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Bloodline (Star Wars)

3/5. Star Wars. Leia-centric Prequel to the new movie, telling the story of her loss of faith in the New Republic.

On the one hand, it's a Star Wars novel about a female character! On the other hand, it's clear that Gray was ordered from on high to hardly mention Luke, Ben, etc. to keep the slate completely blank for the next movie. That's, uh, really noticeable.

Anyway, I liked this, though I think Gray isn't entirely clear on how to write an adult novel. This book is about 40% galactic senate politics by volume, and it all has that smoothed over no nuance feel. Politics doesn't work that way. Parties don't work that way. Sentient politicians don't work that way. And more broadly, Leia Organa, veteran of the powerless Imperial Senate, doesn't become an us-or-them ideologue so bent on de-centralized government that she is with little exception incapable of working with those who oppose her views. I almost suspect that this whole thing is supposed to be a ham-handed commentary on the current state of American partisanship, but no, not quite.

Anyway, this is actually enjoyable, and makes sense out of certain things. But I still vastly prefer the Expanded Universe canon, which has a much richer view of the New Republic political scene. Of course, it has a billionty books to do it in, so.

However, props for the hilarious and sneering commentary on those people who "ironically" buy Imperial memorabilia. Empire hipsters. I die.
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Dreaming Spies: A novel of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

3/5. Another Russell/Holmes book of the usual formula – going back in to fill in a previous gap in the timeline with an international adventure which, in the middle of the book, catches up to narrator-standard-time in England.

Eh, you know, the charm is wearing off here.

Things I am in this series for: (1) the picture of a marriage of two very smart, very independent people who love each other, but do not need each other and they both know it; (2) Holmes's disguises; (3) partnership; (4) cleverness.

Things Laurie R. King is in this series for, these days: (1) Cultural tourism (Japan, this time); (2) set pieces.

This was competent, and I am bored. More clever sleuths loving each other but living their own lives, less travelog, please.
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The Magician's Land (The Magicians, #3)The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Well that was . . . disappointing. Which is a funny thing to say about a book written as well as this one, and that made me as happy as this one did at certain points (really, I would read hundreds of pages about the magic in this universe and how it works and doesn't, no plot required).

The thing is, this book doubled down. The series as a whole has been playing with coming of age narratives and coming into power narratives, trying out different ones, contrasting them, complicating them. And then this final book just . . . plays it straight. I was worried by the jacket copy which, in my edition, actually says something about "a boy becoming a man." Okay, but not really, I thought, that's just stupid marketing nonsense.

Guys. This book is about a boy becoming a man, and what that means for a boy who loves magic and stories about it. Really. Like, this book actually thinks Quentin is interesting (he is, in flashes, but come on, not really). It is actually invested in Quentin's angst over not being quite as special as he thought he would be. And then it's really interested in having a little interlude about how very special he truly is – no one loves fantasy literature like Quentin, apparently, to the point where the universe takes notice. For real.

Here's the thing. In every book of this trilogy, I found myself thinking at least once, okay, but why aren't we reading a book about her? It's always a her, and she's always interesting as hell, and her story is always more complicated and harrowing and difficult than Quentin's. In the second book, we did actually get to read about her, thank you very much, and it's no coincidence that book is my favorite. In this book, we don't get to read about her. And I would much, much rather have been. Because as this book was winding up, delivering a few thematic statements and the like, I just kept saying, wait, really? You're really . . . going with that? That's what this has all been for? We did all this to talk about the hero's journey of . . . getting over the ennui of being really lucky and privileged?

But as I said to my girlfriend, you can object to a lot of what Grossman is doing, but it's harder to object to how he's doing it. I really would read Grossman on magic for books and books. A sample:



And lately, they'd [books] begun to breed. Shocked undergraduates had stumbled on books in the very act. Which sounded interesting, but so far the resulting offspring had been predictably derivative –in fiction – or stunningly boring – nonfiction. Hybrid pairings between fiction and nonfiction were the most vital. The librarian thought that the problem was just that the right books weren't breeding with each other, and proposed a forced mating program. The library committee had an epic secret meeting about the ethics of literary eugenics, which ended in a furious deadlock.








