Sunday, August 15, 2010

Re-examining E.M. Forster

When pressed, I always include E.M. Forster on my list of favorite authors. But then a friend quoted the "Only connect" passage from Howards End, a book I haven't ever managed to read, despite it being Forster's best known work. I decided it was time. And really I hadn't read anything by him in maybe ten years.

"Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

I first encountered E.M. Forster around the time that I read all the other English novelists, my senior year in high school. It was also around that time that I saw the movie adaptation of The Wings of a Dove in the old Roseway Theater in downtown Portland, which also took me on a Henry James reading spree.

I'd have to go back and read A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread to know for sure, but I think what 18 year old me loved about Forster was how desperately romantic it all was. Young people breaking out of their expected roles to fall in love with unexpected people, usually while living abroad. That was, of course, very appealing. And Forster has this way of inserting Great Thoughts on the Universe in between dialogue and plot, and I think these really resonated with the girl getting ready to go to college and start living her life.

What 18-year-old me didn't really notice was the incredible sexism in Forster's novels. Since I'm just a reader of Forster and not a scholar, I'd like to assume that the comments on men dominating women, anti-womens suffrage, and on female domestic roles were to make a point; that he included strong, intelligent women against traditional bumbling men to show that the cultural assumptions were wrong, but honestly I don't know if that's true. Now that I've written it, I feel like I'm trying hard to justify the passion I had for his work.

Even now, while annoyed by the silly female characters in Howard's End, it still pulled at something internal for me. Forster has a knack for creating moments of emotional resonance. Of course the novel doesn't just remark on gender roles, but on the classes within society, capitalism, and empire. At the heart, though, are the relationships, between people, and in this case between people and a special house called Howard's End.

Margaret and Helen are two sisters who take care of each other as well as their younger brother Tibby. Their parents died while they were fairly young, but they are financially stable, giving them no idea of the hardships of struggling to make ends meet. This is what adds to them coming across as silly and careless. They take music and travel for granted, in fact Helen expresses more than once how she would be devastated without these things.

"Not to move about the world would kill me."

When Helen discusses settling down vs. adventure with Mr. Bast:

"If I could only get work - something regular to do. Then it wouldn't be so bad again. I don't trouble after books as I used. I can imagine that with regular work we should settle down again. It stops one thinking."
"Settle down to what?"
"Oh, just settle down."
"And that's to be life!" said Helen, with a catch in her throat. "How can you, with all the beautiful things to see and do - with music - with walking at night -."

These moments are surely what redeem Howard's End for me. I forget about the sexism, the oppression, and the unfairness of what life was during that time. I think deep down I'm still a little starry eyed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hugo Awards 2010

For my first actual post, I wanted to discuss the Hugo Awards, since they are less than a month away from being announced. Up until a couple of years ago when I first joined The Sword and Laser Book Club, I really didn't read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. So the books they would pick were what I would read in that genre. I learned in library school to select books that were nominated for awards in a specific genre, or at least the winners of those awards. Some of them, like the Bookers, seem a little too publisher-driven to be "honest." The Hugo Awards are run by and voted on by fans, which I thought was pretty impressive. The Hugo is awarded for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy, and has been going for over fifty years.

Wonder of wonders, this year I actually saw the list of 2010 nominees early enough to read the majority of them and make my own predictions. If I wanted to, I could pay the $50 to join the World Science Fiction Society and to get to vote, and that would have come with copies of all the novellas and short stories, not all of which are available online. I found this out after I'd read almost everything, however, but I may do it next year. It actually is a pretty good deal price-wise!

The majority of the non-novel nominees were available online, and I read enough to make a prediction in three categories.

For novel, I would love to see Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente win it. The story was unique, about people who travel to a fantasy world by connecting to other people who share their mysterious skin tattoos in the real world, and the writing was just spectacular. I found myself holding my breath and I wrote her a fangirl e-mail immediately after. I've also sat and read through everything I could get my hands on by her afterwards, and while I love her poetry just about as much, I think it is her best work yet.

I can imagine Windup Girl or even The City and The City winning, particularly because of how well-known Mieville already is. I have to admit I didn't care much for it, and I've heard his other work is better. And for me the Bacigalupi had interesting ideas but the pacing of the story was way off.

I didn't make a decision on novella, because only 2/5 were available to read online.

For best novelette I enjoyed It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith the most, with the ideas of advanced medicine and mind control. The Swirsky was a fun read, but some of the others in the category are exemplary for why I thought I hated science fiction so long - too many details, too many spaceships or aliens, too much geekery.

For short story, I think I would go with Bridesicle by Will McIntosh, because I loved the somewhat humorous look at the future of cryogenic life extension. I half expect Spar by Kij Johnson to win this category, because it definitely causes a strong reaction. When you write first-person about eternal alien rape, you are bound to be memorable. It was incredibly oppressive and uncomfortable to read; is that genius writing or a trick?

The Hugo Awards will be announced Sunday, September 5, but that's in Australia so maybe we'll hear about them on Saturday in the states. I'm eager to see if I share any of the opinions of the voting majority!


I have been wanting to start a reading blog for some time, but couldn't find a title that seemed appropriate. I wanted Greedy Reader but someone thought of that already, and then randomly today, a Facebook conversation led to the title.

Reading Envy - I have it. My to-read list keeps growing exponentially, and I love hearing what others read. And while I post reviews to GoodReads (links on the right) and keep track of quotations in a Google doc, I don't have one cohesive place where everything goes. I have a few friends with book blogs, and I've been longing to copy them, so here I am.