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The Books I Read in February 2017

February has been another disappointing month in terms of my reading. On the whole, it was better than January, but not by much.

Again, a part of my problem is I am still using a TBR list that I made when I wanted to read more literary fiction. And I don’t want to read literary fiction.

Anyway, here is what I read this past month:

I started the month with The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde. I wanted to like this collection. But beyond a few poems, I found myself uninterested.

Another book of poetry I read was Amiri Baraka’s Transbluency. Unfortunately, I found myself struggling with Baraka’s homophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. Baraka is an important poet, but his early work is hard to get into for contemporary readers.

The first novel I read this month was Kindred by Octavia Butler followed by The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. I didn’t particularly like either of these books. I struggle with Butler’s work. And I am disappointed I didn’t like Naylor’s first book. I really enjoyed her novel Mama Day.

I attempted Paul Austers’s 4321. This book is bad. Just bad.

I also attempted Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer. I really wanted to like this book. I really did. The world building is awesome. The plot has potential. But the protagonist is weak. I love Unar’s ambition. But the plot directed stupidity she routinely displays makes the novel ultimately disappointing.

The second to last novel I read this month is Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman. This novel is wonderful. It is beautifully written. Almost poetic. But it is also boring at times.

The final novel I read this month was Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. This novel is a marked letdown from Leviathan’s Wake. Avasarala is a nice addition to the POV roster (indeed she steals the book). But I can’t say the same for the other new POV characters. This novel struggles, I think, to hide the cultural problems of the world building and some problems with the plot. (I want to write more on this after I’ve read more books in The Expanse.)

The best things I’ve read this month, actually, have been collected volumes of superhero comic books. I read: the first two volumes of Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Totally Awesome Hulk by Greg Pak, Scarlet Witch by James Robinson, and Thor by Jason Aaron. I loved all of them. Though my favorite must be Scarlet Witch and Thor. The reveal of Thor’s identity and her motivation is amazing. She is what a true hero is. And Scarlet Witch is all sorts of awesome.

February was disappointing. I hope March will be better.

Cozy Reading Night

Friday, I had a cozy reading night. The idea for cozy reading nights comes from the booktube channel “Lauren and the Books.” This was my first cozy reading night. I enjoyed myself. But I also discovered a few things.

A cozy reading night needs to be an event. There need to be snacks. There need to be drinks. There could be soft music or a fire whether real or artificial. There needs to be a comforting atmosphere.

One person alone does not make a party. Okay, one person could make a party. But I think I would have had more fun if I had visitors to read with me. A reading party if you will.

I read from seven to ten. I took on two novels and a short story. The short story was David Brin’s “Temptation” (from The Space Opera Renaissance) and the two novels that I started were: Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman and Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. I enjoyed all that I read but I did realize something.

I don’t like to switch between multiple books. Rather, I like to sit down and binge an entire book. If I don’t like it, I will put it down, dnf it, and move on to the next. So I think I will pick a selection of possible books and pick one to read for the duration of my next cozy reading night.

My first cozy reading night was fun if not as successful as I hoped. But it did reveal somethings about myself. Mainly, I need to get out more.

The Books I Read in January 2017

I’m not happy with my January reading.

I wanted to start the year reading more literary fiction. I wanted to start the year off with a Margaret Atwood binge. Nadine Gordimer got in on the binge. I wanted to try Louise Erdrich. And I decided that I finally needed to complete a T.C. Boyle novel (after failing to finish Water Music and The Road to Wellville). ( I also added a few other books here and there. Too many honestly).

I started off with LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I read fifty pages. The novel started strong. I liked what I read. But gradually, an emotional dissonance in the narrative and a sojourn in 1839 (compared to the 1990s setting) threw me out of the novel.

From that defeat, I moved on to Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This is a difficult novel about a young woman who has devoted herself to her parents’ political struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. I really should try this novel again when I am in a mood for difficult and great literary fiction.

As far as Margaret Atwood is concerned, I tried to read Cat’s Eye for the second time (and was not into it) and The Handmaid’s Tale (which I will not get into- not a fan of dystopia).

I also tried Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes and really did not like it. Which is a shame.

As far as literary fiction is concerned, I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come. It is a powerful story about violence and what drives people to violence. I would give it a solid four stars. But the novel is not without flaws. I feel that Sarah, whose story starts out strong, falters as the narrative progresses, becoming little more than an appendage to Adam/ Colter’s story.

