Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. Or The Rage Confounder.

Thing Explainer Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Read July  2016
Recommended for people who dislike language, writing and communication
 ★   

We all have one, that person we’d prefer to get along with, but every time they open their mouth, so much stupid erupts that low-level irritation shifts into rage.

That about sums up my experience with Thing Explainer.

Every time I picked it up intending to read a few ‘cartoons explaining concepts like helicopters, the cell, elevators or the auto engine, I’d end up either generally annoyed or quite specifically angry. Thing Explainer fails on so many levels for me, it was shocking. I went into it hoping for the grown-up version of The Charlie Brown Question and Answer Book, and instead found cartoon explanations of things I still don’t understand, such as how all the parts of a car work together. I understand that it was supposed to be funny, but I was hoping for informative as well.

It wasn’t.

Language is meant to communicate ideas. Generally, more complex ideas require more specific words to convey meaning. Remember when you last talked to a two or three year-old and everything with four legs was ‘dog,’ everything that flew was a ‘bird’ and every time someone cried they must be ‘sad?’ When we are just beginning to understand words represent things and concepts, simple language suffices, but as we grow in age and sophistication, we learn words can be more specific in representing object and idea. The more we grow in experiences and want to convey information with accuracy, the more we need that vocabulary.

But specificity does not have to be incomprehensible. For instance, in explaining what leukemia was to someone who was just diagnosed with it, I first had to teach about red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. I taught these common terms, so that we all understood what it would mean when the nurse says, “your red blood cells are low and you need a transfusion.” To explain, I didn’t have to use vocabulary like ‘erythrocytes,’ ‘leukeocytes’ and ‘thrombocytes;’ simple descriptions such as “white blood cells fight off infection” and analogies like “soldiers fighting against an enemy invader” explain without being incomprehensible. But the terms ‘cells,’ ‘transfusion,’ ‘infection,’ ‘red,’ and ‘white’ are non-negotiable in learning the concepts related to blood. You have to understand them to understand communication about body processes.

I tested The Thing Explainer on something I know: Cells. Our body’s cells are reduced to “Bags of Water.” Inside the bags of water are other bags such as the ‘bag filler,’ the ‘bags of death water,’ ‘bag shapers,’ ‘little builders,’ and ’empty pockets.’

I found myself mentally trying to translate his terms into appropriate terminology: nuclei, mitochondria, lysosomes and Golgi apparatus, except I ended up irritated because endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes sound alike with his description and I couldn’t remember what Golgi bodies do. How is this even helpful? How does this help anyone understand the cell? DNA? Cancer? Genetics? It doesn’t.

I tested it on something I didn’t know: the automobile engine. “The Fire box computer watches how the fire box is working, and decides how much fire water to add to the air it sends in.” Did this help? No. As he used the same words to explain its as to describe it, it’s a useless explanation, like describing a circle as a ’round shape.’

There were occasional exceptions. The periodic table of elements was mildly amusing with descriptions like “green burning air that kills,” “air in bright signs made from colored light,” “the rock that makes up beaches, glass and computer brains,”  and at the end, “stuff that lasts for the time it takes you to close and open your eyes.” However, for it to be funny, you have to know the table and elements off the top of your head. So, not so much for almost everyone.

It took me a lot of reflection to pinpoint the source of my rage: while Munroe disingenuously suggests that he is explaining ‘complicated concepts in simple words,’ he does so in such a way that the reader needs to understand the concept well to interpret his illustrations. This approach simultaneously insults the person who doesn’t understand using the illusion of ‘common words,’ while creating an in-joke for people knowledgeable about those concepts.

The other reason it made me angry is my impression that like many people, Munroe is confusing ‘complex’ with ‘incomprehensible’ or ‘pretentious.’ He gives it away in the forward (“Page Before the Book Starts”) when he says “I was really just worried that if I used the small words, someone might think I didn’t know the big ones.” A truly gifted person would be able to communicate with clarity instead of relying on circuitous explanations and false construction of word limits (he includes his personal emails in his source for the “1000 most common words”). Instead of actually communicating, what he did is replacement code sophisticated concepts into simple words, so to understand his comic, one mentally replaces “fire box” with ‘engine.’ Really, the opposite of explaining things: he would have done just as well to use symbols (which is what he ends up doing for the evolutionary tree). Except it is supposed to be funny when the reader knows the replacement code.

