So, like, seven or eight years ago I picked up this book, Vellum: The Book of All Hours. This was during the infancy of ebooks, back before iBooks, before Kindle, back when Palm was the platform for ebooks. I can’t imagine a worse device for reading books, but they developed a Mac app, and an online ebooks store, and for a very little while, Palm was “it” for digital reading.
Anyway, yes, I bought this book, Vellum, I read, maybe, fifty pages, and I put it down. Then a few years later I bought it in Kindle format and I don’t know if I ever even opened it. Now, today, I’m into Vellum again, and this time, I’m going to finish it or die trying, which feels kind of possible. I think it’s called The Book of All Hours, because it takes all the hours of your life to get through it. I’ve been reading since I nabbed from iBooks three days ago and it feels like three years. I feel like it’s never going to stop, and the constant shifts in time, in perspective, in reality, they don’t help you feel like your moving forward or even backward, or even fucking sideways. It’s like reading words written on the tread of a treadmill. You just keep going ’round and ’round, world without end, Amen.
I’m going to finish, then I’ll write a full review, as opposed to this pre-review rant.3 comments
An unknown biological catastrophe claims a chunk of the world, cuts a clear border between the tainted and the untainted. This tainted place is called Area X, named so by an unnamed government, a government not at all above sacrificing lives to unlock the mystery that is Area X. This government charges a cloak and dagger agency, The Southern Reach, with the handling of Area X, infiltration; training personnel to cross the border and study Area X.
The very first team reported a place once inhabited by people living in modest homes, a lighthouse off the coast, then, somehow, nature took it all back. Life became death, grass, vines, spread over the homes, forests grew thick, marshlands swelled, the people apparently swallowed by nature growing unabated. Loss of life aside, the early reports described Area X as beautiful, peaceful, pure. This picture didn’t last long. Then came the mass suicide of one team, another self-destructed in a hail of gunfire, blasting each other to fleshy mounds of former colleagues. The eleventh expedition came home, only to die of a very rapid terminal cancer. Despite the early reports, Area X is dangerous, its beauty, false. Answers, however, are more important than lives, The Southern Reach is willing to spill as much blood as necessary in order to know what they need to know.
Enter the twelfth team, four women; a surveyor, a psychologist, a biologist, and an anthropologist. Teams are chosen by various statistics, skill-sets and variables known only by The Southern Reach. Team twelve is tasked to study Area X, and each other. Any member who might behave oddly or appear “changed” by Area X is to be shot on sight, lest the mission as a whole be compromised.
The novel is narrated by the biologist, teams leave their names and lives behind. It’s much easier to remain impartial to each other if everything is impersonal. It’s also easier to shoot a “changed” colleague in the face if they don’t have a name, or a story. The biologist is a flawed character, a woman more comfortable around frogs and dragonflies than people and their conversations and desire for closeness. Yet, through her story, her struggles, we do care about this detached woman of science. This is part of VanderMeer’s skill, he makes us care about characters whose general lives are incomprehensible, as there’s always still some relatable spark in them.
Immediately, VanderMeer sets a tone of dread, we’re told early that members of the team will die, one very quickly. From the start, we know the mission is damned, there’s no heroic happy ending. We don’t know the hows, we only know that the biologist is looking back from the ruins of a wrecked ship. We read, desperately at times, because we want to know the hows, and more urgently, the whys. Why does The Southern Reach send people to Area X like cattle to a killing floor? Why is such a beautiful place so full of death? So many whys, but I won’t reveal them here. There’s also a what, a most important what. What ultimately becomes of the biologist? We don’t want Area X to claim her, but there’s a constant fear that in her final sentence, it will.
VanderMeer uses perfect words to paint images of gorgeous landscapes, macabre dark, hidden places, and images of death and decay that will disturb readers long after the final page is turned. His use of descriptive imagery, quick plotting, and rich character development is spot-on, perhaps the best balance he has ever struck.
Annihilation is a short, fast-paced novel that is really the beginning of a much deeper narrative. For those who have never read Jeff VanderMeer this novel is a perfect introduction, and for those who have, his brilliance will only be further demonstrated.
Buy Annihilation, it absolutely won’t disappoint, and I’m sure the rest of the trilogy will be just as spectacular.
