Monday, October 31, 2011

Survival Fiction - Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

What is it about survival fiction for young adults?  I remember reading a bunch of it as a child, titles like My Side of the Mountain, where a child is out in the wild, either by choice or by chance, and has to use their skills and training to survive.

The Hunger Games Trilogy is an obvious example of this phenomenon, and I am sure Harry Potter fits into this category if you stretch it.  Very few adults, difficult situations, but good prevails.  Are these didactic stories?  Do they teach young readers that they can do anything with intelligent decision making and a bit of luck?

I hope so.  I recently got to listen to the Full Cast Audio production of Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein, originally published in 1955.  Similar themes, only on an alien planet! I reviewed it at more length over on SFF Audio, but it made me want to think of all the survival lit I read when I was younger.  Help me build my list in the comments section! 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“There Are Things I Want You To Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me

“There Are Things I Want You To Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me
by Eva Gabrielsson, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Eva Gabrielsson lived thirty years of her life with Stieg Larsson, most known for the Millennium Trilogy - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Unfortunately, Stieg Larsson died unexpectedly at the age of 50, and would not live to even see the first one in print.

Even more unfortunately for those left behind, Eva and Stieg never married, and Stieg did not have a will.  Under Swedish law, since they had no children, Eva was left with no claim to anything, and the rights to his novels went to his brother and father.

Almost everything I will say from this point forward will come from Eva Gabrielsson's mouth.  From her tone throughout this book, I gather that this has not been remedied to her satisfaction, and that this has been quite a legal and social battle.  Not having the access to fully fact check what she has claimed, I'd hate to just jump to her defense, but it is difficult not to. The way she tells it, Stieg was raised by his grandparents, and his contact with his brother and father was negligible.  They would not have known him well enough to know his wishes for his work, but were given both the royalties as well as what is called "moral rights" in Sweden, similar to our intellectual property rights - the right to recreate, etc.  All the details and insight and connections Eva makes leave little space for her not to have had a very close, very intimate relationship with Stieg. 

Outside of the legal battles, and the internal battle I'm currently having about watching the American version of the film in December (according to Eva, Stieg never wished movies to be made out of these books at all... is it naive to hope he would have changed his mind?), the rest of the book adds so much to the experience of the Millennium Trilogy.  His writing of the books (and actually, he had plans for several more, and had already started #4) came from people he knew, situations he'd seen, and places he had experienced.  The story itself is not a true story, but there is a lot of truth to it.  For that information alone, this book is more than worth a read.  I was most interested by the parallels between Blomkvist and Larsson, and Salander and Larsson. 

I have to admit to not knowing much about Sweden, and I tend to idealize it in my head.  The Sweden of the Millennium Trilogy, and of Stieg Larsson and Eva Gabrielsson, is much darker, much scarier, and their lives were in jeopardy constantly because of the work they were doing.  Intrigue!  Death threats!  Power struggles!  I was fascinated by that part of their story, and I know I'll be paying more attention to Sweden in the news.  Granada too.  (Don't get me started.  The amount I don't know about the history of my lifetime is shameful).  Eva Gabrielsson also recommends two authors from Sweden that also write crime novels set in the same basic northern landscape that Larsson did, so I will be checking them out too (Per Olov Enquist and Torgny Lindgren).

One fact that made me very happy was learning about their love of science fiction.  I hope she won't mind me quoting her quite extensively from one page:
"In addition to politics, Stieg and I had long shared a common passion for science fiction. Our favorite authors were Robert Heilein and Samuel R. Delany, and I had translated into Swedish Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which describes what the world would be like if the Nazis had won World War II.  As soon as we'd moved to Stockholm, we'd joined the largest Swedish science fiction fan club, the SFSF (Skandinavisk Förening för Science Fiction), a friendly and varied collection of likeable weirdos, all of them crazy about SF.  We fit right in....  We were dreamers, fascinated by the alternative universes we found in that literature. Especially when they become real on the Internet. Published in 1992, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is a good example of the cyberpunk milieu reflected in the cybernetic world of the hacker republic in which Lisbeth Salander is a model citizen...."
Yes!  I hadn't made the connection, but I loved Snow Crash, and I loved the Millennium Trilogy.  There really is a significant similarity there.  So funny to have that connection made for me so soon after (two days after!) finishing Reamde by Neal Stephenson.

