Sunday, April 29, 2012

2011 Nebula Award Short Stories

I am still working my way through the Nebula nominees.  I went looking through my iPad apps and discovered that at some point in the past year, I had downloaded both God's War and Mechanique, so I should be able to get through most of the nominees for best novel.  Actually, I'd only need to track down Firebird to get all of them.  Nice.

A while back, Jesse, Tamahome, and I discussed the Nebula-nominated short stories that were available on audio, on an SFF Audio podcast.  I don't want to rehash everything I said on the podcast, but I will say that I hope the E. Lily Yu story "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" wins the prize.  I had read that one in print previously to listening to the audio.  It is gorgeous.

A few useful links:

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

WeWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Around the World: 16 of 52 (Russia)

This book has not been on my radar for long, but when something is considered to be "the best single work of science fiction yet written" (Ursula K. Le Guin) and the precursor of 1984 and Brave New World, not to mention the majority of current science fiction (Bruce Sterling introduction), I knew I couldn't put it off.

An interesting historical note - it was published in England (1921) long before it was published in Russia (1988), and Orwell read it before writing 1984.

For such a significant work, you might expect it to be difficult, or long, but We is around 200 pages and written as a journal. D-503 is a mathematician working on "The Integral," a rocketship of sorts that grows in importance throughout the story. The culture is completely mapped out, and everyone lives (literally) in step. Individuality is the most shameful trait.

I enjoyed the characters, and all the little details, such as the idea that the desire to dance proves that humans desire non-freedom.

A few quotations:
"I love - we love - skies like this, sterile and flawless!"

And since I'm such a great lover of Russian classical music, particularly Scriabin, the parts about creativity and music really capture me:
"They could create only if they drove themselves to fits of 'inspiration,' a strange form of epilepsy. And here is an amusing illustration of their results: the music of Scriabin, twentieth century..."

"...Epilepsy is a psychic sickness- a pain... a slow, sweet pain - a sting - and you wish it would go deeper, hurt more... Then slowly - sunshine emerges. Not our kind of sunshine, the pale-bluish-crystalline kind, which disperses evenly through our glass bricks- no: it was a wild, rushing, burning sun, expelling itself, shedding itself in little tufts."

"'WE' is divine, and 'I' is satanic."

"Individual consciousness is just sickness."

"Revolutions are infinite."

"[People] have wanted someone, anyone, to tell them once and for all what happiness is - and then to attach them to this happiness with a chain."

For even more information on the context of We, consult Eric Rabkin's article in Foundation no. 65.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Embassytown by China Miéville

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to read Embassytown after it had been nominated for practically every science fiction award in 2011-2012. I have only read The City and the City prior to this book, although I've always meant to go back and read some of his earlier books.

I kept getting distracted by other books (mostly poetry), so reading this took longer than most books do, but that shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of recommendation.

Embassytown is about language. I kept hearing that, and assumed it was code for "China Mieville uses big words." And while that is true, including several he makes up on his own (like 'floaking'), there is so much more. Embassytown is the name of a civilization on an alien planet on the edge of the 'immer,' the explored part of the universe. It is still populated by the natives, Ariekei, who for a long time were unable to communicate with their visitors, a language barrier of sorts.

Among the solutions is that some of the visitors are turned into living similes. Avice Benner Cho, who narrates the story, is a simile the Ariekei know as "The girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her."

Avice has recently come back to Embassytown with her newest husband, and that is when there is a problem with one of the Ambassadors. I can't say much else; it would give the story away. But it is innovative and I enjoyed reading it.

A few little bits:

"As I've grown older I've become conscious of how unsurprising I am."

"Look instead at a map of the immer. Such a big and tidal quiddity. Pull it up, rotate it, check its projections. Examine that light phantom every way you can, and even allowing that it's a flat or trid rendering of a topos that rebels against our accounting, the situation is visibly different."

"I couldn't tell if I was perpicacious or paranoid."

"How do lying and similes intersect?"

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sakura Park: Poems by Rachel Wetzsteon

Sakura Park: PoemsSakura Park: Poems by Rachel Wetzsteon
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Cramming more poems down my throat for poetry month!

Umbrella Weather was probably my favorite.
"...I’m foreign, I’m freakish, I’m out of the loop
until a storm comes and I’m in it again
only deeper now, with a smile no news can ruin."

The other highlights to me were the haiku form poems. Flaneur Haiku is about walking around "her city," NYC, a theme she returns to often, but I think she shines in this more limited format of an extended form haiku.

I also loved Blue Octavo Haiku, which starts with:
"In fat armchairs sat
indolence and impatience,
plotting my downfall."


