The Literary Conference

The Literary ConferenceI had “just” finished a César Aira (b. 1949) novel in late January, but here I am having read another. I finished The Literary Conference last night.  I cannot help it; I find these strange little novels utterly enticing and, I guess, addictive. They are unique and fill this odd niche sort of space. I have no idea regarding the dates of publishing for this book. According to the front matter of the book in front of me, the novella was originally published in 2006 as El congreso de literatura.  I am not going to lie – on Wikipedia [the Source of Truth and Wisdom] this is listed as being published in 1997. It does feel like an earlier work by Aira (I say as if I am an Aira-expert).  My edition is the New Directions paperback with cover art by Rodrigo Corral, translated by Katherine Silver.

The main thing that I love about the Aira novels, and his writing style, is his ability to very subtly mix reality and fiction. I have read somewhere that he has a particular writing process involving cafés in the morning. He does not seem to agonize over his writing, either. In other words, once written he does not revise and edit endlessly. I do not think he even communicates with publishers or translators unless truly necessary. Now, I want to say here that this is definitely a privilege because most publishers and translators do not “allow” writers this kind of treatment. Overall, Aira does have a touch of elitistm about him; this does not bother me. Anyway, short-form novellas work for him. He seems slightly annoyed when having to put his writing into a category. Is it poetry? Fairy tales? Allegory? Autobiographical? It is what it is, I think, and our desperate obsession with pigeon-holing things makes readers uncomfortable when thinking about an Aira “novel.”

Until now, I have been drawing a portrait of a character who represents me in more or less fair and realistic – even if partial – terms. Until now, he could have been taken for a cold, clear-headed scientist writing a well-reasoned memoir in which even emotions take on an icy edge. . . To complete the portrait, though, we would need to paint in a background of passion, so alive and excessive that it makes the rest tremble.

It would be counterproductive to go into too many details, so I won’t. I know myself and I know that the triumph of my false modesty when I sit down to write would translate into such absurd fairy tales that I don’t know where it would end up. — pg 43

Is Aira being tongue-in-cheek? Because factually, this book’s “storyline” is a dizzying absurd tale that no, I do not think even the most seasoned reader would predict.  When Aira uses the pronoun I, which I is he speaking of? The character César? The writer César? Or yet another, developing, César?  Decide however you like – when I am reading Aira and have these sorts of pauses and questions, when I feel the story has moved beyond what I find clear, I just think of Aira having a coffee at a table in a café in the early morning and just letting his pen tell the story while he pays a small amount of attention to the activity on the downtown streets around him. Writing like that, an author does not really agonize over the problems of Identity and Self. So what if the plot is veering around?

Hence the subtle shift from reality to fiction – hanging around on the line of each, which apparently, runs right through the café our author is sipping beverages at.  Speaking of “lines” – this is precisely the apropos moment to insert the wild side-story of the Macuto Line – a old pirate “cable” that runs around the lagoon by the Caribbean Sea that leads to treasure. No, this is not real – its part of Aira’s deadpan storytelling that makes the reader unsure what is real and historical and what is just some dip into some absurd idea he had at the café table.

Lines and translations. Those are, I think, Aira’s starting points in this little work. Maybe he is following these lines and translations through the character, César, whom the author has made into a mad scientist. What do the lines and translations symbolize or what is the author trying to show us? I feel like he is just having a fun time writing and seeing where things go.

Now, the actual storyline is a bit odd (no kidding, right?). I mean we have this mad scientist who is ALSO a literary author. He is going to a literary conference in Venezuela where they are staging one of his plays. His viewing of his own play, by the way, has a very unique feel to it and probably someone should be writing an essay just on that segment. Anyway, the mad scientist is cloning Carlos Fuentes – and his great attempt becomes a huge disaster. When this happens in this little novel, it is one of the most outrageous, but deadpan, moments I have ever read. The little novella is getting too introspective and esoteric and then suddenly – a catastrophe that you could never have guessed! Its awesome. And then when the explanation for what is happening is given, it is laugh aloud, slap your thigh, giggle for awhile legit funny.

The most quoted lines of this whole story are these; and I would never not join the crowd in once again quoting them:

Only through minimalism is it possible to achieve the asymmetry that for me is the flower of art; complications inevitably form heavy symmetries, which are vulgar and overwrought.

But my mania – to be constantly adding things, episodes, characters, paragraphs, to be constantly veering off course, branching out – is fatal. It must be due to insecurity, fear that the basics are not enough, so I have to keep adding more and more adornment until I achieve a kind of surrealist rococo, which exasperates me more than it does anybody else. – pg. 59

Yes, I am sure this aggravating to the author Aira. It is also, probably, why he does not revise much and just sends his writing away as fast as reasonably possible without wanting to linger over it and return to it. However, this sort of “mania” as he calls it, mixed with that minimalism, is the very thing that brings so much delight and enjoyment to us his readers.

This is not an easy novel to read. On the other hand, the prose is straightforward and uncomplicated. Aira does not sound obnoxious. He has this matter-of-fact delivery that is so engaging when contrasted with the absurd chaos his tales run to. Recommended for strong readers.

4 stars


RoadmarksRoadmarks by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995) was first published in 1979.  I had heard it can be a difficult read due to its structure and style.  I would agree with that, but that sort of stuff works out at least midway through the novel.  The problem is that, at best, I can describe this novel as “interesting” when there is so much about it that should have developed into awesome and tremendous.

