The Land Across
By Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe has written some of my favorite books, books that I consider to be among the finest American novels in any genre. Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus are fantastic works that I have returned to many times, each time finding something new. And his three-series, twelve-volume epic starting with The Book of the New Sun is truly a masterpiece. But as much as I love some of his stories, others—like 1984’s Free Live Free or the 2004 duology The Wizard Knight—left me flat. So I always look forward to reading a new Wolfe novel, but I’m also always a little apprehensive about which experience I’m going to get. The Land Across, unfortunately, was in the latter category.
The story follows its narrator—a travel writer whose name is eventually revealed to be Grafton—as he journeys to an obscure Eastern European country, intent on being the first person to write a travel guide about the place. He is immediately taken into custody by the Stasi-esque national police as he crosses the border, and as the book continues he finds himself involved in a cloak-and-dagger plot involving forces both political and apparently supernatural.
Because this is a Wolfe novel, nothing is ever quite spelled out, and it’s clear that Grafton isn’t telling us the whole story. I ended up as impressed as I always am by the technical skill of Wolfe’s writing, but still fairly confused about what the hell actually happened. I haven’t read Kafka before, but that name has been thrown around a lot in other reviews I’ve seen, referencing the style and dialogue and intrigue, and the pervasive feeling of strangeness throughout the book—the writer I was most strongly reminded of was Milan Kundera. (I’ve only read one Kundera novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened in that book either.)
But this is how it goes when a Wolfe book doesn’t land for me: I end up assuming that I must have just missed something, or didn’t work hard enough to figure it out. So in terms of a recommendation, I’m not sure where that leaves me. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but it nevertheless still struck me as good. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did.
Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015
Am I Actually Defending Thinkpieces? I Guess I Am.
Twitter brought me a Jezebel article this afternoon called “Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool”, by Jia Tolentino. The gist of it is that reading more diversely is good, even necessary, but that writing thinkpieces about doing so is just another way of othering underrepresented writers and making diversity about yourself. It’s an interesting perspective, and based on who I saw retweeting the link it’s certainly one that seems to resonate with a lot of minority writers. Still, it doesn’t really sit right with me.
Now, I imagine that the easiest, quickest negative response would be something along the lines of “Can’t win for trying.” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t briefly go there myself, especially given the goals I recently set myself. The thing is, though, in her larger point about majority engagement with capital-D diversity, I agree with Tolentino. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you,” she says. Moreover, like so often seems to happen with corporate diversity initiatives, there’s a real danger of people assuming that simply having some sort of diversity policy is the same as solving the actual problem. It reduces normalizing diversity in literature to something like a fad—here today, forgotten tomorrow.
Still, as much as I agree with Tolentino on one level, I’m much more ambivalent on another. The problem for me, I think, is summed up in the last few lines of the piece:
If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?
How similar does that sound to some of the arguments against affirmative action, ones I especially tend to hear from more privileged minority groups? “I don’t want to feel like I got a job just because someone was trying to fill a quota.” But just as with the affirmative action, it presents a bit of a false dilemma. The choice here isn’t necessarily between being read because of your talent and being read because of your gender or color or sexuality. In the real world, the choice can often be between being read because of a diversity mission and not being read at all.
In a perfect world, women writers, writers of color, queer writers would rise to the top and gain a following on the strength of their writing in much the same way that we imagine straight white men do. But we are just not at that point yet. If diverse writers are seeing any uptick in readership and stature in the industry, if there is any push right now toward a more inclusive mainstream, it’s only because the need to actively seek out diverse books is being called out so loudly, and that that call is being repeated widely enough to gain momentum.
Of course it would be great for underrepresented writers and artists to be sought out solely on the basis of their talent. But at this point, without an active effort to bring those writers more attention (and therefore more sales, the only signal with any meaning to the publishers and retailers who determine what actually gets onto shelves) then it’s difficult to imagine the status quo ever changing.
Goals for 2016
Last January I set myself a series of goals for the year. So, how did I end up doing on those? Let’s take a look.
Goal: Read 25 books in any genre.
Result: I finished the year having read 39 books, so, not too shabby.
Goal: Run 600 miles.
Result: I ran only 295 miles in 2015. This was partially due to taking six weeks off after hurting my knee, and partially due to working late too often, and therefore being too tired to wake up early to exercise.