I’m not laughing.

 

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Trailer Park Fae by Lilith Saintcrow

Trailer Park Fae

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of fae and ornate language
 ★     ★   

Lilith Saintcrow’s blog was one of the few I read regularly, and I have fond memories of reading her Jill Kismet series Night Shift when vacationing in New Mexico. In the mood for urban fantasy, when I happened upon this at Half-Price Books, I thought I’d give it a try.

Alas.

Though I generally enjoy extravagant prose (Beagle, Kay, Valente), this is awful. Layered on and stretched thin (see what I’m doing there?), Saintcrow has traded in Spartan style for Valente on crack. I knew there would be trouble with the opening line: “Summer, soft green hills and shaded dells, lay breathless under a pall of smoky apple-blossom dusk.”

Think on that a moment. Is it ‘summer soft’ with a misplaced comma? I suppose the season can lay breathless–it does get stiflingly hot–but then how does that ‘soft green hills’ clause make sense? And what is ‘smoky apple-blossom dusk? Aren’t apple blossoms white and pink shaded? I’m so confused.

“Her mantle slipped a fraction from one white shoulder, but that could have been to expose just a sliver of pale skin, fresh-velvet as a new magnolia petal. Artfully innocent, that single peeping glow could infect a mortal’s dreams, fill them with longing, drive all other thought from their busy little brains.”

There’s a lot here that tells us, but not much action. We hear a great deal about Summer’s power, but its shown only twice, once in the narrative gaze lingering on a transformed person and once with an entranced child.`

Let’s meet the main character, Jeremiah Gallow:

“A chill breeze resonated through superstructure, iron girders harpstrings plucked by invisible fingers. He was wet with sweat, exhaust-laden breeze mouthing his ruthlessly cropped black hair. Poison in the air just like poison in the singing rods and rivets, but neither troubled a Half. He had nothing to fear from cold iron.”

Ruthlessly cropped?

Sigh.

Here’s when Gallow sees Robin Ragged up close:

“She clutched at the brick wall, her pale hands starfish-spread as if she intended to splinter her fingernails scratching her way through. Ribs flickered under her dress as she panted, and her hair was now weighed down with dampness. The gold hoops dangling from her ears peeped at him, and the first hounds skidded behind him on the street and sent up a racket. The cry of prey cornered filled the night, turned the mist-rain drops to diamonds.”

Seriously–I got stuck on “ribs flickered” because I kept imagining parts of her body disappearing in and out like the Cheshire cat. Then I wondered where her dress was if I’m seeing her flickering ribs. Wait, is she naked? Or does she mean her dress is ill-fitted and hanging loose? Once again, completely distracted by the writing, and not in a good way.

I started to skim, but it was a challenge because there’s so little of substance beneath those words. The two main characters meeting and reflecting took a hundred pages–a hundred–and most of that is just so much filler of them each mentally bemoaning their state and generally musing on the shortcomings of the fae. The plot is very simple, classic folk tale–the Courts of Summer and Winter at war with each other–with a handmaiden of Summer trying to save a stolen mortal. Robin Goodfellow has his own agenda (and a taste for blood) and Gallow just wants to stay lost in memories of his dead wife.. There’s devious intentions, suspicions, and sleights of hand made more twisty by the over encumbered language.

I wish this had worked better for me. I wish Saintcrow the best, I truly do–particularly as I think there’s more than a little of her autobiography in some of the characters–but I’m giving the rest of this series a pass, and this book is headed back to Half-Price.

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King and Maxwell by David Baldacci

King and Maxwell

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of movie thrillers
 ★     ★   

None of my friends have reviewed this book. Friends, this is your fault. I hold you all responsible. As well as my mother’s eighty-five year-old friend who loaned her this book. It just goes to show you that even elderly ladies can’t be trusted, particularly ones with brain cancer. Just sayin’.

