Orlando

As established in my StoryGraph Wrap-Up post, the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club is responsible for just about 25% or so of my reading every year. Here’s me getting a head start on the first meeting of 2023, finishing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando right at the end of 2022.

As this selection might imply, the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club applies a very generous definition of “science fiction.” This is only a good thing, in my opinion, because it keeps things fresh and varied. I have no complaints about Orlando being included and I think I even voted for it in our poll.

I just wish I could like Virginia Woolf.

I don’t understand what my problem is. I love Mrs Dalloway, enough that it’s one of the few books I’ve re-read in my life, but anything else I’ve ever attempted just leaves me cold. “Why aren’t you Mrs Dalloway?” I lament as I read, until I either finish the book (Orlando) or give up on it entirely (To the LighthouseA Room of One’s Own). Is it a disconnect of time? Culture? Class?  I’m reminded of my colleague’s complaint about Thomas Savage: “You love yourself too much, book.”

I won’t dispute Woolf’s place in the English canon, her role in feminist literature, or the esteemed reputation she enjoys today. My point isn’t that she’s Objectively Bad, Actually or Extremely Overrated (I save that hot take for Jane Austen!). I think she is, on balance, very well deserving of her posthumous success and reputation. I just lack the necessary receptors in my reading brain to actually enjoy her writing.

Light From Uncommon Stars

Unless you went to high school with me, you probably don’t know that I played the violin in orchestra.

Well, now you do, I guess?

I was never particularly good, let me be clear. It would be fair to say I was a perfectly mediocre violinist. Nonetheless I enjoyed orchestra and continued throughout my entire high school career, concert orchestra as well as pit orchestra. I don’t really think about the violin very often—usually only when I listen to a particular symphonic piece we performed, where my memory of it is more deeply embodied than with other music. Who knows, maybe my brain is still sending phantom signals to my lefthand fingers and bow arm.

Light From Uncommon Stars, on the other hand, made me think about the violin a lot.

Our heroine is Katrina Nguyen, a trans teenager and gifted violinist. Legendary violin instructor Shizuka Satomi hears Katrina playing in a park and decides to take her on as a student so she can complete her Faustian bargain with the demon Tremon Philippe and deliver Katrina’s soul to Hell. Alien refugee and spaceship captain Lan Tran has fled to Earth with her family and fallen in love with Shizuka after she visits the donut shop Tran runs as a cover operation for constructing a stargate.

Catch all that?

There is a lot going on in Light From Uncommon Stars, and while it’s at times a fun and dizzying combination of science fiction and demons from Hell and classical music, sometimes it’s a bit too much. Memories and flashbacks appear out of nowhere without adding anything to the story or its characters. Shizuka’s grand declamations and philosophical reflections about the power of musical performance are at once too long and too shallow to really ring true for me. All of this crowds out more interesting material for me, like Katrina’s genuinely insightful and touching reflection on gender identity through the metaphor of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin.

Nor does Aoki flinch from at least gesturing at the more traumatic events of Katrina’s previous life, which don’t always blend well with the wacky feel-good sci-fi hijinks. There were moments where it hit something like anti-lagom (mogal?), exactly wrong instead of exactly right: what should be goofy space shit feels a bit out of place compared to what just happened in the last chapter; betrayal that would take a lot of time and therapy to work through in the real world is brushed aside almost immediately to get our wacky plot on the road.

But there are violins.

According to her author bio, Aoki is also a composer. This is hardly surprising given the countless musical references, including several to—of course—Paganini. (And yet, apparently Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” was too on the nose for Aoki to use here? Missed opportunity, if you ask me.) I don’t know if Aoki is also a violinist, but whether it was lived experience or impeccable research, many of the violin-specific asides landed for me in an almost visceral way; the same embodied memory as when I hear a piece I performed in orchestra. “Does she need some tape on her fingerboard?” is one withering remark from the antagonist about Katrina’s inexpertise that made me cringe in shame: that controversial, or at least pedestrian, method was how I had been taught. Crappy rosin in plastic cases. Tuning forks. The way it feels to slide a wire mute over the bridge. Viola jokes. (Or, well, one viola joke. Which was mostly implied.) All of that was an absolute delight, to the point where I began to get a bit irritated when the book wasn’t talking about music. (Or food. Lots of food in this book. Her bio doesn’t mention it but I bet Aoki would call herself a foodie.)

