Currently Reading (and reading and reading)

Sorry things have been slow around here since ReaderCon, but various forces have drawn me away. There are quite a few things lined up for the coming week or two, however, including three new interviews and at least one more guest review. I haven't had much of a brain for actual blog posts, but managed to update the sidebar for the first time since February, adding a few things and, most importantly, getting rid of dead links.

Though I haven't been writing here much, I have been reading an awful lot, some of it for classes I'm taking, some for reviews and essays I've promised to various and sundry places. I thought I'd list a few here, for anybody who's curious:

Anima by M. John Harrison -- this is a one-volume British edition of two books I have read previously, The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. I think they're both extraordinary, difficult, rewarding books, and putting them together makes quite a lot of sense. I've been working on a review of them for SF Site for a week now and have managed to write all of two paragraphs. Reviews usually take a few days to write, not weeks, but I've always found writing about Harrison's books tremendously difficult.

Natives and Exotics by Jane Alison -- I'm going to review this, but I don't know where yet. (Maybe here. We'll see.) I enjoyed the book quite a bit, though more intellectually than emotionally -- it's an elegant, sometimes disturbing, comparison of human and botanical movement through history, with storylines that cross through a few hundred years and over most of the Earth. It reminded me a lot of some of Jim Crace's books in the spare specificity of the language and the schematic structure of the narrative(s). I don't think "schematic" is a negative term, though -- at least not when the schema is handled as well as is is here -- but it certainly makes for a different sort of novel than one that is primarily about character motivations. It reminded me of Clare Dudman's One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead, and I think it might have the same potential to appeal to science fiction readers as Dudman's, because it's even more focused than One Day the Ice on the flow of ideas through history, the synergies and serendipities of science, the convergences of landscape and culture.

Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In by C.L.R. James -- just read this for a class, as well as James's classic The Black Jacobins (which I'd read parts of before, but not all). James is a fascinating writer, and I enjoyed Mariners even as I thought it was at times frustrating and even infuriating. It's certainly a unique book, one which moves from an interpretation of Moby Dick that looks at Ahab as a totalitarian figure and wonders why the crew didn't revolt, to ending with James explaining that he's writing the book from detention on Ellis Island, about to be deported, and how that experience has affected his reading of Melville and solidified his interpretation -- while also being, he thinks, evidence for why he should be allowed to become a U.S. citizen.

Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier -- a phenomenal novel so far (I'm about halfway through), with rich, imagistic prose along with an exciting plot involving both the French and Haitian revolutions. This is a satisfying novel. (Reserving the right to completely disagree with myself if I hate the second half.)

Adaptations: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films edited by Stephanie Harrison -- I've been dipping into this marvelous anthology, one that's been sitting around waiting to be read for quite some time. I think I was intimidated by its size -- it's a thick book -- but I have now read all of the introductions to the various sections, and will soon begin reading the stories themselves. I've seen other collections of stories-that-became-films, but this is by far the largest, and it's particularly interesting, because there are various thematic sections devoted to genres and styles and trends, with introductions to each that lay out some of the history of how each story found its way -- sometimes in a nearly unrecognizable adaptation -- to the screen. For anyone who loves film and short stories, this book is a treasure.

There are also some books I'm not at liberty to tell you about, because they're nominees for the next LitBlog Co-Op selection, including one I nominated. I haven't begun reading them yet, but they look to be astonishing, which could be problematic for me in the end, because of course I want the book I nominated to be loved by everybody, but there's a chance I might love one of the other books more. Not a bad problem to have, though.

Among books I look forward to reading soon (though "soon" is a relative term):I intend to get to them all, but the road to hell and I are quite familiar with each other by now...


  1. Have you read the short story Signs of Life was based on, Matthew? It's called "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" and it was available online from Infinity Plus last time I checked. In my opinion, it's a much stronger work than the novel turned out to be. There's something mannered and overworked about SoL - a style that works in a novella but doesn't quite in a novel. Also, I deeply disliked to two new characters - China's friend and his girlfriend whose names escape me - and didn't feel they added too much to the story.

  2. I did read "Isobel Avens...", but it was after reading Signs of Life, which probably affected how I read it. I liked it, but having already experienced the additions of the novel, there was no way I could think of it as anything other than a reduction. I think if I'd read the story first, I would have had similar feelings as you did toward the novel, because in general I like Harrison's short stories better than his novels.

    Actually, Course of the Heart is an expansion of "The Great God Pan", which I did read before I read the novel, and there I felt the novel was an improvement, because I found the characters so fascinating. Often repulsive, but fascinating. (Harrison is not a writer you can read if you demand that main characters be likeable...)

    The ideal omnibus would collect four of Harrison's books: these two, plus Climbers and Light on either side of them. I still intend sometime before the heat death of the universe to write an essay about how all four books enhance and harmonize with each other, but writing two paragraphs about one book has taken me this long, so writing thousands of words about four of Harrison's books is an endeavor I may not live to finish.

  3. Actually, I read "Isobel Avens..." after finishing Signs of Life, which had left me disappointed. The story seemed a condensation of the best scenes of the book, without a lot of superfluous stuff and, as I said, the new characters. Possibly the book suffered because it was the first Harrison I'd read after Light. They're such different books, and Light was so very good, that it would have been hard not to be disappointed.

    I didn't know that about The Course of the Heart. It's on my reading list, but unless I come across Anima in a local bookstore (I was lucky enough to find SoL in a used bookstore, but I don't expect that to happen twice) I'll probably buy the US edition when it comes out in paperback. I did end up buying Light here in Israel, so I suppose there's hope.

    If it makes any difference, I would really like to hear what you have to say about the four Harrison novels. I have a vague memory of seeing Climbers in a bookstore once. It's more of a mainstream novel, isn't it?

  4. Yes, Climbers is mainstream. I found it a tough read, because I'm just not interested enough in the basic subject of rock climbing. But it sets out a lot of Harrison's recurring ideas of desire and fantasy within an environment different enough from his other books to make some of the echoes interesting. Neil Gaiman told me last year that he thought Climbers is the key to understanding a lot of Harrison's work after it, and so I ordered a copy from a used bookstore in England. I think it's been reprinted recently over there, but I don't think it's ever had, or is likely to have, a U.S. publication, which is a shame.

  5. Climbers contains my favourite line of distilled Harrisonism more or less ever, I think: 'Spring again, and there was a strong smell of burning plastic by the ring road.'


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