Recent Reading: February 2023

The Fisherman

John Langan

tags: weird horror, weird fiction, fantasy worlds, dark magic

I’m not sure whether it’s a story with a long digression in the middle, or a story with a long framing device bookending it, but either way an odd construction—a tale split in the middle by another story as long as the rest combined. That middle story is the more vivid one to me, the characters more fleshed out, the setting more vivid, and that sort of works given that the middle story is meant to be almost an infection, capable of carrying additional details even if they aren’t told.

The outer story drapes itself in the weight of loss, and I don’t know that it quite carries it. Those human elements aren’t what has stuck with me, at least. Not in the same way as the more fairy tale-like middle story, which spans generations and continents. That one is a story of duelling dark magicians, more compelling but I guess less weird than a lonely fisherman stumbling onto the fringes of that story. So what this really is, is a weird story that manages to explain itself without losing its impact.

Hellboy Omnibus 1: Seed of Destruction

Mike Mignola

tags: graphic novels, weird fiction, tentacle monsters, frogs, rasputin

Such a perfect fusion of weird horror and pulp and comic book tropes, with some of the most striking art that comics have produced. I don’t know why I’ve only ever read bits and pieces of Hellboy, I’ve known for ages that I would love it when I got around to it. Maybe it’s that there’s so much of it out there, but right now that’s what makes it so delightful to start on it.

It was the documentary Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters that pushed me into finally sitting down to read a Hellboy collection. I’m usually pretty leery of art documentaries, but Drawing Monsters was one of the best I’ve seen in a long while. Mignola himself seems down-to-earth and self-depricating, and generally aware of his flaws, and it’s nice to find someone who managed to build a career around doing what he loves and recognizes how fortunate that is. Plus, the directors seemed like nice folks when I interviewed them last year for the CUFF.Docs documentary film fest.

What We See When We Read

Peter Mendelsund

tags: meta-analysis, phenomenology, design, essay, visual essay

This visual essay is based on a premise that doesn’t really hold true for me, in that I have never really felt that I “see” when I read. So when Mendelsund tries to convince me that “seeing” is a false impression that’s disconnected from the actual experience, I’m already there. If there’s a revelation to be had from that, it’s just that I thought other people with a stronger visual sense would have a different experience. Maybe not.

Outside of that, I definitely enjoyed Mendelsund’s flair for visual metaphor, and the book’s questioning of the experience of reading. It’s kind of amazing how much The Master and HIs Emissary is impacting everything else I read that comments on perception and phenomenology and philosophy of mind. Here, Mendelsund describes what we “see” of the characters and settings we read about as fragmented, detailed in parts but not additive—more details don’t create a more vivid image, even if they do create a more rounded understanding.

I kept thinking of the left-brained mode of perceiving, the one that dissects and strips of context, that knows the parts that make up a whole but can’t seem to understand how to put them together. Mendelsund isn’t using that framework, but everything he says fits the idea that literature and language more generally is the domain of the dissecting left brain.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Susanna Clarke

tags: short stories, fairy tales, fantasy, magic, fairies

It doesn’t have the scope of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and it doesn’t suggest the same depths as Piranesi* but Clarke is a delightful writer and these stories nicely flesh out her conception of fairies as a strange mix of sophisticated and feral. Decadent is probably the word for it—the characters, not the stories, which are modest enough and all have the feel, appropriately, of fairy tales for adults.

Charming as most of the stories are, the real treat was the brief return of Jonathan Strange. Funny how satisfying it can be to revisit a character in a more relaxed setting.

*Not exactly fair to compare, given that Piranesi is quite possibly my favourite piece of fiction in the last decade or so, just an absolutely magical work in every sense of the word.

Chokepoint Capitalism

Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow

tags: non-fiction, capitalism, monopolies, monopsonies, intellectual property, collectivism

Plenty of good anecdotes on the way companies use their position as dominent buyers or sellers to manipulate markets, pocket unfair shares of wealth, and generally make life worse for everyone who isn’t their execs and shareholders. The collective solutions proposed all seem like reasonable starting points, too—but while I agree with their point that systemic problems require systemic solutions, I don’t feel like I left the book with a starting point of how to work towards that change.

Maybe just naming the problem and talking about it is a sound enough starting point. Chokepoint Capitalism is a useful term, evocative and intuitive to understand, but also expansive enough to capture a whole world of corporate corruption. If it bleeds its way into more general discourse, that can only be a good thing.