Book Reviews: Melancholy and Melancholy II by Jon Fosse

Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, an actual real-life figure who struggled with schizophrenia and only found widespread success after his death, is the focus of Jon Fosse’s “Melancholy.” Here’s one of his works. “Melancholy” is split up into three sections. The first and by far largest follows one day of him as a young man, struggling to make it as an artist and studying at a German academy for art. He’s too afraid to go to the school that day, reasoning that while he is one of the few there who can actually paint, the teacher will probably hate his work-in-progress. To complicate matters, he’s in love with his landlord’s daughter and his strange behavior towards her is getting him kicked out, and both of these events seem to trigger a schizophrenic episode (presumably one of his first).

The story is narrated in a stream of conscious style on steroids. I’ve seen a lot of reviews quote large sections of text in order to illustrate but I won’t. In pieces, it seems annoying. Taken altogether, instead it’s a fascinating and intense examination of a brilliant, troubled mind. At times it really does feel like you’re reading someone’s thoughts. It isn’t for everyone, but if you can handle it, you’re in for a wild ride.

The second part again takes place on a single day. A few years have passed. Lars is locked away in an asylum, still fantasizing about the landlord’s daughter and dreaming of escape. Once again, Fosse provides a gripping psychological portrait that proves irresistible.

The third section is a change of pace. It’s set in the late 1980s/early 1990s and follows a writer considering writing a novel on Hertervig. Depression, though, has stopped his pen, and he is going to a young priest to see if religion might lift his spirits. This easily could have become a postmodern curiosity, not at all in line with the rest of the book, but although it seems to be taken from Fosse’s own life, he maintains the same style and same intensity to make it the perfect ending. This part does not “properly” end the threads of Hertervig’s life but it does explore art and wraps up everything on a thematic level.

An odd way to end the book, one not every writer could pull off, but Fosse expertly watches his step. Highly recommended, one of the best books I’ve read all year.

A year after “Melancholy” was published, Fosse wrote “Melancholy II,” a coda to the previous novel. Though a lot shorter than its predecessor, it covers just as much if not more ground. It follows one of Lars’s sisters over the course of, again, a single day years after his original breakdown. Lars is dead; she is a senile old lady just barely managing on her own. It opens with her sister-in-law asking her to come see her dying brother, she agreeing, and then, in her old age, completely forgetting and instead losing herself in reminisce about her dead brother. From there, it only gets more penetrating.

The prose here is changed, more in line with Fosse’s usual style of long but simply-worded sentences rather than the intensity of “Melancholy.” For those put off by the original, “Melancholy II” can be understood on its own, although there is a lot to be gained here by reading the books in order.

Fosse manages to weave human existence into this short bit of space. It’s haunting in the best of ways, at times gross (elderly people do not have the best control over bodily functions) but never unnecessarily so, never only for shock value.

If only more of Fosse’s books were available in English. Luckily, a lot of his plays are (although only Amazon seems to have them, no libraries or anything), and I’ll be reviewing some in the coming weeks.

Book Review: Chronicles by Bob Dylan

If you haven’t been following the Bob Dylan-Nobel saga, this post has a pretty good summary of the latest drama, although I disagree about the “damage” to the prize.

Anyway, I always look forward to the Nobel because it either introduces to a new author or motivates me to read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Even though Dylan’s primarily a songwriter that are meant to be listened to, this year was no exception. Dylan has written some prose: an experimental novel entitled “Tarantula” (I’ll get to it in the coming weeks) and a memoir, “Chronicles.”

“Chronicles” is actually meant to be the first volume in a three book autobiography project, but it appears Dylan has all but given up on volumes two and three (one was published in 2004, the next book was supposed to come out a few years after, and here we are, 12 years later with no news). It’s not a straightforward story. It starts in the early 60s, when Dylan was trying to establish himself, and jumps around decades, like to the 80s, where the singer experiences a creative block. In fact, that’s what a lot of the chronologically later sequences are about.

Eventually the book loops back around and ends in the early 60s, and it’s these sections, where Dylan is struggling, that stand out. His eagerness and development back then is much more interesting than the malaise of middle age. Then again, I’m not a Dylan fanatic, so perhaps those later sections might have a special significance for someone following Dylan for a while now.

The debate about whether the singer’s lyrics were high enough quality to merit the Nobel (or if the genre deserved the prize) continues, but his artistry is on full display here. Dylan writes in a snappy prose style that barrels forward in a way reminiscent of fellow Nobel laureate’ Saul Bellow. And the out of order timeline never feels random. I couldn’t always see the logic behind the time jumps, but it never caught me off guard, never left me confused, never felt like Dylan was doing it just for the sake of doing it.

