View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.


Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

A Lunar Veteran’s Guide to Re-Entry

paolo-bacigalupi-the-windup-girl-book-coverI wear my nerd credentials proudly, but I’ve never been a science-fiction guy.  I loved the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid, but name me a kid in the late 70s/early 80s who didn’t.  And besides, what else was I going to watch – Ice Pirates? (Answer: actually, yes, I would).  All the Star Wars action figures notwithstanding, it was actually Raiders of the Lost Ark that got me hooked on movies, and, if my nerdness was defined by anything, it was by comic books (and, much later, music and film).  Science-fiction never really entered the picture in any serious way during my childhood, which is when, in my experience, those obsessions take root. I’ve never had much use for Star Trek in any of its iterations, and it’s taken the delightfully foul-mouthed Peter Capaldi to get me interested in Dr. Who.  There’s no Serenity or Babylon 5 in my past, I still haven’t watched the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and I’ve never gone through a Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov phase.  And even though three of my favorite authors – Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut – have all dabbled in science-fiction (or, as Ellison demands, speculative fiction), I find many of their space-set stories to be among their least interesting.  And when I do like things that can probably be classified as science-fiction, it’s usually for non-sci-fi reasons.  I adore the first two Alien movies (and have guarded affection for the second two), but mainly for the way they play out like balls-to-the-wall horror movies that just happen to be set in space.  Lasers, space ships, voyages to distant planets, a shirtless William Shatner – all of it leaves me singularly unimpressed.

I don’t know why I have this particular … well, if not aversion, exactly, then ambivalence toward science-fiction.  I mean, I get the appeal: the thrill of the unknown, the exploration of new technology, the implied boundary-busting of traveling across space and time.  It’s fun, and I enjoy it in moderation.  But I also find it frustratingly (but maybe appropriately) weightless.  I can sit back in a movie theater seat and give myself over to two hours of big-screen razzle-dazzle, but when I’ve tried reading science-fiction I just can’t sink my teeth into it.  As a reader I crave connection, and I’ve always found it difficult to relate to the characters in the science-fiction I’ve read.  Similarly, intergalactic adventures just don’t have the same pull for me as struggles that take place in settings I can recognize.  It’s not for lack of imagination – I actually enjoy fantasy quite a bit – but I read the story from a remove, watching it unspool like a TV show that plays as background noise.  It just leaves me thoroughly unmoved.

All of this is why I picked up Book #2 in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – with some reluctance.  Nebula and Hugo Awards be damned – those are just honors bestowed by a club I admire but in which I’ve never sought entrance.  So why’d I pick it up in the first place?  Blame it on Young Adult Lit (YAL).  Bacigalupi has written two absolutely dynamite YAL texts, the loosely connected postapocalyptic novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.  The world-building in these two books – set in the ruins of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. – is impeccable, and the stories themselves represent the very best of what YAL can do.  When I heard he’d written a book for adults, I knew I needed to give it a shot, regardless of genre.

It did not begin well.  One or two chapters in, and I quickly found myself flailing around, looking for something to anchor my reading.  Set in postapocalypse Bangkok, the book begins with Anderson Lake, an American factory foreman who we gather is actually undercover and on the lookout for new genetic strains of vegetation.  The early chapters are tipping over with the kind of scientific gobbledygook that always turns me off:

The press slams down, clipping another kink-spring among the forty per hour that now, apparently, will have only a seventy-five percent chance of ending up in a supervised disposal fill at the Environment Ministry.  They’re spending millions to produce trash that will cost millions more to destroy – a double-edged sword that just keeps cutting.  Yates screwed something up, whether by accident or by spiteful sabotage, and it’s taken more than a year to realize the depths of the problem, to examine the algae baths that breed the kink-springs’ revolutionary coatings, to rework the corn resins that enclose the springs’ gear interfaces, to change the QA practices, to understand what a humidity level that hovers near 100% year-round does to a manufacturing process conceptualized in drier climes.

The detail is vivid and punctilious – certainly of a piece with what I’ve come to expect from Bacigalupi’s work – but the end product, at least at first, left me cold and not a little confused.  Complicating matters is the fact that we’re quickly introduced to a panoply of characters: Lake, his assistant Hock Seng, a government solider named Jaidee, his partner Kanya, and their superior, General Pracha.  We also meet the head of the trade association, Akkarat, and the protector of the child queen, Somdet Chaopraya, as well as Carlyle, another American in Bangkok.  And then there’s Emiko, the titular android (here called New People) who is employed at the beginning as a sex slave.  Programmed to obey and hobbled by a biology that causes her to frequently overheat, she’s the only sympathetic character for miles.

Most of these characters revolve around each other for the first half of the book, playing out conflicting motivations.  Lake wants to strike a deal with Akkarat to use his seedbank to develop new crops; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee, wants to escape the city by stealing Lake’s blueprints for super-sophisticated springs; Jaidee wants to keep order; and Emiko, tantalized by stories of a colony of New People in the hills outside Bangkok, wants to make enough money to buy her freedom.  Lake plays a crucial role in this discovery, and it’s the relationship that develops between human and New Person that gives the book its emotional center.  The heavy lifting through all of this is in keeping all these characters straight and negotiating the stew of technical jargon and Thai slang.

Halfway through, however, the story picks up.  Jaidee’s wife goes missing, Lake strikes a crucial deal with Akkarat, Emiko reveals a particularly brutal talent, and Bangkok’s delicate peace begins to collapse under all the competing conflicts.  It’s at this point that I became most interested in the story, but it might not be particularly surprising to learn that this is the point when The Windup Girl looks least like a science-fiction novel and most like a James Cameron movie.

I know this all sounds very lukewarm, which is misleading.  Once I got my bearings I actually enjoyed Bacigalupi’s clever combination of the Thai vernacular with the invented futuristic lingo.  There’s a little hint of Philip K. Dick in the the human/android relationship, as well as some James Ellroy in the way the characters navigate the city in a byzantine web of alliances and rivalries.  And of course Bacigalupi’s frankly astounding gift for creating new societies out of the ashes of the old is the light that guides readers (or at least this particular reader) through the most complex passages.

It’s not enough to make me a convert, but The Windup Girl is certainly good enough to ensure that I’ll pick up something similar in the future if the pedigree is right.

On to Book #3 in the Project: Michael Chabon’s Werewolves in Their Youth.


Current listening:


Embrace – The Good Will Out (1998)