Violins, however, are not enough. To put it bluntly, there was a lot in Light From Uncommon Stars that was simply not written for me. I don’t mean that because of the subject matter beyond my own lived experience (I’m not Asian, I’m not trans), but rather on a more “philosophy of reading” level.

Any conflict not immediately related to the relationships between Shizuka, Katrina, and Tran inevitably comes to a pat conclusion within a page or two. Minor villains are either destroyed immediately after their appearance (a racist storeowner drops dead of a heart attack half an hour after he disses Katrina’s violin; the emcee of a talent showcase who makes transphobic jokes at Katrina’s expense suffers a housefire), disappear entirely from the narrative (Katrina’s awful roommates), or are declared irredeemably toxic by Implied Word of God and summarily consigned by Katrina to the memory hole with no mourning or regret (Katrina’s parents). All of these had the potential to be the site of really thoughtful consideration and nuanced storytelling, but Aoki just sidesteps them, which then inspires the question of why include those conflicts or characters in the first place.

Everything neat and tidy, warm fuzzies and bear hugs for everybody.

I get why people want that in a book. I get in that mood sometimes, too. But I wasn’t in that mood when I picked up Light From Uncommon Stars so I had a hard time enjoying the book on those terms. Settling back into my violinist body, though? Even for just a couple of hours? That’s what I’m here for.

The Power of the Dog

While I think it’s important to try to chip away at a TBR, either through actually reading the books on it or constantly refining it and winnowing it down, I think it’s also important to stay open to truly random, out of left field suggestions.

The Power of the Dog was one such left field book—a coworker mentioned over beers that our mutual friend had given the book a strong recommendation but that he couldn’t stand it himself.

“You love yourself too much, book,” was his exact complaint.

But, same as with L’Élégance du hérisson or Pappan och havet, I get curious about the books that people I know are really enthusiastic about. The library had a copy and I had a trip up to the family farm over the weekend so plenty of time for reading.

Brothers Phil and George run a cattle ranch out west, after the retirement of their Boston born-and-bred parents to Salt Lake City. Phil and George are a study in contrasts; briefly put, Phil is something of a bully while George is amiable and softspoken. Their usual routine is thrown into disarray when George marries the widow Rose Gordon and brings her back to the ranch. Phil immediately writes Rose off as an opportunistic gold-digger, engaging in a campaign of psychological terrorism that drives her to drink and only ends with the arrival of Rose’s son from her previous marriage.

I’m not sure why I’d never heard of The Power of the Dog, or even why I didn’t know anything about Thomas Savage before now. At any rate, you can’t know what you don’t know (the “unknown unknowns”), which is why I make room for those left field, happenstance book recommendations. This was never one I would have picked on its own merits, given its grim subject matter. Even the first page is, frankly, a bit off-putting with its depiction of Phil castrating a calf. But sometimes it’s worth it to push through the discomfort and try something out of your usual habits, and so it was here—Savage’s prose is masterful, economical yet no less rich and nuanced in its expression. Assigning just a single chapter for close reading (here I’m thinking of the second chapter, the story of Rose’s first marriage) would be a great piece of instruction for any writing course.

This unexpected appreciation is why I’m deeply skeptical about, and resistant to, any algorithm-based attempt to recommend books to me. They’ll never bring the same kind of out-of-the-blue suggestion. True, sometimes your friends have kind of crappy taste (no greater betrayal in my reading life than when people whose taste I trusted unironically recommended A Song of Ice and Fire to me), but sometimes they break your gestalt and introduce you to something that sticks with you.

L’Élégance du hérisson

The downside of reading in French is that it takes me so much longer than in either English or Swedish.

