Friday, February 28, 2014

Review of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

I don't often post reviews to this blog that I'm already posting in GoodReads, but I think for books that I think are fantastic and spectacular, I will do so.

 Her Smoke Rose Up ForeverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is going to be a long review because this book took me two months to finish! I had this anthology for several years before I cracked it. My podcast co-host mentioned one story from it and I decided to thumb through it too, and I was hooked. These stories command attention in a way hardly anything I read does. I had to read several of them multiple times. I couldn't skim. I had to ask questions and think about them, and several are still swirling in my head. I had to take breaks in between to think and reflect, and I couldn't read more than one at a time. These are the best kinds of stories, and I have a lot to say!

But first, a line from the last page of the last story:
"You carry despair as your gift."

The Girl Who Was Plugged In is my favorite story of the entire anthology. I know it won a bunch of awards, and for good reason. It is thought provoking and terribly sad and I can't get the ending out of my head. It is about a girl who is plugged into a virtual reality, with her brain and emotions running a physical avatar. She falls in love but it's impossible. So gut wrenching! I say a bit more about it on the Reading Envy podcast, Episode 2.

"She loves him back with her whole heart... Except. Except that it's really P. Burke five thousand miles away who loves Paul. P. Burke the monster down in a dungeon smelling of electrode paste. A caricature of a woman burning, melting, obsessed with true love. Trying over twenty-double-thousand miles of hard vacuum to reach her beloved through girl-flesh numbed by an invisible film. Feeling his arms around the body he thinks is hers, fighting through shadows to give herself to him. Trying to taste and smell him through beautiful dead nostrils, to love him back with a body that goes dead in the heart of the fire."
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? was probably the most disturbing story in the anthology, especially the idea of the "night side" of people. Phew. I'd like to forget it, actually. I suppose that points to the ability Tiptree has to create such a visceral reaction.

With Delicate Mad Hands is a story that keeps getting more intense and more strange. I kept thinking we'd hit the limit and on it would go, until you're talking about Pig Empires. I read this one another time because I was convinced I had dreamed it, that surely there wasn't such a weird story in the universe. No, there it was. This was probably my second favorite. Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon) takes the revenge fantasy where it has never gone before.

We Who Stole the Dream probably has the most imaginative world-building. I think I like Tiptree best when her stories are in space or virtual space. This is a great example of a space story, with themes of oppression, war, slavery, genocide. Another good one is A Momentary Taste of Being.

On the Last Afternoon, on the other hand, seems to be set maybe in Florida (although it could be another planet) and these sea cow like creatures are wiping out humanity with their mating cycles (not by mating with them, they just have this enormous size... hard to explain)... It was a good example of humanity being minimized by uncontrollable nature, another theme she seems to use a lot. I wanted to skim this story because the creatures made me uncomfortable, especially the Nonion head that the patriarch is always talking to.
"Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him."

I don't even know what to say about some of the stories that end so perfectly or magically or sorrowfully that to describe them at all would ruin the experience. These should be savored and read and then re-read. Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why I Love Disaster and Destruction

Photo courtesy of Sasha Maksymenko in Flickr
I have had a strange week. Among other negative events, I had an e-mail from my mother earlier in the day on Wednesday that she shaved her head (she is at the end of her first of six chemo treatments and the hair is already gone.) I couldn't sleep.  I stumbled across a link to a story about the protests in Ukraine, and found I could watch them on a live stream.  Loud voices, two men, I think perhaps they were broadcasters or protesters, were speaking loudly throughout.  Not speaking a word of Ukrainian, I have no idea what they were saying, which added an element of fear and chaos to what already felt unsettling.

Even though I was up until 2 AM,  I slept better than I had all week.

That's a bit disturbing, isn't it?  Maybe it's not.  I've been re-re-reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, and in the section on developing the right brain, as part of the second habit, he mentions the benefit of expanding perspective. He says that an unplanned negative experience can knock us out of our left brain. While he focuses on visualizing success as a way toward positive growth, the little bit I resonated with was what I think I was unintentionally gaining from absorbing my mind with the protests and violence in Kiev.  Oh, perspective.  There is more going on in the world than involves my small family. There is worse violence and struggle. Even with this fact, there is still the hope that revolutions bring change and violence can end. 

This, my friends, is why I am also completely absorbed by the subgenre of speculative fiction that is dystopia, post-apocalypse, disaster, destruction, etc.  Whatever name you have for it, whatever flavor it is, it really is a favorite.  It always has been, even when life is going okay. Beyond the creative ways authors develop for humanity to implode or disappear, the real magic happens in the after.  What kind of societies rise up? What religions do they have? What do politics look like and who has the power? Authors who address these questions in creative ways (positive or negative) keep my attention.  I realize most people wouldn't immediately grab a book of destruction when life is going awry, but it is worth a try! 

A few recommendations:
The Earthseed series (only two books) by Octavia Butler
MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood
Silo series by Hugh Howey (several omnibus publishings - Wool, Shift, Dust)
Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams, for short story fans

Outside speculative fiction, which has the best destruction since there are no limitations, I can also recommend books on cults.  Usually biography and memoir, people who have lived through them and escaped them.   Hooray! I need to find more books on cults and communes to add to my GoodReads shelf

A few recommendations:
Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple by Deborah Layton (I listened to this book this week! The print is older but the audio is new.)
My Life in Orange by Tim Guest

What is your reading escape?  What expands your perspective?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Library Books Valentine's Day Edition

After reading Nick Hornby, I decided it might be interesting to blog about the books I bring into my house.  I'm going to do two posts a month, roughly two weeks apart - the books I now own (through purchase, gift, or swap) and the books I bring home from the library.

I work as an academic librarian, so I have books at my fingertips every day.  I also have access to interlibrary loan.  My library piles can be extensive!  Some of the books I'm actively seeking out for various reasons, and others I just can't help but bring home with me.  So let's take a look at the year so far.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading Envy 002: Return of the Euthanized Book

On our second episode, we were joined by Bryan Alexander.  Bryan is a writer, researcher, and educational futurist, but we have always been intrigued by his reading knowledge. 

There were some surprising synergies between the three of us and the books we wanted to talk about - historical points of significant change, virtual reality and plugging into a system, and books about books!

Bryan brought three books along for discussion:

This episode, Scott talked about:


And Jenny focused on:

Download or listen via this link: Reading Envy 002: Return of the Euthanized Book

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