Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Randal Graham's Beforelife

The Beforelife Delusion is the belief that one previously died before one came to the place of Randal Graham's novel, which goes by the name of Detroit. People arrive in Detroit by rising up out of the River Styx. In Detroit the delusion is mostly treated as a harmless form of madness that for most people seems to go away in time.

But for Ian Brown his earlier memories are particularly specific and important to him: he remembers slipping and being hit by an oncoming train, he remembers his job as a minor bureaucrat, but mostly he remembers his wife Penelope. And he's unwilling to give up his memory of her. He does not believe it's simply delusion, and he's horrified by the thought that his own memories might fade as they do for others.

There's also a plot to overthrow the leadership of Detroit, and Ian Brown is stuck of the middle of it.

Graham's style is jokey and frenetic; his inventiveness just keeps on coming. If you don't like one joke, hang on, another will come along soon, so no need worry. Here's one I laughed at:
Cathedraphilia, it turns out, is a little-known (and rarely documented) fetish that features numerous sub-fetishes including those relating to bells, spires, and organs. For a more thorough discussion see Bezel Finnigan's popular text, Building Relationships (which, coincidentally, inspired the Non-Ambiguous Title Movement in 14,386 after complaints from Finnigan's unsuspecting readership).
I do have to say, though, that the plot suffered from the ongoing zaniness at times. And there were various oddities. Getting back together with Penelope may be a story you've heard before; I was just brushing up on it recently myself. But that's not exactly what happens here. Also one Napoleon in a madness is not unheard-of, but six? There's only one place I know of for Six Napoleons. I kept expecting them to get smashed one by one. The use of literary allusions can, of course, be playful, but they, too, seemed to run contrary to the story at times.

Anyway, it had some good jokes. I wanted more attention to the story, though.

ARC provided by ECW Press

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Arthur Schnitzler's Casanova's Return To Venice

Casanova (yes, that Casanova) has been exiled from his home town of Venice for general bad behavior and he's now a middle-aged man of fifty-three; his looks show the fast life he's been living, as does his pocketbook. All he wants to do, he says, is get back to Venice. There's a chance his friends at home will be able to undo his exile, and he's living in a cheap inn in Mantua near to Venice waiting for what he hopes will be a favorable letter.

While he's waiting he runs into Olivo, an old friend and now a successful vintner, whom Casanova had helped to set up once upon a time and with whose wife, Amalia, he slept before Olivo and Amalia were married. Olivo invites Casanova to his vineyard estate at least for those days he's waiting for the letter. Casanova reluctantly agrees.

Casanova is an aging lecher who says all he wants to do his write his pamphlet against Voltaire and go home, but once in the country, there is Amalia, still longing for Casanova, Amalia's daughter, the neighboring Marchesa, and above all Amalia's niece to provide temptations and engender plots.

Schnitzler was an Austrian playwright and novelist with his first works appearing in the late 1800s. He's perhaps best known for his play La Ronde, with scenes in which A has just slept with B, B with C, and so on up to J, completing the circle at the end when we learn J has slept with A. It was made into a movie a couple of times. This earned him no friends in conservative circles, but Schnitzler was enormously successful at the time. Writing about Casanova hardly qualifies as a breach of taste for him.

This work has a melancholy charm to it that was appealing. Casanova is neither condemned exactly, nor praised. He is, however, left lesser than he started. He's thinking of a literary career, a polemic against Voltaire that will make his name, but which everyone knows will go nowhere. His famous work, yet to come at the time the novella is set, The Story of My Life, is alluded to. Without that, Casanova would probably be no more than a curious footnote instead of the catchword for his type.

The work came out originally in 1918. (This translation is from 1930 by Ilsa Barea.) I don't know what happened to Schnitzler during World War I, but I have to assume the melancholy tone is influenced by the time of its writing.

Near the top of my reading pile at the moment is Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the story of someone else (Marco Polo) longing to return to Venice. It might make an interesting comparison.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Beginning: Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees


It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time.

...is the beginning of Italo Calvino's The Baron In Trees. Young Cosimo is twelve and when he's served something at dinner he doesn't like and won't eat, he's told to leave the table. He climbs a tree outside the dining room window and vows never to come back, and he never does. (In his defense, it was snails for dinner.) He's conducts love affairs and duels from the trees, is admired by Voltaire, corresponds with Diderot. Napoleon comes to look at him in the middle of conquering Italy.

I love, love, love this book. Sometimes, you just need a comfort read, ya know?

In poking around for a picture of the cover, I also found these images, which I think are pretty cool, and much more fun than the picture on the cover of my edition.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is the first of a fantasy trilogy that takes place in a seismically active mega-continent. The third volume The Stone Sky came out last fall, which is how I heard of it. In this world, there are people who are attuned to this seismic activity and are able to manipulate it, both with conscious intent, but also as a side effect of their emotional state. With training their control can improve and can be used by others. These people are called orogenes.

Then there are normal humans,  also called stills, who are mostly indistinguishable from orogenes. (There are also stoneeaters, though who exactly they are and what their intentions are remains a bit mysterious in the first volume.)

The orogenes are feared and dreaded by the rest of society; they're either enslaved for their power, or neutered if that power can't be controlled. A few manage to escape to the margins of society, but not many and not necessarily for long. The orogenes are derogatorily called roggas (sounds like...) and I assume the experiences of N. K. Jemisin, the black woman author, inform the role of orogenes in this world's society.

