The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

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Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.

Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

In the small coastal town of Cennethisar several hours from Istanbul there is an old house, one of the oldest in town. In this house there lives Fatma, a bedridden old Turkish woman who was forced to leave Istanbul years ago because of her husband’s actions, and with her lives Recep, a dwarf, one of her husband’s illegitimate children born to their maid some five decades earlier. For a week every summer the quiet tension of the house is broken by the arrival of her three grandchildren, the divorced historian Faruk, the leftist sister Nílgün, and Metín, a high school student obsessed with the exciting consumer luxuries of modernity. Rounding out this family drama is Hasan, a right-wing nationalist and Recep’s nephew.

The story unfolds over the course of a week as Faruk busies himself in the archives, Nílgün sunbathes and reads leftist publications, and Metín parties with his nouveaux ríche friends. Meanwhile Fatma and Recep are burdened with the memories of Selahattin, with the former being particularly concerned that Recep might be twisting her grandchildren against her. Despite how Fatma treats him, Recep is not threatening her legacy and the children are lost in their own little worlds. There is, however, imminent danger in the obsessions of young men.

Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House was published in Turkish in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012.  The core plot in Silent House is a variation on a family or dynastic epic, complete with each character representing a different group within the country and three children of different proclivities. At the same time, it differs from the classic examples of such a device (e.g. Hundred Years of Solitude and The Radetzky March), the conflict is compressed into the space of a week instead of dragging out over the course of years.

The style of Silent House is recognizably Pamuk. Each chapter switches between narrators, but interlocks to present a complete story. Silent House also broaches familiar themes, including that Turkey is torn between looking backward and envying countries they believe look forward, but his characters almost too bluntly embody the issues Pamuk wants to address. This is not to say that the characters don’t work for the story, but all of the younger people do not come across as particularly rounded outside what they stand for. The exception to this, and unsurprisingly the part of the part of the book I thought was the most successful, was the relationship between Fatma and Recep, both of whom exist in the present, but who also have the years of memories in which to round out and explain their characters. The younger people had lives outside of the week in the narration, but those lives are hardly explored with the result that their motivations fall back on their types.

All the hallmarks of a great Orhan Pamuk novel are already present in Silent House. The interlocking chapters, the insights about Turkey, and the interweaving of past and present are all there, but the execution is not as successfully realized as in his later novels such as My Name is Red, The Black Book, and Snow. If I had not already been a Pamuk fan I might have struggled with this book. Silent House is still worth reading, but fairly far down my list of favorite Pamuk novels and is certainly not one to start with.

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I am currently reading the second book in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire. This is a book that has been on my shelf for some time, but I picked it up in light of recent events because it was originally written in Arabic.

Remembering Laughter – Wallace Stegner

Set in rural Iowa, <em>Remembering Laughter</em> opens at the funeral for Margaret Stuart’s husband and features a short scene between Margaret and her sister Elspeth MacLeod. The story immediately flashes back eighteen years to a summer day when Elspeth arrived in Iowa by train to join Margaret and her wealthy husband Alec. The happy couple, composed of the lively and outgoing husband and his puritanical wife, welcomes Elspeth, but Margaret soon begins to worry that her sister is taking an interest in the married and less-than-reputable farmhands and sets about trying to make sure that her sister is taken care of. Little does Margaret realize that attraction elsewhere…and then a child comes into the picture.

I have enormous blind spots in terms of American literature, much preferring to read stories set abroad. <em>Remembering Laughter</em> is both the first piece by Wallace Stegner I have read and my first set in Iowa. Based on a simple description it is not a book I would have picked up, but I had it more than recommended (it was literally handed) to me and I was looking for something short. I was surprised at Stegner’s light touch that made the book incredibly readable and, simultaneously, made the story all the more emotionally powerful.
According to Mary Stegner’s afterword, <em>Remembering Laughter</em>, Wallace’s first book, was based on a story she told him about her two aunts in Western Iowa. What struck me about the story is that even though it takes place over the course of nearly two decades there is barely a hint of the passage of time. The child grows up and the technology changes a bit, but the frigidity between the two women seems to be eternal, at least until the source of their conflict is addressed. Laughter, as the title suggests, looms large in the relationship between the two sisters, but largely because Alec is the touchstone of laughter for both of them.