This is the second Zelazny novel that I have read, I do own several more to get through, but my interest in them is waning quite a bit. As with the previous novel that I read, This Immortal (1966), I get this feeling that Zelazny thinks he is the only chap to ever crack open a history book and he must be some kinda special because he has read some literature.  To me he comes across as supercilious and obnoxious, which makes me grumpy. Do not get me wrong – I like erudite, intelligent, and clever authors. I like to read books that have some meat to them and the authors have big brain activity. I just do not want a cocky, snarky chap waving his ancient Greek quotes around at me. Nor do I need the lengthy French poems to prove he can read French poems.

Listen, I admit this is non-rational. Its just the feeling I get reading these novels. Others do feel differently, I am sure.

Problems with this novel:  the novel is too short and too brisk to give the ideas and layout the room it needs to develop and breathe. Like I said above, so many neat ideas in such an unusual format that it is a supremely interesting novel. But capping at 189 pages, it does not give the reader enough of what is really, really good. It does not allow the ideas to play out. And here is the thing:  every one of us has great ideas, I am certain of it. It is in the execution of the ideas that truly tests our ideas and our skill. Move that idea from theory into praxis, my friends.  Half-baked potential is always going to be just that. Frankly, the ideas in this novel are so interesting that they deserve a better execution – and the readers are robbed of that.

Or maybe our author could not get the novel further………. Maybe it was 1979 and after the last segments were written the author felt “good enough” and “oh, aren’t I avant garde!” and that was it.

Dragons. I hated the whole element/theme of dragons in this. I do not want to be crass, but I found it stupid.

From what I have already said, you would think I just hated this novel. I did not. In fact, I really liked it. I loved banging down the Road in a beater truck that is also a Transformer when it gets the aid of Baudelaire’s “Alexa” device. I totally loved the books qua A.I., in other words.  I also think this is one of the better time-manipulation stories because a Road with exits and on-ramps that relate, in some way, to history is fantastic. I mean, Zelazny is also brazen and bold because in chapter 2 (or one, however you like) we meet a character named Adolph looking for the time-place where “he won.” So, Zelazny shows us straight-away that he is not going to play it safe, let’s say, with his times and characters.

There are constant cigars, odd scenes in roadside hotels, and a completely strange robot that has at some point sustained damage and now spends its time as a potter in a cave. All of these elements do a great job of keeping the reader off-guard and making the storyline lively.  However, some of the motives of the characters are absent or vague and underwritten. One guy is looking for his father, for no real reason. One guy is trying to “find himself.”  A couple of characters are just hangers-on, somehow voluntarily tying their fate to the randomness of other characters. So, at the end, the novel has to end abruptly and without resolutions. There never was a point to it anyway. It was an exercise in ideas, not in novel-writing or character development or something.

I would certainly have loved a “sequel” or a spin-off wherein the author let us have more fun with the robots or characters from history. I think the hero-agenda that Zelazny is known for is present here, but it does not spoil anything. We can have a new hero for the sequel without taking anything away from Red Dorakeen (the main character).  This is not really wishful thinking about what the novel might have been or what might have followed it. It is more so a realizing that this novel wanted me to waste my time on the Road as well. However, I am not as special, I guess, as Red Dorakeen and the purposelessness of a long road ahead with no particular destination does not appeal.

I have no idea what to say about Timyin Tin. Its like a caricature of a Shaolin monk. I find this a lot in society; it does not surprise me. But I feel Timyin Tin should have gotten more page-time or less, or another novel or just been omitted altogether. I am at a loss with this character. He needs a whole different novel series or something

Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (1961) does it better. And Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) does, too. No, those are not the same as Roadmarks, but I would hands down give those five stars.  For all its interesting quirkiness, Roadmarks is fairly empty. Readers should read this novel so they know what the heck the rest of us are talking about. Yes, its a bit difficult. Yes, it is strange. A very interesting novel is the best I can say.

3 stars

Burglars Can’t Be Choosers

Burglars Cant Be ChoosersBurglars Can’t Be Choosers by Lawrence Block (b. 1938) was first published in 1977. It is the first in his series that stars Bernie Rhodenbarr. As Block tells it, the story was written during a time when he was undergoing a rough time as a writer, etc. I think the story is that he was moving around the country from NYC to various points and finally he finished the thing in Greenville, SC.  At that time, Block did not anticipate writing other Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. (I think there are now thirteen in this series.)

I bought my paperback copy used for $1 years ago. It is probably truer to say decades ago. At least 2004, let’s say. I just never felt like actually reading it before now. It has a ridiculously bright orange cover that just screams for attention, but Block is not for everyone.  I think I own a stack of his novels around here somewhere; maybe having read this one will lead to more. I have read Hit Man, but I need to re-read it because I think I enjoyed it, but I cannot remember it and I would like to read the rest of that series. I am, obviously, going to live to be 450 years old.

The good:  this is a feisty, fast-paced novel that can be read very quickly.  There is some wit, some ribald stuff, and a dash of seriousness. Overall, this is one of Block’s lighthearted comical novels.  I think I even liked how the ending played out and I found the bad guys  consistent.

The bad:  this novel is dated. So much of it just would not and can not take place anymore. So much of this novel becomes impossible/irrelevant with the technology we have today.  I can take this displacement, but readers born 2000+ are probably going to be a wee bit frustrated with this novel.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is, for the most part, a self-made burglar. He taught himself lockpicking and basic skills for the job of burgling people. He has been to jail for his activities, though, so he does not have some magical perfect record.  He does not go in for violence and destruction.  He feels bad when he is outed at his residence, a NYC apartment building. He has an honest respect for the police that rather evens the playing field for Block’s storyline. He is also a Gemini, just so you know.