(It’s only a downside if a manic obsession with productivity drives you to stick to a particular reading schedule, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

An acquaintance recommended this (alongside Pappan och havet, actually) and I opted to read the French original because why not? The library had it, and I was behind on my French reading quota anyway.

(A manic obsession with self-improvement might drive me to set particular language quotas in my reading, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

It’s interesting to notice similarities in the books people enjoy and resonate with. Both Pappan och havet and L’Élégance du hérisson focus on how outcasts find genuine emotional and social connection with the people around them—though of course the personalities in Moomin Dalen are very different from those in Rive Gauche Paris. In Pappan och havet, our outsiders are Mårran and the fisherman; in L’Élégance du hérisson, they are Paloma, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a respectable center-left politician, and Renée, the well-read and cultured concierge of Paloma’s posh apartment building. In Pappan och havet we have the Moomins bringing warmth and connection to both Mårran and the fisherman after they move in to the lighthouse; in L’Élégance du hérisson we have the genteel and kindly Kakuro Ozu who moves into an apartment after the death of its snobbish food critic owner.

With each passing year, it seems that the greatest benefit of my philosophy studies in college is being able to appreciate novels written by authors who also studied philosophy: David Foster Wallace, Lydia Sandgren, and now I suppose Muriel Barbery.

(This glib joke is actually unfair to the many excellent philosophy professors I had in my college career. In all seriousness, philosophy is a worthwhile course of study and it’s only because our minds have been poisoned by an excess of capitalism that the humanities seem like a waste of time.)

Did I only enjoy L’Élégance du hérisson because it made me feel like an elite smartypants? No, I don’t think so—I liked it on its own merits, or additional ones, maybe. There is always room in my heart for snarky, keenly observant children who hold nearly everyone around them in disdain, for example. But my French is still quite rusty, so I don’t know that I can quite comment on much more than that for now. The next thing is to read it again in Swedish (or English), then a third time in French, and see how much more I pick up.

(Does this sound like a laborious and joyless task? Possibly. But here, at least for a moment, I can put aside the capitalist obsession with numbers and figures and progress-at-all costs and take the time to linger over something just for the sake of enjoying it.)

Outline

Sometimes I read English books in Swedish translation out of personal (and I guess professional) curiosity. Is the experience any different? Will I pick up some new vocabulary, learn how to express a particular English sentiment that I still struggle with?

Other times I’m desperate to find any copy of a particular book and only Swedish is available, at which point the exercise is more pragmatic and akin to mental ambidexterity. (See The Jakarta Method.) Such was the case with Rachel Cusk’s Outline, or Konturer in Swedish. This was a selection for the local book club; by the time this post goes up, we’ll have already met for dinner and discussion. I needed a copy by a particular deadline and the Swedish was what was immediately available, so that’s what I went with.

The whole book plays out over just a few days. The narrator is a writer, Faye, an Englishwoman teaching a creative writing workshop in Athens. Most of the book consists of the stories other people tell her, presented in reported speech from Faye’s first-person perspective.

I also might have lied a little bit when I said I only read the Swedish because of availability. That is true, but I was also relieved to find out that the Swedish was more readily available because nothing about this book sounded appealing and because a friend whose taste I trust implicitly hated it. Yes, yes, let’s not judge a book by a cover, either literally or metaphorically, but silly to pretend I’m not influenced by other people’s opinions. Hence I was hoping that reading the Swedish would bypass everything my friend found tedious about the book and let me enjoy it regardless.

James Lasdun notes in his review in the Guardian that

…in funnelling all the characters’ stories through Faye’s very refined sensibility (there’s little direct speech), Cusk gives them all a certain high-polished sameness, at least at the purely verbal level. I can’t say that bothered me, but no doubt it will keep some readers from responding to the book as enthusiastically as I did.

And that is exactly what happened. All of these people had backgrounds not particularly different from each other (disappointed middle-aged parents, often divorcés), meaning that Cusk’s “high-polished sameness” made for extremely monotonous reading.

