Saturday, December 26, 2009

The beginning of a long way

Well, looks like Sci-Fi Month is going to last a little longer than the minimum 3 days. (Sci-fi month is, by the way, entirely unofficial and unrelated to any organization or group.) The direction this month may take me is starting to become a little clearer as I see what books are available to me (90%+ through my ever handy Sony Reader, all books free of charge).

The month started, as I mentioned, with seemingly safe, simple territory: "The Children of Men" by P. D. James. I had seen the movie several months before (I was unaware that it was based on a book until the end of the movie) but knew that the book and movie were very different. The book surprised me, in that it was at once very similar to the movie and at once completely different. It's hard to explain without spoiling both, but I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and not just as a gentle dystopian way to ease into Sci-Fi Month. It's a contemplative adventure story, mixed with politics and a dash of social commentary. Unsurprisingly, the book is really good.

I chose to head in a completely different direction with the next book and finally got around to reading "Good Omens". I'd heard both good and bad, but I honestly expected to like it more. I thought some of the characters were brilliant and eagerly followed one plot thread, but found myself slightly bored by the rest. It also didn't really agree with my mood. It was too... giddily fantastic. Not exactly science fiction. Pleasant stuff (not amazing), but this wasn't the time to read it.

Book 3 came courtesy of the nice folks at Random House, who were kind enough to upload a bucketload of free eBooks just when I bought my handy-dandy Reader: "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville. I'll be honest, I was flying blind when I decided to read this. Only afterward did I learn that this book has received quite a few honors (none particularly breathtaking, but it hasn't been ignored). The book itself is interesting (a little long, but good overall), if only because it's bizarrely difficult to define. Is it science fiction (what with almost everything being described by science) or fantasy (what with random bizarre inexplicable things happening)? A great segue for some of next week's definition discussions.

These three books reside in very different realms of science fiction (or fantasy, or whatever the requirement is...). One book is humorously fantastic (from fantasy), another is bleakly human, and a third is weirdly scientific. None of these come close to the types of books I hope to read in the coming weeks. I hope to pay my respects to Asimov (on the left) and Clarke over the next few days, as well as Ursula Le Guin and H. G. Wells. Oh, this is going to be fun...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Out of this world

Yesterday officially marked the start of Sci-Fi Month*. After finishing the quiet, way-too-grounded-in-reality book I was currently reading, I remembered how a few weeks ago I posted about silly TV to book comparisons. While painstakingly researching my words (yes, I actually spent time writing that post), I found myself reading quite a few Wikipedia articles on sci-fi writers. It started with Isaac Asimov, moved onto Arthur C. Clarke, and then somehow (thanks, Wikipedia) ended up with me reading all about steampunk, the definition of a dystopian novel and all sorts of other random articles that I've since forgotten.

I did, however, feel a slight twinge of guilt and shame when, scrolling down the list of sci-fi books (yes, Wikipedia actually has one of those...), I'd read a tiny tiny portion. I've only read a few Asimov stories, no Clarke, no H. G. Wells, and hardly any of the major, famous hits. I suddenly felt uneducated, much in the same way that three-four years ago I felt the need to educate myself in the "upper literature" realm (the "classics" - Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Austen, Eliot [George], the Brontës, this list goes on and on...), I felt the need to educate myself in science-fiction - and fast.

The problem is, I'm not very good at defining things. So science fiction grew to include fantasy and dystopian literature, which is definitely 100% not the same thing, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to care. The month started comfortably with "The Children of Men" by P.D. James and is now continuing onwards to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's "Good Omens", which is a long time coming (and probably on the opposite end of the "not real life" spectrum). I'll probably head off towards "Foundation" next or maybe something by Clarke (I have a book of his somewhere, but I can't remember which...). I've also snagged a couple of random sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian eBooks (free[dom!]) and can't wait to see just how amazing "A Honeymoon in Space" is (if it lives up to its title: yes!).

I've got a lot to get through. I unfortunately have a small list of titles I've picked out, though, and could use all the recommendations. While I'm always open to the more modern titles, I am trying to focus more on the holes (uh... giant pits...) in my "outta-this-world" knowledge. Even so, I've got an interesting month ahead of me. I better get cracking.

*The definitions of "sci-fi" and "month" are entirely subject to change. "Sci-fi" may mean anything that isn't true to the world as it currently is and "month" can mean anything between 3 days to a whole lunar cycle of 28 days.

I'd also like to wish all readers a happy solstice and happy [winter/summer-for-our-southern-hemisphere-friends holiday of choice].