Goal: Write 24 non-review, non-photo blog posts of at least 1000 words.
Result: I wrote three essays in 2015 that met these criteria. If I relax the restrictions a bit and include a couple of particularly long, essay-like reviews, I can get the number up to five.
Goal: Post 52 photos to this blog.
Result: 28. I was doing pretty well until June and then nothing.
Goal: Get accepted into at least 2 juried exhibitions or competitions.
Result: I got into 2 juried group shows this year. I also had my first solo show, so, not bad.
Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I just got this in under the wire, having spent Wednesday taking a bunch of terrible photos.
Goal: Finish writing the text for the “It Forgets You” book.
Result: I did not do this. Not even close.
Goal: Shoot at least 500 frames for my Mira Mesa project.
Result: I’m not actually sure how many frames I shot for this project. Currently there are 50 images in my Lightroom catalog which were shot in 2015 and have been tagged “Mira Mesa.” But I also have three months of untagged photos, not to mention that I didn’t keep track of any images I may have deleted. My “keep” rate is somewhere around one in five, so let’s be generous and say I shot around 250 frames.
Goal: Complete a rough draft of a photo book for my “All Good Things” series.
Result: I did not even start a rough draft of a book for “All Good Things.” The closest I got was a new edit and sequence for my portfolio reviews in October.
Goal: Shoot at least 12 self-portraits for the new series I’m working on.
Result: I shot one of these and then put this on the back burner while I re-evaluate the direction I want to take with the series.
So, out of ten goals, I accomplished three. And you know what? I’m calling that a pretty successful year. On to 2016!
As before, these are not resolutions. These are goals. Resolutions are commitments. Goals are something to reach for. Here we go:
- Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
- Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
- Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
- Run 400 miles.
- Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
- Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
- Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
- Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
There’s more, but this seems like a good start. Hold me to it, people.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage
By Haruki Murakami
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this book. I’m not sure exactly what I got from it, either. This was my first time reading anything by Murakami, though I have been aware for a while of his enormous popularity in Japan and the high regard in which critics around the world hold him. In the first few sentences of Colorless Tsukuru we are dropped right into the depths of the title character’s depression, a depression brought on by his rejection and ostracization from his group of friends. The reasons for that rejection are not made clear at first, but the effects are: cut off from the closest people in his life, Tsukuru Tazaki is left adrift, feeling no reason to continue existing. It’s a pretty bleak way to start a book, enough so that I put it down after the first page twice before finally getting through it. Was it worth it to put in the effort? Well, I’m not sure. A lot of the dialogue felt very clunky to me, though that could just have been due to the translation. More than that, Tsukuru himself is mostly unappealing, self-deprecating to the point of disappearing, despite the fact that he appears to be held in high regard by just about everyone else in the book—at a certain point, his repeated insistence that he is without color, that he has no special or even noticeable qualities, just comes off as whiny. On top of all of that, I also found the book’s portrayal of women to be uncomfortable, sometimes downright creepy. Still, despite all of that, there were moments—and more than a few—where it felt like the story was right on the verge of something profound. There was a lyrical, haunting quality to it that hinted at some insight which was never quite expressed.
Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015
How to Be Both
By Ali Smith
It’s a little surprising how well this book worked for me, given how, well, gimmicky I would normally find it. It’s written in two parts, one about an adolescent English girl who is dealing with the loss of her mother, the other about the talents and secrets of an up-and-coming painter during the Italian Renaissance. Both parts are written in a dense, oddly punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style. What’s more, the book was released in two different versions, in which the order of the two parts is switched. Normally, I would find all of that off-putting, and, honestly, it wasn’t easy for me to access the story at first. What drew me in, though, was lines like this: “It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things—as old as those old songs, even as ancient as Latin itself—a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it?” Can you remember what it felt like to be a teenager in love for the first time? The feeling of being given a song and having it speak straight to your soul? How to Be Both is full of richly observed descriptions of the emotions of life. The relationships between a mother and daughter, a father and daughter, a brother and sister, between lovers, between friends. It was really quite breathtaking, and I’m not sure it could have done all it did with a more straightforward style and structure. So, on top of just being a great, emotionally resonant read, How to Be Both also made me re-evaluate some of my positions on what does and doesn’t constitute literary gimmickry. So that’s something.