All in all, not the perfect piece, but one that has helped me look at his prize in a new way. I was hoping for Pynchon, DeLillo, Vollmann or Erdrich if the prize had to come back to America, and while I still think they would have been better winners, this book at least confirmed that Dylan’s work rises to the level I expect from Nobel laureates.

Book Review: Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

Despite being recently published and winning the 2008 Nebula Prize for Best Novel, I very rarely see Powers discussed. It’s a part of Annals of the Western Shore, three Young Adult novels that are vaguely connected but can be read in any order, like the Hainish Cycle. But don’t be put off by the YA label. In the case of Powers (and presumably the other two) all it means is that the protagonist in younger and seems like little more than a marketing gimmick.

Gavir is a young slave who, along with his sister, is owned by a wealthy family in the city-state Etra. He’s being brought up to serve as a teacher for both slave and royal children and has a lot of access to old poetry and stories (there’s lots in the book, but it never reaches Lord of the Rings levels of poetry and song, if that turned you off Tolkien). He also has a gift: he can dream about the future.

As you might guess, Gavir, once a teenager, escapes and explores the world around him. There is little overarching story; at times, it seems almost picaresque, as he goes from one location to another. As a result, it never turns into a page-turner, but it is thought-provoking, particularly when it comes to slavery and freedom.

Surprisingly, Gavir’s precognition skills end up being less important than you’d think. Though they do come up (I won’t spoil it and say how), at the beginning it appears Le Guin is setting up the power to move the plot forward. Instead, other than a sub-plot towards the end, it serves as foreshadowing and little else.

And the ending—ugh. Pretty anticlimactic. Spoilers alert:

 

Gavir discovers that a member of the family he escaped from is hunting him and has been for quite some time; Gav’s just been lucky in avoiding him. There’s a cat-and-mouse game as Gav and a little girl who he picked up on his travels, run to a city in the north where everyone is free. The hunter almost catches them…and then instead of a fight or even some resolution with this character, they cross a river before he gets to them and that’s it. They’re free and no longer have to worry about him.

 

End Spoilers.

Despite the weak ending, it’s a solid book, well deserving of its award win. I’d give it 4 stars and recommend it as proof that old age hasn’t slower Le Giun one bit.

Book Review: An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse

I wouldn’t recommend anyone start with Jon Fosse here. Although he is a famed playwright, novelist and poet in Norway, he’s never been renowned for nonfiction. He actually published two books of essays totaling something like 600 pages early in his career before giving it up, and the present volume is a selection from those with one or two speeches that he gave later on. The pieces aren’t bad, in fact I really enjoyed them and gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s more that unless you’re already acquainted with Fosse’s work, you won’t get much out of them.

A lot of the essays here are about theory, but none are so dense as to be bogged down in academic prose. Instead, Fosse comments on philosophy and figures like Derrida, discussing more their impact on his thinking than any scholarly interpretations. There are also flashes of his biography here and there, like his schooling or his music-loving teenage years, nowhere hear anything comprehensive but, given the lack of information on Fosse in English, fans should delight in what’s here.

Many of the essays here are short, small thoughts rather than comprehensive arguments, just a page or two, with topics ranging from plays to Beckett to Bernhard.

If you already like Fosse and enjoy Literature with a capital “L” (I can’t imagine there are many from the first category that don’t fall in the second), then this is another great addition to Fosse’s oeuvre available in English. If you’re looking for a good place to start with him and neither Morning and Evening or I Am the Wind appeal to you, don’t worry, more reviews of his novels and plays are forthcoming.

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one of those flawed books that you still can’t help but love. Please note that this review will have spoilers in, so read on at your own peril!

In the future, time travel has been invented, and historians use it to study their areas of interest. One student at Oxford, Kivrin, is about to go back into the Middle Ages. Though going back that far can be dangerous, the head of the history department is on vacation and the professor filling in is cocky and eager to show his worth. Mr. Dunsworthy, another professor in the department, is not so sure about the whole thing but is overruled. Shortly after Kivrin is sent back, however, the technician seeks out Mr. Dunsworthy to try to tell him about something that went wrong, but before he can he collapses from disease. An epidemic soon falls upon London.

Even worse, unbeknownst to them, Kivrin falls ill almost immediately after reaching the medieval ages. Although she is picked up and taken care of, she needs to return to the exact spot she first appeared at a specific date in order to get back to her own time—and she has no idea where that spot is.

Alternating between Kivrin and Mr. Dunsworthy perspectives, The Doomsday Book is an almost perfect mix of comedy, tragedy, and excitement. Willis’s sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny.

Part of the problem is the length. This very easily could have been edited down from the 600 or so pages that it is, especially the first half of Kivrin’s adventures in the past. No real progress is made during those chapters, and while Willis is skilled enough that you never have to power through, it does drag.