A moderately readable beginning that careened between two ex-Secret Service Agents running a detective agency and the adventures of a lone soldier on a critical mission in the Middle East. Son running away after he is officially notified that his father is dead hires the detective team; father goes AWOL to solve who framed him. Canned dialogue, but vaguely likeable characters and an interesting set-up. I found myself extremely intrigued by the parallel story of the soldier/father making his way through the desert country, and less interested in the push-pull of the dynamic between the investigators, the teen and the government officials.

Inspiration always hits at just the right time (a man crossing the street! a car coming by with a familiar face! a conveniently married ex-wife!), aided by the almost literal deux ex machina of an autistic computer whiz who can obtain all information anywhere, conveniently working for Department of Homeland Security. The situation becomes ever more unbearable with a somewhat forced analogy to the Iran-Contra affair and a psychopath bent on revenge. Somewhat unhelpfully, Baldacci channels wikipedia so he can explain Iran-Contra all the readers under thirty just what that was, as well as all the readers older than thirty who forgot that was even a big deal (Reagan was perfect! so says the hazy fog of conservative memory).

Characters were straight from Central Casting: rugged older gentleman; the younger, daredevil female partner; a mopey teenager; the unquestioning, betrayed soldier; the Agency man who is just following orders; the psychopath bent on revenge. Nothing makes sense beyond the surface description, so when they act inconsistently, it is uncomfortably clear that it is in service to the plot, not out of character creation.

I started skimming large swaths (view spoiler), although I returned for the end. I felt strangely like I had watched Speed, The Bourne Ultimatum, and In the Line of Fire. Apparently this was a single-season TNT tv show, and I can absolutely see tv on every page of the book. Action escalates to ridiculously implausible degrees, culminating in the absolute silliest of scenes, which is then topped–ala Speed–by an even more ridiculous capstone which made the minimal character development earlier almost meaningless.

Read it friends. It’s really, really good. I would even go so far to say that it is the thriller version of A Discovery of Witches.

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The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins

The Lost Ones

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of Spencer, Longmire, spaghetti Westerns
 ★     ★     ★   

A fine book for a cold.

Let me ‘splain.

I am referring to the summer head cold, a totally inappropriate, out-of-season malaise that bears absolutely no resemblance to the not-really-sick-cold one might use in a feeble attempt to get out of reading a book with grandfather. Those not-really-sick colds can be charmed out of existence by a book with fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love and miracles.

This was not that kind of cold, but that was o.k., as this was not that kind of book. Instead an idyllic farmyard, it opens at a traveling fair where Donnie Varner is looking to connect with a gun buyer. He is is back from Afghanistan and trying to make a buck. Turns out the middleman is a particularly attractive woman. Meanwhile, Ranger is back in Jericho, retired from the Army and fresh from winning his campaign for county sheriff. How? I don’t know; perhaps there is a book between. Ranger is busy twisting the tail of Boss Hogg Johnny Stagg and the County Board when a badly wounded child is dropped off on the doctor’s doorstep, surely a victim of child abuse. When Ranger goes to the isolated trailer, he finds the owners have scampered, leaving behind thirteen cribs and a number of pens of half-dead dogs. This sets off a bit of a woman-hunt as Ranger and Lillie attempt to track down the woman and the rumors of foster kids from Mexico.

The plot is brisk, serviceable enough for a Robutussin-addled brain. The narrative moves back and forth between Donnie and Ranger, Donnie still living life on the edge post deployment and Ranger supporting Boomer and making amends with his sister Caddy. There’s some back-country politics and quite honestly, if you replace ‘moonshiners’ with ‘gun-runners,’ what the series most reminds me of is Dukes of Hazzard. Just the good ol’ boys, never really meanin’ no harm. There is some rather interesting twists to the plot later on that elevated it above the mundane. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why the woman left the abused kid, setting this all off in the first place.