Outline also requires a huge suspension of disbelief that I’m frankly not willing to give a book if I’m not having a great time. People tell their entire life stories to strangers in the most unlikely environments: during flights, writing workshops, over dinner. These accounts are always eloquently and coherently presented in language that sounds like no conversation I’ve ever actually had with another human. Much is often given in reported speech or summarized by Faye, and when direct speech appears it doesn’t sound all that different from Faye’s own voice. The latter is maybe a fault with me—I no doubt still lack some nuance and sophistication in my ear for Swedish, so I might have missed the elegance of Rebecca Alsberg‘s translation in places—but it doesn’t make the actual structure of the book any less repetitive.

The only mildly interesting moment in the book comes in the last chapter, and I’m not sure if Cusk actually intended this to be self-reflexive commentary on the rest of the book or if she was just taken with the idea without realizing how it applied to what she was writing. On her last day in Athens, Faye runs into her replacement (they are staying in the same apartment provided by the hosting school), who tells Faye that she’s had the worst time trying to write since she was mugged. Instead of being able to properly write or read a story, she can only fixate on a one-word summary that essentially drains the narrative of all life. Her once-beloved Beckett, for example, she can now only think of as “meaninglessness.” This summarization fixation has also bled beyond literature and into real life, where she’s now facing a crisis of sorts after she realizes that her entire existence could be summarized merely as “Anne’s life.”

That’s all Outline is: a bunch of lives, summarized in more or less the same voice, with nothing interesting arising out of their interaction or juxtaposition. The comparison that comes to mind is Ten Women from Marcela Serrano (English translation by Beth Fowler). Both are a fairly disjointed collection of life stories anchored in the one person all of these people have in common, but at least in Ten Women the characters are from all walks of life (from a TV celebrity to an elderly sales clerk to a young computer science student) and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective and in a different character’s voice. Moreover, their presentation together as a collection gives rise to a more coherent organizing principle than anything in Outline: we can see at once the huge gulfs in experience for all of these women, as well as the struggles they share, and the book functions as a fairly straightforward feminist critique of socio-economic conditions in Chile.

If there is any kind of organizing principle in Outline, it’s a much more banal and self-indulgent one: Faye is sad about her divorce. And since the book gives me no real reason to care that Faye is sad about her divorce, or to understand why it’s such a spectacular tragedy in the world of divorces, everything else collapses into a bunch of tedium.

The Seep

Now we’re out of my non-English vacation reading and back into English territory with The Seep, the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s selection for October.

Straight off, I really liked The Seep. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one marathon session was because I started reading it in the middle of the night and exhaustion eventually overtook me. To get into slightly more detail, The Seep uses the framework of first-contact and utopia genres to examine grief, how it feels to be left behind by seismic shifts in society, and which struggles are worth having. It’s also very queer, very trippy, and very short: the perfect book for getting out of a reading slump.

Perfect, no notes.

Dvärgen

When I did my semester abroad at Stockholm University, I took a course in modern Swedish literature (offered in English, since our Swedish wasn’t much more advanced than “En stor stark, tack!”). It was by far the best literature course of my undergrad career, in large part because of the excellent reading list. The course literature included Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which made such a strong impression on me that I started building a small library of his books as soon as I moved to Sweden.

As I write this, I realize that I have to start almost every review here with some kind of explanation as to either how I came to hear of a book, or why I chose to read it, or both. I guess context is important to me. Here, for example, you can (rightly) infer that I went into this book biased and well-disposed towards Lagerkvist, and now you can (rightly) expect that I liked it. Now I can dispense with the pointless formality and hubris of passing judgment on a well-established classic and just ramble a bit. My point here isn’t to encourage—or discourage—anyone from picking up something relatively new and/or obscure. I just want to remember what I read and, in this case, present worthy Swedish books to my English-speaking friends. Lagerkvist was a huge international hit in his lifetime but he seems to have returned to mere domestic fame; these days Sweden’s entries in world literature appear to be limited to Strindberg and Nordic noir, which I feel is deeply unfair. Fortunately, it’s my understanding that there is an English translation of Dvärgen available and that it is of excellent quality, so you don’t have to miss out on this one.