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If at Faust You Don't Succeed (Millennial Contest, #2)If at Faust You Don't Succeed by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


A thief takes the place of the selected representative of humanity in a history-hopping contest between heaven and hell for the destiny of humankind.

Picked up because I wanted something light and fun. Finished because sometimes my hatred for a book is so strong I have to see it to the bitter, misogynist end to fully grasp its awfulness.

Truly terrible. Flabby and unfunny – unpunny? – and, um. Look, I expect a certain amount of misogyny from Zelazny. I mean, don't get me wrong, I dig a lot of his books, but with a few exceptions the dude was not good at conceiving of women as something other than vaginas with legs. But there's that and then there's whatever the hell this is, and what this is is the fuck not okay. At one point a woman character notices all the shit going down and is like, "you realize you're a raging asshole who treats women like objects to be stolen from other men, fucked and then traded for favors with other men, and discarded, right?" And then the book is like, "oh, huh, yeah, I guess. Let's get back to that, though!"

Ick. I need to scrub my brain out.




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HexwoodHexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Early 90's DWJ about an earth child seeing some odd happenings in the wood near her house, which are somehow connected to a machine belonging to our unknown galactic overlords.

I was expecting something silly and probably too young for me. I got a startlingly ambitious tale of nonlinear time, fluid identities, and the overthrow of feudal power. Over-ambitious, maybe – this got a little muddled and crowded here and there.

But mostly I think this book was hobbled by being too precisely a transformative work. By which I mean I was like, "oh, we're mucking about with a bit of Arthuriana here and there, yes I see, that plays well as a lens for this reimagining of – oh. Hmm. I think that might actually be Arthur. You know, that's less interesting, it turns out." The notion of Arthur et al giving one a great deal more story room in their penumbras, as it were, whereas the actuality of Arthur locked things down and made me start thinking about how this whole feudalism metaphor collapses in on itself, and you know, DWJ you're making some very questionable choices in re the ladies, etc. etc.




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The Stepsister Scheme (Princess, #1)The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A fractured fairy tale about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White going on an adventure to rescue Cinderella's husband, the prince. Cute concept, and it is nice to know that there's another option out there for young readers who want a book about ladies (and at least one queer lady!) being awesome and going on adventures. Other than that, I found this quite boring. Too much adventuring, not enough . . . anything else.

It got more interesting when I started thinking about Cinderella as a class fantasy, and what is embedded in that. How it's about a girl raised to royalty from rags, and how we all know she deserved ascension from the start. Yet part of her deserving it is her years of physical servitude and, in many tellings, the uncomplaining way she accepted veritable slavery. Poverty is part of the making of her, and it is also used as a tool to punish those who hurt her once she is free. And etc. The book wasn't about any of this, you understand, it's just stuff I was thinking about to entertain myself.




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A Night in the Lonesome OctoberA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Gotta love Roger Zelazny. I can just see him getting totally baked one day and bolting up out of his thought stew and going, "Fuck all y'all, I'm writing Sherlock Holmes/Frankenstein/Dracula/poe crossover fanfic from the point of view of Jack the Ripper's dog! Suck it!"

And then he did. This is the deceptively adorable diary of a dog, chronicling his efforts and the efforts of his master as opposing forces gather to keep the demons out, or let them in. Silly, punny – there's this bit about an owl, very close-beaked, you know, doesn't say much, keeps his pinions to himself. *facepalms violently*. This is very clearly a book from a different era, but there's an enduring quality to it. Which I guess is the long-winded way of saying that it's a classic.

And how often do I get to read something at 11 and think it's adorable, and then read it at 29 and think it's adorable? Not that often.