"Happiness? Finding
your indestructible core;
leaving it alone."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder

Come on All You GhostsCome on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tired of poetry yet? I am a great skimmer of poems. First I skim, to see if I'm interested in the concept or the feeling, and if I think I might be, then I bother to read it, and usually at least twice. Zapruder caught me on almost every page, which is rare. Some of the poems are a little too random but others make complete sense in their randomness.

"Come On All You Ghosts," the last poem in the volume (and the title poem) is great, a must-read, a little bit of a tribute to the current reader of the poem.

Zapruder also writes about less serious things, like White Castle.

Here is a little clip from "Never Before"

"...Come home
those who love a librarian aspect. I am one,
for give her time and she will answer any question
no matter how spiral, no matter how glass,
so slow to judgment you can sit among her
like a reading room and read and think..."

And one from the poem called "Poem"

"...I admire
and fear you, to me you are an abyss
I cross towards you. Just look
directly into my face you said and I felt
everything stop trying to fit. And
the marching band took a deep collective
breath and plunged back into its song."

Really, any poet that can squeeze librarians and marching bands into poems deserves some attention!

Passing Through: The Later Poems by Stanley Kunitz

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and SelectedPassing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected by Stanley Kunitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part of the ongoing poetry binge of April 2012!

I was introduced to this volume by the National Book Award Poetry Blog, where this volume was reviewed last year during last year's past-winners retrospective. Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected won the NBA for poetry in 1995.

The poet was 90 when these were published, and he went on to live to be 100 years old! Many of the poems look back- at childhood, at life, but my absolute favorite is The Layers, which ends with the line "I am not done with my changes.". You can listen to the poet read it; to me, hearing the words in such an aging voice makes it even more meaningful, as much as it resonates with me at 1/3 of his age at the time.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times

Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal TimesStaying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times by Neil Astley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first saw this anthology mentioned on, in the segment that I follow religiously where experts recommend five books on a particular topic.  I wanted to intentionally read poetry this month (National Poetry Month!).

There is a lot of great stuff here. The poems are divided by category, and the anthologist has done a great job in selection - poets are largely from the UK and USA, but there are also quite a few translated poems, even one from Gaelic! My only complaint would be that some of the poems are not included in their entirety, for instance he often chose some segments of longer poems. I think it would have been better to be more selective, and include the entirety of everything selected.

While some of the themes aren't my favorite (I tend to skim through nature-poems, child-poems, and death-poems), the organization of the anthology made it easy to enjoy.

I wish I could just copy everything I loved into this review, but it would simultaneously fill pages and violate copyright. I will include the titles of my favorites, and leave you to discover them for yourself, linking to them if I can find them online. A few of my favorites were already familiar to me, but I couldn't stand to leave them off my list.

One more thing - these are intended to be uplifting and life-affirming, but that shouldn't scare you away. They aren't sugar-coated or unrealistic, or even always upbeat. Just full of honesty.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (link is to video of Oliver reading)
Happiness by Raymond Carver (my favorite bit is the last stanza)
Entirely by Louis MacNeice
History by Maura Dooley (read by poet)
The Journey by Mary Oliver (fast forward to 1:10)
Yes by Muriel Rukeyser
And the Days are Not Full Enough by Ezra Pound
Last Night by Sharon Olds
In Defense of Adultery by Julia Copus
And They Were Both Right by Kapka Kassabova
Lightness by Meg Bateman
Inscription by Sophia de Mello Breyner
Places We Love by Ivan V. Lalic
Eating Poetry by Mark Strand (link is video of Strand reading)
Late Fragment by Raymond Carter

Sunday, April 15, 2012

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We the AnimalsWe the Animals by Justin Torres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard about Justin Torres and We the Animals on KCRW Bookworm, and remember being struck by the vivid reading the author did of his own work. It felt like it came from him.

Having read this set of short poem-like stories, all about three brothers in a volatile family, it feels even more that way. Like it was a conversation I wasn't meant to hear, in a good way, and a terrible way. It doesn't feel like fiction at all, and is a quick but powerful read.

"We saw that it must hurt her, too, to love him."

"We boys, we had always seen so much of them, penniless or flush, in and out of love with us, trying, trying; we had seen them fail, but without understanding, we had taken the failing, taken it wide-eyed, shameless, without any sense of shame."

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Island Of WingsIsland Of Wings by Karin Altenberg
Around the World in 52 Books Challenge: 13 of 52 books
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I hadn't heard of this book before it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I'm certainly glad it was brought to my attention. It is a well-researched, historical novel based on the journals of the real minister, Neil MacKenzie, who travels to St. Kilda in 1830 to convert the heathens, whether or not they want to change.