One interesting theme to the book that I just didn't expect was that of revenge.  According to Eva, Stieg believed heavily in revenge, and she believes he demonstrates this through the characters in the Millennium Trilogy as well.  To help her own emotional journey through grieving Stieg, Eva researched and put on a traditional Icelandic nið, which is basically a curse or revenge poem based in Skaldic poetry.  She includes the text of what she wrote and a description of the ritual her group of friends had, and it was raw and painful, but somehow it made perfect sense that the woman Stieg loved would go to that kind of extreme.  It was a very Lisbeth Salander thing to do.

I do think this is worth the read.  The end gets a little fragmented and she throws in her journals and some letter segments, making it feel like she was rushing to have it published, but I suspect that is true.  Part of me wishes she'd had more distance between his death and writing this, but something tells me that her honest emotions are part of what brings Stieg to life so clearly.

 Books mentioned in this post:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Despite frequent reading breaks because my wrists hurt (this book is HEAVY), I have finally finished Reamde by Neal Stephenson. 

I had a surprisingly emotional response to this novel.  That may be surprising if you have heard that this is more of a crime novel than anything else.  Then let me explain by saying those emotions were a frenetic shift from LOVE to HATE... and back again.

I shouldn't be surprised.  That describes my entire relationship with the author Neal Stephenson.  Snow Crash was life-changing for me. It was my gateway drug into cyberpunk, which led me into science fiction. That was only a few years ago, and my reading life has been revitalized as a result.  That was my greatest love experience with the author, and it is one I will never forget.  The reason I keep returning to his writing, hoping for a similar experience.

After that, I tried reading The Baroque Cycle, starting with Quicksilver, a book I hated.  The author seemed self-aggrandizing.  I developed a hatred of physics.  I threw it across the room.  But still, I finished it, because several friends had loved it.

He redeemed himself with Anathem, which I zipped through despite its length.  I loved the culture he'd set up of these monk-like scholars, the Thousanders and their mechanics and music, and the space travel in the end.  The characters were very human and I was very invested.  The ending was a bit disappointing, but did not cause the overall experience to suffer.

So really, I did not know which experience Reamde would be.  I was not even going to read it so soon, but the Sword and Laser group selected it as an alternate read, and I'd already read the official read, Ready Player One.  From the description, I expected these two books to go nicely together, both seeming to be about virtual worlds in some form or another.  But Ready Player One is a book for gamer geeks, and Reamde is a crime novel, maybe a thriller novel.  One of the two.  Both.

Wait, a crime novel?  From Neal Stephenson?  As surprising as it sounds, I did not see much of the author in this book.  If you had told me it was written by [insert any old crime author here], I would have believed you.

I'm bad at summarizing, so I'm pulling this from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
The Cliff Notes version: Richard Forthrast, a '70s-era marijuana smuggler gone straight, is the creator of T'Rain, an online role-playing game that is more popular than World of Warcraft. His niece Zula -- an Eritrean refugee who works for him -- is abducted by Russian gangsters after her boyfriend, Peter, gives them a thumb drive with stolen credit-card numbers that's infected with a virus. This virus, created by Marlon, a game player who lives in Xiaman, necessitates a trip to the island where the Russians hope to exact revenge. Instead, they become embroiled in a battle with Muslim fundamentalists.

I had planned to abandon the book around page 160 or so.  Other members of the Sword and Laser said "It gets better at page 300 when new characters are introduced."  In a shocked sense of disbelief, I decided to press on to that point.  And, okay, it really does get better at around page 300.  In what universe is it okay for an author to not get to the good stuff until 300 pages in?  My favorite parts of the book were from about page 300-700.  The ending was not satisfying although all the ends are tied up.  In that regard, Stephenson does not feel like a crime writer after all, because the end should be the pay off!  It felt like it kind of faded out, without spoiling the ending.

Other things to love:
  • Neal Stephenson writes awesome female characters.  While Reamde would not pass the Bechdel Test,  the characters of Zula and Olivia are particularly compelling.  They are smart, creative, but still imperfect in realistic ways.  
  • The various settings, from Xiamen to the Philippines to northern Canada to the back woods of Idaho.