In another mood, this might irritate, as it has a plethora of genre tropes, particularly those involving women and people of color. Like Robert Parker’s Hawk, Boom is the loyal African-American sidekick with amazing physical prowess and who sometimes operates outside the law. Of course in this one, Lillie also has his back, except for a girlish mistake or two involving babies. (Babies! Of course!) And a kind of double-cross involving a beautiful woman, even though she didn’t say ‘I do.’

It didn’t have Rodents of Unusual Size, pirates or swordfights, but it did have a generally likeable feeling. I also appreciated there were minimal demands on the reader, because I wasn’t up to thinking or tunes on the heartstrings. On the cold distraction scale (somewhat like the airplane scale), it is a solid 3/5. I’ll wait til this cold passes before I try for something really engaging, but right now, that’s inconceivable.

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The Ranger by Ace Atkins

The Ranger

Read July 2016
Recommended for fans of Spencer, Longmire, spaghetti Westerns
 ★     ★     ★    

All the classic ingredients are in place: a unique setting, a reluctant hero, a small town rife with corruption, a criminal element who are Really Bad Guys, a pregnant teen looking for the baby daddy who cooks meth. Well, maybe not the last one, although I think the pregnant teen was used in a Walt Longmire story as well as one with Dave Robicheaux. The Ranger doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, excepting the ol’ Miss setting, but it is a decent entry into the field.

Quinn Colson is on leave from the Rangers, returning home for the funeral of his uncle, sheriff of Jericho, Mississippi. He gives a ride into town of a young, hugely pregnant teen, providing an entry for her point of view. Lily, assistant deputy, thinks the uncle might have been murdered, but as Quinn starts asking questions and connecting with old acquaintances, he discovers the truth might be even less palatable than murder.

There’s a definite old-fashioned Western feel to this, with an honest hero riding into a small town to save the populace from villains. Ethics are not particularly complicated. The story felt fast moving to me. Viewpoint switched between Quinn and the pregnant teen, with a couple other brief viewpoints thrown in, including that of Bad Guys 1 & 2. On the upside, it didn’t make it feel disjointed. On the down side, I didn’t much care about the other viewpoints, which only served to reinforce the Bad Guys were indeed sleezeballs. I’m not even certain they added to the tension.

Characterization might be one of the weaker areas of the story. Most of the character descriptions focus on what the person said or did, and there isn’t a lot of descriptive shading to the action. It reminds me of medical or police reports: first this happened, then that. While it’s kind of refreshing to read a story where the author unabashedly allows characters to say things (instead of ‘drawled,’ ‘yelled,’ or ‘muttered’), there’s not a lot of emotional connection built, as it is hard to tell how Quinn is really feeling. He might drink a cup of coffee and nod, and somehow this is supposed to stand in for building a man who is thinking and evaluating. I was most intrigued by the potential of Quinn’s Ranger training and woodsmanship. Atkins uses it well in a tactical mission, but I can’t help feeling like the potential for insight while Quinn strategizes ends up wasted.

The feel of rural Mississippi is decent. Quinn recalls growing up and racing down the roads as a teen and hunting in the woods with his uncle. He also gives a solid feel to the local truck stop and diner. I got a solid sense of the poverty of the area, an interesting choice that plays into the economics of crime. Occasionally a colloquial turn of phrase show up in the writing, but I’m not sure how well it comes off.

It’s a decent book that provided a solid distraction during a time of poor reading attention. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s only because my standards have gotten higher as I’ve aged. Honestly, in my current reading mood, three stars is worth quite a bit. I’ll read the next couple of entries and see if Atkins can retain my interest.

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Foxglove Summer, the audio version. So good!

Foxglove Summer

Listened July  2016
Recommended for fans of police urban fantasy, audio
 ★     ★     ★     ★     ★

Lemonade and ice. BBQ and ribs. Mac and cheese. Salt and caramel. Some things are perfect complements of flavor. Holbrook-Smith’s voice acting and Aaronovitch’s words are the ultimate combination, the Ben & Jerry’s of the book world.

