Friday, January 28, 2011

1. Time Quartet - Good vs. Evil

The Time Quartet
I originally didn't want to include too many young adult books in this list of powerhouse science and fantasy literature books (SAFL) but I inevitably find myself turning to young adult classics, and specifically Madeleine L'Engle when times are tough. Or when I need to name excellent science fiction. To make sure you get your bang for your buck (these books are short), I'll refer to the whole Time Quartet (ignoring the fifth wheel An Acceptable Time, which fits neither mood nor quality of the other books...).

I have a long and close relationship with these books, one that no matter how many years go by, I'll always be able to rely on. This is a series that I was absolutely obsessed with in 4th grade (and a bit of 5th). One of my best friends and I would sit for hours and hours, pretending we were the characters and could bend time and space as they could. I recall during one history unit, we needed to create characters and write a background story for them. We decided to be Murry twins Dennys (him) and Sandy (me), getting so into our characters that on a class field-trip (several days away from home), my family sent me a letter signed with all the character names in place of themselves.

The first lesson
This introduction doesn't do much justice to these books. The fact is that they're strange and confusing at times, and to pretend that these books didn't deeply impact the way I viewed the world would be completely wrong of me. Like the picture included here (and discussed at length here), every page of A Wrinkle in Time held some fantastic truth for me to hold close. The Time Quartet isn't like the Wikipedia description. It doesn't ever feel like there's religious subtext (I honestly have no idea where they pull this stuff out of...), nor are they books that necessarily promote, well, evil. In fact, the three books that make up the original Time Trilogy (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet) all come down to one very simple premise: good vs. evil. Guess who wins.

There's an odd book out here, and it's Many Waters. Though taking place chronologically before A Swiftly Tilting Planet, it focuses on two characters who until that point got very little screen time - Murry twins Sandy and Dennys. It's a book that focuses more on fate and love as a grand, dramatic statement rather than a simple battle of "good vs. evil". Hints appear (good angels versus bad), but it's a very different story and wonderfully fresh in that sense. Reading it third in the quartet worked well for me... it showed me something completely different.

Any reader who seeks quality science fiction or fantasy needs to look no further than L'Engle's wonderful series. Though adults may not be as heavily influenced by these books as I was as a child, the Time Quartet is a cornerstone in science fiction for younger and older readers alike.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Svieeperrr

After reading Meir Shalev's wonderful A Pigeon and a Boy several months ago, I decided that I liked Meir Shalev. I began to read The Blue Mountains a few months ago, but set it aside due to certain circumstances that kept me from reading it through. Then, a few days ago, I decided to have a go at Shalev's most recent publication My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner (to be published in English at the end of 2011).

I suppose it's because I take reviews and opinions with a grain of salt, but I really didn't expect this book to be quite as awesome as it was. Shalev admits that this memoir (or "family memoir", as it seems it will be called in English) isn't a grand, huge book. He writes (somewhat edited in length; rough translation is my own):
"It went like this..."
The grand story of my great big family is one I might someday write in another book. I'll write about my parents, and their parents, about river crossings and the trials they overcame. I'll describe their physical hardships and the eternal heartaches. [...]

If I write this book - it won't be written today, nor tomorrow nor in the coming years. I'll write it when I'm an older man, calmer and more apologetic - and I'm not certain I'll fulfill this promise either. In the meantime, in this small book, I seek to tell only one story: the story of my grandmother Tonya and the vacuum cleaner my uncle sent her from the United States.
This one small story is, in truth, built around many other small entertaining stories, sometimes educational, sometimes sad and sometimes incredibly funny. There are moments of pure awkwardness (made more uncomfortable when one realizes that the stories are true), moments of utter insanity and a lot of touching scenes that make this book wonderfully real. It tells snippets of Shalev as an author (pointing out scenes and characters that Shalev reworked for his fiction, which incidentally enough leads me straight back to The Blue Mountains), includes an abridged family saga and showcases the importance of stories. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the English-speaking world will accept this most Israeli of tales.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Displacement, the real world and fantasy: a definition

When Teresa of Shelf Love mentioned "high fantasy" several weeks ago, I found myself reading through a rather enlightening Wikipedia article and list of books. I wondered at the definition of high fantasy and realized that I didn't quite agree with the Wiki definition... nor several titles included in the list.

According to Wikipedia, fantasy is comprised of two main sub-genres: high fantasy, and the so-called "sword and sorcery" fantasy (whatever that is...). These two, while fairly encompassing, seem to leave many loopholes and bad combinations. Here's how I see it:

Highest of fantasy
Fantasy can be divided into two: modern and high. High fantasy contains books with a complete displacement, often including an extreme use of imagination in creating a world utterly different from our own. Magic may appear to be completely normal and integral to the created world, though the books need not necessarily be magical fantasy. I wouldn't exactly define Lord of the Rings as "magical", but fantastic (from fantasy) it certainly is. This is the more classic, romanticized sub-genre.

