2012 Reading List

Now in chronological order:

Trumps of Doom – Roger ZelaznyLots of Books
Blood of Amber – Roger Zelazny
Sign of Chaos – Roger Zelazny
Knight of Shadows – Roger Zelazny
Prince of Chaos – Roger Zelazny
The Last Light of the Sun – Guy Gavriel Kay
Look to Windward – Iain M. Banks
Here Comes Trouble – Michael Moore
The High King’s Tomb – Kristen Britain
22-11-63 – Stephen King
Trujillo – Lucius Shepard
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
The Fear Index – Robert Harris
Solar – Ian McEwan
Matter – Iain M. Banks
Blonde Bombshell – Tom Holt
The Cold Moon – Jeffrey Deaver
A Bend in the Road – Nicholas Sparks
The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe
The Claw of the Conciliator – Gene Wolfe
The Sword of the Lictor – Gene Wolfe
The Citadel of the Autarch – Gene Wolfe
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
Iron Council – China Miéville
One of our Thursdays is Missing – Jasper Fforde
A Son of the Circus – John Irving
The Mist – Stephen King
The State of the Art – Iain M. Banks
Blaze – Richard Bachman
Alex & Me – Irene M. Pepperberg
The Coma – Alex Garland
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
The Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov
The Man Who Was Thursday – G. K. Chesterton
Raw Spirit – Iain Banks

2012 was a highly varied reading year. As always I’m far below the number of books that I wanted to read, but I guess the times when I was an unmarried, jobless, friendless, carefree gal of 15 who didn’t generally bother with homework won’t be coming back. Good riddance, I say. If I had to pick my favourite book of the year I would have to say Look to Windward by the always amazing Iain M. Banks, with The Coma by Alex Garland a close second.

Worst book of the year is a little harder to pick. The competition is so thick that you could cut it with a chainsaw… and probably should. I guess I should nominate A Son of the Circus by John Irving, just because everyone keeps carrying on about how bloody brilliant his books are. Well, they aren’t, at least not all of them. Second place is a tie between Nicky Sparks and Jeff Deaver for brain-numbing, cliché-laden awfulness and abuse of the English language in general. And Kristen Britain… well… is Kristen Britain. See my review of First Rider’s Call for more details.

I also had a few firsts, authors which I’d been meaning to read since forever but never got around to, and those were one and all delightful. Chesterton, Zelazny, Wolfe, Chandler, Miéville and (I am ashamed to say) that giant of both fiction and non-fiction, Asimov, are all worth a read. Not a single turd there.

For now I’m still in the middle of Raw Spirit by Iain Banks, which I am enjoying way too much to be envious of someone who got paid to taste all of Scotland’s great single malt whiskies. Okay, maybe a little. But it’s a really great read. And I shall use it to bolster my next reading list – after all, I can legitimately claim that I read it in 2012 and 2013.

A Message From Cat

Cat, who hates the evil thing that makes noise and bright lights (ie: the camera), was too lazy to slink away when I started taking pictures yesterday. I thought that was very sweet of her. Doesn’t she look sweet? And not annoyed at all…

She’s told me that, in exchange for her services as a model, I should remind people that TSWCE is on special offer until Friday. Save 42% and make a cat happy.

What… you say you’ve already got a copy? Mhm… well, then go and get another. Or get one for a friend. Or a family member. Or that random person that you saw on the bus yesterday. No… not that one. The one that smelled of cheese. Think of it as a post-thanksgiving-pre-christmas-gift. Our cat overlords will be pleased with your purchase.

Art of the Present

This work of art (I’m in a charitable mood) is called “Schwarze Tafeln”, which basically means “black panels”. And this object really is what it says on the box. There are five of these, they look absolutely identical and they’re simply cardboard squares stuck onto big metal frames. And I hate them. They symbolize all that is wrong with modern art. We saw these things when we went to the Frankfurt museum of art, the Städel, the other day. They’re the work of a Frankfurt-based artist named Peter Roehr and they’re exhibited in a bright and shiny and simply humongous new wing of the Städel that deals with “Gegenwartskunst” (Art of the Present). And the sad thing, the really depressing thing, is that these weren’t even the worst things on display, but merely the ones that I can rant about the easiest. The artist,  who died in 1968, apparently said that this work is supposed to express the meaninglessness of modern art, but seriously, if you say that about your work you’re just not trying hard enough. You also don’t do another 599 pieces that express exactly the same. To be fair, if he had said that this piece symbolized child starvation in Uganda, I wouldn’t have bought it either.

