Thursday, February 28, 2013

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières

Birds Without WingsBirds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Country: Turkey
Why I read it: One of the GoodReads groups I am in, The World's Literature, is focusing on literature from and about Turkey this year. Birds Without Wings was one of the February picks.

This is an incredibly well-executed novel. The author tells the story of Turkey in the early 20th century, from its development from the Ottoman Empire or Anatolia, into a time where the people living there embraced the word Turk, Turkish, Turkey (prior to that change, it had been a pretty derogatory term.) This is the second book I've read this year to include Mustafa Kemal, but while the other book focused on his violent acts from an outsider perspective, Birds Without Wings entwines his story from youth to Atatürk, and explains his pivotal role in where the country is now. It is done rather without judgment, just the facts. Well, I'm not sure. The Armenians are removed and the Christians are removed and the violence surrounding it is implied but not focused on.

The core of the story isn't Mustafa Kemal, however. It focuses on the people living in a small village where people speak Turkish written in a Greek alphabet, where friendships cross religious and ethnic lines, but war and governmental change creates conflict in all those areas. It is a sad but true transformation from tolerance to division. The story is told from multiple perspectives, from Iskander the Potter to the mistress of the wealthiest man in town. The writing is dense, filled with local color, and goes by quickly with the changing perspectives.

The author's opinion is clear throughout the novel, mourning the past where different people could live together in the days of the Ottoman Empire. This quotation sums up a great deal of the tone of the book:
"It was said in those days one could hear seventy languages in the streets of Istanbul. The vast Ottoman Empire, shrunken and weakened though it now was, had made it normal and natural for Greeks to inhabit Egypt, Persians to settle in Arabia and Albanians to live with Slavs. Christians and Muslims of all sects, Alevis, Zoroastrians, Jews, worshipers of the Peacock Angel, subsisted side by side and in the most improbable places and combinations. There were Muslim Greeks, Catholic Armenians, Arab Christians and Serbian Jews. Istanbul was the hub of this broken-felloed wheel, and there could be found epitomised the fantastical bedlam and babel, which, although no one realised it at the time, was destined to be the model and precursor of all the world's great metropoles a hundred years hence, by which Istanbul would, paradoxically, have lost its cosmopolitan brilliance entirely. It would be destined, perhaps, one day to find it again, if only the devilish false idols of nationalism, that specious patriotism of the morally stunted, might finally be toppled in the century to come."

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Two Classics, and Another Classic

Stories Read:
"The Overcoat" (1842) by Nikolai Gogol
"The Necklace" (1884) by Guy de Maupassant
"The Halfling" (1943) by Leigh Brackett

I love the irreverent tone of Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat". Here's the first paragraph:
In the department of -- but it is better not to mention the department. There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service. Each individual attached to them nowadays thinks all society insulted in his person. Quite recently a complaint was received from a justice of the peace, in which he plainly demonstrated that all the imperial institutions were going to the dogs, and that the Czar's sacred name was being taken in vain; and in proof he appended to the complaint a romance in which the justice of the peace is made to appear about once every ten lines, and sometimes in a drunken condition. Therefore, in order to avoid all unpleasantness, it will be better to describe the department in question only as a certain department.

Reminds me of Dickens. What follows that is the story of a man who works in that certain department and who is paid so little that he has to scrimp and save for a coat. He buys it, thinks it's terrific (which it is), but then it's taken from him. Tragic!

42 years after Gogol (a Russian) published "The Overcoat", Guy de Maupassant (French) published "The Necklace". In his story, a poor young woman borrows a diamond necklace so that she'll feel comfortable around rich people at a party. Like the main character in "The Overcoat", just wearing it lifts her self-esteem. She was part of society, and this necklace was the key. But then, she loses it. Dropped in the mud, stolen, no one knows for certain, but it can't be found. She and her husband borrow enough money to pay for a new one, then spend the next 12 years working day and night to pay for it. There's a zinger, though, right at the end.

