Friday, January 19, 2024

Valentine's Compilation #9: End


The theme of this year's Valentine's Day Compilation is: End.

As always, the theme is unimportant. Use it as inspiration if it works that way, or ignore it if it doesn't.

This might be the last one. It might not, but that's less likely.

Some background: Since 2016, Fuck the Polis! have been organizing a compilation released on Valentine's Day. You can find them here: Pop, Solidarity, Extra, Digging In, Smash (b/w Pushing Through) Chorus, Set(s), and Cute. These compilations have been home to anything  that can be put on audio, but music is cool too.

To be on the comp, all you have to do is email me (uninterpretative [at] gmail) an audio file (preferably .wav or .aiff, but I can make anything work) before February 14th and I can probably include it. If you have any questions, hit up that email or @BeeGabberel or wherever you talk to me.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A war, a Myth, and a Genre: On More Perfect

Two of the best SF novels I read in 2023 happened to revolve around the Orpheus myth.

In Temi Oh’s More Perfect (her sophomore, after 2019’s nearly perfect Do You Dream of Terra-Two?) a young man named Orpheus and a young woman named Moremi trade point of view chapters in a near future Britain where a semi-voluntary implant (the Pulse) allows users direct cortex access to the Internet (the Panopticon, in the novel’s language).

Born to an off the grid freedom fighter of a father, Orpheus has a decidedly ambivalent relation to the technology; Moremi’s lightly Luddite-leaning mother drives her to its wholehearted embrace. The two navigate their relationships—to the tech and the surveillance state it enables, to their families or lack thereof, to their labor, to their bodies and dependencies, to their traumas, and (this is a dual-POV novel, you have to see this coming) to each other—in ways that are often profound and always propulsive.

I read Oh’s debut three times in fewer years, the first time I’ve reread a book that avidly since (well, her work was bound to come up eventually; here’s to ripping the bandaid off) the first three novels in the school saga of The Boy Who Lived. The Potter septology’s influence is worn fairly openly, with both of Oh’s books referencing it explicitly. In Terra-Two?, it is a dogeared Latin translation of the first book. In More Perfect, Orpheus sees a “gorgeous Gothic revival hotel” that reminds him of it as he’s going through withdrawals in a post-Flood London, “across the road from St. Pancras station.”

This reference to “The Harry Potter Shop at Station 9 3/4s” (from their website: “the first ever Harry Potter Shop to open anywhere in the world outside of a themed visitor attraction”) calls out the souvenir shop aspects of Rowling’s writing. Without attributing to Temi Oh any position whatsoever, this reference is, in my reading, clarifying. Specifically on the question of inheritance. Or, if you like, on the question of anxiety of influence, since I can’t imagine who would want to be in Rowling’s line of succession at this point. Without belaboring the point, Oh is the better worldbuilder, and that’s not her primary focus. As masterfully demonstrated in Terra-Two?, and as repeated in More Perfect, she writes primarily from and for character psychology.

Every character in her novels, from the point of view to the supporting cast down to one-scene plot movers, walks that fine line between being relatable and robust. None of them, not even the shitty ex-boyfriends who don’t show up once in a scene, feel like anything less than plausible people. But they also still function as characters in a story.


Since Modernism, character and plot have been at war. And I think that war still wages.

But before we get to that war, a final note on succession. I joked earlier that I couldn’t imagine who would want to be Rowling’s inheritor. The joke is that there isn’t one. Like the demon, they are legion. Rowling’s inheritance is dead labor, witnessed in the style guides of every major publisher’s Young Adult imprint. Unlike her blockbuster forebear, Stephen King, who racked up so many hits so quickly (in a wildly different publishing landscape) that he famously became uneditable (see: The Stand complete and uncut), Rowling became editing itself.

If you feel inclined to test this hypothesis, here is an experiment: grab any book by a competent author who has written fiction and Young Adult since, say, the turn of the millennium. I have a couple authors in mind, and I suspect that some others would bear this out as well. Choose any chapter number. Read that same chapter in both of the books.

What you’ll find, I posit, is that the latter are never more “developmentally appropriate.” It will always express the same themes, or the ones on the authors mind. It will bear the same cultural and literary assumptions the author requires of any reader of their fiction, and will, though it may require squinting sometimes to blur the sanded-down edges, still be solidly-paced writing with some standout sentences. What you will also find, across the author function, is a thumb on the scale.

When I read Young Adult fiction, that thumb has a very defined affect. It is condescension. No matter the author, no matter the publisher (but mattering very much the genre), the Young Adult novel treats its reader as being as incapable of critical engagement with the text as JK Rowling proved herself to be when her biggest controversy was declaring that she always thought of Dumbledore as gay—despite negative textual evidence—in order to court those then-young millenials who would grow into the fearsome transgendereds she has since made it her mission to Just Ask Questions about.

The staggering closemindedness of the Potter series is old hat at this point, and its subsumption into industry has largely (of course not entirely) subsumed that as well. The style guides don’t demand goblins be anti-Semitic stereotypes or that you marry the man you once argued with about whether slaves were happy (or, y’know, the tokenized names straight out of Breakfast At Tiffany's). They do, at least as far as I can tell from a good chunk of reading, demand a homogeneity of diction that reflects the lived experience/vocabulary of no teenager I’ve ever known, been, heard of, or considered plausible. They impose these things in pursuit of the runaway success of Rowling, whose playbook they extrapolated from and return to like gospel.

(A second hypothesis: pick any four books in the Young Adult genre (really a marketing term, but what genre isn’t?) from the decades since its coinage in the 60s to the 90s, and any four from the front and back half of the 2000s and the 2010s. Absenting author overlap, I would be surprised if the same experiment—pick a chapter and read it all the way through in all eight books—didn’t show that the first four books, despite having way more similarity in subject matter, weren’t way more differentiated. One from it’s closest neighbor in underlying tone, than all four of the latter combined.)

Harold Bloom was wrong and an asshole when he claimed that reading Rowling would not lead to reading real works of literature for two reasons, other than the third reason, which is that Harold Bloom was overwhelmingly wrong and always an asshole. The first is that the simple, multigenerational facts have panned out. Millenials and Zoomers have grown up, and it turns out that we can teach the Classics as well as anyone ever has (when the neoliberal university allows us the chance, of course, as it so rarely does). The second is that for 20 years, the mode of production, that structure that organizes social relations, took Thatcher’s big TINA and applied it more and more locally.

Capitalism said There Is No Alternative. Not just to this mode of production, but even to books for young readers that aren’t by JK Rowling. If not in signature, then certainly in the spirit of the style guide. And wouldn’t you know it, at the same time it swallowed up bookstores with venture capital, libraries with budget cuts that were diverted to militarization of the state and specifically police, and schools with Left Behind Acts and bloated administrations that turned them into landlords and businesses.

With More Perfect, Temi Oh (and, to her absolute credit with the Binti trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor) points to a future where the deadlock between Young Adult literature and its generic counterpart might break. Take, for instance, this passage from pages 211-212:

It’s 2am, as quiet as anywhere ever is at this hour in London. But then she turns and raises her hands to set a filter that he accepts. The cracked pavement becomes the black-ice surface of a stage. The streetlamps are spotlights and behind her are ghost dancers. The curtain is drawn. Orpheus watches as it rises, and an imaginary orchestra starts to play. Already captivated.

She is in the centre of the stage; she raises her arms and begins to dance.

Orpheus sits on the hot stone step in front of his apartment block as she dances a part from a ballet of The Bacchae. At the climax of the dance, she tears her son limb from limb. Her holographic corps members spin around her like shadow puppets. In the dance, she is a maenad, manic initiate of the cult of Dionysus, the god of the grape-harvest and winemaking, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. Orpheus is shocked by the sight of her. On the street a moment before, in her leopard-print leggings and crop-top, plain and strange, but now she is dazzling, now she is setting the imaginary stage on fire in a virtuosic pas de deux. God-crazed ballerina, given over to her wildest instincts. The translucent maenades riot across a moonlit glade, pulling bones from flesh, dressed in fox-skins and bull-helmets, mouths wet with blood in mad celebration. They are like witches, wild with delight: one breast-feeds a wolf cub, another sinks her fingernails into the mud and milk bubbles out.

Moremi is playing the role of Agave, the mother of the King of Thebes, driven mad by Dionysus when her son refuses to worship him. In the hologram Moremi is crowned with ivy vines, in a flesh-coloured dress, dancing the wild dance of maenads. Orpheus can barely watch the climax of the ballet when the women of Thebes descend on King Pentheus. In their madness they believe that he is a lion. He dances a frantic pas de deux with Moremi, his eyes pleading, hoping for her to see him. It’s the most tense moment. Is that a flicker of recognition in her eyes? No. She grabs his elbow, pushes her heel into his ribs and wrenches his arm from its socket. The orchestra swells, echoing the howls of his torment. Which is when the other maenads descend on him in fury, tearing at his flesh. They process into the city, his head on a thyrsus present him to her father Cadmus and it is only then that Agave’s eyes are unclouded. Only then that she sees, to her horror, what she’s done. Orpheus cries with her when he watches it. And when the curtain falls at the end he feels terrified and in love.

Moremi, whose acute loneliness (alongside her mother’s distaste) drove her to get a Pulse, is able to synthesize her two loves: being connected, and ballet. She dances with the maenads, further entwining the novel with Greek mythology. And she does it beneath the eyes of a man—this is a chapter from Orpheus’ point of view—who she already feels herself falling in love with.

Orpheus asks her to dance because she has come to him to ask for a followup on dream therapy he has designed that helps her forget her trauma. He has recently had to take a sabbatical to detox from the drug, Nox, that he uses in order to facilitate other people’s dreams; he is worried that helping her will cause him to relapse. His condition is that she dance for him. She does. He helps her regain access to the world in which she never had any trauma to begin with. There is a lot in this, but one of the things that is happening is that Orpheus is playing analyst to Moremi’s analysand; what we have here is a bit of upgraded talk therapy.

This science fictional psychoanalysis even has it’s own term for transference, the psychoanalytic concept of the person receiving therapy falling in love with their therapist when they displace onto the therapist feelings of growth that they themselves achieved (nb: transference is more complicated than this): More Perfect calls it Inversion Syndrome (314).

This passage is full of allusion and action, tension and release. There is nothing in it that couldn’t be found in the prose of post-Azkaban Potter, when the books seemed to fill themselves with nowhere-going incidental detail.

Earlier, I referenced Poppy’s well-loved Latin translation of Sorcerer’s Stone, which functions as a symbol that must be embraced or overcome repeatedly over the course of her own journey. Does she return to the (dis)comforts of home, cradling the object she previously used to escape from there in her mind? Does she plunge forward, carrying the complicated past into the unknown? Poppy makes her choice.

More Perfect is Oh’s push toward the future, carrying the complicated past. Not just of Rowling herself, but of the style guides that subsumed and buoyed her to billions. In Terra-Two?, she showed herself capable of miracles; with More Perfect, she cements her style. It is post-young adult, having moved through it. Oh has developed a voice which takes what really worked in the septology and unchained it from the condescension that has plagued this particular industrialization.

There was a war to attend to, though.


Despite being published a half century earlier, this is no return to the past. The other Orpheus myth I read this year shares almost nothing in common with Oh’s—both are propulsive, yes, but the earlier is as poetic as anything Woolf ever wrote, as deliberate as Proust, as unafraid to play with form as your favorite postmodernist. And, crucially, even in that barely post-pulp moment, it is as unabashedly critical of gender as (say goodbye, friends, as we welcome her for her last appearance) the author of the school saga of The Boy Who Lived and her reactionary friends claim to be.

In 1967, Samuel R. Delany published his 2nd Nebula Award-winning novel The Einstein Intersection. The biggest page-turner of his I’ve personally encountered, it tells the story of Lo Lobey, a man with opposable feet and a flute machete, as he mourns the loss of a lover, fights a massive beast, and travels to confront Kid Death and bring her back. Lo Lobey as Orpheus is made very explicit early on, and it isn’t the only interpellation Delany engages in; the story is scaffolded with Greek myth, mortared by apparently-true diary entries from the “Writer’s Journal,” and painted in—of all things—thematic, structural Beatles references (eat your heart out Stephen King).

The Einstein Intersection juggles swashbuckling pulp adventure with deep meditations on the human in ways I don’t know that I’ve ever otherwise seen managed. The scene where Lo Lobey, having bested a factory-sized bull with human hands and confronted a computer that confirms that humans died out a million years ago and the people we are dealing with are something else,

I took up my machete and blew out the last of the blood. The tune now winding with me lay notes over the stone like mica flakes that would do till light came.

Stubbed my toe.

Hopped, cursed, then started walking again alone with the lonely, lovely sounds. (31)

is written with as much passion and literary flare as any of the more typically Delany moments where characters converse or fuck or think about how language bears down on and structures us, or what “us” even constitutes. He dives into the fundament with every sentence in his short novel, and communicates it with the reader in prose just slightly askew enough to catch the light and render that communication beautiful. A move that, one might argue, is the constitutive aesthetic maneuver of the literary Modernists.

By one might argue, I of course mean that many have—academically, colloquially, in praise, in dismissal, in disgust. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time might structurally be about memory, but in any given moment the narrator is thinking about pink hawthorns, a leitmotif in a sonata, a painting of the sea (or the many beautiful women (wink) that he keeps falling in love with), and doing so in sentences so artfully, musically crafted that one still stands as a Linguists party game—pin the diagram on the Proust sentence, as it were.

Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway might be about a day in the life of an upper class Londoner, but it wouldn’t be hard to argue that it is about the abrupt, filmic cuts it makes between characters’ interior lives and, specifically, how language affords that kind of cut where film might not. Especially when the level of sentencecraft is as high as Woolf’s. And that’s just sticking to books I’ve also read this year.

Broadly speaking, the Modernists were so interested in people—in individuals, even, and their interiority—that you might say that they forgot about characters. The M.s de Norpois, the Doris Kilmans exist in these books, of course, those people who, incidentally, describe broadly a type, embodied; narrative drivers. But these are not books interested in plot, where events accrue over simulated time in order to reach a conclusion, and so their characters cannot fire shots or man drones or trenches in its service. The war, then, is between fiction with an end goal of a satisfying story, and fiction with an end goal of illuminating people.

These aren’t the only two possible end goals of fiction, of course. In the same interwar period where the bulk of Modernism flourished, Georg Lukács is arguing in Das Wort that the claims of Expressionism and Surrealism being revolutionary are overstated. In Lukács case, the real goal of literature is to be found in works of Realists like Thomas Mann, and their ability to synthesize the social order: the goal, in a word, is neither plot nor person but reality. Other examples of end goals abound.

At the turn of the twentieth century, or, perhaps more precisely, in the interwar period from the late teens to the early 30s, literature bifurcated in a way no amount of coinages like “slipstream” have been able to resolve.

On the one hand, the Modernists (eventually absorbing and splitting off into other names) who became literary fiction, representatives of the side of the war dedicated to showcasing people. On the other hand, a weird old quasi-conman who wouldn’t shut up about his new coinage, “scientifiction.”

I’ll spare you my thoughts on Hugo Gernsback because (...but I really want to...) the point, I think, is clear enough: for the last century, literature has taken it as fact that it is about plumbing the depths of what it means to be Human; or that it is about telling a satisfying story, in genre. Other exigencies burble constantly, occasionally bursting. The pornographers and the didacts and the moralists and the minor literatures and the experimentalists and many more foment. But at the end of the day, you’re shelved in Fiction or Speculative Fiction, or you’re not shelved at all.

In some writers, this war reaches something of a détente, on occasion. Delany might be the foremost among them. When I point to the fact that Lo Lobey blowing blood from his flute is as beautifully described as any moment in which he contemplates, this is what I mean. It is of both camps. Since the dual blows of Gernsback and Freud, the writer has been forced to pick a side. And, it is I think safe to say, Delany ultimately did. But in The Einstein Intersection, he sent his head singing down the river, unconcerned with the mortars screaming overhead.


And so we have our interlocutors. Oh, transcending the Young Adult style guide; Oh, engaging (if only in shared referent) with a self-consciously critical moment in the history of speculative fiction. She sees, at least in my reading, eye to eye with neither.

Her deep and seemingly intuitive sense of character psychology clashes with the propulsive narrative movement demanded by the former, to the point where readers trained only to see plot movement might find stagnation in her books’ most dynamic moments. At the same time, her psychology never transcends character; the formal commitments to plot preclude that swerve into interiority.

To try to illustrate: every character Oh introduces evinces thought processes, desires and sensual commitments that are irreducible to other aspects of the text, whether formal, literary, or functional. Aria does not leap into the Thames early in Terra-Two? In order to allow Jesse onto the ship, or to force Elliot to be an avatar of grief; she does it for her own reasons, clearly felt. Any reading of More Perfect that simply enumerated the ways in which Orpheus was actually Orpheus might unveil some neat easter eggs, but it would also impoverish the novel. The wildly different twins in both books certainly have many things to say about twinness beyond who the characters are, but they never dissolve wholly into questions of the uncanny or doppelganger myths—and nor do they become single-note refutations thereof.

At the same time, we never quite experience that transition to full interiority. Oh does not try to convey to us the full internal lifeworld of her characters in the same way, for instance, Woolf describes Septimus’ discovery of ASMR:

“K...R...” said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say “Kay Arr” close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sand which, concussing, broke. A marvellous discovery indeed—that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees into life! (22)

The whole of Septimus in this moment is open to us; when we sit in the heads of Temi Oh’s characters, they retain autonomy. They have privacy.

It is fitting, I think, that the author who demonstrated this facility with character in Terra-Two? would go on to write a novel that more perfectly dovetails with her fundamental concerns. That privacy, that autonomy explode out into the world with the Pulse, turning the social world into a literal referendum on those very concepts by putting them in tension with the technological overdetermination of the individual, simultaneously through surveillance, expression, state-sanctioned and funded trauma repression, consciousness-sharing, and basically any other consequence of plugging one’s brain into the Internet, good or bad, one can readily come up with.

Beyond fitting, even. What we have in this book might be a genuine magnum opus, that singular synthesis of an artist’s concerns, their preoccupations, the social moment, and their skill in delivering on their prose and chosen subject. What could be more apt than wondering what a world where the final privatization, with the commons long gone and the biopolitical hegemonic, when even private thoughts become private commodities? What could be a more apt mode than the only truly popular novel form, the Young Adult, but freed of the style guide? What writer could be more apt to tackle these things than Temi Oh, with her deep well of character psychology mixed with her remarkable talents for worldbuilding and plot development?

A magnum opus, then. It is declared. History can let the rest shake out.


Despite the occasionally materialist method, this essay has largely stayed in the relatively limited discourse of aesthetic history. (And the even more limited discourse of my own preoccupations and reading history in 2023, mostly.) Which leads to a question: is the magnum opus enough?

One answer, self-evident: no. It never has been, so why would it be now, especially in the long tail of literature’s importance? The novel was, once, a critical component of bourgeois class formation and could therefore at least index what an ascendant class thought of itself. These days, when the biggest publishing house in the United States is blocked from buying the second-biggest of its four rivals, said rival gets sold to the private equity firm that saddled Toys’R’Us with billions in debt upon and acquisition and slowly squeezed the still-successful retailer to death for their own gain.

Which isn’t to say the entrenched bourgeoisie have abandoned the form entirely; we can all thank one of the scions of the Koch fortune for Catapult press, and Orrin Henry Ingram, whose “systematic deforestation” of Chippewa Valley in Wisconsin in the mid-19th century funded, through the generational wealth it generated, his great-great grandchildren’s ability to maintain their position as one of very few viable distributors for independent bookstores.

There’s a more generous answer, though. The magnum opus can matter, according to your frame. And they can matter greatly.

For the individual, obviously—whether author or reader, the joy of experiencing something indelibly its own can be a transformative experience.

For communities, as well. Though they’re largely a commodified joke now, book clubs help with the real work of reading together something that cannot have been produced except in this singular way. In doing so, the reading group can forge bonds, lead to clarifying arguments, open up new aesthetic in political avenues in ways that few other things can.

For platforms? Absolutely. The subsumption of a genuine magnum opus can lead to that most precious commodity of all: engagement, to be sold to advertisers and venture capitalists in that most delicious way of all: quantifiably.

But that brings us back to our initial answer, in some way. Is a magnum opus important to the world? To our collective struggle to move beyond capitalism and the ecological apocalypse it has revealed as its inevitable telos?

No. No, it isn’t.

Unless it helps.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Valentine's Day Compilation #8: Cute [Call for Submissions]

The theme for this year's friends of Fuck the Polis! Valentine's Day Compilation is: Cute.

It's not that we aren't already, we know this. But I think we could use some more. Whether that's looking, getting, making, being, appreciating. It could be about bringing a certain softness to a life wracked with strife, or it could be about saying Don't Get Cute With Me, Pig. It could be pure aesthetic appreciation or just thinking about getting cute with a cutie. There's cute in the hard and unyielding, as well, and the darkness that a smile might hide.

Here's a little photoshoot I've been doing, something of which will end up being the cover, probably:


As always, the theme is unimportant. Use it as inspiration if it works that way, or ignore it if it doesn't. And as always, we're open to just about anything as long as it's an audio file. I don't think I have had to execute my curatorial powers once yet?

Some background: Since 2016, Fuck the Polis! have been organizing a compilation released on Valentine's Day. You can find them here: 2016 (Pop); 2017 (Solidarity); 2018 (Extra); 2019 (Digging In); 2020 (Smash b/w Pushing Through); 2021 (Chorus); and 2022 (Set(s)). These compilations have been home to experimental, noise, plunderphonics, bedroom pop, poetry, folk, punk, country, darkwave, and a whole lot more.
To be on the comp, all you have to do is email me (uninterpretative [at] gmail) an audio file (preferably .wav or .aiff, but I can make anything work) before February 14th and I can probably include it. If you have any questions, hit up that email or @beegabberel or wherever you talk to me. I'm happy to support, whether with words or sounds or whatever I can manage.

Friday, June 3, 2022

A Ranked Paragraph About Every Book I Read in 2021 (part 2: pre-2021 books edition)

51) The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)


50) Bee People and the Bugs They Love (Frank Mortimer)

I think I would actively dislike Frank Mortimer if I met him in person, and I didn't get a ton out of this book, but it was mostly fine.

49) All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy)

This story of two boys who run away with some horses genuinely did nothing for me. I didn't even really connect with the language. The plot kind of did something, but I don't really like plot, so that's kind of bottom of the barrel. Someday I'll understand McCarthy.

48) The Corona Crash (Grace Blakely)

Another in Verso's weirdly demsoc series on the covid-19 pandemic. Much better than last year's The Care Manifesto, but also weirdly invested (if I'm recalling correctly) on pseudo-Keynesian responses to the pandemic.

47) I Am Cuba (Stephen Langdon Cost)

Probably more on the historical fiction end than the literary nonfiction, I ended up feeling about this similarly to how I felt about a much better book by Miéville that comes up much later, although on a different subject.

46) The Silence (Don Delillo)

A slim Don Delillo novel about how bad phones are, probably. No, that's not fair. It's about a power outage and an escalating series of philosophical discussions with some weird hetero shit thrown in. It's apparently classified as Humor in my app? That's a choice. Solidly written and completely forgettable, honestly.

45) Death in a Promised Land (Scott Ellsworth)

I feel like I read this a century ago. Ellsworth is an academic focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and this is written in reportage style. It's hard, with moments of resistance. It's similar in many ways to Les & Tamara Payne's The Dead Are Arising, especially in the pacing. I am glad to have read it.

44) Angelica's Smile (Andrea Camilleri)

I'm going to be honest: this one kind of left no impression on me other than that I remember it being unfortunately horny and I was into the fact that the people were robbing rich folks' vacation homes.

43) The Track of Sand (Andrea Camilleri)

Another one that left little enough trace on my memory that even reading summaries doesn't really bring anything forth other than the image of the dead horse in the show version. I'll be honest: it could be good, it could be bad. I did read it! I just have no memory.

42) The Paper Moon (Andrea Camilleri)

One of the less great Montalbano books sees the Inspector contemplating his age and getting hit on by a bunch of hot young ladies. Never a womanizer, there are moments that are fun but overall it ends up feeling a bit all over the place.

41) The Secret of Red Gate Farm (Carolyn Keene)

The first four words of this book are “That Oriental-looking woman…” so yeah. There’s some shit about perfume. A really bad one.

40) Treasure Hunt (Andrea Camilleri)

While the explosive opening (two old religious jerks firing rounds onto a town square in a house filled with crucifixes and a sex doll) ends up overshadowing the actual mystery, it is a really good opening. One of the better examples of the way Camilleri starts playing with metafiction later in the series (as the television show version of Montalbano begins eclipsing the books, at least in parts of Italy) despite paring back some of the other literary devices, and the mystery itself isn't bad.

39) Phoenix Extravagant (Yoon-Ha Lee)

Another casualty of brain fog, Yoon Ha Lee's Phoenix Extravagant is a book I will need to revisit again at some point down the line. My overwhelming feeling is that he is being pigeonholed or incentivized to write things that are more in line with Young Adult fiction than the Machineries of Empire series, and I find that to be a bummer. Maybe in 2022 I will try to do a full read-through of his work. I think he's one of the best authors writing, and I'm bummed I haven't connected with his last two books.

38) Rounding the Mark (Andrea Camilleri)

Still fairly early in the series, Rounding the Mark sees Montalbano disgusted with the pseudo-fascist response of the Prime Minister to the G8 protests and prepared to resign. He gets caught up with Ingrid again, as well as inadvertently leading a refugee boy to some human traffickers. One of the more tumultuous in the series, it's also a fairly solid case study in the movement from the more complex early novels toward the later, breezier ones.

37) The Clue in the Diary (Carolyn Keene)

Having flipped through it, I still remember absolutely nothing about this mystery. Which is a shame, because I literally don’t know if it was any good. I don’t think so, though, really.

36) The Bungalow Mystery (Carolyn Keene)

One of the less interesting mysteries, but it does start with a bang in a storm on a ship. I also remember the Donnelly’s being likable.

35) The Mystery at Lilac Inn (Carolyn Keene)

A Nancy Drew doppelganger and something called “charge plates” are most of why this mystery is fun. There’s a marriage too I guess?

34) Tentacle (Rita Indiana)

Rita Indiana is a Dominican genderfucky songwriter. Tentacle is about a full-transition shot and the fulfillment of a prophecy and time travel, I think? It's a good time if you dig a really fucked up book that rings real through speculative elements. Also their songs are very good.

33) The Revolution of the Moon (Andrea Camilleri)

Another piece of historical fiction centered on the 27-day reign of a queen in Sicily in the 18th century. It's a cute, zippily written political thriller about a woman being in power and providing things the people actually need - like bread and reproductive rights - right up until the moment that the larger power structure gets rid of her. Like The Sacco Gang (more on that later), it's probably more Camilleri than real history, and as with that book I'm pretty fine with that.

32) Breasts & Eggs (Mieko Kawakami)

I think this, along with Detransition, Baby, were the two books I was most disappointed I didn't like more from authors that were unfamiliar to me. There are some exceptional moments here, descriptions of sweaty nights and intergenerational conflicts that barely breathe a word. There is also a scene in a spa that involves a possibly trans character. That scene really took the wind out of my sails.

31) The Patience of the Spider (Andrea Camilleri)

This 2004 novel is another example of a really solid early entry in the series, with the closest I think Camilleri ever came to a genuine supervillain/rival style antagonist. While not quite up to the mark of the great books in the series, it's a real good one.

30) The Age of Doubt (Andrea Camilleri)

Another one of the stronger late books, The Age of Doubt has a rock solid opening that puts his aging issues, his relationship doubts, and his dissatisfaction with his job into a hypnagogic cauldron and sets things boiling. The luxury yacht juxtaposed with the speedboat (which themselves, in the port, are juxtaposed against the many refugee stories throughout the series) and the poisoning are fun.

29) The Hidden Staircase (Carolyn Keene)

Nancy Drew does haunted houses, Scooby Doo-style. In my memory this is actually one of the more elaborately-plotted books of the ten I read this year, including the abduction of Carson Drew, Nancy’s lawyer father. It’s a good one of these.

28) Password to Larkspur Lane (Carolyn Keene)

The tenth book in the series is a pretty pleasant one as well. A mysterious wheel of fire is showing up at her friend’s family’s house. There’s an old lady being held against her will. I barely remember how it ends, but I remember enjoying the ride. I also just dig any goofy supernatural shit, so maybe that informed my take.

27) The Secret of Shadow Ranch (Carolyn Keene)

Fucking cool-ass ghost horse. I remember this one really positively, but I also remember reading that it was one of the ones more heavily edited for being hella racist. So there’s that. I think this is the one that introduces love interests for the gals, who are wildly uninteresting.

26) The Dance of the Seagull (Andrea Camilleri)

The titular dance - Montalbano sees a seagull swoop and plummet and spin in strange circles before expiring - is one of the more powerful images in the series. Most Montalbano books rely on their propulsive prose, your interest in the mystery, the landscapes and the exquisite descriptions of food, with only a soupcon of interest in the surreal or poetic movement of things. The mystery is a little less compelling, although Fazio's twists make up for some of that. A good piece of texture for the rest of the series, but maybe not the best starting point.

25) The Wings of the Sphinx (Andrea Camilleri)

Another entry in the mid-late period Montalbano books sees the Inspector obsessing over senescence. Which isn't bad or good, necessarily - I enjoy, to a degree, the fact that he ages along with the author instead of staying Bond-young forever and which paid off greatly in the last two stories (see my 2021 books of 2021 list for those) - but it can get a bit samey. Of those, this story might be my favorite as Montalbano looks for a girl with a sphinx moth tattoo and encounters some real weirdos.

24) Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Carolyn Keene)

Nancy Drew is going to inherit a bunch of money! But it’s actually a different Nancy Drew, who is an actress. This one is honestly probably the best on a pure popcorn level, imo.

23) The Potter's Field (Andrea Camilleri)

If there were a Hollywood movie in any of the Montalbano books, it's almost certainly this one. A(n apparent) mob hit in a Potter's Field (effectively unmarked graves) leads Montalbano on a Judean goose chase that sees him interacting with Dons and academics. Published in Italian in 2008, it's almost like a rewrite of The Terracotta Dog but with more dialog than history. For my money, that means it doesn't rate quite as high; but then, I'm not like other girls.

22) How Long Til Black Future Month? (N.K. Jemisin)

Reading the story summaries on Wikipedia conjured a feeling or memory in my brain for almost every one of the stories in this collection, which I kind of wasn't expecting given the lifetime I feel like I've lived since I read it early in 2021. I think the thing I said at the time to people was that it was quite good, but it does feel like Jemisin really excels at the novel (or, perhaps more accurately, trilogy) length. That's probably true. It's also true that the broad range of genres Jemisin tackles here within speculative fiction is exciting, considering what she is capable of when working in longer form.

21) Backflash (Richard Stark)

Parker is the kind of noir protagonist I can get behind, even if I haven't read a ton like him: steely, ready to kill, but mostly interested in getting the job done. In Backflash, the job is robbing a casino boat for an anti-gambling politician. I'm curious about continuing my mystery tour after Carolyn and Andrea grabbed my heart and my head in 2021. I don't know if it will be soon, but Stark's Parker is definitely going to rattle around until I get to him eventually. More on No! No Buzz.

20) The Colorado Kid (Stephen King)

Stephen King at his Most, in some ways. A mystery from the perspective of a new newspaperwoman, with the state stamp on a pack of cigarettes as the central complicating factor. It turns out to be nothing exceptional except in the ways it isn't; there's genuine ambiguity and ambivalence in this in ways I rarely associate with King, and a curbed storytelling impulse that instead focuses on inessential relationships.

19) The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich (Fritz Lieber)

Leiber Does Lovecraft. Specifically, the Horrible Document version of Lovecraft. It's no Our Lady of Darkness, but what is. Pretty good, from what I remember.

18) Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (Malm)

My main memory of this is that it's the best of the pamphlets in Verso's coronavirus series (excluding Dean Spade's Mutual Aid, which I don't know if is technically in the series but it far, far outstrips the rest), and that it gets a little Lenin Bro-y in bits. Plenty of salient points throughout, though.

17) The Deep (Rivers Solomon)

Inspired by a clipping. song about mermaids who were descendants of the slaves tossed overboard in the Middle Passage, The Deep is about the one of them who remembers and the toll that takes. Like Sorrowland, it's about flight from a supposedly utopian community to find the fucked up reality of the outside world. It's also about care for the individual and care for the collective, and how those things can come into conflict without any conflict rearing its head. And it's about cool mermaid shit. So it's good.

16) The Visitors (Clifford D. Simak)

Obelisk aliens land in Simak's beloved landscape: a picturesque midwestern small town (probably in Wisconsin). Newspapermen try to piece it together. The aliens are Roadside Picnic levels of inscrutable. They're also metaphors for industrialization. It's quite good.

15) Cemetery Boys (Aiden Thomas)

Definitely the best YA book I read this year, as a hater of YA. I expected this to be another thing I read and kind of enjoyed, but the ending really caught me off guard. The story of a young trans brujo whose culture doesn't quite accept him and whose attempt to prove himself goes awry when he summons the wrong ghost. It's kind of the thing I might recommend for people that aren't in the headspace to read the density of Summer Sons or the visceral heartwrenching of Sorrowland, but want some version of their themes and storytelling polished, like a rock, in the editorial and publishing tumbler of a book marketed as Young Adult.

14) October (China Miéville)

An early-in-the-year read, and (I believe?) the only one of Miéville's books (excepting his dissertation) that I hadn't read previously. An account of Russia's revolution(s) written in a really solid literary nonfiction style, I was most impressed by his acknowledgment of the failures on the part of the revolution to respect the anarchist cadre. Probably a lot of things to say about this, but I mostly remember appreciating the verve with which it was told, Miéville's incomparable ability to focus in on particular details and resonances, and the feeling of reading a pop history that might not exactly reflect my poltics but didn't outright disagree with them from the jump.

13) The Housekeeper and the Professor (Yoko Ogawa)

I fell in love with The Memory Police last year, and finally saw another Ogawa book cross my path this year. On some level, I think I might like this better. The story of a single mother who works as a housekeeper to a mathematics professor who suffered a traumatic brain injury which means his short term memory ends after 80 minutes, this is a decidedly non-genre take on disability and care work and the beauty of math and the beauty of language. I kind of adored it.

12) The Dead Father (Donald Barthelme)

This is the book that got me to start No! No Buzz near the end of this year. It's an interesting bit of experimental fiction, and I'm curious to read more Barthelme because so much of my reading has been of the fairly light variety, and there are things here that challenged me (and others I found challenging). Anyway I said what I wanted to say in the video.

11) The Only Good Indian (Stephen Jones)

Among the best horror novels I've ever read, definitely, The Only Good Indian is about four men who commit a crime that comes back to haunt them. It fits in the model of John Carpenter, to me, as a powerful example of homosociality in horror. That Carpenter was heavily influenced into this by John Ford, the Western film director, is an irony not lost. With powerful scenes of men expressing emotions, genuinely fucked up moments of horror, and an unflinching look at historical atrocity, it's another one I feel really confident calling special.

10) The One-Straw Revolution (Masonobu Fukuoka)

A good chunk of the reading I did this year was in preparation for some Island Demeter games that didn't quite pan out as I'd hoped, and this sort of memoir, sort of philosophy, sort of farming polemic was one of them. It tells of Fukuoka's experiments in what he sometimes calls Do Nothing Farming, where he cultivated land without use of any plows and, in doing so, invented the seed bomb. The technicals were a little beyond my comprehension, but his productive nihilism really struck a chord with me.

9) Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer)

This was one of those books that I picked up mostly because people just keep buying it? And I was curious. I really enjoyed my time with it. It felt a bit overlong and repetitive in parts, but the central thrust is really strong, Wall Kimmerer is an excellent storyteller, and it was overall just really positive. More on No! No Buzz

8) Princess Bari (Hwang Sok-Yong)

Hwang Sok-Yong is apparently one of South Korea's most well known authors, and I'm pretty embarrassed to have just learned that. I'm excited to hopefully read more of his work. This novel is about the seventh daughter of a North Korean family, named after the titular character of folklore, a seventh daughter of a royal family. Both were left to die and survived; both experience harrowing travels that clarify the world and reveal that the healing waters are the waters that give life to us and what sustains us. Princess Bari stands out to me as a story of the abandoned and vilified that unflinchingly tells stories of people who, despite being singled out for truly harrowing experiences, continue to act in solidarity. More on No! No Buzz

7) The Sacco Gang (Andrea Camilleri)

My introduction to Andrea Camilleri, and one I'm happy to have been my first. Published by Europa (unlike the Montalbano books, which are handled by Penguin Random House), it's a sort of historical fiction about a family of leftists called the Sacco gang who tangle with the fascist police and the mafia in the late 1800s (I think that's right). I think it's ultimately more clarifying of Camilleri's positions and interests than it is a historical document, but I have no problem with that.

6) The Secret of the Old Clock (Carolyn Keene)

The very first Nancy Drew mystery begins “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.” Which upended a number of assumptions I’d had, including her age (apparently she was originally sixteen, but was aged up in the 1950s rereleases, which I learned later were the ones I read). I really didn’t expect her to be driving. The mystery here is about a will hidden in an old clock, which a rich family denies exists so they can become richer. It’s one of the more fun entries in the series, and does a good job introducing Nancy and the style of writing (The Most Cliffhangers Imaginable).

5) The Shape of Water (Andrea Camilleri)

The first Montalbano book introduces the inspector and his crew, but most importantly it introduces Ingrid, the Swedish race car driver whose flirtation with Montalbano is one of the series' hearts. A mystery involving a politician found dead in a field notorious for Mafia-run sex work leads Montalbano to uncover corruption in the halls of power. Camilleri's prose develops a lot over the course of the series, but not in a good or bad way, necessarily; here there are a number of chewy, long sentences and a sense of history that get pared down in the future, and it's nice to see the development.

4) The Sign of the Twisted Candles (Carolyn Keene)

My favorite of the Nancy Drew stories. It does the will trick again, but the candles and spaces are actually really evocatively described. I believe this is by a different ghostwriter than the bulk of the previous books, and I’m unfortunately pretty into his way of keeping things moving while focusing on images.

3) The Mushroom at the End of the World (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing)

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's critical investigation into the matsutake mushroom is one of the best things I read this year. It's somewhere between academic tome, journalistic travelogue, and extended personal essay on race and capital. Lowenhaupt Tsing embeds with matsutake pickers and buyers, examines the moment the undomesticatable mushroom becomes a commodity (in the air, shipping between Seattle and Japan), ruminates on the ways it refuses commoditization by developing a gift economy, and touches on the weird, cool world of fungi. Not just one of the best things I read; one of the coolest. It reminds me of Christine Yano's work on Hello Kitty or Nisei Stewardesses. Well told, straddling the line between popular and academic, thoroughly cited, and sticky.

2) The Old Drift (Namwali Serpell)

If The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu wasn't the best surprise of 2021, then this was. Different lists, though, so both count. I found Namwali Serpell through Transit Books' Undelivered Lectures series (see my brief thoughts on Preti Teneja's Aftermath from the same series, also in the other post, or my post from last year) and then her previous novel (this one) came by. I'm not in the practice of reading big intergenerational epics these days and thought I would bounce off. I really, really didn't. The story of Zambia from the late 1800s through the early 2020s, it weaves elegantly between colonial history, magic realism, literary fiction, and science fiction. And the thread is a sentient mosquito swarm. I really can't speak highly enough of this book.

1) The Terracotta Dog (Andrea Camilleri)

The second Montalbano book, and my personal favorite. Being early, it still has Camilleri's more yarn-length sentences rather than the drumbeats of the latter novels, and because of that it has more going on in terms of developing the history of fascism in Italy as a player in the present than, say, the punchy joy of a Cook of the Halcyon. With interwoven mysteries about a grocery truck, a mafia hit in police protection, and two World War II-era bodies buried in a ritual fashion, everything here propelled me forward and really cemented that I love this goofy series.


Plus, some bonus rereads! (unranked)

How Much of These Hills is Gold (C. Pam Zhang)

As I'll say a couple times throughout this, a good chunk of my reading this year was inspired by the fact that I thought I was going to be running some games for Island Demeter; one was a Nancy Drew-inspired detective game that involved a farm, the other a Weird West cooking game. I still hope to run them. I reread Zhang's incredible novel in service of the latter, and it only redoubled my opinion that it is a really special thing, full of gorgeous sentences and complicated in the most bountiful ways.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (Temi Oh)

I started this year on my third reading of Do You Dream of Terra Two?, a fact I would have called auspicious if I didn't have this year. It's still an exceptional thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

A Ranked Paragraph About Every Book I Read in 2021 (part 1: 2021 Books edition)

36) My Annihilation (Fuminori Nakamura) (2022)

A mystery about identity, electroshock therapy, subliminal messaging, and revenge. I was not fond. More on No! No Buzz

35) Grievers (adrienne marie brown)

I have not been a fan of adrienne marie brown's writing since reading Emergent Strategy. I think this book is clunkily written. (way too much) More on No! No Buzz

34) Everybody has a podcast (Except You) (The McElroys)

Maybe it's my fault for having started over a half dozen podcasts already, but I found this book pretty useless. Which is fine. They're fine to listen to talk. Honestly this short post is way more useful, however many years later.

33) Ida B. the Queen (Michelle Duster)

A sort of YA biography of Ida B Wells written, I believe, by her daughter. I found it peculiarly unilluminating and weirdly centrist? It's been a while, but I don't have a ton of positive vibes about the experience.

32) An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed (Helen Tursten)

This slight mystery was super forgettable, honestly. The kind of thing that seems like it is playing on expectations that are completely alien to me.

31) Chlorine Sky (Mahogany L. Browne)

A young adult book-length poem about basketball and high school. It was fine.

30) Blood on the Fog (Tongo Eisen-Martin)

Eisen-Martin's third collection of poetry didn't hit as hard for me as his second (or even his first, honestly), but some of that is a headspace thing. The major theme seemed to be prayer, or theodicy. The man can still write an incredible line and wrench your head right around with an image. Definitely on a list to revisit at some point when I can process poetry again.

29) Comfort Me With Apples (Catherynne M. Valente)

A slight story, in the style of those feminist retellings of Disney/Brothers Grimm fairy tales. From what I recall, it's The Bible meets Wayward Pines. In all honesty nothing about it particularly stands out to me, in retrospect.

28) Detransition, Baby (Torrey Peters)

The popular trans book of the year, as far as I can tell, is about trans girls in NYC - one currently living her life, one who has detransitioned - who broke up. It's about family and bugchasing and queer community and navigating complex gender dynamics. I found it kind of insufferable, honestly.

27) A Spindle Splintered (Alix E. Harrow)

A slight story, in the style of those feminist retellings of Disney/Brothers Grimm fairy tales. From what I recall, it's Sleeping Beauty meets the multiverse. In all honesty nothing about it particularly stands out to me, in retrospect.

26) The Death of Francis Bacon (Max Porter)

I listened to this as an audiobook and know basically nothing about Francis Bacon except the screaming saints, so I probably have the worst possible take on it. It plays in the same space as Eternal Sonata, though it's more experimental fiction than High Anime. I can't say that it did much for me.

25) Kill The Mall (Pasha Malla)

An overeager narrator gets a residency at the mall, and shit gets weird. Told mostly in book report-style summaries, it has heavy "critique of consumerism" (as opposed to capitalism) vibes, which I generally find offputting. The hair that sprouts from the narrator's tongue, that floods the mall, that mind controls people? That part I was very cool with.

24) Remote Control (Nnedi Okorafor)

Sankofa (née Fatima) is a fourteen year old girl who, after a seed dropped from the sky on her favorite tree, gained power over death. She wanders Ghana looking for the seed that was stolen from her, pacifying those who are at their end and sometimes killing those who threaten her. There's something here that I expect I would have appreciated more had I read The Book of Phoenix & Who Fears Death, which share a world, and there is a solid emotional throughline which connects technological expansion to colonialism and the ravages of capitalism.

23) The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart (Chesil) (2022)

A Zainichi Korean is about to be expelled from school in Seattle. She goes to a cabin and writes about her experiences about her first expulsion, from a Korean school in Japan. A fuller thing is this episode of No! No Buzz

22) Victories Greater than Death (Charlie Jane Anders)

A big goofy space opera trilogy-opener about a girl who knows she was born with an alien inside her getting called up to duty in a galactic conflict. Like a lot of YA the themes feel sometimes insultingly on the nose. The action is mostly good, the emotional moments tend to pay off, and mostly it's just kind of there, honestly.

21) Colorful (Eto Mori)

A spirit gets a second chance at life after dying through a lottery system that puts them into the body of a boy who recently attempted suicide. I don't read for plot and even I saw the turn coming in the first ten pages. It's a pleasant thing that touches on, well, the things I just described, and it has lingered with me more than I thought it would after reading it.

20) Matsutake Worlds (Faier & Hathaway, eds)

The only academic book I read this year, and I did so under the impression it was something similar to Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World rather than an essay collection (she is a member of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group that put this together and a contributor). I can't say I fell in love with it, or that it was equally compelling the whole way through, but I am glad I read it and hope I do more reading like it (in format if not in content) in the near future).

19) Rabbits (Terry Myles)

A spinoff of a podcast with aspirations of being one of those popular postmoderns, most obviously The Crying of Lot 49 without any of the fun shit (or pretension, if you dislike it). A gamer gets caught up in an Alternate Reality Game called Rabbits which is kind of like Michael Douglas' The Game, but more speculative by the end. I organized this list around this book, because it needed to be dead center. Neither good nor bad, just there and readable.

18) Aftermath (Preti Taneja)

Transit Books' Undelivered Lecture series is cool. This book was really complicated to read. More on No! No Buzz.

17) The Last Fallen Star (Graci Kim)

I unfortunately found out this year that the Rick Riordan Presents books are kinda solid. The way they scream #Representation made that seem really unlikely. In this, an adopted young girl named Riley Oh tries to trick her way into magic and ends up leaving her sister on the precipice of death. The prose sometimes hovers at the edge of grating (to someone for whom the YA Voice has grating as a default, which I attribute more to editors/publishers than authors), but it manages to stay on the right side of the line and tell an affecting story.

16) Heaven (Mieko Kawakami)

Kawakami's second book translated into English in as many years is, for my money, better than the widely-lauded (not wrongly!) Breasts and Eggs. A slim volume about a young boy with a lazy eye and an unkempt girl, both 14, who exchange notes and philosophies on the brutal bullying they both face. The central conflict seems to be between Kojima's martyr obsession - she is unkempt because her mother remarried a rich man and is seeking to reflect her father's poverty and struggles and finds weakness holy - and one bullies right wing nihilism - he bullies because nothing means anything, effects and causes are decoupled, so the strong cull the weak because they are able. As a left nihilist I tend to read books as being refractions of the mode of production, every one of them capable of showing us how social relations are structured by the material conditions that underly them. To that end, this is a pretty successful one, full of what we might call (un)sympathetic characters who have recognizable motivations that speak to the ways in which society amplifies those motivations. Plus I think I remember the sentences being super clean.

15) Hao (Ye Chun)

A collection of short stories that I remember feeling pretty high on at the time that I read it, but which seems to have slipped away from with a lot of other things from this year, among them my ability to communicate with loved ones. Which is relevant, I guess, because the titular story is about a grad student who suffers a stroke and as a consequence can only say Hao, meaning good or well. I remember, vaguely, that Ye's writing has a kind of honest lyricism. I remember also that none of the stories felt extraneous or lacking in emotional weight. I wish I could remember more.

14) A Country of Ghosts (Margaret Killjoy)

I keep meaning to read more Killjoy, and this one somewhat suffers from my general dislike of Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Which is mostly about style, to be clear. I did quite like this despite that for other reasons, though. More on No! No Buzz.

13) Velvet Was the Night (Silvia Moreno-Garcia)

This was probably the novel I was most disappointed I didn't like more, given how brutally hard I fell for Mexican Gothic in 2020 and how much of 2021 was defined by me finally exploring mysteries as a genre. I think in part that's because this book relies a lot more on character work, the aspect of Moreno-Garcia's writing I find the weakest, and probably just timing. The story of Elvis and the missing girl never really clicked for me. Which doesn't mean it isn't great; Moreno-Garcia is still an impeccaple stylist and genre chameleon, and can work her way through a sentence and a scene in a way I find joyous and surprising. Maybe on the reread.

12) Small Things Like These (Claire Keegan)

A morality tale in the Dickensian tradition that takes on a particular kind of systemic abuse of women in Ireland. All of the pieces are there for me to have not enjoyed this. I did, though. Quite a bit. More on No! No Buzz.

11) Folklorn (Angela Mi Young Hur)

I meant to read more Erewhon books this year, but. I'm glad I read this one at least. A woman at an Antarctic Research Station sees a ghost. The bulk of the novel traces her through her feelings of being haunted by folklore. It's an enjoyable read, full of melancholy and serious inquiry.

10) I'm Waiting For You (Bo-Young Kim)

A collection of four short stories, where the middle two are linked and the first and final are linked. The bookends are about a couple who use space travel as an attempt to time travel to meet each other, the first from one perspective, the final from the other. The middle stories are about gods and reminded me a lot of Ryu Mitsuse's 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights. Maybe the only genuinely novel piece of SF I read this year.

9) The Swimmers (Julie Otsuka) (2022)

This book is pretty special, I think? More about it (and the ways it shifts perspective) on No! No Buzz. The rough idea: an underground pool develops a crack in it. An older Japanese woman's senility progresses.

8) The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (Tom Lin)

Maybe the best surprise of 2021? I picked it up because I'm (theoretically) running a Weird West game for Island Demeter and because I wanted it to sell. The story of a man getting revenge across the West, it isn't quite as much of a standout as How Much of These Hills is Gold but it did, for me, capture and convey some really striking images of blinding landscapes and circuses and moments of action. The kind of book I found real joy in reading on a scene-level, which is pretty rare for me.

7) The Animorphs: The Visitor (K.A. Applegate)

A graphic novel adaptation of the second book in The Animorphs. H approved. I was genuinely happy to see that they got an artist who was not just willing to explore the horror of the transformations, but seemed excited about them. The best body horror I've read in years.

6) Under A White Sky (Elizabeth Kolbert)

Elizabeth Kolbert is new to me - as is most popular science, which I have been cursed to get into since becoming a cooking nerd - but I thought this journalistic travelogue of the anthropocene was well put together and engagingly written. Kolbert tells a handful of stories of travels to significant sites, whether of water rehabilitation, underground lake species preservation, CRISPR lab or atmospheric engineering facility, and walks through what people are doing in the face of, and against, the rapid acceleration of human-propelled climate change. She picks interesting stories to tell and tells them well, which is nice.

5) The Cook of the Halcyon (Andrea Camilleri)

In the second-to-last Montalbano book, Camilleri goes full Bond and Montalbano fucking hates it. A really good, though coincidental, precursor to Riccardino, these two books closing the door on an Inspector I kind of fell in love with this year felt really gratifying.

4) Summer Sons (Lee Mandelo)

Slow burn queer Appalachian street racing horror in the academy. It caught the horror of medium-sized college town perfectly, in my experience, although I'm not from Appalachia or anywhere near. Mandelo's style can be a little dense at times and it took me almost a hundred pages to really dive in, but once I did it held me revenant-tight until the very satisfying ending.

3) My Heart is a Chainsaw (Stephen Jones)

The best Scream since 2 (I mean the second season of the TV show, obviously). Small town metafictional horror with an excellent ending and a genuinely excellent protagonist that also happens to be really smart about horror film and convey that in a way that is believable from a protagonist who is of high school age? A special book, honestly.

2) Riccardino (Andrea Camilleri)

Montalbano's final mystery, written some decades ago and lightly revised not incredibly long before Camilleri passed. It's pure metafiction, with Camilleri pitting himself as Montalbano's ultimate antagonist and collaborator. The writing feels (appropriately) somewhere between the early Montalbano books, with their dense depictions of history and food, and the later books that read breezily and imply much more than they say. Both styles work for me surprisingly well, and seeing both ends represented as Montalbano says goodbye was a real pleasant surprise. With an ending on par with Calvino (I assume, never having read him) or Borges, it made me happy to have fallen in love with this series in this particular year.

1) Sorrowland (Rivers Solomon)

I fucking adore this book. The Deep didn't quite hit for me, but this story of a young albino Black woman who escapes from her utopian cult with her twins and discovers love and superfungal powers absolutely fucking wrecked me. It does my favorite thing in the world - utilizing the flow and signifiers of genre fiction to address complex, systemic realities - so well that I still kind of don't believe it can possibly be as good as I remember. It also does my actual favorite thing (putting words into sentences on a page in ways alternately compelling, evocative, frustrating, and reflective) excellently. Genuinely masterful.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bee's Birthday Gifts: A History, with Links

In 2011, I started a number of things. Very few of them are still ongoing. Here's one thing that is: Every year, for my birthday, I make a gift and put it on the Internet.

So: I'm posting this in order to document what I've done in the past. And updating it when I remember to.

2011: 23 (a poem)

The gifts began in 2011 when I recorded a poem I had written and put it on the Internet. Here is a video of that. I think it's very bad. It's about how I was convinced I was going to die that year because of numerology and some other shit that's really cringeworthy.

2012: Celebrity-Mapping: Valentine's Are Over (an album)

From 2009-2012, I would spend Valentine's Day chopping up pop songs in Audacity and speaking over them. Each year I produced, wrote, recorded and released an EP. As I was doing the 2012 EP, my computer was dying, and I knew it was going to be the last one. So that year, for my birthday, I took what I thought at the time was my best work, put it into an album format, and released it.

Four years later, I started another Valentine's Day tradition, this one focused more on the incredibly talented friends I somehow have than on me making dogshit solo. I'd highly recommend skipping this record and heading over to the Fuck the Polis! bandcamp and listening to anything off any of the records subtitled A Valentine's Day Compilation.

2013: Not 23 (a song)

A song I worked on, on and off, for a couple years and finished on my 25th birthday. I think it might still be the single best song I've ever written, but that's my taste I guess.

2014: The Haunting at HKE (a game)

In 2014, I played a now long-defunct mobile game called Hello Kitty Kawaii Towns with some friends. I ended up making a tumblr out of our self-described Hell Towns, and documented some of my own ideas in story form.

By the time my birthday came around, we had mostly stopped playing. I picked up Twine and turned our goofy explorations into a story about ghosts, rent, and Hello Kitty. You can play that if you'd like.

2015:  Play Space (& 3 Years in Film) (a game and a book)

My first 3D game; you walk around in a ballpit in space. An A Truly Blonde Child-ish track plays and balls click. You can see the moon. A roof falls in with chess pieces on it. I still visit this every once in a while, and for whatever reason I still find it peaceful. I made it in PlayCanvas, which I may or may not have used to be able to sneak some time in from the job I had at the time. I don't know, I still like it.

I also put together some of my favorite reviews I wrote for the year-end wrap ups I used to do on this blog and laid it out in a PDF I called 3 Years in Film.

2016: CoSCAD (a game)

I wrote most of CoSCAD (which stands for "Communist Society of Critics After Dinner," I don't know if that ever made it into the text) on a road trip back from Fantastic Arcade in a notebook. The goal was to create a library of texts from this society set 100 years after a successful Communist revolution in North America. The core characters were kind of revisionists, interested in prehistorical (e.g. capitalist) art and its relations, however tangential, to the revolution.

I only got one story in. The files are all gone, so there's no further way to update it. But you can still play it. To do so: use the WASD keys to walk up to the book on the table. Make sure to click in the lower right to get the game to full screen. The right arrow key will open the book/flip the pages forward, left will flip them back. The story's kinda trash, because I was trying to do worldbuilding and narrative through the voice of far-future academics in a wildly different society & mode of production that were revisionists. It was ambitious, at least.

Thanks to Jamie for the art.

2017: These Crowns (a dance)

I think this is fucking unwatchable, but other people seem to find it cute. I fell so, so deeply in love with Kesha's 2017 comeback album (after being stifled by Dr. Luke's abusive ass for years) Rainbow that year (and I continue to love it, honestly). I've also lowkey wanted to use this tradition as an excuse to film something since, I don't know, probably about the beginning. Setting up the two-camera (laptop & phone) angles was fun, editing them together was... not.

The choreography & execution are terrible, because I do not know how to dance much less plan one out. It was a fun experiment, I guess, and when I'm glad I can't commit to any form of expression or lane of interest I'm glad I can point to this and say "fuck you, as long as I'm breathing I will continue to make whatever and everything."

2018: Reading Games: A Personal Critical Canon (a podcast, now defunct)

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, I made a tweet with an image that said "1 like = 1 of my favorite pieces of videogame criticism" over a background of Ness surrounded by Mr. Saturns. For my birthday in 2018, I wrote some long pieces about some of the things I linked in that thread with the hope of turning the 44 pieces or so I had listed into a limited, solo podcast. My birthday gift that year was to release the first 3 episodes all at once.

Those episodes cover articles by Winter Lake, Liz Ryerson, and Austin Walker; I went on to highlight articles by Emlie Reed (from the still-missed Arcade Review), Aevee Bee, GameFAQS, and Zolani Stewart. I haven't listened in some years, and the Twitter thread I was basing it off of was lost to the sands of time (read: tweetdelete), so it's never coming back, but I'm happy I tried.

2019: BBBS (an album)

Over most of 2013, me and my A Truly Blonde Child bandmate watched Xena: Warrior Princess. In January of 2014, we dropped a record that's one of the only things I'm genuinely proud of as a musician: Xena Season 1 EP. In 2015 we teamed up again to record/write/produce/release an EP on the 4th of July called Let Freedom Ring. That one's less good but it has a few moments. It only took four and a half years for us to make another thing.

You can check the liner notes on Bandcamp for a longer thing about this record. It's definitely an A Truly Blonde Child record, but one that I did most of the work on (the Bonus track is all me, and is the music for the Island Demeter podcast; I think I did everything on Brain and Blood also, but I'm not positive). As a result it's nowhere near as good as Xena, but hey. By now you're certainly aware that a good end product isn't exactly the goal here.

2020: 32 (a poem)

For my tenth entry in the birthday series, and when my age was the same two numbers that I started with flipped, I decided to write a response poem. A bookend, of a sort, with the poem from 2011. It had been a long time since I stopped writing poetry; I had come out as trans & nonbinary; the pandemic was just really starting to settle in as a thing I was going to be navigating as a retail worker; etc., etc.

I liked it at the time and don't have any particularly bad/embarrassing memories of things in it. Which is definitely a first for a poem by me.


2021: Welcome to the City, My New Friend (a game)

 I made a roleplaying game about making friends in a city!



2022: Dreams of the Devoured (a game)

In anticipation of Island Demeter season 2, I wrote a Twine game in the setting based on a recording we did. An experiment in form as much as a work, I think it's not a bad piece of writing with a cool gimmick.


Sunday, August 1, 2021

A Diary Entry Loosely Organized Around Thoughts About Inspector Montalbano

 At the beginning of this year, I started planning out season 2 of Island Demeter. Instead of the freeform feel of the first season, I decided to go with something way too ambitious. It's currently coming together, slowly. For the purposes of this post, though, what's relevant is that I started loosing preparing campaigns around some systems I found interesting. One of them was Rude Detectives, a game we've now run about a half dozen times and that I feel pretty positively about.

Sometime around the first session of Rude Detectives, I got it in my head that I needed to read more mysteries. I've never been a particularly huge fan of the genre, but mostly for lack of trying (and a deep antipathy toward police). What I did also remember early this year, though, by way of reading Terry Miles' Rabbits (a book that I think is pretty bad, all things considered, but which I did devour anyway and has for some reason stuck with me) is that I devour the worst kinds of mysteries; the ones with droll postmodern hooks and literary aspirations. It's the curse of falling in love with House of Leaves at a formative age and reading a lot of theory and cyberpunk immediately after.

Since I work at a bookstore, I grabbed whatever Nancy Drew books were lying around. Unfortunately there were two and I devoured them both in about a day a piece. I needed somewhere else to go.

Around this same time, I was seeing some success with the Prisoners Literature Project display I keep charge of at the store I work at, and was trying to branch out with different kinds of books for the display. I believe this is when I did some research into the authors we carried, and a used copy of Andrea Camilleri's The Sacco Gang landed in my lap. The book sounded interesting to me, so I chewed through it. I've been reading... a lot this year, and that was a while ago, but the things that stuck with me: it's billed as a gang of communists standing up to the mafia; it's a nonfiction novel; the writing style has the elliptical punch and brevity of a great headline, line after line after line; it opened me up to want to revisit Italian agitprop like Elio Petri's films and to want to learn more about moments like the Red Brigades and the Years of Lead; and it inspired me to look up more of Andrea Camilleri's work. All good things, in my book.

I didn't do almost any research about the Montalbano books, but I did want to make sure I started at the first one (since then I've read them wildly out of order, and don't feel like that's detracted much). Which, incidentally, lead to me taking a lunch break to walk over to Moe's Books right around when their union was recognized. I picked up The Shape of Water by Camilleri, a couple of cheap paperbacks by L. Sprague de Camp and Clifford D. Simak, and a copy of The People's History of the United States from the Prisoners Literature Project over there. One of the Moe's Books employees is my contact with the PLP, so it felt like a nice way to send a book and be able to say congratulations on the union.

I've read the first 10 Nancy Drew books, about a dozen Montalbano books, and seen the same number of episodes of the BBC release of the Inspector Montalbano TV show (each episode is either an adaptation of a single book or a handful of short stories, and they tend to run about an hour and forty minutes a piece).

You know: the last time I wrote this style of entry on the blog? I think it was the weekend I went to see a bunch of Alt Lit readings. I've since unpublished that because nearly all of those people turned out to be sex pests at the least, and because I hated the style I wrote it in. I know when I sat down to write this (what a novel thing, writing, to my brain right now) that I wanted it to be more wide-ranging thoughts on Montalbano in general, possibly in another old style (those old theses). Unfortunately these days my brain rarely works in any direction other than the total information glut, rambling expression of impossibly tangled hell. So here we are.

Detective Montalbano

Reading the Montalbano books as I am - at the whim of what comes in used, primarily from other booksellers who I think are expecting me to handsell their used consignment books - has lead to a lot of interesting juxtapositions. The one I want to focus on is my recent read of The Terracotta Dog, book two in the series. Over just a couple weeks I ended up reading five of his books. The Age of Doubt from 2008, The Dance of the Seagull from 2009, The Potter's Field from 2008, Angelica's Smile from 2010, and The Terracotta Dog from 1996.

The style difference between his books from the 90s (that I've read) and his books from the late 00s and on (that I've read) are kind of unbelievable. So unbelievable, to me, that I did that deeply annoying thing of bringing both The Terracotta Dog and The Potter's Field over to my coworkers and told them to open to a random page. The visual difference in the density of words per paragraph on the page says it all, to me. Obviously it says very little to anyone else devoid of context, so here I am trying to explain it some more into the void.

I've been basically borrowing these books like library books, so I can't do the thing here where I snap a picture and post side-by-sides (or type out representative passages) (or rather, I could, but that would  mean sitting on this piece for longer than I have any interest in doing). The long and short of it is that at the beginning of the series, the Montalbano books are a 2, maybe 3 paragraph-per-page series. By the end, a single page might have anywhere from a half to a full dozen paragraphs.

Or, to continue with the quantitative measures: in early books, Montalbano is surrounded by deputies. Catarella, Fazio, and Mimi are the ones who stick around; Galluzo, Gallo, and Tortorella fill up space in the earlier novels. That is: by the mid-2000s, the effective police force that surrounds Montalbano is halved. That may happen through plot contrivance (I don't know, having read them the way I do) or not, but it has an obvious effect. Half as many supporting characters means half as much space needing to be devoted to there whereabouts and motivations, or twice as much capacity to develop others. Roughly speaking, of course. I know it doesn't quite work out that way.

I point out these quantitative differences to get to an analysis of how that effects the act of reading these books, even wildly out of order, but I also know that being presented numbers with only a few words of context means basically nothing to me personally. So I'll come out and say right here: the difference of number of paragraphs and characters is massive. It's not quite the difference between reading, say, Proust and reading Chandler, or between reading Anna Karenina or a long tweet thread, but it isn't entirely dissimilar. Abstracted, it is absolutely baffling to me that the same author wrote The Terracotta Dog or The Shape of Water that wrote The Sacco Gang or Angelica's Smile. Actually reading it, though, at least to me, is seamless.

To contrast what I remember of The Terracotta Dog with what I remember of, lets say, The Potter's Field (even though the two end up closer together on the spectrum of themes and concerns than other juxtapositions might; it turns out my brain is my brain, as much antagonism as it might have toward me). The Terracotta Dog is motivated by a fairly banal mystery, where a secret cache of weapons is discovered behind a rock. There's a truck that stole a bunch of shit at a dock, a suspicious manager, Montalbano's ne'er do well friend Gege getting killed while in a car with Salvo (Montalbano's name to his friends), and some deductive twists and turns that make up the main plot. The central investigation, in other words, is filled with stuff that kind of doesn't feel important pockmarked with crucial character moments, like Mimi Augello (Montalbano's second in command) overstepping his station and Montalbano explicitly telling Mimi that he got Montalbano's friend killed by using police resources.

What The Terracotta Dog is interested in is actually a secondary mystery. Inside the weapons cave, Montalbano discovers two very old corpses. They're surrounded by a pitcher, some coins, a dog made of terracotta, and other accoutrement that I can't remember off the top of my head.

This secondary mystery is about the history of Italian Fascism and the people caught up in it, especially teenagers who happen to be in love at the time of war; it's about what it takes to disappear to the state (sometimes very little, it turns out, but done meticulously); it's about doing a humanities degree and how that hyperfocus can have repercussions down the line that barely ripple, and yet still matter; it's about complicity, people, trauma, desire, and death. It's also, very specifically, about semiotics (Umberto Eco's treatise on it is not so much a plot point as a leitmotif).

The Potter's Field is also about semiotics, but instead of the question of religious stories of awakening that are brought up in The Terracotta Dog, it is about the semiotics of Mafia killings. In The Potter's Field, Montalbano has a dream that the state has officially become run by the Mafia, and then investigates the killing of a man whose corpse was left in a field of clay. Over the course of it, he decodes certain messages, mostly revolving around the fact that Judas was buried in a potter's field (another name for a field of clay) after returning his thirty pieces of silver. The long and short of it is that it is a fabrication of a Mafia crime according to old codes, in order to implicate the Mafia.

I juxtapose these because of how similar the concerns and themes are. The organization of the state (or the black market) by one or two individuals, for instance. They way that organization is obsessed with a particular type of meaning-making through allegory and structured message. The ways that meaning-making fails, through action and inaction.

The real juxtaposition, though, is in the style. In The Terracotta Dog, the sentences drag on. The paragraphs take a half a page, or even two whole pages. In The Potter's Field, the sentences cut themselves off quickly. They might take a page, but more often than not they're a quarter of a page or less.

Which brings me to the seamlessness.

At least from what I've read so far, Andrea Camilleri's books have certain questions at their core that don't change. This might be explainable by the fact that he wrote them all over the course of the last couple of decades of his 93 years of life. But the wild style differences tell a different story, to me. There's a clear story of Detective Montalbano being worked out by Camilleri, whose interest in the political history of Italy through the lens of Sicily is glaring, over the course of his novels.

There's also a clear story of this series doing extraordinarily well, probably beyond Camilleri's imagination, and a desire to continue that success. But.

There's also a story of Montalbano, a character who struggles with the fact that he's a cop despite being involved in the 1968 student movement, who hates his bosses but is involved in one of the most repulsive institutions in history, who gives scoops to the communist journalist at the Free Channel and despises the Tucker Carlson motherfucker on the news. The Montalbano who, well. Allow me to quote Camilleri here, from an interview with The Independent

Inspector Montalbano

The most egregious crimes of the Inspector Montalbano TV series, to me (having watched six episodes, each of feature film length), are as follows:
  1. Montalbano is regularly seen eating and talking
  2. The food is barely remarked upon
  3. I haven't once seen Salvo sitting on a flat rock talking to a crab. I hope this is simply a later development.
  4. Ingrid was like "I'd like pasta con la sarde" and Montalbano was like "I can make that"??? Motherfucker Adelina made that and we all know that.
  5. The shift in point of view - from a tight 3rd person on Montalbano to including flashbacks or setup - is understandable in terms of making a popular TV show out of popular novels. The near-complete failure to represent Montalbano's internal dialogue sucks.
Here is a transition: the show's adaptation of The Terracotta Dog is damn near note-perfect. Each beat of the novel is represented in the show, from the discovery of the weapons cache to the conversation between Mimi and Montalbano about the death of Gege to the reveal of why those corpses were positioned in the way they were, in the room they were, by who they were. Note-perfect. But devoid of a certain history.

Basically every episode of the Inspector Montalbano show that I've seen starts, after the opening credits, with Montalbano swimming. Maybe there's a cold open, maybe there isn't, but he is almost always doing a freestyle stroke through the ocean in the first handful of minutes of an episode. It's an attention to detail to the novels that I really appreciate; the director is clearly interested in the way that swimming looks on television, to the way that this is an important aspect of Montalbano's character that isn't expressed anywhere else. He lives next to the sea, and with it. That is both worthy of being represented on screen, and worthwhile to represent on screen.

What's also worthy of being represented on screen is finding joy in food, or the relationship between a police inspector and his housekeeper that is fraught with class difference.

The history that the television adaptation of The Terracotta Dog is devoid of is all of the things that the book is interested in. They show up, in plot form: a big deal is made of the dog and the corpses. A good chunk of the episode is about how the central mystery isn't that interesting, what's really at stake is these two half-century old corpses. What is missing is the way that this is the real concern.

Let me back up. And acknowledge that we are nearing the end of this discussion, which won't be narratively satisfying. The things I write never are.

Here are the things I adore about the Inspector Montalbano show:
  1. Ingrid. Her actor delivers lines with laughter that really brings out her character.
  2. Sicily. The way shots of the island are full of particular architecture, or particular beaches, really works for me.
  3. The complexity, reduced. There's something about the way that the ending montage, over the end credits, recapitulates elements of the story. It reminds you of everything that happened in the acting
  4. The fidelity. There have been times that I saw a clip of the show and then read the book, and almost felt like I had fucked up. I thought I had read the book before but didn't remember the previous 100 or so pages, because the dialog is so particular and perfectly represented.
Here is an admission: I love movies that don't work. I am much more comfortable with the written word, because there's nothing quite like the failures of language.

But then, there's always the failure of adaptation.

Or the question of how long it takes to convey an idea.

Like, for instance: does it take a paragraph? A sentence? What's the difference?

Does it take the particular framing of a shot, one that slowly pans around a beach following a car? Or one that takes its time showing a labyrinthine house, only to disappear into someone saying "come on" who reveals a dead body that they don't (and can't) acknowledge?

This show - this 2-episode season where each episode is a feature film - wrestles with so many things. With shooting in Sicily, and finding locations that occasionally really work (and often don't). With who to give screen time to, in order to make an episode as compelling as possible while staying true to the source. With choosing what to adapt. It's all very obvious on the screen. Or, rather, it's all very messy, and all very comforting. I've fallen asleep while watching this show multiple times. I don't do that.

Have I just been writing to write? Yes. I'm so out of practice, and I chose this title before we even got to the discussion of the books. My brain is a tangled hell. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean a tight package of a post.

Have I been to be clear about the difference between a paragraph a page and twelve? Yes. Not because I think I have the capacity to write quite like Camilleri does, but. Sometimes it's important to lose your style, to engage in mimesis.

And sometimes it's important to talk about how in the novels of Andrea Camilleri, the focus on food is paramount. For instance: the books don't belabor the moment of eating, but they do revel in it. Even as they identify who made it, how it is a moment of peace among a difficult time, and so on. The show does not.

Just like it's important to talk about how the shots of the coastline, lingering, or the particular staircases, or the architecture or even the trattorias being represented on film are things that the books cannot do.

Ah. I'm tired now. It's 1am. I started writing this hours and hours ago. I didn't edit it, except in the process of writing it. I think, like that other post I mentioned, that this will be unpublished someday. I look forward to regretting writing it.

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