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Acceptance

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#3)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015

acceptance

There comes a time in every series when the pages are winding down. You will have to leave the characters soon, after all this time together. You get nervous. How can the author wrap all this up in just a few short chapters? At first you wanted to race through, and now you wish there was a whole extra volume after this one.

So we have to talk about endings. They can get incredibly touchy, especially in genres like science fiction, horror, or fantasy. People will argue about whether the mysteries of the Southern Reach books are properly answered. I think that many are, yet some big ones are not. Plotwise, it can be argued a few different ways. What about everything-wise, including the emotional resonance of the characters themselves?

In this piece from The Stake about problematic endings, Chris ZF writes:

A finale is not only about tying up the loose-ends, or revealing the mystery, or pairing up the central romantic coupling. It’s also always about showing the audience out of the auditorium with dignity. About closing the back-cover of the book with a few last lines to hold on to and remember. I’ve invested, give me some return. Don’t cheat me out of my investment.

I don’t feel cheated by Jeff VanderMeer at all. This remains a creative, thought-provoking, satisfying read right down to the end. All the main characters are accounted for and taken seriously. But the series gets an extra chance to say its own words about mysteries themselves, because the story if fundamentally about the human need to know, organize, and control, “as if purpose could solve everything.” Our own ache to see behind the curtain is reflected in the characters’ ability to deal (or not) with their puzzling circumstances, to struggle with “that tension between what [we] could and couldn’t know about even the mundane world.”

What we don’t know will always far exceed what we do know. And this final book gives itself away right in the title: we will either find acceptance gracefully, or it will be forced upon us. The author has given us a highly fantastic yet plausible fictional world, and challenges readers to see themselves within it. What would you do with only scraps of knowledge? With mere glimpses of the whole? This is simply how we live every day.

Some parting thoughts about VanderMeer’s writing. He sneaks in so many great nuggets about the human condition, and this one in particular stuck out:

As if there were nothing worse than being bored and the only point of the world people already lived in was to find ways to combat boredom, to make sure “all the moments” . . . might be accounted for in some way, so minds wouldn’t fill up with emptiness that they bifurcated simply to have more capacity to be bored.

That’s some astute spiritual philosophizing about the ways the mind constantly analyzes with no pause to simply experience.

Also, one last emphasis on his Lovecraft skills. I thought that the concept as a whole had a lot in common with the particular story “The Colour Out of Space.” Some of the specifics of the writing itself also does the trick:

Those thousands of eyes regarding him, reading him from across a vast expanse of space, as if the biologist existed simultaneously halfway across the universe. The sensation of being seen and then relief and then a stabbing disappointment as it withdrew, spit him out. Rejected him.

Two more things. One, the phrase “ancient of days” is used. I’ve had this rattling around in my head for years, and I have no idea where I first heard it. I always thought it’d make a great song title. I began to question if it was even grammatically coherent. And here it is. Secondly: he loves the word leviathan! It’s the go-to term in Acceptance for all sorts of shiver-inducing beasts both real and metaphorical. An awesome word for an awesome book.

I feel really lucky to have experienced this story, and I have no doubt it will reward another visit someday. It just seems to have it all.

Up the leviathans.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Novels

 

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Authority

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#2)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015

authority

When Annihilation wrapped up, it seemed like the story could go anywhere. Yet it was so solid a book that it could almost work as a standalone novel, already a direct descendant of Lovecraft’s story/novella “At the Mountains of Madness” and fully realized as such, despite its many unresolved mysteries.

The excitement of Authority gets quickly underway when it offers up a new character and a new setting. John “Control” Rodriguez steps up with no knowledge of Area X, taking on a new assignment as the director of the Southern Reach, a dilapidated organization with thinning ranks and no new leads. The goal is nebulous and it’s kind of a crap job: figure out what the hell is up with Area X, after a stack of failed (and often harrowing) expeditions into its interior.

