Friday, January 2, 2009

Some random holiday reading

First things first: this blog is now two years old.

Next, here's a random sample of what I've been lying on the sofa reading. I should first add what a pleasure it is to do this, even when what I'm reading isn't very good. Long live the long academic winter break.

Adrian Tomine: Summer Blonde. Back in January '08, I wasn't too wild about Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings; it had an unsympathetic and uninteresting protagonist, and seemed to cover political ground already throroughly explored in print by about 1992. But I was told that book was something of an aberration for Tomine, whose drawings I nevertheless have always liked; and the four stories in this 2002 collection are much, much more to my taste. There's a sameness to them--disaffected urban twentysomethings casting about for reasons to live--but it's akin to Raymond Carver's sameness, a pleasing, flexible personal signature with a lot of potential for emotional nuance. I especially liked "Hawaiian Getaway," about a zaftig Asian-American underachiever who makes prank phone calls to the pay phones across the street from her apartment building. The glimmer of hope and happiness (or perhaps of ruin, it's hard to tell which) at the end really makes the story. All these pieces have 80's-style in-media-res endings, which gives them a certain retro charm. And Tomine obviously loves drawing girls--he's good at it, and they're all cute.

Michael Connelly: The Brass Verdict. Connelly has long been a disappointment to me. His first half dozen novels were brisk, nicely plotted police procedurals, but he began to drift off into repetition and, later, self-parody, slipping in references to the hit movies made from his other novels, and randomly throwing his various bestselling protagonists into stories together for a little gratuitous cross-series synergy. Sadly this book is in the latter category, bringing rough-and-ready lawyer Mickey Haller together with brooding police detective Harry Bosch. But the result is actually pretty good, if not precisely a return to form. There's plenty of inventive courtroom drama, a minimum of the-hunter-becomes-the-hunted crap, and a nice twist at the end. The denoument is a real eye-roller, but by that time you've had enough fun to forgive it. Really, if all bestsellers were this decent, I'd be able to do about 80% of my book shopping at Wal-Mart. Not that I would.

Robert Charles Wilson: Blind Lake. This 2003 novel represents all that is both terrific and awful about contemporary science ficiton. Great concept, lousy execution. Scientists at a government installation in Minnesota have managed to find a way to observe the inhabitants of another planet, but they're not quite sure how they did it. The facility goes into a mysterious lockdown, with no contact to the outside world, and the technology being used to watch the aliens develops a mind of its own...the whole thing ends up laying out some interesting ideas about sentience, culture, and artificial intelligence. The problem is the two-dimensional characters and their interpersonal dramas, which are uninteresting and overwritten; all the cutesy references to familiar "old-fashioned" late-20th-century culture; massive agglomerations of expository dialogue; and hopelessly pedantic, tin-eared prose. I wish SF writers didn't feel the need to literarify their writing when that's not what they're good at; I'll take the cool detachment of Stanislaw Lem over this stuff any day.


Matt said...

"I wish SF writers didn't feel the need to literarify their writing when that's not what they're good at; I'll take the cool detachment of Stanislaw Lem over this stuff any day. "

Amen and well put. I think (in some cases) this literarifying might be a tactic used to differentiate the author from what they perceive to be "mainstream" SF writers, as if to appear more up-market.

Anonymous said...

That's my feeling. And I do respect it--if a SF writer wants to be more ambitious, perhaps this is the way to go. I really like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, in which he strives for a kind of Tolstoy-in-space psychological variety, and largely succeeds. But I think Wilson is out of his depth in this book, and writes much better when he's geeking out. To his credit, I did read the whole thing.