I cannot say that I will eagerly seek out Stegner’s other books, but I was also pleasantly surprised to the point that I would not resist reading anything else by him.

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I have also recently finished Orhan Pamuk’s <em>Silent House</em> and will write up some thoughts on that book soon. I am now reading Naguib Mahfouz’ <em>Palace of Desire</em> because it is the only book on my to-read shelf originally written in Arabic. It is not a book to be read quickly, but I am enjoying it thus far.

The Dark Tower – Stephen King

The Dark Tower has been on my to-read list longer than I think any other book. I first considered reading it sometime in high school, but never got around to it until I found a copy in a used book store a couple of weeks ago. It also occurred to me as I made my way through that this is also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read. That leaves me with a lot of catching up to do, on the one hand, but some amount of ambivalence on the other.

A short synopsis: Roland is a Gunslinger walking across a post-apocalyptic(?) wasteland giving chase to the Man in Black, who he blames for having caused the destruction of his home and family. The Man in Black has left traps for Roland and he is briefly waylaid by an orgiastic interlude with Alice and the need to take care of Jake, a lost boy who is from another time and place, but the pursuit continues.

I can see why people like The Dark Tower and I can see why it is a classic. Roland is one of those tenacious archetypes of the lone hero who can’t be deterred from his mission and flashbacks to his upbringing hint at the prodigy of stubbornness. Even his prey is nameless and faceless through most of the book, adding to the archetypes. The world is a post-apocalyptic mashup of the American southwest, medieval Europe, and some added flavor from elsewhere, and, for the most part, the story is solidly crafted to have a surreal aura. Still, I found something lacking. For one thing, it reminded me of a number of 1970s/1980s fantasy novels with pseudo-terrestrial settings that I almost always find jarring. Dystopias where something has happened are fine, but for a book to not really be set on earth yet feature a christianity as the common religion take me out of the setting. For another, I found the first third of the book or so to be fairly jumbled up and somewhat overwritten. It is not that this section was exactly bad (it reveals Roland’s character and gives plenty of setting), but I didn’t understand why I ought to care about any of this. In contrast, once The Dark Tower started to give Roland context through flashbacks, something that both played in- and added onto his archetype, the story got significantly better.

The Dark Tower ends by answering one of the questions it starts out with, but also opening up the setting for the rest of the books in the series. I don’t know that I will read them, though I have been told that the next few, at least, are worth reading. I liked The Dark Tower well enough, but King’s writing and the story didn’t grip me the way other series sometimes have and I have a lengthy to-read list that includes a number of fantasy books by authors I like a lot more.

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I finished reading Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms this morning and will write up some thoughts about that at some point. Next up is Leonardo Sciascia’s mystery novel To Each His Own.

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett

The first, finest, and most famous adventure of Nick and Nora Charles, involving an unknown number of “perfect” crimes and two lovely girls fighting over Nick–and Nora never losing her cool.

One of the things I am most pleased with my reading for this year is getting back into reading quality mystery and noir fiction. A couple weeks ago I found two classic Dashiell Hammett books in a used book store, one of those being The Thin Man.

Nick Charles is a former private eye now in private industry on the West Coast, but is back in his old stomping grounds of New York with his beautiful young wife Nora. Technically, they are there on business, but really just there to drink. While out on the town, Nick’s detective past comes back into his life when he is greeted by the beautiful* young Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client, the inventor Clyde Wynant. Her father is missing, and Nick ends up in touch with Herbert Macauley, the lawyer with power of attorney over the Wynant estate, who enlists his help in finding out who killed Clyde Wynant’s secretary. The bulk of the book is spent going in circles as Nick resists getting drawn into the tangle of hostile relationships that traps the Wynants (including mom Mimi and brother Gilbert), but nevertheless solves the case.

[* He describes her as “small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.”]

