Friday, February 1, 2013

What I read in January

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. There was a lot more and a lot less here than I expected, somehow.

The more: a possible allegory for the American Civil War or reconstruction in the pursuit by the USS Abraham Lincoln of Captain Nemo's Nautilus while most people still think the vessel is a sea unicorn (that is seriously what people think it is); how Captain Nemo withdraws from society instead of trying to improve it with his impossible wealth and talent reads as a precursor to Atlas Shurgged; the obvious comparison to be made between the Nautilus and the white whale in Moby Dick (in Admiral Farragut, commander of the Lincoln, Verne provides an Ahab character).

The less: I expected more of a story. I suppose I haven't read a lot of adventure literature, which is what this is. Each chapter is heavy on explication of some underwater phenomena, either natural or human generated, but quite thin on character and plot advancement. Of course, neither character nor plot advancement is the goal. The goal is fantastical description. And the description is fabulous.

Specials by Scott Westerfeld. I don't know why I go on with this series of books. Specials is the third book in the "Uglies" universe, in which governments mandate most children undergo extreme surgery at age 16 to make them "pretty" and stupid. In Specials, our hero Tally Youngblood has been made into a "special," a surgically-enhanced superhuman oft-described as having "terrible beauty," a not-too-subtle hint that she is something like a god. Tally doesn't really succeed as a character--I'm never sure why I should care about her, or what makes her very special at all. Beyond that, the stunts she pulls and the scrapes she gets out of ring false in a world described as a police state. The book picks up a bit when we (finally) see a bit of society beyond the city Tally was raised in, where Westerfeld gets to do a little more world-building, but the characters remain flat. The final page of the book comes out of nowhere but, by that point, I'd stopped caring.

The Book of Fantasy edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. A collection of 81 classic pieces of short fantastical fiction, many of them very short. Classics of the western tradition mingle with many old eastern stories I had never read before. The stories that have really stayed with me (excluding those I'd read elsewhere first): "The Sentence" by Wu Ch'eng En, about a hunted dragon in dreams. "A Woman Alone with Her Soul" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, which I might as well quote in its entirety:
A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.
"The Drowned Giant," by J. G. Ballard, about turning the fantastical into the commonplace. "The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973," by Tor Age Bringsvaerd, about a man who learns all the information he can about that particular day at the expense of all other knowledge. "The Blind Spot," by Barry Perowne, about a playwright who invented and forgot the perfect crime. "Macario" by B. Traven, about a dude who just wants to eat turkey.

The collection took me several months of bedtime reading to get through, but it was well worth it. I'd recommend it to anyone.

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