Author Topic: What are you reading?  (Read 35183 times)

Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #165 on: June 27, 2019, 06:51:00 PM »
Let me know what you think if you ever do :)

I just finished reading Shalimar the Clown, in what I guess is a slightly similar genre in some ways, though it's much less heavily magical realist and has more political/thriller elements to it. It's by Salman Rushdie and it's very intense, with the various characters being pulled apart both by their difficult (and, often, violent) personal lives and by political turmoil, especially the war in Kashmir though numerous other 20th century conflicts also make important appearances. Rushdie isn't really a thriller or plot-centric writer, and he's much more about characters and storytelling than about plots and pacing, and it's definitely at its best when exploring the relationships between the characters, their psychology, their history, and the history and folklore of their backgrounds. If anything I'd have liked that to come through more strongly at the tail end of the book, but that's a minor flaw - there were certainly moments where the emotional weight of the book really hit through in a way that not many books manage, and it's that narrative method of essentially binding together pain and brutality with history and narrative in a way that makes it almost, but not quite, comprehensible that I think this book does really very well. Very powerful read.
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #166 on: September 22, 2019, 02:23:44 PM »
My read for this trip to the UK was Lud-in-the-mist by Hope Mirrlees - which I absolutely loved. It's a 1920s (I think) piece of fairytale/fantasy writing, involving a land on the borders of faerie and the attempts of its people to avoid falling under the spell of fairy fruit. It was apparently quite influential on Neil Gaiman and I can see how, it's a very good piece of fairy-story fantasy. I probably enjoyed it more than most things I've read in quite some time.
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Tusky

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #167 on: October 31, 2019, 03:28:45 PM »
I am re-reading the dragons of autumn twilight at the moment. It must be 20 years since I read it, but still enjoying it. Still, amazed at how much I remember from it!
I can't tell if it's because of nostalgia, or it is actually a good fantasy tale. I think it's latter, but as I say I can't tell how much I'm being biased.

Has anyone read the dragonlance chronicles as an adult who can cast their opinion?

« Last Edit: November 03, 2019, 08:44:19 AM by Tusky »
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #168 on: November 07, 2019, 11:30:49 PM »
I've never read Dragonlance - should I?

What I have read recently is a book of Georgian folk tales, which was excellent and also bizarre. I really now want to read some Armenian, Azeri, and Russian tales for the comparisons... there are some fascinating tropes I've not come across elsewhere, the usual cast of kadjis and devis (as Mountain Leopards readers will know of) but type characters like the "beardless deceiver", an apparently human trickster figure distinguishable for not having a beard. And some interesting cultural tropes - the desire of people who get good fortune to invite the King to dinner, even though this inevitably goes badly for them, for example. All very interesting stuff :)
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #169 on: December 08, 2019, 11:04:35 PM »
Recently finished Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, which Glaurung lent me after some discussion on my article about writing places that feel alive. It was every bit as good as I might have hoped, and I found it fascinating and would definitely recommend it to others.

The 'main plot', to the extent that the book has one, is the three parts of the story 'Stone Telling', named after its protagonist, but really this is just one part of a very cleverly built evocation of a place and people and culture to which any specific narrative only serves to build the world, rather than the world serving mainly as backdrop to the plot. It is an exploration of an imagined future people called the Kesh and their ways of thinking and acting, which for Le Guin are a sort of near utopia. The Kesh are presented as something of an embodiment of mindfulness and coexistence, with a highly ritualised society that places heavy emphasis on community and connection, but little on narrative.

The strangest thing about the Kesh, and the thing that made them most alien for me, is their lack of a strong narrative sense of past or future, of what sort of world they wish to live in as separate from the one that they do live in. For Le Guin, this is a utopian element: a society that has evolved beyond the sense and need to record and explain and plan, that is unafraid of its own mortality and unconcerned with eternity, and can get on with living and caring and being, perhaps discovering things that had already been discovered generations before with fresh eyes, but not attempting to build on one discovery with another beyond their existent, modest technological level. Some elements of the Kesh society, their core rituals, seem unchanging, and some stories are passed down between generations, but much poetry and creativity is ephemeral and appreciated as such. Perhaps it it just in self-justification, as a historian and a writer, that this belief in the virtues of ephemerality clashes with my own belief in the eternal possibility of progress and the reimagining and reinterpretation of what has gone before.