This novel can make a case for being a type of “locked-room” mystery. Maybe not exactly to definition, but it has elements that would fit in that category.  The main point of the story is that Bernie is discovered by cops while burgling a place – and there is a dead guy in the place.  Bernie is also, clearly, as dashing and handsome a fellow as any woman could want, because both of the female characters in the novel definitely throw themselves at him. Again, this is part of, I think, Block’s writing, the genre, and the expectations for airport novels in the 1970s.

The reader does not get all of Bernie’s thoughts, which is how the story gets to its conclusion. Bernie figures everything out and then lets us all know.  I think the astute reader will put together who did what and when. There are not a lot of red herrings or misdirection in this one. Further, some of the elements have a “too obvious” feel to them when they happen. Nevertheless, this is a fast-paced lighter-side novel, not a dark noir. So, all of Bernie’s wit feels normal and carries along the storyline even when it does seem utterly unlikely.

For the most part the story is conversation – either between characters or the thoughts in Bernie’s head.  There is not a whole lot of prose used on description or background. This keeps the 289 pages flipping quickly and the reader does not have time to forget any detail or get sidetracked. Zipping to the end there is not much substance to the novel; and there is too much, I guess, of that 70s swagger to it.

There is nothing here to hand out awards for since it is just a speedy NYC tale. Its not something, maybe, you give to your friend who only reads the purist, cleanest fiction, but everyone else should be able to handle it. Crime-light, if you will.

3 stars

Dirty Deeds 2

dirty deeds 2I am very happily plowing through the stacks and shelves around my home lately.  I have been reading, of course, heavy and tiring things like Foucault’s lectures (biopower) and a book on Mongolian warfare (invasions). Oh, also a really good book on growing and using hostas. Lately, I have been trying to read for quantity and mainly just very light, easy-breezy reads. I have not felt too much like some intricate tome of grand seriousness.

So I read the second book in Armand Rosamilia’s Dirty Deeds series. It is self-published/independently published crime fiction. I read the first book in the series in 2021 and enjoyed it. It ends on a “cliffhanger” (please read this as:  a cheat to get the readers to buy the next book in the series.)  Book two has been hanging around since then, so I decided to knock out this read without wasting any more time.

These books, which are just very short novels, are like reading 3 Musketeers bars. They are fun and easy to eat and absolutely nothing that one consumes all of the time.  The brute fact is that these stories are easy readers, fun, and amusing.  It is easy to follow the characters around, easy to suspend disbelief over the storyline or plot elements.  The stories require nothing of the reader except a willingness to chuckle at stupid, but clean, humor.

I feel a bit odd trying to “review” these books because they do not lend themselves to reviews. Okay, since they are self-published/independently published there are a few typos/errors (particularly around chapter 11 where even character names are typos).  Overall, this was not pervasive through the entire book. I am sure a quick edit would fix this – do people bother to have draft readers at all anymore? It does not matter. Any reader that is critiquing this book with any kind of vigor needs to stop because this is just not that sort of reading.

This is two hundred pages of easy font reading.  Marisa has been kidnapped.  A handful of characters converge during the main character’s efforts to find and rescue Marisa. Every element is superficial and maybe a touch stereotyped. Remember, this is to be read on hazy springtime days when the pollen has fallen two-inches thick and the chalky stuff is coating your eyebrows. No one is reading this to compare it to Graham Greene. As a reader, I do not want to plod through descriptions and backgrounds and esoteric theories. Just get in the car, stop at Taco Bell, and answer the phone when it rings.  Stake out the hotel, have another coffee, argue with the FBI agent.  See? Nothing needs to be overwrought or wrung out. No problem.

I honestly do not know why I like these stories. I think I like the main character and the setting. I like how the stories are amusing and almost made for lightweight TV series:  like Monk or Psych or something. Its like reading popcorn.  I cannot read these books consecutively, but they fit the bill when all my other reading and activities is heavy and  exhausting.  I’ve been nursing a bone bruise on my thumb from a punch that landed incorrectly. I have been trying to do some stuff outdoors daily to bring things up to speed for spring. I do not want to spend my time reading solely on the dispositif  and its effects.  I actually like Rosamilia’s writing because I feel like he knows what he wants to write and writes it. He seems comfortable not trying to be some other writer.

Anyway, I am enjoying clearing the to-be-read piles and reading adventurous fun things. Having a blast in 2023!

3 stars

Sweet Silver Blues

Sweet Silver Blues 2

At the end of February I finished Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook. It was first published in 1987 with cover art by Tim Hildebrandt. The novel is the first in the Garrett, P.I. series. I have read Cook before and enjoyed the read. This novel is everything one would expect in 1987, which was surprisingly comfortable and familiar to me as I read. I kept thinking to myself, “well, we will never see novels like this again” and “boy, this feels like the 80s.”  I am not saying this is good or bad, I am just sharing that this is very much of its time. 

True to his writing style in other novels, Cook is spare in the details. He keeps the whole story flying along by use of bantering conversation. He does not write out every step of the way for the reader – he does expect the reader to fill in the gaps and surmise what has happened in the interval.  I do not feel this is really done nowadays in current fantasy.  I feel like now everyone details every step, every moment, lest the reader get lost or separated from the characters as, say, they march from a pier to a tavern. On occasion, the spare writing and the action-stylings makes it difficult to follow what specifically is happening – but it does not really matter what the specifics are. 

The expected 80s fantasy tropes are present and fun. Taverns and bars and a variety of fantasy species. There is a super fun thread between two characters related to health/diet and food. Its totally amusing and runs the length of the book; a subtle way to get the reader to engage with the characters without forcing them upon us. 