The novel is told in three interlocking time streams which tie together quite successfully in the end. I didn't anticipate the connection and I'm going to avoid saying too much to spoil the surprise. The fifth season is death, a world cataclysm, and in one of the threads, it's started and people are fleeing; in another two mature orogenes are doing what they can until the fifth season is full in swing; the third is the story of a young orogene as she discovers her powers and is taken away to have them trained and/or controlled.

I thought it was very good and I immediately put the second and third volumes on my library hold list, but I'm a little late to the game so I'm going to have to wait. I thought it was very powerful. In some ways it compares to a common trope in fantasy novels, a young person, probably from the provinces, discovers that she has magical talents. Those talents are powerful and can be an object of dread to family and society. Think Wizards of Earthsea or, one I just read fairly recently, Mercedes Lackey's Arrows trilogy. In that young Talia escapes a provincial fundamentalist society to use her power. Demaya is the corresponding character in The Fifth Season and  Jemisin is much more brutal and much more convincing about the complex psychology such a person would feel. She's also much stronger on the relationship between society and the individual.

Now all I need to do is wait for the next two.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Homer's Odyssey (tr. by Emily Wilson)

Emily Wilson's new translation of the Odyssey has been getting a lot of buzz, not least because it seems it's the first published translation of the Odyssey by a woman. This is a little surprising (though, alas, not that surprising) despite the fact Samuel Butler, umm, proved the Odyssey was actually written by a woman.

Well, publicity departments do what they have to, of course. But it should be getting buzz because it's very, very good.

One of the signs of the buzz it has been getting is that it's featured in the window of my local science fiction/fantasy bookstore. Which makes sense, really. It is a fantasy adventure story with monsters and pirates and gods. It's also got one of the all-time great love stories, too. Plus that bit about a young man growing up, a sort of YA opener.

And Emily Wilson's version brings all that across more clearly than any other English version I've read. It's a clear modern English that still feels like poetry. (She writes in blank verse.) Very highly recommended, though treat the introduction as if it were an afterword. You can read the Translator's Note in advance.

From the end of that Translator's Note:
There is a stranger inside your house. He is old, ragged, and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father, or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait. Let him sit on a comfortable chair and warm himself beside your fire. Bring him some food, the best you have, and a cup of wine. Let him eat and drink until he is satisfied. Be patient. When he has finished, let him tell his story. Listen carefully. It may not be as you expect.
And the first line of her translation:
Tell me about a complicated man. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrapup

It's time for the Vintage Scavenger Mystery Hunt wrap-up. I pledged six in both categories (Golden Age mysteries--up to 1960, and Silver Age--1960-1989) and I hit that mark. As I guessed in my initial post I did much better with the Golden Age. It's been a fun excuse to read a bunch of mysteries--not that I need much excuse, but there you have it.

I finished 24 Golden Age mysteries and nine in the Silver Age. Here's the complete list:


Golden Age

Knife. Rex Stout's Over My Dead Body (1940)
Skeletal Hand or Skull. Gladys Mitchell's The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1929)
Hat. Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop (1946)
Bloodstains.  Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Deadly Toy (1959)
Bird. Rex Stout's Where There's A Will (1940)
Policeman. E. R. Punshon's The Diabolic Candelabra (1942)
Shadowy Figure. Bioy Casares and Ocampo's Where There's Love, There's Hate (1946)
Flowers. Rex Stout's Black Orchids (1942)
Suitcase/Briefcase. John Dickson Carr's The Case Of The Constant Suicides (1941)
Glove. Patricia Wentworth's Touch And Go (1934)
Jewelry. Winifred Peck's The Warrielaw Jewel (1933)
Hand Holding Weapon. Ross MacDonald's The Doomsters (1958)
Damsel in Distress. Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939)
Cat. S. S. Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
Building. Graham Greene's A Gun For Sale (1936)
Revolver. John Dickson Carr's The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940)
Moon. Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
Car/Truck. Leslie Charteris' Enter The Saint (1930)
Train. Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express (1934)
Any Other Weapon (Bomb). Leslie Charteris' The Last Hero (1930)
Tombstone. John Dickson Carr's To Wake The Dead (1938)
Blonde. Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Lonely Heiress (1948)
Hangman's Noose. Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder (1948)
Brunette. Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Rolling Bones (1939)


Silver Age

Car/Truck. Chester Himes' All Shot Up (1960)
Written Document. Simon Brett's Situation Tragedy  (1981)
Map or Chart. Carolyn Keene's The Quest Of The Missing Map  (1969)
Bird. Simon Brett's Murder Unprompted (1982)
Any Other Weapon (Pistol). Simon Brett's Murder In The Title (1983)
Bottle Of Poison. Simon Brett's Dead Giveaway (1985)
Body Of Water. Janwillem van de Wetering's The Mind Murders (1981)
Snow/Snowy Scene.  Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up In Tinsel (1971)

Very much thanks to Bev at My Reader's Block for hosting this challenge.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book Beginning: The Odyssey (tr. Emily Wilson)


Tell me about a complicated man.

...is the beginning of The Odyssey by Homer in Emily Wilson's new translation.

I have to say, I love that opening and so far I think it's a superb translation. The introduction was a bit meandering, though, so I definitely want to think of the first line of the poem as the beginning. I've read the Odyssey before, but even still, there were a few points in this reading I was ready to tear up it was so affecting.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts (or tall tales or lies about being Cretan) you like.