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Garment of Shadows (Mary Russell, #12)Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I genuinely like this series of memoirs from Sherlock Holmes’s late-life partner and wife, but I shake my head in bafflement over every second or third one. This is a story of amnesia and intrigue in French and Spanish Morocco in the early 1920’s. A lovely sense of place, as usual, but otherwise . . . no. There is a good book here, it’s just that this book only intersects with that one for about twenty pages. The emotional crux of the book lies neither with Holmes nor Russell, and we only get to know what it actually is in dried out retrospect, recounted in one of the endless attempts to explicate the overbaked plot into something digestible by way of everyone sitting around and talking about it for pages on end.

I mean, I respect her for trying new things, I totally do. The last book was a pirate caper, this one is a straight-faced amnesia espionage story. Just, when you try new things, sometimes they’re a miss. And at this point, I really, really, really wish this series would cough up a good old murder mystery. Remember those? Sherlock Holmes solved them? …Yeah. Me neither.




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The God of the Hive (Mary Russell, #10) The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Second half of an inset duology, where Sherlock Holmes and wife face the threat lurking behind recent familial turmoil.

A disappointment. Look, I enjoy these books as transformative works, and as mysteries (which is rare for me). This installment was not a mystery, it was a thriller, with all expected stupid POV tricks and general limpness. There was actually one of those awful sections where we’re supposed to believe Russell is unknowingly knocking on the villain’s door with a dramatic chapter break and switch to villain POV, only to discover pages and pages later that they were at separate addresses. I mean, really? This is not what I read about Sherlock Holmes for, thanks.

This book also shuffled the emotionally engaging plot thread – Irene Adler’s son – almost entirely offstage and replaced him with your standard issue cardboard creepy villain POV while our heroes wander around trying to figure out who he is. Yawn. I don’t read thrillers for many reasons, and this book demonstrates about seven of them.

Positive: Russell contemplating imminent arrest and wondering if they let you have books in prison. Oh Russell, I love you.

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The Language of Bees (Mary Russell, #9) The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Hmm, this is making me think about series structure.

Translation: I actually read this book in late April/early May, which is not so long ago as the crow lives, but which is roughly twenty years in law school finals time. So I forgot most of the things I actually thought about the book. Shut up.

This is book nine of a series, and part one of an inset duology. And the thing is, I love series fiction. My absolute favorite books are actually favorite series, because there’s just so much more room to make a universe I want to devote brainspace to. And when you read as fast as I do (hint: like a jackrabbit) a series can be like a long, perfect road when you know you won’t stop if you don’t have to, and thank God there’s lots, so you don’t.

So I love development and momentum and nonlinear series orders and series with a plan. This series, as a general body, has all those things.

This book, though. It’s really good, actually, all conspiracies and uncertain loyalties, and a subtly running thread about Russell trusting her instincts. But if I had read it a year ago when it came out, without the direct sequel in hand? *shakes head*. It’s not the cliffhanger, though there is one. It’s that it’s only half a story in the spiritual sense on top of the literal. I got to the end of this book, and thought, “yeah, cliffhanger, whatever, but why do I feel like I was going hand-over-hand along a rope that suddenly got cut?”

I think it was because this book is only half the story, thematically. There’s some beautiful work done here on the back of the surrealist art movement, talking about madness and sanity, but it doesn’t really connect up until you read the sequel. This is a book about madness, that is a book about – well, about a kind of sanity. And if I’d waited a year, I’d be rating both books much lower because I remember a lot of things, but I wouldn’t have remembered my exact place in this pattern.

So a clever, unusual series structure, potentially defeated by publishing schedules. News at 11.

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A Companion to Wolves A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oh good, I am no longer seethingly annoyed by the mere presence of Elizabeth Bear’s name. Time does fade all things, including deeply enraging internet behavior. And this book is far less indulgent than the last few things of hers I read.

Nota bien: “Indulgent” is a book review sneaky code word for “interested in things I don’t care about, as opposed to things I do.”

This is a book about a young Viking…ish man who is taken from his family’s home and bonded with an empathic wolf, and then they fight monsters and there’s lots of wolf mating/dubiously consensual empathic gay gangbang shenanigans. So as advertised, then.

