Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker
Completed 4/16/2014, Reviewed 4/28/2014
5 stars

What do you get when you drop two Old World mythological creatures in the ethnic ghettos of 1899 Manhattan and try assimilate them into the existing culture?  You get a beautifully written study of the immigrant experience at the height of the influx of new peoples into the US, with a little magic and superpower thrown in for fun. 

A jinni is trapped in a lamp for centuries.  The lamp finds its way to Little Syria in New York City at the turn of the 19th century. A metalworker tries to make some minor repairs to the lamp, releasing the jinni, who has no memory of why and to whom he is bound.  The tinsmith offers him a place to stay and work in his shop, and tries to help the jinni control his powers and temper so as not to stand out in their ethnic ghetto. 

At the same time, a European Jewish man employs a sinister rabbi to create the perfect wife for him, in the form of a golem.  The man doesn’t bring the golem to life until they are aboard a ship bound for America.  The man dies, and the golem is left masterless as she lands at Ellis Island.  A friendly, old rabbi befriends her and tries to help her suppress her superhuman strength and perceptions and assimilate into their ghetto.  The two eventually meet, first becoming each other’s confidantes, and then friends, trying to find their place in the New World. 

The first thing that jumped out at me was the prose.  The book is gorgeously written.  It has the same feel as some of my favorite works, such as Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and Clifford D. Simak’s “Way Station”.  Wecker evokes not only the look of the ethnic gettos at the turn of 19th century New York City, but also their insular feel.  Sprinkled throughout the book, you also learn the back story of how the jinni was captured by an evil wizard and trapped in the lamp.  The descriptions of the desert, the nomads, and his glass palace are simply stunning. 

The characters are also incredibly realized.  The golem, Chava, is introverted, afraid of people, and afraid of herself.  She is made of clay and has superhuman strength.  She only wants to sink into the background noise of the Jewish community.  Ahmed, the jinni, is a being of fire and magic.  He wants freedom, to be and go as he wishes, regardless of the consequences.  They make an unlikely pair, but find comfort in that they are both ancient supernatural creatures in a strange, modern place.  Although the two are filled magic and power, it’s the human connection between the two that fleshes these characters out so well.

The supporting characters are also wonderful.  The sinister rabbi is, using one of my favorite phrases, deliciously evil.  The other rabbi, in contrast, is marvelously kind, a counterpoint to the evil one.  And the ghettos are populated with other colorful characters that breathe life into the setting.

Besides the story of assimilation at the turn of the century, it is also about a relationship between Arab and Jew.  The author acknowledges that there’s some of her relationship with her husband in Chava and Ahmed.  It doesn’t go into the details of the modern conflict between the two peoples. More generally, it shows the challenges in understanding between two people who basically come from the same place, but with two very different perspectives. 

When I first saw this book on the shelves of the bookstore I was immediately drawn to it.  When I bought it, I was trying to finish an 800 page monster of a book.  It took me so long to get to it, I was worried I was building too much anticipation and would be terribly disappointed.  I wasn’t.  It was everything I hoped it would be.  This was my most satisfying read so far this year.  5 stars

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Female Man

Joanna Russ
Completed 4/24/2014, Reviewed 4/24/2014
2 stars

This was one difficult book.  I did not get it, and I never got into it.  I got the basic gist, that it’s a feminist polemic, but past the first few pages, I could barely follow the plot.  I was halfway through the book when I decided to look it up on Wikipedia.  And once I read the entry and all the reviews on WWEnd, I had brief moments of clarity which were quickly lost by the stream of consciousness narration of the characters. 

The plot, if you can say there really is one, is that a woman from
one universe gathers instances of herself from three parallel universes.  In various combinations, they visit each other’s worlds and get to see and comment and criticize each other’s experience as a woman.  Janet comes from an earth of the future, Whileaway, where all the men died 800 years ago from a plague.  The Lesbian utopia has a very advanced technology that allows for an agrarian, somewhat peaceful way of life.  Children are produced by splicing together ova.  Jeannine is a librarian from an earth where the Great Depression never ended.  Women are entrenched in stereotypical gender roles where their only worth is derived from marriage.  Joanne is from an earth similar to earth in the 70’s, when the book was written.  Jael is an assassin from an earth where there is a literal war between the sexes.  Trade agreements still exist between the sexes where goods are traded for sons, many of whom are forcibly transgendered to provide “women” for the men.