What I liked:
-There is Gaelic throughout the novel, and as someone who has studied Scottish Gaelic (very casually, don't be impressed), I really enjoyed seeing little bits of that. While she borrows some place names for the island from the highlands, it gave additional opportunities to use the beautiful words, and it helped place me there as the reader.

-This is obviously well-researched. It contains a lot of information about the patterns of the birds and the sea, and the extreme hardship of living on the island. It was similar in feeling to a book I recently read set in the Faroe Islands, The Old Man and His Sons, where every bit of survival depends on knowing the best time to kill the birds or hunt the seals.

What I didn't like as much:
-The character of Neil MacKenzie is incredibly frustrating, and perhaps that is true to his journals, but he never grows! He never learns! He never changes. He leaves St. Kilda just as stubborn and possibly more set on being the man in charge.

-The idea that the wife never learns any Gaelic to communicate with the other islanders? I mean, really? None? Can that be true? For her to be more of a redeeming character, she would have needed to immerse farther than also losing her children to the 8-day curse. Or maybe this is a product of the marriage between religion and colonialism.

-The lack of point of view from the St. Kildans. To me, the ancient history of the island, which the St. Kildans clearly are respectful of because of their unwillingness to change, is the more interesting story. I think I would have liked if the author had moved a little farther beyond the facts she was finding. It ends up being a little shallow of a story, with the repeated patterns between Neil and Lizzie, and Neil and his 'congregation.'

Overall, I'd give this about 3.5 stars, and one entire star of that is my own sentimentality for cold weather islands, remote places, and Gaelic. I wouldn't expect it to make the shortlist, but if it does it would have to be because it tells one historic story of a place that has since been abandoned to the birds.

Tell me what to read - SFF subgenre

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Planning a Poetry Binge

I have the longest to-read shelf I've ever seen, and that Stevie Smith book of poems made me want MORE. Not since I read The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker have I planned such a poetry binge for myself. I scanned through the list for books that were obviously poetry and they are all on their way to me. Woohoo!

Oh hey, what's that you're reading? I might want that too.

New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith

New Selected Poems of Stevie SmithNew Selected Poems of Stevie Smith by Stevie Smith
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

April is poetry month, and although I'm in the middle of a stack of books, I needed a break! Stevie Smith is such a fun poet to read, between the bizarre range of her poem subjects to the accompanying drawings.

Some are silly, some are quite serious. I loved this one:

Forgive me, forgive me

Forgive me forgive me my heart is my own
And not to be given for any man's frown
Yet would I not keep it for ever alone.

Forgive me forgive me I thought that I loved
My fancy betrayed me my heart was unmoved
My fancy too often has carelessly roved.

Forgive me forgive me for here where I stand
There is no friend beside me no lover at hand
No footstep but mine in my desert of sand.

Happy Poetry Month!  How have YOU celebrated?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood BluesHalf Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took a long time to get to this book. When it was nominated for the Booker, and then for the Giller prize, it still wasn't available for purchase in the USA.  (You can refresh your memory with my rant here.) Edugyan won the Giller prize for Half Blood Blues, and then was also included on the long list for the Orange Prize. I finally tracked a copy down, and I am so glad I did.

Half Blood Blues goes back and forth between 1939 in Berlin, 1940 in Paris, and 1992 in a handful of countries, circling around the world of jazz musicians from the Berlin scene and how their lives were impacted by World War II, particularly Nazi racial politics.

I don't usually gravitate towards war novels, but that is merely the background of the story. The way the author is able to combine dialects from Baltimore to the German-Africans to just the jazz culture - without it being grating - is laudable. More than anything, the characters are imperfect but incredibly likeable, and the ending was amazing.

Plus, it is about jazz in Berlin, which I simply don't know enough about. I would be completely shocked if this didn't end up on the Orange Prize shortlist, with its other accolades as well as my own positive experience.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Little Novels of Sicily by Giovanni Verga

Little Novels of SicilyLittle Novels of Sicily by Giovanni Verga
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Around the World: 12 of 52

This is a slim volume of short stories set in Sicily by one of Italy's most acclaimed writers, but took me a while to read, because they are just... difficult. The landscape is heartless, the people are either desperately poor or terribly corrupt, and illness colors the air.

The translator, D.H. Lawrence, says in his introduction:
"During the 'fifties and 'sixties, Sicily is said to have been the poorest place in Europe: absolutely penniless. A Sicilian peasant might live through his whole life without ever possessing as much as a dollar, in hard cash."

This is the Sicily portrayed in the stories. There are characters and situations that tie one to another, capturing a specific period on the island.

(To see a more delicious portrayal of Sicilian culture, check out the cake I made.)