Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre

So, I've said this before, and I know it's weird about me: I will frequently read the memoirs or other miscellaneous nonfiction of a writer whose books I'm only vaguely familiar with.

The way this is supposed to work: you like a novelist, so you read all of the novels. Then, maybe, you move on to other things. The odds & sods collections of journalism, the memoirs, the travel puff pieces, and so on.

But I'm more likely to read one or two novels (in this case The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, six years ago), then buy a few other novels (making sure to get the ones in the same trade dress, because I'm also quirky that way), and meander along for a few years without reading any of those other novels until suddenly I pick up the nonfiction book and finish that.

My half-serious explanation is that I'm now a middle-aged man, and middle-aged men have a well-known and nigh-unstoppable tropism for non-fiction. It's just one of those things.

Anyway, that's why I read The Pigeon Tunnel, the 2016 memoirs of the man born David Cornwell and who has written a long series of literary spy thrillers as John Le Carre. It's a book primarily for people who have read those other books, obviously -- not least because it's by the man who spent his adult life writing those books. Cornwell/Le Carre was 85 when this book was published-- and is not dead as I type this; he has a new novel coming out before the end of the year -- but he's a public-school boy of the very old school, a former government employee, and a writer who has been burned by publicity many times. So this is a reticent book, an elliptical one, that has no overall structure or focus and which touches on Cornwell's childhood (the traditional wellspring of writers) hardly at all.

Instead, he has thirty-eight chapters of wildly variable lengths over the course of this book's roughly three hundred pages: some are short anecdotes while others, like the long chapter on his con-man father Ronnie, are full-fledged and well-formed essays. They range through his adult life almost randomly, and touch almost entirely on his professional life -- he does write about his parents (separately), but neither of his wives and nothing about his children. All of those pieces include only what Cornwell wants to tell. Even now, as an old man a generation after the Cold War ended and sixtyish years after he retired from government service, he's clear that he doesn't want to reveal any real secrets.

There are a lot of bits about real-life encounters and how those influenced or were incorporated into his novels: again, this will be most interesting to people who have actually read those novels. And those are mostly his novels of the '80s and '90s -- the Cold War books, the Smiley books in particular, the ones that may have come more out of his own experiences or knowledge, are the ones where he does not have anecdotes to tell us.

He does tell a few stories of his time in government service, though -- mostly escorting West German dignitaries through London in the years around 1960, acting as their translator to UK prime ministers or whorehouse madams. And he of course tells a few stories about the movies and TV shows made from his work: the usual stories of frantic activity that turns into nothing in the end, and some appreciations of Sir Alec Guinness.

I enjoyed reading The Pigeon Tunnel, but Cornwell is a reticent man at his core, and a reader should bring a lot more knowledge and experience to this book than I was able to in order to get the most out of it. It really is primarily for the Le Carre obsessed, I think.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

In 1933, a group of French Surrealists described various "irrational embellishments" of Paris, in their journal Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. Eighty years later, China Mieville decided to use it as the setting for a short novel.

That's reductive and probably not entirely true...but it's pretty close. Mieville was influenced by a lot more of Surrealism than just that one magazine issue, but it's clear that particular transformation was the seed of the book.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 novella about a city transformed by a Surrealist-powered bomb: we see it mostly in 1950, through the eyes of Thibault, a young Surrealist/partisan, with shorter interspersed chapters of the 1941 events leading up to the blast. This Paris has been invaded three times: by the Nazis, who are still around (even, apparently, outside the city, where WWII seems to be still chugging along in 1950); by the Nazi's demonic allies (about whom we don't learn nearly as much as this reader would have liked); and by the manifestations ("manifs," in the words of the locals) of Surrealism called up by that bomb.

And, yes, the Nazi demons do rather seem to have migrated from a slightly different alternate-WWII book, though they are necessary for parts of the plot. Mieville is as usual not interested in simple dichotomies, so there's no sense of Surrealism vs. Hell here: both are bizarre eruptions that Parisians must deal with, both are problematic, neither are as bad as actual Nazis. (In this Mieville is absolutely correct.)