This seems like a brilliant way to plant a debate into a story: four instantiations of a person experiencing each other’s experience.  Where this failed for me is that the narrative is told from all four of the J’s perspectives, but with very little hinting at whose perspective you were in at any one time.  One J may be narrating, with the story focus on another J.  Other times, the J may be talking about herself, but sometimes refers to herself in third person.  And lastly, the narrator sometimes is present in the scene and then a paragraph later, invisible, or first person omniscient.  I was often confused who the narrator was and in what universe they were visiting.  Throughout the text, the narrator goes into long polemics about the role and plight of women from the context of the universe they are in at the time.  If I was lucky enough to figure out who was speaking and what was going on in a chapter, I usually lost it because the arguments and criticisms were long and prolific enough to make me lose track of where I was in the plot.

This book is considered a classic of SF and feminist literature.  It is certainly a profound statement on the inequality and treatment of women.  But it was all lost on me because the narrative is so convoluted.  If it wasn’t for Wikipedia, I wouldn’t even have been able to give my synopsis here.  Reading it was a chore, I felt like I was being screamed at most of the time.  In retrospect, I wish we had read this in my college SF Lit class for the female SF section in addition to Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time”.  But I think, as far as trying to make a statement about prejudice, cruelty, and inequality, a book like “Invisible Man” by Harlan Ellison was much more successful in conveying the message, at least to me. 

The only part of the book I really enjoyed was pages 140-141 (of my edition) where Russ wrote a page long collection of critical quotes that accurately predict everything that might be said of the novel.  I enjoyed it mostly because she acknowledged that the book would be unintelligible to many people.  But I also loved that she included horribly sexist statements that would have been unabashedly published in literary and newspaper reviews back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which most of us wouldn’t dare say in public, but is sometimes still be heard in contemporary media.

I want to make clear just because I didn’t like the book, it doesn’t mean I don’t like its message and intent.  I’ve always been a firm believer that we need the radicals screaming for change so that the rest of us can live comfortably in their wake.  I am often aghast that young people today declare themselves as anti- feminists, when it is assumed women can go to work and be something other than a secretary or elevator operator, or be allowed to vote, among other issues.  It was timely for me to read it when the so many female representatives in Congress just voted against a measure to enforce equal pay for equal work.  I just wish that the book was structured less like a collection of pre-twentieth century political pamphlets jumbled together with the torn pages of a short story.  Sometimes, the form blurs the message.  For this, I have to give it 2 stars.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Theodore Sturgeon
Completed 4/17/2014, Reviewed 4/22/2014
4 stars

I read Theodore Sturgeon’s “More Than Human” in college.  I was at a supermarket browsing the paperbacks and that one jumped out at me.  I hadn’t heard of him, but the cover touted that it was a classic by one of the masters of SF.  I had two bucks burning a hole in my pocket (those were the days!), so I bought it.  It blew me over.  The concept, the prose, I thought it was genius.  A year later, I was taking a one-time only Fantasy Lit class and our professor scored Sturgeon as a guest lecturer. 

I don’t remember much about his talk.  It was over 30 years ago.  I remember he oscillated between kindly grandfather and dirty old man.  He took a lot of questions.  One person asked him extreme details about his time and place of birth, which he interrupted by describing his complete astrological profile.  He frustrated the person but made the class roar.  At the end, he read one of his short stories.  That I remember.  It was about a toilet that pleasured the sitter and the prudish woman who out of necessity was forced to use it.  Again, the class roared.  I did too, but I couldn’t help wondering how this could be the same person who wrote “More Than Human”.  So when I found I could use one of his novels for the Second Best challenge, I decided it was about time to pick him up again. 

