Friday 13 March 2020

Deal Me in Challenge: Tideline by Elizabeth Bear

Card Drawn:

"Tideline" is my first introduction to Elizabeth Bear and if this poignant short-story is any indicator of her talents as a Science-Fiction writer, she is definitely someone to keep an eye on. She seems to have embraced the "show, don't tell" methodology because this is a tightly woven story without excess or dense details. A subtle and delicate work, Bear's understated approach requires the reader to fill in the gaps of an otherwise ambiguous narrative. 

The premise is quite simple--a wounded battle robot named Chalcedony washes up on the shore of a beach where she befriends an impoverished young boy named Belvedere. The robot is programmed as female and her motherly instincts kick in to protect and nourish the boy. The isolated beach setting produces a post-apocalyptic vibe. There is the suggestion of a war going on in the background or perhaps it is over but none of the details are ever made clear. All we know for sure is that some kind of battle took place and Chalcedony is the only survivor. The story demands for a more inferential understanding, openly inviting the reader to resolve its many dissonances. Badly damaged along with her backup fuel cells running out, she has taken on one final mission to make "mourning jewelry" out of different shipwreck beads, pearls, sedimentary rocks and shells for all her fallen comrades before she is swept away by the tide. The dramatic tension springs from Chalcedony's race against time and her ostensibly innocuous task becomes charged with meaning. She wants to preserve the memories of her fellow soldiers with the necklaces but also by sharing their heroic stories with Belvedere.

What constitutes the story's subtlety and reliance on inference is that we only get Chalcedony's limited point of view. The elliptical story-telling allows the author to focus less on plot and more on a compressed style of deep characterization. Chalcedony's anthropomorphic personality and nuances are so fully realized that she almost seems human. Her evolving relationship with Belvedere forms the crux of the story, which is heartfelt and very moving. Bear displays a deft hand at developing a convincing and empathetic protagonist with a brevity of style inherent in the short-story form. 

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Mama Obeah, give us strength.
Let's face it: both the science-fiction and fantasy genres are often white-washed and severely lacking in racially diverse voices, especially when it comes to the representation of black experiences. Nalo Hopkinson is Jamaican-Canadian and a queer black woman based in Toronto--my hometown, which is pretty cool. She is a member of an emerging Afro-Futurism literary movement that most scholars agree was spearheaded by prominent black writers during the 1970's and 1980's such Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. In her debut novel, Hopkinson has decided to put her own Afro-Caribbean spin on the urban-fantasy genre but the end result is a wildly uneven effort. Perhaps some of the novel's faults can be attributed to this being a first novel but it pains me to say that there really is not a whole lot to recommend here. The story feels overly familiar and bogged down by cliches, blatant inconsistencies, triviality and aimlessness. The prose is unpolished and clunky. The characters are flat, unconvincing and one-dimensional. My main criticism is the weak female protagonist. She is often clueless and makes such baffling decisions, helped steadily along by happenstance. The lack of an emotionally engaging and sympathetic character whose personal demons are believable does not allow us to become personally invested in the story. Also, don't get me started on the main villain who is so cartoonish that it is downright laughable. 

On a more positive note, the use of Caribbean patois/vernacular is refreshing and the magic system is somewhat unique although I wish the author had delved more into it's complexity and cultural roots. She incorporates voodoo and Caribbean folk-lore into her post-apocalyptic setting of Toronto (it was fun to recognize the various streets and places mentioned) that has become ghettoized, overrun by poverty, crime, violence and drugs. A highly addictive substance has hit the streets and is causing mayhem. All the rich people have moved outside the city to the suburbs leaving Toronto in the hands of gangs. Again, we have seen a similar kind of set-up like this many times before. I don't mind if authors rely on using familiar genre conventions, just back it up with good writing and make it interesting in some way. Unfortunately, Hopkinson does neither of these very well and the novel often feels rather dull and disjointed as it trudges along towards a lackluster deus ex machina ending. Nonetheless, I will give her kudos for having the CN Tower as the crime lord's headquarters.

We certainly need more authors of color to be recognized in the SF/Fantasy genre and while this novel was disappointing, Nalo Hopkinson demonstrates that she has a creative imagination but has not yet hit her stride as an accomplished writer. 

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!