I can’t quite fathom the mind of an artist like Peter Roehr. He died young. I shall refrain from any jokes, because he died of cancer, a fate that no one deserves. And yet, at the relatively tender age of 24, he managed to produce more than 600 works of art. Had a writer produced even one tenth of that in a full life with 40 good working years, many would call him a hack. Now, that may or may not be true, but what does it say about Peter, and his 600+ works? We seem to accept this number, even if accomplished in such a short time, much more readily when it comes to paintings. Yet no one ever seems to consider the assembly-line-esque conditions under which these works must have been created. Did Peter Roehr, or any of his ilk, really put any heart or effort into those works? Some say that anything is art, but I disagree. I like my art to be pretty; that’s a subjective statement, but on a more objective level I also like my art to mean something. Not “mean” as in “this painting is about child starvation in Uganda”, but as in something that took thought or effort or skill.

My viewpoint isn’t easily quantifiable. It is obviously silly to say that something that took ten minutes to make isn’t art, but something that took 10 minutes and one second is. But still. Peter Roehr was active as an artist from 1962 until his death in 1968. That makes, if one assumes a steady output of 600 works total, one object every 3 days. That’s an awful lot, I’d say. And as we’ve discussed above “it symbolises ze futility of art” doesn’t really cut it for me.

So what makes you tick, Peter? Greed? Maybe. I’m not sure. Some people need to have creative output, I get that. I don’t suspect my musings on the subject will get me anywhere, at least not anytime soon. If there’s an afterlife I’ll pop the question to Peter in a few decades or so. I hope he has a satisfying answer. Until then I remain vaguely puzzled at the mystery of Peter Roehr and why people seem to think his “Schwarze Tafeln” are the bee’s knees.

Slight change of subject: I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately, mostly because I’ve been wondering about ways to sell my own art. Am I too modest or too arrogant? How much is too much when it comes to the price? Peter was too arrogant, I’d say, but the opposite isn’t great either. I loved making the Compendium entries, and they helped us out of a terrible fix monetarily, but we sold them barely above what it cost us to produce them. What is the artistic value of these drawings outside of this highly specialized context? I have always felt (unlike my friend Peter, I assume) that it is hugely important to give value for money. The thought of overpricing my works is horrifying to me. The thought of somehow grossly overestimating their artistic worth even more so. No-one likes pretentiousness, least of all me. I erratically oscillate between self-doubt and confidence. To make it worse, I don’t only have to think about my own skill, but also about what other people will consider art. Judging from what we saw in the Städel… a whole lot, and not much of it looks like what I do.

Sigh. Another question with no easy answers.

What I was going to say, before I got hit by seven tons of self-doubt, is that I’ll also have a lovely, more general, article about modern art for you tomorrow. So be sure to check back!

No Bears But Lots of Beaver

So I’m reading A Son of the Circus by John Irving right now. I used to love Irving, but as I grow older (and have more Irving reading experience) my opinion of his books has shifted from “wow, this is some crazy imaginative shit” to “oh bother… another story about bears, midgets, rape and weird sexual disorders.” Irving is the Joseph Beuys of the writing world, and his fat and honey are bears and prostitutes. I suspect a lot of people feel that way. The rest probably haven’t been paying attention.

I have, at this point, read 30 pages of A Son of the Circus, and although the story hasn’t even properly begun yet, the book is already worthy of review.

The circus referred to in the title is an Indian circus, so this book’s ursine content is probably relatively low. As a matter of fact that’s the reason why I chose this novel over the other Irvings that are still loitering in our bookshelf, a low bear quota is always a plus. It’s got midgets, though. Let’s see how Irving will manage to annoy me with those.

