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Emmisary of Immanence
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Recently read:

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges. Uneven. When a given story contains a solid alignment of idea and style (eg, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The Library of Babel) it's spectacular. When they aren't quite aligned (Funes the Memorious, The South) the coy, oblique, allusive style feels like a tiresome smokescreen to cover for Borges's unwillingness to really develop an idea.

Tales of Pirx the Pilot, by Stanisław Lem. Okay. Blunt, low-stakes stories in a setting where interplanetary travel, and all it implies, is common, and even boring. They work fine as escapist thrillers, but mostly lack the more cerebral appeal of Lem's better/mature work.

Fiasco, also by Stanisław Lem. Lem's last and probably most pessimistic novel, and ostensibly the last Pirx story, this is almost exactly the opposite: almost all of the appeal is intellectual, especially since there is no happy or even emotionally-satisfying ending. Also Lem's last and most thorough treatment of the first contact scenario he returned to through his career. An extremely good book.

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  • 4 months later...

Recently read books:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Very good. There's so much that's been said about this novel that I don't think there's much I can add to the discourse. I enjoyed it, and especially the sly way Vonnegut works his themes into the text both plot-wise and stylistically.

The Isles: A History, by Norman Davies. I think Davies is very possibly a brilliant historian, but in that particularly British way (eg Taylor or Hobsbawm or Trevor-Roper or Carr- Taylor was his mentor) where his idiosyncrasies and biases and iconoclasm are so apparent that it's hard to recommend him broadly. Anyway this is a history of the "British" Isles (deliberately avoiding that term for good reasons). He's excellent at the big sweeping aspects, but sometimes fumbles the details.

Memoirs of a Space Traveler, by Stanisław Lem. This is basically just the stories that got cut from the English translation of The Star Diaries, translated by different translators, and then reassembled into this hodgepodge. It's uneven enough that, frankly, removing these stories from The Star Diaries makes it a stronger work, while this is basically a curio, although some of it is great.

The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, by Dave Weigel. A weird misfire. Lots of information, synthesized poorly, with no real thesis or arguments, and little in the way of explanatory power. Disappointing.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino. Typically stylistically brilliant and elusive in the standard Calvino way, although I felt that ultimately this might be less than the sum of its parts- there are passages that are gold, and then passages that, while clever, are merely serviceable- in a way that perhaps illustrates why I have thus far preferred his short fiction to his novels. It also gives me a greater appreciation for what Lem means by his backhanded compliment, in A Perfect Vacuum, that Calvino is the artistic descendant of jewelers rather than of sculptors.

 

Currently: A Perfect Vacuum, by Lem. Next up, in some order: His Master's Voice and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, both also by Lem; The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair; Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut; Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Hope they're good.

Edited by googoogjoob
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  • 3 weeks later...

Oh boy. More books:

 

A Perfect Vacuum, by Stanisław Lem. Reviews of nonexistent books, which format Lem uses to strike out in different directions, some more fruitful than others. Some of these reviews made me wish dearly that the books they describe existed; others were excellent constructs in themselves; and some were just boring. Overall worthwhile.

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I feel basically similarly about this book as I do about Slaughterhouse-Five, although it wasn't quite as good, maybe. Lots of jokes, very little incident. But they're good jokes.

Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town, by Thomas Jerome Seabrook. Flawed (too much focus on Lust for Life, not enough on Lodger, etc), but overall an excellent work of collation and organization into a coherent narrative, and probably the best book (for now) on the most creatively fruitful period of David Bowie's career.

More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, by Stanisław Lem. This is the second half of the Pirx short stories, which got unnecessarily split into two books in English translation. The currently-in-print versions of these books are somehow from different publishers, too. Anyway. Better than the first half of the stories- meatier themes and better storytelling. While taking a shower when I was near the end of reading this book, I realized why Fiasco is a Pirx story, even though Pirx dies off-screen in the first chapter, and the protagonist of the bulk of the novel may or may not be (and probably isn't) Pirx.