I also reread Wislawa Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand. I first read this selected collection over ten years ago and loved it. But this past reread has cooled my passion for this collection of poems. To say I am frustrated should be obvious.

The problem, I am sure, is that I allowed a form of unintentional peer pressure to create a desire to binge read too much literary fiction. Which ultimately put me off of the whole thing.

In addition to the above books, I also read three comic book volumes. I first read Midnighter volume 1 (“Out”) by Steve Orlando. The book was okay. I enjoyed it. But the art is disappointing, the narrative is disjointed (and not in a good way), and the final confrontation with the villain is beyond disappointing (I expected so much more from Prometheus). I later read Thor volume 1 (“Goddess of Thunder”) by Jason Aaron. I  really liked this volume. I am sold on Jane Foster as Thor. I want to see what happens to her. But, I feel Thor is too good too fast. She can do things her predecessor never did without any training. And every damn villain is a straw man misogynist. I also read Doctor Strange volume 1 again by Jason Aaron. I hated this comic book. Aaron not only rips himself off (the plot is basically Doctor Strange’s “God Butcher” arc) but also attempts and fails to capture Loki magic by imitating Gillen and Ewing. And the art is terrible.

Finally, as I wandered around my favorite library, I checked out Nick Harkaway’s  Angelmaker  and James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. I hated Angelmaker. And fell in love with Leviathan’s Wake on my second attempt.

I love this book now. Leviathan’s Wake is wonderfully written and exciting and enjoyable. I fell in love with the characters. I wanted to see them succeed. I yearned to see the mystery of Julie Mao solved. A solid four and a half stars.

There are some flaws. Miller is, perhaps, too much of a hard boiled dick stereotype (down to falling in love with the subject of his investigation). Julie Mao is a woman in a refrigerator who I feel could probably have taken over Miller’s role. But on the whole, I really like the novel.

So that is what I read last month. Again, I’m not happy with it. I want to read more. And finish more books. And like more books for that matter.

Hopefully February will be a better month.

 

Looking Forward To 2017

2016 is near its end. It has been, personally, a rather miserable and unproductive year on a number of fronts. It has been terrible in terms of reading. I procrastinated creatively. I post once in a blue moon it seems. And don’t get me started on all the celebrity deaths we’ve had. And the election. The only bright spot is- I have a new nephew. So, with any luck and a whole lot of effort, let 2017 be a much better year.

In the new year, I want to post more. I am not going to be foolish and attempt to post every day, but I do want to get back on a regular schedule with multiple posts a week. I want to focus more on books (in terms of my reading, library, and reviews), science fiction and fantasy, my writing, topical issues, and any other subject that strikes my fancy.

I want to be more engaged with what I read. And I want to be more analytical. Which means lists and writing down my reactions to what I read.

I want to be more active in the science fiction and fantasy community. I’ve been a lurker for far too long. It is time to get out there and engage.

I need to finally settle down and pick a damn project to write and finish. I must not allow myself to be distracted by nagging worries and, at the moment, more attractive projects that need more work.

Will I manage to achieve my goals and resolutions? I don’t know. But I am determined to try. If nothing else, I want to try and make 2017 a good year.

December TBR List

Since my last post, November has sucked. (Okay, November has sucked since my trip to the Waco Friends of the Library Book Sale). I’ve moved. My brother is in the process of moving (which is a production of some considerable frustration that I’m not going to go into).

The only bright spot has been my completion of three Agatha Christie novels: Death on the NileThe Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and Evil Under the Sun. Those three novels have reinvigorated my reading after some disappointing reads. I’m hoping my December to be read list will be as productive.

So, what is my December TBR?

First, I want to try and reread The Magicians by Les Grossman. I know I should binge the entire trilogy, but I honestly have a love hate relationship with the first book. I like the magical world Grossman creates. I like the Ellis/ Tartt inspired style. I can’t stand Quentin Coldwater. I really can’t stand Quentin.

Following The Magicians, I want to tackle, again, The Grace of Kings before reading The Wall of Storms (both by Ken Liu). I was planning on tackling the two after I bought The Wall of Storms, but circumstances force me to check it out of the library.

After the current installments of The Dandelion Dynasty series, I intend to tackle Otherland by Tad Williams (again). Hopefully, I’ll have better success this time.

I also have a history of the Medici, The Space Opera Renaissance, and a book on oil pastel to read.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a sizable dent before January. I have an Atwood/ Gordimer binge planned.

Why I Never Got Into Harry Potter

Harry Potter is one of the most important book series of my generation. But, despite my many attempts to read it, I have never gotten into it. Why?

Time.

I read in phases. My children’s novel phase lasted from the age of seven to about fourteen. I read Charlotte’s Web, the first two Little House books, The Last of the Really Great WhangadoodlesTales of a Fourth Grade NothingSuper Fudge, and many so many more. By the time I turned fourteen my attention had inexorably shifted to more adult fare.

The problem is that the end of my children’s novel phase came in 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone did not come out in the U.S. until 1998.

By the time I first heard about Harry Potter, it was 2000 and I was too cool to read it. Or I just didn’t care. Or something.

By the time I figured I should check it out, I was well into my bachelor of arts in English Literature. So attempting to read Harry Potter has been a rather painful experience ever since.

Let me be clear: Rowling’s writing style in Harry Potter is aimed at children. Yes, it can appeal to adults as well. But not all adults. I, personally, do not find the style typically found in children’s novels to be palatable or enjoyable. The sole exception has been The Phantom Tollbooth.

Now, if I were ten years younger, if I turned fourteen in 2007, I might be singing a very different tune. But I was born in 1983 not 1993. So, I’m not.

Fantasy: Politics and Armchair Literary Critics

Is fantasy political? According to M. Harold Page’s “Why Medieval Fantasy is Not Inherently Conservative (Or Inherently Anything Political)” and Derek Kunsken’s “Is Fantasy Inherently Not Political?,” the answer is no. Both essays, which appeared on Black Gate, argue that fantasy is not inherently political. I fundamentally disagree with them. 

First of all, what does “inherent” mean? According to Merriam-Webster’s, “inherent” means: “involved in the constitution or essential character of something.” So, is fantasy inherently political?

Well, yes, fantasy is political. You see, fantasy is a form of literature, a form of art. And art is political. No matter if that work is the highest grade of literary fiction or your average epic fantasy, the work is political. Why?

Simple. Humans are political animals. When a writer writes a work of fiction, a part of his world view, his politics, is embedded within the text. And readers, no matter who they are, engage in a dialogue with the writer because they interpret the text through their own world view, which has a political dimension. (Matthew Johnson’s comment to Kunsken’s post reflects my own views).

I have to wonder what Page’s intention is when he opened his argument with all of those essays looking at the politics of fantasy. He certainly didn’t use it to bolster his case. Hell, Mieville’s interview (the first link) challenges Page’s formulation of escapism. Bourke’s post on Tor (second link) raises some interesting questions that could (and should have been) looked into. And Moorcock’s seminal “Starship Stormtroopers” seems to have been an outright afterthought. 

And that is what hurts Page’s argument. He doesn’t engage his sources. He uses them as a prop to rage against. Whether or not he is right about politics and fantasy is irrelevant. He doesn’t care. He reads for escapist purposes and reading deeper into the text doesn’t matter.

A deeper literary analysis will reveal the politics inherent in a work of fantasy.

But, you see, his own argument is political. Moorcock’s essay actually exposes the type of apolitical reading Page champions early on. And he himself reveals that he sympathizes with the more conservative elements (Paragraph 10, starting at the image of The Crown Tower). So, I wonder, is fantasy not inherently political?

Now, I will admit that I agree with the argument that fantasy is not inherently conservative. Not even medieval fantasy. Yes, many of the tropes would imply that fantasy has a conservative bent. And many works of fantasy are conservative. Maybe even the majority. But there are many fantasy writers whose works are not conservative. China Mieville and Michael Moorcock’s work come to mind. As does Ursula K. LeGuin and J.K. Rowling. 

(But remember, politics is relative. And a work of literature is interpreted with myriad meanings possible. )

Kunsken’s essay is problematic because he doesn’t prove his case. He essentially declares fantasy inherently apolitical despite the fact that most of his essay leads a reader (at least this reader) to believe that, to the contrary, fantasy is inherently political. Or is the new weird not actually fantasy? 

In my estimation, neither Page nor Kunsken prove their case. Instead, they rely on the knowledge that the comments will be, on the whole, friendly and back them up. In the end, their arguments, to me, ring hollow. 

Reading for pleasure is great. Reading to escape the travails of one’s life is great. But, so too, is reading to edify oneself. Indeed, it is absolutely great to do all three at once. They are not mutually exclusive. 

31 Days of Post (2) Day 9: Heroes and What I Want from Them

Heroes are unavoidable in what I read. From fantasy to comics and from science fiction to shonen manga, heroes are the protagonists of the vast majority of the literature. And that is not, in itself, a bad thing. The problem, I think, lies in how the hero is characterized and how he or she interacts with the fictional world of the text. 

What bugs me the most about heroes is the notion that they cannot have negative emotions (or that those emotions cannot be a driving factor in their heroism). Take Uzumaki Naruto from Naruto (yes, I already did a Naruto post a few days ago, but I want to touch on some things here, too). I was reading the latest chapter and realized something: is Naruto’s answer to Obito (and Pain) actually no answer? Does Naruto really have an answer to Obito’s challenge? Not really. I think Naruto’s declarations of never giving up or that everything will be alright when he becomes hokage ultimately rings hollow. In fact, I think Naruto pointedly doesn’t answer the question because he has no answer!

And there, I believe, lies the inherent problem of Naruto as a hero. The psychological trauma he has suffered at the hands of his village, of Sasuke, of Sakura, etc. has never, to my satisfaction, been addressed. And until that oversight has been rectified, Naruto will always be missing something, at least for me. 

In a way, this plays into my concerns about Harry Potter. Besides being self reliant and resilient, has the Dursleys’ abuse really affected him that much? While he may hate the Dursleys, Harry does not seem to be too psychologically damaged. Or at least not enough to warrant mention in the text. (Of course it could be argued that the text has a high tolerance for child abuse- Neville is certainly abused, questions could be raised about Mrs. Weasley, and how the hell is Snape still a teacher?)

So, to sum things up with Naruto and Harry, my issue with them, and heroes like them, is that they come from abusive backgrounds and don’t react to it in ways that are intellectually satisfying (at least for me). Yes, Naruto pranks and acts out to seek attention, to be acknowledged, but his underlying relationship to his community is glossed over. And while Harry may hate his “family,” it seems that being a hero negates the worse effects of abuse. (Which is almost certainly true of Naruto). 

If I ever create an abused hero, I will strive to insure that I do my research. What are the effects of child abuse? How can a child develop in those situations. Why would the hero act in this or that way? 

Asking and answering those questions (and others) will lead to interesting stories. 

There are many other elements of being a modern hero that bug me. Like the notion that the hero must be selfless. Just no. I want to see heroes who have ambitions. I don’t want to see a hero do something heroic because it’s just what they do. What is in it for the hero? Fame, fortune, the boy/ girl, power, revenge, or self accomplishment? And why does the hero seek those ambitions? 

Furthermore, I have a huge issue with the prevalence of idiot heroes. Now, I can see the advantage of having the hero handicapped in some way. That would increase the difficulty of whatever the hero must face. But why is it always strength over intelligence? (Or does it have more to do with providing a suitable intro pov for the audience not in the know?) That, however, doesn’t answer the question of why physical strength and power is valued over a cleverly executed plans. 

In a way, I think certain children’s literatures have done a disservice to our conception of what being a hero is. Those genres, I think, foist a juvenile concept of heroism that never really goes away. This would, of course, explain the gross misunderstanding of antiheoroes. 

Conan the Cimmerian is often described as an antihero, but I disagree. Conan’s actions are always heroic. So what if most of Conan’s actions are also intended to benefit him? Of course, when Harry Potter is described as an antihero, we all should know there is a problem (check out TV Tropes- I was shocked by the argument). 

But maybe the problem lies with me and my taste. I mean, I do have a more villainous disposition. Perhaps that colors my interest in having more selfish and intelligent heroes. 

Now, that’s what I want. But what about other readers? What’s the attraction of lacking ambition? Of strength over intelligence? What other kinds of heroes are there?

The Thrill of the Research Blues

I’m going to add Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the list of books I’m looking for at Golden’s Book Exchange on Saturday. And maybe I’ll add Lev Grossman’s The Magicians to the list (my failed attempts to read that damn novel has become a running joke). At the moment, I have both books (along with Life of Pi and Air Gear vol. 1) checked out from the library. Hell, I’m trying to read TTSS right now. But I’m going to have to take a break from reading it because I have way too much research to do to take the time for pleasure reading. 

I blame myself. I hoard library books. At the moment, I have thirteen out. And I’ve got another seven waiting for pickup. Three of which are interlibrary loans that I can only have for three weeks. (Though I am thrilled that they came so quickly)

So, while I want to finish TTSS (and even The Magicians), I’ve already renewed them once (which is the limit). So, I will just have to buy the damn books and read them when I get the time.

To weasel out of my own problem, the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still fresh in my mind. And damn, that was a great movie. Blew Skyfall out of the water. (And that opens up a whole other can of worms)

But I’m also wildly excited to start the research process. I can’t wait to learn new information about the medieval period. I’m thrilled to see where all of this research will lead to in my next project. 

I’ve already learned so much about village life in mid fourteenth century England that I never knew. And an equal amount about town life. This is freaking gold! Especially given that my epic fantasy historcisim (that sounds terrible) will deal as much with the peasantry as it will with mighty lords. I can’t wait to discover more!

I’m actually more thrilled than disappointed. 

 

Looking over this post, I’ve noticed two avenues for future posts. Looking at the old adage that the book is better than the adaptation. And discussing some of my writing schedule, without giving too much away.

PBS 2 and Reading Issues

This post is in response to two articles I read this morning. First is this week’s ombudsman column on PBS’s website looking at the effects of changing POV and Independent Lens‘s time slot from Tuesday to Thursday, and second, is an article on Huffington Post looking at concerns over high school reading level. Both raised interesting questions that I want to address.

First of all, I agree with Gettler’s comments that PBS has gutted its public affairs programming over the past several years after the last election (not that I think the election has anything to do with it). While Bill Moyers has returned in some capacity, his Journal along with Now and many other interesting and excellent public affairs programming have either been cancelled or truncated (as in the case of Need to Know). Why is this?

I don’t know. I suspect that politics does play a role in PBS’s decision to “revamp” their public affairs lineup. Public broadcasting has always been under threat, especially from a right wing that sees liberal bias throughout much of PBS’s programming. This perceived bias inspires Republican members of Congress to propose gutting government funding for public broadcasting. So, it is understandable that PBS shifts in order to protect itself.

I get the protection angle, and I sort of understand the programming block rationale, too. That said, I do think that two hours of Antiques Roadshow back to back might be a little much. The problem is that Thursdays (and also Fridays)  on many stations are reserved for local programming. With the two documentary shows now airing on Thursday, that knocks out an hour of possible local programming.

I won’t pretend to know what most PBS stations’ local programming look like. KWBU had none, KNCT has a few (of which I don’t watch), KLRU had an awesome lineup when I lived in Austin (especially Austin Now and Downtown), and KQED had an excellent assortment of local programming when I was there (hell, I still watch This Week in Northern California). I don’t know what other amazing local programs are out there, but it is a shame to think that some them will be canceled to make room for IL and POV.

In addition to politics, I think it also ties into keeping viewership. Why do you watch PBS? Why did you stop watching it? How can PBS win back its viewers and attract new ones? I don’t know, maybe in a future post I can explore some of my opinions on that.

Moving on to reading, according to the Huffington Post article, most high school students who read typically read texts rated at being barely above 5th grade level. Okay, this raises a lot of questions for me.

For one thing, how do they ascribe reading levels? Does that apply to the complexity of the text or to just the sentences? What about the complexity of a work? How is that rated? What about analysis?

Now then, the article plays a trick on the reader. The books that are read are rated at around 5th grade level (nor what works are at what level). That says nothing about what the readers themselves are capable of.

Some of the comments tend towards the idea that the poll is, perhaps, part of a  larger maneuver to sell products. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it would not surprise me.

Part of the issue with teaching reading is, I think, how it is taught. Teach critical thinking and analytic skill far earlier than it is done today. And focus on making reading a fun and enjoyable experience rather than a chore.

But, the educational system is not alone at being at fault for the decline in reading. The kids themselves have the choice to read or not to read outside of school. And their parents can be an example and read to their children. The children of readers are readers themselves. The teacher, the educational system is not a substitute parent. They are not nannies, governesses, and tutors.

I did not intend for this post to get this long. One of my core issues as a voter is education. So often I am disappointed by the various solutions raised. Largely, I think, because I question whether we, as a society, are raising equal citizens or just workers.