I liked The Thin Man. It could have done a little bit better a job foreshadowing the dramatic turn at the end, but that was a minor issue. The story was well-paced and the reveal was satisfactory. The main thing that jumped out at me was the issue of gender, though I was willing to make some allowances for its age. The book cover implied that one of the exciting features of Nick Charles is that he is the object of women throwing himself at him and his powers of observation as a private eye gives him excuse to look at women. Despite my initial eye-roll at the women throwing themselves at Nick, it actually made some sense. The first woman is Dorothy, who was fascinated by Nick when she was twelve and is now a twenty-year-old socialite whose youthful crush is reignited particularly when drunk; the second is her mother Mimi, who was less believable as a flirtatious and “crazy” woman. However, the reason I came around to the dynamics was Nora Charles. More than staying cool, she has a relationship with Nick where they both tease each other about people who flirt with them and Nick never strays. More than that, Nora is not the experienced gumshoe that Nick is, but she is clever, clear-eyed, and talented.

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I am still behind one review, having also finished The Dark Tower. I’m going to start reading something new later today, but haven’t decided yet what that book will be.

Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

And, actually, isn’t it damn easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t troubled by the slightest notion that a Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante, or Napoleon ever existed? This lad has just one piece of knowledge in his blinkered brain–that he hasn’t lost a single chess game in months–and since he has no idea that there’s anything of value in the world other than chess and money, he has every reason to be pleased with himself.

Zweig’s posthumous novella, Chess Story is a tight little story about a casual chess match to pass the time on a twelve-day voyage from New York to Buenos Aires that develops into a deadly game between two masters, one professional, one amateur. The succession of chess games on the cruise, first between the narrator and the Scottish engineer McConnor, then between the mass of amateurs and the world champion Mirko Czentovic, and finally between Czentovic and an amateur bystander Dr. B. are provide the structure for analyzing the psyches of the different characters, but much of the dramatic weight in Chess Story comes from explaining the how the two masters developed their skills.

Czentovic is the epitome of a prodigy, having been a peasant child without any particular skills or interests until he sees adults playing chess. Disinterested in the formal or abstract aspects of the game, Czentovic only plays whatever game is in front of him and does not lose to the same opponent twice in a row. Having beaten all comers in Europe and New York, he is now going on a world tour, convinced of his own genius and assured that his wealth makes him superior to everyone else.

In contrast, Dr. B. is an Austrian lawyer whose family managed the estates for the Hapsburg family and various German monasteries. He had played, without much interest, in grade school, but whose life involved being a discrete, quiet, and upstanding member of Austrian society, whose world is upended when he is turned in to Nazi authorities and arrested. Dr. B. returns to chess only by chance, but comes to use the abstract critical thinking of the game as a defense against interrogation…even if it eventually causes him to crack and be released as useless.

These two contrasting styles collide on this otherwise quiet cruise from New York to Buenos Aires.

Chess Story is a thoughtful and moving study of these characters that does not try to do too much. What I mean by this is that Zweig layers in important humanistic observations about the problems of a fascist regime and dangers of being utterly obsessed by money, but, even though the book was published after his death in 1942, it does not become a polemic. As a result, the story is universalized without being another story of horror and drudgery about Nazi oppression.

I did not like Chess Story as much as The Post-Office Girl, but I think that this is mostly a personal preference for the fuller story rather than the spareness of a novella. Chess Story is beautifully constructed and well-worth reading, making me even more excited to read Beware of Pity, which is sitting on my to-read shelf.

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I finished making my way through Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of our Nature and will have reactions to it later in the week. Next up, I am currently reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir, The Thin Man.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with that fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.

I am late come to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin having once starting–and giving up on–her fantasy books. This year I returned to her books, first with The Dispossessed and now The Left Hand of Darkness. Like The Dispossessed, I found Left Hand (published 1969) to be a somewhat raw book, but powerful, thoughtful and, in many ways, Important.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is perpetually in the grip of an ice age, with bountiful fish, but few mammals and no birds. The hominids who live on Winter adapted to the environment, both in terms of their resistance to extreme cold and in other adaptations that are designed to ensure their survival. The habitable zone on Winter, such that it is, is divided into multiple political units, with the two most important being the kingdom of Karhide and the country of Orgoreyn. The former is a decentralized state subdivided into small landholdings ruled over by local lords and family units; the latter is a centralized and centrally planned state run by a central council and shadowy agencies. Neighbors, Karhide and Orgoreyn usually allow trade across the border, provided that one has the proper paperwork for Orgoreyn, but are diametrically opposed. There are, however, some people in Karhide who believe that the kingdom should be somewhat more like Orgoreyn and are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.

