Archive for category Books

A Look at Hugo Nominees

In recent years I have become more aware than ever before how important it is to vote. I’m not talking about the election of public officials–the importance of that has always been obvious to me. But the Hugos, nominating and final voting…well, it has been so easy to make excuses.

My “To Be Read” pile is a chronic feature that has endured in my life from childhood onward. When it comes time to nominate for the Hugos, I have often read hardly anything from the eligible year. In recent years, I have made an effort to nominate something, because I want to do my part to prevent future Sad/Rabid Puppy outbreaks.

Then comes the final ballot. Publishers and artists have been wonderful in recent years about making stories and novels available for Worldcon members to read free of charge, but the texts only become available a few months prior to the voting deadline. It’s a lot, but I’m determined to read as much as I can.

Here’s where I’m at right now.

Novels:

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. Scalzi is always an easy read, so I am confident I will get to this one.

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to read this. I will.

Provenance, by Ann Leckie. This one is tougher. The book is in he same universe as her Ancillary universe, but is not a sequel to the trilogy, from what I can see. I read Ancillary Justice. I think I admired it more than I liked it. I haven’t gotten to the other two. Can I read this one as a stand-alone, without reading the other two? I’ll give it a try.

Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one is clearly number two in a series, and I have not read the first. Sadly, its being second in a series makes it far less likely I’ll get to it.

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. It’s a science fiction mystery. OMG! I love mysteries. I must read it!

The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin. I read the first in the series, The Fifth Season, and I enjoyed that one tremendously. This is the third in the series. I have not read the second. Oh dear. I’ll do it if I can.

Conclusion: I think I’m in trouble with the novel category, because I haven’t read a single one. And it’s the third week of May.

Next post: novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

 

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Genre, for Better or Worse

Once upon a time, I looked at genre–the process of sorting storytelling into type–as a necessary evil of use primarily for marketing, and for organizing large bookstores, and for slapping rocket ship or detective logos on the spines of library books. I didn’t need genre labels. My taste was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and omnivorous. I bragged I would read anything. I didn’t need genre labels. If it was good, then I wanted to read it

I’ve changed. I no longer view choosing-by-genre designations as narrow-minded and provincial. I remain open-minded in my tastes, but the older I get, the more I feel the need to match what I read or watch to my mood.

This turning point came a couple years ago during a vacation. By the time we’d made it from the airport to the hotel, had dinner and settled into our room, I was tired, physically and mentally. Didn’t feel like reading. Nothing on the hotel TV. My husband was looking at his iPad, so I looked at mine.

I stumbled upon a cozy mystery, Death in Paradise.

It hit the spot. Episodic TV mysteries like this one tickle the brain, but don’t tax it too much. We are given a beautiful locale and clever writing. Relationships between the regulars–the detectives and their allies–lean more toward humor than angst. We understand the murder victim to be a short-timer; we don’t get attached.

Unlike life, the people in mysteries live by the rules. Our detectives may be flawed characters, they may make mistakes, but they will do their job to the best of their ability. We can trust them.

I meander through genres, stopping to visit as I wish. Each offers something. When I’m hungry for new ideas, new ways about thinking about humanity and the future, science fiction is the go-to. It could be the fanciful solar system of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, or the less fanciful but still stunning one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. I love certain kinds of fantasy, but sometimes Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is too active for me, and I want something more sedate. In a sense, every author is sui generis, and I like that too.

When I finish something, I am thrown into a bit of emotional crisis. What to read next? What to watch next? I scroll through my digital and paper libraries, sometimes spending as much time picking something as I would choosing a new sofa. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing, and have to abandon it. Sometimes I pick just right, and match my mood perfectly.

 

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A Cloak of Ambiguity

In The Invisibility Cloak, a short novel by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse), Mr. Cui tries to improve his fortunes in life. The Kirkus review back-cover blurb describes our protagonist as a “likable loser,” a description I see as off the mark.

Mr. Cui is proud of his life. True, his sister, brother-in-law, best friend, and former wife view him as less than a winner. But Mr. Cui doesn’t embrace their views. He builds tube amplifiers for wealthy clients who want expensive, superior sound systems. Modern Beijing society doesn’t value his genius, but he sees that as an indictment of modern Beijing society, not of him.

His relationships are troubled and confused. His sister and brother-in-law want him to move out of an apartment they own. There appears to be some unfairness here, as the house his sister and brother-in-law are living in is a legacy from their mother, something which Mr. Cui ought to share in. Mr. Cui recognizes the unfairness, but does not dwell on it. Nor does he dwell on why they are doing what they do. He concentrates on getting enough money to avoid homelessness.

His relationship with his ex-wife is equally opaque. He is obsessed with the loss of her, but has little idea why she left him. His relationship with his best friend is equally unreciprocal. Mr. Cui is disappointed by his friend, but lets the behavior slide.

Mr. Cui is obsessed by his work with his beloved high-end audio equipment–unambiguous components, parts, wires, and tubes. Perhaps the clarity of his work brings him a clearer view of his wealthy clients than he could ever have of family and friends. He despises his clients–for their lack of musical taste, their pomposity, and for their disrespect for his skills.

Mr. Cui finally lands a job with a client he comes to like, but also fears. His experience with this client, and the client’s wife, promises to resolve some of the uncertainties of his life, and both succeeds and fails. For Mr. Cui, ambiguity must always triumph.

This is an odd story narrated by an unreliable protagonist. But it’s not Mr. Cui’s fault he’s unreliable. He can’t perceive what others hide from him, nor what he hides from himself. Throwing an invisibility cloak over large chunks of the world might be the only he could ever move forward.

I liked this book.

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Published by New York Review of Books-2016

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To Pursue What One Sucks At

(Note: I found this draft of a post from several years ago, and wondered why I never posted it. I offer it now, with minimal editing.)

I have been on a Julia Child journey lately, as I make my way through the Bob Spitz biography of her life. There is a lot to like about her: That she was a late-bloomer who didn’t hit her stride until middle age. She was a woman everyone who met seemed to have loved. But the most amazing thing of all, I think, is that at the beginning of her journey, she sucked at cooking.

She loved good food, an interest she shared with her husband, Paul Child. Early on in their marriage, she tried to cook, often with disappointing results. But she kept trying, receiving help from her sister-in-law, among others. Slowly, she improved. When her husband was posted to Paris, it was the beginning of her formal education as a cook. But before she could enroll at Le Cordon Bleu, she had to tackle something else she wasn’t good at: the French language.

Now, I don’t know exactly how terrible she was at either cooking or French (later on in the book, when the Childs are posted to Oslo, Spitz refers to Julia’s wonderful “ear for language”), but it is clear she didn’t exhibit any particular early talent for cooking. The usual manner of determining one’s life work is to identify one’s talents, and go from there. Julia Child’s life work grew out of something other than a native talent; it grew instead out of love. She loved French cooking, and desired to master it. For the cooking, she needed the language, so she mastered that as well.

Love is a powerful motivation, but rarely is it enough to overcome the baggage of failure. Julia Child had something else going for her, where the cooking was concerned. That something was science.

An intuitive, “talented” cook might brag about never measuring, and might be vague as to what temperature the oven should be, or how much time the thing should cook. Julia deconstructed everything. In mastering recipes for French classics such as coq au vin,  she did trial after trial, methodically adjusting measurements and refining her technique. When compiling recipes for her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she and her collaborators tried multiple recipes for each dish, from French home cooks, and from master chefs. Julia kept breaking it down, seeking precision in every step.

Talent is attractive. Talent allows the extraordinary to look effortless. Talent is something to envy.

Julia Child was loaded with talent, but her greatest talents lay in her character and temperament. She is described by those who knew her as having boundless enthusiasm. She was also loaded with persistence and an insatiable desire for knowledge. She seemed incapable of embarrassment. Failure did not shame her; it motivated her to cook a dish, five, ten, or twenty times, until it met her standards.

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To Begin Again

Four years ago, I decided to take a break from blogging. Dozens of times since, I have considered  picking it up again.

During my extended break, things have happened. Our daughter went to grad school and got a real job. I had my thyroid out. We’ve been to Memphis, Nashville, London, Paris, Berlin, and Helsinki, among other, less exotic, places. I’ve had two stories published online (Sockdolager and Allegory), and another to come out, soon, from the venerable print zine Tales of the Unanticipated. We had a long-lived pet cockatiel die, and adopted a new one. None of these events disrupted my schedule enough to keep me from blogging, and yet I stopped dead, as suddenly as if I’d fallen into a sinkhole.

I joke that laziness stopped me, but that is untrue. I would not describe myself as driven, but I would say I’m a pretty reliable plodder…the sort of person who does laundry on Monday and pays bills on Tuesdays, and writes very nearly every day. I’ve gotten stuff done, just not blogging. I might cite perfectionism, and that would be closer to the mark. I want everything I write to mean something. You know, there’s so much stuff out there. Lots of blathering. Most of it doesn’t mean much of anything, nor does it seem to have much of a purpose. And while “meaning” and “purpose” are different concepts they go together for me. Meaning is always useful, and that which has purpose means something.

I don’t know which things I write will end up meaning something to someone, so perhaps, “meaning” and “purpose” are concepts that need to be considered. My posts don’t get a lot of response, but I am grateful for the responses I do get, and am a bit amazed to still get the occasional comment after a four-year hiatus. Apparently there is occasional meaning here, but I can’t predict when or where or for whom.

I’ve been mulling over how the need for meaning and purpose can throw a stranglehold on a person ever since reading the second book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, A Closed and Common Orbit. In it, the AI protagonist tells us that animals don’t have a purpose. Human animals, however, are obsessed with the concept of having a purpose, of searching for the meaning of their lives. With that bred into their very souls, they have programmed their AIs to be purpose-focused as well. AI Sidra finds herself needing to re-invent herself to survive. Re-inventing oneself involves lying about one’s past, but she is programmed only to tell the truth. In figuring out how to undo her own programming, she comes to recognize survival, friendship, and love as purpose enough.

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This cockatiel can’t predict which of his actions will mean anything, but he has found his purpose, which is to be a cockatiel.

 

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Two Lives, Very Different


UnknownimagesI’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.

Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.

The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)

These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson.  I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.

And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.

There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.

These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.

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It’s No Mystery

My Latest Page-turner.

My Latest Page-turner

Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.

Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.

One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.

Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.

I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?

China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?

The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?

So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?

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