“Godbody” was nominated for the Locus Fantasy Award in 1987.  It was published after his death in 1985.  It’s about a group of people with varying degrees of sexual and relationship problems, ranging from a Christian minister to a sexual predator.  They encounter a red-haired, naked messiah named Godbody who tells them that love is the answer, and that joyous, uninhibited sexual expression is the path.  They are transformed.  As you’d expect in any messianic deconstruction, it’s not going to end well.  There’s a notorious gossip who wants to put an end to the movement before it barely can get started.    

The most amazing aspect of this book is the writing.  Each chapter is an account of what’s happening told in the voice of one of the main characters.  I was truly astounded that Sturgeon could write in so many completely distinct voices.  In the little research I did on this book, it was said that after reading the book, you can be quoted a passage, and within a few sentences, you’d know which character was speaking.  That was exactly my experience.  My skin crawled while I was in the mind of the rapist.  My heart broke while I was reading the account from the journalist’s assistant.  I had gotten an intimate look into the lives of these people.

The story itself felt a little hokey.  A messiah comes to liberate us sexually and thus save the world. My thought as I began this book was that he must have written this around the same time as the happy potty story. It seemed like it would have had a bigger impact if it was published in the 60s, alongside Heinlein’s free love mediations. Of course, it would probably have had more notoriety back then as a banned book.   Or perhaps, that’s why it was unpublished at the time of his death.  The sex is explicit, and the message is controversial.  But after a while, you realize that Sturgeon is making the larger point about how Christianity has been corrupted through the ages.  The message of Jesus has been perverted nearly since the beginning by the powers that be.  And the most fundamental of human functions, sex, has become a torturous, dirty thing, instead of the basic, joyful, celebratory act it was created to be. 

I was so glad I read this book and I can’t wait to read more of his work (once I finish all my WWEnd challenges, of course).  This one fit nicely in my favorite sub-genre of religiously-themed speculation.  If you’re squeamish or puritanical about sex, or have issues with criticizing religion, or more specifically, the mixing of these two, this book is not for you.  If you want to experience an amazingly written reflection on the fullness of being from the mind of a great science fiction and fantasy writer, “Godbody” is a must.  4 stars.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller
Completed 4/20/2014, Reviewed 4/22/2014
5 stars

If you were the one of the last people on earth after a flu-like pandemic wipes out most of the population, wouldn’t it be great if you were a rugged, outdoorsy guy’s guy who hunts, fishes, and gardens, and happens to know how to fly a small plane?  You could eam up with a survivalist who lives for guns and ammo.  You could set up an uncomfortable life together at a small airport near Denver, plant a garden, build a moat, watch the stars with your trusty dog Jasper, and keep a lookout for the only other type of people out there, homicidal marauders. 

That’s Hig, the main character of “The Dog Stars”.  He’s not really all spit and piss.  He’s actually a sensitive modern guy struggling to keep his sanity after the horrible loss of his pregnant wife and the world around him.  Despite his constant despair, he finds solace in his hunting and fishing.  He takes food to the surviving Mennonite family a few miles away, who are slowly dying of a blood disease affecting many of the survivors of the killer flu.  He struggles with the fact that he’s developed into an untrusting survivalist himself. 

One day, while doing a perimeter check in his plane, he catches a few words of a transmission on his plane’s radio.  Apparantly there are survivors at an airport across the mountains in Grand Junction.  Should he investigate?  Can he allow himself to hope that they are not like the homicidal maniacs that regularly try to invade his fortress?   What else will he find out there?

It’s a simple story, but I loved it.  It took me a while to get into the feel of it at first, because it’s not lucid prose.  Heller writes in ramblings, often fragmented and incoherent, what one might expect of a person living mostly in their head after an apocalypse.  After some initial trouble just reading these sentence fracments, I was surprised to find that I was quickly in Hig’s head, feeling his despair and loneliness, bonding with his dog Jasper, maintaining a tenuous friendship with the ammo-happy Bangley, and living in constant fear of marauding gangs.  And when I was finished with the book, I was deeply satisfied with having read it.