Both of these stories made me consider the importance of things, and the difference between necessities and desires.

"The Halfling" by Leigh Brackett is also a classic, but of a different era. It was originally published in Astonishing Stories, Feb 1943. Early on, the story read like something Bogart and Bacall would be perfect for. A taste:
It was that kind of voice - sweet, silky, guaranteed to make you forget your own name. I turned around.
That feel didn't stick with the story all the way through, but it was a fun piece of Golden Age science fiction. The main character is a carnival owner, and the beings on display are from all over the solar system. The lady with the silky voice is a dancer with incredible, off-world skill, but she's after a carnival job for reasons that are not obvious.

At this writing, I'm at 28 stories, and Jenny has sprinted ahead with 33... I may need to quit my job! Whatever it takes.

Next up: "Mazirian the Magician", a novelette by Jack Vance.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

None at All

It's the end of the week already, and I have read exactly zero short stories since my last post. None at all! Hopefully, Jenny was distracted by the Russian meteor and read little.

What did I do instead? I went to LTUE 31, a science fiction symposium, and had an excellent time. I figured I'd get some reading done there, but didn't do much at all. I came home with a short stack of books by some authors that were there - books by Howard Tayler, Tracy Hickman, Michael Collings, Michaelbrent Collings, Larry Correia, and Megan Whalen Turner. Lots of great things to read!

Space Eldritch, ed by Nathan ShumateI also bought the eBook version of a collection called Space Eldritch, edited by Nathan Shumate at Cold Fusion Media. The description: "a volume of seven original novelettes and novellas of Lovecraftian pulp space opera." Yeah, baby. Most of the authors in the collection were at LTUE. Here's the table of contents:

Foreword – Larry Correia
“Arise Thou Niarlat From Thy Rest” – D.J. Butler
“Space Opera“ – Michael R. Collings
“The Menace Under Mars” – Nathan Shumate
“Gods in Darkness” – David J. West
“The Shadows of Titan” – Carter Reid and Brad R. Torgersen
“The Fury in the Void” – Robert J Defendi
“Flight of the Runewright” – Howard Tayler

So, yeah, I'll be reading that.

Of course, all this writing talk has rekindled my desire to resume some of my own creative efforts. Stay tuned!

On the reading front, I did listen to most of the Jurassic Park audiobook (by Michael Crichton) in preparation for the next Good Story podcast. I will finish that today. Crichton really was terrific. I marvel at his uncommon interest in so many different things.

Next up, same as last week: "The Overcoat" by Nicholai Gogol

Saturday, February 16, 2013

More from the Tournament of Books


Since "The Big Game" weekend, I have polished off three more books from the Tournament of Books list.  All have been hard to put down, which I suppose is the highest type of recommendation, although I rated them 5-4-3.5 stars respectively based on my own tastes and opinions. 

That brings my list of books read to 12.  I'm getting closer!  All three were also very geographically specific, so I'm counting them for my Around the USA reading challenge as well.

The 2013 Tournament of Books Finalists - Read (with reviews linked)

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
State: Missouri

This audiobook was 19 hours and I finished listening to it in three days. That's on my 3 mile commute. I just couldn't stop. I'd make up reasons to listen. This is a very well-written thriller that I can hardly discuss without giving things away. I almost hate myself for liking it because of all the hype, but it really pulls you in and makes you want to know where it is going. I don't read many thrillers, but this was a good one!

The audiobook is a great way to "read" this, because the chapters are divided between Amy, who has gone missing, through her diary, and Nick, her husband who is a key suspect. The two readers, male and female, really bring the story to life.

IvylandIvyland by Miles Klee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
State: New Jersey

This is a first novel by the author, and I wasn't familiar with his shorter fiction, although I've read almost everything by two of the four authors he lists as his influences - Michel Houellebecq and Nicholson Baker. Based on this book, I'm surprised not to see J.G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick on that list, because I could easily see this novel being influenced by either of their work as well.

