Book Log: March 2020

Killing the Black Dog, by Les Murray

An essay-length memoir of depression, followed by a set of poems written at the nadir of that depression. The borderline “incel”-like agonies expressed in Murray’s striking and controlled lines are a study in the artistic elevation of ugly feelings. I kept thinking as I read this book that to create the epitome (in art) of anything, even hopelessness, despair, and misanthropy, is somehow an end or a good in itself. I doubt it felt that way to Murray at the time, however.

Bukowski in a Sundress, by Kim Addonizio

A collection of personal essays about how hard it is to write poetry, how much agonized waiting you have to do, how minor the rewards are, and how much sex and alcohol you have to go through to bide the meantime. Perversely inspirational.

The Making of Zombie Wars, by Aleksandar Hemon

A novel about a feckless wannabe screenwriter who blows up his life by sleeping with a student in the ESL class he teaches and pissing off her homicidal husband, all while attempting to write a screenplay about a zombie apocalypse. The pleasure of the novel is to watch the overdone literary subject of sexual unfaithfulness and its consequences transmogrified in the protagonist’s imagination into scenes and story ideas for his screenplays. It’s also very funny.

Writing Was Everything, by Alfred Kazin

A short memoir about Kazin’s early career as a critic. Once I got over the green haze of envy that passed like a migraine across my eyes at the fact that Kazin literally supported himself for a while just by writing book reviews for The New Republic (the return on my own book reviews for the same venue couldn’t support a guinea pig living in Montana), I enjoyed the word portraits of his contemporaries.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

A novel set on a sunless, geothermal planet wandering outside the galaxy so that the Milky Way itself (“the starry swirl”) is the only light in the sky, a planet where the inbred great-great-great-grand-children of two stranded astronauts have begun to populate the world and to turn the history of their origins into the foundations of a new religion. Absolutely transporting, a kind of three-way love-child of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia novels and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. It’s some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, offering sharp narrative commentary on the social uses of story while, itself, utterly seizing the reader’s narrative imagination to create an alien world that feels real.

Poems the Size of Photographs, by Les Murray

Short poems about various things. The curmudgeonry on display here — having more of political reaction and less of personal depression behind it than the poems in Killing the Black Dog — annoyed and put me off.

A Carnival of Losses: Essays Nearing Ninety, by Donald Hall

Hall’s second set of essays about being really old. (The first was Essays After Eighty.) Composed of very short chapters, some of which even resemble flash fiction or flash essays, it is a work of prose approaching the condition of poetry. It includes a gutting memoir of his life with and devotion to his wife, the even better poet Jane Kenyon, who died long before he did, of cancer, despite being two decades younger than him. It also includes fascinating and frequently amusing recollections of Hall’s interactions with famous poets.

Mother of Eden, by Chris Beckett

A sequel to Dark Eden, set 200 years later. The events in the first book are attaining the status of political founding myths, just as the events prior to the first book have attained the status of religious myths. It’s a more focused narrative than Dark Eden, because it deals primarily with the fate of one charismatic and ill-starred character, who attempts to lead a revolution against the cruel and patriarchal feudalism that is beginning to set the stranded human population of the planet against itself.

Daughter of Eden, by Chris Beckett

The final book in the Dark Eden trilogy, which takes place just a few years after the events of Mother of Eden. It is probably the best book of the bunch. The carefully constructed, vivid, and insular world of the first two books is burst open by the return of astronauts from earth, centuries after their predecessors were stranded, to discover the weird society that has almost accidentally formed in their absence. But then the opening of the world is turned on its head and we realize that the insularity of Eden was not an artifact of its strange origin and terrible genetic and environmental constraints, but a portrait of the human condition itself, inescapable and tragic.

The Dark Net, by Benjamin Percy

Demons in Portland attempt to open the gates of hell with a computer virus, opposed only by a scatter-brained journalist, her blind niece, a preacher turned demon-hunter, and a kind of angelic drug dealer. It’s a work of pretty typical urban dark fantasy with stabs toward cyberpunk, tricked out in very energetic prose by a writer who made his name in literary fiction. Nothing profound here, but it’s well made for what it is.

Somebody with a Little Hammer, by Mary Gaitskill

A collection of essays, reviews, and introductions. It’s nuanced: and I don’t mean that in the way the word “nuanced” is abused so much today, where it refers to the kind of opinion writing that acknowledges diammetrical points of view on a contentious topic and refuses to choose between or resolve or even complicate them, instead just oscillating between them before giving up in a parody of negative capability. (Without naming names, several much-praised recent essay collections are “nuanced” in this fake, frustrating, cowardly way.) Instead, I mean it’s nuanced in the sense that Gaitskill walks around her topics to look at them from many angles, argues with herself, expresses uncertainty or a succession of differing convictions, and then grapples with this complexity to assert clear theses without erasing the hard and difficult work by which they were formulated. Not only are these essays beautifully written, in a supple and image-rich prose, but they are beautifully thought, a model of tough-minded, thick-skinned, honest essaying.

Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi

This novella traces the relationship of two siblings with strange powers from a point in the recent past to a possible future, in breathless, immersive prose, while questioning the counsels of meekness usually delivered to America’s oppressed. Kev was born during the Rodney King riots, and his life is a tale of dashed opportunities and police predation and eventual incarceration. Kev’s sister, Ella, can do Things. Weird, magical, super-hero-like things. In her youth she has to be protected from others, because a scary black girl in America is at deep and existential risk; as she ages, the world has to be protected from her, from her almost boundless power and justified rage.

Guns of the Dawn, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A flintlock fantasy novel about a lady of leisure who gets drafted into a desperate war between her country and its nearest neighbor. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t as intellectually meaty as Tchaikovsky’s science fiction or as original in setting and speculation as his insect-based epic fantasy series.

Luna: Moon Rising, by Iain McDonald

The last volume in the extraordinary hard science fiction epic, the Luna trilogy. To my mind, this trilogy has raised the bar for a certain kind of widescreen hard-SF. The future imagined here, set on a colonized and bloodthirsty moon, is both incredibly detailed in the sciencey way you expect from hard-SF, but it’s also culturally plausible in its profusion of extrapolations from the present-day diversity of human cultures. McDonald’s moon is not from the whitewashed, Americanized future of “golden age” SF: it’s peopled with lunar Brazilians and Chinese and Russians and Ghanains and Australians, living together in a weird and hodgepodge ultra-libertarian society. The novels hold together a huge number of storylines and characters, each of which feels somehow fully explored and integrated in a flawlessly pacey narrative that takes the time in the midst of its high-octane political and military and high-society and legal thrillride to include gorgeous speculative nature writing and thought-provoking political thought experiments and tons of (to me) genuinely original speculative ideas. There also dozens of winks and quiet commentaries on the history of moon stories in science fiction, a whole other dimension to a masterpiece. This trilogy hasn’t gotten a tithe of the appreciation or attention it deserves. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s a television series before long, and then everybody will have heard of it and have opinions about it.