Anyway! Dvärgen is simply the diary of a court dwarf in Renaissance Italy, spanning maybe six months to a year for the bulk of the action. It includes war, assassinations, intrigue, plague, famine and all the rest through the eyes of said unnamed dwarf, a character that literary criticism has near unanimously described as “evil incarnate.” That’s the interpretation I was thinking about after I finished the book. Is the narrator really meant to be as much?

I don’t ask the question to “woobify” him, as the expression goes—to turn a clearly morally corrupt character into a sympathetic and victimized hero. While his role as as servant means he’s often acting on behalf of others, the dwarf also carries out several actions on his own initiative, motivated by rage and sadism. Nor is there any attempt to make him appealing or “likeable,” like a secret fondness for animals or sensitivity to music. He finds all of the nobler human emotions and pursuits abhorrent or ridiculous; the only things he confesses to enjoying are war, violence, and bloodshed. The extent of the sympathy evoked for him is the absolutely dehumanizing treatment he receives from just about everyone around him. Stepping back, we can also of course point out that we are reading his own diary and account of himself, which is naturally how he wants to be experienced and how he is choosing to present himself, but that is an ambiguous point we can, at best, only infer. I’m sure there’s been more than one thesis already about the role of toxic masculinity and ableism in forming his character.

Rather, I ask the question because just as much of the evil in the book—if not most of it—is someone else’s doing. The prince decides to go to war entirely of his own volition, without consulting the dwarf at all. Likewise, when war proves fruitless, he decides to lure the enemy into an assassination with promises of peace and free trade. The dwarf might be the one to serve the enemy poisoned wine at the celebratory dinner, but he does so only at the order of the prince. And while the dwarf decides of his own accord to inform the prince of the tryst between the enemy prince’s son and the prince’s own daughter, the prince is the one who, in a fit of impetuous rage, murders the young man in his sleep.

Moreover, if we are to take the dwarf at his word, the fear and distaste that people express when they encounter him is nothing more than fear and distaste for what lurks inside themselves. Is this an observation that the reader is meant to take seriously? Or are we to understand that this is projection or warped thinking on behalf of the narrator, and that his claims of true insight and understanding are just so much bloviating?

Life is ambiguous, art is ambiguous, there are no easy answers. Even the ending is ambivalent: yes, the dwarf is in prison and peace seems to reign in the kingdom, but the connection between those two situations is unclear. Does the dwarf have such a supernaturally evil presence that peace cannot be achieved until he is disposed of? Or is the prince genuinely a changed man after facing political and personal consequences for his ambition, and the dwarf’s imprisonment merely an incidental fact following the death of the prince’s wife? The text supports both; the text chooses neither. The unanswered question.

Bellwether

I picked up Bellwether entirely on a whim. I was at The English Bookshop in Stockholm with time to kill and I recognized Connie Willis’s name from The Doomsday Book, which I had enjoyed immensely in high school. Chaos theory? Sheep? Sure, why not!

Bellwether by Connie Willis
Image courtesy Bantam Books

I don’t quite regret reading this, since Willis is a wordsmith par exellence and the story itself is breezy and cute. Our narrator is a scientist at your generic corporate research lab, researching fads and their causes. A series of events lead her to meet and collaborate with another scientist focusing on chaos theory. There’s a lot of snark, a lot of mishaps, but eventually our heroine winds up with her hero, wins the grant, and comes to a breakthrough in her fad research, all in one fell swoop. It’s a science fiction screwball comedy.

But Bellwether is also a very dated book. A brash young person once asked Connie Willis to put out her cigarette in the 90s and she decided to write a whole book about it. Okay, I can’t know that happened, but it sure seems like it. Willis’s bile for The Youths and the anti-smoking movement, at first incidental in the story, become pervasive and inescapable through lines that make a lighthearted romantic comedy much less palatable. (I complained about this to my boyfriend, who was willing to cut Willis some slack…but then he picked up the book and opened to a random page and immediately lighted upon a rant about smoke-free environments. “Oh, I see what you mean.”) The Youths see some redemption in the end, from a narrative perspective, but the rage and incidental conflicts stemming from smoke-free workplaces are entirely irrelevant to the plot. And the rage is palpable.