I'm not usually persuaded to pick up a book based on prestigious literary awards but I was curious to see what all the hoopla was about surrounding this Man Booker Prize winner from 2017. My only encounter with George Saunders was a short-story that I read in the New Yorker years ago that has completely faded from memory. I honestly couldn't even tell you what it was about but do remember it being really really weird and feeling rather indifferent about it. I pretty much had the exact same emotional response to Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which contains probably, if not, the most bizarre and unique narrative structure that I have ever encountered. In fact, I'm pretty sure there has never been a novel that has ever been written in this particular style before. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Saunders utilizes a play-like structure with a vast number of speaking voices, interspersed with fragments of historical documentation, letters, journals and various anecdotes (some real, some fictionalized). His experimental style is bound to frustrate readers expecting a more linear narrative and I can totally understand why this novel was been met with harsh criticism by those who may have been expecting any semblance of 'plot' or well-developed characters. Saunders does not just deconstruct the novel, he decimates it with a sledgehammer. 

This text is a perfect example of what literary critic Linda Hutcheon refers to as "historiographic meta-fiction," which is just another fancy way of saying that it is highly self-reflexive and inherently paradoxical while problematizing the relationship between history and fiction. The movement from realism to post-modernism in this novel is an important moment of transition, encapsulating a shift in genre and consciousness. The fragmented narrative shows unity through disunity; celebrating multiple truths instead of just one overarching truth. The separation from literary tradition is relevant to any poetics of post-modernism and Saunders enthusiastically eschews with any linear succession of historical writing; he presents a striking denunciation of empiricism and objective truth. By not being bound to only what has happened in the past, the text confronts the paradoxes of fictive/historical representation. Saunders does a staggering amount of research on Abraham Lincoln, which draws attention to the historiography but there are gaps in that history and fiction helps to alleviate this problem. Thus, the self-recognition of fictional artifice allows other voices who have been erased by history to speak, including Abe's son Willie along with a chorus of ghosts. Yes, Saunder even dabbles in the supernatural to reclaim these lost voices. Language is power and he gives a voice to those silenced from "official history" through a self-reflexive meta-fiction. 

If writers like Italo Calvino, Ishmael Reed or even Kurt Vonnegut are considered post-modernist writers for their subversion of literary conventions then would George Saunders be viewed as a post-post modernist writer for his radical deconstructionism? I never thought it were possible to push the boundaries of the novel form this far until now and it makes me wonder: what's next, a novel comprising of grocery lists, scribbles or legal documents? Anyways, for me, Saunders's experimental form worked rather well for the most part to create a compelling narrative and there were some emotionally resonant moments. However, my only problem is that this particular style feels tedious at times and also a bit gimmicky once you figure out what is going on and get attuned to the rhythm of his prose.

Deal Me In Challenge: Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

Card Drawn:

Don't look now but Daphne Du Maurier delivers one of the wackiest endings of all time.
I really wanted to like this story more. Truly. My apologies go out to Jay @ Bibliophilopolis, a big fan of Daphne Du Maurier and whose glowing review of "Don't Look Now" inspired me to read it for the DMI challenge. Granted, I do not have any regrets and the author has been on my radar for quite some time so it was somewhat gratifying to finally read some of her work. The story was also adapted into a 1973 film adaptation starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, which I am now curious to watch.  

This is one of the few times during this challenge that I have encountered a short-story that is too long. Condensing the narrative and removing the ridiculous ending would likely have produced a more satisfying story. In "Don't Look Now," Du Maurier embraces the macabre and supernatural, yielding mixed results. With the Gothic backdrop of Venice, it follows a couple on vacation in the beautiful city hoping to rekindle their marriage as they grieve the recent death of their young daughter. Of course, unresolved trauma and guilt tends to have a damaging effect on one's psyche, as John's (the husband) tentative grasp on reality starts to slip away. His psychosis rendered by hallucinations and paranoia is conveyed effectively enough despite being exaggerated at times almost to the point of parody. 

The unique landscape of Venice with its canals, winding pathways, hidden alleys and dark corners becomes the perfect setting for the mysterious and the uncanny. Since John's perspective is the main narrative focalization point, the reader is meant to sympathize with his plight as he falls deeper and deeper into madness but the third person narrator's attention to detail and clinical observation also creates a certain narrative distance. This stylistic choice is a double-edged sword. Du Maurier is less concerned with developing complex characters so they come across as flat, their main focus is only to move the plot along from point A to point B to point C. However, this allows her to focus all of her attention on the plot's mystery and linear progression that slowly builds suspense towards a shocking conclusion. Her primary objective is to deliver an entertaining story from start to finish although many parts do feel tedious. If Du Maurier wanted to generate a visceral reaction from the reader by the plot's denouement, then she is successful because the ending is a real shocker, albeit, in a nonsensical and laughable way. It is one of those WTF moments that completely ruins the story, turning what could have been a memorable psychological thriller into cartoonish absurdity. 