The charm of the Kesh, for all that I could not quite imagine myself among them, was nonetheless absolutely there. The intricate structures of Lodges, Houses, and Arts that made up their society, with a central double-spiral motif at the heart of their belief system cropping up in all sorts of places, is the sort of thing that appeals to my brain's love of reimagining systems and how societies could work differently. The egalitarian, non-hierarchical nature of the Kesh was an element that I'm sure I found as pleasantly utopian as the author wanted me to. My own love of both a feeling of connectivity to nature, and its expression through poetry, was also well catered to, as well, and stories short and long alike were very much enjoyed. Much of the Kesh ritual I could imagine with much of the fondness of the rituals I remember from childhood (or perhaps more so, for I have no need to feel conflicted about the organisation of Kesh life in the way that I am about the institutions of state and church that were responsible for most of my own childhood rituals on some level or other).

All in all, would absolutely recommend this as a read - it's certainly a book I'd like to come back to at some point and think more about.
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #170 on: December 21, 2019, 06:38:37 PM »
And just finished yesterday with the other book of the pair that Glaur lent me, Hav by Jan Morris. Hav is in fact two books, published in one volume; nominally the second part, Hav of the Myrmidons, is the sequel to the first, longer section, Last Letters From Hav. I say nominally because they differ a great deal...

Last Letters from Hav is the part I enjoyed more of the two, and is something of a masterpiece of creative setting design. Set in a powerfully believable, but in fact wholly fictional, eastern Mediterranean city-state, the book is written as a series of travelogues. The main character, who is presented as being Jan herself, becomes immersed for a few months in this somewhat mysterious place, with some of its own traditions but largely with a wide mix of languages, culture, and history from across the region. Had I not known both through being told and through having a solid mental map of the Turkish coastlines, I would fairly quickly have realised that Hav was fictitious - there are just a few too many of the Mediterranean's civilisations in one place for plausibility, and the Russian and Chinese elements in Hav's history are a bit stretched for a Mediterranean city - but then, I am a historian of the region, and the history of Hav was nonetheless well written enough to enchant me. If I was being utterly picky, I'd have liked a bit more focus on the Levantine, Caucasian, Balkan and Turkish elements, and to reverse the odd omission of Byzantium, via which the travelogue could have been enriched with fewer stretches... but then again the only people who write books to pitch to historians of the Near East are other historians thereof, and we make, as a rule, little to no money from doing so. I do want to make clear that the depth of detail and scale of the historical construction are breathtaking - the events of Hav's history encompass the full richness of the region's history and so much of what makes it both magical and tragic at once. Not only that, but the book explores effectively the constructed nature of that history and what seems immemorially ancient being filtered through different eyes - the ancient call of Missakian's trumpet, the first sound of a Hav morning, is slowly shifted from a picture of continuity since the twelfth century to an appreciation of how much more recent elements have affected the presumed 'ancient' tradition. This sort of layering around events and traditions is one of the most real feeling and most clever parts of the book, and it's definitely something I think is under-done in literature generally.

As well as the historical elements, there is a distinct Havian culture and a kaleidoscope of personalities and mysteries, many of which end up not quite getting unravelled before the book's ending. The mixture of local and international intellectuals, officials, bar staff, and more who make up the cast are often very believable and human, but also form more than the sum of their parts, combining to a general sense of layered identity, secrecy, and lack of straightforwardness (despite being in many cases surprisingly open to talking) that is given as distinctly Havian. The city’s iconography, with a maze being one of its fundaments, stands as an additional winking testament to this. The tone becomes a touch orientalising in places, with Hav playing the role of Mysterious Eastern Other, but there is sufficient detail and openness to counterbalance this for the most part. The local people known as Kretevs, as no doubt the author intended, are a particularly fun detail, and echo a variety of real peoples across Anatolia and the Caucasus whose culture and in many cases even language are isolated remnants that have survived, just about, to the present day.

Hav of the Myrmidons is a different book. It is again a short travelogue, set twenty years after the first, but only covering a matter of days. Gone is almost all of Hav's history: on the return trip, the city has changed beyond recognition, and the protagonist begins to try and unscramble what has happened, but leaving the reader with few certainties even on points that would have been entirely common knowledge (in particular, it is never stated who the Intervention was conducted by and to what planned end). It shifts also to a more purely fictional tone, with the city much, much more obviously fictitious and a curious mystery from late in the first book blown up into an almost cartoonish menace for the second. It is a darker book, too, with Hav noticeably having changed for the worse for the most part. The writing is still effective, but the plot is abrupt, the character confused, and pointed lack of resolution is an important theme of the piece. Curiously, Last Letters from Hav, the much older book of the two in reality, feels timeless and still readable - Hav of the Myrmidons feels dated, despite being from the mid 2000s. This is, mainly, because of the different sets of concerns expressed: Last Letters is a book about unravelling history and a living, breathing society that lives with the past at its back, whilst Hav of the Myrmidons is about many of the specific concerns and worries that gripped liberal westerners in the mid 2000s. Terrorism, a squeaky-clean state corporatism that knows where to hide its bodies, religious fundamentalism, intrigue, the mix of a western-friendly exterior and shining glass masking a choking of dissent - it all feels very much the world of Blair and Bush and the anxieties involved in that, not just in the setting but the way the setting is viewed. The conundrums of unravelling the past have not changed all that much in their fundaments since 1985, but the fears of the present have undeniably done so.
   
