Tag Archives: Christopher Barzak

My Best of 2010, Part One

As I too often note on this blog, I haven’t written much lately. I could claim I haven’t been writing because haven’t had much to say, but the truth is that I haven’t had much to say because I haven’t been writing. Sometimes I don’t consciously realize what it is I have to say until I try putting it into words.

The sticking point is that to write something I have to put in some serious thought–serious for me, anyway–and I cut down on sustained pondering over the last couple of months. I’ve spent the year anxious about a number of things, the biggest of which are the economy and the direction in which the country is headed. It feels like everything we’ve built in the last century is being torn down and hollowed out. Lately, if I’m not careful, contemplation can metamorphose into perpetual low-grade panic.

So I haven’t engaged enough with the books I’ve read. I’ve let the texts wash over me, let the authors’ thoughts drown out my worries, escaped from a world where, for the moment, I don’t want to spend very much time. I managed this without focusing on any particular kind of book. Some people disdain “escapist” literature, but, truth be told, you can escape into Dostoevsky as easily as Doctor Who.

This is, of course, not good for me. So I’m going to try to post more often. I’m starting slowly with a review of 2010–just a paragraph or three on the books that made the biggest impression on me, for good or ill. I’ll split it into multiple posts, because in a few cases I’m coming up with encouragingly long paragraphs. I may eventually try to come up with longer essays on a few. (If nothing else I’m a little chagrined that, of the books I did manage to write about, the only ones by female authors were the among the books I didn’t like.)

The books will be listed in alphabetical order by author, because I hate trying to rank things. (Anyway, it’s not fair pitting contemporary writers against the aforementioned Dostoevsky.)

The Best (Part One)

Kage Baker, The Bird of the River

This is, sadly, Kage Baker’s last novel. It’s one of her better ones, another book in the fantasy series that began with The Anvil of the World, set in a secondary world which draws as much from America as most Extruded Fantasy Product does from Europe. Like Anvil, it’s very much a working class fantasy: it focuses on the kind of people who stay in the background of most secondary world fantasy, and it spends a lot of pages just watching them do their jobs while the plot casually emerges from the background. The Bird of the River is about a riverboat and some of its day-to-day operations would have looked familiar to Mark Twain. I came away thinking I should really read Life on the Mississippi again. Maybe in 2011…

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

This is one of the books I reviewed. In the absence of new insights, I’ll simply direct you to that post.

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

I avoided The Last Unicorn for years because of the word “unicorn,” which for me conjures up black velvet paintings sold out of a trailer. Peter S. Beagle is a genius, though, so inevitably I was going to get around to reading this, and when I finally did it blew away any thought of kitsch.

The Last Unicorn is set in a world balanced halfway between fairy tale and history, tipping towards mundanity. It’s a world aware of itself passing into legend, a place where wannabe Robin Hoods hope a folklorist will come along and transcribe ballads about them. This may sound very twee and self-referential, but it’s not. It never feels like the characters are playing parts, or that the things that happen to them don’t matter.

Beagle remembers that, in legend, wonders cost something. As one character says, “Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.” The novel is tinged as much with loss and disappointment as hope. It’s not about heroes, but failures: people who’ve reached the middle of their lives and found they haven’t wound up in anything resembling a fairy-tale ending, or even a fairy-tale mid-plot. There’s a unicorn in The Last Unicorn, but the book is mostly about the human characters coming to terms with lives that aren’t the stories they’d wished for.

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

Cover Art

I’ve been letting my blog slide again. This is mostly due to general tiredness. I get the impression that the periods when I don’t write much are also the periods when I don’t think as deeply or concentrate as well, so I’m trying to restart my brain. I think it could use the exercise.

A while back I read this year’s Nebula nominees. (All but the one that actually won, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which, having read Bacigalupi’s short stories, I felt I’d practically already read.) I was going to write something about all of them but I stopped before getting to The Love We Share Without Knowing and Boneshaker. They seemed like a good place to restart these reviews.

I liked Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing–this was the book I’d hoped would get the Nebula–and yet I’m not sure how much I have to say about it that can’t be distilled to a banal “Hey, this is really good.” Which is why this review is short.

TLWSWK is the kind of novel built from short stories whose characters weave in and out of each others’ lives. The stories are set in the area of an English-language school in Japan staffed partly by young American expatriates who moved abroad to find their lives are pretty much the same wherever they go. There’s no single overarching plot, and most stories could stand on their own, but the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

The problem with this kind of thing is that some readers might miss the whole if they don’t like the parts. Here, the first story is the weakest; it hinges on a plot twist that anyone who’s read more than a couple of ghost stories will see coming from a thousand miles away, and when it’s over its narrator entirely disappears from the book. If anyone read the first story and put the book down, and is now reading this review, then give it another chance, okay?

The title is taken from an incident that crops up in two stories, told from two perspectives. Two people who’ve checked into a Japanese “love hotel” find a note in the guest book from someone who didn’t come with a partner–someone who just comes for the atmosphere, who feels a connection with the unseen strangers in the other rooms and “the love we share without knowing.” For one of the point-of-view characters in that doubled scene, finding the message is a perspective-changing moment; the other doesn’t get it. Not that it’s likely that everything that goes on in that hotel is love, but Guest Book Guy is at least trying to make connections.

The structure of TLWSWK is also its theme. It’s about what it is–about its characters’ inadvertent assumption of bit parts in other characters’ stories, how they unintentionally, like random pool balls, knock friends and strangers onto new trajectories. In this book’s world, karma isn’t something that comes back to you but something that rubs off on other people. One person’s decision, years later, nudges a friend in the same direction; relationships that don’t mean much to one character change others’ lives; a character is saved by another’s decision to ignore an instruction. It’s slightly scary to think we may never know the best and worst things we’ve done in our lives because the consequences played out years later, or miles away, and maybe among strangers.