I went to see my major right after I breakfasted, three eggs gently fried in the grease of a half pound of bacon slowly cooked to a crisp, a mountain of griddle cakes on the side, heavily buttered and buried in strawberry jam.  Morley was despondent. He began holding a wake for my health. – pg. 128, chapter 27

The main character, Garrett, is a private investigator of sorts, probably a pre-cursor to the Harry Dresdens, Ishmael Jones, and Alex Verus of the now-world.  Garrett is ex-military (he is no fan of the military or the never-ending war that he had to attend) and he now runs a shop in TunFaire.  He drinks a lot, does odd jobs, and knows a lot of strange characters. We do not get much of Garrett’s background whatsoever, which is fine. I have gotten very weary of the long stories of a tormented background that somehow are the reason for whatever the character is currently. Garrett is awoken one morning by the Tate family, a family of gnomes.  The Tates have run into a sort of legal issue with one of their members being recently deceased and having a fortune in precious metal.

Its true:  an inheritance case among gnomes does not sound all that interesting.  The interesting part comes from the travel-adventure and the other, criminal, parties that are interested in the fortune in question. 

There are a number of parties interested, too. Most of them with criminal, malicious intent. There is also a sidestory that creeps about with Morley and his business intentions. Most of these threads, to be honest, get tangled and lost. I am not sure that the plot makes sense to the degree that it should or was written capably enough to produce the plot. At the end of the day, though, the story is a fantasy adventure and it seems like it all works out in the end.

Interestingly, there are a number of species of creatures that we do not see much in fantasy any more. For example, I do not know the last time I read a book with a centaur in it. There is also a Loghyr, which is a very strange character that in this novel is playing the rôle exactly of Nero Wolfe.  Garrett might borrow a bit from Archie Goodwin whenever he meets the Loghyr for a consultation.  I probably added a star to my rating just because this element of the story amuses me.

The best thing about the story, maybe, is that the vampires in it are bad. Not just bad vampires, but bad creatures. There is nothing romantic, sparkly, or intriguing about them whatsoever. Thank you, 80s.

There are enough fun things to make this series something I would continue reading. Especially since, currently, I am reading adventure, action, pulpy things. Garrett is interesting enough to read onward and the world populated by unicorns, vampires, and gnomes is different enough from the typical farm-boy progressions with elves and dwarves. I also like how the entire book is sloshed in beer, food, and mayhem. Truthfully, the banter does display a very, let us say, male perspective, so the book is probably geared toward a male audience. This sort of writing does not go over too well in 2023, I think. But the 80s were a blast and people should ingest this novel as the junk food that it is.

3 stars

The Engines of God

The Engines of GodOver the weekend I finished The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt (1935).  The novel was first published in 1994 and is the first in the Academy series. There is a long gap between this novel and the next in the series, so I am not fully convinced this book was supposed to be a series. The second novel, Deepsix, was published in 2001 and the last few pages of The Engines of God really seem like they are finalizing and there is no further except in the imagination of readers. I read the ACE edition with cover art by Bob Eggleton.

The first few chapters were, for me, very slow-going. I had been concerned that this would be like one of those Alastair Reynolds, Greg Bear, Peter Hamilton novels. I was unsure that I currently had the stamina to read a slog. A few further chapters in, though, the book does settle into a nice mellow pacing. In fact, this novel is actually exactly what I think of when I hear the words “space opera.” There is nothing I have read that more fits that category than this novel.  I think the book has suffered criticism through the years because readers have approached it wanting it to be something akin to one of those authors I mentioned above, but it just is not. That is not to say that it is pulpy or goofy.

The basic plot of the novel involves alien structures that a team of space-archeologists/anthropologists is working on placing in a historical timeline and/or researching to perhaps locate such aliens (extinct or not). At times, some of the threads of this plot were difficult for me to follow – not because, I think, that it is hard science or that it is too big a concept – honestly, I think the writing just does not sharpen the resolution enough on what is going on. Perhaps, there is not really all that much there, too. So, the concept is made to seem bigger than it is and is kept somewhat just out of focus. At least, this is how it felt to me.

In my opinion, this is not a hard-science fiction novel. This is a space opera that tries to be realistic. I remember 1994 and it is 2023 now and The Engines of God mainly takes place in the years around 2202:  and I do not think McDevitt got far enough into the future with his story. That is to say, I think the dying earth concept is pretty legit (will we make it to 2202?) but I feel his cultural and sociological concepts are right back in the 1990s. Sure, some of the technology seems sufficiently advanced, I suppose. I feel those things, too, would be further along. When I am feeling rueful and cynical, I might think I am being too optimistic. I think the author just tried to write his story with a realism so that his reader would feel the characters could be taken seriously as the main focus is on the “big idea” of the alien monuments etc. and not really on the technology of the times. The failpoint is that the author made the novel realistic to 1994… not 2200. And of course, only in science fiction can readers make such epistemological complaints, I suppose.

I think the main complaint of readers who did not like this novel is they felt they could not “engage” with the characters, and that the plot and characters were not immersive. It seems to me like that is a sentiment about the readers. I, personally, had no problem whatsoever liking the characters – they are all likeable and have their plusses and minutes, just like real people. I enjoyed the characters quite a bit. I felt they were interesting folk, if a bit scattered. Also, their conversation/dialogue was on par with the expectations I have for a 1990s space opera. Some of the “immersion” factor that readers talk about escapes me. However, I think I can make some guesses about it. The Engines of God is a super chill read. It is a space opera like daytime soap operas on television with a couple of shuttles, anti-gravity discussions, and some galactic star references. Even the two or three “action scenes” in the novel are just easy reading. I feel bad, in some way; the characters are having life or death moments and I am utterly mellow. Hey, characters do die! Characters do experience stress and drama and all of the key ups and downs of novels, but its all written so relaxed that its not a big deal, somehow. Hence some readers feeling it is not immersive.  However, for me, this is part of space opera:  no matter what happens, the show goes on.

