a novel, past that first fifty pages, and while I try to stop at the end of a chapter it doesn't always workout that way. Short stories, seem to take more time; add in any of lifes interruptions and it can be really jarring.

This is especially troubling as the list of short stories of interest to me coming out this year alone is staggering: Stories ed. by Neil Gamin and Al Sarrantonio, Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham (if it ever gets here!), The Secret History of Fantasy ed. Peter S. Beagle, Wings of Fire ed. by Jonathan Strahan and Marrianne Jablon, Rachel Swirsky's Through the Drowsy Dark, Swords and Dark Magic, ed. by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, The Ammonite Violin and Other Stories by Caitlin R. Kiernan (the latter two pending if Subterraean Press can ship Leviathan Wept before, Kiernan's ship date...) The Way of the Wizard, by John Joseph Adams, and Occultation by Laird Barron.

And those are only the collections I'm aware of; with my short story reading difficulty, it could take me the rest of the year to only read short stories; not even mentioning the novels I already have/want. Much as Patrick asked in the above post, anyone else have this problem?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Briar King; The Charnel Prince by Greg Keyes

There isn't much in either of these volumes that could be considered original, but what you will find are all the standard fantasy troupes presented to the reader much better than most genre fair. Not too much to be said for style, but the execution is solid.

There's a knight on a quest, both internal and external. There is royalty in exile plotting to reclaim a stolen throne. And there is the all around handyman badass who has gotten caught in the middle of a plot and fight much bigger than he. Very little is said of the bad guys.

The unifying theme thus far is a liberal definition of, a 'coming of age' story. Princess Anne is an annoying fifteen year old, spoiled, rich girl whom I almost got nauseated merely reading about. The transformation she makes by the end of the second book is phenomenal, and better still convincing. Life outside of her sheltered palace and pampered life isn't as romantic nor fairy tale like as she thought, and her ordeals and revelations help make her character solid, sympathetic, and realistic. I have no doubt that by the end, I'll be cheering for her.

Aspar, a woodsman in the King's employ, has lived a solitary life with a troubling past. He is forced to re-examine his past and current life as an unforeseen love interest overcomes him and alters everything he thought he knew to be true about life. While he's always been handy in a fight and a quick thinker, he has a proven knack at taking out supernatural beast previously thought to only exist in fairy tales; that quality separates him from everyone else who kicks ass. Speaking of ass kicking...

Sir Neil is the knight in shinning armor. He is the most sure and predictable character presented, yet it's the doubt that grows within on his quest that make him interesting. He questions the ideals he was taught to hold true, and their real world value. Above all he questions his own happiness and the nature of selfish acts wondering if he really has to sacrifice his honor and duty to do something for himself and what else there is in his life other than duty.

There is an undercurrent in all three of these characters having to 'grow up' and find their true identity on their own.

Enough of the squeaky clean; the bad guys real odd balls. There is the standard intrigue at court headed up by the Charnel Prince; a character that thus far doesn't seem terribly grounded to me. His primary motive is terribly weak considering his actions and there are times where even he doesn't seem to know what's going on. There is much to be expanded on for Prince Robert in the coming volumes.

The Briar King's is on a quest that seems to mirror Anne's in many way. He's a elder Deity who is angry and near all powerful who may not be truly 'bad' at heart; merely pissed off. I absolutely love him for reasons I can't put a finger on.

The most tangible 'bad guy' the novel present is The Church. A religious organization that has immense power and sway over various nations and is thoroughly corrupt.

The secondary characters have captured my interest thus far more than those I've previously mentioned, and it is with these characters that I think Keyes has really set himself apart. There's a cocky playboy swordsman, who is good but not as good as he thinks (both with women and weapons). A priest, and giant nerd, whose faith in the church is shaken as he witnesses its corruption only to find a new concentration in life in linguistics and it's application in helping his friends. Finally, a composer. Yeah... I never saw that coming. A court musician who unknowingly takes up the mantel of hero and all the good and bad that the title bestows.

The languages are, of course made up, and some of the coincidences to the characters in the books, come off as mere plot conveniences to the reader (though I do hesitate to say deus ex machina). The musical performances and portrayal might be unprecedented and given my background in music I'm not sure I can objectively comment to their effect on most readers. In an awesome effort by Keyes' to make both of these abnormal fantasy conflicts poignant and interesting one could argue some self-indulgence on the authors part in addition to some overwrought narrative. I don't think the presentation was perfect by any means, but I applaud Keyes for trying, and should you read the books, I think you will too (if you're not too busy enjoying what's written.)

Half way through, and I can only imagine things getting better from here on out.

Oh, Now I'm Happy.

I discovered a new-to-me bookstore today and having some time off took in my stack of hopeful trade ins. (The same stack that was too craptastic for Atlanta Vintage Books.) They took the whole load. Every one of them and gave me a huge helping of store credit in return. I love Books for Less, a father son operation with two north Atlanta outpost.

It was a funny place as they had used books, remainders (which are new) and regular old new books. What struck me the most was layout. Unlike some other used book stores this was clean and organized. Everything grouped by genre and alphabetized like you'd expect to find in a big chain store. This was the only book store I can ever recall being in where the fiction far out numbered the non-fiction. It was bliss.

After a few hours of hunting I tore myself away with The Flanders Panel, and The Fencing Master both by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I had a bit of a struggle with the latter as The Virgin Suicides did nothing for me. All three were in trade paperback and only Middlesex was in slightly less than, 'like new' condition. I also got The French Lieutenant's Wife by John Fowles (who I know to be awesome), The Epiphany of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe, and The Dragon Quintet edited by Marvin Kaye; a Tor 2004 publication with 'then' new novellas from Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, Elizabeth Moon and Michael Swanwick. Yeah, you should be jealous if you don't have that... The Kaye, Fowles, and Wolfe are all in hardback and as best I can tell, have never been opened--let alone read--and in perfect condition.

The Wolfe is an omnibus of Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun as published by Guild America Books. It features some chaotic yet spiffy art work that I prefer to the Orb Books omnibus. Now I gotta track down the first half of this tetralogy.

I've had dragons on the brain for the past few weeks with discovering Wings of Fire from Nightshade and currently reading The Dragon Book. I have a good feeling about The Dragon Quintet surpassing all previously dragon related collections as it features long, short stories from some truly heavy hitters who have proven themselves in working with that form.

Oh yeah, this treasure trove of goodness, after my store credit cost a whopping $18.04 I'm feeling really good about myself today.