The characters in the past, too, are faulty. Some aren’t developed enough and others get involved in subplots that are never resolved. It turns out that the mistake the technician found was that Kivrin was accidentally sent back to 1348, the year the Black Plague reached England. Ultimately, every character in the past other than Kivrin dies from it. Willis could have meant this to be one of those books where everything is normal until a catastrophic event interrupts daily life, but as it is, she really just sets out the building blocks for subplots (so-and-so likes a married woman?) but then does nothing with them so that it just seems like set up for no reason. Though the Mr. Dunsworthy chapters also suffer from this, they are nowhere near as bad as the medieval ages.

But despite these problems, The Doomsday Book is an irresistible read. Willis is a Grand Master in science fiction and for good reason. It’s a case of where the author is already so skilled that their flaws are even more noticeable than had they come from a lesser writer.

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Warning: There will be tons of spoilers in this review.

Binti is an unfortunate book. I say that because it starts out with such promise. A girl—Binti—gifted at mathematics runs away from her ancestral home in order to attend a prestigious university. Sounds good so far, if a little cliché. While on the spaceship traveling there, aliens attack and kill almost everyone except for Binti and the pilot. Binti survives cunning and perseverance until she discovers the purpose of the raid: the aliens want to take over the ship so that they can do a surprise attack at the university and retrieve something that was stolen from their leader. Binti agrees to be their interpreter, both for her own survival and to try and get the two cultures to understand each other a bit better.

So far, the narrative has stumbled here and there, but for the most part it holds itself together and is an interesting read.

That is, until the ending.

After landing at the university, professors and staff argue about the aliens until finally they come to an agreement: they will give back the items they took, Binti can still attend, and an alien who Binti befriended can also enroll. The whole bit reads like one of those fake “that happened” stories online. The everyone who died on the ship is forgotten. While there is a sequel that may address this, it might be kind of relevant to bring up that massacre again in the book in which it occurred. They were not exactly well-developed, but still. And the mathematical skills that Binti possesses do come up again, but only in the abstract. They come in handy when she’s trying to survive, but it might as well be magic from the way it’s described. While nitpicky, it still is bothersome, especially since I felt there was some real potential for it to be used in interesting ways. The only good thing I can say about this is that it’s short.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

Reviews: Cat Pictures Please & Folding Beijing

Warning, this review has spoilers. I’ve grouped these two “in-depth” reviews together because there really isn’t much to say about them beyond what I’ve already said.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer would have been a quirky, weak winner in another year, but with the puppies, she is by far the best choice this year. The basic premise is that an AI becomes sentient and tries to help people in between viewing cat pictures. The actual plot is episodic, detailing her various attempts to help people, focusing on three. It doesn’t always work out, but no matter what happens, the story never becomes thrilling. The episodic set up prevents real tension from ever building.

Beyond the cute, crowd-pleasing premise (cat pictures have been a big thing on the internet since I first got into it), there isn’t too much here. I can see why this was nominated for the Nebula, but I can also see why it didn’t win.

A worthy winner? I’ve read worse that won Hugos during average years, but it’s not one of the stronger pieces.

As for Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, there isn’t too much else to say because the whole story hinges on the idea of a folding city. Beijing here is split up into three different sections. City 1 is populated by the rich, and they also get the most time awake. City 2 is a step below that, and city 3 is filled with manual workers. Each night, as one city goes to sleep, the city folds up and another (temporarily) takes its place.

There is a story here: a worker from city 3 sneaks into city 2 and then city 1 to deliver a love letter between a bureaucrat and a woman. Capture means at best jail, but if he succeeds he gets the money he needs to send his daughter to a good school. But like I said before, since his daughter hardly ever appears, the plot feels less like a vehicle for excitement than a way to show off this concept.

The disappointing thing is that this concept is indeed a great one: more stories set in this world to flesh it out more would be awesome. I could see this winning or coming in a close second place in a normal year. It’s not perfect, but it is thought-provoking, intriguing, and although the plot has problems, it never truly drags.

2016 Hugo Awards

I will post about these in more comprehensive posts later on, but here’s a few basic thoughts on the 2016 Hugo winners (I’m proud I was able to read all of the winners before the ceremony).

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin for best novel. This was one of the best fantasy books in a while. It’s set in a world with a giant continent that is wracked by natural disasters. Every hundred years or two, a big enough disaster occurs to set off decade-long storms, known as fifth seasons. Magicians have some power over stone but are feared for it. They are kept in check by a society as they learn to control their magical powers. There are three plot lines: a woman mourns the death of her son who her husband killed because he exhibited some magical powers. His wife never revealed to him that she also has control over magic. She sets out to get revenge and runs into some colorful companions. In another, a young girl with magic is found by a member of that society and taken to a school to train. In the last, and imo best, a young woman at the school is taken on a quest with a high level magic user to fix the stone in a city’s harbor. And while there, they find something completely unexpected…

I thought for sure Uprooted was going to win, but I’m really happy it didn’t. The characters there are flat, the magic system makes no sense (and the book hinges on it), and despite setting out to subvert cliches, it has tons of YA ones. And it already won the Nebula…ugh. The Fifth Season was definitely something special (and as an added bonus, Vox Day was kicked out of the SWFA for calling her a subhuman).

