Saturday, August 27, 2011

Jonathan Lethem, Gun, with Occasional Music, 1994.

A marvellous science fiction detective noir, Gun, with Occasional Music presents a brilliantly realised but completely accessible dystopian world. Set in a future when it’s impolite and impermissible to ask questions, where babies and animals have been raised to sentience and functionality, where the news is all just music, and in which most citizens are heavy users of a drug called make (blended with various different amounts of Forgettol, Acceptol, Regrettol, and the like), our gumshoe protagonist stumbles into a murder mystery he’d rather not know much about. After all, Metcalf’s got problems of his own—not least of which is that, after swapping physical responses with a female friend for a weekend, she left without returning his … responses. Into his life walks Orton Angwine, a man who will soon go down for the murder of the last client of our “private inquisitor,” a man named Maynard Stanhunt. Events tumble into one another, and Metcalf soon finds himself running afoul of the Office of the inquisitors (and two in particular). Office politics, a confusing family intersection of victim and mob boss, babyheads, talking sheep and a certain nasty kangaroo working as mob muscle all combine to create a memorable read, a well-executed sci-fi noir that needs to be more widely read than it is. I wish I remember who recommended this novel to me, but I find myself reaching out excitedly to read more of Lethem’s work.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, 2011.

Fish’s book is a paean to good writing. He believes that all good writing starts with writing good sentences, and that we don’t do a good job of teaching our students how to write such sentences; we get bogged down in confusing grammatical points or offer vague descriptions instead of offering good ways into good writing. Fish proposes that “(1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships” (16). The essential problem with his book is revealed in this definition: the book will be appreciated and enjoyed by those people who already like sentences, and have a handle on how they work, while those who do not will neither profit much from the book nor enjoy it.

Throughout, he offers studies of good sentences and describes why they work. Fish is engaging and readable, and even entertaining at time. Where the argument wobbles is in the presentation of exercises to help the prospective writer (his audience) learn to write sentences as good as the superlative examples being studied: Fish’s own sample responses to his prompts aren’t in the same league as the originals, and feel both woefully imitative and wan in comparison. He points this fact out himself, too frequently, and both weaknesses distract from the argument. Yet his examples! And his close-readings that so wonderfully explicate why his examples are as good as they are! Fish produces an unexpected study of excerpts of some of the best writing I have ever encountered, and this book is worth reading for these choices alone.

When he moves in the final four chapters from form to content, Fish offers a few brilliant and constructive ways to think about writing. Perhaps most significant of these is his way of describing how first sentences should work. Instead of thinking about “topic sentences,” writers should remember that “First sentences know all about the sentences that will follow them” and thus “First sentences have what I call an ‘angle of lean’; the lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate" (99). This idea is still one for people who already grasp the concept, but it is as elegant a way of thinking about how to begin a piece of writing than any I have encountered.

It is a book to read if one loves both reading and writing, and I’d advise the prospective reader to anticipate both felicities and disappointments in their time with How to Write a Sentence.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Patricia Briggs, River Marked, 2011.

We continue with the saga of Mercedes Thompson. Mercy's a VW mechanic on the days she's allowed to just go to work, but most of her clients don't know that she shifts into the form of a coyote and goes running and getting into trouble with fae, vampires, and the like in a fair bit of the time she's not at her garage. This new novel finds her recovering from her misadventures in the last, and before long, moving up her marriage to the Alpha-werewolf of their environs and going away camping for a honeymoon. Briggs weaves native American traditions and legends fairly deftly into her story, and Mercy finds herself dealing with malicious forces, river otters, and the very sources of myth all while new-husband Adam is mostly incapacitated. It's a fun romp, and eminently entertaining.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Neil Gaiman, American Gods, 2001.

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to sit down with a book by Neil Gaiman. I’ve travelled in circles with those who admire him tremendously, and yet have never picked up Sandman or anything else until this novel, just as it reaches its tenth anniversary. It’s certainly my loss that I’ve waited so long.

Gaiman’s achievement in this novel is remarkable: he writes an entertaining and gripping story; he brings a pantheon of half-remembered deities and folktales into the context of America both in who the members were and how they have existed on this continent; and he constructs a gripping battle between the minor deities of yore and those constructs too-worshipped today. What I admire most about the writing is the balance the author strikes between vivid, realised depictions and letting the reader create and imagine as s/he reads. What’s also quite striking is Gaiman’s deftness with myth, his grasp of how stories live and breathe and the power they have.

The plot follows Shadow, just released from prison and quickly in the employ of a dark and mercurial character who seems to be working to bring about a confrontation between the Gods that were and those now more readily worshipped. Shadow’s is a dark quest: he seeks meaning and life in a world where he feels as trapped as he had inside. We learn early in the novel that he has ecountered two key learnings in prison: only do your own time, not anyone else’s; and “Call no man happy until he is dead.” (So nice to meet people, fictional or no, with a fondness for Herodotus!) As one might expect, these become the twin pillars that Shadow seeks to learn how to live. His adventure, which roams from coast to coast to the very centre of America (in Kansas, if we ignore Alaska and Hawaii), is an exploration of myth and of America itself: centred less in those major centres that we hear about so often, the novel is also a paean to Gaiman’s adopted country, reveling in the glory (and strange peculiarities!) of life in small towns unknown to all not from them and the weirdness of the various roadside attractions that can be stumbled upon.

It’s a marvellous novel, and well worth reading. Time to add some more Gaiman to my list.