For such a short book, Heller’s characterization is well-developed.  What could easily be cardboard characters have depth.  Hig is often in his head, thinking about his wife, his old life, the cognitive dissonance over what he has to do to stay alive.  His only comfort is Jasper, who is not the young dog he once was.  And he loves poetry.

There’s a cynical side of me that wants to distance myself from the book because of the author.  Heller is, like Hig, a rugged, outdoorsy guy’s guy who writes and edits for “Outdoor” and “Men’s Journal” magazine.  There’s something a little Hemingway-ish about him.  Journalist/adventurer who already has it all makes it big with hairy-chested, Cope-chewing novels.  Politically, I shouldn’t like it, but I do.  It was a guilty pleasure reading this book.  I was really disturbed by the world Heller created, and I loved Hig.  When I finished the book, I was sad it had ended.      

I’m going to push the cynical, politically-correct chatter in my head aside and give this book 5 stars.  For those who don’t know my rating system, I rate books from zero to four, with five being reserved for books that emotionally moved me.  I’m embarrassed, and happy, to say, this is one of them.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Samuel R Delaney
Completed 3/31/2014, Reviewed 4/17/2014
4 stars

It took me nearly three weeks to read this 800 page tome.  When people asked me what it was about, I usually said, “It’s about a drifter who ends up in Bellonia, a city in the center of the U.S., which seems to have experienced something apocalyptic.  He’s a poet who becomes the head of a gang, has a lot of sex, and, oh yeah, he might be schizophrenic.  I’ve heard it’s kind of stream of conscious, like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’”  And when they ask if this is one of my science fiction reads, I answer, “I think so?!”

“Dhalgren” is a very strange book.  The main character is the kid, or The Kid, or Kidd, so dubbed because he can’t remember his name.  He’s drifted into Bellonia, where roads are destroyed, houses burn one day and are fine the next, and only several thousand out of an original several million people remain, living in communes, gangs, or desperate solitude.  Early on, we learn that Kidd is bisexual, or perhaps more accurately, has a very fluid sexuality.  He initially settles in with Lanya, living in a commune in one of the town’s parks.  Eventually, he hangs around with the gang known as the scorpions, moving in with them and becoming their leader.  He acquires another lover, a teen named Denny, with whom he and Lanya form a polyamorous relationship.  Kidd is also a poet.  Upon arriving in Bellonia, he acquires a notebook that has all the right side pages written in.  Kidd writes his poetry and keeps a journal on the left side pages.  He goes from situation to situation, documenting his experiences in this odd city, eventually becoming a kind of folk hero, despite the fact that he walks around with one bare foot and occasionally wakes up not remembering anything that happened to him in the last week.

What’s most interesting about the book is that there’s no plot.  It’s more like a collection of stories about an odd person in a strange place.  It really is like a journal.  Delaney is playing with form, giving the reader characters, mood, and events, but no real direction besides the passing of time.  And there’s a meta- or circular quality to the book.  It begins with a prosaic passage, which later we find is a passage from the notebook.  With Kidd’s blackouts, it is unclear if the passage is from another author or his own writing from one of his schizophrenic episodes.  Moments of ornate prose in first person appear in the midst of straight-forward third person narration.  One chapter of the book is presented as if it has been transcribed from the journal, with multiple entries appearing in the text, indicating multiple thoughts and timelines.  If you get caught up in the structure of the book, it can be quite difficult to get through.  I had moments when I was confounded by it.

But the book was very readable.  At some point, I just let it be an experience.  The book never felt like something to trudge through.  It became something akin to voyeurism.  I never wanted to put it down, and despite the three weeks it took me to read, I didn’t really want it to end.  The characters are drawn in great detail.  Except for the myriad of gang members, I had distinct pictures and senses of almost everyone in the book.