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Apples and oranges

Okay, this will probably be the last eReader related post for 2009 (at least, I hope...) so I have to think extra hard about how to go at it. Things to keep in mind are that I've got a Sony Reader Touch Edition (and I like it), am not a fan of closed formats, DRM and all that fun stuff, and that I'm one heck of a nervous consumer who bought a Sony for a reason - it's called "I didn't want a Kindle" syndrome and this concept exists. All right, let's go.

We'll start with the Nook. A few weeks ago I casually noted the growing obsession with Barnes & Noble's new eReader device. It's gotten a bit out of hand. There have been very few early reviews and even those have not actually said much. Or have said not much to flatter B&N. It's a new device and consumers need to understand this. Sure, it's appealing on paper but with so little information, how can people seriously think that this is a game-changer?

As for the few reviews, the NYTimes was not impressed, calling it a Kindle ripoff and noting that almost every charming pro that made consumers drool came with a downside. The color touchscreen is random and unrelated, the page-flip time is long, the touchscreen is unresponsive, and a whole list of hardware issues that seemed to the reviewer to make the Nook "a mess". Which is unsurprising, given that this is a new product. There's still this assumption that any new product will be the game changer. I've seen articles referring to almost any non-Kindle device as precisely that, whether or not it even makes sense. Everyone wants the Nook to change the eReader realms because current non-Amazon guys (Sony?) aren't doing much, and a lot of folks don't want Amazon to monopolize the market so quickly and, shall we say, evilly? Actually, that's wrong. Sony has some great products, the problem is that they don't care enough to enter the battle seriously and loudly. Irony, right?

And then there's Apple. The mythical Tablet has been talked about for so long that it's turned into the publishing world's obsession. People have honestly said, "I'm not buying an eReader until I don't see what Apple comes out with." So this needs to be said once, clearly and loudly:

Apple's Tablet will not be an eReader!

Apple will, as usual, provide consumers with a cheerfully convenient device. They'll have some spiffy "Amazon-killer" eBook store (with their own personal DRM, I'm sure...), a huge marketing campaign, and hundreds of automatic customers just because it's got Apple stamped on it. Except it's not going to be a proper eReader like what we've come to imagine. It won't have eInk screen technology, it won't focus on books, and it won't be tailor made for readers (like the Reader, Kindle, Nook, iLiad, etc.). What it will be is a giant iPod Touch, which is really not the same thing.

All right. I recognize that for some consumers this is exactly what they want. They want an all-purpose shiny, glossy device that connects to the internet, surfs the web, lets them read, write and type, and do just about anything with Apple's trademark style. Fine, legit. But to hear publishers and serious readers try to compare a Tablet to a Kindle (or any competitor, etc.) is stupid. It's like saying an iPod Nano is comparable to a computer because they can both play music and show color things on their screens.

Yes, I am certain the Tablet will be shiny and awesome and will look amazing. I'm sure when (...if) it ever comes out, many tech lovers will drool over it in delight. I'm sure that some readers will find this a suitable device for reading and will forgo purchasing actual eInk eReaders (which was kind of the whole point, but all right...). Those considering buying eReaders for their crisp, comfortable screen quality should understand this, though. A giant iPod Touch sounds like fun but it's not the same thing. It's not what I'm looking for in an eReader, at least.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Like a childhood "Read-a-ton", slippers included

Even though I'm not sure I can actually participate, I really like when people do things like this. It reminds me of better times.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A sports story

A couple of days ago, I went to a soccer game. At the entrance to the stadium, several security guards stood, checking attendees and their bags. My security guard took my bag and checked it inside out. After a moment, my bag was handed back to me and the guard asked, "Is it good?" Confused, I looked at my bag again and noticed the book sticking out. "My mom got that one but she hasn't read it yet," the guard continued. "How are you liking it?"

I smiled suddenly, understanding the question. "It's fun so far," I said. As I walked away, I added, "I hope she enjoys it."

(I definitely enjoyed the book more than the disappointing game. My team lost. Again.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Score one for NPR

Amid all the "Best of" lists, you'd be hard pressed to find books not originally written in English. Here's where NPR wins big with Jessa Crispin's "World of Novels" list, where 5 foreign fiction books are crowned best of the year. Crispin writes:
[T]he inescapable truth is, sampling world culture is an essential and powerfully enriching experience. [...] [These books] just happen to be set in slightly unfamiliar locales.
Indeed. The list is fairly varied, with books translated from Spanish, Russian, Hebrew and Dutch (two books are originally from Spanish). Obviously, it might have been nicer having a wider variety (and a longer list!), but given how few books get translated per year, I'm willing to forgive Crispin. The topics are also all over the board, with horror stories, war tales, nerdiness, feminism and family drama all covered. For readers sick of constantly seeing the same titles again and again in "Best of" lists, this one is most recommended.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Looking back

Okay, this is amazing. The Guardian, in its typical fashion, has decided to set aside the typical "Best of the Decade" for a "Worst of" list. The result is quite spectacular. Over 450 comments where readers pour out their frustrations with what they feel are the worst books of the decade (typically, these books are ones they felt were overhyped or wrongly popular). Massively profane, incredibly upbeat about their insults, and 100% entertaining, these comments reveal 10 years worth of pent-up book hate (and on the rare occasion, love).

