I’m off to spend some time with my family, so likely won’t be around until into the new year. I hope everyone has an excellent holiday season, full of whatever brings you happiness and joy. Like many, I find the time between Christmas and New Year’s the most liminal of the year, full of dark nights precious for their capacity to inspire solitude and reflection as much as the gathering of loved ones. I am curious about what I might meet in the dark this year, and I’m sure I’ll be back to tell you about it soon.
Yesterday, I noticed my muscles were feeling quite sore, and so I decided to devote today entirely to reading and, not so incidentally, sitting on supportive furniture wrapped in heating pads. I’m having a lovely time, like a little personal read-a-thon, and it feels like a much more cheerful way of thinking of the enforced stillness! I’m so in love with all of the books that I thought it’d be fun to share them here, even if it’s not a ‘scheduled’ posting day.
I began with nonfiction, as last night I finished rereading Stardust. I was about 90 pages into Here Be Dragons: the Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life by David W. Koerner and Simon LeVay, but I noticed that each time I was ‘meant’ to pick it up, I’d find some excuse to go do something else instead. This is usually my queue to abandon the book, and so I did; I might pick it up again at a later date or I might not. It’s decently written, and I find the topic interesting, so I’d recommend it to others, but for now it’s been set aside. Instead, I first finished A.S. Byatt’s essay collection On Histories and Stories, as I only had 60 pages left in it (I usually read nonfiction in sections of about that length). I had enjoyed the entire book, but the final essays were the cream: first was one about European writers influenced by folk tales, which included several authors I’ve read and loved (Calvino, Dinesen, Calasso), a few more to explore, and for those who suspect Byatt of being too high brow for them, high praise for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, which I’ve been meaning to get into for years now but somehow never have (except for the Tiffany Aching books). After that, a stunning meditation on fairy tales featuring ice and glass, including cross-story comparisons, and a viewpoint that I hadn’t considered before but immediately resonated with, on whether it’s always a good thing for women to come down from their solitary, ice-bound glory and into the ordinary world of princes and kisses and babies. My summary makes it sound far more reductive than Byatt’s thoughts are; it’s one of those essays I think any feminist fairy tale lover will find worthwhile reading. And finally a neat closing piece on Scheherazade and The Thousand and One Nights, and its impact on European lit. This was my first experience with Byatt’s nonfiction, but as a long-time lover of her fiction (I discovered her when I was 16 and found my way to her Little Black Book of Stories), I’m not surprised that I loved it.
As I rotate between two nonfiction books at once, I then dove back into Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy by Vanessa Fong. This is a serious sociology study, published by a university press, but I think it’s very accessible to the general reading public too. Of course I’ve heard of China’s “little emperors,” but I hadn’t though much more about all of the ‘singletons,’ as Fong refers to them. She spent over two years observing teens in a large Chinese city and discovered that they’d been raised to believe they should have ‘First World’ consumer-driven lives, by parents willing to devote most of their resources to their only child, but with the expectation that the child would excel in school, then get a good job and support them in their own age (as the government had withdrawn state support for retirement, health care, etc., leaving the parents without many other possibilities). However, as more and more students get more degrees, and as China’s economy began to experience hiccups in the late 90s, an education inflation saw many more graduates than suitable jobs for them. This, along with the stress to perform well in exams, the tension of comparing their own lives, particularly their belongings, to ‘First Worlders,’ and more mean the singletons are far from pampered. There are a lot of parallels to draw between their lives and the typical US middle class child’s life, at least to my eye, and so the book is fascinating on multiple levels; I find the pages are simply flying by. Fong does a good job with her material, and is clearly aware of the dangers and shortcomings of sociological studies, providing an occasional reminder to the reader as well.
