Tag Archives: Non-SFF fiction

REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

Continue reading

Advertisement

SLECHT NIEUWS VOOR DOCTOR PAF DE PIERENNAAIER, PANDEMONIUM IN DE GRAUWZONE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1998)

I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died of chronic health problems due to heavy drinking in 2008 – a slow suicide. He was bipolar and suffered from paranoid anxiety. His books are hard to find and long OOP, but over the years I’ve managed to collect most of his work. This particular book seemed like the logical one to read right now, given the covid pandemic that’s ravaging the world. The title is a bit idiomatic, but could be translated as ‘Bad news for Dr. Poof the Worm-seamer, Pandemonium in the Grayzone’.

The rest of this post will be in Dutch, but stay tuned for a review of Dune Messiah. I hope to further explore the themes of my long analysis of Dune itself, and see how Herbert’s stance on determinism & love for tragedy evolves throughout the series.


Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, pandemonium in de GrauwzoneIk heb al wat geschreven over Jean-Marie Berckmans, en ik ga proberen mezelf hier niet te herhalen. Lees dus eventueel eerst mijn eerbetoon aan de man waar ik ooit het podium mee deelde op een literaire avond in een jeugdhuis. Ik heb ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat uit 1995 gerecenseerd – met ontluisterende foto’s van diezelfde literaire avond, want het geromantiseer van Berckmans’ zogenaamde rock ‘n roll dat je hier en daar al eens tegenkomt is totaal misplaatst. Tot slot, hier nog drie alinea’s over de J.M.H. biografie van Chris Ceustermans die 10 jaar na zijn dood verscheen. Meer linkjes vind je onderaan.

Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, Pandemonium in de Grauwzone is kort, zoals de meeste van Berckmans’ boeken – slechts 132 pagina’s. Het is wat radicaler dan Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat door zijn rechtlijnige vastberadenheid, ook al zijn de meeste thema’s grotendeels hetzelfde: angst, armoede, drinken als schild en medicijn, de stront van het leven.

De openingsscène is fantastisch – het is winter, en de Creutzfeldt-Jakob epidemie houdt huis in de Grauwzone – de nieuwe naam voor Barakstad: Berckmans’ Antwerpen rondom Café De Raaf in de Lange Lozanastraat. Het uitbreken van de dollekoeienziekte moet voor Jean-Marie een soort bevestiging zijn geweest: plots wordt de gehele wereld gedwongen om mee paranoia te zijn.

Maar al snel krijgt het boek iets monotoon. Een van de kwaliteiten van Taxi… was net de afwisseling: elk deel had een eigen karakter. Niet zo in Slecht nieuws: dat is geen afwisseling van verhalen en korte stukken en brieven zoals in zoveel van Berckmans’ andere boeken, maar een aaneenschakeling van korte teksten in dezelfde setting, met een duidelijke chronologie. Dit is een verhaal met een begin en een einde.
Continue reading

MARY TOFT; OR, THE RABBIT QUEEN – Dexter Palmer (2019)

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

My love for Version Control, Dexter Palmer’s previous novel, is no secret. It was one of the best book I’ve read in 2016. It’s the only time travel novel I know that doesn’t short circuit, maybe because it’s not primarily a time travel novel to begin with – but something more akin to a near future Jonathan Franzen book. So when I saw this new one advertised, I pre-ordered it instantly, and started it the moment it was delivered to my door: that’s how high my expectations were.

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, Palmer’s third book, is not speculative fiction. It’s a historical novel set in 1726, about something that really happened and yet reeks of magic: Mary Toft, a farmer’s wife, confounded England’s medical community by giving birth to seventeen dead rabbits. The rabbits aren’t whole though – it’s usually just a head, some legs and a bit of intestines. To the 21st century reader, it’s immediately clear this must have been a hoax, so Palmer doesn’t rely on magical wonder for tension.

What we get instead is a book dealing with the psychology of collective delusions & expectations that guide perception – an epistemological tale indeed. A book about Truth. Add to that a focus on the human penchant for the dark, and you get a book that’s right up my ally.

Yet I was not fully convinced. Or at least – my expectations were not met, and the book proves its own point. Had I read this book without reading Version Control first, my reaction to it would have been different, but I’m still not exactly sure how…

Continue reading

HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

Human Trees

Melbourne’s Matthew Revert probably doesn’t ring a bell for most regular visitors of this blog – Human Trees is not exactly sci-fi. Yet he has made quite a name for himself within a small circle of experimental music lovers, with releases on seminal labels like Graham Lambkin’s Kye, and Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Known on a larger scale is his graphic design, Revert being “perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing” as noted by Gabino Iglesias in his glowing review of this novel.