The Southern Reach is tangible in its decay, from the mildewy feeling to the nasty green carpet, to the humid marsh that sits outside the complex. This isn’t your sterile high-tech secret government location, where the dudes from Men in Black caress slick weaponry. The organization seems to be hanging on by a thread, and Control is less than welcome as he tries to get along with the assistant director, the adamant Grace, as well as a couple veteran scientists.

The feelings of abandonment that give texture to the Southern Reach as both a location and an organization reflect similar feelings in the life of Control (a moniker the character prefers to call himself). Whereas in the first book we only knew the biologist at arm’s length, never even learning her name, we get a lot of insight into Control’s past and why he ended up on the assignment. He’s not all that great at his job but he keeps trying to do better, with both future and past staring him down. He is as lost as the reader most of the time.

For the mysteries continue to pile up, with the same sense of unsettling dread. The title of the book is twisted into a parody, in a nice parallel to the protagonist’s chosen name. Who is the ultimate authority in the story? Increasingly, it looks like only Area X (or whatever is within it) could lay claim. One character mentions “our banal, murderous imagination” in an offhand way, and this seems to sum up the human desire to know and contain, as well as the often desperate actions taken while doing so. The book taps into the banality of evil, but also the banality of authority.

Things are unraveling. This volume is more meditative than the fast-paced Annihilation, and also longer. But it was no less rich, and now we’re in deep with the characters, grasping at solid land before the waves come to wash us away.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in Novels

 

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Annihilation

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#1)

Published: 2014

I read it: January 2015

annihilation

With this trilogy, I decided to just go ahead and believe the hype. Every angle seemed intriguing, right down to the cover art. Now that I’ve finished the first volume, what is there to say? To those interested, the only helpful message is: put aside my opinions on it and give it a try. Curl up under a blanket and get spooked.

For those who have read it, I’d probably start by elaborating on the comparisons to other works. The television show Lost looms large here. The mystery, the sticky wetness of a vibrant and mysterious landscape. That was a show I really enjoyed despite its flaws, and it’s great to tap back into that feeling.

As far as books go, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves comes swirling back to the surface. The sneakily unsettling plot. The prying apart of the natural order of things. The question of genre. Is this horror? And specifically, a deep tunnel that holds something truly unknown.

And above everything hovers the singular giant shadow of H.P. Lovecraft. By coincidence, I’ve been working through a Lovecraft anthology that I started around Halloween last fall when I thought the mood was right. It’s been a lot of fun, and I feel like whole new corners of dark psychological intrigue are opening before me. Jeff VanderMeer is clearly an honor student in Lovecraftian lore, and his modern take in that vein of fiction is vivid.

But I don’t want to go into plot and character just yet. What I’m wondering instead is, what is the attraction to these survivalist stories? Why is it so fascinating to be on a desert island adventure, where you’re not sure who to trust, and you second guess every shadow that catches the corner of your eye?

We’ve all lived through the pop culture popularity of zombies, which has caused us to discuss the term “zombie apocalypse” in half-seriousness, in broad daylight in front of almost any type of person, with nobody lifting an eyebrow to question our interests. At one job I remember the game of putting together a zombie apocalypse dream team where the rule is you can only choose coworkers. We would snatch at names as if picking teammates in a scrimmage. (My top choice was a hardworking, level-headed mother of two with a good sense of humor and a low tolerance for bullshit. I didn’t know her all that well, but for some reason I knew I would want her by my side with a crowbar.) And in the back of our minds we would wonder: would anyone pick us?

We love playing what-if in the weird alternative universes. It’s safe but thrilling in an almost embarrassing way, because you have to imagine some worst-case scenarios. Your family might be dead or missing. You might never return to a functioning society. You might have to turn against your neighbor, or they might turn against you. What if the entire sum of your past brought you to a very specific physical present, one in which you had no conventional responsibilities and no one to look after? What if it was you versus the universe?

Let’s walk down into that tunnel. Or is it a tower? No one here knows. You’ll have to go with your educated but incomplete guess. So stay alert. Stay present. As it is written: “Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.”

