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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

For those who love books, I cannot recommend the Dalkey Archive Press highly enough. Recently, I ended up buying a small pile of novels and short story collections from its libraries of Japanese and Korean literature- luckily, they were all quite cheap. One of these was Plainsong, which turned out to be just the sort of book I had been in need of right now, filling the gap left inside of me after finishing Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. In fact, I needed it so much that I read almost the whole thing in one day. (It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance or the enthusiasm to do something like that.) This book is wonderful. While in no way is this a fluffy diversion, it is still gentle and light. Recently, I’ve started spending many hours of my spare time in a nice, quiet cafe, drinking green tea and reading books. This is the perfect kind of book to read in such a place. It’s mellow, calming and reminds me how much I’d love to visit Japan myself someday.

Even when reading Science Fiction or Fantasy (my favourite genres), I prefer stories where not that much happens. I don’t mean stories where nothing happens; just ones that take their time with a few small events. The personal matters more to me than the global. For all those reasons, Plainsong is the sort of book that suits me, even if it isn’t SF or Fantasy. It doesn’t have any plot (unless you count the nameless narrator’s attempts to befriend a neighbourhood cat), it makes no great observations about life, and none of the characters achieve anything major, but that’s what I love about it.  To me, Plainsong describes the ideal sort of life, and shows how such a way of living does not have to be boring. The characters who end up living with the narrator are all lightly eccentric, but thanks to the author’s style, none of them seem larger than life. The side characters, such as Yumiko, Ishigami and Mitani, are all wonderfully detailed, and from the narrator’s conversations with the first two, we get some insights into how, even though a person may try to avoid a certain way of thinking, it’s impossible to keep yourself from it altogether. I especially enjoyed the telephone calls to Yumiko, with her providing plenty of cat-related knowledge, as well as general criticism.

Plainsong is a lovely, mellow book. I’m glad I read it.

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Day before yesterday I saw a rabbit, and yesterday a deer, and today, you.

I’ve been meaning to watch the anime series RahXephon for ages, but unfortunately the chance to do so hasn’t presented itself to me yet. Still, I did get to read one of the works that inspired it, a short story by Robert F. Young called The Dandelion Girl. It should be noted that this is not about a girl who is also a dandelion, or a dandelion who happens to be a girl. Rather, it is about Julie Danvers, a young woman from the future who has dandelion-coloured hair. Wearing a dress composed of a “material seemingly compounded of cotton candy, sea foam, and snow” and claiming to belong to the year 2201, she travels to the sixties in her father’s time machine, to stand on the hill and observe the world in silence. There she meets Mark, a middle-aged man on holiday by himself while his wife is on jury duty. They become friends, with Mark visiting her at the same place each day. Even though he loves his wife, he finds himself strangely eager to see Julie, and can’t understand why.

Julie Danvers is described as looking like the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

It would be easy to assume that The Dandelion Girl is going to go in the direction of The Seven-Year Itch or something like that, but instead it takes a more surprising turn. I can’t go into the details, because to spoil this story would be a legitimate crime, but its outcome is both unexpected and poignant, with slightly more emphasis on sweetness than on the bitter. Mark and Julie’s relationship might seem puzzling, and not everything matches up quite right, but it’s forgivable, and it makes sense for the most part once you take into account Julie’s explanation of how time travel works. The only moment that I really didn’t like was when the two of them were discussing the works of great minds like Einstein- it came across as a little too grand and forced. It should also be mentioned that Julie’s portrayal can come across as pretty sexist in places, because of the time it was written in. She’s a bit too sweet, and is presented more like the “ideal” girl than a real person. Otherwise, The Dandelion Girl is very sincere. The language used is sentimental, but it works here. This is a gentle story, though the ending does hint at danger to come.

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Review: Neuromancer

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

William Gibson writes about technology, the future and urban life in a way that is poetic and often quite abstract, enthralled with computers in the same way that others are by nature. He approaches these things from such an alien perspective that it can make his intricate plots hard to follow. (Not that it matters too much to me, though; when reading a book, I’ll always pay more attention to prose than plot.) He doesn’t give you a large amount of context or background information, as you’re expected to read his work from the perspective of somebody who is familiar with all of the technobabble and takes their world for granted. Neuromancer uses familiarity to make the reader feel like an outsider, and it’s all of this that makes it stand out from many of its imitators. The only aspects of it that feel dated are the surface ones, because those are the tropes that have been copied most often. (And Gibson himself copied some of those from detective fiction.) While the hackers, ninjas and fast-paced action scenes have become overused, the deeper aspects tend to be left untouched. Neuromancer might be a thriller, but it is one that is totally immersed in its world, to the point where it becomes disorientating. Like Jeff Noon’s Vurt series, it shows us just how weird the future could be, and how weird our present would be to somebody from the past.

