Monday, June 11, 2012

It's Monday -- What are you reading?

Here's an update on what I've been reading lately:

Reading now: "The Islanders" by Christopher Priest. Priest is the kind of genre writer who defies genres; his best-known work, "The Prestige," straddled steampunk and horror (and was made into a very good film by Christopher Nolan). He returns in 2011-2012 with The Islanders, a novel structured as a gazetteer about a series of islands in the Dream Archipelago on a completely fictitious and somewhat unsound planet. Each chapter describes life on a particular island, either through frequently humorous and satiric exposition (some of the islands seem a lot like some areas of our own world) or short-story-length narratives about natives or visitors. Priest has created an intricately designed world in which many of his themes -- the malleability of history, theatrical magic, the environment, science gone awry, ghosts, war -- play out in interconnected stories. A few main characters weave their way through the novel, including a reclusive writer with a dark secret in his past; a crusading anthropologist; a horn dog of a painter, and an artist who creates installations by digging long tunnels. If you have some patience, and a desire to read works that fold in on themselves like a Borges story, I highly recommend this novel. Challenges: British author challenge.

Finished reading: "Safe From the Neighbors" by Steve Yarbrough. I've been reading Yarbrough's work since he spoke in a creative writing class I took in 1999. I began with "The Oxygen Man," and I've read his subsequent novels -- "Visible Spirits," "Prisoners of War" and "The End of California" in succession. Each novel is set in the fictitious Loring, Miss. Faulkner set his novels in one locale as well, but Yarbrough's prose style is much more contemporary and accessible. His best novel to date, "Prisoners of War," dealt with German POWs interned in a Mississippi camp. All the novels deal with love, violence and the yearning to be someplace else -- or to return to Loring. "Neighbors" involves a Loring history teacher's attempts to come to grips with the violent slaying of his father's friend's wife in 1962 -- the same night of the integration riots at Ole Miss -- as well as his own splintering marriage. Race is at the surface of this novel, but as with most of the other novels, the characters are white. They have varying degrees of culpability in segregation and the suppression of blacks, but many of them -- the history teacher's father in particular -- are victims of the same system. The tale, told in the first person, is full of regret and humor, as Luke, the teacher, surfs from the memories provoked by the return of a childhood friend to his contemporary surroundings, just after he's sent his twin daughters to Ole Miss. It's a compact, smoothly told story, but like a few of his other works, it seems to end abruptly, or in this case with two big questions unanswered. But that's OK -- I still enjoyed this look at a land I now live in. Challenges: Southern writer challenge.

Finished reading: "The Confusion" by Neal Stephenson. I read the first work in the Baroque cycle, "Quicksilver," in 2007, and I finally got around to reading this 800-plus-page followup just now. I was surprised at how much I remembered from the first volume, and frustrated at how much I'd forgotten. This volume takes up a couple of years after the previous one left off -- Louis XIV is plotting against the Protestant English king, which sets off just about all the many entanglements of this novel. Stephenson's imagination spans the entire world in the 1690s, as one of his greatest characters, Jack Shaftoe, sails around the world, moving from galley slave to privateer to insect feeder to king to merchant to all sorts of other roles. The plot involves a ship-full of gold that may be a tad heavier than normal gold, and thus of tremendous value to the alchemists of Europe. Meanwhile, Eliza, the former slave girl, ends up penniless after a French privateer takes her money, but she manages to build new fortunes, alliances and betrayals in the French court. Not a lot happens in England, as Daniel Waterhouse, a key figure in the first volume, is sidelined here; he has some errands to do before shipping off to Boston, where we met him (albeit much further in the future) in the first book. This novel is grandly complicated, grandly written and unfailingly delightful to history buffs, who get to watch the modern world get created. Science, politics, war, economics -- everything changes, and we experience the excitement and dread such seminal changes brought to the world. Challenges: Chunkster challenge.

Finished reading: "Farewell, Navigator" by Leni Zumas. I got this book of short stories through interlibrary loan after I read about the author's new novel, "The Listeners." The book is pretty brief; the stories focus either on institutionalization for a variety of disorders (mental illness, bulimia) or a child (often grown) living at home and dependent on (or supporting) a mother or parents. From these situations, Zumas draws pathos through prose that's simple, clear and piercing. Probably the best story here is "Thieves and Mapmakers," in which a teenage girl runs away from nowheresville (not even on the map) to New Orleans with a pathetic punk-rock group. Challenge: Short story challenge

Reading in the future: After Islanders, I'll either try "Chicken Dreaming Corn" for the Southern challenge (it's about Mobile) or read "The System of the World" to complete the Baroque cycle. 

1 comment:

Amy said...

You've got some *really* interesting stuff on your list, particularly Yarbrough and Zumas. I'm on a bit of a short story binge these days, and now I've got two more authors to look at!