The nitpicking:  what is the author’s fixation with Chablis? I was appalled and it was probably my biggest emotional reaction to the book, when the main character has a steak with a glass of Chablis. I just chalked it up to a weird moment. But then! Later on several characters are on the surface of a planet doing their archeological work (or whatever they think they are doing) and after hours they break out a few bottles of Chablis. The future is bleak, my friends………

Another thing, well, because this is a space opera and the plot moves on, there is an oddness to how the characters experience trauma, both physical and psychological, and then can suddenly refocus back into their work. Its jarring and strange. But at the same time, well, as a reader I certainly do not want to be dragged through some lengthy convalescing and rehabilitation scenes!

The main problem with the novel is that everything has soft edges. The overarching problematic (the aliens and their monuments) has blurry edges. The science has soft edges. The roles of the characters and their areas of expertise are all over the place and sketchy and random. In fact, its difficult to know if these members of “The Academy” are anthropologists or archeologists or engineers (and that too has so many very important subdivisions!). Its just like everyone – including all the pilots – is a generic scientist. Blurry and soft and all the inexactitude and vagueness that is kept in soap operas so that those forms of media can perpetually self-replicate as needed in any direction.  However, this should not be a criticism – because if a reader is looking for a general science fiction space opera: here it is. A lot of readers who tend to write critical reviews think every reader is looking for what they are. There is always something to be remeasured with regard to expectations of novels.

In the second half of the novel, some characters are researching/exploring a planet and of course things go sideways because people do not stick to their orders, make ridiculously stupid errors, and fail to use any kind of common sense. Do not attack the characters please, because I see these errors every day from real humans. Anyway, the scenes in this segment are very action-thriller (but chill…) and actually rather amusing. Native life forms with maybe hive-mind attack the “away team” and I think any good horror/SF flick director could make a movie just out of the team on this planet and their evasion and escape. It is sad when characters do not make it, but its worth it (maybe?) when the threat bringers are so savage in their comic book styling.

Overall, a good 3.47 stars. I do not know what that means. I am giving it three stars. I will likely read more in the Academy series because if I need some chill space opera, I like knowing where to find it. Plus, I think readers are too harsh on the 1990s. Recommended for readers who want beach-read science fiction and for readers who can separate textbook from fiction.

3 stars

The Naked Sun

Naked Sun newerI finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov yesterday and I really appreciate a lot about the novel. It was first published in 1957 and is the second in the R. Daneel Olivaw “series.”  I read the Spectra/Bantam edition with cover art by Stephen Youll. I read the first novel, The Caves of Steel, and enjoyed that one. There is a third novel, The Robots of Dawn, but it was published in 1983 – so a long gap between this novel and that.  I do intend to read that one eventually.  Here is the thing with Asimov – for me, he is a guaranteed 4 star read. I know many people take issue with his novel writing (in particular his characterization) and also many readers enjoy debating his sociological/historical concepts.  All of this is perfectly fine with me – debate away because he would have loved that sort of thing. That is the whole point of some science fiction and Asimov “gets it.”

I love being able to pick up an Asimov novel and have my expectations met. The standards for his writing always are high and he delivers every time. No, not all of his novels are the most fun novels ever. Sure, they are not perfect novels. I never, however, finish one of his books and feel like I wasted time or my mind is worse off or that I should have selected something else to read. Well, that being said, I do not know what I can rightly add to the conversation about Asimov generally or about this novel specifically. Having been published in the late 50s and being one of the most significant and popular books/authors, I hardly have any new insights about the novel.

Boeing 777The worst part of the novel is the main character’s attitude. Lord have mercy, there are points when he is so sour, petulant, snarky, and impatient I want to clobber him. I mean, I can understand some of his discomfort and his confusion, but his constant poor attitude is really grating. I would exonerate the other characters if they had, at any point, walloped Elijah Baley a nice good one. I mean, I like Elijah, but I really wanted to punch him in this novel. Anyway, Elijah suffers enough without me beating him up because he is undergoing a massive bout of agoraphobia. Amusingly, I finished reading this novel outdoors on a sunny day in which the sky was so clear and blue, I did have a hint of some of what Baley was experiencing. I looked up and watched a Boeing 777 overhead and felt that the world was so utterly open and expansive……

Anyway, I think anyone who has read this novel prior to the Great Pandemic Of 2020 should re-read it. I promise there are some uncanny, interesting, and relevant thoughts and comments in this novel that could make a reader wonder if Asimov was from the future or some sort of hazy prophet. I am not being super serious here – I just want readers to know that there is a bit of a reader-perspective shift due to current events and world events. Its strange because there are not many novels that actually become less dated and oddly apropos after so many decades.

As far as the storyline, its a locked room mystery on a far-distant planet named Solaria. The characters spend a lot of time on video-chat. Again, in 2023 we tend to take this sort of technology for granted or without much fuss. Its interesting to see Asimov know about this sort of tech and to force his characters into it. If you do not find this facet interesting, I wonder if you really enjoy science fiction? I think the overarching theme of the novel is the contrast between the Solarian world and the Earth world – to include their cultures and technologies. A reader who is disinterested in such a very obvious storyline will probably think this book is dull or too heavy-handed.

Overall, this is fast-reading novel.  It is a worthy read and valuable to science fiction. There is plenty of conversation/imagination sparking ideas in here that intelligent readers might enjoy conversing about. The main character is certainly annoying in this book, I would “like to” do a tally of how many times he says Jehoshaphat! – because it seems like millions. He is annoying, but even with this, the novel remains relevant and fun. The magic of Asimov, I guess. Recommended for all readers including those who read it several decades ago.

