essays

Readings: Non-fiction, again

liebermanIt’s been somewhat slow in terms of reading and writing here. It’s partly work, partly the fact that what Warren Ellis calls The Great Winter Hermitage is approaching again, and I seem to be saving all the reading and writing for times when I really won’t want to leave the house. My reading now, oddly enough, is done mostly while I’m out and about, as I am still in the non-fiction audio book phase. I did Dewey’s readathon last Saturday and finished listening to The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge while doing a half-marathon through the park (way to overachieve, I say). Now I’m listening to Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, which is forcing me to learn quite a bit about something I oddly never particularly cared about, namely, various ancient hominids and what hunter-gatherers were up to. Lieberman is mainly interested in how evolution has affected our bodies and therefore our health. Spoiler alert: he thinks we should eat fewer donuts and walk more miles, but he also explains pretty well why it’s hard to overcome the impulse to sit on the couch instead. He makes a point that while we can ask what it is that the human body has evolved to do, we shouldn’t expect an easy, one-task answer. Much like we didn’t evolve to eat one kind of diet (he takes a few shots at modern paleo diets throughout the book). Whereas my previous audio read focused more on the brain, this one is more body-oriented (though I’m a few chapters away from the finish line).

ruhlI also just finished Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write. This is the perfect book if you don’t have time to read, either. As advertised, it has one hundred essays, Chekhovian in their brevity, but somehow containing within humor, profundity, life advice, and theatre critique all at once. Read this little book if you love theatre or if you hate theatre. Read it if you love children or don’t want any children around. Read it if you are a dramaturg, or if you have no idea what ‘dramaturg’ means. Just read it. It will either take you a couple of hours or weeks, depending on your reading speed and the number of children you have.

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A Love Letter (#2!) to Jo Walton

whatmakesthisbookWhat Makes This Book So Great is out and you need to get it now. That’s it, review done. ‘But, but’, you say, ‘what if I don’t like reading lit crit? What if I think it’s silly to publish blog posts in paper format?’ Well, keep reading then. I’ll tell you what makes this book so great.

First of all, it’s not lit crit. At least not the kind you’re thinking of. As Walton herself says in the book and also in this guest post at Civilian Reader, it’s essentially fan writing, reactions and impressions sans jargon and lots of references to what other critics thought. It’s similar to what I and other book bloggers write. Which brings me to my next point. When blog posts are published in a book, it does result in a loss of that part of blogging where people tell you how wrong you are. But do not despair. What Makes This Book So Great is still full of excellent essays even without the ensuing discussion, and if you really want to say something, Walton advises you to dig up the post in question from the tor.com site and comment away (she still reads the comments!).

Now, a couple of caveats. Number one, there are some spoilers strewn about in the book, though Walton is pretty good at telling you where they start. For a lot of books in this collection, the statute of limitations on spoilers has long passed, but you can still avoid them.

Number two, Walton recommends reading the posts in order, as some later ones reference the ones before them. I didn’t jump around, although I did skip a few entries altogether. There are chunks of this book devoted primarily to one specific author or series, Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga being one. Now, if you haven’t read any books in that series, you might not want to read ten or so entries devoted to it. Or maybe you want to read the saga first and then come back to the essays (this was my reason). In that case, read entry #49  (‘Choose again, and change: Louis McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga’) and then come back later to read the other ones. And if you didn’t want to read these books, #49 will magically make you want to do so.

In fact, most of the entries will magically make you want to read the books mentioned. As I mentioned previously, Walton even makes me want to re-read books I know I did not like (and there is an essay that discusses why occasionally you might want to read books you didn’t think were good). What Makes This Book So Great is a journal of re-reading, a compendium of reactions to books read more than once. If re-reading is something utterly alien to you, there are essays about it in the book, and you can also read Walton’s latest post about it on Fantasy Faction. I personally really like re-reading. I blame being a bookseller for the fact that I don’t do it as much anymore. I am overwhelmed with new books on a daily basis, and while I don’t really want to read most of them, what’s left is enough to send me into too-many-books-too-little-time reading despair. Walton reminds me why that this kind of despair is silly (of course you won’t be able to read all the books in the world, so just relax and read what you want) and why it’s usually a great experience coming back to books you loved (but not always!).