The grand winners are, for the most part, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Ian McEwan. It's amusing, though, to see the others nominated. "Twilight", Dan Brown and Harry Potter are repeatedly mentioned as "How do people like this [expletive]?!". Many (I think almost all; "Wolf Hall" may be the only exception) of the last decade's Booker winners have been mentioned as "pure drivel" and several other popular novelists' names keep getting tossed around back and forth: "He's great! No, he's [crap]. What are you talking about, ----- was a masterpiece of modern literature! You're an idiot if you think that! Yeah, well you think--"

And people say literary discussion is dead.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What's it all about?

A few days ago, looking at my stack of unintentional book purchases (I tried not to, but gift cards and 4 for the price of 1 [expensive book!] sales made it a little difficult...), I noted two interesting things. The first is that that when I buy books at a bookstore with my own two hands, I'm a little more careful about which specific copy I get to make sure the one I take home won't be bent or dusty. The second is slightly more interesting. Once home, I realized that I hadn't read a single one of the summarizing blurbs for these six books. I purchased based entirely on previous knowledge: sometimes complete, sometimes not.

Two books I purchased because they're part of a publisher series I quite like. One of these came heavily recommended while the other I looked up beforehand online. It looked interesting and was on sale. Alright, legit. The third book was also recommended by a couple of trustworthy sources. Actually, the author had been mentioned; I had no idea which book of his to read. I ended up picking the fattest one. The fourth book I took because I'd heard about the author. That's all. Name recognition and nothing else. The fifth and sixth books I chose because I've already read a book by their respective authors. In both cases, I wasn't blown away but felt I should give the authors another chance.

So the question: Do I actually need to know what a book is about before reading it? I'm leaning towards the "no" end of the spectrum. Several times in the last few months I've read books when I've known next to nothing about them and I've enjoyed them. The good ones, at least. Books with blurbs lead to expectations. You expect the book to follow the story summary and fit those perfectly chosen publisher phrases to the T. If it doesn't, it's a disappointment. If you're apathetic about the book, you end up feeling whatever the publisher wanted you to feel. And manipulated. If you liked it, no harm no foul. But reading a book ignorant is like eating with a blindfold on. Sure, you know the general genre (and if you spend as much time researching books as I do, tend to know a little bit about the author and writing style - thank you internet), but surprise and excitement lie within the story, in the "meat". It unfolds with no expectations and progresses as simply as any book can. If it's bad, it's bad. If it's mediocre, it's mediocre. And if it's amazing, it's your new best friend.

There's a second part to this question. What does it mean that a book sounds good? Essentially, books sound like they've been marketed. If a publisher tells me a book is a great work of international literature, something that will change how I view the world... yeah, I'll probably bite. But for all I know, it's a love story that just happens to take place in the non-Anglocentric world. Do I need a book to sound like it might be interesting in order to enjoy it? The books I hated most the last year have had "intriguing" stories. That's not enough. So once I have a vague notion what type of book it is (based even on a bookseller saying it's vaguely like this other book I liked, or the publisher selling it alongside a superb book, for instance), why should I bother?

I have no idea. I'm curious to know what others think, though. The floor is open.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


A few months ago, browsing in a used bookstore, I happened across a nice hardback copy of Emile Zola's "Germinal". Force of habit (I often look at favorite books in as many editions as possible) urged me to pull the book off the shelf and I let it fall open in my hands.

Sketches. Surprised, I flipped through the book slowly, pausing every few pages. Lovely drawings by Berthold Mahn, scattered throughout this 1942 edition of one of my favorite books. Some drawings are more detailed and complex (above and lower left), while others take on a cruder, simpler style (lower right). The pictures match the story just right without revealing much for the unsuspecting browser. In fact, lined up and placed side-by-side, these different drawings tell a story of their own. The depth and beauty these pictures add to an already excellent book is surprising, making me wonder why I haven't seen more artwork of this kind.