4 stars

The Written

The WrittenContinuing to read fun and adventurous novels, I read The Written by Ben Galley.  It was first published in 2010 and is the author’s debut novel. I think he revised it in 2017, but I do not know how I came upon this idea. Anyway, the thing to note is that I suspect Galley was rather young in 2010. I know, I know it sounds like am disparaging toward youth, generally, but my point is only that I am impressed. The novel (and indeed the series, which is called the Emaneska series) is self-published/independently published so this book does not come from the titans of the book publishing world. Many readers and reviewers have all kinds of opinions and feelings on self-published works, so I just wanted to be upfront about that fact.

The first few sections/chapters have a few bobbles. They are a bit weaker in writing skill than the rest of the book. I am saying this in this fashion because readers who “dnf” or quit the novel too soon may feel they have had enough of a taste to warrant that decision  However, the novel does even out and really start to pound out a nice pacing and storyline. Now, one of the bobbles that I mentioned is one of those things that readers who love mysteries will pick up on first. I predicted it, which makes it worse, because I rarely predict anything in a novel.

The main character, Farden, is in his rooms in the tower/castle building. He gets up and locks the door because he does not want any intrusions. Then Farden is inebriated and he falls into a deep stupor/sleep. Right then, right there I said to myself:  just watch someone will still come in the room. So it happens. The maid comes in the room in the morning. No, it does not make any sense to say that she has keys, because she is a nosy maid and would definitely have commented if she had found the door locked. Just a mistake that I think an author does not mean to make, but just happens. Does it affect the story? Absolutely not, because we are not reading about Poirot here.

I really enjoyed the way the book begins. The first several pages do a really good job of setting up a story – the reader will have questions after a wild and shocking opening. The reader is just thrown into a scene in the world and its snowy and bloody and THERE ARE BOOKS.

The story continues for awhile, we meet characters, we go a few places with our main character.  I think these pages are the ones wherein we are supposed to “get the lay of the land” so to speak. We should be developing our interest in the main character, learning how things operate in the world, and enjoying a few action scenes – that sort of give us a little background, but it is not obvious if this background information is really all that relevant. Nothing here is poorly written, but to the expert readers of fantasy novels, I suspect it seems a little meandering, as if the story has not really gotten its footing.

By halfway, though, I think the novel is nicely developed and a lot of fun.  On the Great Internet, I read that this series is “Norse inspired” and also that the main character has an addiction. Well, I think if readers come to this book expecting those themes to really take the forefront and standout, they will be disappointed. I am actually really happy that the novel did not bludgeon away at these alleged themes. I was concerned that the addiction subplot would be awful and annoying and I was afraid of the “Norse inspiration” to be stereotypically pasted-on rubbish. Truthfully, the “addiction” is not as expected and it is handled perfectly and is not sledgehammered. As far as inspiration – this novel seemed no more or less Norse than any other novel I have read recently.

So for a young author’s debut, Galley showed a lot of skill in keeping elements of his story corrected weighted. I have read plenty of veteran authors who seem to struggle with this ability and end up presenting readers with lopsided and annoying novels.

Even if I was not entirely sure where the storyline was going, I had a lot of fun. Some readers complained that the main character is overpowered and/or he has anger issues. I really did not see these same things and while I am not joining some Farden fan club, I think he was a solid character who did not annoy me at all. Usually, characters get on my nerves. One of the complaints that one could put forward is how the author uses Farden to tell the reader about the landscape. I mean, there are several paragraphs wherein the story seems to pause just so Farden can “enjoy the view” and tell the reader what he sees. This works once or twice, but it sort of began to feel like he was sightseeing and it was a bit contrived. There is nothing wrong, per se, with these parts, and they do serve the purpose sufficiently. It just sometimes feels like Farden should go be a landscape painter.  This is subtle and I am being nitpicky. I could easily assume that this sort of viewpoint sharing is developed and outgrown in the author’s other works.

Chapter fourteen came out of nowhere and gave me the “oh nos!”  I am such a sucker. Any author can get me, I swear. Anyway, chapter fourteen is when it all turns upside down and inside out and I feel bad for those readers who quit too soon because they missed out on some great stuff. Chapter fourteen is when all the build up and meandering gets focused and for the rest of the novel, the pacing and intensity is upgraded. I will tell you, the sly and subtle way in which the author breaks the reveal to the reader is so very well done – I had to read those paragraphs twice just to enjoy it again. Smooth, Galley, smooth….

The last half of the book is a rip-roaring adventure with magic and dragons and soldiers and fire and I do not want to give anything away. Suffice to say, its everything the best fantasy novels must have and even the enemies are interesting and wild.  Its fun and exciting, which is why most of us readers read fiction, I think. I enjoyed my time with the main character, in this setting, and on these adventures. No, I do not have all the background (shoe size, favorite color, eyebrow length) of every character. I do not really know the ins and outs of the magic system or the details of all the training of all the soldiers, mages, and monsters in the world. I am quite all right with not knowing. The characters live there, I do not. The characters go through the training – I do not have to, thankfully. So, I can happily accept prima facie all the sorts of things mentioned or alluded to without having to feel grumpy at the author for leaving me out of some secret, and boring, background.

All of that being said, there was one aspect that really bugged me several times in the story.  Farden is a Written (special mage type).  He also has obvious weapon mastery and hand-to-hand combat skills. Due to the fact that he may be a wee bit overpowered and he seems to love to be at center-stage, his gear and weapons are often in bad shape. He sometimes has to repair and replace them. The thing that did not sit right with me is that he just wanders the markets and stalls in the trading districts of cities and finds a blacksmith and just selects a weapon from what is available.