Other things to hate:
  • The virtual world was a plot point, and while it does bring the characters together, it is not nearly as central to the story as I would have liked.  Yes, I believe I am now complaining that this book was not geeky enough.
  • Coincidence and convenience ruin the believability of almost everything.  Perhaps this is typical in a thriller, but it was too much to take.  
  • The pace, partnered with the length.  Fixing one would have aided the other. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Poetry Finalists of the National Book Award 2011


I finished my second read through of the poetry finalists for the National Book Award tonight.  
The list from the official site:
  • Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split
    (TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press)
  • Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch
    (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Carl Phillips, Double Shadow
    (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010
    (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Bruce Smith, Devotions
    (University of Chicago Press)
More than any other genre, I struggle in pitting poetry against itself.  I think Nikky Finney will be the most memorable, but Adrienne Rich may end up with the award.  Still, this set of poetry by her is not my favorite.

Some poets use overarching concepts.  Bruce Smith wrote an entire book of devotions, and some are a great capture of a place.  Carl Phillips seems to have an imaginary friend, but it might just be his shadow.  My favorite poems of the lot are "Ode to the Guitar" by Yusef Komunyakaa, and "Cattails" by Nikky Finney.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #7 (Favorite Authors)

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different genre or theme.  It started with Sam at Tiny Library, so go check her out.

This weeks theme is favorite authors (haha, I deleted the Canadian "u" in favourite).

It isn't hard to pick my favorite authors, because I have some that I will absolutely read everything from. as immediately as possible.

Jeanette Winterson
 I love how her words feel like poetry.  I love how she can put you right in the middle of a relationship without you realizing that she hasn't mentioned names or genders or details at all.  Her writing is sensual, lingering, and I revisit some of her books repeatedly.  My two favorites are Written on the Body and The Power Book.  I recently found two of her older books in a used book store, two I'd never read, and I snatched them up.  I'll review them soon.

 Catherynne Valente
 As if I'd never mentioned her before...  I like her for the same reasons that I like Jeanette Winterson, in fact Palimpsest made me think of Winterson repeatedly.  In addition to beautiful writing, though, Valente creates worlds like nobody else I've ever read, and I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy.

Margaret Atwood
While I love her dystopias more than her non-dystopian literary fiction, Atwood is always going to be someone I read and re-read.  I love her mixture of warning with humor and some of the craziest ideas I've read.  I still can't drive by fast food without thinking of chickie nobs and pigoons.

When I try to figure out what these have in common, they all have interesting worlds, well written words, and emotion I resonated with. Some honorable mentions would be David Mitchell, E. M. Forster, and Alex Ross. (Alex Ross writes about music, but in this way that makes you fall in love with it again... so it still fits!) 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays - Cover Art

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted over at the Broke and the Bookish, asks do you judge a book by it's cover? Or title? Most of the time, a bad cover won't stop me from reading a book, but a good cover might drag me into something I would not have otherwise read.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman - I know I'm in the minority not liking this book, and I'm planning to read the sequel to give it another try, but part of my disgruntlement was that the cover was SO AMAZING and the book wasn't.

Something about the fog and the tree points to mystery and intrigue, and maybe silence.  Instead you get dumped into a boarding school with annoying teenagers, and very little discussion of the landscape.  Perhaps a picture of teen wizards would have been more appropriate?

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt -  I love this cover. It is bold and eye catching just in the color choices, but then it starts to look like an illusion.

Do you see the men first, or the moon?  It always takes me a while to notice the guns pointed directly at me because I see the face first.  Still thinking this might win the Booker today, so this book is on my mind anyway.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor -  I read this because it was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award, and the cover is stunning.

Look closer.  The desert... are those wings?Hmm, guess I'd want to read it to understand what the wings are for.  And seriously, you have no idea what you are in for in this book.  It was fantastic, unique, and kept my attention.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi -  Futuristic and elephants? Okay...

The Windup girl?  Is the elephant the windup girl?

I love this cover, and the book is great once you get to page 100.  I hope he writes a followup because the book does end somewhat unresolved.

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner - This book had an intriguing title - the Geography of Bliss.  I have always enjoyed travel writing, and the concept of this book, to try to "figure out" why certain cultures are considered happy, was interesting enough to make me buy it for full price (I rarely do this!).

I wasn't disappointed.  Although now I want to go to Iceland more than ever.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - I resisted this book.  I love Jane Austen and hate zombies.  Right?  .... Right?  And then I was trapped on a ship in the fog for three days and this was one of three readable books in the ship library, clearly readable was a broad definition.  But then... I laughed my entire way through.  It is supposed to be campy.  It succeeds.  And in the end, I liked the alternate reason for Elizabeth Bennett not wanting to marry - because she is a master zombie hunter, of course.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem - This book was chosen for me by one of the hosts of the Sword and Laser podcast; we read it as one of the book club books.  The title is ultimately memorable, and also the key to the entire plot, if we can call it a plot.  This book is bizarre with an unreliable narrator, and also translated from the original Polish, about a world where history has gone missing.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace - The boy on the cover is rather... charming, don't you think?  This is a book of essays and the title essay is something I think about every time I go on a cruise.

Also memorable by DFW is his book of essays called Consider the Lobster... I try very hard not to think about it when I eat lobster, but it is enough to stop me from ordering it most of the time.

My Life in Orange by Tim Guest - I read a handful of books one year about people who had been involved in utopian society attempts or cults, and a lot of it started when I saw this book on the shelf.

The bright color, the subtitle "Growing up with the Guru," it just made me very interested.  The book itself - fascinating and disturbing.

Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall - I admit it.  I was pulled in by the clever title and naughty cover image.

This book was terrible.  A grad student telling the tale of sleeping her way up in the world of classical music in NYC, lots of drugs in there too, not very believable or interesting.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Preparing for Around the World in 52 Books

As previously mentioned, I am embarking on an Around the World reading challenge in 2012.  Although I never need an excuse to visit used book stores, this has given me an even better reason.  Friday I took the day off and headed to Mr. K's Used Books, Music, and More, probably the largest used book store in my particular town (not gonna lie - I wish I lived close to Powell's like I did while I was growing up!).  I had some store credit from a previous trade-in visit, and $5 cash.  It is kind of like a trip to the casino, you have to decide how much money you are going to spend before you go in.

I've also recently signed up for, and have gained quite a few great books, most from my Around the World wishlist.  The shelf you see is what I have so far.  I have representatives from Belgium, France, Portugal, Argentina, Turkey, Spain, Afghanistan, USA, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Mexico, Algeria, Greenland, Peru, Cuba, Kiribati, St. Maarten, and Denmark.  I also have Kashmir and Tibet on their way to me via paperbackswap.

I have definitely fought reading compulsion on this shelf but luckily I always seem to have another award list or book I need to read for the podcast.  2012 is going to be a fun year!

What I'm reading now:

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The publisher for The Sense of an Ending rushed to get it out in the states two weeks before the Man Booker Prize is announced, something which this reader greatly appreciates!  (I'm going to have to just suffer reading envy for the sixth shortlisted book - Half-Blood Blues - which will not come out here until next year sometime).  The official announcement will be on Tuesday, October 18, and I think with the time difference, I will be able to find out first thing in the morning.

But first, the book itself.  The Sense of an Ending is incredibly short, 150 pages, divided into two sections.  The first part tells the story of Tony in his late childhood and into early adulthood.  He has a close group of three other friends, and the narrator (also Tony) is constantly reflecting on the nature of time, and on how relationships change.  In my vague intentions, I am not being very useful in telling you what the book is about, but saying too much would give it away.

The second part is no longer looking back but Tony has reached late adulthood, where he is friends with his ex-wife and volunteers at a care facility, and had thought the interesting part of his life had already passed by.  His past comes back to his present and he has to figure it all out.

This is one of two from the longlist that are told from the perspective of people very late in their lives, the other being On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry.  The Man Booker judges have made it very clear that they are looking for adventure this year, so I'm not surprised only one of the two made it to the shortlist, and that does not bode well for the Barnes to take the prize.  I do agree that of the two books of protagonists in their twilight years (which is considerably different from their Twilight years, you must understand), the Barnes is more compelling because it moves from humor to sorrow and back again so quickly.

Unlike the Hugo, I don't believe the Booker judges rank the shortlisted books from 1-6 once they pick a winner.  Since I am not one of them, I am going to anyway!  This is a list based on my preferences, not a list based on an attempt to try to anticipate who I think they will pick.

My picks:
  1. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
  2. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  3. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  4. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
  5. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
  6. N/A
(Unknown: Half-Blood Blues)

One interesting list I found is an attempt to include all books that would have been eligible for the Man Booker Prize this year.  The list is in Listopia in GoodReads, and if you have an account, you can vote for the titles you would have preferred to see.  Most of them are unfamiliar to me for now, but maybe a year from now more will have made their way to the states.