Nor has time been kind to that particular element of the book. The narrator (and, presumably, Willis) write off the anti-smoking movement as a fad on par with Kewpie dolls or prohibition, which is a weird thing to read 25 years later, now that fewer people smoke and that the anti-smoking public health campaign seems to have made a permanent cultural difference. It’s enough to make me wish that someone would put out a revised edition of Bellwether with all the screeds about not being allowed to smoke edited out. More than Power Rangers, fax machines, or Barney, that’s what dates the book the most, and is the one thing that keeps me from recommending the book wholeheartedly. It’s not hurtful or offensive, it’s just embarrassing. Go read Doomsday Book instead, it makes a much better first impression.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Once in a while I like to revisit things I hated when I was younger, usually in the form of either books or food. Sometimes I leave with my aversion even more fully cemented (still hate ham, still hate Nightwood) and sometimes I discover that my palate has sophisticated in the intervening years.

Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those authors, to my shame as a science fiction fan. My first encounter with her was when I was too young and too impatient to really appreciate the complexity of what she was doing: I had to read The Tombs of Atuan for an extracurricular reading event in middle school. I didn’t enjoy the experience, to the point where I gave up midway through the book—unusual for me, especially at that age. A few years later I gave The Dispossessed a try. It was a fancy edition from the Science Fiction Classics series put out by Easton Press, with leather binding and shiny gold trim. Despite the luxurious trappings, once again my brain wasn’t having it.

But this tale has a happy ending! Well into adulthood, the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picked The Dispossessed and I liked it just fine. Maybe my prefrontal cortex just needed to finish developing. Who knows.

And here’s the happy postscript to the above happy ending. The two founding members of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club were married in 2021 and, as a sort of long-distance wedding favor, sent all of their originally intended guests random science fiction paperbacks that one or both of them had really liked. This is how I came into possession of The Left Hand of Darkness.

There is a lot of intrigue in The Left Hand of Darkness, and from what I recall in The Dispossessed as well, and maybe that’s what kept my brain from taking to Le Guin to begin with. I’m a simple creature, naive and without guile. All of the political maneuvering in both books is lost on me, but I can still enjoy the complexity of the societies Le Guin creates, whether it’s anarchist collectives of Anarres or the ambisexual population of Winter. And considering our shifting and broadening cultural understanding of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness is a particularly apt example to revisit right now.

The Venus Project

To start with, note that this is a novel heavily inspired by the real-life Venus Project non-profit organization associated with Jacque Fresco, which might be confusing. What I mean by “The Venus Project” here is the English translation of a debut Turkish sci fi novel from Ilker Korkutlar.

Cover of the English edition of The Venus Project by Ilker Korkutlar
Image courtesy Portakal Kitab

As a novel, The Venus Project is amateur and flawed. There’s simply no beating around the bush there. I nearly went on about those flaws at length, but I decided that would be unasked for and unkind. The truth of the matter is, despite all of its problems, I still had a pretty good time (mostly). It’s not a great novel, or even a competent one, but it’s bonkers and different.

There’s a certain class of English language genre author that has developed a steady fan following over the years. Each book they produce panders more and more to that following, rehashing proven formulas and tropes, further insulating their writing and their fans from everything else. For a reader outside of the target demographic, the problem isn’t that they “just don’t get it.” The problem is that there isn’t anything to fail to get—there’s no “there” there. It’s a reading experience that’s bland at its best and insufferable at its worst. It’s the book equivalent of a Marvel movie.

I will take a flawed, amateur novel experience over a Marvel movie book any day of the week. Bring on the crackpot conspiracy theories! Tell me all about graphene! Yes, bees are pretty cool! As long as you’re not advocating for violence or genocide, I’m here for it!