Ha, okay. This book does the extremely difficult thing of critiquing and problematizing companion animal fantasies, particularly the sex, while also being a really satisfying companion animal fantasy. This book made me want to go back and reread large swaths of Pern because it is getting right to the heart of *gestures* that thing, except I know Pern would just be particularly painful now. This is a book written in a deceptively simple style, telling a story, and doing some nice – if not incredibly deep – work on subjects/objects and duty and sex and gender.

Actually, I should mention my one overarching critique, which is that it’s one of those books about gender where it’s all about masculine assumption of feminine roles without actually being about, um, any women at all. You know what I mean.

But my main point is that I was reading along, mildly interested, whatever, and then suddenly after the halfway point I was all, “but, but. Who will be his wolfy consorts? Tell me more!”

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The Dante Club The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Bizarrely, I think this book would have gotten a higher rating out of me if it hadn’t had the bits I really liked.

Boston, 1865. The fireside poets – Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and their publisher – investigate a series of murders modeled on Dante’s Inferno, which they are translating.

Eh. A quite good bit of literary historical fiction bolted to an extremely unfortunate mystery. We’d have these great, detailed scenes of the poets talking through the cantos of their translation and being all bitchy lit theory at each other in this adorably stiff affectionate way, and then, turn the page, and the mystery. Bad pacing, weird fits of tell, a fixation on gruesomeness at the expense of most other things, a lot of ridiculousness (a vagrant whispering the words carved over the doors of hell to a policeman before committing suicide? Really?).

And weirdly, if it had just been the mystery I would have shrugged at a bit of typical clumsy New York Times bestselling airport fiction. But it wasn’t, and the bits of more nuanced writing, of real grace and complexity, were ultimately more frustrating than they were enjoyable.

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Inkheart

Mar. 9th, 2010 09:23 pm
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Inkheart (Inkheart, #1) Inkheart by Cornelia Funke


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Young adult, about a twelve-year-old girl and her father who can read people and objects out of books into reality, and the other way around.

Puzzled – I should have loved this, and just . . . didn’t. I mean, it’s all about metafiction and rewriting narratives, and you’d think I’d be all over this like white on rice, yeah? And yet, it never even twigged beyond vague esthetic interest; I certainly never gave a damn about a single character’s existence.

Best guess? I think this book is exactly wrong, style-wise for me. I just do not get a story all about loving books so much you just fall into them and they come alive, when the story itself works so hard for distance with omniscient POV, and choppy chapters, and distracting epigraphs everywhere. How does that seem like a good set of choices?

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Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this as a wee thing, and remember very little except loving it. And the dresses! That image of them bursting open the doors of the wardrobe in Beauty's room has stuck with me. (When discussing childhood book loves with C, I said of this book "the dresses!" as she simultaneously said "the horses!" Baby butch and baby femme: a tale of alternate literary recollections.)

I still like it as a grown up. It's a very simple story, prettily told, with some very quiet thematic conversations about virtues – about honor, in particular. Sweet and largely sanitized of the, you know, creepiness and rapiness of the story in its goriest forms without making it feel artificial or lacking.

But it turns out that I don't actually like Beauty and the Beast. The bones of the source story, I mean. I think it's that I automatically code the beast's . . . beastliness as disfigurement, so it slots into the 'disability' category in my head. So the outcome of the story quietly pisses me off, because he's cured by love. Gag me with a spoon. (I should mention I've been thinking a lot about Lucy Grealy lately.) And even if you take out that idiosyncratic reading, you're left with, what? A man – and in the case of this book also a girl – who are ugly but who are rewarded with sudden beauty at the end of the book because they are virtuous enough to be able to see through appearances and learn not to care about them. Way to undercut your message, there. The better reading is that it's a message about finding your beauty through the eyes of another – the Beast says so to Beauty here, when he asks her how she can think she's ugly when he's the only one who can see her and he thinks she's beautiful. But too many sign posts point to the first reading, such as a parallel treatment of wealth. Beauty's family loses their money, but endures with virtue and fortitude, and are rewarded with enormous wealth and luxury in the end. All this rubs me the wrong way.

Anyway. It's still a pretty, enjoyable little book, and I can totally see how my inner princess adored it as a child.

