I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last few weeks!
It’s been a few weeks, due to travel and work, so I have six books to report on this time! First up was The Memory Theater, by Karin Tidbeck (2021). Tidbeck is a Swedish author of fantasy and weird fiction whose short story collection, Jagannath (2012), contains some of my favorite weird fiction. This book is their second novel, and it expands on one of the stories in Jagannath.
In the original story (Augusta Prima), the title character is part of a fey court that lives in a timeless and brutal party, doing things like playing croquet with extra points for breaking the shins of the changeling children who act as servants. One day, Augusta finds the corpse of a man who had wandered into the fey court, steals his pocketwatch, and accidentally remembers/discovers the existence of time, thereby damaging the court and exiling herself therefrom.
The novel serves partly as an exploration of what happens next and a further exploration of the Gardens and how they came to be. The details of the inciting incident are not quite the same and a few characters are given different names, but it follows more or less the same outline and Tidbeck even reuses some of the language. Augusta Prima functions as the villain of this piece, however, as our main characters are two friends who live in the court: Dora, the “daughter” of one of the courtiers, and Thistle, one of the human servants. Dora and Thistle use the chaos resulting from Augusta’s discovery of time to escape the Gardens, and wander through several dreamlike realms in search of Augusta, since she stole Thistle’s name, and he wants it back.
It’s an odd book, and though I enjoyed it I don’t know as I’ll spend much time thinking about it. The original story was fun but the world it posited wasn’t really deep enough to support a full novel. Still, even though I was not as in love with this as I was with Jagannath, (and I did not find it as fascinating as their previous novel, Amatka), I enjoyed my time with the book.
Second, I continued my Connie Willis project by finishing Light Raid, by Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice (1989). Much like their previous collaboration, Water Witch, this is a fairly light YA-style novel. Yet it’s a significant improvement over Water Witch and is generally more coherent – whereas Water Witch feels like a draft of a longer novel, overstuffed with too many ideas, Light Raid feels about the right length, though it’s certainly still full-to-bursting with weird ideas.
In some distant future where North America has split into warring city-states dominated by corporations, our hero, Hellene Ariadne, is the daughter of a scientist who seems to basically run the Hydra Corp., the reigning authority of Denver Springs. Due to the prevalence of the titular “light raids” (basically hyperdestructive satellite-based laser attacks), she has been sent to another city state, away from her family, where she lives with a woman who is basically collecting war orphans/refugees as a source of income. But when she gets a series of cryptic messages from her mother and father, she escapes back to Denver Springs, where she gets embroiled in a scandalous mess of espionage, treachery, tabloid reporters, and a love triangle that includes the prince of a nearby city-state.
It’s mostly silly, though it’s a pleasant enough time. It’s clear that Connie Willis is particularly fascinated by the Blitz – the light raids and the evacuation out of Denver Springs echo the evacuation of civilians out of London and other cities. The best short story in her first collection, Fire Watch, is also about the Blitz, as is her most recent Hugo-award winning novel, (Blackout/All Clear). So Light Raid is interesting as a footnote in her broader oeuvre, but is otherwise mostly an unmemorable if pleasant time.
Next up I read Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, by W. Scott Poole (2018), which was given to me by a friend who used to work at the World War I museum in Kansas City. (It’s even inscribed!). Wasteland’s general thesis is fairly simple: many of the great horror filmmakers and authors of the early 20th century fought in the First World War or were heavily inspired by it, so the entire landscape of 20th century horror is founded on the horrors of the trenches. The book is thus partly a series of short biographies, partly film/literary criticism highlighting how themes in Frankenstein or Nosferatu can be traced to their creators’ experiences in the war, and partly an impassioned plea for the reader not to forget how horrible the First World War was.
I learned several interesting tidbits from the book, and am now jonesing to watch or rewatch some of the classic horror cinema of the 20s and 30s. The book as a whole feels a bit scatterbrained, since he tries to thread some of these stories throughout the whole book. As is often the case with a book like this, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been about twice as long – some of his close reads feel particularly insightful, and I’d have enjoyed more of those and fewer paragraphs summarizing the history of the First World War or the advent of fascism in Europe prior to World War II.
I stuck with history for a while and finally finished Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow (first published in 1983, this was the second, revised edition, published in 1997). Karnow covered the Vietnam War for nearly its entire duration, and this book draws on his own experiences as well as a host of interviews with American leaders and Vietnamese leaders from both North and South. This book provides a brief summary of the history leading up to the French colonial state in Indochina, and then delves into significant detail throughout the First Indochina War and then what we think of as the Vietnam War. It’s thorough and well-sourced – I can’t independently verify the history, of course, but I feel confident relying on it.