Mieville does not concentrate on the details of the city: at time, it felt like his characters were racing through nature (a wood, perhaps, or overgrown meadows) and not down the streets of a major city. Perhaps they are; that would be very Surrealist, I suppose. But he very much does not have them ducking into and out of buildings, or climbing staircases to get a better view, or traipsing across rooftops, or using any of the other things one traditionally associates with cities. They are instead running through open ground, as if the vast majority of Paris has been leveled -- which is possible, I suppose, but makes it not particularly Paris.

He does have a lot of Surrealist imagery brought to awful life in his city, and there are more than twenty pages of endnotes (after a book barely 170 pages) to explain where they all came from and to bask in the glow of how clever he is.

Thibault's group, the Main a plume, claims to be both Surrealist and an anti-Nazi partisan force, but they are pretty much all dead by the time Last Days begins, and the various partisan groups in Paris come across more as scattered street gangs or tribes, the violence-oriented sector of the few people left alive in New Paris. (Frankly, I was a little surprised anyone could be alive after nine years in a city both entirely cordoned off from the outside world and overrun by Nazi soldiers, demons, and freakish Surrealist creations. There's no sign any of these people are growing food, for one thing.)

So Thibault runs around, to not much effect, and sees a lot of things that Mieville carefully annotates in the backmatter. He soon runs into Sam, a female American photographer who is obviously more than the disaster tourist she seems to be, though she's not the kind of more Thibault thinks she is. They learn some deep secrets of their world, gather a manif of their own -- it follows Thibault due to a leash made by Nazi manif-control science -- and, in the end, save the world, more or less.

The plot is hurried and consists mostly of running around for what never seems like adequate reasons. The world is potentially big and interesting, but Mieville presents it in staccato images, as if he's trying to fit all of his favorite Surrealist ideas into the shortest possible number of pages. The characters are few to begin with, and even the major ones are cyphers: Thibault is an Everyman as much as he's anything, and he's not much of that.

This is a thin book, even thinner than it looks at first, and the very definition of self-indulgent. It will be of primary interest to huge fans of Mieville or Surrealism, or (preferably) both.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

The really impressive creators are the ones who seem to be able to do anything -- who jump from genre to genre semi-randomly, going wherever their latest ideas take them.

My go-to example of that for the last couple of decades has been Neil Gaiman, whose first six book-sized objects were each honestly described as his first something. But I'm thinking that I might be able to freshen up that example if Tillie Walden continues the way she's been going.

Walden is young -- still on the uphill side of her twenties -- and burst into wide notice with her 2017 memoir in comics form, Spinning. Before that, she did a few shorter books, which I haven't seen yet. (I believe they're mostly in the vein of realistic fiction, but I'm starting to think that belief underestimates Walden.) Spinning was, more or less, the story of Walden's teen years: her life in competitive figure skating, her coming out, her realizing who she wanted to be. Her big follow-up to Spinning is this book: On a Sunbeam.

Now, if you come into the publishing world through the memoir door, there's a certain pressure and expectation to do that again the next time. Or, at least, to tell a fictional story about someone who could be you, in a world like the ones you know well.

Walden was having none of that.

On a Sunbeam is a soft-SF story, set in a wide universe sometime in the medium future, with weird technology that feels semi-biological and which Walden presents as thoroughly lived in. She never stoops to an infodump; this universe exists and the people in it do, too -- she may have figured out the details in her head (or maybe not; it's not necessary), but there's no look-at-how-clever-I-was-to-make-all-of-this-up gloating. She just has a story to tell, about a young woman named Mia who maybe has a little problem with impulse control.

