Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Top Ten Phrases That Make Me Pick Up a Book

Happy late Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten Phrases That Instantly Make Me Pick Up a Book

1. Science fiction

2. A cross between Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien-basically if it mentions a book or author I love (especially more than one), I will take a look.

3. Nineteenth century Britain/Victorian

4. Elizabethan/Renaissance/Tudor/Stuart

5. Strong heroine

6. Epic fantasy (although this tends to be overused)

7. Hugo/Nebula/Man Booker/Newberry award winner

8. Washington D.C./Boston/Chicago-a book set in a place that I'm familiar with

9. Venice/Rome/London-a book set in a place I really want to travel to

10. Weird/unusual/quirky-I look books (or at least the idea of books) that are different

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top Ten Books I Thought I'd Like More or Less Than I Did

Happy Top Ten Tuesday! It's been a little while for me.

Books I Thought I'd Like More Than I Did

1. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

I wanted to like it better than I did, and the novel did have its strong points in the characters and history, it just wasn't as developed as it could have been and the writing could have been better.

2. At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill

I was really interested in the Anne Boleyn story from Madge Shelton's point of view, unfortunately the writing was so painful I couldn't get through it. Madge just kept babbling about herself in anachronistic language and her character was such a weak, whiny girl.

3. Neuromancer by William Gibson

It won a Hugo and a Nebula and I'm generally a huge sci fi fan, but this world was just too hard to get into and I wasn't invested enough in the characters to try.

4. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

I thought I would love this Arthurian legend-based kids' story, unfortunately I found it far too predictable and just, well, childish. I probably would have liked it better if I'd read it as a kid.

5. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

It's a classic and I wanted to like it, but it was too much of a simple kids' story for the age I was when I read it.

6. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

I LOVE the title and the metaphor, but I just couldn't relate to the main character and felt like I didn't get the "point" of the book beyond the obvious. Maybe it's a generational thing. Atwood also tends to be hit or miss for me. I love The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, but I haven't been able to get into her other stuff.

Books I Thought I'd Like Less Than I Did

7. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

I had no idea how much I would LOVE this book. Especially since the beginning didn't really do it for me, but as soon as I met the main narrator, I was hooked.

8. The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

I requested to review this book because it's set in Boston and written by a professor who taught at the school I went to (I didn't know her), but I usually don't like mysteries, so this was a really pleasant surprise.

9. The Complete English Poems of John Donne, edited by A.J. Smith

Not really a book, but I took a class on Donne last quarter (and am taking a seminar on him again this quarter). I had no idea how much I would love his poetry, especially the love elegies. I finally know what kind of poet I want to be-let's get metaphysical baby!

10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I wasn't really sure how I would feel, especially since it got so much hype. But I really, really ended up liking it, a book all about the world and less about the characters. Unusual for me.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Ambiguous Utopia

In class (I got in!) we are reading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The subtitle is "an ambiguous utopia." I've read other books in the Hainish Cycle, and this one is both noticeably different and recognizably Le Guin. It's the first in chronological order, and the protagonist discovers the equations that will lead to the ansible-"an instantaneous communication device." In the rest of the cycle, this is the device that the protagonists use to record their observations of other worlds. Shevek is the only protagonist in the cycle (at least of those I've read) that is of the race that he observes. However, he is and is not.

Shevek is from Anarres, a desert mining colony on the moon of Urras, a water-rich planet. On Anarres, the Odonians have built a two-hundred-year old anarchist commune, where nobody owns anything. On Urras, the larger powers are still "propertarian" (i.e. capitalist) and exploit their resources, using a money economy and class-based hierarchy. Without a doubt, the situation is analogous to the Cold War, but neither world is utopia or dystopia...or perhaps, perhaps both are acceptable modes of existence.

There are so many excellent questions that this book raises about the nature of utopia and the relative merits of alternative forms of government. These days, we're riding a wave of dystopian literature, but I wonder how helpful it is to be utterly pessimistic to the point of not exploring all our options? it's not that dystopia doesn't have a place, but I think the most "useful" kind of dystopia would be that like in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, a pretty bad situation, but one with a viable solution. In a world like where The Hunger Games takes place, for example, well, it's not as if there's no hope, but hope...somehow has lower expectations? And seriously thinking about an ideal world doesn't at all seem to be the point of the book. It's more about individual happiness for the characters. Which brings me to my next point.

One of my main criticisms of Ursula K. Le Guin is that I rarely personally relate to her characters. I don't find them to be fully developed, and the minor characters certainly aren't. I just don't have an emotional connection to Shevek or any of her other narrators the way I do with Katniss Everdeen. But I always respect Le Guin's ideas and her world-building, which is why I keep reading her, and in this book I think she very clearly gets across that she's aware of this and this is part of her style on purpose. It's one of the main questions in the book: Is Shevek an outsider because that's how he was born or because that's how he was raised? Is Shevek unique because of who he is or because of his society?

At one point, Shevek thinks:

"The Settlers [of Anarres] had taken one step away. He had taken two...he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong" (34).

But later on, he thinks:

"He was therefore certain by now that his radical and unqualified will to create was, in Odonian terms, its own justification" (116).

At the very least, Shevek justifies himself through the lens of his society, even when his society rejects him. But there's a question of whether they have become a society with laws, laws of conventional behavior, evn when their aim is to be without, to promote true freedom. So perhaps Shevek is true to his upbringing after all, the pure Odonian. Or maybe he gives into human nature, which may be essentially "propertarian," essentially selfish.

Then again. It is only the outsider who can step outside, who can evaluate whether or not a society is what it thinks it is. Or maybe only the reader can do that.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

An Interesting Definition for SF-Discuss

Grad school is subsuming my life, but I came across this definition in the reading for a class I'm hoping to take (*fingers crossed*) on Utopian Science Fiction:

"SF is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."

-Darko Suvin, "Metamorphoses of Science Fiction."

That would seem to count a lot of fantasy novels as SF, which traditionally upsets the SF hardliners. However, it jives well with my view of the genre and its uses (and pleasures). Thoughts?