Another round of capsule reviews, covering the two months since my last post.
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions And Disturbances, Neil Gaiman
It’s safe to say that this was my most anticipated read of the year. It’s been quite awhile since Gaiman published a short story collection; his last, Fragile Things, is one of my favourite books. This collection inevitably doesn’t quite live up to my excitement, but it’s still excellent. And surprisingly varied in both subject matter and form. “Orange” is written entirely as a girl’s answers to an official questionnaire; “The Sleeper And The Spindle” wonderfully meshes fairy tales; and “Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. But what they all have in common is that they are all at least a little bit disturbing. A wintery collection of wintery tales and poems. Fantastic.
The Singing Bowl, Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite is a motorcycle rider, a songwriter, an academic, and all sorts of things you don’t expect an Anglican priest to be — but he is also that. I first heard of him last May when I took a course on theology and the arts. His villanelle “On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier” remains the highlight of this collection, but they’re all clearly well-considered and carefully put together.
House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds
I’m known as a science fiction nut, but strangely I don’t read a lot of science fiction. One author I do like, though, is Alastair Reynolds. He never gets bogged down in explaining physics and instead does his best to tell a good story. This, like most of his novels, has an enormous scale even for a space opera. But the most interesting thing is how Reynolds uses point of view; each of the first-person narrators is a clone (“shatterling”) of Abigail Gentian, who herself narrates at the beginning of each part division. It’s the tension between viewpoints that are both separate and the same that gets me. The technique works beautifully. Though the plot does slow down a bit in the middle, everything else about the novel is amazing.
Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis
Charles Portis has only written five novels. No more are known to be forthcoming. I have read four. But this and the more famous True Grit (adapted twice into film) are, I confess, the only ones I’ve liked. The plot is leisurely, but the characters are interesting even when they’re not likeable. Actually a true plot is hard to find. The novel basically just charts the rise and fall of a distinctly unsinister secret society. There isn’t much of a dramatic climax; if anything it feels like the story (along with the people) grows old and retires to spend its days staring at the sunset. But along the way there are quite a few laughs to be had and the writing was good, making the read worth it.
Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, And The World That Never Was, Iain Provan
Provan, a Biblical scholar and professor at Regent College, was writing a book when he realized the opening chapters needed to be longer than the book could accommodate. The result was that they split off and became their own volume. Provan’s thesis is that our society has been influenced by two false myths about the past. One is of an era called the “axial age”, when large parts of human thought and religion supposedly evolved; the other idealizes an even more distant past when humans supposedly lived in deeper communion with nature and more peacefully than now. Provan argues that both of these myths aren’t supported by empirical evidence about past cultures, and that harm is done when we seek to advance good intentions on the back of falsehoods. His discussion of the “axial age” necessarily involves some abstractions and I found it a little hard to follow certain points. But his chapters on “dark green religion” were much more concrete. I’m looking forward to reading his follow-up, Seriously Dangerous Religion.
A Book of One’s Own: People And Their Diaries, Thomas Mallon
A survey of diaries and the people who kept them, famous and otherwise. Why do people keep them? What do they write about? Do they truly teach us about the diarist or are they only apologia? Mallon explores these and other questions as he reads and comments on diaries from all walks of life and times. The book was written in the 80s, so no mention is made of blogs or online journals. But I’ve always been more interested in the paper kind anyway, and reading this has me thinking about why I keep my diary and what exactly I put in it.