Well, a couple of things, I find it illogical that a special mage under the command of the city/government/higher mages is given all kinds of amazing training and knowledge and yet is not provisioned by these same people? He has to rummage in the city like any other soldier, citizen, farmer for a good weapon?  Secondly, well, Farden, if you insist on going to these stalls in the back alleys to buy your weapons on the cheap, this could be why your weapons are always broken, dull, and/or rusting. This is unacceptable. There has to be a better way to find quality gear in this land.

I really enjoyed this novel and am glad that I read it. I do intend to read the next in the series and also the other novels by the author. While there is not a whole lot of super original to this story, mostly everything in the story is done well and with skill. Therefore even if it is, technically, another story about mages with swords and dragons flying, so what? The pacing is nearly perfect, the characterization is solid.  There are some items I wish the reader could have learned more about, but then, there are several other books in the series for such opportunity. Had a great time with Farden and friends.

4 stars

The Mediterranean Caper

Clive MediterraneanI finished The Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler (1931 – 2020), which was first published in 1973.  I think it is the first in the Dirk Pitt (the main character) series, even though most lists have Pacific Vortex! listed first. I have also read that one, but it was published in 1983, but allegedly written first. It absolutely does not matter to the reader, though, so do not get caught up in the chronology.

I decided (in a whimsical and irrelevant way) that I would read a bunch of pulpy action-adventure things. I have been enjoying the adventure stuff more than anything else lately.  One cannot, I think, always be in the mood to read this sort of shlocky pulp. However, right now for me, it is a total escape and ease. Reading novels should be fun and while I can appreciate the heavy duty literature, I am content to be reading this rubbish.

The Mediterranean Caper is just one half-step away from the “men’s adventure novels” of the 50s and 60s. So, if the reader is not aware of that, they may have different expectations of this novel.  Unfortunately, because this novel hovers too closely toward the stylings of those men’s adventure writings, it has not aged well at all.  Honestly, I have read some of the usual crusty men’s adventure pulps – and The Mediterranean Caper does not quite measure up to their standards (whatever that may mean) either. Well, the so-called toxic masculinity, alpha male themes of the pulps usually gets combined with a splash of patriotism, lurid scenes with farcical women, stereotyped villains, all placed over a steady beat of gunfire.  In The Mediterranean Caper we get a thoroughly dislikeable main character, plot holes, stereotyped villains, and a level of ridiculous that ruins all of the shlock-genre’s standards.

This novel is completely “over-the-top.”  Anything and everything that happens is over-the-top. Imagine any scene or character in an action novel and then turn up the volume on every aspect. For example, a character who might be considered cocky is now nearly sociopathic. A scene that has some physical confrontation turns into a superhero battle but as if enacted by elementary school children.

The writing at some points is so ridiculously bad that its laughable – literally, like, one needs to laugh at the author level. The whole thing, frankly, is ridiculous. To his credit, Cussler (and his co-authors) did eventually modernize and swing their future novels from the shlock of the men’s adventure pulps toward a more mainstream, but still lightweight, airport novel. However, reading this earliest is going to be tough reading for most people in the 2020s.

I think readers will criticize the book because of its “pulpy” themes. For example, the misogynistic stuff is everywhere here and rightly to be complained about. The endless smoking also grates on the reader’s nerves, especially since even the characters refer to the cigarettes as “cancer sticks.”  The harsh and cruel judgment of anyone who is not the main character or his best friend is really awful, as well.  (e.g. the ship’s boy who gets growled at by Pitt)

However, I think it is also necessary to criticize the fact that the novel – even if it wants to emulate the most lewd, action-y novel of the 1950s – is utterly inconsistent.  Every character seems like a Gemini. Every character seems to have two sides and the reader never knows which they are about to confront. I think even pulp readers would want a story with more consistency.  The lack of consistency makes these characters, for example, shift from being utter jerks to being crazed lunatics.

Anyway, the ridiculous:  Pitt spends several sections of the novel without any pants on. I feel like he’s nearly a nudist. The only time that is “excusable” is when he is laying down in his shower stall with his legs up on the shower walls. I mean, at least he’s showering, I guess? Its quite absurd, though, how often this guy’s pants are off – and I am not including his “romantic” scene.

But the best line in the book is when the Greek military special forces (again, this is not really clear, I thought of this like SWAT or something) guy actually says: “Great thunderbolts of Zeus, my inspector, what has happened?” – pg 134, chapter 12. I admit it, I lost it. I snorted and laughed. Utterly over-the-top ridiculous. It is literally the last line one would anticipate, but there it is! Stupidity!  The moments of stupid/ridiculous are very frequent throughout the book. One that will stick in my memory for awhile is how Pitt hides a paring knife from the dinner table into his pocket and then later on cuts the mooring line on the boat he steals with it. Why? Because:

Too tired to rise, Pitt leaned over and cut the line with the faithful paring knife and kicked the gear level in reverse. – pg. 86, chapter 8

I kind of want to video real-life examples of this. I want people who are over-tired and injured to casually lean over the hull of bass boats or something and cut line with a kitchen paring knife. Ridiculous.

There is another scene that I want to mention because I do not think any of us will ever run into this scene otherwise. Pitt is making an escape in the wee hours and he steals a donkey to use as his getaway car. He climbs on the donkey but the thing will not walk. He decides this is because he is not using its name. So he starts calling it all kinds of male Greek god names. And then he checks the gender of the donkey and realizes its female – so when he uses the correct female Greek goddess name, the animal starts to haul his butt down the roadway. Ridiculous!