For now I have two other bones to pick with this novel. One of them, the smaller bone, is that the book is set in India (a country in which Irving has spent under a month in his entire life) and has an Indian protagonist who was schooled in Austria (another Irving favourite) and lives in Canada. And like all good transcultural protagonists he’s uncomfortable in Canada, feels alienated in India, and is generally at odds with where he belongs and who he is. And while I’m sure that there are plenty of similar people out there, people who for one reason or another have left their country of origin and now have trouble settling down and adjusting to a foreign culture, I think that this has become such a cliché of modern writing that it should be outlawed. Ask anyone who’s studied English Lit with a focus on transcultural studies. If they’re clever they’ll tell you that you can’t poke a stick at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who’s written extensively and stereotypically about this subject. If they’re less clever they’ll tell you that Mr. Irving is writing the shocking truth about these poor, uprooted people.

But that’s a minor complaint. Here’s the bigger one:

The 30 pages of A Son of the Circus that I’ve read make up three chapters. The first one concerns itself with how wonderfully quirky and eccentric (with just the right dash of melancholic) our protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is. And that’s okay. The second one briefly tells the story of Farrokh’s best friend, a dwarf, and how they met. Then, somewhat less briefly, it relates the story of how Farrokh once broke his nose on his best friend’s wife’s vagina while in a trapeze safety net. See what’s wrong with that? A lot, seems to be what comes to mind. And it gets better. Chapter three is all about Farrokh being at a private golf club and contemplating an image of the founder’s wife, Mrs. Duckworth. Mrs. D., now long deceased, apparently had a slight problem with exhibitionism. And Farrokh, his imagination now sufficiently fueled by this titillating bit of information, spends about five pages musing about the feel, bounciness and general aerodynamics of Mrs. Duckworth’s breasts. Now… see what’s wrong with that?

I’ll tell you. Why, for the love of all that’s good, do modern writers need to obsess about sex like that? I’m not a prude, really, but I find this fixation somewhat disturbing. What happened to good old “plot”? Rhetorical question, I fear. Plot’s out of fashion, because plot means talking about the world, and civilisation, and meaning. Maybe even politics (gasp!). So instead sex has become the written equivalent of what in theatre is “naked man and a projection”. It’s what once was new and daring, something to shock the elderly out of their stupor, and what’s now so commonplace that it has become the new establishment. Absurdly, sex has become safe, and plot has become something uncomfortable. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this, Solar by Ian McEwan had similar problems, but this morning while talking to Jonas I suddenly happened across the explanation. And I was astounded. It’s nothing but fear of plot. A story allergy. A postmodern disease, if you will. It permeates modern literature and sucks all meaning out of novels. I wonder what Freud would make of this.

Now, I’m not saying that A Son of the Circus isn’t still going to get around to having a little bit of plot, if there’s time between Farrokh thinking randy thoughts and all the embarrassing accidents that are bound to ensue, but I still think the absolute vacuum of meaning generated by these opening chapters is worth noting. I’ll continue reading, if only because I hate not finishing a book. Check back in a week or so to see how it went.

Death

My grandmother died today. Just like that. She wasn’t sick, not that anyone knew of anyhow. It just happened. One minute I’m calling my mom about meeting up later, the next minute mom calls me back to tell me that my gran just died.

I really don’t want to write anything about how it happened. Or when. Or who showed up to express their condolences and what they said. It really doesn’t matter. All that is family business and it doesn’t contribute anything to what kind of person she was. What I want to say, what matters to me now, is the following:

We weren’t close, to claim so would be hypocrisy. To say that I am grief-stricken would be false. I’m in mild shock. I still say “my grandparents” not “my granddad”. My brain hasn’t quite caught up with the present. But, at the end of the day, she was kind and she genuinely cared for her family. And the most surprising thing, given just how German she could be, was that she had a real sense of humour. She could make me laugh.

A Quick One

Fifteen
And we’re back in Germany. Seems like we’ve only been gone for a few minutes. The weather is abysmal, gray and wet and cold, and it’s impossible to imagine that just a few days ago we were in 35°C and the sun was shining. I have to force myself to be creative, drag the words from my mind and cast them on the page before they get washed away by the gray.

I’ll do my best, though. I’ve finally, after what seems like aeons, started working on my book again. And the list of blog posts I’ve been meaning to write is by now longer than a Patrick Rothfuss manuscript. (I’m mostly linking to this because, well… Christ, Patrick, learn to edit, that thing is like the literary equivalent of the bloated, rotting carcass of a whale!) Life stubbornly keeps happening. Movies and TV shows are being watched. Books are being read. Games are being played. Food is being cooked. So there should be plenty to write about.