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When You Reach Me When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Tiny, tremendous book! True story – I was reading this morning in the waiting room at the doctor's office. I'd spent the whole train ride up bitching to myself about how these guys are always overscheduled and without fail they're running at least half an hour behind. So I'm sitting there, about 90% of the way through my audiobook, and my name gets called. And I'm all, ". . . you're early," and the tech is all, "it's weird, isn't it?" and honest to God I was thisclose to telling him to come back in half an hour so I could finish this book.

New York, 1979. Twelve-year-old Miranda starts getting notes that say things like, "I'm coming to save your friend's life."

This is a bitty little book, but every second of it works. Miranda is a perfect twelve-year-old, and this book does a whole lot of sixth-grader relationship work in a very small space. And behind that and the wonderful cast of characters is another story, a creepier, scarier, sadder one. It didn't matter that I'd figured out most of it, because I still got chills when things started snapping together.

A book about A Wrinkle in Time, and growing up, and moments of time like diamonds, crystallized forever. Just tremendous.

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Doctor Who: The Last Dodo Doctor Who: The Last Dodo by Jacqueline Rayner


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
In which the Doctor uses a ladder to climb over a dinosaur and gets to drive a firetruck. And there's some plotty mcplotness, but that wasn't all that exciting and I'm not a particular Rayner fan, so the charm here is the little bits of awesome Doctor and the excellent narration by Freema Agyeman on the audio.


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Vellum: The Book of All Hours Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
. . . I'm not actually sure what just happened, but I did like it. Okay. I do know it was about the apocalypse, and a war among angels, and nanotechnology. And about reality unpeeling from it's tightly-stacked layers. And the Prometheus myth – a lot of myths, actually, interspersed in the story as they mutually rewrite each other. But it was nonlinear and dense with inductive symbol narrative, and the universe skipped and reset enough times that . . . huh.



Okay. That was very cool.




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The Vorkosigan Companion The Vorkosigan Companion by Lillian Stewart Carl


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pretty cool, with a few notable low points. The second half of the book is all reference material – an exhaustive concordance, wormhole maps, genealogical charts, etc. Handy, for those who find themselves in need of such things. The first half starts out strong with a few new essays from Bujold herself, as well as a long informal interview. Then it slides precipitously downhill into topical essays on romance and technology in the books, whose general quality is far outmatched by the meta you can find various places on the internet. Isn't that always the way, though? There's also an adorably note perfect piece about fandom, lacking in that it focuses entirely on the mailing list culture and neglects all fan transformative activities that aren't discussion. Cue mingled exasperation over the elision of decades of history mixed with profound relief.



Aaaanyway. Totally worthwhile, for the resident Vorkosiphiles.


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Well now. These are the first three in the Mary Russell series of period mysteries. We begin when fifteen-year-old Russell – a very bright young lady – literally stumbles across one Mr. Sherlock Holmes out in the fields observing bees. This is an older Holmes, years after much of the Doyle canon, semi-retired to the country with his experiments and cocaine. He and Russell strike up a friendship, a teaching relationship, and then a partnership (yeah, that kind too, eventually). The mysteries are very Holmesian – the first involves a twisted plot of revenge, the second a cluster of suspicious murders around a feminist temple, and the third an explosive archaeological find and a troubling death.

King has the language down beautifully, the rhythms of Holmes’s quick mind and quicker tongue. And the mysteries are truly delightful artifacts of the style. The stories are also packaged appropriately – not Doyle recounting Watson’s tales, but King publishing Mary Russell’s manuscripts. It’s beautifully constructed derivative fiction, but King is also unafraid of exercising the powerful and alternative lens she has in Mary, a feminist, a scholar of theology though not a believer, a mind to match Holmes’s in a way Watson never did.

Holmes and I were a match from the beginning. He towered over me in experience, but never did his abilities at observation and analysis awe me as they did
Watson. My own eyes and mind functioned in precisely the same way. It was familiar territory.