This is the first series where audio has really demonstrated it’s value for me, a fast reader. Prior to this, I’ve tried Evonovitch, a Harry Potter book and one or two others. An Alas, Babylon convinced me of the value of continuing to give the medium a try, so I finally dipped my toes into the Peter Grant series, and by Moon Over Soho, I was swimming in the deep end.

Something special happened with this book and the last: I’m actually getting a glimpse of the the multi-book arc. Before, I didn’t understand Peter’s fascination with Ettersburg, but with a little insight from Mr. Hugh, it is starting to become clear–as well as who the Faceless Man might be. I’ve got a good idea of what’s behind the door in the Folly’s basement, and it no longer seems like a plot device to get Peter on his own and prevent easy rescue from Nightingale.

It should be clear by now that Holdbrook-Smith is a stunning reader. When Nightingale made a brief appearance, it was delightful to hear his voice again. The wheezing, faltering tone of Hugh brought to life his infirm health. I did have a little trouble keeping the mothers and fathers sorted, but I had even more trouble reading, so there’s that. I enjoyed his interpretation of the chain-smoking inspector, and the boyish cheerfulness of his new police pal.

Pass the Ben & Jerry’s. I’ve got some listening to do.

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Rivers of London Body of Work by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London Body of Work

Read July 2016
Recommended for fans of Peter Grant and graphic novels

Despite an affinity for both the written word and the visual arts, I have yet to be engrossed in a graphic novel. Quite honestly, I have yet to be even a little bit moved. This is clearly a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

The artwork is nicely done, the color shading appealing. Panels are shaded sepia and autumn tones if they are memories, a nice trick as Aaronovitch’s books incorporate Nightingale’s past in Peter’s investigations. The narrative voice is set off in rectangular orange boxes, a clever device that helps separate Peter’s thoughts from the dialogue. I thought the mystery and investigation worked, if somewhat unremarkable. I did like the way the past/present contrast worked for the mystery. For fans of the series, there are bonus “day in the life” pages at the end for other major series characters. Overall, the story seems to rely on the reader’s prior series knowledge in numerous small ways, including an early joke about a lunch packed by Molly.

The series also deserves a shout-out for multi-ethnic normalcy, including a professional woman in a hajib. I just found myself not particularly interested, quite a contrast to my Peter Grant experience when reading or listening to the audio books.

Undoubtedly, your mileage will vary. In fairness to authors and illustrator, I’m passing on rating, but I’ll give myself three stars for trying.

 

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Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White

Read July  2016
Recommended for fans of mythology, Valente
 ★     ★     ★     ★

Take fairy tale mythology, the sideways structure of Native American folklore, a Wild West setting, weave it through with themes on race and gender and wrap it in Valente’s wordsmithing, and you’ll have Six-Gun Snow White.

A body can only deliver up the truth its bones know. Its blood, which is its history. My body is my truth, and I have laid it out as evidence on the table of my father’s reputation, for by know you may have guessed my next revelation.” –from The Creation of Snow White

This bears thinking on. Where does the anxiety, the joy, the tears come from? My body perhaps knows truths my head won’t realize.

It was not like any of the mirrors… it was like a door into nothing. The glass did not show the buttery light of the house behind me. It did not show the forest or the meadows. It did not even show me. The glass was so full up of dark, it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror.” –from Snow White Bites Her Own Reflection

One of my absolute favorite things at my last house–the woodwork was a heavily varnished oak–is the way the setting sun would turn the living room into a buttery glow. Valente writes images that are incredibly resonant with my memory.

I said I loved her back. I put my hand on the door and I said I loved her back, and when I said it, I thought of kissing her and also of shooting her through the eye.” –from Snow White Fights a Lump of Pitch

I loved someone like this once. Or was it?

The dude hesitates. ‘She beat  you, I suppose?’ Snow White just laughs. The dude feels that laugh in his spine. It saws there on the hard, old bone.” –from Snow White Cheats at Cards

The dude should be frightened when he hears that laugh, that almost-humor full of irony and pain.

Until she walked out of the woods and into a town full of banshees with no love for anyone’s history. Your past’s a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can’t hurt anyone.” –from Snow What and the Birds From Heaven

There’s constant and loud metaphor here about what one can keep locked up/trapped/hidden in mirrors.