There are characters in this novel such as Molly, Riviera and 3Jane (my favourite), who could easily have been introduced as individuals with unique abilities. Instead, Gibson shows how weird they have become, thanks to the technology that alters them. Molly has computer screen eyes, for instance. Her eyes aren’t balls contained in sockets, but smooth glass. She can’t even cry like a normal person does. Her tears come out through her mouth or something, so whenever she spits it’s a hint that she could be in pain. Case, the protagonist, uses his skills as a hacker to “jack in” and see things from her eyes, and, in a way, share her body. Doing something like that would no doubt be a dizzying experience, and while Gibson only touches on it lightly, he does give us some idea of what such a sensation would be like.

“Into her darkness, a churning synaesthesia, where her pain was the taste of old iron, scent of melon, wings of a moth brushing her cheek. She was unconscious, and he was barred from her dreams. When the optic chip flared, the alphanumerics were haloed, each one ringed with a faint pink aura. “

Neuromancer is like the result of a time paradox. It’s a book that seems influenced by itself, like Gibson from the past read it in the future or something. The descriptions of the arcade, the beach and the cityscapes  read like the creation of someone who has spent all their time reading the novels, watching the films and playing the video games that took influence from this. There’s something lonely about Linda Lee, who reminds so much of the people who love stories like this. As for Lady 3Jane, I read her as an anime character, mostly because she really does seem like one.  3Jane could have easily written the book herself, too, because her fascination with cyberspace leads to her dialogue being some of the most beautiful parts of Gibson’s writing. I could imagine 3Jane reading the whole thing out loud in her calm voice.

While it lacks the maturity of Pattern Recognition, this is still a brilliant work, especially considering that it was Gibson’s debut as a novelist. I usually don’t enjoy action novels, but this one is so well-written that it doesn’t matter, focusing more on the thriller aspects. The biggest flaw is his portrayal of Molly, who does end up being objectified. It’s a shame, because she’s otherwise an interesting character, and those moments leave a bad taste in my mouth. (Luckily, his later works seem to contain far less of that.) Aside from that unfortunate shortcoming, though, Neuromancer is a great book, with enough substance to back up its style.

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Out of all of Murakami’s short stories, this one is my favourite. (Out of his novels, my favourite is Kafka on the Shore.) It’s been years since I’ve read it, and there’s many parts that I’ve forgotten, but its residue is there. It was one of those stories that perfectly captured a mood I wasn’t even aware I was searching for yet. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, and I found it hard to describe, but a new obsession had been  awakened in me. After reading this story (and others like it) I wanted more of its aesthetic. I guess it’s the sort of feeling you’d generally associate with Magic Realism. Even though On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning isn’t a Magic Realist story itself, most of Murakami’s stories are, and so it does have the atmosphere of one. In Magic Realism, strange things gently become part of everyday life. This story is about normality, with the suggestion of ambiguity.

One of my favourite things to do is wander around cities and watch people from a distance. There’s something nice about seeing ordinary people doing ordinary things. Unfortunately, I don’t live in a city, so my chances to do this are rare. Recently, though, I got to go to London for a few days, and spent almost the whole time there walking and watching. Sometimes, I was struck by how perfect certain people looked. By that, I don’t mean their appearance was flawless; rather, they just looked like they were perfectly suited to living an ordinary life in the city. They were boring, but not in a negative way. Whenever I see people like that, I wish I could be them, or at least be like them. And this short story reminds me of those people.

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Since short stories are generally rather short (because they are stories), it’s hard to write about them without acknowledging the ending. (Unless they don’t really have one.) So this post will contain spoilers.

After listening to the apocalypse-themed fifth episode of Adam Whybray’s radio show, I started thinking about the end of the world. It reminded me of a story I had to read for my Creative Writing course- The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke. Every week, our lecturer would give us one or two stories to read. This one was among my favourites, though I’m not sure if everybody else in the class liked it so much. Like with some of Philip K. Dick’s stories, it was mostly concerned with ideas, leaving its other aspects slightly neglected. The idea itself was brilliant, but there wasn’t much atmosphere to back that up, and it wasn’t that emotionally engaging. And yet, I did get a feeling of weariness from it. Both of the scientists wanted it all to be over, and it seems like their wish was granted, in the most literal of ways. Maybe it wasn’t just their job they were tired with, but everything.

The end of this story changes everything with one poignant, ambiguous image. Despite (or more likely, because of) the implied apocalypse, I found it rather comforting. All of the stars in the sky go out. It’s a pretty quiet way for the end of the world to begin. Our lecturer described it as kind of like somebody turning out all the lights. There’s something secure about that. It’s  similar to the sense of inexplicable cosiness you get from Eraserhead or Simon Hanselmann’s comics. If anything, you should be feeling discomfort, but you can’t help but want to live inside of that small universe. The Nine Billion Names of God isn’t as soothing as ray Bradbury’s wonderful The Last Night of the World, but it comes close. It’s a story that has mixed emotions to it, and relies on more than just an idea.

