Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I see the light and it's made of lasers!

Book: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF

Authors: Lots (edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer)

Published: 1994 (collection; Tor)

Pages: 988

Holy shit was this book ever difficult to get through, guys.

Let me clarify right now that I don’t mean because of the quality; it was purely a size thing. Almost 1000 pages crammed with tiny type about physics and biogenetics and astronomy and advanced mathematics and, weirdly enough, more than one whirlpool. Plus dragons.

I’ve been chipping away at this collection since the beginning of July, and it really helped to take two, several-smaller-books-sized breaks. Even then, finishing it still gives my brain that way-too-full sensation of going to a museum and reading every single plaque next to every single exhibit. Ow.

And that is what this gi-fucking-normous book functions best as: a very complete history of sci fi. (Well, up to a point. The youngest story in here is older than I am.) I read it because I want to learn more about the genre, and it gave a really thorough tour through a lot of different trope origins, teaching by showing off examples. Which was the best way to learn, because here you get all the lasers and moon colonies where people have already gotten cynical about the wonders of space and deep-sea aliens and sentient monkeys who escape wearing orange Bermuda shorts and carrying their typewriters and children’s games that lead into another dimension and Asimov computers compiling information about life’s biggest question until the end of time.

It’s all blended together, in case you can’t tell. I think partly because I read all the intros to the stories, too, which each boiled down to “This guy is awesome and [chose one] severely under-appreciated” OR “recognized as one of the leading writers of the genre and a bunch of people still copy him.”

(Regarding that last adjective, there are a relatively decent number of female authors represented here, which is to say two more beyond Anne McCaffery [dragons!] and Ursula K. Le Guin. The collection was also co-edited and compiled by a lady.)

I thought the one they chose for Poe was weaksauce because it’s a sailor describing how he got out of a whirlpool, which, while still affecting, was the most conventional Poe story I’ve ever read. Also, maybe I’m just not appreciating historical nuance, but H.G. Wells’s “Hey, Tanks!” (actual title: “The Land Ironclads”) was also not nearly as good a representation of that author as they could’ve picked. And I can’t really get over McCaffery’s dragons getting put into a collection dedicated to hard sci fi when the definition of the subgenre specifically eliminates magic as a reason for anything.

But once I got into the rhythm and let my eyes skim the passages with incomprehensible engineering equations in them, I had a great time. I’m struggling with the decision about what to do with this physical book now, though. To the pros and cons list!

It throws my spine out of whack whenever I try to lug it around in my shoulder bag, and I automatically deduct major points from any reading material I can’t carry with me at all times.
As a city girl whose pedestrian ways has grown a healthy wariness of potential muggers, I appreciate having a blunt object that will stun but not kill and look completely innocent while doing so.

I can’t see myself ever plowing through the whole thing again, like, ever.

But it’d be great to have to spot-check and keep as a future readings list for authors I would never come across again.

Oh, hell, I’ll just keep the damn thing so I’ll have an excuse to either weed my crowded fiction bookshelf or build another one that looks like the TARDIS. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Totally biased double feature

Books: This is How You Lose Her and NW

Authors: Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith

Published: 2012 (Riverhead and Penguin)

Pages: 213 and 401 (614 total)

Two of my favorite authors came out with books IN THE SAME MONTH (this one), and I really don’t feel like I can be objective about either one. Like, at all. But more than anything, this blog is to keep track of what I read and how it goes, so I’ll tell you why I thoroughly enjoyed both (big surprise) and you take it with a big grain of fangirl “squeeeee!” Deal?

Zadie Smith’s NW takes her usual themes of racial and class tensions and expectations slowly souring and drills deeper into a narrower space with them. Her history of two school friends and their life journeys that bring both of them back to their old Northwest neighborhood to uneasy relationships with each other and their spouses is very simple stuff at its core: people try to make themselves better and most often succeed just enough to be disappointed in themselves for the rest of their lives. The ordinary story works better than it should because of Smith’s stylized, stream-of-consciousness-ish narrative.