Of course, I have read extensively in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction worlds. Not much of this one is explained, other than it taking place in New Jersey, but that isn't really a complaint. The reader is dumped into a world of chaos and disorder, and while details are mentioned in passing through various storytelling techniques (going back and forth in time, the story coming from different characters, some who only appear once), you are never really given enough information to fill in the gaps. The world is clearly dominated by Big Pharmaceutical, except not in the stark, sterile way in worlds like in Sleepless by Charlie Huston. In fact, there is rarely a feeling that anyone is actually in control in Ivyland. The cops are taking people home in fleets of ice cream trucks, the infrastructure is falling apart, and everyone seems to have access to drugs that may or may not be what they claim to be.

Half of the people in Ivyland are hardly coherent, either from a virus, or flawed chemical treatment before/after a virus, or because they are addicts. I'm still puzzled over most of them, and pleased by others (a very memorable professor is probably my favorite). The experience of reading this novel is also interesting. The first 100 pages tend toward information dump with a lot of characters and time periods, but fast-paced and interesting. The last 100 pages grow terribly sad as the story goes in directions I didn't expect. At least, if I've read it correctly. The entire thing left me unsettled as a reader. I look forward to what Klee does in the future.

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
State: Washington

The author tells the story in a very fragmented way - letters, e-mails, legal action, newspaper stories, etc. You find out later that the daughter of Bernadette is the one trying to tell the story this way. I enjoyed this method of storytelling, the same thing that I enjoyed in novels like The Historian. But then it is as if the author doesn't trust her own storytelling, and starts interspersing these elements with narrative from various perspectives, or commentary from the daughter. I found this unnecessary and redundant and not in the same spirit as the rest of the novel. I think she didn't have quite enough faith in the readers to follow the story she was telling!

This is very much the story of a rich northwestern wife who is displaced in her new residence of Seattle after fleeing a career as a successful architect. We get very little about the daughter, and her strengths and quirks tend to shift to match the needs of the story. She didn't have quite as much of her own identity as I would have liked.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Space, Magic, and a Hug for Harlan

Stories Read:
"Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely"
"Falling Off the Unicorn"
"The Ecology of Faerie"
"At the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of Uncle Teco's Homebrew Gravitics Club"
"Love in the Balance"
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle"

Space Magic by Devid D. LevineI finished Space Magic by David D. Levine this week, adding 6 stories to my total for the year. That's 25, Jenny! I've pulled ahead by a hair, but I understand that there's some travel in Jenny's future, and I've got some longer stories to read, like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton for the Good Story podcast. And Footfall by Niven and Pournelle for the SFFaudio podcast. Those don't count in my total because they aren't short fiction.

Back to Space Magic, which was an inspired title for this collection. Levine is equally at home with space and magic. I reviewed this ebook at Library Thing, and here it is:


David D. Levine and I are connected, but he doesn't know it. At the only Worldcon I've ever attended (LA Con IV, 2006), Harlan Ellison presented a Hugo Award to Levine for his short story "Tk'tk'tk". The image of Levine leaping for joy into the arms of Harlan Ellison is a bright memory of that wonderful week. That's why I was thrilled to see this collection available as an e-book. I thought I'd enjoy it, and I wasn't disappointed.

There are 15 stories included here, and they demonstrate story-telling skill in fantasy, science fiction, and the in-between. My favorite story in the collection is one of the in-between stories: "The Tale of the Golden Eagle". It spans a large number of years during which the enhanced brain of a golden eagle experiences much, from acting as the sentient control system for a ship to walking around in an android body. It's a 5-star story that originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in June of 2003.

Another standout is that Hugo winner - "Tk'tk'tk". A salesman goes to an alien planet to sell inventory management software of all things, and ends up being changed by the experience. Definitely an award quality story, but so was "The Tale of the Golden Eagle".

