A Desolation Called Peace

This was another pick for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club, one of the few times we decided on a sequel. I touched on the first book, A Memory Called Empire, in my most recent GoodReads Roundup post. I wish I’d found the time to write a more in-depth review, but so it goes.

Cover of A Desolation Called Peace
Image courtesy Tor

Desolation follows fast on the heels of  MemoryVery fast. Memory focused on intrigue and the politics of empire and national sovereignty; Desolation takes that conflict and then throws it into a first contact scenario. Considering how much of a plot point the alien threat ended up being in Memory, part of me suspects that they started out as one single volume. If this is indeed the case, then I think the surgical separation went well. Memory had a satisfying, clearly demarcated ending. I would have been perfectly satisfied if I never got around to reading Desolation.

But I still loved A Desolation Called Peace.

Desolation takes our ambassador Mahit, freshly returned from the events of Memory, and throws her into acting as a negotiator and xenolinguist alongside her former cultural liaison, friend, and maybe-lover. The alien threat, meanwhile, is a good ol’ fashioned hivemind with an incomprehensible spoken language so hideous it induces vomiting. As if that weren’t enough, tensions are high at Mahit’s home station and she might not be welcome back. Like Memory, there is still plenty of casual bisexuality, intrigue, and lesbians.

Martine left herself an opening in the end of Desolation. Several openings. Maybe that’s job security on her part, or a cash grab on the part of her publisher. I choose to see them as a gift to the reader. Sometimes the vast imaginary potential of a story is better than any follow up.

Stöld

Stöld was another pick from the neighborhood book club, which I joined in order meet my neighbors and to ensure some kind of minimum Swedish reading level in my annual book consumption (25% I decided was a good, if arbitrary, goal).

Stöld by Ann-Helen Laestadius
Image courtesy Romanus & Selling

Swedish book club stayed on brand for this one: rather grim reading (animal cruelty and hate crimes) and literally dark, set as it is in the north of Sweden, largely during the winter. I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly hyped for this selection, but in the end I came out enjoying it, or at least not angry that I read it.

Stöld focuses on Elsa, a young Sami reindeer herder, and her struggle to carve out a space for herself among Samis and Swedes alike. This struggle is centered in one particular conflict: that with the book’s antagonist, Robert Isakson. Isakson’s harassment of Elsa in particular and the Sami community at large is the arena where most of the story plays out and whence the smaller conflicts arise. Is it worth it for Samis to try to turn to the local police for protection? Should they take matters into their own hands? What kind of relationship should they try to have with Swedes? Differences of opinions here underscore smaller, gender-based conflicts Elsa has with her own community, one that expects her to eventually become a housewife when she loves nothing more than being out with the reindeer.

The book fell down for me in narrative execution. There are small things Laestadius does that are often used in other genres as tricks to build towards certain kind of plot twists or reveals—that Isakson is actually a red herring of a suspect, or that a key death in Elsa’s social group was a murder, or the result of criminal negligence, rather than a suicide—but everything is played straight. The bad guy is the bad guy. The suicide is a suicide. The result is that the story feels a bit hollow; a bit shallow. I suppose that’s my fault for coming into this with vague expectations of “Nordic noir, but with reindeer herders.”

Isakson in particular isn’t a particularly satisfying antagonist. Laestadius gestures weakly at how the same system that fails Elsa is failing Isakson as well, and at how toxic masculinity and small-town snobbery (where everyone knows every other family’s business, and has known it for generations) have robbed him of a fulfilling life. Nonetheless, it doesn’t account for the levels of sheer cruelty Isakson reaches, and as a result he feels a bit flat and mustache-twirling.

But what the story lacked, the writing made up for. Laestadius captured a mood very well, where the point wasn’t how predictable or tense the story would be (I appreciate that none of the chapters end on cliffhangers) but more to illustrate “here is a distillation of what this life is like, more or less.” And to that end, I understand why Stöld won Bonniers’ Book of the Year Award for 2021. I’ve certainly read worse, so I’m not mad.

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

It’s October and somehow I’m still not finished writing up all of the reading I did on my summer vacation (as well as what I did besides read on my summer vacation). This was a book I started and finished during my long weekend in Austin.

Image courtesy Small Beer Press.

Author: Ted Chiang

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A short story collection including “Story of Your Life,” which was the basis for the movie Arrival

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; anyone who enjoyed Arrival

In-depth thoughts: The problem with reviewing short story collections so long (months) after you’ve read them is that it’s harder to keep all of the stories in mind. I know that I liked what I read a lot, but I struggle to remember exactly what it was that I read — except the titular story, “Story of Your Life,” which is definitely the strongest of them all.

After a quick refresher (as in, reading someone else’s review on GoodReads), my memory came back to me. The other stories I remembered enjoying were “Hell is the Absence of God,” “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” and “Division by Zero.” Despite winning a Sideways award (whatever that is?), “Seventy-Two Letters” didn’t really appeal to me. Neither did “Tower of Babylon.” “Understand” was mildly interesting, in that it was probably the most “traditional” science fiction of the lot (what happens when people give themselves supergenius intellects?), but it didn’t have the same existentialist concerns or the same experimentation with form that characterized what I thought were the best stories. And, finally, “The Evolution of Human Science” is a clever and pithy little work and I enjoyed it in the moment I read it, but by the time I sat down to write this review I’d completely forgotten it.

“Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon” are steeped in Jewish lore (Kabbalah, golems) and Old Testament mythology, respectively, which might confuse readers coming from a different cultural milieu.

What I appreciate about this collection is one of the same things I appreciated about The Three-Body Problem: author commentary is included at the end. It’s interesting to take a peak behind the curtain and see the germ of an idea for a story (if I can mix my metaphors a little). Chiang has yet to produce a novel-length work, but I think many of the ideas in here have enough meat to become novels on their own. I look forward to any future work from Chiang, and I hope he tackles more long-form work in the future.

My Favorite Books of 2015, According to GoodReads

It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?

My Favorite Books of 2015

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles

I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).

February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.

What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic of Cancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.

 

May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.

In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.

Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.

Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.

A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)

If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.

 

December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.

We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.

 

December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far betweenBarabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.

Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.

What were your favorite books that you read in 2015? Are you on GoodReads? If you like, you can follow me there.