Overall, I think Hav is a beautiful book and I’d massively recommend it. It manages to be cleverly observational and build up a sense of place beautifully, with fantastic and assured grasp of reference and history which is stunning in breadth.

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Glaurung

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #171 on: December 22, 2019, 09:43:57 PM »
I'm glad you liked Hav, and Always Coming Home too. There's another one I've just thought of that you might like too: John Crowley's Engine Summer. Slightly unhelpfully, it only seems to come as part of a collection named Three Novels or Otherwise, so it's in a bigger book than necessary, but the other two novels are also worth reading. There's a lot of evocation of place, or perhaps of several different places, in another post-apocalyptic America, rather different from Le Guin's, but there are also plenty of other things going on: a puzzle, with pieces for the reader to find and assemble, and repeated allusions to the metaphorical theme of Indian summer.

Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #172 on: December 25, 2019, 11:58:14 PM »
Ooh, that sounds rather interesting, yes :)

Speaking of America and apocalypses, my most recent read touches on one of the biggest it's had so far - namely, colonialism - in the complex form of James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie. It's a book with the obvious flaw of being utterly, egregiously racist, but it's a fascinating insight into the anxieties of the 1820s America that produced it, the frontier mythos it built up, and Cooper's difficulty in building a setting where he both horrifically typecast his native Americans and yet also in some ways preferred them to his white characters and mourned the loss of what he saw as "natural" America against what was already seen as the inevitability of the advance of white Americans into remaining native territories. The plot is not always consistent, and the style a little rambling, but Cooper does write genuinely good and complex characters within (and, you get the sense, often straining to break) his rather constraining framework of stereotypes. I will admit that at times the real page-turner for me was finding out what happened to Asinus, the beloved donkey of one of the characters - the moments of gentle humour in the work do also endear some of the characters to me, as much as I often found the fully exhibited power dynamics and racism honestly upsetting. I find Fenimore Cooper's work fascinating, and I do often genuinely enjoy reading it as much as it's horrifying to modern eyes, which is something I don't know how conflicted I should be about.
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #173 on: January 10, 2020, 11:27:21 PM »
Latest completed book is the aforementioned Engine Summer by John Crowley. I liked it, and it certainly had a lot of punch/emotional resonance for me. I think the bits that stuck with me most were the mental bits more than the setting per se - I guess the idea of minds being interfered with or switched on and off is something I find quite difficult (likely a mix of personal anxieties and having had a grandparent with long-term degenerative mental issues), so that hit me quite hard. It's a neatly put together book though - I wouldn't say I found it fun, but it's clever and I appreciated what it was trying to do.
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #174 on: January 14, 2020, 10:46:53 PM »
Over the weekend I read Patrick Weekes' The Prophecy Con, and then yesterday, in a gloriously blazing fireball of procrastination, I managed to get through all 400+ pages of The Paladin Caper, by the same author. They're books two and three in the trilogy, Rogues of the Republic, that started with The Palace Job, and they're very, very good fun in all sorts of silly high-fantasy ways I tend to quite enjoy. Basically the trilogy merges a lot of classic fantasy tropes with a lot of robbery/con trick/spy movie tropes, such that you have a fantasy magically enhanced team saving the world with fantasy-world versions of palace robberies, showdowns at public events, train heists, balls, card tricks, the works. The dialogue is light and witty and funny, the cast diverse and quirky and likeable even if their adventures fall well beyond the believability spectrum at times, and it's basically the sort of book that is at about the perfect level for me to enjoy without either overloading my brain with over-thought worry or getting too dull for me to want to keep going. Will definitely keep an eye out for more by the same guy.
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Gmd

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Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #175 on: January 15, 2020, 12:25:35 AM »
After watching the witcher tv series. I am Re-reading the witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski. Currently on the 2nd book. A good fantasy read, especially the novels which have a much more concise narrative.
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