I can already see you rolling your eyes, but wait—she writes it just disjointed enough that it feels like following true thought processes, which brings intimacy to characters that aren’t nearly as exciting as her usual rag-tag bands of weirdos trying to fit in, and piecing together the chronology puts you right in the center of all of it. It ends inevitably, which isn’t exciting for this kind of story, but you do leave with a sense of peace. At least I did.

Junot Diaz brings back Yunior (hey, niño!), the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to a series of short stories that lament and expand upon his Dominican heritage and love life. Both of those things are so tightly woven together it’s inevitable that they bring disaster upon each other. The most straightforward example of that is when he takes his girlfriend to the Dominican Republic for a fixing vacation when she doesn’t want to go or fix them. His manual on how to get over the love in your life once she finds out about you cheating is at once great, because of the hurting truths and shear amount of Spanish cursing, and depressing, because you feel every ounce of hurt he does when his physical coping mechanisms (running, yoga, walking) physically break his body just when he learns how to rely on those distractions to get him through the molasses-heavy time of Life Afterward.

Diaz wins out because Yunior is lively with everyman insights and optimism that makes reading him a great one-way conversation, but Smith still impressed me with her interior portraiture. Go read both!

These are two library books, so I will have to return them, but now’s my chance to remind you that libraries have awesomeness for free.    

Friday, September 14, 2012

Rich white guy gets old and worries about it

Book: About Schimdt

Author: Louis Begley

Published: 1997 (Ballantine)

Pages: 273

Maybe it’s because estate law is boring, or because his daughter never becomes enough of a character to feel strongly about their central conflict one way or another, or because he’s a rich old white guy who finds being a retired slightly less rich old white guy really difficult and doesn’t know how to transcend that pain out of its inherent pettiness—I didn’t like poking around in Schimdt’s head.

It was dull and cranky and, worst of all, had no story in it. He does things, such as hate the fact that his daughter is marrying a Jewish guy. And things are done to him, mostly sexual advances from the females who are not related to him. But they are clichés strung together and hitched in the middle by a dying relative inheritance coincidence that puts him comfortably ahead of where he started literally without him doing a thing.

I’m donating this one. Maybe a ready-to-retire WASP will pick it up and read it, then shudder and go do exciting and/or useful things with the rest of their life.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

His pretty good but dissipating materials

Books: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials)
Author: Philip Pullman
Published: 1995, 1997, and 2000 (Yearling)
Pages: 399, 326, and 518 (1243 total)

SPOILER ALERT right here at the top because I want to talk about the ending of this series RIGHT NOW, y’all.

It makes everything not matter. All the epic battles for multiple worlds’ happiness and sustainability? Turns out they were completely unnecessary because the love two 12-year-olds find for each other emits, like, happy sex rays that calm everything down before they have to part very melodramatically and seal up the window that lets them go into each other’s world. And they have to each stay in their own world because of magical rules that they have to follow to be good people instead of selfish teenagers who will never ever find anyone they love as much ever.

Yeah. So, I actually really liked this series. And the ending would’ve been fine, maybe a still a little eye-rolling, but neat and understandable as a wrap-up if the battles between Church and witches and armored polar bears and Arctic explorers and kids who can jump worlds with knives and angels and little animal soul companions were the bits that decided things and the romance was a bittersweet little postscript that brought the epic-scale epicness of everything else down to the personal level the whole story spiraled started out from.

But that didn’t happen.

Lyra was awesome through 90% of this, though. She’s a scrappy kid who grows up and uses her personality to mold her Chosen One destiny instead of the other way around. She’s nosey and brave, and when she meets Will in the second book, they balance each other out very nicely. Will is blander as a straightforward hero, but he still reveals complexity as he’s getting use to all the fantastic stuff he has to deal with after learning about it two seconds beforehand from creatures he never even imagined existed. He’s smart and good at blending in, from a lifetime of helping his mom navigate through her mental illness. 

I loved the development of the other characters, too, especially Mrs. Coulter. She’s written so the reader can almost always see through her sweetness to her real motives but the other characters can’t. Pure evil, beautiful charisma that switches sides to whatever best suits her own next move. Everyone, including her, loves Lyra a bit too instantly, but, eh, that’s how it goes in these sorts of stories and it’s the only instance in which things go easily for Lyra.