Started: 9/24/2015 | Finished: 10/1/2015
By David Mitchell
Reading Cloud Atlas, I was struck by how structurally and thematically ambitious it was, but mostly what I kept coming back to was that I just can’t believe that anyone ever thought it would make a good movie. I’m not sure what to say about it, really. To be honest, I’m not even really sure I can explain what it was about. Each chapter not only introduces a new cast of characters, but also switches style and even genre. One chapter is an Age of Sail travelogue while another is a 70’s thriller, and still another is a dystopian science fiction. The connections between each are not immediately obvious, and the transitions from one to the next are quite jarring—indeed, the first chapter ends in the middle of a sentence! By the midpoint of the book, though, the complexity comes together and the structure becomes apparent. At the end of it all, I found myself impressed but still somewhat perplexed. Mitchell’s craft certainly can’t be denied, and I’d say I enjoyed the book, but I couldn’t really say what the point of it all was. Sprinkled throughout the book, various characters comment about or ponder the nature of experience, time, and memory, and it does feel as though Mitchell intended Cloud Atlas to provoke questions along those lines. Yet if he had any coherent statement to make, I wasn’t able to figure it out. Perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps it’s enough that the book was well-made and engaging. Not every piece of art has to be about something in order to be worthwhile. Still, I can’t help feeling that there was something I missed here. If you figure it out, let me know.
Started: 9/7/2015 | Finished: 9/23/2015
Hyperbole and a Half
By Allie Brosh
There was a point at which I was reading Allie Brosh’s highly popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half several times a week. Sadly, those days are over (for now, at least) as she’s only written eight posts in the past five years. Brosh’s blog was one of those wonderful things that seems now like it could only have existed in the late ’00s, back when blogging was still new and shiny. Hilarious, personal, sometimes achingly honest, Brosh had a way of relating (and drawing) her stories and recollections that always felt both singular and familiar. Well, fans of the blog will surely appreciate her 2013 book of the same name, as will, well, most people who aren’t dead inside. The book continues her signature MS Paint cartoon-style and self-deprecating humor, combining some new essays with past hits. I do find myself wishing sometimes that she’d write for her blog again, but from everything I’ve heard, she’s doing well and taking care of herself, so the book will have to be enough for now. And, you know, it does a pretty damn good job at that.
Started: 9/5/2015 | Finished: 9/6/2015
The Grace of Kings
By Ken Liu
2015 has been, for me, something of a watershed year in terms of race. Not only in how I think about and engage with race and identity and representation, but also in terms of the availability and visibility of diverse art and entertainment. This was the year of Between the World and Me, of Fresh Off the Boat, of #ActualAsianPoet and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It was the year that I realized that despite the fact that I've read hundreds of books since I started this blog, precious few were written by people of color.
I had all that in mind when I picked up a copy of Ken Liu's debut novel, The Grace of Kings. Now, if a desire to read more diverse fiction brings you to this book, as it did for me, that's fine. But it's not the only, nor even the main reason that you should read it. You should read it because it's interesting and well-written, a compelling, different take on epic fantasy.
The overwhelming majority of fantasy stories, particularly epic fantasy, can trace their roots back to the European medieval romance traditions. Springing from Malory's Morte d'Arthur and filtered through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, we've seen all manner of iterations and variations, refinements of and reactions to these concepts, and, to be sure, there have been some real gems produced in the genre. But it's nevertheless refreshing to read a story that clearly has a different cultural basis.
From what I have been able to gather, The Grace of Kings is largely a retelling of the history and legends of the founding of China's Han dynasty in the late third century BCE. As the story opens, the aging Emperor Mapidere is touring the sprawling empire he forged through conquest. Though Mapidere is able to maintain control through reputation and force of arms, the constituent kingdoms he subjugated chafe under his rule, and after his death things fall apart again as his former subjects vie for power. In this context, we're introduced to Kuni Garu, a low-born but charismatic gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, the last son of one of the noble families brought down by Mapidere's wars. At first separately and then together, the two men rise up and lead their followers to overthrow the empire, only to find themselves enemies when it comes time to decide how to establish a new order.
The book has drawn many comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but as I haven't read Luo Guanzhong's classic (yet) I can't comment on whether the analogy is apt. What I will say is that the style and structure of The Grace of Kings makes it feel more like a fable than a modern novel. Rather than utilizing the close third-person perspective that we've become accustomed to, Liu keeps everything more distant, resulting in a story that feels more narrated than immediate. That may not sound like high praise given the familiar admonishment "show, don't tell" but consider that highly influential texts from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales to Gabriel García Márquez's novels to the Bible all have a similar feel. Here, it works wonderfully, heightening the legendary quality of the story and characters.