Human Trees is Revert’s fifth book. It might be of interest to some speculative fiction fans, as some of those like their fiction weird and a bit surreal. This has a good dose of that – it is mainly set in the waiting rooms of a hospital where clocks and other timekeeping devices don’t function. I have seen other reviewers casually throw around names like David Lynch, Kafka and Beckett, so if those references trigger you: please read on.

Continue reading

PATTERN RECOGNITION – William Gibson (2003)

Pattern Recognition

In an interview a few days ago, Andrew Rosen – former CEO of Theory, a fashion brand – says that “the future leaders of fashion companies are going to be marketers, not merchants, merchants being “the guys that understand how to put everything together and tell the story.” Hubertus Bigend, the antihero of this novel, and CEO of advertising company Blue Ant, says something similar: “Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.

The novel published 16 years ago, one might think Gibson visionary, but Rosen in the same interview says his father identified change already in the mid-70ies, “because that was when designers, and designer-identified products, became the most important things in the business, not manufacturing companies”. In the early 90ies, grim comedian Bill Hicks took on the pernicious power of advertising and marketing too, in a famous stand-up routine.

All this not to say Gibson wrote an irrelevant novel, on the contrary, Gibson wrote a novel that is very much of these times, dealing with topics – branding, globalization, originality, monoculture – that define big parts of our contemporary lives. It then doesn’t surprise that the Wikipedia page on Pattern Recognition is quite long, and even has quotes from postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson on the novel. Yes: Gibson is that kind of powerhouse, the kind that attracts the attention of a powerhouse like Jameson.

Continue reading

THE FARTHEST SHORE – Le Guin & THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Hemingway

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

Continue reading

‘DARK MATTER’ – ‘THE DOOR’ – BRUEGEL – BERCKMANS

After the jump: 5 new reviews, a bit shorter ones this time.

First up is Dark Matter, the 2016 sci-fi bestseller by Blake Crouch. After that, I write a bit on The Door by Magda Szabó, which floored me. Really, get that. Two books about Pieter Bruegel follow. I’ve been reading up on him in preparation of a possible visit to the once in a lifetime Bruegel exhibition in Vienna. Catch that if you can, it runs until January 13, 2019, and it’s incredible how many of his surviving paintings they managed to get on loan. One of those Bruegel books, a biography, is in Dutch, as is the review. This post ends with another recent biography, in Dutch as well, on the Flemish writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died 10 years ago.

Next time I hope to tackle Blindsight and H is For Hawk. Happy reading!

Continue reading

ZERO K – Don DeLillo (2016)

Zero KWhen I learned that the author of White Noise – a staple of postmodernism – had written a science fiction novel, I was delighted. I thought White Noise was funny and profoundly human, a rare five star book really, so what would he do with a book on cryogenics? Most reviewers agreed that this new book was DeLillo’s best since Underworld – his big American masterwork – so that only made me more eager.

Calling Zero K science fiction is a bit of a stretch: companies that offer to freeze your body in the hope of future medical advances do exist, and have for quite some time. There is an amount of scientific speculation in Zero K, but do not expect the technology or the science to be the focus. Not that this matters much – SF readers with an open mind will find much to savor here.

The book’s structure is set up to lure the regular SF reader in: the bulk of the world building – so to say – happens in the first half of the book. We are introduced to The Convergence, a remote and secret compound where wealthy people choose to be frozen. The subdued sense of wonder is real, and the scenes, like the compound’s structures itself, are strange, detached, and at times even reminded me of Kafka. When it slowly turns out this book is not really a science fiction novel, but something entirely of its own, I couldn’t care less about its classification, and was entirely hooked.

A few chapters in I was more curious about DeLillo himself, and I read up on him before I continued. It entirely changed the way I framed the book: DeLillo was 79 years old when Zero K was published. Continue reading

SOUL CATCHER – Frank Herbert (1972)

Soul CatcherA few years ago, I decided to read the most important other Herbert novels before starting a reread of the Dune series. A review of Children Of Dune on the always thoughtful Gaping Blackbird, made me eager to start that reread. That review focuses on the Nietzschean inspiration of CoD, and it led to an interesting discussion in the comments. So, I was eager to dive into Dune again, but as I still had Soul Catcher on my TBR, I started that.

Yesterday, after finishing Soul Catcher, I decided to kick the reread of Dune even a bit further back, and I ordered Destination: Void, on account of Joachim Boaz, who praised Herbert’s handling of its characters’ psyches in the comments of my Whipping Star review – as Soul Catcher is first and foremost a character driven novel, and one that even succeeds at that. I have to admit I had given up on Herbert as non-Dune writer, as Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment and The Santaroga Barrier all disappointed. So I’m all the more pleased to report Soul Catcher was a good read, and one that invigorated me to give Destination: Void an honest chance.

Genre classifications being what they are, potential readers should be aware that Soul Catcher is not speculative fiction. Rob Weber reported in his review on Val’s Random Comments that the publisher, Putnam, even put the following on the back flap: “This is Frank Herbert’s first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune…”. Novels were not the same as science fiction books in 1972. Interestingly enough, there is no trace of that attitude on my 1979 edition, on the contrary. As you can see on the 1979 cover I included here, both the illustration and the text try to tap on to a speculative vibe: this is a “terrifying novel of the Spirit World” – click on it if it shows up too small. Apparently Soul Catcher didn’t really catch on as regular literary fiction, and 7 years later, marketing decided to firmly latch it to Herbert’s other output – it’s pretty clear if you compare the vibe of the covers of the first two editions to the later one. The 2012 cover reverts the approach again. As always, ISFDB has a good overview of all the different cover art.

As Rob also wrote, the fact that this isn’t a SF book should not deter Herbert fans: “the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert’s other works.”

Soul Catcher deals with a Native American kidnapping a 13-year old boy with the intent to kill him, as symbolical revenge for the rape of his own sister by a gang of white men, and her ensuing suicide – and by extension all the other crimes against the indigenous humans of the continent. As such it is a book that simply would not be published in these times of hired sensitivity readers. It would not get published just because of sensitivity issues: on top of that a white man writing a story like this without a doubt would get accused of cultural appropriation too. The fact that Herbert researched the subject extensively and clearly does not sympathize with white, Western genocidary imperialism would not excuse him. I’m sure today no publisher would dare to take a chance in our era of hair trigger culture wars.

After the jump you’ll find a rather lengthy discussion of a few different things: Soul Catcher as a psychological novel that also teaches us about today’s ‘terrorist’ violence; Soul Catcher as a critique on Western society and its interesting, realistic use of the ‘noble savage’ trope; a discussion on the use of ‘soul’ vs. ‘spirit’; a nugget for Dune fans; and my thoughts on the powerful ending and that ending’s relation to a movie adaptition that might or might not be made.

Certain sections are quote heavy, but obviously you can skim those if the particular topic doesn’t interest you that much.

Continue reading

YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME NOW – M. John Harrison (2017)

You Should Come With Me NowYou Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.

Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.

Continue reading

BRING UP THE BODIES – Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up The BodiesReviewing a sequel is a bit harder: you can’t spoil too much for readers that haven’t read the previous book, and there’s the danger of just repeating oneself if the books are similar.

None of that in this take on Bring Up The Bodies – the much-lauded sequel to the equally lauded Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the troubles surrounding Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, and the downfall of Thomas More.

Spoiling stuff is not a problem, as most people are familiar with the most famous Tudor story. Book 1 ended with the execution of Thomas More, and this book will end with the execution of Anne Boleyn: it’s out in the open on the back cover too.

And I won’t be repeating myself when I discuss the core ideas of this book, as it’s way different in scope and focus.

But before that, let’s just get all this out of the way: Bring Out The Bodies was a thoroughly enjoyable read; it’s a stylistic triumph again; again top-notch pacing; the story is stranger than fiction, even more so in this book; and again, this is better than palace fantasy. And yes, also for this sequel Mantel had to make choices: historians will keep on debating about Cromwell’s role, so she does not pretend to write a biography, but historical fiction indeed.  Continue reading

WHITE NOISE – Don DeLillo (1985)

white-noiseWhite Noise is a famous novel. It’s one of the prime examples of postmodern literature, and it’s the book that made Don DeLillo big. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985 – Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home was nominated as well. It’s been analyzed to death: there are editions with the novel’s text & criticism side to side.

So yes, indeed, all of the stuff you have read about White Noise is true. There’s irony. Critique on television. Critique of consumer society. A lot of enumerations of consumer products. Enumerations of other stuff. Tiny snippets of commercials, documentaries, radio news, manuals. A protagonist that has been married 5 times to 4 women and who’s a professor in Hitler studies. Musings about death. Stuff about popular culture. General stuff. Specific stuff. Bleak stuff. American stuff. Meta stuff. 310 pages and about 10 meta lines for the literature post grad to feast upon. The novel is self-aware indeed.

I thought that when tradition becomes too flexible, irony enters the voice. Nasality, sarcasm, self-caricature and so on.