Into this uncertain political situation enters Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, the political organization of the planets with human species on them dedicated to facilitating trade in cultural, intellectual, and technological innovations. He lands first at Karhide, but his situation soon becomes endangered when a coup against his primary benefactor, Prime Minister Estraven, forces both men (independently) to flee to Orgoreyn. Of course, this change is not necessarily for the better.

Genly’s “otherness” is particularly pronounced on Winter because he is what they would call “a pervert”–that is, someone whose anatomy is like that on earth. Gethenian are what Genly terms ambisexual. Their normal state of being is neither male nor female, but with the potential to be one or the other. Once a month they go into a state of “kemmer,” hormonal arousal that becomes further excited by contact with others in kemmer. (As a hormonal change, kemmer can be manipulated through artificial hormones, but this is generally frowned upon.) Kemmer changes their anatomy to express either male or female anatomy, with no predisposition to one or the other, and only remains in this state if, when in female anatomy, the Gethenian becomes pregnant. Genly is a pervert because he is “always in kemmer.”

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness is driven by elements of thriller as Genly races from one place to another, one step ahead of forces that will destroy him, and the relationship between Genly and Estraven, but the details of Gethenian anatomy strike me as the most important part of the book. Le Guin, through Genly’s eyes, asks how this anatomy fundamentally shapes Gethenian cultures and how the different political units exploit their anatomy for their own ends, insidious and otherwise. Moreover, Genly is forced to reckon with his own preconceptions about gender in terms of how he addresses people. For instance, he frequently defaults to calling Gethenians “he” and “son,” while also judging those he considers effeminate, despite those terms being blatantly wrong.

The Left Hand of Darkness could have been a viable story set on earth, but the way Le Guin weaves in anthropology, mythology, and mysticism makes it exceptional. This book is a powerful meditation on duality, in terms of countries, gender, cultures, and sexualities. It is optimistic about the possibilities for empathy and understanding, but keenly aware of the tragedies that must be overcome to get to that point.

My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness also had an introductory essay about the nature of writing, reading, and science fiction. In this essay Le Guin argues that people don’t read science fiction and dismiss it as “escapist” actually find it “depressing” because they consider it extrapolative and must arrive “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.” Le Guin denies that her novel extrapolates from the present, saying:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The essay continues to talk about mistaken trust in artists of various sorts, and refers to reading as a form of “insanity. It is an essay that may be argued against, without a doubt, but it also performs the function of a good essay: it is provokes discussion.

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I just finished Stefan Zweig’s posthumous novella Chess Story. Next up, I am still working my way through Better Angels of our Nature and am planning to start Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man later today.

Last Words From Montmarte – Qui Miaojin

Last Words From Montmarte is far afield from my usual reading tastes. It is an experimental epistolary novel published posthumously that is part memoir, serving as a suicide note for Qui Miaojin, and deals substantially with lesbian sexuality. Last Words is necessarily a deeply intimate novel that investigates the emotional anxiety of the narrator, while leaving the other characters as sort of unknowable phantoms and sources of the anxiety as the narrators wants to become intimate with them. Nor is there a strong plot, since the author tells the reader that the letters can be read in any order. As a result, the story–by which I mean the gradual understanding of the narrator’s psyche–unfolds more than progresses, skipping between Paris, Tokyo, and Taipei, and being by turns wrenching, gleeful, depressed, and anxious.

As a technical piece of literature, there was a lot I appreciated about Last Words and I came away understanding why many people connect with it so deeply even though I did not. I generally do not like novels that are this interior unless they also have something else that I can grab onto, largely because unless i feel some sort of kinship with the person being examined, I have a hard time getting into the story. There were moments in this book that I could relate with, particularly to being an outsider, but it has been a long time since I have been even remotely this lovesick and so many of the other defining characteristics of both the characters and the social circles were so far beyond my personal experience that I often ended up almost forcing myself to read the book in a way that was not altogether enjoyable. As noted, though, this is more a “me” problem than a problem with Last Words which is not meant necessarily to explain anything to the reader so much as to give an emotional jolt. That emotional jolt just didn’t land as cleanly as it might have for me for all those different reasons.

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Next up, I am currently reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and just started Ursula K. le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.