Here are a few short things that I need to mention before I slink back to my novel:

  • New images on Flickr. Yay. This time with lots of scary monsters.
  • Jonas has some nice and sad thoughts on austerity and how it affects people and animals in Greece.
  • Animals again: read an interview with Julian the Announcement Fox over at LandsOfDream.net
  • And lastly I’ll leave you with a link to an amazing cartoon by XKCD. Get a snack and some lemonade, take plenty of time, and enjoy.

Accidental Intertexuality

As the old saying goes: “When in Greece, read lot of books.” (It might not be an actual saying, but I still think it’s the way to go.)

On our two-week holiday I managed to read a staggering seven books. Which really isn’t too shabby, if you ask me. Also something rather amusing happened while I was reading, which is the main reason why I’ll give you five of them in one single humongous monster review.

The one I started off with was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. I assume many of you know the movie that was based on this book, but Iet me say a few words about the content anyway. For one thing, this is a narrative non-fiction book, not a crime novel, as many of you might think. While it somewhat centers around the murder of Danny Hansford by eccentric antiques dealer/millionaire Jim Williams and the subsequent trial, it is just as much about the city of Savannah and many of its more peculiar inhabitants. While I enjoyed the story of Williams, who is sad and inscrutable in equal measure, I was looking forward to the other characters just as much. The citizens of Savannah, at least those that Berendt chooses to write about, are one and all fantastically peculiar. It is mesmerizing, though admittedly in some cases more like watching a train wreck than like anything else. There’s the guy who supposedly possesses enough poison to kill the entire city, the society lady that hasn’t left her bed in years… and the Lady Chablis. Oh, and what a character the Lady Chablis is. She is easily the best thing about the book, and while I am willing to believe that some of the anecdotes in the book might have been altered to suit the author’s needs, I believe every word that is written about her. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean, for Chablis plays herself and she is, as Chablis would say, fabulous. All in all I highly recommend the book. It paints a vivid and lively picture of Savannah and all the strange creatures that reside within, and it manages the all-too-rare feat of being suddenly, genuinely touching when you least expect it.

Next up was The Fear Index, by Robert Harris. Let me say, on an unrelated note, that I love Robert Harris. The man has written three wonderful novels set in Ancient Rome, books which I wholeheartedly recommend both for their engaging stories and their factual accuracy (Ancient Rome being a subject about which I know a thing or two). He’s also a delight to listen to, as we found out the other month, when we accidentally stumbled upon a reading of his at our local bookstore. Now, if you think that this gushing praise of Harris is the lead-up to tearing his latest book into shreds, I’ll have to disappoint you. The Fear Index is a book about the current economic crisis. It is a book about capitlism, and not a positive one at that. (Most chapters open up with quotes from Darwin’s Origin of Species, which I found extra creepy as I was once forced to sit through an exceptionally misguided student presentation that tried to link the one to the other.) It is also the story of a physicist, Dr. Alex Hoffman, and of the hedge fund that he has created. The novel opens up with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” The quote is fitting and not accidental, because The Fear Index explores themes of creation and responsibility. I forgive you if you now think that this is a book about an evil AI gone rogue, I had similar misgivings at one point or another, but let me assure you that it isn’t that simple at all. And I think this is where I should stop, lest I give away too much about the plot.

Thirdly (and this is where the funny bit starts) I read Solar, by Ian McEwan. Now, in all fairness this one should get a proper review of its own, because it was maybe not the most stupid, but the most intellectually offensive book that I read on this holiday. I’ll try to be brief. Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist past his prime (both physically and in the field of physics). Beard is, easily, the most dislikable character I’ve ever read about. He’s a womanizer, an egoist, lazy, arrogant and delusional. I could go on for a while, but I fear that all you will say is “duh, it’s a satire, of course he’s dislikable.” And yes, of course this is a work of fiction, and of comic fiction at that. Who’s to say that the dislikable prick can’t be the one who saves the world from global warming? And yet, and yet… it leaves a sour aftertaste. McEwan makes Beard so incompetent, so gross, that it seems like anything he touches is, by association, vile. Our protagonist treats his science like he treats his women: with studied, opportunistic contempt. I would have to re-read the book and write a far more detailed analysis to bring forth more satisfactory arguments than these, but all in all Solar seemed to ridicule climate change more than it warned of its dangers. That, on top of the unfair (and not to mention highly ironic) jabs at the futility of art in the face of such a calamity and the ham-handed attempts at taking on feminism (which backfire mightily and for all the wrong reasons in my opinion), makes for an unsatisfactory reading adventure. Or maybe I just don’t enjoy grossness as much as I should.

