Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse

I've written here, a number of times, that I turn to P.G. Wodehouse when I'm in a reading slump. I hope every reader has a writer like that: someone who consistently sparks joy and can be guaranteed to make you happier in the reading.

More than that, Wodehouse for me is one of those writers who it's far easier to just keep reading than to stop. And that's just what you need in a reading slump: someone who reminds you why you like reading and want to do more of it.

I'm in a pretty big reading slump this year, as I expected. Coming off my biggest Book-A-Day extravaganza ever, it was inevitable. But it hit harder even than I expected: I read three books in January, two in February, and none at all in March. As of the moment I'm writing this -- much later than I'd prefer, which is its own issue -- I've only read eleven books. Last year, I hit that total on January 11.

So, around the beginning of May, I turned to Wodehouse. Jeeves in the Offing is a late book, published in 1960 when Wodehouse was 79 -- though he kept living, and writing, for another fifteen years. This is from the era when US and UK titles diverged for no obvious reason; it was originally known as How Right You Are, Jeeves on my shores. (My assumption, as usual, is that someone expected that Americans would be too dumb to know what an "offing" was, and that someone was probably right.)

Like the other late Jeeves books, Offing has a bit of the remix collection about it: our narrator and central character Bertie Wooster travels back to Brinkley Court, where a famous cow-creamer is inevitably found to be missing. There are people who may be loony, and Sir Roderick Glossop the famous loony-doctor to secretly examine them, and someone (Glossop himself, as it happens) impersonating a butler. There is Bobbie Wickham, engaged to an old friend of Bertie's, though not above breaking that engagement and declaring Bertie will be her husband when situations warrant. There is a writer, in this case the grumpy mystery novelist Mrs. Homer Cream, and a Jeeves momentarily unavailable due to his annual holidays. There are complications, as there must be, mostly arising from threatened legal actions and the attempted sale of various things and engagements that need just a bit more money to come to the fruition of marriage. (Perhaps surprisingly for a light writer, Wodehouse's plots are about money most of the time.)

But we don't read Wodehouse for novelty. We read Wodehouse because we know the ingredients, and we want to see what kind of souffle he made from them this time. Offing is a frothy, savory, delicious souffle, buoyed by Bertie's uniquely confident and uniquely deluded voice. I don't know if I'm reading more quickly since I read it, but it made me happy and made me want to read more books, and that's a wonderful thing.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/25/19

One book this week, which came in the mail (like the old days!):

Kingdom of the Cursed is a new fantasy novel by Greg Keyes, second in the "High and Faraway" series (after The Reign of the Departed), and it's coming in trade paperback from Night Shade on June 18th.

So somehow I missed the beginning of a new series from Keyes -- I really liked his steampunky alternate-fantasy series "Age of Unreason" back when I was at the SFBC, and thought his "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" started as strong (and more focused) than George Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. (If I'm being totally honest, I found the last Kingdoms book a bit rushed...but Keyes did manage to end his story in four books, which is a major plus.)

It looks like this one is a portal fantasy with possible YA elements -- the hero is a teen who found himself in the body of some kind of automaton in a fantasy world after accidentally committing suicide, if I have that right. I may have to track down the first book: Keyes is a strong writer whose stories get more convoluted and crazy as they go, and it's been a decade since his last non-sharecropped book. It's great to see him back.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/17/19

This week I have three books that I bought -- all things I used to own before my 2011 flood, and felt like reading again. All of them are mildly out of print, I think, but that doesn't mean as much these days: most books are accessible, with Internet-aided book searches and ebooks and all that rot, to anyone who knows about them and wants them enough.

It's a goddamn utopia, isn't it?

Anyway, I'm going to list these books in order from most obscure to least, partially because that's the way they're already stacked.

Creatures of Light and Darkness -- Roger Zelazny's most obscure novel, in the Avon paperback with the Amber-style Ron Walotsky cover. The hardcover is almost nonexistent, due to some confusion as to which Zelazny book was supposed to be pulped back in 1969, right after Creatures was printed (hint: the plan wasn't to pulp the brand-new one). But it would be pretty darn obscure anyway: it's a quirky, weird, self-indulgent book. Or at least I remember it that way: it's as old as I am and I haven't read it in probably three decades. It is far-future SF of the kind that wraps back around to fantasy, except wrapped around five or six times for good measure and told sideways.

Speaking of far-future SF that wraps around to fantasy (and things told sideways), I also have Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun. This is not the fifth book of the four-book "Book of the New Sun" series, but a separate novel that follows that series. And I got this for the obvious reason: I'm re-reading "Book of the New Sun" right now, and thought I might want to keep going. I'm not currently planning to dive into the related Books of the Long and Short Sun, but who knows?