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor for best novella. This one was meh. A girl named Binti runs away from her home in order to attend a university on another planet. While in transit, they’re attacked by an alien race and she is left as the only human still alive. What starts as a survival story then quickly becomes a tale about differences in culture. The ending, though, is awful, to the point of ruining what came before it. Not surprised this won, as it was the only non-puppy choice here, but still.

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. Surprisingly, this one was a rabid puppies pick, but it probably would’ve been nominated anyway. Looking at it from a political standpoint, I’m not really sure why they picked it. It’s set in a dystopian future. To avoid overpopulation issues in Beijing, the government has set up a folding system: for 24 hours, city 1, populated by the elite, goes about their days and then sleeps. During that period, the city literally folds up to reveal city 2, and then city 3. Lao Dao is a menial worker in city 3 who dreams of sending his daughter to a better school, but he doesn’t have the money. To finance this, he undertakes a quest to deliver a love letter from a man in city 2 to a woman in city 3. The punishment for being caught would be jail, or worse. The idea here was pretty interesting, but it would’ve been nice to get the characters more fleshed out. His daughter barely makes any appearances, and some of the city 1 characters feel tacked on. Over all, though, it deserves the win.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer for best short story. I already covered this in my post yesterday, but for those moaning about Chuck Tingle, he wound up placing third below no award.

For the full list of winners, see here: http://www.thehugoawards.org/

The 2016 Hugo Award Short Story Nominees

The Hugo awards are tonight and I’ve been reading some of the nominees. I’ve gone through 4 of the nominated short stories and don’t plan on reading the 5th, so here’s my thoughts on those. All of them are Rabid Puppies picks except for Cat Pictures.

Asymmetrical Warfare by S.R. Algernon- A flash fiction piece about a starfish-like race of aliens attacking Earth. They’re surprised that humans don’t regenerate body parts. Although not necessarily bad, there’s little tension throughout the story. It almost seemed like the author was going for some type of twist with the way the aliens learn about people, but…we’re people. We already know what we’re like.

If You Were an Award, My Love by Juan Tabo and S. Harris- Oh god. For those that don’t know, a few years ago a story called If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love won the Nebula award for best short story and was nominated for the Hugo. It’s literally what it sounds like: a lover dreaming up what their man would be like if they were a dinosaur. At the end it turns out the man was beaten into a coma by some intolerant people. Though not exactly science fiction, it worked as a story and, imo, deserved its accolades. For whatever reason, the puppies chose this story to latch on to as “message fiction,” that is, fiction that simply wins awards because of its message. And then there’s this present story. What I just explained is the tip of the iceberg. This story literally won’t make sense unless you’re up on your print genre fiction fandom. Authors are lampooned in ways which won’t make sense if you don’t know them and the “plot” itself reads like an incoherent alt-right rant if you haven’t read the original story. This literally might be the worst thing I have ever read that was professionally published.

Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle- Yes, I read it. And after the two above, I was pleasantly surprised. The level of writing isn’t amazing, but I wouldn’t complain if an author with similar prose was nominated for real and not by brigading. And Tingle manages to keep some tension present throughout the story (although in the later parts it is sexual tension…). And with his real world antics, there’s been some rumblings that this might actually take it. As for the gay sex scene…well, I’d rather read that again than If You Were an Award.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer- An actual nominee that was not the result of the puppies! And what’s more, it tells an actual story! An AI becomes sentient and decides that when not looking at cat pictures, it will try to improve the lives of people, an endeavor that turns out harder than it thought. It’s not exactly thrilling but the light tone and somewhat short length (3429 words, Clarkesworld, the site that published it, says at the bottom) ensure that it’s a fun read at all points. Not quite my thing, but at least I could see this definitely being nominated and maybe even taking home the award in a normal year.

The one I didn’t read is Seven Kill Tiger by Charles W. Shao because it seems like it can only be found in an anthology published by Vox Day (the less you know about that asshole, the better. He’s behind the Rabid Puppies.) and I’m not wasting money on that crap. A summary online makes it look like the focus is on a racist Chinese man who goes to Africa. Will he learn the errors of his ways? Considering Vox Day literally called African-American writer N.K. Jemisin (a nominee in the novel category who I’ll get to later) a subhuman, I doubt it!