There is a lot of sexuality in the book.  As mentioned before, the main character is bisexual, and there are gay and Lesbian characters as well.  Initially, all the explicit sex feels gratuitous.  As I say, there’s a lot of it.  But as the book progresses, it simply becomes a normal part of the narrative.  I wondered if the point was that it shouldn’t be shocking, but integral.  Sex is normal and an important part of a person.  Just as any other part of this book reveals insight into the life and mind of the Kid, so does his sexuality. 

The most confusing part of this book was deciding whether or not this was SF.  It’s considered a classic SF novel.  I think today, it would be considered post-apocalyptic speculative fiction.  I wondered if Delaney’s real premise was that he wanted to write about an alternative society where government has broken down, sexuality is not an issue, and then extrapolate on how people would respond.  To ground it in SF, he added a double moon and a giant sun.  I think if he wrote it today, he wouldn’t have needed these conceits.  It would have fit into the more general speculative genre.  But for 1976, it was needed to allow him to explore people in a social situation simultaneously unlike 1976. 

A lot of people have written that “Dhalgren” is unreadable, or terse or dry at best.  Others say it’s a masterpiece of contemporary literature, not meant to be understood upon the first read.  I certainly don’t know what it was really about.  I’m sure there’s a ton of symbolism I missed.  But I really enjoyed it.  If you intend to read this book, I suggest you need to be open to a creative literary style and to an imaginative contemplation of the daily lives of a small group of people dealing as best they can in a bizarre situation.  Oh yeah, and not be afraid of sex.  I give it 4 stars. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L’Engle
Completed 4/7/2014, Reviewed 4/9/2014
3 stars

Meg is the awkward, friendless 14 year old daughter of two brilliant scientists.  Bored with school and ignored by other kids, she often finds herself at odds with both her classmates and teachers.  She’s close to her 5 year old little brother, Charles Wallace, who didn’t speak until the age of 5, and then spoke in complete sentences, and seems to know what she’s thinking.  She also has twin 10 year old brothers.  Charles Wallace is special, much more intelligent than other children, and to her dismay, so is Meg.  Only recently, has she befriended the 17 year old Calvin, and she doesn’t quite trust him yet.

But there is a problem at home.  Her father has been away from home for 4 years working on secret government projects.  A year ago, he disappeared completely, and no one has been able to give the family any answers.  So her mother continues to work on experiments in their home lab while trying to raise her four children in a gossipy suburban town. 

Three women, Mrs. Whatsits, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, appear and whisk Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace to other worlds on a quest to save their father from a darkness so terrible, that it threatens to turn the inhabitants of the universe into fearful, controlled slaves, devoid of individuality.

When I read a YA novel, I try to put myself in a specific mindset, making myself open to the simplicity and naiveté that I often find helps my experience of the book.  I approached this the same way.  And I did find some wonder.  I loved Mrs. Whatsits, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, three beings who are much more powerful, intelligent, and omnipotent than first appear.  I loved Aunt Beast, another alien from a race of sightless, tentacled beings who have unconditional love, understanding, and patience. 

One thing I find remarkable about the book is the simple but efficient introduction of warping time and space, that is, creating the “wrinkle”, into a children’s novel.  I don’t think the concept even entered popular culture until “Star Trek”, which first appeared a few years later.  Another thing I find interesting is that L’Engle’s aliens aren’t just the anthropomorphizing of earthly animals.  They’re not talking cat people as in Fritz Leiber’s “The Wanderer”.  They’re more complex, like the aliens imagined by Clifford D. Simak.  Again, for a children’s novel, I think it is quite remarkable.

“A Wrinkle in Time” is a much-loved classic young-adult SF novel.  It is so popular, people noticing me reading it in a coffee shop came up to me to tell me it was one of their favorite books.  A few weeks ago, in our county’s library system, there were 18 holds on 17 copies. 

I think this book has been so enduring because of its simplicity.  It’s theme of good v. evil, conformity v. individualism can be overlaid on so many struggles of the past and present.  This book was published in the heart of the struggle for equal rights for women and minorities, the fear of communism, the fear of McCarthyism, the harsh social pressure for conformity in the suburbs and small towns, many aspects of which continue today.  The drama of the gifted child is demonstrated through both Meg and Charles Wallace.  And the difficulty of growing up is universal. 