What is there to say about the conflict itself? What madness propelled the United States to involve itself in a civil war on the other side of the globe, for no particular benefit and with no clear understanding of what victory would even look like? And then, once involved, what stubborn foolishness made the American leaders commit more and more resources into the mess, resulting ultimately in the deaths of millions of people? Again and again in Karnow’s history, an American leader will regret ever having gotten involved, but will suggest that staying the course was important, because to do otherwise would be to embarrass the pride of the United States.
Millions of people were shot, maimed, blown apart, starved, and burned to death, all so that the United States could avoid losing face.
At least wars of imperial conquest have a benefit in mind: when the Americans drive out the Native Americans, they get to keep the land and resources of the people they killed. This isn’t morally defensible, but it’s rational and logical, in the coldest of senses. But what would the United States ever have gained from victory in Vietnam? There are no good answers here, and although Karnow’s book is robust enough to explain every detail of how it happened, there is no satisfying explanation as to why to be found. This is, I suspect, because no such reason exists. Like many great tragedies (including World War I), the Vietnam War happened for ridiculous and stupid reasons.
While we’re discussing incomprehensible quagmires, how about some Kant? The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts (2015) is basically about what happens if you take Kant’s metaphysics seriously as a way to describe how the world works. What if the underlying “thing itself” (that is to say, the actual reality of the world) is completely unknowable, and our experience of things like time and space are simply mental constructs formed within ourselves, interpreting and interacting in some way with the thing itself, but entirely unlike the actual thing?
The book is partly a thriller about a man who gets tangled up in another man’s dangerous obsession with harnessing the power of the Thing Itself; partly a philosophical discourse about Kant; partly (and most successfully, possibly) a series of short stories set in this universe, as various other people throughout time and space brush up against the boundaries of Kant’s metaphysics; partly a series of formal literary experiments; and partly a book written by an atheist about why you should seriously considering believing in God. It’s wild, it is sometimes masterful, and I’m going to have to read it again to be able to talk about it much more than that. It is also the second book I’ve read this year (after Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest) to attempt to solve the Fermi Paradox, and I found this solution more compelling than Liu’s, for what it’s worth.
Finally, I read Kingfisher, by Patricia McKillip (2016), which my mother gave me for my birthday some years ago and which I failed to get around to until now. This was a mistake: I enjoyed this book immensely. It would be easy to make the book sound obnoxious: essentially it’s a vamp on an Arthurian legend, but set in a world with contemporary technologies. The knights in this story usually ride motorcycles, for instance. It’s easy to imagine this being campy at best and cheesy at worst, but the book avoids that trap, partly because we don’t spend a lot of time with knights until 2/3 of the way through the book.
Much of the book is set in restaurant kitchens around the backwaters of this magical kingdom; the main character is the son of a retired sorceress who runs a crab shack. Tired of working in the kitchen all day, he leaves to have an Adventure and finally meet his father. But the book shies away from the rote beats of this sort of plot, preferring to focus on the strange fey magic that rules the lives of many of the characters. It’s a dreamy book, and at no point in the story did I ever have any idea what would happen next.
It wraps up a little too neatly at the end for my taste, and this is another book that I think would be better if it was longer, rather than shorter. But I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the book. I’ll leave you with a long quote that showcases why I liked it so much:
“While knights from all over Wyvernhold gathered in Severluna, Daimon found himself spending pearly dawn hours, blue, windy afternoons, flame-streaked dusks on the Severluna streets. As though his heart had turned to thread and Vivien held the end of it, he would lose interest, leave whatever he was in the middle of doing or saying, and find the quickest way through the twists and turns of byways and alleys to the inelegant, backwater neighborhood where she waited. Somehow she knew; she was always there, opening her door before he knocked. He didn’t ask. Her stray powers, like her smile, seemed at once very old and all her own.
The city changed in his eyes when she tugged at him. It lost its past, its history; it existed only as the place he traveled through to reach her.
Even the streets transformed themselves when he was with her. The cracked sidewalks, stunted trees along them guarded by broken iron railings, the hot, blustering whirlwinds of litter, food-cart smells and old leaves, the groan and belch of trucks, the constantly clamoring traffic inter-woven with stray snatches of music, sirens, ringtones, shifted focus in his perception. He glimpsed wonder in the dusty whirlwind, a fierce and ancient energy within the raucous voices of the road; he overheard, within the passing drift of song from an open car window, an otherworldly language.
‘What is it you do to me?’ he asked Vivien, incoherently, he thought, but she seemed unsurprised.
‘Nothing,’ she answered. ‘You’re remembering.’”
Current Progress: 38/104, or 36.54%
Current average pagecount: 300.
*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.