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Novels

 

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Waking Up

Author: Sam Harris

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Published: 2014

I read it: January 2015

waking up

The boldness of this books rests in the subtitle. Sam Harris may be one of the few public intellectuals who can raise the ire of not just the right, but also the left. Or closer to the point in this case, not just the religious, but also the staunchly atheist.

I remember after plowing through a good chunk of the modern atheist literature how I too came to bristle at words like “spirituality.” One essay I really enjoyed claimed that the word could only really be used unironically when discussing music. I also seem to remember someone like Sagan describing the problems of a word such as this by pointing out how it can mean anything, and so, in effect, it means nothing.

To put his fellow non-believers at ease, Sam Harris goes to lengths to explain why he chooses to use “spirituality” and related terms. He succeeds in his explanations because he is, still, the wizard of clarity. To read or listen to Harris is to find oneself beginning to understand the mental reliefs of a converted disciple.

So how persuasive is the book as a whole? Quite, for a couple reasons. For one, I’m a fan of the author and knew the angles of the argument well before reading this work. (Plus, he’s a wizard. See above.) Secondly, I’ve been vaguely interested in meditation for a couple years. I’d always enjoyed the slow, deliberate, and calming aspects of the few yoga sessions I’d attended. We had also recently introduced a meditation session at Camp Quest, and I was as curious as a potential camper about what it might hold.

“Even if your life depended on it, you could not spend a full minute free of thought.” This is a true yet puzzling statement by Harris. Why can’t we get out of our heads? Why would we want to? Harris claims that we can’t because we simply haven’t trained out minds to do so, and we want to because there is value in not being enslaved to the pull of your mind. Moreover, we are constantly under the illusion that there is a singular “I” inside ourselves, which is unhelpful and the source of much of our mental suffering (which is, of course, all our suffering).

Mindfulness meditation, which Harris presents as a science-friendly brand of Buddhism-derived practices stripped of their goofiness, is “not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves.” Meditation is a way to train the mind to be in the present moment. As Harris points out in one of his best talks: “It is always now.” Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Are you, like me, not very good at paying attention to someone during conversation? At truly enjoying bites of your food? At being in the moment while involved in a supposedly favorite hobby? The book is presented as a guide to getting better at those things.

In that same talk, Harris points out how “atheism doesn’t offer real consolation.” This specific issue has occurred to me more and more with each passing year. When you give up religion and all its tentacled philosophies, the vast emptiness of eternity is beyond frightening. I’ve heard some secular folks say that this can be assuaged with art and beauty, or the stereotypical natural landscapes of a sunset or a night sky. This is bogus. I just don’t buy that these fleeting moments of aesthetic, or even intellectual, appreciation can replace the fact that we live short lives and often live them badly. What is left?

I don’t know what’s left. Being content during more minutes of the day is not a bad start. I’ve only tried the meditation practices described in this book a couple times. The first time I fell asleep (I probably shouldn’t attempt a session in our heirloom La-Z-Boy). The second time, I made a decent effort but struggled against the constant tide of inner thoughts. I’d like to try again, and then maybe again. I think there is something valuable here. We all need to calm our minds, right? Otherwise:

My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.

I remain curious about strategizing against the monster. Can I succeed in stepping outside myself? To just be? The simplest mountains remain the steepest.

DIY corner: If you are curious about these concepts but cannot devote time to a whole book, this 27-minute guided meditation by Sam Harris is useful for a beginner like myself. It’s strictly the practice without preamble, so you can jump (well, sit) right in with nothing more than willingness. For those who want to consider the weight of the world we live in and hear about why a secular spirituality might be needed, consider watching this 45-minute presentation on the topic. It’s blunt to an almost grim degree, but it’s the ultimate in intellectual honesty. It also includes a brief meditation session if you would like to play along at home.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Non-fiction single subject

 

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Second Foundation

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Foundation (#3)

Published: 1953

I read it: January 2015

second foundation

The first thing that struck me about this last volume of the original trilogy was how focused Part I turned out to be. (Well, that was the second thing. The first thing that struck me was how confusing it is to have a third book entitled Second Foundation. But anyway.) At the end of the previous book, the Foundation is in tatters and The Mule reigns. Now, he obsesses with finding the Second Foundation so he can destroy it. He enlists General Pritcher, a former enemy who is now under emotional control, as well as another young man, who is not under control. The Mule hopes this combination of people with different motives can work to reason out where the Second Foundation is hiding.