So if you want it, you can have a nice life here…it’s a kind of magic, but then most things are. But story is an eager fucking beaver and someday soon someone will come knocking for you and you’d better just say no thank you is all I’m saying.“–from Snow White Dances With Prairie Dog

And here I ask: do we want the story? Or not? Do we open the door or appreciate magic of ordinary life? Can we even choose?

Valente is one of those writers I never know entirely if I’m ready for, because she has that way of finding the boxes in my heart and my memory and opening them up. She did that again. I was quite startled to realize this isn’t a “retelling” as much as a reformulation, a genre-mash-up, a deconstruction and reconstruction of the tales we tell ourselves with modern considerations of gender and race. Thank you for that, Valente. I read everything not-real I could lay my hands on, so it was fun to realize that there’s a ‘Just So’ folklore style of telling that goes with the fairy-tale mashing. The last segment, however, ‘Snow White Holds Up the Sky,’ worked less well for me. I felt it didn’t adequately resolve Snow’s story in a congruent fashion and likely should have ended with ‘Snow White and the Story of Death.’ Fairy tales–or at least the Disney ones–demand happy endings, but many folktales are much more ambiguous.

 

I’m grateful to my flash read group compadres who came along on this reading adventure, bringing enthusiasm and knowledge: Athena, Alina, Carly, Naomi, Nataliya and Richard.

 

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The Infernals by John Connelly

The Infernals

Read June  2016
Recommended for the young adult at heart and the old adult in brain
 ★     ★     ★     ★

Think The Phantom Tollbooth crossed with Johannes Cabal. Literate, dark humor, a straightforward plot interrupted with sidebars, friendship and the kind of world where the very worse thing is the absence of anything. This time when the Hadron Collider is turned on, “the scientists had done a great deal of work to ensure that the whole portal to Hell business would never, ever happen again. Promise. Pinkie promise. Pinkie promise with sugar on top.” Mrs. Abernathy intends to use the power to drag a certain boy and his dog into Hell and redeem herself in the eyes of the Great Malevolence.

Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable aspects for me were the footnotes done in the narrator voice. I can easily imagine my uncle (and now myself) in that role, the kind of innocent-sounding advice that suggests one try a little experiement on their parents–because they are sure to enjoy it. “Go on! Try being a Greek chorus at home!” There’s the musing on collective animal nouns, such as a ‘smack’ of jellyfish, a parliament of owls, a scold of jays and a sleuth of bears–with exceptions of the Three Bears, obviously, “because they took ages to work out who had burgled their house.” Then there are asides on tragedy versus comedy, the function of chancellors, and scientists who came to bad ends.

Professor Hilbert smiled in that mad way scientists have of smiling just before the lightning strikes and the monster made up of bits of dead people comes to life and starts looking for someone to blame for plugging him into the mains and lighting him up like a Christmas tree.

The cast of characters broadens, bringing back some players from the last book and enlarging their roles. Of course, earnest Samuel and faithful Boswell return, this time along with Constable Peel, who harbors a guilty secret from when he was four, and Sergeant Rowan who almost caught Nurd on his Mr. Toad adventures. I found it a pleasure to have police officers who weren’t bumbling, and who were able to tactfully apply the law. The optimistic ice-cream man and the equally optimistic ball of ooze Crudford (with top hat) had me laughing, mostly because, wow, do I ever not think like that (“when you’re made of jelly, and only have a hat to your name, it can only get better, can’t it?”). Nurd and his sidekick Wormwood are on the run in Hell in the Aston Martin, cleverly disguised as a rock. Then there were the uproariously, unapologetic, hygenically challenged quartet of dwarves, Jolly, Mumbles, Dozy and Angry. “Dozy was the kind of bloke who could take a nap while he was already taking another nap.

The sergeant had found some unexpected common ground with Jolly, who had explained to him that the dwarfs’ criminal behavior was all society’s fault. Sergeant Rowan also believed this was true, mainly because society hadn’t found a way to lock them up and throw away the key.”