And last is also from Gene Wolfe, and similarly related: Castle of Days. This is a sort-of omnibus of the early story collection Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (with the stories arranged to line up to various holidays during a year), Castle of the Otter (a small book of essays about Book of the New Sun) and "Castle of Days" (a larger collection of more miscellaneous essays). I'm definitely going to read the Otter essays, and probably the miscellaneous ones -- I'm a sucker for novelists' occasional nonfiction anyway.

Finally: Yes, I did start Book of the New Sun because Wolfe died recently: it was a damn shame and a huge loss to literature, but, at the very least, a death can remind us of someone important and the great work they did. If it does that, we can at least keep their memory and work alive. Or maybe we just tell ourselves that, so we feel less horrified by the thought that we, too, will die, sooner than we would like.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/10/19

This week I have two books: both came in the mail from the fine folks at Night Shade Books.

Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends is a new reprint anthology edited by Paula Guran. It's a nice big book, over 400 pages and twenty-seven stories, and the focus is loose enough to be interesting but not restrictive. (I've seen books like this that are all Greek myths, or all Aesop's fables, and that means a reader can often guess where a story is going from the first page.) This officially hit stores on My 7th, which means you should be able to find it wherever you prefer to buy books. Included are stories by Nisi Shawl, Catherynne M. Valente, Sofia Samatar, Rachel Swirsky, M. Rickert, Rachel Pollack, Elizabeth Hand, and Yoon Ha Lee, as old as Tanith Lee's "The Gorgon" from 1982 and as new as Tansy Rayner Roberts's "How to Survive an Epic Journey" from 2017.

And for something completely different, Night Shade also just published Neal Asher's The Warship, the second book in the "Rise of the Jain" space-opera series. It follows The Soldier in that series, and doesn't say how long the series is. (Though my experience of Asher is that all of his books basically stand alone -- he does the same kind of thing each time, but you can jump in with any book, and they're all fun modern space adventure with lots of action.) I haven't read Asher in a while, but what I read of his stuff was all good: if you ever wished Iain Banks would cut out the convoluted plots and just concentrate on things blowing up, you'll like Asher. This is also set in his common Polity universe, for returning Asher readers.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

Whether or not the USA is an imperial power is a contentious question: it depends on your politics, your definition of "imperial," and probably who the President is at the moment. But the question of whether the US is an actual empire -- you know, with extra-territorial possessions that it conquered in wars and that are not incorporated into the country itself -- should be simpler, right?

And the answer is...Yes, actually.

Doug Mack explores that surprising answer in his recent book The Not-Quite States of America, a travelogue of all of the places that are attached to the USA but not actually part of it in the pure sense. He visited the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, all of which are full of people subject to the laws and taxes of the US and none of which actually have any representation in making those laws and taxes. [1]

Hey, I seem to remember that was a really big deal in some war the US fought. Guess it's less important when we're applying it to others.

My snark aside, the territories [2] are interesting places with quirky relationships to the USA, and all of them are conquered territory, either from the turn of the 20th century or from WWII -- which, clearly, is the cause of those quirky, complicated relationships. (Big powers tend to want to hold onto things they've acquired: that's how they became, and stay, big powers.) And they tend to raise those big questions, about what it means to be an American, and who qualifies. Most of the folks in all of these territories have skin darker than one end of the US political spectrum prefers, for example, and so, even if they consider themselves Americans (and they don't, always, entirely, consistently), would tend to be excluded by those contentious gents in the bright red caps for that reason.

Mack avoids those kind of questions, possibly for reasons of timing: Not-Quite States was published in 2017, and it's not entirely clear when the journeys he chronicles here actually took place. (Travel writing takes a lot of time and money -- I didn't see any indication that these pieces first appeared as individual articles, though they certainly could have, and that's usually my assumption with a travel book like this.) Instead, he's doing the core travel-writer thing: go to this place to talk to the people there, see the sights, wander around, and try to understand it as best he can in a short period of time.

Each of those places is distinct and individual, but their concerns rhyme -- they all have those deep questions about whether they want to stay in their current relationship with the USA, get closer, or break away entirely. The details are different: the don't have the same options, for one thing. And they're all poorer than the US average, more likely to join the military, and a few other similarities.

Mack is a pleasant tour guide through these territories: he does focus the book on himself and his quest to understand the territories, but he's standing in for the reader in that. (No one will read Not-Quite States unless they do care about learning about these quirky US possessions and want to think about how they relate to the larger polity.) He made what seem to be good contacts in all of these places, had some intriguing conversations, learned some interesting things, and wrote about them all in a graceful way. Not-Quite States does what a travel book should do, and does it well; I enjoyed reading it.

[1] And, in many cases, it's even more complicated than that: courts have ruled that some laws don't apply to the territories at all, and Congress can rule all of them pretty much by fiat if it really wanted to.

[2] Puerto Rico and the NMI are officially Commonwealths, which, again, is a more complicated way of defining essentially the same thing.