With a huge plot and characters, this initial drama is delightfully contained. The strongest part is how Asimov chose to humanize The Mule, who was a villain in the previous book. By this point good and bad are blending into the gray, and you’re not sure whether you hope The Mule succeeds or not. When another powerful character expresses sympathy about The Mule’s destructive tendencies, he does so out of pure rationalism: “Your emotions are, of course, only the children of your background and are not be condemned–merely changed.”

This concept of changing hearts and minds is the intellectual core of the book. Can The Mule be defeated and stay defeated as long as the Second Foundation has similar psychological powers, enough to keep him at bay? What does it mean to be under the control of another? Can anyone trust themselves? Part II introduces remaining members of the Foundation who are also searching for the Second Foundation. Interestingly, they also view it as a threat. They are not sure whether “their” Foundation as set up by Seldon is destined to carry humanity to its brighter days, or whether the Second Foundation is watching and controlling everything. Does it even exist? Who knows.

Even in the grand sweep of the story, it’s nice to experience the small human moments that Asimov creates. A father is sick with fear for his daughter who has become a stowaway to satisfy the curious adventurer in her. This girl is Arkady, the granddaughter of the now-famous Bayta Darrell. She plays a rather large role in the plot, and also experiences the tangible fears of homesickness. Her being lost and alone in a bustling travel station is personal and realistic.

Your enjoyment of Second Foundation will rest on your patience with switching from these personal stories to the large ideas of the series, sometimes explored mathematically in true hard science fiction fashion. A lot of it has to do with a mental science superceding the standard physical sciences, which Asimov constructs as an inevitable advancement. My favorite parts are the characters discussing the limitations of human societies, in which “every human being lived behind an impenetrable wall of choking mist within which no other but he existed.” The Second Foundationers are on a righteous mission to bridge the lonely gap between humans who only have the blunt tool of language with which to connect.

There are also a lot of great questions raised about predestination and the power of the secret, almost godlike conclave of the Second Foundation. As one outsider puts it:

To us, all life is a series of accidents to be met with by improvisations. To them, all life is purposive and should be met by precalculation.

On that point of precalculation, there are twists and turns down to the last page. As soon as you have an original idea about where the plot might go, Asimov tackles it in the next couple pages. It’s a whirlwind of bullet point philosophies, written with the fleet glee of a mystery story. I’m not sure how much else is packed into the later sequels and prequels, and only a few characters from this trilogy remain memorable, but its grandiose nature and ultra-smart plotting should make the Foundation experience hold up for a while.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Novels

 

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The Klaatu Terminus

Author: Pete Hautman

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: The Klaatu Diskos (#3)

Published: 2014

I read it: January 2015

klaatu

It’s the end of the road for Pete Hautman’s Klaatu Diskos mythology. In the first book we met our classic young male protagonist, Tucker Feye. In installment number two, the action shifted to the otherworld traveler Lia. Here, Hautman keeps things nicely parallel by centering the final story on yet another figure, Tucker’s uncle Kosh. The heart of the book is a simple story of forbidden love between a young Kosh and his brother’s fiancee. He’s a bad boy who’s not all that bad, who is great at cooking and respectful of his older, very different brother (Tucker’s father). Kosh pops up in a couple different iterations based on the multiple timelines, and also meets a couple strangely different versions of his crush, Emily. These chapters help keep the story grounded while Tucker and Lia rush in and out of the diskos, escaping one danger only to confront another.