A description like that might be off putting to some. But it also misses the point, as postmodern meta-ness is not even the novel’s strength: it’s all fairly transparent anyway. What’s missing in most of the scholarly analysis I’ve read, is the humanity that underlies it all. White Noise, for me, was first and foremost a book with remarkable and deep emotional understanding of family life and fatherhood. Continue reading

WOLF HALL – Hilary Mantel (2009)

Wolf HallWolf Hall pops up in several lists of best historical fiction ever, but I got turned to it by Kim Stanley Robinson, who mentioned it in an interview as superb – together with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. It is the first book in a planned trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, and famous for having had a hand in the creation of the Anglican church, as well as in the downfall of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall sketches the events of Tudor England up until 1535. Sequel Bring Up The Bodies was published in 2012 and won a Man Booker Prize too. The Mirror And The Light will cover the last 4 years of Cromwell’s life and has yet to be published.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s 650 pages. It should appeal to lots of fantasy fans too, as the character of Thomas Cromwell makes for quite a hero. He is the first low born man to rise to such high stature in the English realm – an exceptional figure. What makes him remarkable is his intelligence: he is one of the first English people to notice the importance of the emerging financial, monetary world; speaks numerous languages; has a keen sense of the ways of humans that help him in his power brokering. Plus, he is a bit of a vagabond: fleeing an abusive father, he was a mercenary for the French, travelled through the Low Countries, and ended up serving a Florentine banker. Stranger than fiction indeed, a character that could have been plucked out of whatever court fantasy. Yet it is the other way around, as most subpar fantasy is just medieval history with dragons.

Obviously historians are still debating this and that, and writing about history willy-nilly leads to making choices. Hillary Mantel paints a Thomas Cromwell in a more or less sympathetic light – contrary to commonly held beliefs. He mourns his wife and daughters that die too early, he is a loyal servant to his first English patron, cardinal Wolsey, he struggles with memories of his father, feels for Thomas More’s family, etc. Reviewers writing that they didn’t get to see Cromwell’s emotions haven’t read carefully enough. The emotions are there, and they are one of the many strengths of the book.

Hilary Mantel knows she writes fiction, makes choices. She admits so on the final but one page, in a passage that is visibly meta, yet fits the story and the thoughts of her Cromwell well – all of the last 50 or so pages are truly exquisite, moving, final.

He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.

Still, even after 650 pages, Cromwell stays an elusive character. He is a mystery to himself, and multiple personas in one body – as we all are, I guess. It is to Mantel’s credit she has managed to paint somebody complex, without resorting to vagueness, without the painted figure out of focus, and at the same time without being too obvious about Cromwell’s complexity. The two following passages are among the very few that explicitly, overtly talk about his inner life.

He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomas Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?

&

I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?

So yes, Wolf Hall is an ‘English’ book, subtle – as the cliché goes. Plus, occasionally brutal and upfront – times were harsh, and Mantel doesn’t romanticize. Subtle, brutal, and funny too! Although it’s not a court drama, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be a good fantasy counterpart.

There’s so much to say about this book. In the remainder, I’ll focus on the conflict between two world views underlying the novel, and make some remarks on Mantel’s style.

Continue reading

PALE FIRE – Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Pale FireTo call this book fantasy is a bit of stretch, a bit of a very big stretch even. Nabokov’s seminal book takes the form of a fictional publication of a 999-line poem by fictional author John Shade who died just before completing the poem, with a preface, very elaborate notes (the bulk of the book) and even an index by Charles Kinbote, a fictional scholar.

As such, it won’t appeal to regular fantasy readers. Kinbote is crazy, and his notes often read like the ramblings of a madman. In it, he talks about “the fantastical tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king”, as a synopsis online says. But, the word “fantastical” should not be taken as an indication this tale being of the “fantasy” kind, but simply as “made up by a nutter”. Zembla is more or less a metaphor for Nabokov’s native Russia, and the fleeing king echoes the Tsar’s persecution by revolutionary forces.

I had a hard time getting through the book. It is hard work, since ramblings of a madman aren’t a particularly easy read. The book is stuffed with cross-references, hidden easter eggs, interplay between the poem, the notes and the index, etc. As such, it has pleased literature scholars across the globe, and has been analysed to death. I guess it should indeed be read twice or thrice to fully appreciate Nabokov’s construction. Nabokov did a fine job there, since scholars can’t seem to agree whether Nabokov intended the scholar to be real or invented by the poet himself, or the other way around, or that there is even a third person who made up both Shade and Kinbote. It might even be possible that Kinbote is actually the exiled Zemblan king himself. Add to all that the fact that the book’s obviously meta (it’s about notes to a poem!), and you get a regular feast for the literature professional…

I didn’t really enjoy it, since Pale Fire‘s mystery didn’t really interest me. The story felt empty, and mainly a gimmick. Still, Nabokov’s mastery of language is an amazing, stunning thing to behold. There are truly magnificent sentences on nearly every page. If you just approach the preface and the notes as a long prose poem one just has to experience, immersed in a beautifully written stream of consciousness, without wanting to comprehend or unravel every little allusion or hidden trinket, the book is a masterpiece.

originally written on the 20th of September, 2015