But I couldn’t identify with Meg, the main character.  As short as this book is, there is some real character development for her.  She grows enormously by facing the profound confrontation between good and evil.  She puts away her childish behavior to take on a burden that’s too much to ask even of an adult.  But despite my own memories of being awkward, misplaced, and shunned as a child, and eventually redeemed like Meg, I had no empathy for her. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the book say that they identified with Meg.  To me, she was just a character in a book.

In the end, I simply felt indifferent towards the book.  That saddens me and is very hard to admit.  There were parts I loved, and I’m glad I read it.  But knowing most people’s experience of the book, I want to believe I would have enjoyed it much more if I read it as a 10 year old.  As an adult, I give it 3 stars, though as a 10 year old, I’m hoping I would have given it 5.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mr. Fox

Helen Oyeyemi
Completed 4/4/2014, reviewed 4/4/2014
4 stars

I had the pleasure of attending a book signing by Helen Oyeyemi at the Hawthorne location of Powell’s Books when she came through Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago.  She’s on tour for her new book, “Boy, Snow, Bird”.  She read from it, and the contrast between her light, youthful, British voice and the dark, literary prose of the first chapter was astounding.  I was enthralled by her and her book.  I bought it and “Mr. Fox”, which was the only other book by her that Powell’s carried at this small location.  I read “Mr. Fox” first, since her new book wasn’t yet in the WWEnd database.  I wasn’t disappointed.

This novel is a retelling of the Bluebeard folktale, as well as several other myths about doomed women and murderous men.  Mr. St. James Fox is an author of stories where the main female characters come to a gruesome fate.  Fox has a muse, an imaginary love interest named Mary Foxe.  Mary accuses him of being a literary serial killer and challenges him to write stories featuring the two of them.  Fox also has a wife, Daphne, who learns of Mary, realizes that she is more dangerous than your normal, everyday paramour.  And Mary seems to be becoming more and more real.  So who does Fox choose?

“Mr. Fox” is actually a collection of short stories, ranging in tone from the heinous to the redemptive, with the plot of Fox writing stories with himself and Mary tying them together.  The stories were very emotional for me.  They are drawn from the different myths, cultures, and even different times.  The main plot takes place in 1936, though at least one of the short stories is set in the present.  Each one is riveting, and after reading one, I simply had to put the book down, take a few breaths, and collect myself.  After reading several of the stories, I began to realize that not only were they connected to the main characters, but they moved the plot as well. 

This book is also about women, and how they’ve suffered from the cruelty of men and society, and sometimes, even themselves.  It’s not a male-bashing book. It’s more like an historical account of the evolution of the role of the wife, from being the victim to the whims of her husband to his healer, redeemer, and companion.  

Oyeyemi’s prose is powerful.  Each word feels very deliberate.  No words are wasted, even repeated words.  Her sentences cannot be sped through.  They must be consumed and digested.  After reading her work, I became very aware of how much I write in a passive tone.

Classifying the book is difficult.  At the reading, I asked Oyeyemi if she knew she had been a featured author on the Worlds Without End site and if she considered herself a genre fiction author.  Paraphrasing her reply, she said that she didn’t consider herself a genre writer, because she didn’t think she was genre enough to satisfy the hard-core fans, but was happy to be featured on such a site. She also didn’t think her work was literary enough, nor magical realism, and only Marquez could write true magical realism.  She even alludes to this in book.  When Daphne seems to have a very real vision of Mary, Daphne says, “I thought you were…magical or something.  Like a spirit.”  Mary replies, “No, I don’t think I am.”

I beg to differ with Oyeyemi’s self-appraisal.  While difficult to classify, I think “Mr. Fox” is literary, macabre, and magical.  It’s not a traditional narrative.  It challenges the reader to explore a different way of moving a plot.  I have so many books already on my reading list, but having read this book, I’ll be sneaking her other books into my pile very soon.  4 stars.