Anyway, lest I do not give credit where credit is due, I did like two features of the novel. The first is using a WWI plane to strafe the airbase and cause ruckus in the sea was a neat inclusion and a good idea. The second is using a submarine to maintain the smuggling operation is also interesting, though, I doubt that works in 2023. Still, I appreciated the uniqueness of this setup.

I cannot really recommend this to anyone – even those who can happily enjoy a 60s pulp novel. Literally, I see no reason to read this. It is over-the-top to an extreme level. The main character is hateable. The plot and characters are inconsistent. The ridiculousness is massive. In a very weak defense, the novel does not take itself seriously whatsoever.

2 stars


Artforum coverI finished Artforum by César Aira (b. 1949) today and I am giving it five stars.  I also want to let the reader know that my rating is merely for form’s sake. (There’s a bit of wordplay here, if you read Artforum.) In other words, this is not a novel qua novel and it is not the sort of thing that one really ought to rate by “stars.”  I enjoyed reading this; it was good and good for me. It might even be good for you to read, but it is not good for everyone. The general reader might not care for whatever this is.  The most significant thing that I can tell you about this work is that I really cannot tell you what it is.

There are difficulties in writing a review about this book.  Professional reviews from the journals/magazines feel like they are “writing around it.”  That is to say, their reviews feel to me like they are writing from a distance and using a lot of vocabulary to seem like they are saying something about something. This is not a criticism from me – I totally understand why this sort of vague-speak happens.  I already said that I cannot really tell you what this book is – and neither can the professional reviewers.  There is nothing mysterious or esoteric about this.  This is a spare 80 or so pages that may contain a memoir or a novel or a meditation.  Probably all three. However, if either myself or the professionals start to tell readers what this book is, the book is then ruined for readers.

Artforum, if you are not aware, is an actual magazine founded in the 1960s and currently (as recently as December 2022) owned by the Penske Media Corporation (yes, Penske family of automobile racing and logistics groups).  In the most loose sense I say that Artforum is an art magazine.  That is not untrue – but I feel it says nothing. Anytime one brings up “Art” there seems to be an immediate definitional and categorical warzone that opens up and swallows unsuspecting innocents. One could call it a fine art, design art, culture-focused, trade magazine, if one likes. I have no desire to attempt to describe, prescribe, proscribe, or any other scribe how to refer to this magazine and its decades of publishing. The individual in the book by Aira, however, collects the magazine whenever/however he can.  Most of Aira’s book is at least peripherally about this process. Hey, but listen, the process is not entirely external.

Aira’s book opens with a very relatable anecdote that is vibrant and real and the scene is immersive.  A copy of Artforum has soaked up rain – the one with the Robert Mangold art on the cover.  I have seen Mangold’s work a couple of times – his artwork was often displayed at several of the local museums and galleries where I lived because he was born there.  I suspect there is some significance between Aira’s thoughts and Mangold’s work – I can at least point to the sort of gentle Dadaist and minimalist experimentalism that I feel resonating in Aira’s work. All that means is that I tend to believe that even those who work on the fringe and frontier of the boundaries of art are still standing on the shoulders and ideas of those before them, those around them, and those they never knew. The segment in Artforum (book) titled Conjectures more or less hints at a similar thought from Aira:

There are no restrictions, there are no forbidden subjects, the entire universe in its innumerable manifestations is at our disposal. – pg. 59

I am sure at this point readers of this review are likely utterly perplexed and have decided that I have read some esoteric artsy-fartsy book that is incomprehensible to normal people and that it has loosened some dam of pontificating babble from my disturbed mind. Rest assured, readers, I am not unaware of your complaints.

Artforum is several snapshots of writing in which the narrator shares some of his introspection while he uses a somewhat unreliable, but attempting to be truthful, eye toward his own actions (including the collecting of Artforum magazine). However, if you think that is what this book is about, and you read about peso-value, bread, and clothespins, you will think I am loony.  Be that as it may, the book works best as you, the other reader, come up with the answer to what this book is about.

And when it rained, it became the present:  everything was tied together in a great web of interconnectedness. – pg. 15

If I had to put my finger on some central topic or theme for this book, I guess “interconnectedness” is as good as any.  Aira may even be asking “what is the form of interconnectedness?” and is it from within or from without? Gee whiz, doesn’t that sound all abstruse!  Well, and maybe that is why Aira approaches his meditations in little vignettes and anecdotes as opposed to asking uncomfortable sounding inquiries?  I still think this is what he is thinking about – I submit the segment on his feelings toward the Postal Service as evidence.

So, then there is a bit about idea and formulation. This is very self-referential of Aira – because it is almost as if the thing has come full circle to the actual question involving how are these little writings about an individual thinking about Artforum (magazine) part of the writer’s art? Oh, that sounds convoluted. Let me try again:  the narrator wonders about the gap between his ideas and the formulation of his idea in the real, instantiated by his writings.  The narrator could create his own art-forum through the act of writing. Writing became a vicarious artwork – a way of marking time. I think that Aira has done a number of interviews and the interviewers often ask Aira to comment on his writing “style.” I feel like he should always be using the word:  vicarious when he responds.

Like I said, it is not an easy thing to say what this book is about and further, if someone attempts to explain it – it harms the experience and encounter of the reader. It, in a sense, modifies that vicarious undercurrent.  Now, to talk about a different matter:  what is it that made me enjoy this experience so much that I gave the book five ersatz stars?  I felt happy reading it because I enjoyed the lack of violence in these vicarious meditations.  I enjoyed the way Aira is able to discuss these matters without using a cudgel. I liked the way I could sometimes empathize with the narrator. It does not put any regrets on display; it feels more hopeful. More and more I am liking Aira’s concept of a writer/writing. I like how he explores it and how he demonstrates it. Its nice to find things one likes.

5 stars