July was a strange mix of books I absolutely adored, and books I didn't like at all. Also, I spent at least half of the month stuck in Dhalgren.
Reading list length: 466
Books I enjoyed
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss was an absolute delight. It takes place in Victorian London, and we see the daughters of Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, Dr Moreau, and other classics of Victorian literature trying to unravel the mystery of their creation (in absence of their creators, who mostly died gruesome deaths, perfectly appropriate). It's a lovely book, perfectly well-written, utterly charming and entertaining, featuring a lot of well-researched facts. References are abound. If this is not the age or type of literature you feel comfortable with, it might not be the book for you, but otherwise, it's the very best of books for a relaxing read.
The Calculating Stars
The Calculating Stars by Marie Robinette Kowal is a book I enjoyed tremendously, and I have started recommending it to a bunch of friends. It is set in the US in the 50s, just shortly after a meteorite drops into the sea next to Washington, kills millions, and starts what might be an extinction level event. Our protagonist is a woman with a PhD in maths, who flew planes in WW2 for WASP (officially never saw combat, but, y'know …), and whose husband is lead engineer for the NACA/IAC.
Now that the earth might become uninhabitable within decades, the space programme kicks off in earnest and our protagonist works as a computer for the IAC. Then she realizes that she is perfectly qualified to go to space, but as you can imagine, in the US in the 50s, going to space as a woman is more-or-less unthinkable.
This book shows a lot of important things. Life as a religious minority (the protagonist is Jewish). Life for black people (the protagonist slowly starts recognizing her own racial biases when confronted with them). Sexism, naturally. Some politicking, fake news, all that jazz. The book also unashamedly geeks out over space. Spaaaace! It's very well researched, and there were only three or four places when the geek-enthusiasm reached cringy levels.
Despite my love for the book, a couple of warnings are in order. First off, this book is the first part of a two-book series. Secondly, the characters tend to be somewhat one-dimensional, and the protagonist has some issues that in my opinion were not handled well. It's as if she was created as a Mary Sue, then got slapped with a major crippling flaw to make up for it, and then the flaw was only clumsily integrated in the story. These are things I only noticed a couple of days after finishing the book, though – while reading it I was spellbound. If space or planes or alternate history or general geeky enthusiasm is your thing, this will be for you!
In Memory, part of the Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold shows off what character development can look like. Talk about emotional payoff! Without spoiling too much, we see Miles, our somewhat-hero, change his life in many ways, and go through the dark passages, darker thoughts, and inevitable pains this change brings. My only criticism might have been that ignoring the somewhat obvious(?) solution to the whodunnit is not very Miles like, but when I thought about it, I realized that this blind spot has a perfect explanation in Miles' character, so there is that. A very impressive book, that let me keep my high opinion of the Vorkosigan series (because improving it would be close to impossible).
The Hydrogen Sonata
With Hydrogen Sonata, I have now finished the Culture series by Iain Banks. It's been a ride.
Hydrogen Sonata is a somewhat typical Culture book, and while I didn't quite enjoy it as much as other Culture books, it's still wonderful scifi. The pieces are all there: Snarky ships (which were actually at their best in this book), universe-spanning plots, but with plenty of single characters involved, who do their things in their flawed ways, often-but-not-always saved or guided by said snarky ships. Showing off the good and bad in AI and human characters. The main story arc – a civilization set on subliming because they decided so, not out of actual conviction, pulled along by the politicians who orchestrated the decision – is so much of a Brexit metaphor that it hurts. Good book all around.
- 2BR02B is a very Kurt Vonnegut short story about a future with immortal people and very quid-pro-quo population control. Think Futurama's suicide booth. It's gruesome in this Vonnegut style that shows you reality, but in a very specific detached angle. I read it when I was feeling pretty down, and it did a good job kicking me back into a more grounded view, as ill-fitting as that sounds.
Do not recommend
Asking me to rate Dhalgren by Samuel Delany is like asking me to rate Kafka's Process. I'm sure that they are both good books, objectively. I'm sure they are good books to many people out there. I can recognize their excellent language, their meta storytelling, their intense settings and the skilled ways they use language to provoke feelings (which they do!).
It's only … the feelings that they provoke, are oppressive, depressive, sucking me dry of any energy and impulse and feeling. This is how I felt reading Kafka, and that's how I felt reading Dhalgren. I wanted to know the ending! I definitely wanted to know more about the protagonist, and his life, and his choices! But this city with its undefined catastrophe in the background, with unexplainable phenomena everywhere, which are never resolved were too much a negative backdrop for me to enjoy the upsides: Creative storytelling, realistic characters with flaws (plenty) and charms (occasional). Kinks, violence, sex, polyamory, race, anarchy, hierarchy, linguistical discussions – all of these parts were good, and fun! In the last, endless chapter (roughly the last 20% of the book) the storytelling disintegrates entirely, both in time, and style, and trustworthiness, and coherency, and it's all sorts of fun – but it's fun in a world without meaning where the sun never shines. I'm afraid I'll remain a fan of Delany's shorter works, and put down Dhalgren as "not for me".
The Well of Ascension
Maybe I'm pampered by more recent Brandon Sanderson novels, but I thought that the writing in The Well of Ascension (part two of Mistborn) was pretty bad. Both the story arcs and character arcs were decent (and while patterns Sanderson likes are very noticeable, and he has gotten better at their execution, that wasn't so bad), but the writing made clear why people say they read Sanderson "for the plot, not for the writing". Had the plot been less plausible or the characters less likeable, I might have just stopped reading this book after the first couple of chapters. But I liked how Vin and her friends have agency and a bit of development (even if it would've been great if it hadn't been slapped in my face repeatedly). Let's just see this book as a testament of how far Sanderson has come as a writer since then.
Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin was my first book I really wanted to give up on this year. I'm always very hesitant to pick up non-fiction books, especially those that touch on self-help or psychology in any way. There's so much misinformation and only mildly informed, untested theory out there, and I'm just not qualified to judge what is good and what isn't. An unqualified reader such as myself is likely to be taken in by somebody with more writing skill than knowledge, and I really can do without that sort of thing.
Focusing was recommended to me, but it starts out trying to sell me things. It tries to sell its own brilliance ("couldn't do without it!"), and innovation ("studying some questions that most psychotherapists don't like to ask out loud"), and services (repeated mentions of telephone advice services available). If your book tries to sell me on its brilliance and related services without even presenting its case first, I feel like the door-to-door salesman just rung to sell me a washing machine that I don't need. The writing is always either selling or talking down to the reader and I found it very offputting – I don't like the cheap manipulation that comes with this style of writing.
The core idea is listening to your body, and experiencing bodily shifts (positive feelings of a knot opening etc) when trying to figure out a problem – basically a meditative practice. This is very plausible to me, but the writing made it hard to get through the material. So, spoilers, here is their methodology:
1. Calm down: Sit down, calm down, breathe for a bit. Then list the things that feel like they're currently a problem for you.
2. Choose the problem you want to work on. Keep an emotional distance and instead figure out how your body feels when concentrating on that problem (this will be uncomfortable). Disregard your inner monologue (i.e. analysis, guilt, etc.).
3. Focus on finding the word (or maybe a very short phrase) that exactly describes your feeling regarding the problem. You'll notice when you hit on the right one, because your feeling will change (usually ease). This will take a while.
4. Compare the word/image you found in the last step and compare them with the feeling you found and defined in the second step. Make sure they match (i.e. trigger a shift in feeling), otherwise repeat 3. Pay attention to how your feeling shifts now that you have a good name for them.
5. Trigger a clearer understanding by focussing on the name you found and concentrating on some questions, like "What about this problem makes me _?", or "What's the worst/most _ about this?", or "What would it take for this to feel ok?". Wait for the answer to bubble up, don't trust fast answers (which are probably just preconceived notions of how your mind should work.)
6. Accept the answers you find, without judgement. You can always decide to disagree with them later, but you have to accept them without judgement first.
The first step is a bit like unfocused meditation, maybe even metta meditation. I liked the question "How would my body feel if this problem was somehow solved?" as an entrypoint to exploring a problem. The other steps are more focused meditation, and all involve being calm, slightly distanced, and taking some time (at least half a minute or a minute) of waiting for answers to show up. Not terribly exciting, and worse for the fact that it sees itself as more of a therapy approach as opposed to a meditation thing.
Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong
I'm really very much not a fan of Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Pierre Bayard. Spoilers ahead, though I won't spoil the proposed solution to the Baskerville case.
The book's premise is this: Doyle was so tilted by having to bring back Sherlock Holmes that he didn't correctly solve this case, because he was busy writing an evil-associated, incompetent, absent Holmes. The author proposes an alternate resolution, and shows plenty of sources for his judgement of both Doyle and Holmes. This part of the book is fine! Speculating about other plausible interpretations of a story, and addressing inconsistencies is fun! I enjoyed the speculation, and the solution.
The problem is – well, this would have made a fine essay. Or, you know, do what everybody else is doing and write fan fiction. Instead, the author decided he was a fancy, intellectual scholar with his own school of literature interpretation. So, before in true detective style we get a grand reveal in the end, we have to sit through a long, rambling, and condescending retelling of what the author thinks of literature. Y'know, generally. Points for style because he teasers his other books (he did a similar book on the Roger Ackroyd murder by Agatha Christie), complete with "you'll have to buy them to find out my solution".
I tend to trust translators, so I'd like to place the blame for the Doylian, pretentious and condescending tone with the author. Funnily enough, the translator doesn't only add the customary required footnotes, but also corrects the author's opinions where appropriate: Bayard bases parts of his argument and comparison on associations provided by the French translation that aren't present in the English original.
So all things considered: A good idea that would have been enjoyable if it didn't take itself so goddamn seriously. Write some fanfic, dude.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland had the potential to be a book I liked a lot, but … I didn't. Its premise is that zombies rise in the US during the confederate wars, and so history changes. Slavery is abolished, but black people and Indians have to go to fighting schools and fight zombies. our protagonist is a black teenage girl in exactly that situation. She's sassy, self-reliant, and generally has the potential to be a delightful nuisance.
Instead, both the story and the writing are somewhat of a slog. The protagonist's voice breaks my suspension of disbelief by being all over the place, time-wise. Sometimes she sounds like she's from the 90s. Sometimes, the 50s. Sometimes, the actual time the novel takes place in.
And also, during the whole somewhat incoherent plot, she never reaches her goals, or even works towards them in any meaningful fashion. Things happen to her, she snarks at them, and then she takes some half-baked action that either does nothing, or backfires. And then add some increasingly random writing towards the end ("Hey I also like girls" would have made much more sense if it had been shown, not told, and not towards the end, but maybe while she was at an all-girls school?). I'd have loved to like this book, but I really couldn't.