Sunday 8 March 2020

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer


This won the Booker Prize? What a joke.

I forced myself to read this for one of my classes. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment. Gordimer's writing style is so verbose and insufferable to read. Sure, she tackles big issues of colonialism and race relations in apartheid South Africa (during the 60s? 70s?) but I for one found it difficult to care about anything going on in this novel. The story is about some rich, misogynistic white dude who owns a farm in rural South Africa and tries desperately to form an intimate relationship with the land but he can't since he is, uh, white and the land doesn't belong to him in the first place since his colonial predecessors stole the land from the native Africans. He continues to uphold their conservative principles of white privilege and colonial power. Oh, a dead body also shows up on his property. He is pretty upset about this and complains to the authorities but since it is a dead black body, they don't really care. Racism and all that.

The novel is full of ironies. He is a business man and venture capitalist but also, as the title indicates, a "conservationist" (how clever!). He is referred to as a farmer but ironically, does not do any farming at all. Instead, he exploits the labor of his black workers (what else is new). In one of many bizarre scenes, he fingers a girl on a plane (Gordimer embellishes this sexual violation with such lengthy poetic detail that it is cringe-worthy) and in the attempt to become one with nature, he crouches down in his field to unload his bowels. No, I am not kidding--this really happens. I could be wrong but perhaps his act of defecation on the land is symbolic of the white colonialists who all took a massive shit on Africa. Maybe. 

Anyways, I am sure post-colonial critics will find plenty to say about the novel, especially its employment of heavy symbolism while also praising her narrative techniques (I for one found her stream-of-consciousness and free-indirect discourse bloody annoying). Furthermore, reading this novel within the ideologically framework of cosmopolitanism could make for some interesting discussion on white colonialism but quite frankly, who cares.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges

Card Drawn:

You remind of the babe (what babe?) / The babe with the power (what power) / The power of Voodoo (who do?) / You do (do what?) / Remind me of the babe.
Borges' stories are always highly self-reflexive and consistently reveal their own narrativity. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is no exception. The structuring of a detective story within a labyrinth framework produces a chiasmus effect, different narrative levels folding on themselves in an array of paradoxical reversals. Suffice it to say, this is one confusing story. It begins with the description from a history textbook about a strategic attack by the Germans against the British during WWI, accompanied with a statement written by a Dr. Yu Tsun to corroborate the historical facts. However, it is also revealed by the third-person narrator that the two first pages are missing from Tsun's personal document. Confused yet? Narrative gaps, fragmentation and lacuna are some of Borges' favorite literary motifs to employ in his stories to generate a sense of confounded mystery. He then drops various clues and riddles along the way for the reader to solve. For example, take this little nugget: 

"He who is to perform a horrendous act should imagine to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past."

On the surface, this statement seems like harmless philosophical musing but nothing in a Borges story is by accident. Once the proper context has been established, the reader can go back and realize that the author has been alluding to time as a paradoxical bifurcation, projecting unrealized versions of events. The ideological fallibility of free-will and the self-reflexive 'authorial voice' will also be featured prominently in the story. 

Beginning in medias res because of the missing pages, Dr. Yu Tsun's first-person narration makes up the bulk of the story. He is a Chinese-German spy in England and suspected of murder by authorities, led by a Capt. Richard Madden. He claims to have been forced into espionage even though the Germans are racist towards the Chinese and is driven by a sense of pride, wanting to prove that "yellow man could save his armies." Weird depictions of Orientalism aside, he is caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse, desperate to place important military information into the right hands before getting caught. This brings us to the next frame narrative: Dr. Stephen Albert, a renowned sinologist (someone who studies China) who is sought out by Dr. Yu Tsun for reasons that are bewildering at first but made clear by the story's end. Coincidentally (or not?), Dr. Stephen Albert is a leading expert on the works of Tsui Pen who also happens to be Dr. Yu Tsun's grandfather. He was famous for an obscure novel and constructing a "labyrinth in which all men would lose their way." Pen was murdered, leaving behind an indecipherable novel and the actual labyrinth was never found. I will not reveal what happens next, only to say that it is totally mind-blowing. 

This story is an elaborate puzzle or to put it another way: a literal and figurative labyrinth full of unexpected twists and turns, contradictions and paradoxes. A metaphysical concept of time becomes integral to understanding Borges' paradoxical narrative construction containing an infinite web of possibilities occurring simultaneously. Borges' convoluted narrative and circumlocutions might initially seem like they serve no discernible purpose but the creative way all of the different narrative threads interconnect and come full circle in the end is nothing short of genius. 