What, then, is modern fantasy? Here are any books that create a fantastic world alongside the real world. These are books that use our world and add to it magical or fantastic elements. Harry Potter, then, for all its adventurous and romantic roots, would fall squarely into the modern category. The brunt of creature based fantasy, or urban fantasy (Twilight, etc.) would also be called modern.

Modern magic
A final group (though not entirely deserving of its own sub-genre) would be those books that successfully combine the two. Here might fall in portal worlds (like His Dark Materials) or books that have both real and magic worlds (Inkheart, The Neverending Story and The Dark is Rising sequence are all very different examples of this).

So is fantasy only defined by these two? Obviously not. No genre is ever fully encompassed by two generalizations. But these two subjects cover a lot of ground, enough to satisfy me. You'll have to tell me if you agree or disagree.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is one out of three the same as one third?

First in a trilogy - cliffhanger ending, but still its own book
Once again, a thought provoking post from Greg Zimmerman of The New Dork Review of Books on trilogies, but one where I find myself vehemently disagreeing.
As one final note, I've always thought it interesting that many readers are afraid of long, thousand-page novels, but don't seem to have that same terror of trilogies, that when taken collectively, add up to much longer pieces of fiction. I can see how a reader with this idea would argue, "Well, if I don't like the trilogy after the first book, I can just quit, and I'm not committed to reading another two-thirds of a novel I'm not enjoying." But the kind of reader who would quit after one novel in a trilogy is also the kind of reader who would quit after one-third of a very long novel s/he isn't enjoying, right? So I'm not sure I buy that logic. Anyway, no real point here — just an observation on others' reading quirks.
On the one hand, Greg is right that a trilogy is often longer than a single chunkster book. Collectively, trilogies (or any series, for that matter) can be looked at as one entity. Someday, they very well may be combined into one volume. My favorite examples of this come from our beloved classics. What is War and Peace if not something like twelve serialized books, each one ending with its own dramatic cliffhanger, each beginning with its own brand of Tolstoy philosophy? Psychologically speaking, yes. It's easier to take in individually wrapped books.

But one volume, one entity... this does not make it one book.

Whether in a series or not, books have (hopefully) a beginning, a middle and an end. Some books, it's true, don't really have endings (The Subtle Knife, I'm looking at you) and some books clearly leave a lot of plot holes in anticipation of sequels, but I would say that most books that belong to series still maintain some semblance of independence and self-sufficiency. Compare that to most fat books (not even counting fat books that are allegedly part of trilogies... whew!), which, like their shorter counterparts, have a beginning, middle and end. When someone gives up on a book midway, it's because that book - that section of beginning middle and end - is not satisfying.

Each book still viewed individually
The interesting issue at the end of the day is why it matters. Is giving up on a book midway such a shameful thing? Should we discourage abandoning a disappointing series after the first book simply to be able to say, "I read the whole thing"? This kind of thinking is seriously flawed in my eyes, especially when discussing series. Not every book that belongs to a trilogy is necessarily completed by the later books.

My favorite example of this is Pullman's The Golden Compass. While The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass clearly continue the story, it's a book that can still stand alone and complete without the other two propping it up. It's a trilogy of three books - albeit where one directly leads into the next book. Each book comes with its own themes, its own struggles and its own style. The story that binds them together is not enough to justify looking at it as one book.

So in answer to Greg's theoretical question, no. No, I don't believe that the reader who gives up on a trilogy partway is the same kind of reader who would give up a fat book partway (as for whether or not that's even a bad thing... another time). Trilogies may seem like very long books split up for convenience's sake, but most at their core are comprised of individual, independent books. It's an important point to remember.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Absorbing does not mean good

Three strange things happened today.
  1. I started and completed a book in one day. It's been several months since this has happened and several years since the book was not a short novel (or a children's book), and the day not a vacation. Thanks to a quiet, incredibly boring day, I had the opportunity to read plenty today.
  2. I managed to get so absorbed in my reading that I did not notice the passing of time as I might have otherwise. Bus rides became minutes long. A whole evening disappeared. A long, boring day was made shorter.
  3. I got on the wrong bus home. Lesson learned: if a bus that's supposed to be packed with people is entirely empty, you're probably on the wrong bus.
And here's the strangest thing of all. The book in question (Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand) isn't even that good. Absorbing - yes. I started reading the book and just didn't want to stop. Not because I liked the characters (I didn't), not because the story was so remarkably fresh (it wasn't) and certainly not because the writing was uniquely brilliant (okay, but nothing spectacular).

No, The House on the Strand isn't a particularly brilliant book. It's a weird book. In addition to all its plot issues and character problems, it's hard to classify because it's kind of a bit of everything: stiff boring novel with obnoxious narrator, science fiction, historical fiction, drama, murder... the whole shebang. Intense, remotely entertaining reading but not exactly rewarding.

I'm really curious what I'll think of this one after it sinks in a little. Still... what a strange book.

Monday, January 17, 2011

It should be called "Science Literature"

In a post about 2011 reading goals, Space Station Mir mentioned something worth noting:
...I would like to dedicate most of it to fantasy and science fiction. I feel that I haven't been reading enough of the two genres that have often brought me the most pleasure and I am also on a mission to discover more high quality writing in the genres. [...] I hope to be able to pinpoint 10-20 science fiction/fantasy books that I would also consider literature. 
When I think about it, this sentiment ties into everything that's sad about these two (albeit different, but inexplicably tied) genres. For many readers, these are genres that bring us pleasure. At some point, though, there seems to be this feeling that sci-fi and fantasy are genres that aren't serious and are not "literature". I don't want to get into the definition of literature, though. It's a subject that crops up often in my posts and book thoughts, but every time I try to define it, I find myself failing to do it justice. Still, I can try, perhaps, to explain why I get so frustrated when I encounter things like this. Ultimately, literature is made up of good books and who's to say you don't have books of this kind that happen to take place in outer space, or have magic in them?

Like every genre, sci-fi and fantasy have a lot of crappy pulp and some awesome literature. That's how it works. Not everything is amazing, the vast majority sucks and we need to do the dirty work of finding what we like, what we can call good, and we ought to give to others. So I'd like to be able to give Space Station Mir (and all other readers out there) a hand.

The goal is simple: to name (and justify) 20 powerhouse science fiction or fantasy or bizarre or non-standard-"literature" books that I feel definitely fall into the literature category ("Science and Fantasy Literature" - or SAFL). Maybe I'll even discover some good books along the way.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Stieg Larsson and the Ape

I just finished reading The Reading Ape's wonderful response/analysis of Joan Acocella's recent New Yorker piece on the popularity of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy*, and I really can't recommend the Ape's post enough. The Ape does a great job of pinpointing specific answers to Acocella's question of why Larsson's books are popular, ranging from characters (the oft-cited Lisbeth) to packaging (reasonably attractive in almost every edition I've encountered) to the genre (popular around the world). I wanted to touch on a few other points.

Firstly, I have to wonder at Acocella's approach. Props are given for Larsson's storytelling abilities, but not much more. Acocella is right to say that storytelling is not enough in carrying a book and making it "quality", but I wouldn't dismiss Larsson's writing so quickly. It's not splendidly beautiful, true, but the sometimes awkward bluntness has its charm, as though the grittiness is part of the story itself.

Acocella should not dismiss storytelling quite so quickly, either. Larsson's books, whether because of marketing or actually because of superior talent, don't comfortably fit in the crime/thriller category. Perhaps I say this because these are genres I typically don't read, but the Millennium books do a good job of telling a story and not making the reader feel dumber for it. Part of it, as the Ape points out, is the setting. Distance a book from your own existence and that can make it seem all the more interesting.

Then the most basic matter of all: the popularity issue. Acocella seems at times to dismiss the popularity because of a perceived sense of, for lack of a better term, crappiness. It's as though Acocella commits one of the greatest book-commenting crimes in existence: assuming something to be unequivocally bad just because you didn't like it. Therefore, the popularity is a mystery, when it's incredibly, incredibly obvious: people enjoy reading these books. I enjoy, on a very basic level, reading these books. Acocella seems so surprised that people like a book that fits into a popular genre, that's got a character most find to be pretty kick-[...] awesome, and that is definitely easy to read. "But it's a bad book!" Maybe, but other readers found it to be a lot of fun. And so: popular.

The article has a lot more to it than these points that the Ape focuses on. Acocella writes a lot about Larsson himself, mostly raising strange conspiracy theories about whether or not he could have written the books and commenting rather casually on his personal and political lives (but in a very limited, carefully selected manner). It's an interesting article, but rather unsatisfying. Read the Ape's take on it instead.

* It should be noted that I have read only the first two books in the series, and neither was read in the English translation. In the interest of keeping this blog spoiler free, please refrain from mentioning anything from the second two books. Thank you.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Still important

Still powerful, three years later
It seems like a very long time ago, but almost two years ago I wrote up a short post about Thirteen Reasons Why, following a NYT article on the book. It's a book that significantly affected me when I first read it in 2007 (oh so long ago), one that I have tried to give to many young (and not-so-young) readers I know. As pretentious as it may be to quote myself, this still stands:
"It's a book for boys and girls alike, teens and adults, readers and non-readers. Even as some don't appreciate it as I do, I think what's special about Asher's novel is that you leave it with a new understanding for a lot of things that you may never have thought of before."
Since writing these words, I've read many many many reviews and write-ups about Thirteen Reasons Why. A lot of readers felt much as I did. Many, though, did not. There were readers who disliked the "blame game" angle of the book (also mentioned in my original post), readers who felt that the writing was sensationalist and unrealistic, readers who did not connect with the characters... and so on and so on.

A few weeks ago, I reclaimed Thirteen Reasons Why after having lent it out for about a year and a half (it sadly returned unread, though). My first move was to crack open the book from the beginning and read it straight through. Even though I knew the story from start to finish, remembered most of the individual stories and was more critical of the writing style than I had been the first time around (when I was of an age better suited to read the book), I found that I was still very affected by Thirteen Reasons Why.

I don't know why I expected to be disappointed by Thirteen Reasons Why, but I did. And so I'm glad I was disappointed by my lack of disappointment, that is pleased with how the book is still excellent and important in all the ways I remember.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Wolf Hall

My teaser post last week did not accurately encompass my feelings towards Wolf Hall. This isn't a book that just draws a reader in through its story, it's a book that dragged me into its depths because of its intense wit. Every page of Wolf Hall has some clever line, either spoken by the book's many sharp characters (Cromwell, you bastard) or even its less witty characters. Lines that fall into the context of history made me laugh out loud numerous times throughout the book.

One advantage Wolf Hall has over many other historical fiction texts (other than the excellent writing of Hilary Mantel, which is certainly going to lead me to read more of her books, though I need to remember to keep my expectations reasonably low...) is that Mantel takes a character previously shown in negative light (think A Man for All Seasons) and makes the reader absolutely, completely and totally fall into step (or love - whatever) with him. By the end of the book, I wanted nothing more than for Cromwell to manage my own affairs and then clap him on the back and say, "Well, if you're pretty much best friend/truster advisor to the king... I'm sure you can be best friends with me!"

It's not just Cromwell, though. It's the human way Mantel portrays everyone - the positive and negative sides of Henry VIII, Wolsey, Catherine, Anne and many other historical figures I've only ever encountered very vaguely. This isn't a historical text, to be certain, but it's not the typical historical fiction novel either (romance filled and, with no offence to good historical fiction, lame). It's refreshing.

The main criticism I'd encountered of Wolf Hall before reading it (and the one that made me hesitant to approach it) was the label "dense". While reading Wolf Hall, I understood where readers might get that impression, even if I did not. The book is long, certainly, and packed, but "dense" in my mind means heavily packed to the point that it does not flow well. Wolf Hall flowed. It positively bounced. Whether in the intensely entertaining scenes of historical relevance, or the simply brilliant dialogue, I wanted nothing more than to continue reading the book. And also finish it.

It's true that it's been a long, long time since I've read a good historical fiction book. Or a good classic. Wolf Hall appealed to me on both those fronts, in the weirdest of ways. It's a book that feels modernly old-fashioned, historically contemporary, and all-over well-crafted. It's a book that's truly "extraordinary" - not quite like anything I've ever read and most highly recommended.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

When an era is not a year

Last year I mentioned my increasing boredom with end-of-the-year lists. I mentioned my main dislike of them. I did not mention an additional unease I have with them: what exactly is a reading year?

Despite my online presence, reading for me is something entirely personal. It's marked by personal events, is dependent on personal emotions, and happens when I personally have the time for it. Our lives aren't dictated as much by years as we'd like to think, they're dictated by personal occasions and eras: when I had that job, when I went on that vacation, when I took that course, when this major change in my life happened...These time periods can be as short as a few days, or as long as several years.

I was reminded of this last year, when I was surprised to discover that my first book of 2009 had been The Master and Margarita. Until that point, when I'd tried to summarize my year, I'd been naming completely other favorites - and yet The Master and Margarita quickly turned into one of my all-time favorites. It was just read in a different time period so I kept missing it. The same applies to this year as well. The books I read during Sci-Fi Month (and in the weeks after) don't belong to this year - they belong to the era before February (and started in December 2009). Just like there is one book that belongs to the February era. And then dozens belong to the March through October era. And then the post-November era.

I couldn't give a top-ten list of the year. Or top five. Or even just top 1. Every small era that officially existed in 2010 (some rolled over from 2009, some will continue to 2011) is its own "year". The reader I was at that time was completely different, goals were set, reached and reset, and my reactions to some of these books were entirely altered by the personal settings I may have been in.

So I'm not looking forward to my 2011 "reading year". That does not exist. I'm eager to continue with my "Post-November" reading era, because so far it's had one spectacular book, two wonderful books and a few pleasant ones. I am not certain when this particular reading mood will shift, but I'm confident that 2011 (for all its worth) will contain some interesting reading eras.

*Happy 2011!