The book is fast-paced and fun, and thankfully the story holds together as much as we can expect it to. The characters and mythology remain a bit scattered, and I’d definitely recommend reading this trilogy in succession instead of over the course of years like I did. If anything, the story is another entry into the intriguing paradoxes and possibilities of time travel. When Tucker asks, “But we can change what happens?” he receives the not-unreasonable answer of “Yes. No.” The other cool concept is the existence of the ghostlike digital Klaatu. Do you remember that Black Mirror episode where the woman interacts with a technological stand-in for her dead husband? A similar thing is going on here. One character sums it up as such:

The Klaatu believe themselves to be superior creatures, and in many ways they are. However, they lost something of themselves when they transcended. One might say they worship the lives they left behind.

Hautman’s strength is that he brings up big ideas about culture, technology, and religion, but refrains from taking any clear side. There is plenty of gray area for the characters to sift through; the flip side is that the story is somewhat unfocused because it tries to have it all. It could have been more tightly conceived, but as far as finding a conversation-starting series for a teen and a parent to enjoy together, you could do a lot worse. And for the Minnesota/Wisconsin crowd, you’ll recognize pieces of home.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in Novels

 

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The Bell Jar

Author: Sylvia Plath

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1963

I read it: December 2014

bell jar

I was thirty by the time I finally got around to some feminist classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar (which I was pleased to notice both end on similar notes of uncertainty—intention on Atwood’s part?). I’d read a bit of Plath’s more well-known poetry in class years ago but didn’t know how the prose would feel. The book starts playfully with the social travails of Esther Greenwood in New York when she “felt wise and cynical as all hell.” She doesn’t fit in with her socialite crowd and if she doesn’t want to work in fashion or continue through higher education she realizes “I could be a waitress or a typist. But I couldn’t stand the idea of being either one.”

So goes this story of young adult identity crisis. While Esther experiences distinctly female challenges, she is the spiritual sister to Holden Caulfield. She gazes at her peers and claims they “looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moon-brains.” Here is where I wonder if I came to the book way too late. I adored The Catcher in the Rye probably because I read it during the sweet spot. Would I like it as much now? I’m afraid maybe not. The same might go for The Bell Jar. Does a certain type of college woman relate to Plath’s story while the males are holed up with their Salinger? Are we a bunch of moon-brains and phonies for reading these books a decade past their due?

Besides being outside the target audience, I wonder if the book also struggles to stay modern. Esther informs that “when I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” Is that a relic of the past, or can I just not relate because I’m a male? The idea of sexual purity seems a quaint plot point. While I get a kick out of words like “kerb” and “miaow,” I feel a huge distance between myself and the character. Or is it myself and the author? Plath seems to have written a barely disguised autobiography, yet without a wink or nod. This passage comes off as earnest, yet it’s so very out of place:

My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too.

I wonder which other six-letter names she could be referencing.

The novel takes a turn at the halfway point and dives into the character’s mental illness. It’s hard to parse what is supposed to be light reading and what is supposed to reflect deep desperation. At some points I worried that the ennui of Esther reinforces the lazy depressed person stereotype, or maybe it’s that her descent is a little too flippantly narrated, or maybe I just lack the personal experience. Plath does paint a few elegant pictures of what it’s like to feel mentally paralyzed. For example, each of life’s options are represented as ripe figs simply waiting for Esther’s outstretched hand:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

These analogies, more so than the restrained passages of shock treatment, seem to do the most good to reflect the character’s anguish. Otherwise, the whole asylum situation is rather tame, or perhaps that’s my numbed modern mind expecting more flash. The bell jar is another neat image, threatening always to descend over the woman with its “stifling distortions.” Which woman?

Plath’s life story is well-known, and factors into the study of creativity as paired with bipolar and other disorders, as explored in books like Marbles. In its time, was The Bell Jar an eye-opening look into a mental affliction, given as a gift to the world so that more people might identify and relate? Perhaps it was revolutionary once, but I see this book collecting dust instead of inspiring change. Or maybe it’s the fact that the author’s desperate actions overshadow all else, and I can’t untangle the literary mythology from the work or the person. Her life has been flattened into her one tragic exit. Sylvia, I can’t hear you from this end of history. Sylvia, get your head out of the oven.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2015 in Novels

 

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