The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham. Loaned from my grandparents. A change of pace from all the weighty speculative fiction stuff. It was okay, I guess. I certainly managed to read over 300 pages of it in three days.

The Hole in the Moon and Other Stories, by Margaret St. Clair. A recent anthology of 17 (mostly very brief) stories by Margaret St. Clair, a post-Golden Age, pre-New Wave pulp author of weird fiction. The collection curiously omits what I understand to be her best-known story (The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles, which I haven't read), but it does a good job of making a case for St. Clair as an overlooked talent worthy of rediscovery- she had a knack for breezy storytelling and freaky happenings. (Trivia: two of her novels were cited by Gygax as thematic influences on the development of Dungeons & Dragons.)

Edited by googoogjoob
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7 hours ago, googoogjoob said:

Stanisław Lem

Did you read the recent translation in English of Solaris dating back to 2011? For some reason I cannot find it.

 

I'm currently reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, more interesting than I had imagined. I like the way Asimov describes the situations, quite blankly, and how he focuses on the danger robots represent, although he doesn't much emphasizes too heavily on it. :)

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54 minutes ago, ladyonthemoon said:

Did you read the recent translation in English of Solaris dating back to 2011? For some reason I cannot find it.

I have not. My understanding of the situation is that, while the 2011 translation is much, much superior to the original English translation, due to obscure publishing rights issues, it can only be released as an audiobook and an ebook (and there might be further rights issues from there, even though Lem's family prefers the 2011 translation). I don't listen to audiobooks, and I don't have an ebook reader.

 

I've actually never read Solaris at all. The more-easily-available standard English translation from 1970 is a hackjob that retranslates a French translation of the novel into English, and Lem hated it. And my Polish is nowhere near good enough to read the original. If I'm going to read the book, I want to do so in a way that doesn't mangle it somehow.

Edited by googoogjoob
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Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. I would say it lacks a certain something that her more famous Ancillary series has. It still has a detached narrator who is extremely reliable about facts and unreliable when it comes to introspection. I was prepared to dislike it by getting it un-recommended to me, but I found it quite charming. It captures a mythic and even mythological atmosphere well, and the fact that it's a transparent rehashing of another work with a twist and an outside perspective doesn't detract anything.

 

—Alorael, who also finds that it's one of those books that makes him really want to play the tabletop game adaptation, but there isn't one, and it's not something where even the bare bones of how to make one seems obvious. That's praise.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Am about 20 pages away from finishing up Ian Toll's 2400ish page "Pacific War" trilogy.  He does a really good job of examining both strategic & tactical actions from both sides (Japanese & American (& to a lesser extent, when appropriate, British, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, etc)) of most everything that went on in the Pacific theater/area from the scene setting actions of the early 1900s through the Japanese surrender/occupation in 1945-46.  As a history geek I thought I had at least a good general understanding of the major events of the war in the Pacific... I was wrong.  I knew the dates/locations of lots of things, but didn't really understand the thinking that went behind what was going on (based on the knowledge of the times & not looking back in hindsight).

 

Probably way, way too much for someone who wants to know more about the Pacific portion of WW2.  But for someone who wants to learn more of the nuts & bolts behind the scenes & how 'x' was important to be able to do 'y' later on (plus has a lot of time available to read 2400 pages...), the trilogy really was a well written set that was, admittedly massive, but tended not to get bogged down in either a dry recitation of facts or getting really deep into dull minutia.

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  • 1 month later...

I really haven't been reading much lately, have I? I have a barely-read stack of non-fiction from Value Village, acquired because I thought it was a way to read about topics I wouldn't have thought to seek out normally. The last one I finished was Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse, which took me months because I only read it when I was puppy-sitting. It covers a wide range of topics, all centred on six different case studies. Detailed while still being accessible to a layperson like me. My biggest problem with the book is that the previous owner must have been a heavy smoker.