Since I abandoned Here Be Dragons, I had room in my nonfiction roster for another new entry, so I couldn’t resist treating myself to Medieval Women: a Social History Of Women In England 450-1500 by Henrietta Leyser. I love social histories, and those that focus on marginalised history, anyway, and my fascinating for the Middle Ages has only increased in the past few years, so I had high hopes of this. I’m only through the first part, but so far those hopes have been met entirely. Leyser takes neither a ‘dark ages’ interpretive approach nor an excessively rosy view and is always willing to acknowledge when the evidence is too sketchy for firm conclusions. I quite like her middle-of-the-road viewpoint, which keeps women as subjects instead of reducing them to helpless victim-objects, even while acknowledging the ramifications of patriarchy. And the peeks into Anglo-Saxon England, a place that feels so foreign, were fascinating. I imagine as we move more towards time (I believe the next part deals with the Norman Conquest), there will be more primary sources for Leyser to explore, but I’m already more than impressed & would happily recommend this to any history buff.
Having finished my nonfiction section of reading (I know it sounds terribly regimented, but somehow the approach that works best for me is to read a novel, followed by about 240 pages of nonfiction alternated between two books, then another novel), I found myself getting to choose yet another new book to begin, this time a novel. I decided to opt for an already loved author, so as not to break my excellent reading streak, and pulled Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela off the shelf. I’m only about fifty pages in, but I’m utterly entranced, as I’ve been in all of her books. She has such an excellent way of evoking places, bringing characters to life, and weaving interesting philosophical debates seamlessly into her fiction, I only hope that she has a long and prolific writing career ahead of her! I was pleased to find that this one is set in Sudan and also deals with Sudanese/Egyptian relations; I wrote a paper on the history of that once for college, but of course it was from a political science perspective instead of a personal one. So I’m looking forward to seeing it play out in a fictional context.
And with that, I better get back to my armchair & novel!
As I mentioned on Sunday, I’ve been craving novels featuring the kind of intellectual women who are prone to analysing everything about them. In particular, I love these heroines when they are also facing the collapse of carefully constructed lives. That might sound a little heartless, but as someone whose own life has not at all followed the post-college ‘five year plan,’ I love following along as these women sort through their internal complexities. After all, they’re fictional, so I’m not wishing disaster on real people. ;)
Both Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong & Ancestral Truths by Sara Maitland feature women like this, women at crossroads, who have both have returned home to their quirky families after years of avoidance. Linda, the heroine of Truong’s novel, has synthesia; she tastes words. Growing up in a small Southern town, all she wants to do is fit in, so she keeps it a secret. This could easily become gimmicky, but Truong is a gifted enough author to avoid that trap. Instead, both the large and small ramifications of such a ‘difference’ are explored. During dialogue in the book (much of it narrated by Linda, so it’s not terribly dialogue heavy), the taste of a word immediately follows the spoken word in italics (without even a space). This of course makes it more difficult to read, and the distraction seemed a wonderful way to demonstrate why Linda can’t always follow conversations terribly well. It was also a fascinating reminder of how much of our own culture is oral; I can’t imagine sitting through, say, a school lecture with a constant barrage of tastes in my mouth (not all words have a taste but a lot do). There aren’t many books that feature narrators physically different from the norm, so I’m always thrilled to come across one. Although I don’t have synesthesia, I could easily relate to having a body that reacts differently than most people’s, but whose reactions are entirely invisible to others. Anyway, I also loved how Linda is consciously constructing the story of her life, occasionally breaking the fourth wall. Once again, in lesser hands it could have felt pretentious or gimmicky, but in this case it felt perfectly organic to Linda, much of whose life has been related to school & the legal profession (known for its precise, artificially constructed language) or the written word (she and her best friend conduct most of their relationship via letters). I could not read this book quickly enough, resenting anything that had me set it down; luckily I read it via my Nook, so turning pages was easy. ;) I loved it from the first page and all the way through to the end; when I finished I was so glad I’d gotten to go on a journey with her. In fact, it was so good that I’m considering reading Truong’s other novel, The Book of Salt, even though it fictionalises real people, a device that I do not like. I highly recommend Bitter in the Mouth to anyone who loves strong prose, fascinating characters, stories about finding yourself, or Southern books. This is all of that and much more!
