crap i have read recently #2

contortionistPossible spoilers…yadda, yadda, yadda….

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon:

“I know I shouldn’t think this way and I know I’ll be punished for it, but I just love it when bad things happen to people I can’t stand.”

Occasionally people ask me who I would choose if I could go back in time and meet anyone I wanted and I always have trouble answering that question.  Not anymore.  My choice, hands down, would be the author of this book, a young attendant at the court of the Empress Sadako between 990 and 1000 CE.  Her time in court overlapped with that of Murasaki Shikubu, the author of The Tale of Genji and the two knew each other.  (In fact Murasaki had a few not very nice things to say about her rambunctious contemporary.)  Some time during her service the Empress gave Sei some extra paper and Sei used it to document her life at court.  In Heian times the educated classes constantly made notes, wrote poetry, kept diaries, and composed letters, and it was common for them to keep their work inside their wooden pillows.  Hence the name Makura no soshi (“random notes of the pillow”).

This is one of those rare books that sets you down in the middle of culture totally alien to your own and makes you feel like you are there, not as an observer but as a participant.  Sei is smart, funny, smug, catty, snobbish, witty, fond of puns, and snarky.  Above all she is extremely gossipy and she sits right down with you and tells you everything about her life and times.   She revels in and excels at poetry competitions (both writing and quoting).  She tells stories about her fellow ladies-in-waiting and their lovers.  She comments on those members of court she feels are not really up to snuff.  She tells about various trips out of the palace to shrines and festivals.  She very much enjoys one-upping her coworkers.  She describes clothes, carriages, and furniture and makes wry observations on all the various political and social maneuverings common to the royal court.  She dotes on her Empress and Emperor and admires the handsome men about court.  And she makes lists of things, all sorts of things, and they are one of the best things about the book.   There are 164 of them and they include such things as “things that make me happy”, “things that are especially rare”, “scruffy things”, “lovely things”, “things that me fondly recall the past”, “things that depress me”, “things that are far yet near”, “things that fall from the sky”.  Her powers of observation and description are exquisite and draw you into a world a thousand years gone.

I would love to meet her.

Score:  W00t!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children:  What if monsters turn out to be real?  And what if you are the only one that can see them?

A number of people recommended this book to me and I had a gift card so I gave it a try.  It’s a decent read but it’s not as unique or compelling as the generally glowing reviews led me to believe it would be.  Sixteen year old Jacob grows up listening to his grandfather Abe’s fantastical tales of his life during wartime in an orphanage populated by children with “peculiar” abilities, including levitation, invisibility, incredible strength, and being filled with bees (wait, what?).  He describes it as a magical and always sunny place overshadowed by horrific monsters that he has to fight.  Jacob believes these stories when he is a child but grows out of them eventually and comes to see his grandfather as a silly old man (ah, teenagers…).  When Abe is murdered and Jacob actually sees one of his grandfather’s monsters he sets out to find the orphanage, the children, and the titular headmistress, Miss Peregrine and perhaps to discover what really happened all those years ago.

Sadly enough, the thing I liked least about the book is the thing that many people are most delighted by, the photographs.  The book’s quirky claim to fame is that it is constructed around unusual but actual  “found” photographs, both from the author’s own collection and those of people who collect that sort of thing professionally (and get curated museum shows).  Don’t get me wrong; the photos themselves are for the most part pretty cool.  Some of them are moderately disturbing and the best of them are their era’s version of bad photoshops.  But the author’s attempt to shoehorn the narrative around a disjointed collection of weird images becomes intrusive and distracts from the actual story.  It just becomes a gimmick.  The story itself is a straightforward narrative and moderately exciting but the author missed many opportunities to explore deeper themes.   He glances at them (monsters as metaphors for Nazis and vice versa,  what constitutes normalcy in a world gone mad, prejudice, the paradox of time travel) but then abandons them in favor of an adventure story.  And that’s OK; it’s not a bad adventure and the book is meant for younger readers.  But I’ve read children’s books that are ripping good yarns that still manage to leave you pondering more profound issues that stay with you long after you close the covers.  This is not one of those books.

However, it will probably make a wonderful movie.  Tim Burton, I hear, is considering directing.

Score:  Meh.

The Algebraist:  No doubt about it, Iain Banks writes space opera, glorious, full-blown, bombastic space opera.   Starting his books is always slow going; he tends to throw lots and lots of strange, alien-sounding words into his first few pages, and he’s very fond of long sentences.  But once the characters sort themselves out and the story itself gets going the books become almost impossible to put down.  There is no better science fiction writer living and Banks’ Culture novels are among my favorite books.  The Algebraist is not a Culture novel.  In fact, it is sort of an anti-Culture novel.  It is set in a universe (which, in a change for Banks, actually includes Earth) in which AIs are ruthlessly hunted and executed, the dominant culture is a sort of capitalist feudal hegemony, and the civilized galaxies rely on wormholes to get around.  The protagonist is Seer Fassin Taak, “a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers”, and within that brief description is contained a myriad of worlds to explore.  By the time this book is finished, explore them you will.

In some respects Banks’ books are a bit predictable.  There is very advanced tech: ships, weaponry, AI, physical enhancements.  Humans or very human-like protagonists are at the core of the story.  There is usually one over-the-top bad “guy” (which may be an entire society) that employs unique and well-detailed forms of torture.  The story will be epic in scope, many light years of space will be crossed, and several unusual species and cultures will be encountered.  Someone, perhaps several someones, will not be what they appear to be.   Within this basic framework Banks is often deeply inventive and this book is no different.   Although essentially a basic heroic quest story, it is also tinged with the moral ambiguity and cultural relativism that are familiar to Banks’ regular readers.   The bad guy is so bad that anything standing in opposition to him is good, including the clearly morally bankrupt Mercatoria.   For its part, the Mercatoria has devoted hundreds of years to committing genocide on artificial intelligences.  It is also currently engaged in a war with a ragtag rebel alliance called the Beyonders which gets blamed for nearly everything that goes wrong in the galaxy, even when (especially when) they aren’t responsible.    Although one might be tempted to side with the Beyonders it turns out they are helping the super bad-guy as he leads an invasion fleet toward a small and relatively helpless system.   The cypher at the center of this puzzle is the Dwellers, an extremely long-lived species that inhabits the atmosphere of gas giants throughout the universe.   They are famous for, among other things, keeping great uncatalogued libraries and hunting their own children, and it is suspected that they possess a secret that could change the universe.    Fassin Taak is sent by his government on a desperate mission to the Dwellers to acquire this secret and avert the war hurtling toward the system, but even he doubts it has any hope of success.

This isn’t Banks’ best book but it’s basically a good read.  It’s longer than it needs to be, there are some minor plot-lines that don’t really contribute to the story, and some major plot-lines that leave you scratching your head.  It’s not thematically challenging (genocide is bad, m’kay?) but it holds a few fun surprises as the plot develops and there are some wonderful characters.  The Nasqueron truetwin ship pilot in particular is a hoot.  And I’ll let you read the book to figure out what that means.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on January 17, 2012.

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