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Books I have read since the last post I made in this thread:

Highcastle: A Remembrance, by Stanisław Lem. Atypical for Lem, as it's a memoir of his childhood in interwar Lwów- it very pointedly ends before he reaches adulthood; he turned 18 in September 1939. Perceptive and unsentimental, as one would expect from Lem; surprisingly moving in places.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple. A very good history of the East India Company and its interactions with the Mughals and other South Asian powers, up till about 1800, by which time the EIC was the dominant power in the subcontinent. Dalrymple is an excellent writer and historian in command of his material; and he does a good job at conveying how disgusting and criminal the EIC conquest of India was, although it's clear there are figures he likes and dislikes among both the Indian political scene and the Company.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach. If you've read one Mary Roach book, you kinda know what you're in for with all the others. She's never anything less than an excellent writer, but sometimes she writes about material that ends up being not-so-engaging. This book is about military science, so it's only intermittently interesting, and on top of that, she only writes about the science-and-technology side of things, so what exactly all this science and technology is for is a constant, uncomfortable, unexamined presence- there's lots of talk about how soldiers will need to be able to stay cool or survive IEDs in "the Middle East," but no examination of why they might be in the "Middle East," or what exactly they're doing there. Not great. She has another book coming out later this year, in any case, about animals and the law. Hope it's fun.

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. Super-popular, and generally regarded as a classic, but: actually pretty bad. Flat characters (the women in particular; Follett struggles to find anything for his women characters to do beyond get raped), weak historical research (the feudalism presented in this novel bears about as much resemblance to the actual Anglo-Norman political system as do the systems in Dune or ASOIAF), curiously old-fashioned, episodic plotting (crises are usually solved tidily, and while the stakes rise over the course of the novel, it never feels very tied-together), and an odd, late-emerging sheen of Whig history (presenting the Becket crisis as a step towards modern liberal democracy). I must assume that it's mainly popular among people unfamiliar with the actual history of the time period in question, and who haven't read very many good historical novels- this isn't just far from being the best historical novel I've ever read, it's actually not even the best historical novel about the Anarchy I've read (that'd be When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman).

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, by William Dalrymple. Sort of a followup to the prior book by Dalrymple (published earlier, but covering a later period of history), this is a close-focus account of the Great Mutiny in and around Delhi, and especially in and around the Mughal court. Excellent and evenhanded.

World Without End, by Ken Follett. Perhaps unwisely, I ended up getting the two sequels to Pillars of the Earth. This is the first sequel, set about 150 years after Pillars. Surprisingly, it's also much, much better; Follett clearly improved greatly as a writer in the 18 years between writing Pillars and this book. Much better historical research, much better characters (nobody's too perfect; everyone's believable; the women have much more depth and agency), more-integrated plotting (though it speeds up a bit too much near the end, and nearly glosses over some major developments). Not a masterpiece, but a really solid historical novel.

 

My computer's motherboard burnt out a month ago, so I've been reading a bunch in that time (though only the last two books listed above; they're pretty long). I'm currently something like two-thirds of the way through the second Pillars sequel, A Column of Fire. It's not great. He tries to pack too much real history in, so it's super-eventful, but the writing is sometimes almost telegraphic, and none of the characters have much room to breathe or develop. Ah well.

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  • 5 weeks later...

A month later: more books.

 

A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett. Pretty much as described in the last post; it doesn't improve markedly in the last stretch. Historical research on par with World Without End, but storytelling inferior to either Pillars or World, resulting in a book that is curiously both very eventful and very lifeless. Oh well.

His Master's Voice, by Stanisław Lem. Probably the densest and driest Lem novel I've read- which is saying something- but also, par for the course for Lem, absolutely packed with ideas. Intellectually very rewarding, but as a "first contact" novel overall, second to Fiasco in Lem's oeuvre.

The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson. The first of four books I have acquired in the past month from Dollar Trees, which are a good place to find a) absolute garbage books, and also b) misunderstood literature which has fallen through the cracks and gotten remaindered; sometimes c) both. This fits firmly under c. Apparently the last novel of a late major author who I have no prior familiarity with, and a weird mess of a book; a tensionless espionage thriller which uncomfortably rides (and honestly really sometimes just crosses) the line of "Darkest Africa" tropes, with zero feeling of authenticity. Not even enough character development to make it interesting in that way. At least some of the prose is pretty good. And it was only a buck.