Oh, if you hurry, you can win a copy of Annihilation here!No comments
So, I’ve been reading The Narrator by Michael Cisco, one of the most brilliant writers putting down words today. I’ve been reading The Narrator for… awhile. For me, Michael Cisco doesn’t write the sort of books one flies through. At least, I definitely don’t fly through them. His prose are thick, the words are almost heavy in your head, but this is because the images he creates with the words are so vivid, and real, and often yet so very dream-like, or nightmarish. He takes scenes of dream and nightmare, with all the inherent incoherence and impossibility that the human mind can create intimately, in the dark, and puts those scenes on paper in words. I don’t rush through words like that, I want to take them all in, to see the images they’re creating.
When I do finish The Narrator, I’ll review it, but really, just go buy it. I don’t think Cisco will fall on his face during the second half.No comments
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of the better little novels I’ve ever read. It tells the story of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum disorder. Christopher likes to walk his neighborhood late at night when the world is quiet and seems empty. He likes the solitude, it’s comforting. One evening he finds something quite disturbing, his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, stabbed to death with a garden-fork. His neighbor finds him holding poor Wellington, so of course, she calls the police. Christopher cannot tell lies, Asperger’s doesn’t allow it, he gets to go home with a stern warning to stay out of trouble. Christopher likes dogs, and murder mysteries, he’s a genius with puzzles, so he decides to investigate Wellington’s murder and write his investigation as a novel for a school project.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I couldn’t put it down. Haddon masterfully captures the behaviors of a person with Asperger’s. Christopher thrives on logic and order, he’s brilliant with math and solving puzzles. He’s emotionally detached from people, he doesn’t understand the subtleties of emotions and body language. He doesn’t like talking to most people because they do and say things that he genuinely doesn’t understand, which is frightening to him. He loves the idea of being an astronaut living alone in outer-space, he finds absolute safety in solitude. We learn all of this as Christopher narrates the story of his detective work. It’s fantastic how quickly Haddan inspires empathy for Christopher. Behaviors exhibited by people with an Autism Spectrum disorder are often seen by people as extremely odd or even disruptive. They can’t look you in the eye, they cover their ears and rock back and forward. They scream in public for no apparent reason. Through Christopher we better understand the whys of his behaviors, he’s living in a world in which he simply doesn’t always fit.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time isn’t just about a murdered dog, it’s really so much bigger. The story is so compelling because Christopher pushes himself so far out of his comfort-zone, he does things that terrify him. Ultimately, he discovers far more than who murdered Wellington.5 comments
I recently finished Quarantine by Jim Crace, a novel of harsh reality and spiritual surrealism. The novel takes place during the time of Jesus, in the desolate wastes outside of Judea. A merchant, Musa, lies dying of fever in his tent. Despite being abandoned by their caravan, mostly made up of Musa’s uncles and cousins, Musa’s wife couldn’t be happier. Miri’s six months pregnant, left to do “women’s work,” left by the caravan to tend to her husband with the most meager supplies, but for the first time in years she’s filled with hope. She’ll be absolutely glad to be widowed. She’s glad to be rid of his family, she’s happy to dig his grave. This is because Musa is a drunken, disgusting, abusive, poor excuse for a man. He’s abusive in every way possible, verbally, physically, sexually. Miri would rather endure birth alone in the desert than suffer her husband any longer. She does her duty, says her prayers, anoints him with the proper salves, but she knows it’s pointless. She leaves Musa to die alone while she digs his grave. Meanwhile, five travelers walk toward nearby caves for their “quarantine,” forty-days of sun-up till’ sundown fasting. Each has personal reasons for their quarantine, but they’re all seeking spiritual rewards. However, one is far more ambitious than the rest. A young man from Galilee, Jesus. Jesus seeks an audience with God Himself. He’s bound for the most isolated cave, with faith as his only sustenance unless God personally sends angels to feed him. It’s Jesus who stumbles upon the tent while Miri’s away, hoping to find some hospitality and potentially, his last meal for forty-days. He finds stale dates, a water skin. Assuming no one is around, nor that they would mind, he helps himself. Of course, Musa is there, feverish and near-death. Near-death, until Jesus finds him…
While reading, I really wasn’t sure that I liked the book. It’s mainly a book of description and third-person narrative. There’s very little dialogue, which made for a… dense read. It rather reminds me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in that it’s short, but the prose are spectacularly lush, and very heavy. Still, he’s ultimately excellent at painting images with words. While reading, I also found it difficult to “like” any of the characters, especially Musa. Yet, as I’ve had a chance to think about the book, the fact that I feel so strongly about the characters is proof of Crace’s skill as writer. They’re all very real, very flawed and very alive. Jesus is not perfect, the quarantine does not treat him kindly. He might be God made flesh, but he’s just as imperfect as any human being. Crace renders Jesus in a realist’s perspective. In the end, I feel that Quarantine shows that one cannot exist solely on faith, yet we do not survive entirely alone. God exists, but our fate is more our own than we might want to believe. It’s very worth reading.No comments
I recently finished one of my audio books, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. It’s not quite my usual fare, but I did enjoy it. The story is narrated by Jake Jankowski during two points in his life, age ninety-one, or ninety-three (he’s lost track), and as a young man of twenty-one. At ninety-one, or ninety-three, Jake’s relegated to finish things out in a nursing home and he’s not particularly happy about it. Jake’s not content to eat pureed goop and stare passively at the world outside his window. In his younger days, Jake led a rather interesting life. Just before college graduation at the age of twenty-one his parents are killed in a tragic car accident. This is bad enough, until Jake discovers that his parents took on a massive amount of debt to pay his college tuition at the Cornell University school of veterinary medicine. Jake has no family, no money and no home. The car accident and the bank claimed everything respectively. Devastated, and absolutely flat broke, he drops out just before exams and, not quite thinking clearly, hops a train bound for God knows where. The train belongs to a rather dubious depression era traveling circus, full of shady characters and cheap booze. A traveling circus that just so happens to need a vet.