We first see Mia at about nineteen. She's just joined the crew of a ship -- whose name we don't learn for a long time, so I won't mention it here -- run by a small team that rehabilitate ruined buildings on assignment. (I don't want to say that On a Sunbeam's world doesn't make sense, because that's not the right way to put it. It does feel like we're in a very odd, quirky corner of that world, though -- the cultural equivalent of something like artisinal bread-making or microbrewing, a haven for oddballs and weirdos.) She's just out of school, and almost equal parts quietly confused and excitedly racing.

But we also see a younger Mia, about five years before,when she was still at her fancy private school Cleary's. (The school may fly around space on its own: this isn't entirely clear.) She was not a terribly good student, and she was not a terribly diligent student, but she did OK. She desperately wanted to play Lux, the weirdo sport that involves racing small fish-shaped flying spaceships through convoluted tunnels in the dark, and she was even more impulsive than she would be at nineteen, but the Cleary's plot -- despite at first seeming that way -- isn't the story of how she just barely avoided being expelled or worse.

No, it's the story of her first love: Grace, who showed up unexpectedly the middle of that year, quiet and self-contained and sure she was going to become a writer.

The two stories do intersect, and combine, before the end, as they must: that's how a book set in two time-periods works (particularly if they're so close in time as this one). Grace is from a particularly strange and dangerous part of this universe, and Mia's new crew has to go to that place before On a Sunbeam is over.

Walden does subvert the expected teen-love-conquers-all tropes looming over it all: more than once, actually. Mia and Grace are nothing like Romeo and Juliet, and nobody's going to die for love if any of the characters can help it.

They might die for other reasons: the planet called The Staircase can be pretty deadly.

There's one further quirky thing about this universe -- well, only quirky if you're not familiar with a long strand of SF, from Sheri Tepper on back through Joanna Russ all the way to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They're all women. [1] This is not mentioned or remarked on, the same way they never point out that they eat food to stay alive or that clothes are worn on the outside of the body. It's just the way this society is: men do not exist.

(I'll forgive Walden for erasing my entire gender, since it was in service of the story. As long as erasing huge swaths of humanity doesn't become a habit.)

On a Sunbeam has a lovely loose line, moody colors, an often over-enthusiastic young cast, a big weird universe to wander around, and a lovely (and completely non cloying) first love story to recommend it. So I do. And I expect the next Tillie Walden book will be something else both completely different and deeply familiar: some other young woman finding her way in a complex, messy world.

[1] One character, Elliott, is called non-binary, and "uses they/them pronouns". Both of those things seem entirely the wrong terms for this fictional world, frankly, and show a failure of Walden to think through what she's created. You can't be non-binary if everyone else is unitary.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/28/19

This time out, I have books in two categories: three newly-published books, and two that I paid for myself but just came in the mail.

New Books

I'll lead with the quirkiest thing, since that's how I roll: Mingus Fingers by David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, coming from Fairwood Press in November. It's a short, small-format book -- probably a novellette -- and the speculative element seems to be,um, unique. It's about Charles Mingus, the jazz legend, who our narrator sees transform into a giraffe while playing...and Mingus thinks a young musician may be just as gifted. There's also, according to the back cover, something about boxing in it as well.

Meet Me in the Future is a story collection from Kameron Hurley, with sixteen stories originally published between 2006 and 2018. (Mostly 2015-2017, though, when she seems to have had a burst of short fiction.) It's from Tachyon, and I have a finished book in my hands, so I believe it is published already.

Also from Tachyon, coming in November, is a new anthology: The New Voices of Science Fiction, edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman. It reprints twenty stories by newer writers originally published over the past five years -- Rebecca Roanhorse, E. Lily Yu, Sarah Pinsker, Alice Sola Kim, and over a dozen more. It's the kind of book I didn't realize I needed until I saw it, but I hope I can get to it soon: I've been feeling disconnected from SF for a while, and thinking there's some cool new things going on over there that I should dig into.