The Civil War: A History, by Harry Hansen. A 1961 single-volume history, it avoids being dated by the simple expedient of avoiding any in-depth interpretive work in its rush to get play-by-plays of every campaign and major battle into a single (albeit fat) volume. Very very dense with military history, with hardly any political/diplomatic analysis, or coverage of the home fronts or culture, or economic issues. (I'll give Hansen credit, though, for not remotely bothering to pretend that the war was over anything but slavery, which is more than can be said for certain Civil War histories.) Taken on its own ground, it's solid, but very dry. Overall: it was fine, and I certainly understand the military side of the war better now, but deep down I know I should just like see if I can get Battle Cry of Freedom out of the library at some point.

 

Currently: inching my way through Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters; I am not big on poetry, but it's pretty good. Also: First Person, by Richard Flanagan, another Dollar Tree acquisition by a major novelist which seems to have fallen through the cracks. Very good prose, but time will tell whether this is a b or a c.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

Pierre Berton's The Great Depression is actually the first Berton I've read (well, other than The Secret World of Og). I can see why he's "history for people who don't like history" -- he's got a light, narrative style. But I'm looking for something a bit more thorough and footnote-laden.

 

I also read Maria Dahvana Headley's translation of Beowulf (the infamous "bro" version). I don't have much to compare it to, as the only other translation I've read is Seamus Heany's. And Eaters of the Dead, if that counts? She, uh, really likes alliteration?

 

Astro City continues to be Very Good. Still looking for one more trade to finish the run.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Time for another one of these. In order of completion:

 

A Wizard a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio, by Paul Myers. What it says on the tin. Remarkably thorough and detailed on what he chooses to cover- Rundgren's and Utopia's albums, plus major Rundgren production jobs- with lots of new interview material and anecdotes and the like. That said, Todd Rundgren remains sort of elusive and difficult as an artist; this book is mainly about his craft and influence on other artists more than about his own art.

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. It was, in fact, pretty good. Unfortunately I struggle to say much more about it. The poems were pretty good.

First Person, by Richard Flanagan. Turned out to be a b, basically. Slippery and tricky. Weird metatextual stuff going on with Flanagan's real life. I'm not sure it ultimately achieves any great artistic statements, but it was worth reading.

The World's Greatest Short Stories, James Daley, ed. Maybe not quite, but it certainly did have some Great Short Stories in it (Bartleby the Scrivener, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Lady with the Toy Dog, A Hunger Artist, A&P). Also had some less-great stories, but what can you do.

The Civil War: Great Speeches and Documents, Bob Blaisdell, ed. I read through a Dover Thrift volume of Civil War primary documents. That's all there is to say about that.

Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. Pretty great. Has been described as "Spoon River Anthology translated into prose" which I can see, and which is why I read this soon after Spoon River, but I think Winesburg is more impressive both technically and artistically; it feels like an American Dubliners.

The Ditch, by Herman Koch. Underwhelming. Another dollar store find. Plain, conversational, easily-read prose, but not gripping at all. Essentially plotless. Repeatedly avoids climaxes in favor of... nothing, really. The resolution of the book is so understated as to be nonexistent. It just kinda stops.

 

Next: Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, to round out the trilogy of early 20th century literature about the Midwest.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Update:

 

The Volunteer, by Salvatore Scibona. Intermittently beautifully written, but ultimately kinda aimless both in plot and themes. I found out after reading it that it was expanded from a short story, which comprises the first 20 or so pages of this 400-page novel, and that unfortunately makes sense.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson. A pretty good overview of current whale science, written by a working scientist (a paleontologist, to be exact). Kinda incoherently organized but a decent read.

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. Unsubtle but effective. Slow-paced until the last quarter or so. Very good.

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