So, yes, I freely admit that my Holmes is not the Holmes of Watson. To continue with the analogy, my perspective, my brush technique, my use of colour and shade, are all entirely different from his. The subject is essentially the same; it is the eyes and the hands of the
artist that change.


All around well done, sly, sometimes funny stories. And I should mention that I literally squealed aloud in the middle of the train when who but Lord Peter Wimsey should make a fabulous, chatty cameo in A Letter of Mary -- let’s hear it for expired copyright!

I have reservations, of course. Holmes’s rougher edges are smoothed a bit too much for my taste, both his wild moods and his substance abuse. And the romance, though both beautifully and hilariously written, didn’t do much for me emotionally. Still, a good time all around, and I just admire this sort of enterprise on principle.
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The sequel to Wicked. Elphaba is dead, but the boy Liir remains. This is his story, as he makes his way in Oz and grows up with only the brief, burning influence of Elphaba for a guide. Back in the Emerald City, another tyrant has arisen to take the place of the Wizard, and he says he has come in the name of God. To the west, where Elphaba used to reign, the native tribes are warring, a monastery hangs on by its fingertips, and the corpses of travelers keep cropping up with their faces scraped off. Liir rattles from city to monastery to military service, searching for the girl who might be his half sister and finding that Elphaba reaches everywhere, even from the grave.

Maguire shows his strengths here: the worldbuilding is superb, further delving into the talking Animal political oppression spreading throughout Oz, and the characters are intense and real. Liir is not always likeable, but he is wonderful all the same. Elphaba was a shooting star all her life, flinging herself against the world and its injustices until it broke her. She believed that “it doesn’t matter whether you do good or ill, but just that you do at all.” Liir spends most of this book disclaiming any of her power, her ambition, her brilliance, and he’s mostly right – his gifts lie elsewhere. But he has them, and he learns to use them, after a fashion. We also return to the religious themes Maguire favors, with alternately thoughtful and disturbing results, and for once he is unsubtle as he takes a few swings at conventions of organized religion through Oz’s institutions.

But the real pleasure of a Maguire book is not the worldbuilding, not the characters, definitely not the plot (played out a bit too much with its head in the clouds and not quite enough with its feet on the ground for my taste, though I do have to say that after I slept on it, this ending was fabulously, subtly creepy). But the only reason you ever need to read a Maguire book is that the man writes like a poet fallen to prose. Listen:


A NOTION OF CHARACTER, not so much discredited as simply forgotten, once held that people only came into themselves partway through their lives. They woke up, were they lucky enough to have consciousness, in the act of doing something they already knew how to do: feeding themselves with currants. Walking the dog. Knotting up a broken bootlace. Singing antiphonally in the choir. Suddenly: This is I, I am the girl singing this alto line off-key, I am the boy loping after the dog, and I can see myself doing it as, presumably, the dog cannot see itself. How peculiar! I lift on my toes at the end of the dock, to dive into the lake because I am hot, and while isolated like a specimen in the glassy slide of summer, the notions of hot and lake and I converge into a consciousness of consciousness-in an instant, in between launch and landing, even before I cannonball into the lake, shattering both my reflection and my old notion of myself.

That was what was once believed. Now, it seems hardly to matter when and how we become ourselves-or even what we become. Theory chases theory about how we are composed. The only constant: the abjuration of personal responsibility.

We are the next thing the Time Dragon is dreaming, and nothing to be done about it.

We are the fanciful sketch of wry Lurline, we are droll and ornamental, and no more culpable than a sprig of lavender or a sprig of lightning, and nothing to be done about it.

We are an experiment in situation ethics set by the Unnamed God, which in keeping its identity secret also cloaks the scope of the experiment and our chances of success or failure at it--and nothing to be done about it.

We are loping sequences of chemical conversions, acting ourselves converted. We are twists of genes acting ourselves twisted; we are wicks of burning neuroses acting ourselves wicked. And nothing to be done about it. And nothing to be done about it.
[pp 127-128]


And so I have issues with the style and substance of the book, but I’m not going to talk about them because they’re mostly down to taste and, frankly, I mostly don’t care. Just listen to that.

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October 2017

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