Bought and Paid For

I was ordering something else from that hegemonic online retailer -- a widget for my home-office computer set-up, since I just got a new work laptop, and so something I needed ASAP -- and, as one does, I added a couple of things to the order. The one that's already arrived is Bad Machinery Vol. 8: The Case of the Modern Men by John Allison, the last of the major "cases" from that great webcomic to be reprinted in book form and the first one (I think) to only appear in the new smaller "pocket" format. (I liked the big format, myself, but it is more expensive, a tad unwieldy to read, and sticks out from the shelf -- so this is a change I can live with, though I reserve the right to grumble that my books don't match.) I've said it before, but John Allison is awesomely wonderful and you all should read lots of Bad Machinery.

Last for this week is The Wallace Mystery, the latest in Rick Geary's series of Kickstarted books of historical murders. (The longer books come out from NBM, these days under the "Library of XXth Century Murder" series title, and the self-published books are a bit shorter, use typeset captions and only a couple of large panels to the page, with a series title of "Little Murder Library.") You probably can't buy this right now, but here are links to the completed Kickstarter campaign and to Geary's general webstore, where it may turn up some day.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Service With a Smile by P.G. Wodehouse

I will never write a Wodehousian novel: I know that. But the one in my head that I would write, if I were capable, would be the Unified Field Theory Wodehouse book, in which Psmith's plots collide with Jeeves's, with Uncle Fred kibitzing on one side and probably Mr. Mulliner narrating large chunks of the story.

Wodehouse himself never did that, largely because even his normal books were over-complicated and fussy, requiring a lot of time and attention to get all of the silly plot details exactly right, so that everything felt plausible in Wodehouse's least plausible (and most sunny) of all possible worlds. But it's a beautiful dream, and I wish somebody was capable of doing it at the level of the Wodehouse of about 1940, because that would be a kick-ass book.

I was reminded of that while reading Service With a Smile, because this is a crossover book in a smaller way: it brings Uncle Fred (aka the Earl of Ickenham) to Blandings, to spread sweetness and light there in his own way. This is fairly late Wodehouse (1961), so it ends up being an Uncle Fred book that takes place at Blandings -- Lord Emsworth is basically a minor character, and his brother Galahad entirely absent -- rather than the equally-blended souffle of my dreams.

As always, the joys of Wodehouse are in his books' frivolity and lightness: the worst thing that can happen in a Wodehouse novel is that two young people will not marry the people they love...well, that they love deeply and passionately, but intermittently, since they're always breaking engagements at the drop of a hat (and forming multiple engagements as well, as in this book). In this case, it's primarily Uncle Fred's young friend Bill Bailey, a poor vicar engaged to the daughter of an Wall Street tycoon -- she's is at Blandings under the tutelage of Emsworth's formidable sister Lady Constance, who of course does not approve of the match. Uncle Fred and Bill of course are at Blandings themselves, the latter, inevitably, under an alias.

There is also, as there must be, a plot to steal the famous pig The Empress of Blandings, led by the unpleasant Duke of Dunstable, also currently a guest at Blandings, and aided by Emsworth's current horrible secretary, Lavender Briggss, who I am sorry to say has a very distinctive speech pattern that Wodehouse may have meant to indicate a particular social or physical origin. (This is less than clear to an American sixty years later, frankly.)

The plots -- there are a few minor ones I've neglected to mention, as well -- circle each other in that inimitable Wodehouse fashion, as the marriage possibilities and the career-advancement possibilities and the making-money-by-stealing-a-pig possibilities all get tangled up in each other until it seems that there's no way for sweetness and light to win out in the end.

But of course it does: this is Wodehouse after all, and Uncle Fred's plots do find happiness for all of the characters who deserve it (and possibly even one or two the reader would not think deserve it).