This is the first book of an expected trilogy, and here the comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms bring up some interesting possibilities. As I mentioned, The Grace of Kings mirrors the beginnings of the Han dynasty, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms—a book I've long wanted to read but still haven't gotten around to—is set in the end of that period of Chinese history. It may be that Ken Liu has plans to diverge from his historical inspirations, but if not, he's got plenty to work with. I'm certainly curious to find out.
Started: 8/28/2015 | Finished: 9/4/2015
The Price of Inequality
By Joseph E. Stiglitz
There's a well-known psychological phenomenon where people tend to give more weight to arguments and evidence that supports their beliefs, and tend to discount or even forget information that contradicts those beliefs. This is called "confirmation bias." The reason I bring this up is because Joseph Stiglitz's book The Price of Inequality so strongly supports my beliefs about social and economic justice that I can't help but question whether my reaction to it might be the product of just such a bias.
Over the course of 360-some pages, Stiglitz—far as I can tell—completely dismantles the prevailing myths of both the inevitability of our current economic situation and the idea that supply-side policies are the answer. If I might be allowed to sum up his argument, it would go like so:
- The United States currently has an extremely high level of economic inequality, both in comparison with other contemporary developed countries and with its own history.
- The current level of inequality cannot be justified by any sort of meritocracy, nor can it be attributed to inevitable, natural events.
- Rather, the current level of inequality is largely the result of a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top, and that transfer is largely due to the manipulation of both market conditions and government policies by the wealthy elite.
- Furthermore, the current level of inequality is unsustainable because
- inequality lowers economic growth and efficiency,
- inequality undermines democratic government, and
- the conditions driving the current levels of inequality are damaging to the environment.
Not only does Stiglitz base his arguments on data (and he provides copious references to the studies he cites), but he also directly responds to just about every criticism of his position that I've ever encountered. Indeed, after finishing this book, I was so thoroughly convinced that I immediately became skeptical of myself. I spent an hour or so sifting through Google results to try to find a coherent rebuttal to Stiglitz's points, but everything I found boiled down to either name-calling or a flat insistence that he simply couldn't be right.
Rather than simply ending with an analysis of how we came to be where we are, or even an explanation of the results should we continue on this course, Stiglitz goes further and provides a number of concrete recommendations for how we could improve the situation. Granted, it's a long shot that a jaded (or forcibly disenfranchised) constituency and a captured government would be able to implement any of the policies Stiglitz describes, but things are not irreversibly bad.
In this country, the discourse around the proper role of government often seems to be preoccupied with the possibility of future tyranny, and the necessity of structuring government so as to protect the people from itself. But in my view—and I think that Stiglitz would likely agree—a government that does not also protect weaker individuals (which is to say, less wealthy individuals) from the rapacities of those who would take advantage of them, is merely subsituting one form of tyranny for another. We can do better. I don't know if we will, and often when contemplating that possibility my cynicism gets the better of me. But there is a way forward if we choose to take it, and Joseph Stiglitz might just be able to show it to us.
Started: 8/11/2015 | Finished: 8/27/2015
For the past two weeks you’ve been counting down the days to your birthday, and now we’re finally here. As I write this, you are about ten feet away from me, staring up at the lighted fireworks design on the wall above your hotel bed. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we are going to Disneyland, and you are very excited.
Every new year brings lots of new experiences, and this one is no different. You became a big sister this year, and you are great at it. You and Jason have been taking care of your baby sister since the very beginning; you have loved singing to her and showing books to her. On the drive tonight I discovered that you and she have a new favorite game, where she shrieks to make you laugh.
You’re getting to be such a big girl now, doing so many things on your own. Your mom and I talk a lot about how smart you are. You started a new preschool this year and I know you are going to learn a lot. So far mornings haven’t always been easy for you—you’re a late sleeper by nature, like me—but you’ve surprised me by getting out of bed without too much fuss when I come to wake you.
I love you so much, my girl, and I’m looking forward to spending the day with you. Happy birthday, Eva.
Soundtrack: "Lucky In Love (Instrumental)" by Tayler Buono. Used with permission.