Oh yes, the funny, I almost forgot. At one point in Solar the protagonist, Michael Beard, is at a party. And, while sipping a glass of Chablis, he idly quotes Darwin’s Origin of the Species to impress some poor female or other. And I thought, what a funny coincidence… and the protagonist is a physicist too… weirder and weirder.

Book the fourth: Blonde Bombshell, by Tom Holt. I have some authors, Tom Holt among them, that I read primarily out of some sense of obligation to my younger self. Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Goodkind, all these I am still reading because I stumbled upon them when I was fourteen and had no critical faculties whatsoever and I feel that I somehow owe it to myself to finish what I started (and in the case of Mr. Goodkind out of some sort of political/sadomasochistic/scientific interest.) Now, of all of the above I still find Tom Holt the most entertaining to read. True, the books are, as The Independent mildly put it, “undemanding”, and if you’ve read more than five you’ll find that there are more recurring themes than is good for them, but Holt also still manages to hit home with a lot of his jokes. And if I get a few good chuckles out of what is essentially an afternoon’s worth of reading, then I’m sort of happy. Blonde Bombshell isn’t overly complicated in terms of its plot, but still not easily summarized. Let me try: A race of canine aliens send a sentient bomb to planet Earth to destroy humanity, because we’ve been driving them insane by unwittingly sending radio waves to their planet. The bomb was preceded by another bomb, which vanished without achieving its mission objective. So the Mark II, being sentient, reasons that it should maybe figure out what happened to the Mark I before it does anything rash. Meanwhile on Earth, tech genius and multimillionaire Lucy Pavlov tries to figure out why she can’t remember anything prior to two years ago… and why she’s seeing unicorns. And then there’s George Stetchkin, an alcoholic physicist (another one!) who’s recruited by Lucy to figure it all out. And yes, he drinks Chablis in one scene, but he doesn’t like it. And then there are the two weird fellows, who might or might not be secret agents, or dogs, or maybe both. And… as I said, it’s not easily summarized. If you’re looking for an easy read with a few laughs I’d recommend Blonde Bombshell. It’s no Douglas Adams (by far) and those allergic to pop culture references might find an untimely end while reading it, but it’s far from the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not even the worst Tom Holt I’ve ever read (that dubious honour goes to A Song for Nero). It’s inoffensive and brief and not even quite as predictable as expected. And I likes me a good pop culture reference now and then, so there.

And then, after three counts of Chablis and three counts of protagonist physicists, I thought that that might be the end of weird coincidences. That’s when I realized that the last book I had picked was Matter, by Iain Banks. Which was bound to contain lots of AIs and bombs, and even bomb AIs. And it did.

The book is part of the ongoing Culture series, which is not so much a continous story as a setting. I won’t say that this is the best Culture book that I’ve read so far. I won’t even say that I particularly liked Matter. My opinion about the book is a bit of a wibbly-wobbly grey area, I’m afraid. I like the story. I adore the scientific concepts it introduces and the science-is-our-friend-attitude which permeates the Culture books in general. I like the bits that are about people from a low-tech background entering a high-tech environment. I love the drones. If you’ve read any of the other culture books you’ll now have a vague idea of what I’m talking about. If you haven’t: do. Iain Banks’ Culture is sci-fi at its best. Whenever someone tells me that the genre contains nothing more than adolescent crap, this is what I use as a counterargument. The books are mature, philosophical, pro-science and all the while still fun. So now you’re wondering why I’m wibbly-wobbly about the book, yes? It’s because of the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, the book is still worth reading, but the ending does a few things that, in a way, seem to negate a lot of what the books says and does. And that is a shame.

So, here we are. Five books, a lot of funny coincidences. I know that if you just try hard enough you can find a pattern in just about anything, but still… creepy, no? And if nothing else, this might give you some nice ideas about what to read next.