This is a late Wodehouse novel, from two of his lesser-known series: if you've never read him before, don't start here. My general advice has been to begin with Joy in the Morning, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Leave It To Psmith, but you could also grab any random Jeeves book from before 1960. If you haven't tried Wodehouse, and like silliness, you should try at least one, once.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Quote of the Week: Secret Shocks

"Everything's been electric lately. Lately everything I touch gives off an electric shock: doorknobs, the railings of stairs, the water from the faucet, the car when I get out. I put my finger to the object, raise it to my lips: electricity. I slap things first to ground myself. I assault the metal around me on a constant basis, before it can strike me back, The keys on my ring hum with voltage; I must grab them with my teeth clenched, before dropping them in my pocket where they might ignite a naked nerve. My day's filled with hitting things,. Only at night, on a mattress that  holds no current, do I confront a different electricity altogether."
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, p.10

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson

It's easy to pretend to be more radical, more transgressive than everyone else: you just have to say that you are. Living up to it is another thing.

Chuck Thompson's 2007 memoir/collection of travel essays Smile When You're Lying positions him as the one truth-speaker among travel writers. The one who doesn't use superlatives like candy (except when he does, later in the book, describing the people of each place he likes as the best in the world at something he particularly respects). The one who will tell the truth about why people go to places like Thailand (for sex; he never mentions this again after bringing it up in his fiery intro and is remarkably quiet about drugs as well). The one who is fearless and unafraid to burn bridges (except for the very long list of editors he effusively thanks at the end).

That all would be fine: we expect a little showmanship from our writers, particularly those (like travel writers) who are always aiming for the new and the hot.

But I unfortunately read this book, which presents itself as an expose about how travel magazines are a big profitable business that stifle contrarian views in favor of relentless puffery [1], more than a decade after Thompson wrote it. The magazine market of 2019 is not what it was in 2006 when Thompson wrote this book -- hell, no business in the world is what it was in 2006, purely because of 2006, but magazines, and print periodicals in general, were already on a downward trend due to the rise of the Internet and a massive advertising transition there.

Thompson shows no sign of seeing that his entire world was about to change: he presents a monolithic, massively profitable entity when we all know it was nothing of the sort. (And I think that transition hit Thompson as well: he seems to have spent much of the last decade transitioning into TV/Internet himself, as executive producer of CNN Travel and editorial director of

So he wasn't prescient: how many of us were?

Smile When You're Lying is still fun, a loose assemblage of stories vaguely organized around travel and Thompson's life, with no actual structure (geographical, historical, thematic) to be discerned. It is divided into three sections by airline seat -- Aisle, Middle, and Window -- but my high-powered instruments were not able to detect the actual differences between them.

Thompson, as one might guess once one realizes he has spent most of his career as a reasonably connected travel editor/producer himself, is not actually as radical in practice as he is in rhetoric. (Again: how many of us are?) Smile When You're Lying has a reasonable hook, which Thompson uses to hang some loosely-related material, and he's pretty entertaining along the way. I suspect that if he'd instead written a more traditional "how I grew up and got out" memoir -- he's from Juneau, and had an interesting background from the glimpses he gives here -- it would have been more coherent and focused, but it probably also would have been more personal, and Thompson would rather be bold than personal.

Instead, each of the eleven chapters is supposedly about something but ends up pulling together a bunch of stories from a particular time and place in his life -- again, generally related to his travel-writing career, but taking that very broadly to start with an ill-fated cross-country car trip when he was about eighteen and including a couple of years spent teaching English in rural Japan. It does start out more fire-breathing than it ends, with digs at various periodicals and book lines (that this reader started to think wouldn't hire him, or where he has personal conflicts with major editors), before it settles down into more stories about stuff he did, or, more accurately, stuff that happened while he was there to see it. (He's a writer: they're much more likely to hang back and observe.)

It's entertaining and rabble-rousing, and contains possibly a few facts that might be useful to the reader later on. Just don't spent any time buying into his introductory screed: it doesn't go anywhere, in this book or in real life.

[1] It's not actually that: it's a loose baggy collection of stories from Thompson's life, most of which happened during his career as a travel writer and all of which happened somewhere other than his house. Thus it is a travel book.