The whole “He kills God!” thing leveled at Pullman: technically, yes. He does. But God is an extremely enfeebled angel who hasn’t had any real power in a long time, who wanted to die, and who was accidentally just dissolved when the kids pull back a curtain to see him better. So it’s not violent—it’s a merciful moment. And the Church here just kind of stands in for government and is only wicked at intervals when it felt like Pullman remembered it sporadically.

Everybody’s battling for Dust, which the Church says is original sin and…other people say it’ force? I don’t know. Everybody was trying to find out, and I don’t think anybody actually did. It turns out to be a good thing, and there are elephants with wheels who need it to keep their trees alive, and Lyra and Will young-love it into abundance. I don’t know what happens to everyone else, but I assume they turn out okay.

It’s an excellent adventure story with real characters, only the metaphysical plot doesn’t support itself as well as it should. Still recommended.

These are another Book Dispensary acquisition, and as such are mine to put in my bookcase after taking them off theirs.   

Monday, September 3, 2012

"Hope" is the thing that other people steal--

Book: The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary crime and the Art of Forgery

Author: Simon Worrall

Published: 2002 (Penguin)

Pages: 265

This blog entry is brought to you by the lonely boredom that swoops down on me sometime each weekend and my attempts at combating it. I’ve shifted my volunteering at the Book Dispensary to Sunday afternoons because that’s when I’m most likely to need distraction that makes me feel useful, and helping them stem the relentless tide of genre trade paperbacks is actively soothing.

And they pay me the equivalent of $8 an hour in store book credit to do it.

So when I’m elbow-deep in James Patterson duplicates and see this book standing apart from its blood-font siblings on the true crime shelf, I don’t think twice about “buying” it, taking it home, and reading it in two large chunks over the next 18 hours or so. I’ve made a new friend.

(Aside: I’m non-snarkily starting to doubt the mental health of regularly indulging that impulse, especially considering the socially isolating aspects of it—which brings up a question of motive that is very fucking depressing: does it come from a pure place of loving to read with isolation as a consequence, or does my love of reading come from needing to fill the void I never really know what to do with?)

But for now I can counter myself with “Hey, I’m not killing people to cover millions of dollars of debt I’ve incurred from my decades of pawning off historical document forgeries.” That’d be Mark Hofmann’s job, in a knotty tale that begins with him forging documents designed to mess with the Mormon church by rewriting its history. His success and smugness about that leads him to branch out into American historical figures, get in way over his financial head, and blow up two of his creditors with homemade bombs so he doesn’t have to pay them OR fork over documents that don’t actually exist.

That doesn’t go well. He ends up in jail for life, but not before giving the author plenty of excuses to go into details about LDS mythology and modern structure, early American printing processes, handwriting, auction house procedures and corruptions, and how to build a pipe bomb.

It’s all really interesting stuff that flows well into each other, like a string of cursive that connects different letters in ways that aren’t intuitive until you see it in action. Except for the forward and afterword, the author keeps a pretty objective tone and also stays translucent about how difficult it is to know the whole truth about a guy who based his entire business and most of the rest of his life on carefully constructed lies. His only faults are tendencies to reintroduce facts that he’s already mentioned and to write an unnecessary chapter called Victims. We know, dude. You’ve shown us the careers, religions, and hobby joys that Hofman broke; they’re much more compelling to read about as that happens than in a obligatory-sounding list in paragraph form.

One of his forgeries, a “newly discovered” supposedly original poem from Emily Dickenson, gives the author an excuse to talk about the reclusive poet’s life and writing and publishing history, and those are my favorite parts. Dickinson is generally portrayed as a reclusive genius, and this book expands her life into one of combined frustration and defiance that she compacted into her writing. Maybe she was bisexual, in love with like fifty people over the course of her lifetime, embarrassed about her failing eyesight, perversely determined to rebel by keeping everything so private. She let it all out in her poems, which America has revered as an idealized example of pure artistic expression, when they finally got to see the damn things.

There’s not really a connection between Dickinson’s life and Hofmann’s except that he decided to forge her. But their brief intersection is a great jumping-off point to half a dozen related topics that all come together in one of the only true crime books where more ink than blood is spilled.