I have read and loved several of Sara Maitland’s nonfiction books (in fact, I just reread From the Forest last week, and it was just as delicious the second time around), so I’ve been wanting to read her fiction. My Texan library didn’t have any of it, but my new library has a few of her novels! I chose to begin with Ancestral Truths because of the blurb:
Unable to remember exactly what happened on the mountain in Zimbabwe and trying to come to terms with the loss of her hand in the accident, Clare is taken home to Scotland where her large, loving, questioning, and uncomfortably acute family become almost unbearable.
Unusually large families way too interested in each other’s business? A newly disabled heroine? In Scotland? Irresistible!
The novel was everything I expected and more: Clare has seven siblings, several nieces and nephews, a very strong-willed mother and more quietly strong-willed father, and they’re all on holiday together at an old hunting estate in the highlands. There’s a very strong religious element to the book, as I expected from reading her nonfiction (not in the preachy sense, just in that she’s interested in how religion, especially high Anglicism/Catholicism, can be relevant to ‘moderns’). There are also emotional break-downs in evidence; all of the siblings are facing their own struggles, and we get to peek into the lives of very different personalities and situations. Some of them have to come to grips with the darker side of their own nature, and I thought this was all handled powerfully. They snipe at each other the way that families do, occasionally descending into cruelty, but they’re ultimately held together by very tight bonds of love and support, and that creates the scaffolding of the book. We also get to see a chilling portrayal of Clare’s decade-long relationship with David, who is insidiously emotionally abusive as well as almost a distillation of white male privilege in his cavalier assumption that he is always right and his needs are always the most important. It was terrifyingly accurate, a mirror of patriarchy at its worst, but he still felt like a real person, not a cardboard cutout. As we learn from the very beginning, Clare was on holiday with David, when they decided to climb the mountain, only for Clare to be found unconscious with a crushed hand several days later, and David nowhere to be found. She can’t remember what happened, or if she killed David, but she knows she’s glad he’s dead, and while she seems safe from any legal consequences, much of the book deals with her personal reactions to such a mystery. (I’m over my word limit already, but I will say that while I was nervous about how Maitland would write about Zimbabwe, especially since from the beginning there’s hint at spirits who inhabit the mountain, I ultimately think she did a good job, judging from my American perspective, whose knowledge of colonial literary problems comes from reading a handful of contemporary African writers’ thoughts on the issue.)
I don’t think I’m explaining myself terribly well. I adored this book on both an emotional and intellectual level and found it perfectly satisfying. That being said, I don’t think it’s for everyone: if you like neat & tidy fiction, with everything wrapped up on the final page, or you’re more interested in plot than character development, you will likely be annoyed by Ancestral Truths. If on the other hand you love overly analytical, self-aware novels, prone to dissect every emotion and dredge up seemingly random anecdotes, with characters whose internal contradictions make them all the more real, even while they’re found in the patently literary trope of a giant family running about a Scottish estate, you will probably settle into this as happily as I did. I truly loved this and am already imagining my reread, so that last sentence was written with affection. I’m thrilled to have easy access to more of her novels, as she’s definitely a writer after my own heart.
These books, with their emotional layers and acknowledgement of the power of storytelling, are examples of what I mean by books that, incidentally or not, help me figure out how to live. My reactions to Linda and Clare, and the people around them, helped me see myself in a different light. It’s not that they included a pithy moral summing up, a la Aesop’s fables, but after finishing both books I had a vague sense of being wiser, more capable of living, than before I had read them. Some books I really like or love for all kinds of reasons, but when I finish them they stay between their covers. Others, including both of these, somehow catch in my soul. Ironically, many of these books are the ones I avoid blogging about, as if their power is too precious to expose to the world at large. They are the ones that make me resonate with Susan Hill’s declaration: “If you cut me open, you will find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me.” These are the books I would bleed.