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After falling down the rabbit-hole, Alice finds herself in a strange hallway. It’s one of my favourite scenes from the book. The atmosphere is perfectly dreamlike. We don’t know who made the hall or who it belongs to. It isn’t ever revealed where this hallway is located, either. All we know is that it’s somewhere underground. Alice never leaves the building. In all the logic of a dream, she grows, shrinks, finds herself submerged in a pool of tears (which happens to be her own invention) and then swims around a bit until she reaches the shore. Thinking about it too much can be disorientating. Despite (or maybe because of) the book’s episodic structure, Wonderland is a fairly complex place.

The reason Alice wants to shrink  is to get into the garden, the door to which is too small for her to go through. (The door itself is hidden behind a curtain- which provides us with one of my favourite illustrations from the book.) It’s particularly frustrating because she does have the key to the garden- she just doesn’t have the means of shutting herself up like a telescope. However, upon returning to the glass table where she found the key, Alice discovers a tiny bottle with a label around its neck that reads “DRINK ME“. After checking to see that it isn’t poison (which, according to The Annotated Alice, is Carroll poking fun at the rather grim moral tales that children of the time often had to make do with), Alice does as the label suggests, and discovers that it has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot-buttered toast.” I’ve always wanted to try this drink. The mixture is a curious one, but it sounds like it could actually work. I think that the drink’s taste would actually be quite a subtle one. Rather than tasting all of the flavours at once, you’d be able to taste elements of them in it, or maybe it all depends on which part of your tongue it touches.

 

The drink causes her to shrink. Unfortunately for Alice, she has left the key on the table, which is impossible to climb. With the help of a cake, she grows again…but this time, she grows too large. (Carroll is adept at capturing the frustrating mood of those dreams where you desperately need to do something, but find a million obstacles in your way.) It’s only by the eighth chapter that Alice finally gets to enter the garden. It makes a lot of sense that all of Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation is set inside of a house, because Wonderland appears to be totally indoors. I love how the constant shifting in sizes and perspective mixes everything up, just so we can take this for granted, and I love the idea of a garden being hidden inside of a building. I’m not sure how much of this is intentional, but it works well.

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I love cities. More than that, I love books about cities. (Especially those with elements of Speculative Fiction.) They really are their own genre. No matter what their subject matter, tone or themes happen to be, the setting is something that connects them in a way that none other can. If done properly, a city in a novel is more than just a backdrop- it’s a character in its own right. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, documents a multitude of imaginary ones, similar to Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. Considering how difficult it is to capture the personality of even one city, crafting a whole collection of them is no easy task.

Invisible Cities is a novel that works far better as a collection of short stories. The premise is that all of the cities are being described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan following each of his travels, but this is little more than a framing device. It’s better to skip the bits with Polo and Khan completely, as they don’t add much to your enjoyment of the book. Much of the dialogue between the two is taken up by navel-gazing, and while Calvino’s prose is often beautiful, it can get quite baroque, which isn’t a good combination. The pair’s musings tend to get so convoluted that they turn into an infinite loop of incomprehensibility. These segments are meant to give the reader a better understanding of the nature of these cities that Polo has visited, but it ends up having the same effect that exposition would have in a more plot-driven work. All of what Calvino says there is already hinted at in the descriptions themselves, so these intermissions take away some of the subtlety of the book.

When you take away those parts, though, Invisible Cities is excellent. Most of the cities are well-defined, though many intersect in a way that suggests they are the same place under different names. Calvino may have been inspired by Venice, which would make these cities fantastical interpretations of a real place, viewed from different angles. One of the most interesting things about the book is how it examines the borders between Speculative Fiction and Realism. All of the cities are strange, but not always in the same way. Some, such as the one where everybody Marco Polo encounters resembles someone he formerly knew, could easily be real. With them, it’s the traveller’s observations that make them strange. Then, there are others that could never exist in real life, but perhaps borrow the ambiance of places that Calvino has been to. A few of them were disappointing, but the visual imagination of the others made up for that. There were even a few cities with a modern feel to them, which were among my favourites.

Invisible Cities is a great work of SF, one that could work equally well as a series of paintings. The prose is a bit more grandiose than I’m used to, but Calvino keeps it from becoming too strong a shade of purple. It reminds me of fine quality chocolate, and would probably make a good summer read. (I’m not lucky enough to get to go to any cities myself, but at least I can read books like this and pretend I’m in one.) 3/5.

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