Archive for category Books
I’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.
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?
That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.
I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.
And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.
That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.
I would prefer you don’t:
1) Overuse italics.
Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.
2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.
All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.
3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:
Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.
4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:
I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.
5) Let your isms show:
Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.
Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.
The foregoing is not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?
As I finished up my most recent post, I knew a reader or two was likely to tell me of restaurants in SF that I had not known about. Sure enough, a friend suggested The Vlad Taltos series from Steven Brust. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. My normal modus operandi these days in such a situation is to download it immediately. Unfortunately, I found the first novel in the series, Jhereg, was not available in digital form, although later novels in the series are.
I punched buy with one-click! on Amazon to obtain Jhereg in pb, and then wondered, what else isn’t available digitally? My first thought was to look for great, but obscure works, items that survive on my shelf through years of culling. I was a little surprised by what was there, and what was not.
The most glaring omission were the novels of Patricia Anthony. The only novels of hers available in electronic format were Brother Termite, and Flanders. Missing was my absolute fab fave, God’s Fires, as well as everything else. (If you think you might like a novel about the Inquisition with a science-fictional twist, this one should appeal to you.)
We lost Patricia Anthony a couple months ago, and as it happens, every one of her eight books was published in the nineties. Eating Memories, and Flanders, her last books, both came out in 1998. It pains me to think that because her body of work is “old,” having missed the ebook revolution, and because she is now gone, all her fine work could be forgotten. I consider Patricia Anthony to be a significant SF and mainstream author, and I urge anyone who missed her in the 90’s to look her up. Start with the ebook if you like, then, if necessary, go for the real books.
A book I did not expect to find, and yet was disappointed not to find, was Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax. I have heard that novel was a disaster commercially, and had a negative impact on his career.
I was sorry to hear that. I loved it. Give me a thoughtful, out-there, possibly controversial version of a religion or a religious figure, and I am really, really happy. What others consider blasphemous, I consider speculative and thought-provoking. I have never believed the The Great Spirit is particularly annoyed or injured by any sincere inquiry. The Gospel of Corax is one of my favorites of these, and I also enjoyed The Three Marys, by the same author.
Beyond those two examples, I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books missing from digital stores. Many will become available, in good time, but some may not. I suppose the same goes for music, film, and TV. This distresses me. I’m not usually the quickest to adapt to new technology, but digital culture and entertainment are different. I have become entirely accustomed to having everything that has ever been played, written, or filmed available instantly. I am willing to pay for it; I don’t expect it to be free, but I want it RIGHT NOW.
And, although Jhereg wasn’t available RIGHT NOW, it arrived within forty-eight hours.
A great villain requires a great hero. Thing is, good can be tough to write. Good sometimes doesn’t seem quite as much fun as evil, but when done brilliantly, it is a delight.
The superhero is very, very good. He/she fulfills our longing for the perfect parent, someone we found out our real parents were not. The superhero knows right from wrong, and does something about it. The superhero has unusual talents to call upon, powers beyond those of the ordinary human. The only downside to superhero-dom, it seems, is having to wear really funny clothes.
The everyday hero is a different animal. They are not our parents; they are our peers. They, and their creators, deserve our respect.
1. Jerry Lundegard squirms so satisfyingly in Fargo, because Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand) is on to him, and there will be no escaping her. I sympathize a bit with poor old Jerry here.
Marge is an everywoman. She has a tough job, she is extremely pregnant, and she is the smartest one in the movie. She is patient with her subordinates, but she is five steps ahead of them. She is confident, but never arrogant. She makes traditional virtues that we take for granted–like loyalty, practicality, common sense, humility, patience, and tenacity–downright sexy. She feels let down sometimes. Her husband doesn’t get how difficult her job is. An encounter with a former classmate is more than disappointing. She never, ever wastes one second on feeling sorry for herself. We never see her complain. She just gets on with it.
I want to study her with a microscope, and I want to be her when I grow up. If I can’t be her, I want her to be my best friend. I love watching her succeed, armed with intelligence, goodness, and dry wit. (I will never look at a wood-chipper in the same way.) I love that her goodness aids her fight against evil. It’s as if her very lack of a personal agenda frees up her mind to think, and think clearly. In some stories, the villain is more interesting than the hero. Not so here.
2. In Parks & Recreation, City Councillor (possibly soon-to-be recalled) Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is someone who, despite her name, says yes to everything in life. She is a dedicated public servant toiling tirelessly in the world of local government. She is unflaggingly and progressively optimistic about her mission: to make her town, Pawnee, the greatest town on the planet. She has faith in people, and enormous faith in her ability to sway people to her point of view. She is mostly always in the right in her stances on public issues, but she is also often a teensy bit annoying.
She didn’t get where she is without becoming a control freak. Those around her-boss Ron, co-workers and friends, husband Ben-all generally support her aims, and all absolutely love her, as they must, given the way she drives them all.
It is this edge that gives Leslie her pop and sparkle. She shares many of the personality traits of Tammy Two, but with one huge difference. Unlike Tammy, Leslie is always willing to put aside her personal ambitions for the good of the people she serves. But she does it with a grimace. She is a hero, but she is no saint.
3. Breaking Bad is not about the innocent. We may sympathize with many of the characters, but is anyone here a hero?
Walter Jr. begins the series as an innocent, but as he progresses through his teens, I fear next season will see him become more and more like his dad. Or his mom, for that matter.
The hero is Hank Shrader (Dean Norris), brother-in-law to Walt. Hank is a DEA agent. He’s a funny kind of hero; he’s bombastic, profane, and bigoted, but he is the only one here who throws up at the sight of blood. And his job is everything to him. Solving the mystery of “Heisenberg” is his life quest. While everyone else is orbiting around Walt and the damage he does, Hank quietly perseveres. Hank had figured it out at the end of last season; this final season will be the showdown.
We know there can’t be many left standing at the end of the final season; I hope Hank is one of them. He deserves it; he is the only one capable of bringing law and order back to Albuquerque.
4. Good luck finding a pure heart in Game of Thrones. Ned Stark came close, but he was too enmeshed in the politics of the Seven Kingdoms to remain pure. Most of the characters here are busily trying to win a war and not be slaughtered. The moral code is bound up in medieval traditions of honor, which most of the characters subscribed to only when it furthers their purposes. I could talk for pages about the moral universe of each individual; I find that the most fascinating aspect of the tale.
The only adult character who is a pure heart is Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). When she makes a vow, she keeps it, and does not allow anything to get in her way. It doesn’t matter the cost. Brienne is not naive. She is a grown-up who has seen all there is to see in Westeros. Brienne and Marge Gunderson are cut from the same cloth; that is, they do their jobs. In fact, I’d love to see Brienne turn up one day in Brainerd, MN. I’d like to see Marge hire her for her police force there. Brienne could learn a lot from Marge, and then maybe the two of them could go back to Westeros and straighten the place out. I see them allied with Daenerys somehow….
And then, maybe, winter will be over.
Conflict is the heart of any story, and the driver of all plots within the story. Conflict–which many of us like to avoid in our daily lives–is what we eagerly seek out in fiction, both as writers and as consumers. Conflict can be anything from a tear in the fabric of space-time that threatens to swallow up all of reality (Dr. Who) to over-done women carrying a grudge over how someone dissed someone else (Real Housewives of Wherever, Shahs of Sunset*).
In the case of the latter, I become impatient. I want to tell the self-involved dummies to get over themselves and pay attention to what matters in life. In the case of the former, I also become impatient, because a conflict that’s too big can also become tedious. Dr. Who fell into this for a while. I mean, come on. You know reality isn’t going to go up in a puff of smoke. What would happen to the show, then? So why keep making that the arc of the season? Can’t we just have some fun adventure?
Conflict is a matter of scale. The Doctor is a Time Lord able to travel through space and time in the Tardis. He has his wits and a magic screwdriver. The most satisfying of the stories are neither to big nor too small for his persona. My favorite this season so far is “The Rings of Akhaten,” where a child is saved from sacrifice. That was lovely. On the other end of the spectrum, I became so very weary last season of the tedious and portentous story lines of the Doctor’s death, and the whole mess with Amy Pond, River Song, and Rory. I simply didn’t buy any of it.
Conflict is also a matter of perspective and depth. Generic makes my eyes glaze over. The oft-repeated advice to the writer, “Begin with a character with a problem…” makes my mind go numb. I need to begin with something specific, be it large or small. More accurately, two or three things come together, and then two or three things are added, and so forth. In the masterpiece that is Mad Men, we spend most of the first season collecting and arranging these specific pieces, i.e. characters in a quite specific time and place. I remember being unimpressed with the first episode I watched, in which Peggy starts work, Joan struts around like an office queen bee, and Don drinks and smokes and screws around. It seemed a bland period piece, until toward the end of the first season, when the real characters emerge from the carefully crafted images that era demanded. From that point on, the series has been driven seamlessly by character conflict. Twist and turn goes the plot, but it manages to both shock and be inevitable.
Conflict is a matter of quality. Does exploration of this fictional conflict somehow enlighten and inform me on the subject of the human condition? Does it seem real? If not, I see it as a waste of time. This is my general gripe against recent literary fiction, that it seems to be about nothing. (And not in the Seinfeld sense, the show the that pretended to be about nothing but in fact was about everything.) Quality conflict moves me. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me want to talk about it to others who have watched or read it. It is highly subjective. What matters to some, doesn’t to others.
While avoiding conflict in life whenever possible, I indulge my addiction with several doses daily of the fictional variety. I’m reading two books now, The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Cyroburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. On the TV front, I am watching Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation, Community, Mr. Selfridge, and EastEnders. I haven’t seen a movie in months, but I have seen three stage plays in recent weeks, two of which were excellent and which I will name here: The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter, and The Parisian Woman, by Beau Willimon. I’m finding Mr. Selfridge a bit conflict-lite, a bit contrived, but I’m soldiering on with it anyway. EastEnders is a British soap opera. Many of its conflicts are stupid, but it is fun to make fun of.
I love being addicted to conflict and to have so many opportunities to get all drugged up with it every day. I love the conflict with self and family in the Hopkinson novel and the Hunter play. I love the disparate social and political commentary of Bujold, Parks & Rec, and Community. I love the very different kinds of heroism shown in Dr. Who, in Bujold, and in Game of Thrones. I love the anthropological and psychological dissection of the Willimon play and of Mad Men.
It’s a lot going on. I’ve had a bit of a problem lately in that I cannot help visualizing Peter Dinklage as Miles Vorkosigan, even though I know darned well Miles is not a little person. The wit, swagger, and toughness of the two characters of Tyrion and Miles bear comparison, somehow.
One more interesting note about fictional conflict: Even when I have real conflict in my life (and no one can avoid it completely) I still need the approximate same daily dose of the fictional variety. The difference is, during rough times, I focus on the resolution. Fiction does such a better job of resolution than real life does.
*I am treating Reality TV as fiction. Please tell me it is.
Photo: Speculative Martha
About ninety percent of my reading is in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Back in the eighties and nineties, the split was more like fifty-fifty between Spec Fic and “other.” And it’s more than that. I can say that ninety percent of the literature I revere is in science fiction and fantasy, and only ten percent in other fields.
Revere is a strong word, but it is the word that comes to mind. I like a lot of things, and I admire talent in a lot of genres, but it is science fiction and fantasy that hits me in the gut and sets my brain on fire, that makes me wonder “…how the hell did he/she come up with this?”.
While moaning about the demise of The Hour, and re-watching season four of Mad Men, I realized something perhaps a bit odd: My percentages for genre in television would be exactly opposite. Ninety percent of what I revere in television is not science fiction or fantasy. The list goes on and stretches back for decades.
Revered in Comedy: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, M*A*S*H, Keeping Up Appearances, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Revered in Drama: Breaking Bad, The Hour, Sopranos, Mad Men.
In the drama category, a case could be made that mainstream TV gives me a lot of what I love in SF literature, my number one draw to SF, which is that I am transported to a different time and/or place in which everything is different from what I know. Or, almost different.
I have been to Albuquerque, but met no one while there who was involved in cooking or selling crystal meth. The shots of the desert in that show take my breath away, so starkly beautiful in Breaking Bad.
I have also been to the nineteen-sixties, but I did it as a teenager, not as an adult at a Manhattan ad agency. The time travel aspect of Mad Men is a bit sf-nal.
Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be about home, whatever its genre, whatever its locale. Comedy transports me in a different way, and it is much more difficult for me to pin down what makes me laugh. Why did I laugh at the mother-in-law/hippo joke in Reginald Perrin every time? What was so funny about Mystery Science Theater? That concept should not have worked, but it did. And all, somehow, are about home. Remember, the characters in MST3000 return to live together in an apartment in Wisconsin at the end of the series.
I don’t notice genre as much in television. Sure, there’s the SyFy channel, but the genres do tend to bleed together more. Community gets a Hugo nomination. People not otherwise interested in fantasy watch Game of Thrones. No one seems to care quite as much about genre in TV as they do in literature. And perhaps literature is the key word here. Some books are supposed to be good for you. Books that are good for you are called literature. If you actually like books that are good for you, well, you must be an intellectual! And if you read that sci-fi stuff, you clearly are not.
On the other hand, television is not good for you, no matter what. I’ve been hearing that from the time I was old enough to operate the channel selector. (We did not have remotes in those days.) It is assumed that, if you are watching television, you are wasting time. Distinctions matter less. Oh sure, there can be the occasional PBS documentary, but when you’re knocking around a broadcast lineup that includes Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, My Secret Addiction, and dozens of others, watching Dr. Who, or Buffy, or Star Trek Next Generation doesn’t seem all that bad.
My point in all this is that television is more than not-always-that-bad. It is often good. It is is occasionally, in recent years in particular, as brilliant as any writing done in any genre and any form in all of time.
Photo: Library of Congress