I know you’re supposed to fall in love with Keats when you’re a teenager, but I was always too busy with novels and short stories to have a poetry phase. And so, as I begin to finally explore the poets, I thought it would be as well to begin with some obvious choices, ones that are frequently referenced in the books I read. I have an affection for sonnets as well, especially as they’re so much trickier to manage in English than Italian. And in light of my post yesterday, this Keats poem feels right, especially as he did die so young. I have not memorised it quite yet; it will be this week’s project.
“When I Have Fears” by John Keats
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
I have a bit of spare spending money, and I’d like to buy a poetry anthology or two (…or three…). Ideally, I’d like one with a solid grounding of the touchstone classics mixed with lesser known but still good older poems (in a perfect world it would also acknowledge and try redress the limits of a canon built from centuries of white, male privilege) and a more contemporary one with a significant amount of women and poets of colour. An international one wouldn’t go amiss either, of course. Any suggestions? I’d rather flip through physical books than use the internet to come across poetry, as silly as that likely sounds. My list currently includes A Book of Luminous Things, The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950, and Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, so it clearly is in need of a few more additions.
Here’s the photo credit for that beautiful night sky. That’s something I’d love to learn to do this upcoming year; when I was in the Amazon and later in the high rural Andes, the sky and stars simply engulfed me with their splendour, although they resisted my camera. Living in a city, and a cloudy one at that, is not as conducive to star gazing, but I’m haunted enough by those memories to wish to become more knowledgable of “the night’s starr’d face.”
I’ve been avoiding you. At first, it was because of physical health challenges, but then it became more about shame. I have these grand visions for what my life could look like; full of thoughtfulness and learning and discussions with clever, loving friends. Full of poetry and novels and curiosities of nonfiction and telling everyone about the marvelous new bookish treasures I’ve stumbled across. Full of walks, on which I’d understand more and more of the natural world around me, and the scent of baking, and teaching Thistle new tricks, and endless pots of soup. Full of beautiful photographs, knitting projects, a cosily decorated apartment. Even the occasional adventure. And of course I want to share all of this beauty and good fortune and interest here.
But the truth is, I am disabled. There are days when lifting a mug of tea to my lips is almost more than I can bear. There are days when I have to decide whether to cook a meal or do the dishes, because I don’t have the energy for both, and I daren’t bake scones and contribute to the sink clutter. There are days when I get Thistle out for her walks because I have to, bribing myself with audiobooks to get through it. And somehow these days can turn into weeks, and a month has flown by, and I have not much to show for it, which breaks my heart. I thought I’d made my peace with this, with the limitations bad health imposes. But I’ve had to learn that lesson again this past month, as the blank slate and hopefulness that a move brings morphed into a desperate attempt to keep my head above the water, wondering why I felt so exhausted and couldn’t seem to quite get out of the flare up cycle.
Luckily, as December arrived, I began to put into place new routines, less ambitious than before, that are allowing me to continue living alone. Joy has snuck back in, exhaustion is less, and I’m once again gentle with myself, instead of wondering why I can’t fit more in to the seemingly endless hours of my days. My currency is not time but energy, which is anything but endless. I can have a little bit of everything I’ve already mentioned but the active moments must be buffered with much downtime. There is no use in lamenting this, or castigating myself for not being able to do more. Instead, I am just grateful that I am bookish, and have always been so, as books easily expand to fill that down time. And as always, I’ve decided this blog and book blogging in general is precious enough to use some of that energy on. So I’ll be headed back for the limited schedule I laid out in my last return, but this time I’ll be writing in the afternoons that always feel ripe with potential, instead of waiting until evening when I’m already counting the hours until bedtime. I’ve been wanting to return to blogging for the past fortnight, but I worried that the passing glances I’m able to manage about the books I’m reading aren’t good enough, that as they deserve so much more, it would be better if I said nothing. But that’s what I’ve done for so much of the past few years, and it’s not better, for me at least. So today I just sat down and started writing, as the only way to return to blogging is to in fact click the ‘add new post’ link!
As I struggled to pull myself out of the malaise that ended November for me, books have been my constant companions. I’m almost done with Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, and each book manages to be both a comfort and a challenge at once. I love her for that. I’ve been rereading too, of course; the ultimate comfort. But I’ve also been craving novels featuring smart, bookish heroines facing challenges of their own, or at least engaged in trying to sort out what life is about. These women, both the characters and the authors who write them, are my tribe, and I am happy to have so much excellent companionship. Their stories helped me find my way back to myself.
I shall tell you more about them soon, but for now I’m curious: which books do you turn to when you’re feeling lost? Are there particular authors you turn to or genres or just specific books that have not only touched your soul but somehow told you more about how to live?
When the first snow fell last week, I tried to find a suitable poem that captures the peace and wonder of watching snow twirl past the window. Sadly, I didn’t manage to find such a poem; most of the wintry ones were filled with desolation (do let me know if you know of any good snow poetry). In my search I came across this seventeenth century poem that I felt would be lovely to recite while walking in my neighbourhood at dusk, and seeing lamps glowing out of the houses. To accompany it, here is a picture of my current window view: the snow is falling in earnest today!
“Now Winter Nights Enlarge” by Thomas Campion
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love,
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.
This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.
I went on a bit of a novel binge since my last field notes. I was struggling with my health, so I loaded up my Nook and got a few audiobooks, and lost myself in the magic of fiction. I just managed to update my books read page, and as far as I can recall, I’ve read all of since then:
- Death at Wentworth Court by Carol Dunn
- Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo by Ntazake Shange
- Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
- Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard
- The Wave in the Mind by Ursula le Guin
- The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
- Died on a Rainy Sunday by Joan Aiken
- Blood Child by Octavia Butler
- Some Kind of Fairytale by Graham Joyce
- Dead Wrong by Eleanor Taylor Bland
- To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie
- Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
- A Distant Mirror by Barbara Thurman
- Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery
Note that out of sixteen books, only three are nonfiction. And two of those nonfiction are bookish! This isn’t typical of me, but it’s what I needed at the time, and I loved just revelling in stories. Of course, this leaves me witha dilemma; how on earth to I blog about all of those books in just one post? I don’t know; I hope to figure that out in the future during a reading lull. For now I’ll just say that of these books, I loved almost all of them, and would heartily recommend them to anyone intrigued by a publisher summary. The exceptions would be the Joan Aiken, which I thought was a bit thin, although it was certainly creepy at times and the Thurman, which involved a bit too many specifics of 14th century military battles to win my heart. Both of those are still worth reading, I just didn’t love them wholeheartedly!
The past few days I’ve returned to my more usual fiction/nonfiction rhythm, as well as adding international and classic authors back into the mix. I’m almost through The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (trans. by Pevear & Volokhonsky of course), and they’ve surprised me. A pleasant surprise, to be sure! I just began writing about them, but I was at five hundred words and just delving into their heart, so I’ll save that for a different post. ;) Let’s just say that I’ve been happily picking it up, even though it’s an epically large hardcover that might otherwise make my arthritic hands shudder. In between, I’ve been delving into two very different nonfiction books: Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World and Rosalind Mile’s The Women’s History of the World. I must confess Heinrich is not my favourite natural history writer, but I do love the topics he chooses to write about, so I read him anyway. Winter World is my favourite of the ones I’ve read, and it’s quite fun to see hints of what he’s talking about in my own small urban woods. I definitely like it more than Summer World, but then I prefer cold to heat and snow to deserts, so I suppose that’s not a complete surprise! I have quite mixed feelings about The Women’s History of the World: it contains so many massive generalisations, which while not unexpected in a world history of merely two hundred fifty pages, does make me question her scholarship. I also find it depressingly colonialist in its approach to cultures outside of Europe. That being said, I’m still reading it, because there’s something compelling about her anger and revisionist approach. It’s not the type of women’s history I’ve read in the past, and I’m fascinated by the contrast, even if I’m not terribly impressed by its academic credentials.
Apart from reading, I’ve finally begun to settle into a new daily routine, that leaves me plenty of time to enjoy the shift into late autumn. In a piece of sympathetic magic, as soon as I finished knitting some snowflake-bedecked mittens for myself, snow obliging appeared! So far it has just floated about prettily in the sky, giving me the chance to experiment with shutter speeds in an attempt to capture its beauty, but this week’s forecasts include the promise of several inches on the ground. I cannot wait to see what Thistle makes of it. Yes, November is shaping up into a beautiful month. I hope all of you can say the same.
P.S.: Does anyone have a good pumpkin bread recipe they’d like to share? I’d appreciate it!
P.P.S.: I’ve sent an e-mail into Vimeo, as I couldn’t determine the problem via their help section. Hopefully I’ll get the library loot vlog working very soon!
Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.
- A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
- Enough by Bill McKibben
- Wormwood Forest by Mary Mycio
- Season of the Rainbirds by Nadeem Aslam
- Savaging the Civilized by Ramachandra Guha
- In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
- Some Personal Views by Margaret Mead
- Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
- Medieval English Gardens by Teresa McLean
- The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Flyby Sun-Mi Hwang
- All About Love by Bell Books
- Here Be Dragons by David Koerner & Simon LeVay
ETA: Apparently Vimeo has let me down. I don’t know why the video isn’t playing, but I’ll try to sort it out soon. Apologies!
Today finds me happily ensconced in Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, a novel I heard about at Chasing Bawa. It’s an impressive transgenre piece: set in the Aztec empire, with a murder mystery plot, and a fantasy element in that all of the Aztec mythology is actually true. The main character, Acatl, as High Priest of the Dead, can carry out spells, commune with gods, and discover terrifying magical creatures. Now, I had this book out from the library for awhile before I started it, because in the back of my head I was a bit concerned about it going terribly wrong. The plot summary left me intrigued but worried, as I’m sure it has some of you.
You can leave your worries behind, though. Bodard handles it with such aplomb I continually forget she did not actually live in Aztec Mexico. Her world building is all done organically, with the reader thrown in to Acatl’s head and picking up on specifics as the plots goes along. This is my favourite approach to speculative and historical fiction; it requires the most trust on the author’s part, and a willingness to cherry pick the background research I’m sure, but it creates such a fulfilling reading experience. Not to mention, a rip roaring plot and well-rounded but very *different* characters: this book has it all. I managed to stay completely engrossed in the story even as I spent an hour and a half in an uncomfortable waiting room full of talking people this afternoon; if that’s not high praise I don’t know what is! I must admit, I’m sure I get a bit of extra pleasure from being reminded of the wonderful time I spent in Mexico City a couple of years ago, which involved a fair amount of Aztec exploration, and some historical reading in preparation. I ended up completely enchanted by el D.F., and if the Aztecs are significantly less enchanting in the particulars, they are certainly fascinating, an aspect Bodard is bringing to vivid life.
I’m especially pleased to be in the middle of a longer novel (413 pages in my copy), as it provides a nice change from a rash of shorter fiction I read this week. There is certainly something to be said for slim books that can be read and processed over a single leisurely sitting or two, but inevitably they leave me longing for a bigger book that I can spend more time in. And lucky for me, de Bodard has made this the first in a trilogy, so I can spend even more hours in such an entrancing world!
Just writing this has made me impatient to get back into it. But I also visited the library today and brought home piles of nonfiction books, so I’ll try to get a video about that up tomorrow. For now, though, I’m back to following Acatl’s footsteps! I do love reading. :)
This year, I’ve begun reading science fiction.
That might not seem like a big statement to some, but it represents a pretty dramatic change in my reading habits. Although I grew up on a steady diet of fantasy, and can read of wizards, fairies, and quests until the cows come home, words like ‘spaceship’ and ‘aliens’ and ‘planet’ give me an internal shudder. Inspired by other bloggers, I’ve tried to get over this; I realise it’s as irrational a reaction as an aversion to fantasy, and I can’t imagine how bereft my reading would be without that genre! But honestly, I’ve not made much headway, until I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold earlier this year. She’s written a couple excellent fantasy series (you ought to go read her books right now, actually), but she’s best known for an extensive sci fi series. At first, I thought there was no way I’d ever read it, as it is unfortunately called the “Vorkosigan Saga”. Concurrently with my Bujold discovery though, I happened to check out Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, an anthology of essays (originally blog posts) in which Walton talks about all of the speculative fiction she’s rereading and what makes it worth revisiting. I’ve gotten several excellent fantasy recommendations from the book, but the majority of Walton’s focus is on sci-fi. And then I came to her essay about the Vorkosigan saga and suddenly realised that I didn’t want to read it, because I wanted to discover the books for myself.
So I began reading them; luckily they’re all available as audiobooks, so I’ve encountered them that way (I’m almost done with the tenth novel, which leaves me with five more and the short stories). And I adore them: they explore so many fascinating ideas of culture and gender and humanity, they make me laugh and cry, and I’m deeply attached to all of the characters. Yet I had to work past my initial aversion to sci fi tropes before I could find my way to that love. On one level, I certainly still wish that they were fantasy books instead, but I can see how a science fiction universe, full of planets variously inhabited by humans (there are no aliens in this universe), allows Bujold to accomplish things and explore ideas that wouldn’t work as well in fantasy. I love watching Bujold play, and I respect any medium that lets her do it so thoroughly.
Over the months, I’ve become more used to spaceships and battles and zero gravity and the military hierarchies so ubiquitous in science fiction. However, I still strongly prefer the Bujold novels set mainly on a planet instead of in space. I recently realised on one of my woodsy walks that this is because of my personal preferences for Earth things like trees and seasons and cosiness: like any other reader, I live in the world of a novel, and I don’t want to live in space or an on a spaceship full of metal halls and austere bunks, running about in a uniform jumpsuit. The idea makes me a bit panicky, actually. My idea of heaven involves a little cottage on a little farm that is magically both in majestic woods and next to a convenient railroad to take me to city amenities like libraries and ballet and museums and cafes. Such a heaven is sometimes found in fantasy novels: characters are always gathering at pubs or around a campfire or adventuring in a forest. Tolkien’s influence runs deep. Science fiction lives in a different world, and it’s one that makes me feel a bit edgy and deprived. In that sense, I think I picked an ideal introduction to the genre; as I mentioned, some of the Vorkosigan books are set primarily on planets, and one the most important planets happens to be more Earth-like in its topography, with forests and cities and lovely old wooden homes. Bujold is wonderful at weaving the details of daily life into her books, one of the reasons she’s quickly become a favourite author, and I relish it when those details seem more homey.
Now that I’ve realised one of my issues with science fiction, I hope that the very knowledge helps me set aside my internal protests as I dive more into the genre. Jo Walton is a very persuasive guide; I plan get her book from the library again for inspiration. I could just go through her blog archives of course, but I’d rather see which ones she cared about enough to include in the book. In the meantime, I’ll be sorting through my issues, and learning my way away around. It’s interesting coming to a new genre as an adult: I’m having to acquaint myself with its mores and conventions and keep coming across odd new things. But I think it’s worthwhile, and it seems like a waste to miss out on a whole category of books simply because I’d never want to live on a spaceship! In addition to Bujold, I’ve been reading some of Octavia Butler’s science fiction. But other than that, there’s a whole reading universe out there for me to explore, and I’m curious to see where it takes me.
Have you come to a new genre as an adult? Did you have to push past an initial ‘no way’ reaction to enjoy the books? And would you want to live in space?