Apart from posts that make you want to read all the books, Walton also has essays on reading and genre in general. These are probably my favorite, particularly #95, ‘SF reading protocols’. I think she is absolutely spot-on in this one — SF reading is a essentially a skill you acquire by reading SF. Walton is very astute when she talks about what’s going on in the genre, or when she compares it to ‘mainstream’ fiction (see #7, ‘”That’s just scenery”: What do we mean by “mainstream”?’).

All her posts are worth reading, even for books you don’t care about. She is that good. And now, go get the book already.

Jo Walton just made my day

Or at least her book did. I got my hands on this today, and I am going to read it till I’m finished. And then I’m going to read and reread all the books she talks about. Yes, even the ones I know I didn’t like. She’s that good.

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Oh, and it hardly matters that I have read most of Walton’s posts before. In a ridiculous meta twist, I am now going to reread her essays about rereading.

In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood

atwoodMargaret Atwood and I made up. The quibble was rather one-sided, and Ms. Atwood has no idea we were not on best terms. The problem was all mine. I avoided her writing for years. You see, I went to University of Toronto, our mutual alma mater, and Margaret Atwood followed me everywhere. Her name was mentioned in every speech given at any official function, her face stared me from lamp posts. And so I stubbornly refused to read anything by her. Yes, even her sci-fi books. The resolution only grew stronger after the review by Ursula Le Guin of Year of the Flood, in which Le Guin took issue with Atwood’s avoidance of the term ‘science fiction’ to describe her work.

Then I read Oryx and Crake because somebody whose taste I trust implicitly put it in my hands and told me to read it. And it was amazing.

Thus I broke my running streak of avoiding books by Atwood. After reading Oryx and Crake and realizing that this geas was incredibly petty, I picked up her collection of writings about SF. ‘SF’, by the way, is intentional, I think. In the introduction, Atwood talks about Le Guin’s review and how this falling-out between her and the SF community was based on  a technicality and quirks of genre labeling.

In Other Worlds has three parts, the first being essays on the genre in general, second containing a few book reviews and essays about classics like Brave New World, and the third being a compilation of very short stories, each exploring some trope or sci-fi technology like cryogenics.

I found myself liking the Atwood in the book. I liked her voracious reading, which was similar to my own, and full of both literary and pulpy stuff. I loved her writing style and her sense of humor. She is definitely a master when it comes to phrasing. Her essays on the history of the genre and its cultural role are very astute and quite worth the read.

And yet… and yet I feel that I still have beef with Margaret Atwood. It might be the tone — occasionally I cannot help but think that she is making fun of the genre she purports to love, or making fun of people who are serious genre readers. I don’t want to get into ‘nobody understands us’  teen-like geek angst, but I feel like we’ve had these ‘is this sci-fi’ discussions so many times before that they are not useful anymore (‘is this sci-fi’ is now a running joke in my bookgroup — someone inevitably yells it out Freebird-style during any meeting that involves a book that is a little bit, let’s say, genre-bending). I also think the geekdom decided a while ago that multi-limbed aliens and purple squids from space are not what makes sci-fi actually sci-fi, and bringing up those or any reference to ‘gizmos’ up when classifying sci-fi is a mark of being somewhat behind on the discussion.

My other problem with the book is purely structural: mixing fiction and non-fiction in one collection just doesn’t work for me.  As I read, I kept wishing that the entire book contained essays and reviews.  I did not think that all parts of the book formed a coherent whole.

I also have to say that the publisher did Atwood a disservice by picking a cover that is both quite ugly and contains all the elements that are likely to repel readers who do not read sci-fi but we were willing to give this book a chance because they had read other Atwood’s works. That is, until they saw the android wearing what looks like a futuristic clothes hanger as a headpiece and an egg container as a bra.