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Jokester by Isaac Asimov

Card Drawn:

What's the difference between a well dressed man on a bike and a poorly dressed man on a unicycle? Attire.

The Multivac supercomputer makes several other appearances in Isaac Asimov's short-fiction, most notably The Last Question, which is an ironic re-telling of Genesis from the Bible. An absolutely mind-blowing story and I cannot recommend it enough. However, in "Jokester," Asimov is not so much interested in the religion vs. science debate; rather, epistemology takes center stage but in a very surprising way that deviates from any expected ontological discourses. Instead, he proposes a seemingly innocuous question: Where do jokes come from? This philosophical conundrum binds and structures Asimov's text, setting up the reader to play along as an audience member that is listening to an elaborate joke with a comedic punch-line at the climax, consisting of irresolvable ironies. The entire conceit is cleverly orchestrated by Asimov.

The advanced technology of Multivac is able to store and process vast amounts of information at an exponential rate, capable of answering the most complex questions in the universe. However, only a select few on Earth, referred to as Grand Masters, are able to properly communicate with Multivac. Meyerhof, the protagonist, is one of these rare great minds. He is depicted as a stereotypical scientist upholding rationalism and lacking a sense of humor. As a Grand Master, he is socially awkward and alienated by others because of his superior intellect. In an attempt to fit in with his colleagues, he has resorted to telling funny jokes and has earned the reputation as a jokester. However, one of his colleagues, a senior analyst named Whistler, catches him feeding Multivac jokes in order to receive new jokes. This is a violation of company policy since Meyerhof should be using Multivac to improve mankind rather than for personal reasons. Asimov maintains a lighthearted and sardonic tone throughout the story. Additionally, he seems to be satirizing government bureaucracy and the morality of scientific research. 

The ending is wonderful in all of its ironic splendor, revealing that the joke has been on us, as readers, the entire time. Like any great comedian, Asimov has been meticulously setting up the joke so that the punch-line lands in an unexpected way, which is both funny and profound. 

Tuesday 3 March 2020

February Recap

Please stop snowing.
It's hard to believe that March is already upon us! I'm glad that this brutal winter is almost over and we can actually spend some time outdoors without freezing to death. February was a busy month for me, both in my personal life and reading-wise. Considering my hectic schedule, I somehow managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading even though it was mostly short-stories. I returned to blogging from a three year hiatus in mid-January with the intention of slowly getting back into reading and writing reviews again. The Deal Me In Challenge has certainly helped a great deal with rejuvenating my love for literature, especially short-fiction. 52 cards in a deck, 52 weeks in a year so that equates to one short story a week. Initially, that seemed like a very reasonable goal without feeling overwhelmed although I did not anticipate that reading short-stories would turn into full-blown obsession. I am now way ahead of schedule and actually thinking about trying to read 365 short-stories for the year! Do you think this is feasible or a fool's errand? Getting burnt out by reading so much over a short period of time is always a risk. Nonetheless, I have had the pleasure of discovering fantastic stories along the way as well as some new favorite authors, most notably Haruki Murakami:

Handsome fella.
Favorite short-story so far: The Year of Spaghetti by Haruki Murkami

Least favorite short-story so far: Poor Yorick by Theodore Sturgeon

I have also decided to take on the Back to the Classics Challenge, which is an extenuation of the Classics Club Challenge that I started on this blog back in 2011. Yikes, that feels like ages ago. There are several intimidating titles on my list such as The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoeyevsky and Moby Dick by Herman Melville but I am still excited to read them. These hefty tomes have been weighing down my shelves for years. Speaking of lengthy works, I am currently reading:

Tolstoy's writing is impeccable or maybe that has something to do with the amazing translation by Peaver and Volokhonsky. This is a slow burn and the author is meticulous in exploring the psychological complexities of the many characters. In terms of plot, nothing has really happened yet but the novel is still deeply engaging because it is such a rich character study and there are many interconnected story-lines occurring simultaneously that keeps the narrative momentum flowing. Throw in some compelling philosophical, religious and political discourse along the way and you got me hooked. For me, Levin has established himself as the more interesting characters among the massive cast and I am curious to see how his story-line develops. However, I can do without Kitty's annoying histrionics. Despite my short-attention span when it comes to reading novels with 800+ pages, I am actually making decent progress and surprised by the accessible language, which is making for a quite the captivating read. I am only on Part II and sitting at 25% according to my kindle. Not too shabby. Only 16 hours and 4 minutes to go!

Let's hope March proves to be another productive month of reading and posting on this blog.