I’d bet this book is most likely to be enjoyed by very literate kids to adults. Not because of subject matter, but because other narrative digressions including the nature of an object àla Magritte, the crafting of beer and the nature of crime and punishment. However, if one ignores the footnotes, there’s a lot less to confuse–a clever way to appeal to more than one age group.  I won’t claim this is high literature, but it is entertaining, with laugh-out-loud moments and a heart in the right place. Besides, I learned more than a thing or two and remembered some others from a very long ago physics class–even if I could have happily lived the rest of my life without knowing “to lant.” (1)

 

(1) To flavor with aged urine. And you thought the expression “this beer tastes like piss” was hyperbole.

 

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Summerlong by Peter Beagle

Summerlong

Read June  2016
Recommended for people who want to feel melancholic
 ★     ★     ★     1/2

Peter S. Beagle has long been one of my favorite authors. It is not that I love everything he writes as much as I adore his word-smithing and his ability to evoke emotion. His strength, in other words, is not consistently in plotting. I love his short stories, and the novel Folk of the Air remains my first–and possibly favorite–experience with urban fantasy (1986–take that, Ms. Anita Blake!). When reading Summerlong, I heard echoes from Folk of the Air, and of the two, I wholeheartedly prefer Folk. It’s funny though, because in many ways it feels similar, with Summerlong representing the perspective of a much older author. It is possible I might appreciate it more as I grow even older.

The smile chilled Joanna, not because it was evil or mocking; to the contrary, it was almost heartbreaking in its remoteness, its unhuman attempt at a human signal. It was the moon’s midnight smile, shadows shaping a grimace across endless emptiness.

It should be clear that as always, the emotion of the book is true. Alas that the dialogue doesn’t always follow; Abe the professor and his long-time lover Joanna talk mostly like people at a Renaissance Faire, aping something that seems almost archaic in structure and naked emotion, but completely unsuitable for daily dialogue. Would that we have more true moments like those, however. (See what I mean?) Aside from the tendency to speak like half-baked Shakespeare, the characters feel real and multi-dimensional. I had the sense of each as a relatively complete personality, struggling with hope, deflecting with humor, living with longing. My only hesitation would be what seemed to be a sudden appearance of Joanna’s restless spirit.

“She also understood just as clearly that she had no business on Puget Sound even in the Yandells’ rowboat, let alone in a skin soap-bubble, and that her fancy of drifting silently over bright shadow, in and out of time and dream, leaving no trail, was one of the dangerous ones, the ones that took people with them when they left.

The setting is beautiful with a love for the northwest and the ocean. I loved it, from the rickety staircase by Abe’s house playing picnic table/bathroom for the raccoons to the local diner. Ah, if only Beagle could move it along. It’s one of the reasons he excels at shorter stories/novellas which seem to force him to be more concise. When the waitress Lioness (again with the melodrama) appears, it’s clear she has the spring of magic behind her, but it takes almost a third of the book to move it along to the inevitable. The conflict that eventually develops–or fails to really develop, as in the case of long-married almost-dissatisfaction–between Abe and Joanna feels too developed, where it no longer is about Lioness at all, but about two people, one with both an itch and a grudge. I’d rather the proportions were reversed in this case; a quick exposition and rise to the conflict, and a longer resolution.

“The Market had been Joanna’s private comfort ever since she had arrived in Seattle as a college student. Cocooned by crowds, insulated by noise, she moved easily in her own warm silence, deliciously alone, perfectly content to wander aimlessly between the iron-columned arcades above ground and the subterranean dress and antique stores, nibbling on a Chinese pork bun or a chunk of frybread as she studied the boat traffic…”

Despite the indolent pace, it feels remarkably tense at times with the anguish and indecision of the characters. Its one of the perfect blending of myths for Beagle’s evocative melancholy. It is one of the reasons I both love and fear him as an author, because it is likely I’ll run into feelings I’d rather left undisturbed. Overall, it is an apt and appropriate novel for a man in the autumn of his career, but I confess I much prefer spring.

 

Many thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for the advance reader copy.

 

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Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments