What I’m Reading (June Edition)



Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller

Is it enough to say that reading this book caused me to go out and buy non-grocery store olive oil? To drink shots of it to get the full experience of the olive oil, to understand it’s mouthfeel? To learn it can be drizzled over everything you eat, and perhaps should be? That during my read, I hungered for olive oil in any form I could get it?

That’s the mark of a good writer, I suppose, imbuing the reader with those passions they so strongly feel themselves. In that, Mueller definitely succeeds.

And he succeeds in the rest of the book, as well. He’s not as entertaining as Mary Roach, but he delineates both the present culture and the ancient history of olive oil production with skill. Perhaps the most interesting to me–though I partly knew this already, factual detritus in my brain–was how criminal the olive oil industry is. Oh, not all of it, but there was (is?) a time when the mafia ran olive oil groves because it was the most profitable activity they could do.

A great and taste-bud torturing read. Also, all the olive oils in the supermarkets aren’t for shit, apparently.

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

Don’t ask me what this book is about.

Most of Miéville’s books are plot-heavy, thick with characters and action, running wild and free on ideas and worlds that seem both created on the fly and so intricately detailed that you’d never be able to explore every bit of them.

This book, however, is more like a classic, literary character study. It tells of one boy’s life. Well, it might be a boy telling it, or it might be someone else telling the boy’s story, in which case, according to the logic in the book, most of it is made up. Anyway, the boy has a troubled relationship with his father, who he believes killed his mother. There is also a pit in the hill behind their house holding, perhaps, some Lovecraftian god. And the eponymous census-taker (I think) who is being forced to write down this story in the present while under armed arrest.

It is the relationship with his father that is the most important thing here, that drives the story like an engine you did not want to start and do not want to keep feeding fuel to. It is beautiful, and terrible, and though the book comes to an end, no questions are answered. I did not mind.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

I’d read about this before I’d read it, so if you want your “reading it” to be completely untrammeled by preconceptions (a state I recommend), then skip to the next entry.

That said, I’m not sure anyone can really ever be prepared for a PKD book.

I know I’ve said before that PKD was influenced by A. E. van Vogt’s process of introducing a new idea every 900 words or so. Every few pages, a twist in the plot. A new concept that has to be integrated.  A new character to work in. Ubik is the best example of this for PKD that I’ve read so far. When you think you have a handle on what’s going on, the very essence of the book changes, no longer a kind of anti-heist, but now a murder mystery, now a living nightmare, now a slasher movie. Characters you’ve known up until this point suddenly reveal themselves to be someone entirely different. Reading the book is like living in someone else’s dream.

I can understand that this experience isn’t ideal for everyone. Fair warning, though, that this is constantly what I’m trying to do in my own writing: bring my dreams to life.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

This book isn’t for me.

I mean, it is for me, and I love it, and I think the essays in here are important and fascinating and interesting and inspiring (especially in terms of writing persistence and fighting the dominant cultural paradigm), but the book itself is not written for me. Look at the title. Look at the first few essays. The book is written with the expectation that the reader is a woman (or female-identified) and the “we” is not a we I’m automatically part of.

Women have been reading this way since the invention of the book. It’s a strange, and not unpleasant, feeling to be on the other side of the page.

The seeming genesis of the book comes from her essay “We Have Always Fought” about her own misperception of women in combat, her assumption based on our cultural narrative that women should be domestic and, therefore, it has always been this way throughout history ever backwards we go. (She talks about this in other situations, too, such as how archaeologists might force their nuclear family view on the first humans, putting women around the fire rather than thinking about how able bodies would be more important than gendered ones.) It’s a fascinating view of how her own perspective changed–this from a person who was getting her Ph.D. in revolutionary movements at the time.

Anyway, it’s a great book. My only (small) complaint is that the essays aren’t longer. Most were published online on her blog or elsewhere, and so are (due to the medium) shortish, 3-5 pages on average. I want to see her dive into a subject. But then again, because a relatively few number of interests weave through the book as a whole, it’s easy to think of the book as one-long essay, circling back again and again to see the same points from a different point-of-view.

The Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe

I don’t know why I bought this book. It was six or seven years ago that I did, and it’s been sitting on my TBR shelf since then. I’ve never read anything else by Wolfe, but I suspect I wanted to dive into good SFF stories in order to partly inspire (and understand) my own.

Wolfe takes pleasure in writing characters who are hard to relate to. They might be brain-damaged killers or psychically abused children or just, well, distant. Maybe distance is the best way to describe it. As though Wolfe is a scientist working his characters through a maze, but there’s no cheese at the end, no prize. This is strange to me, as many of his stories are somewhat occasional (as you might talk about poetry) in that they memorialize friends or, more directly, religion. More specifically, Christianity. I don’t know what that seems strange to me in a SFF writer, but there you go (Tolkien and Lewis notwithstanding). (Honestly, there is a story that reads sort of like a one-joke tale where the end is JESUS IS BORN ON ANOTHER PLANET. As though that’s supposed to be enough. Or startling. Or whatever. But the world he creates before that point is so much more interesting I could’ve lived in it for hours.) (In other news, there’s a story in here where the main character considers forcing himself on a woman he’s interested in because otherwise she might not think he’s passionate enough.)

I would find it hard to recommend this book as a whole. However, there are a few awesome stories in this collection that I think everyone could do with reading–and I don’t think it’s just because Wolfe has a sort of magic-realist/absurdist track that falls in line with my own aesthetic. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is a beautiful Gothic tale that, again, creates a world I could live in for a long time (not that I’d want to, actually, as it’s a pretty horrible place to live). Wolfe appears to have expanded it to novel length, so I might actually check that out.

The stand-out story for me is “Forlesen,” a tale that’s a mixture between Kafka and Ionesco. The summary: a man goes to work at his office. The opening paragraph:

“When Emanuel Forlesen awoke, his wife was already up preparing breakfast. Forlesen remembered nothing, knew nothing but his name, for an instant did not remember his wife, or that she was his wife, or that she was a human being, or what human beings were supposed to look like.”

How can you not want to read that?

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