Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Desert, dessert or deserted?

If there's a question I've always hated, it's "What books would take you with you to a desert island?". Particularly since I've always been certain that the meaning of "desert" in that sentence meant hot sand, the occasional oasis and guaranteed sunburns.

Here's the question: would the answer be different? Would I bring different books to a desert island as opposed to one that's simply deserted? I mean, if I'm on a deserted island, I'd probably want a really fat, fascinating book with lots of stories, characters and situations. Something dense and epic. On a desert island, I'd kind of want a survival guide. You know. Something that teaches me how to keep myself well-hydrated, how to avoid getting sand in my eyes, etc. Or Dune.

As for a dessert island book... I'd probably want a weight-loss guide.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teens, in the library

Click to enlarge (link)

Unshelved offers a humorous but actually rather upsetting take on budget cuts for libraries. This week's strip (which essentially begins here) looks at the possibility of budget cuts to various library programs (originally mistakenly assumed to be storytime). While obviously not delving into the true problems behind budget cuts, today's strip does display the difficulties in cutting programs.

My middle school was located right by one of my public libraries. In the afternoons after school, my friends and I would all head over to the library, park our bikes outside and descend on the stacks. There we would find many of our classmates already situated in their favorite couches and seats. Some would sit at the three tables outside, the low benches and the sliding glass door giving the feeling to those sitting there that they were still within the library but allowing them the luxury of laughing as loud as they wanted to. My friends and I would typically sit at the designated "study" tables inside - round tables by the "New Arrivals" shelves - where we'd pull out our oversized history textbooks, the latest book we were reading (swapping copies, just to see what the other was into these days) and our often messily organized binders.

Sometimes we'd see our friends going into the teen section, sitting down with an adult or high school student, poring over a notebook or textbook. Many of the students took advantage of the library's teen study programs in order to catch up on subjects they struggled with. In the meantime, the rest of us would sit and study together, using the library computers to do research, carting around about fifty different reference books in order to find the answer to a single bonus question on a homework assignment and checking out dozens of books between us (which we'd then have to find some way to carry on our bike rides home).

Last time I visited this library two years ago, a big sign hung next to the entrance. It showed plans for rebuilding the library, including adding a large media center, a specifically for-teens study center, adding another two or three rooms for quiet study and adding significant room to the stacks. Next to this poster, the library had posted a plea to taxpayers, asking them to vote for a city bond that would pay for this project.

Though the measure passed in this one town, I know that in similar situations around the U.S. (and the world), the outcome is very different. It's hard to convince a taxpayer that spending money on a library will actually benefit the entire community. Though it's true, from the youngest children enjoying storytime, to moody teens gaining a wonderful place to learn and study with the help and support of a well-educated and dedicated staff, to the unemployed seeking computers and resources to find a job or write a resume and to the elderly, simply enjoying an afternoon discussing a good book (or getting the opportunity to read again, thanks to audio or large-print books).

So if someone asked me to cut programs from the library, I'd struggle. Local libraries do so very much for the communities around them... it'd be almost impossible to decide which program isn't "worth it". But I know one program I would never cut. Teens may not be the favored demographic when it comes to library budgets, but in the long-run I believe that by putting your money there, you really are putting your money in the future. My classmates and I benefited immensely from our local library - I'm sometimes saddened to think of the fact that most other kids didn't get that opportunity.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nothing to say yet, call back soon

Rather without planning to, I found myself reading the slim Netanya by not-yet-known to the English speaking world Dror Burstein. I've barely dipped into this small (both in page count and in paper size) book, one of those random spur-of-the-moment buys from several months ago and though I wouldn't be able to make any conclusions about its quality, style or point (I'm not even on page 30 yet...), I've found myself noticing small things.

For instance, Burstein writes with that mix of higher and lower class Hebrew that I've recently noticed is fairly common but done a little differently - instead of side-by-side high-brow and street-level language, Burstein opts for a casual mentality mixed with complex sentences and carefully chosen words. It's not even that the vocabulary level is higher than the average book, rather that Burstein seems to weigh the importance of every word before using it.

More interesting, though, is the presence of science in these scant pages. Netanya belongs to the weird class of memoirs that don't seem to have an underlying story, but are built on the idea of stories as a whole. So far, Burstein has told one or two anecdotes, most of them revolving around his youthful obsession with astronomy. Not something familiar in the pages of most literature. It's a bizarre way to tell a story, if this is in fact what Burstein intends to do. So far, the point of the book isn't very clear.

I don't actually have anything to say about this book, having only barely started it. Truthfully, I'm just surprised at how it threw itself at me. I was reaching for the book that was next to it on the shelf and instead I picked up this little volume. Opened it. Started reading. Sat down. Continued reading. Isn't that the magic of literature? I know next to nothing about this book. I suspect that will change within the coming days.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

4. Childhood's End - One of those classics

To say that I loved Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke would be putting it a bit strongly. I liked the book. It was interesting, it was confusing and it has hovered in my mind since I first read it. I will certainly read it again one day.

But part of the reason that I'll read it again is because I don't remember it very well. Scenes - yes. I remember a few scenes particularly well and in a very positive light, but I feel like I'm missing part of the point of the book. Childhood's End contained within it a lot of complexities and I feel like only a year and a bit later, I don't quite have the grasp on them.

Why, then, am I recommending this as a SAFL title? If this isn't one of my all-time favorite sci-fi books, why place it on the list at all?

Because "literature" (that nasty word) often includes titles that may not be every reader's favorite. Literature takes into account a lot more than my own difficulties in understanding what is no doubt an excellent example of quality science fiction and storytelling. It takes into account the voices of many readers and critics. It looks at the history of the book, the overall reception and the impact it has had on the world - not just readers, but the books that may have followed it.

Childhood's End is a classic of sci-fi, a book that comes well-recommended (rightly so) and serves as a wonderful example of alien sci-fi. It's well-written, it's interesting and it isn't of the rambling school of science fiction. And I did really like it. It's a great book - a classic and is certainly worth reading.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Breaking the habit?

The Stacks
Let's be proud for a moment: I haven't purchased any books since late November. Folks, I think this is a record. I decided to cut back on the book-buying in December when I found myself staring at far too many books I'd bought over the last few years that have languished on my shelves without a care in the world. I have reached the "to-be-read stacks" breaking point. About time.

Here's the thing: most new books that get hyped and sell well have short-term success. I don't mean that they're bad books, nor do I mean that they aren't successful. Most, though, just aren't worthy of particular mention a few years down the line. By stocking up on current hits, I'm not allowing time to tell me just how "eternal" and "classic" these books really are.

The "oldies"
This doesn't mean one shouldn't acquire any new, contemporary books. I still want to read the newbies... I just don't want to forget the oldies while I'm at it. I don't understand how one can hoard books to a point where they own multiple books by an author without having read anything by said author. I own several unread books by favorite authors (or classics I know I'll eventually force myself to read, regardless my opinion of the author...) but they're authors I've already realized I like and will want to keep coming back to no matter what.

I have always managed to keep my stacks under triple digits, but of late I've been straying dangerously close (and am way over if eBooks count... which they don't!). I didn't buy all of the books for no reason - continuously hoarding will only mean that at some point I'll entirely forsake books that I truly wanted to read. So now I visit books that have long been on the shelves - I'm currently reading The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov and am finding that it's actually rather good (and not at all what I expected). I finally got around to reading Solzhenitsyn and completing anything by Thomas Mann. I'm making headway in the stacks (with a few library stops along the way) and the conclusion is simple: while new books may be flashy, I have plenty at home to keep me busy for a while. No reason to go book buying within the next two years.

Okay. Maybe more like two months. But for now, I'm doing okay.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A few words about women (and men)

In recognition of International Women's Day, I want to take some time to address an issue that I've long struggled with. The differences between men and women readers has been discussed to death and would gain little insight from anything I'd say. The same can be said of the male-female divide in publishing, writing and reviewing. But I'd like to try. And I'd like to try by myself, without linking to the thousands of excellent articles on these matters. Wish me luck.

IWD isn't about books. It doesn't focus on "soft" issues like "why are there more men writers when more women read?". It's more about raising awareness regarding violence and extreme forms of injustice but most of all it is about equality. Equality in the workplace, equality in education, etc. But each of these can find its small representation in our sheltered book world. Some of these "lighter" issues do rear their heads in Western society, in our so-called forward-thinking culture. Sexism, intended or not, shows up. Often.

Women and men are different. That's a fact. Women are drawn to different things in literature than men, and that's okay. It's not exclusive, though. A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my family where the idea was raised that men and women - while inherently different in a lot of things - often have exceptions to their gender stereotypes. That means that men can like so-called "womanly" things, just like women can be more interested in traditionally "manly" things.

For some odd reason, we never seem to apply this to literature. In the literary discussion (or perhaps, in all discussions...), views seem to be one-sided. "Review publications are sexist because they mostly employ men!" "Publishing is sexist because it pays women less!" "Readers are sexist because they value male writers more!" etc, etc, etc. We make these outrageous yet often accurate claims and let the broo-hah fade without actually taking a cold, hard look at ourselves. We should stop doing that.

The book blogger survey revealed one particularly strong (and due to my shortcomings, somewhat incomplete) result: women make up the vast majority of book bloggers. Just like statistics have long shown us that women read more, it would appear that on a basic blogging level, women also write more about what they're reading. Why then, with women dominating the book blogging world, does the question of gender equality in book reviewing continue to crop up all the time (as pertaining to the male advantage)?

The thing is, there are genres I view as predominantly female. I don't mean that the books are mostly written by women (though they seem to be) but rather that these are books marketed exclusively for women. When I try to think of similar genres for men, I struggle. Yes, genres like science fiction tend to draw in more guys than gals (same for a certain pulp kind of "dude thrillers"), but they do not entirely ostracize women readers. With the exception of a few sub-genres here and there (like, again, "dude thrillers"), these genres have many women followers. The same cannot be said of a genre like romance.

Or what of the "Women's literature" genre? This perhaps disturbs me most of all, as it wears a cloak of feminism and freedom while in reality falling into a gross publishing trap. I've never quite figured out what it means. Is it literature written by women? About women? For women? Why is this acceptable? Why are we setting these books aside, filing them in a genre that clearly locks men out? Oh, it's obviously a marketing ploy but why is this okay? This is a sexist marketing ploy, both against men and women. It reminds me of the story from a few months back when various women authors complained at the "womanization" their more traditionally "manly" books received. Covers, plot summaries and marketing twisted their stories to be more "feminine", in some cases completely altering the original content. Tough stories got soft, floaty pastel covers. Summaries told of non-existent love instead of war. The books were marketed as "Women's fiction", not just "fiction". Why? To sell more books. And that alienation of men, that shunting of women to a side genre... there is the sexism.

But it's certainly not better on the other side of the aisle. That the label "women's fiction" has almost become synonymous with "trashy" or "sub-par" means that a lot of times quality stuff written by women gets less credit than it deserves. There's weight in the notion that something written by a man will get more attention and prestige than something similar written by a woman. But that's in part because of that "women's fiction" thing again. A woman writes about family life - women writing for women! A man writes about family life - timeless!

It's not really that awards and honors are sexist at their core. Really. It's not pure dismissal, it's just that there's an imbalance*. There are small cracks in our perception of literature by women. We seem to forgive and forget these injustices all too quickly without ever actually meeting them head-on. It's not a matter of publishing more books by women, nor a matter of having more women reviewers. It's a matter of accepting the fact that while men and women are different, their interests aren't mutually exclusive. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they go further than we think.
* For this eloquent idea from months back (slightly rephrased), I tip my hat to Teresa of Shelf Love (and succumb to this one link)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Endings and revisions

I was rather hesitant in approaching Ender in Exile. I've read the Ender books one after the other, gradually realizing that while Orson Scott Card has written some of my favorite books (Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, Speaker for the Dead), he has also written some relative duds (Children of the Mind - a lame conclusion to what could have been a wonderful quartet). I've long known that the more he adds to his stories, the less good they seem to get (the Shadow quartet solidified this idea).

Draws from the entire Ender world
But here was something a little different. Not the book, but the idea: rewriting your own work.

Ender in Exile, as the somewhat stupid cover blurb indicates, takes place in the "lost" years between Ender's victory over the buggers and Speaker for the Dead. Except it also takes place during Ender's Game, and immediately after Shadow of the Giant. Which is a little weird, but surprisingly enough... it works. Almost. You see, if it works (and I'll touch more on this issue in a moment) it's because the reader is, for lack of a better word, forgetful and inattentive to details. And because of Card's afterword.

Card writes in his afterword about the inconsistencies between Ender in Exile and Ender's Game. He writes that the meat of the overlapping chapters is, in essence, correct but that the timeline is not. He tells his readers, "I was careless". He asks for their help in rectifying to problem. All so that he may write this story - what he calls a story about the soldier after the war. He sought out the plot holes, the inconsistencies and referenced them. The afterword is an homage, in a sense, to the original Ender's Game, where Card attempts to "fix" his mistakes, meanwhile tying Exile into the later additions to the Ender universe.

So again the question: does it work? Some readers will say no. Many fans have written that Card simply tried to squeeze more juice out of his bestselling franchise (though, granted, they've said that about all the sequels - good and bad). Those fans particularly devoted to detail, meanwhile, further stressed that Card's rewriting of many scenes in Ender's Game to suit his later books cannot simply be cast off as "careless mistakes". One Amazon reviewer writes: "Ender's game is a classic, you created the universe, but then you unleashed it on your readers...it is ours now too. You don't change the details when it messes with your ability to sell more books. You have to work within the confines in this previously created world."

There's no doubt in my mind that Card attempted to rewrite some of his own history. Ender's Game itself is a rehashing of the original novella (novelette, whatever)... does another change to details in the story really make a difference? To the inattentive reader like myself, no. That Card chose to revisit his previous words actually gave me a little nostalgic thrill. It didn't matter to me that details and small touches were "inaccurate", particularly after Card recognizes this in his afterword. He is not unaware of the changes. If we allow revised editions, recognizing that works can be edited even after publishing, where's the harm? This is precisely what Ender in Exile is - a revision on certain chapters.

Ender in Exile does not entirely rewrite Ender's Game. It does not hack apart the core of the story, it does not alter any major events. Deeply devoted fans may balk at the notion of revising even the slightest comma in their beloved work (rather like what I've always felt with the corrections made to Harry Potter - a topic I could discuss at length and probably will someday...), but it's not as though Card has truly committed authorly sin. He has revised. That will take some getting used to.