Water for Elephants isn’t a complicated tale. It’s a story of loss and romance, of misfits down on their luck with no place to go. Gruen does a spectacular job at painting vivid images with her prose. One can see the dingy train cars, the raucous midway, Jake’s lonely nursing home bed. Though dark quite often, the book isn’t totally bereft of hope. Jake might not be entirely lost, not quite knowing how many years are behind him. It’s definitely worth a read.2 comments
I’m reading quite a lot lately, e-books always preferable to audio books. Unfortunately, many of the books I want to read most aren’t available as e-books, or even audio books. So, last week I started e-mailing my favorite authors to see about getting ahold of their works that aren’t currently available. One such author is Jeff VanderMeer, the fellow behind one of my top 5 favorite novels, Veniss Underground. Veniss is published in multiple e-book formats, but the same isn’t true of any of his other work. Well, it turns out that Jeff had already seen me on This American Life and was more than happy to send me City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword, his other two novels. He also asked if I might be interested in doing an interview with Omnivoracious, an Amazon.com book blog…2 comments
Yesterday I finished Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Basically, it’s a story of a man, Richard Mayhew, who after saving the life of a young girl, ends up being erased from existence in his own world and forced to journey to a parallel world. The girl’s name is Door, she’s from London Below, a shadow version of Richard’s London Above. After her entire family is murdered for reasons unknown to her, Door desperately flees her would-be assassins by opening a magical portal to London Above. Enter Richard, who happens upon Door bloodied and semi-conscious lying on the sidewalk near Richard’s flat. Nobody bothers to help her because people from London Below barely register in the minds of people from London Above. Yet, Richard can see her, which is the start of all his troubles.
Neverwhere is a great concept set in lush and interesting world. Unfortunately, Richard and Door are two astonishingly flat protagonists who pale in comparison to the book’s far more rich lesser characters. The story itself, while “fun,” is definitely a little formulaic. Luckily, Neverwhere is one of Gaiman’s first novels and they do get much better.
My current book is Chuck Palahniuk’s newly released Snuff.3 comments
I recently finished reading Whitechapel Gods, a decently entertaining fantasy novel with a hint of fabulism. Victorian London’s Whitechapel district is tormented by not the Ripper, but rather two mechanical Gods, Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock. After coming to existence on earth, which is never fully explained, we just have to accept it, Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock seal Whitechapel off from the rest of the world making it a soot-filled mechanized nightmare. The sky is hidden by a vast canopy of steel, and monolithic metal towers loom haphazardly, casting ominous shadows over everything. The air in Whitechapel is thick with factory smoke, barely battled by dimly lit street lamps. Some citizens voluntarily give up their bodies and souls to the Gods. Their hearts are replaced with coal-burning furnaces, their limbs torn off and replaced with mechanical facsimiles. Other citizens are afflicted with “the clacks,” a disease in which mechanical parts grow spontaneously from human tissue, usually resulting in death. The book does an amazing job of creating a dark and truly claustrophobic atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the story itself isn’t anything spectacular, even a little muddled at times. A group of rebels banding together against impossible odds to topple their malevolent oppressors, we’ve read it before. The book’s characters are a little flat and not particularly engaging. While definitely a fairly fun read, I see Whitechapel Gods as a great deal of wasted potential.1 comment