One more science fiction story I'd like to mention is "At the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of Uncle Teco's Homebrew Gravitics Club". I thoroughly enjoyed this fun story about a convention that takes place annually in Earth orbit. The group that gathers there is made up of people that met each other on the internet years before. Since then the group has grown, and there has been a lot of infighting and water under and over the bridge... this is a great setting, and I wonder if Levine has written any more about these folks.

On the pure fantasy side, there's "The Ecology of Faerie", a very moving story about a sixteen year old girl's encounter with faeries, and "Circle of Compassion", in which a priestess is ordered to send her spirit to an enemy camp to spy. And there's also the lovingly meta "Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely", in which a purple cartoon giraffe starts to wonder about his readers.

This is a very solid and diverse collection of stories that I enjoyed very much.


Next up: "The Overcoat" by Nicolai Gogol

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders

Tenth of December: StoriesTenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was lucky to score a review copy of the audio of these stories from Random House (you can listen to a 4 minute excerpt on their website). The stories are read by the author, which I really love hearing in his voice. He has a somewhat dry tone that lends well the simultaneous whimsy and morbidity that are found in his stories. I have read several volumes of Saunders' short stories, and this combination of light with dark is his style, but he is able to make it fresh with each new story.

The Semplica-Girl Diaries, linked here on the New Yorker website, is probably the most awkward in audio form. The entire story is told in journal entry form, skipping out on verbs, easier to read in print than to hear, where it feels choppy.

On the other hand, one of my favorite stories was "Victory Lap," because the way the author reads the female teenager is entertaining. She is always interjecting phrases like "pas de chat, pas de chat, changement, changement," in between observations of the neighborhood and thoughts on her life. It becomes easy to see her in your mind, prancing around and doing silly kicks. It made me laugh multiple times, no matter the ending.

My other favorite story is "Escape from Spiderhead," about inmates forced into medical testing, scary. These are absolutely worth the listen. In my opinion, Saunders is one of the greatest craftsmen of the short story.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reading Envy Halftime Report

Okay, okay, not really halftime, but I noticed that Scott has posted twice since I last posted!  Rather than post a single review, which always seems a bit redundant with GoodReads, I'm going to weigh in on a list I'm working through. I'm about halfway through reading the finalists for the 2013 Tournament of Books that the Morning News puts on in March.  I thought I'd offer my thoughts so far, and figure out what I still have left to read.  I'm copying the list with links directly from their site, but the reorganizing them into read and unread.

The 2013 Tournament of Books Finalists - Read (with reviews linked)

From the books I've read, I would say I enjoyed May We Be Forgiven and The Orphan Master's Son the most.  If Billy Lynn makes it on, I'd include it, much to my surprise.  My least favorite from what I've read is definitely the John Green, but it seems so very popular in book blogger land, so I'm happy to be in the minority there.

The 2013 Tournament of Books Finalists - Unread

To get my hands on Building Stories, I'd probably have to buy it, and I'm not sure I'll get a chance before March.  I have the Semple on hand, and will work on getting the rest.  I've heard the Flynn is great in audio, and I have just a few tracks of the Saunders' Tenth of December left before I'll be ready for another audiobook.  I'll purchase that next!

A Little More Than Halfway Through Space Magic

Space Magic by Devid D. LevineStories read:
I Hold My Father's Paws
Fear of Widths
Circle of Compassion
Tk'tk'tk, all by David D. Levine

A very short post today - it's Superbowl Sunday, which is a holiday in my family equal to Thanksgiving. We're driving an hour to a friend's house where we'll eat food, drink a beer or two, and watch the commercials. And there's a football game on, I think.

I had hoped to finish David D. Levine's collection called Space Magic this week. Even though I'm enjoying it very much, I didn't get it done. But I did read 8 of them (including a re-read of the Hugo winning "Tk'tk'tk"), which puts me right back on pace. Twenty so far this year. Full review of Space Magic next week!

In the meantime, enjoy my favorite Superbowl commercial EVER: