Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Books, Books, and More Books!

I've had some wonderful bookish adventures lately!

A family friend was downsizing her collection...

I browsed the aisles at Barnes & Noble with birthday gift cards...

and I absconded to the library for a lunch hour or two this week.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Still Reading!

Just Finished:

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

The cover art perfectly encapsulates the claustrophobic college dorm room, gradually overlooking the lonely seascape of the life Marin left behind. This poetic gem of a YA book lives up to all the hype though it reads more like The Writing Life by Annie Dillard than The Hunger Games, and its raw emotions are all the more poignant for being gentle.

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Although set mostly in the United States, the Philippines are the heart of this novel, and how the Filipino-American characters relate to each other, their homeland, and other Filipinos in America. It's refreshing to read an "immigrant" novel that showcases the immigrants' cultures and isn't about fitting in with Americans at all. There are Pangasinese, Ilocanos, manilenos, not to mention religious and ideological differences. At least this book mentions enough ethnic dishes, from pancit to pinakbet to sisig, to feed them all.

Currently Reading:

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken Earth saga continues to delve into its characters (sometimes literally), address its audience directly, and play with tone and geology and magic so lightly you barely even notice Jemisin juggling the planets in the air. Or moons, or obelisks, as the case may be.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

What I'm Reading

Just Finished:

FINALLY finished the audiobook. And...I'm still conflicted. There is so much here that's intellectually interesting. But also, the narrator and all the characters except maybe one are terrible people. I mean, straight up murderers and torturers terrible. And characters are usually what I care about most. Instead, what's compelling about this book is the worldbuilding, the politics, economics, religion (or lack thereof), professed gender neutrality, philosophy, and obsession with the 18th century. However, even though the central concept of their societies are being future versions of the 18th century Enlightenment, what stood out to me most were the clever similarities to Thomas More's Utopia, perhaps because I'm a student of the 16th century Renaissance. Anyway, still deciding if I want to read the next book or not.

I finally read it! I have no excuses. It was just as good as everyone said.  Jemisin did some interesting experimenting with tone in The Inheritance Trilogy, and here, the tone is totally confident AND approachable even though she's a) casually using real and fantasy geological terminology and b) using second person in one of the book's three viewpoints! Using second person is such a huge no-no in fiction right now, that it's satisfying to watch her knock it out of the park. And the characters, I love the characters, and how casually weird and complicated they are. I guess my summation of the book is that Jemisin makes difficult look really easy, and I can't wait to read the next one!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

What I'm Reading

Currently Reading:

I've been listening to this audiobook for about three weeks, and I've still got 5 discs left of 17. It's a tome, to say the least. I've got complicated feelings about this Enlightenment-centered future heterotopia (a term I learned from my class on utopian sf in grad school that feels most appropriate; essentially future utopias and dystopias coexist). It feels ostentatiously performative yet satisfyingly intellectual. It's got, at current count: an "18th century" preface, an unreliable narrator, Latin, literal Utopians, Masons, living toys, economic and political intrigue, and shifting gender pronouns and racial/ideological markers. The gender pronouns are the most deliberately performative and distracting element, far more noticeable than the consistent "she's" in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch books or the nonbinary pronouns ("xyr" "they") in Becky Chambers' Galactic Commons books. It doesn't bother me that the narrator is unclear on gender so much as the frequent vacillating on characters' genders composes a LOT of narrative, but it serves the author's point that even though the world is supposed to be beyond gender with the neutral "they" for everyone, gender, or perception of gender, still affects how people in these societies relate to each other.

I'm almost done with the first of the Witcher books, translated from the Polish, which the Witcher video games are based on. The book is everything I love about the game: a series of interconnected short stories with the Witcher facing and defeating a plethora of Eastern European dark fairytale creatures. Even better, although similar in tone and content, most of the stories I've read in the book so far are not exactly the same as the adventures depicted in the game. This book even features some dark, twisted versions of Beauty and the Beast and Snow White. I'm not sure what's so compelling about the fantasy world of the Witcher, perhaps the comforting familiarity of a Western-style fantasy punctuated by unexpected (in the United States of America) creatures like strigas and bruxas, or perhaps the comforting cynicism that, even in fantasy, work is sometimes scarce, government is often unjust, and climate change threatens to obliterate existence. True, adventurous, fun!

And the reason I haven't been posting as often is, I've been putting these books to good use...hope it pays off soon!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Book Review: Would You Rather? A Memoir of Growing Up and Coming Out by Katie Heaney

Book Review: Would You Rather? A Memoir of Growing Up and Coming Out by Katie Heaney
* Released March 6, 2018 from Penguin Random House*

Katie Heaney's second memoir expands on a "bigger truth" following her first memoir, Never Have I Ever, about never getting the guy at twenty-five. Three years later, she is happily dating her first girlfriend.

Although each chapter tells a self-contained story regarding Heaney's unexpected epiphany, they build on each other and are best read in order. Heaney's writing is structured, funny, and wordy in an endearing way, like your best friend who can't wait to spill (and micro-analyze) every detail. She's undoubtedly a millenial, and references to Twitter, Instagram, and being sucked down internet rabbit holes will be familiar to readers of her generation. Heaney's late-blooming revelation isn't the answer for single girls everywhere, as she's quick to point out, but it paints an alternative narrative that's validating for those who haven't known they're gay since middle school and were lucky enough to come out into a more welcoming environment. Highly recommended to millenial women, who, no matter their orientation, will see at least part of themselves in Heaney's stories.

I received this as an Early Reviewers book from the publisher. All opinions are my own. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Why I Want to Be An Alien Mother

I would have no problem being a human father. Being a human mother, on the other hand, is much more complicated. Science fiction, however, offers some inspiration, and after I finished reading Becky Chambers' Galactic Commons books, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, I realized--I want to be an alien mother.

I’ve long been impressed by the parenting solutions of science fiction. For example, the group marriage parenting in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or the village parenting model in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. However, Heinlein’s solution problematically had only women doing the parenting, which, although it freed up some of the women to pursue careers, is marginally superior to today’s model of childcare for those who can afford it.

Piercy’s solution has long seemed the most elegant to me. Get rid of women’s unique biological ability to bear children, and--voila!--goodbye gendered inequality overall, and inequality in parenting specifically. Nobody bears children, nobody bears the risks of gestation or birth (children are grown and born in machines), everybody shares in the work and joy of feeding, changing, rocking. Everybody wins.

Piercy's is the only solution for humans that has ever made sense to me: completely rewiring our biology in order to bring equality to our society.

Until Becky Chambers showed me another way. Her character-driven, Firefly-esque sci-fi novels feature an eclectic mix of alien species alongside a diverse human diaspora. Over the course of her novels, at least two of these species’ parenting is described in detail: the Aandrisk and the Aeluon. Notably, both species, like humans, have both males and females. Biological reproduction is comparable to humans: females provide eggs, males provide sperm. However, both of these species' primary parenting structures are significantly different from humans. Despite the biological similarity, fascinatingly, neither relies on gender to divide parenting tasks.

Opposed to what I have long assumed, does that mean that gender inequality in humans could also have a non-biological solution?

The first species, unfortunately, would suggest no. Similar to Piercy’s solution, the Aandrisk approach to motherhood is rooted in biology: reptilian biology, to be specific. Aandrisk mothers, like reptiles on Earth, lay a clutch of eggs, which are then fertilized--and given to a "nest family" to raise. Nest families consist of groups of older Aandrisks, both male and female, who have volunteered to raise children. When those children grow, they form feather families, where they live with groups of other Aandrisks their age, and if they wish, produce eggs for nest families to raise. Aandrisks do not raise their own eggs. When they become older, they can form their own nest families and volunteer to raise the eggs of younger Aandrisks. In this society, Aandrisk women aren't hampered by motherhood in the prime of their lives, but they can still choose to be parents (or not) when they have the time, financial means, and stable, willing co-parents. Since parenting isn't gendered, there's no more expectations of mothers than of fathers.

Unfortunately, that lack of gendered parenting probably has a lot to do with the fact that Aandrisk women aren't gestating babies for nine months nor are they breastfeeding once those babies are born. Aandrisk women, similar to  human men, can lay eggs and walk away--so parenting falls to those who choose it rather than those upon whom babies are more biologically reliant. It also helps that Aandrisks don't care if a few thousand eggs don't make it. One or two will survive, just from sheer probability. So unless and until we human women can deposit eggs outside of our bodies, the Aandrisk model is probably out for us.

The second species, the Aeluon, look more promising. Like human women, Aeluon women gestate and give birth to babies. It's a long process for which Aeluon women take an extended break from their careers as military captains, cargo runners, or tattoo artists, as the case may be. But babies are so valued in Aeluon society that women are enthusiastically granted leaves of absence, and subsequently, welcomed heartily back to their careers. And what happens to the babies? They're raised by units of four to five professionally trained parents. Parenting is a respected and highly competitive career among the Aeluons. The required training for parents is extensive. Admittedly, it does seem to be a largely male career, at least as represented in the series, although there are representative parents of the neutral gender and the gender that transitions between male and female, and there's no indication that women couldn't be parents if they wanted. Furthermore, biological mothers can interact with their children as much as they wish, from living with their kids (and kids' parents) to a couple of intergalactic phone calls per standard year. Regardless of what the mothers choose, the kids have the best full-time care and love that society can provide.

Why isn't this viable for humans? Like Heinlein's group parenting, it's not biologically based, and, unlike Heinlein,  it shatters the notion of separate professional and domestic spheres. Parenting and childcare isn't unpaid, underpaid, or part-time. If we could elevate childcare as a profession, maybe we could provide higher quality care for our children, value the work of women, and equalize the discrepancies between motherhood and fatherhood. 

Sadly for us, there is a slight biological impetus for Aeluon society's privileging of children. As opposed to humans, Aeluon fertility is somewhat limited. Instead of monthly opportunities, Aeluon women are fertile only a few times in their lives. This factor undoubtedly contributes to the enviable social infrastructure for the precious next generation.

However, while it's unlikely humans will start laying eggs, valuing our children like we claim to do is not such a big leap. If we truly love our children, as a society, then we will provide them with the best care possible, and one way or another, "traditional" motherhood, with a single woman doing unpaid work, has to go.* With Becky Chambers' options on the table, I want to be an alien mother.

*"traditional" motherhood is in quotes because many societies have had multiple women, and sometimes women and men, sharing the work of childcare, and also because there is nothing wrong with parenting as a career, but it deserves the same recognition as any other profession. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

My Reading Life

Just Finished:

Song Yet Sung by James McBride

I listened to this on audiobook, and I'm glad I did because of the atmospheric accompanying music. I've read McBride's two best-known books, The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, both of which I loved, especially the latter. I didn't like Song Yet Sung quite as much, mostly because it is just extremely hard to live up to The Good Lord Bird, but I do think it's an important read for a portrait of the psychology of slavery from surprisingly diverse viewpoints. Not only are the two primary main characters, Liz and Amber, African American slaves, but there's also some viewpoints from white slaveowners and slavecatchers, and the book has a surprising amount of sympathy for them. Another interesting point for me, and others, is that the book takes place on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a mere "80 miles from freedom." Characters imagine they can see Philadelphia on a good day. It's a very particular environment, and like McBride does for Kansas and Harper's Ferry in The Good Lord Bird, he gives a strong sense of how the marshy terrain affects all of the characters.

Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet and Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out by Harry Kemelman

I've continued reading and enjoying the Rabbi Small series. I love how I get a snapshot of history in each of these books. In Thursday, published in 1978, for example, we learn that the women of the synagogue have finally gotten the right to vote and sit on the board of directors. Whereas, in the first books written in the early 1970s, men only on the board is accepted without even being mentioned. Reading these books is watching social progress unfold in the background!

Currently Reading:

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

I'm currently listening to Landline, which is the way I've read all my Rainbow Rowell books. I like the concept of a phone that reaches the past, I like the protagonist Georgie as a character, and Rowell is an incredibly vivid writer. She's especially good at conveying physical actions, specifically in a romantic context but also just in general, and it's a pleasure to listen to since it's a skill that a lot of writers (including myself) don't excel at. However, I'm not enjoying this one as much just because I don't find the male love interest, Neil, that likable, nor the other potential (but I hope not) love interest, Georgie's best friend Seth. Georgie and Neil's marriage, and Neil's character, feel very realistic, but I'm over his whole super defensive, noncommunicative shtick, even if Georgie obviously loves him. Part of what made Fangirl so excellent was how much I liked Levi as well as Cath. Oh well. Just hoping for a Fangirl sequel soon!