Category Archives: Book Reviews

Socialization and Values for Fantasy Writing and Life: Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’ book “Instructions”

[Spoilers the size of fairy tales]

“Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.”

“Trusts ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

For my birthday this year, I wanted a copy of Instructions written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. In the past, I’ve blogged about Gaiman and Vess’ book, The Blueberry Girl, which I adored, and has become my standard gift for baby showers for girls. The first one I gave away was my treasured hardback. It was a gift well given, although I still miss my original copy. (If you want to know more about The Blueberry Girl, you can follow this link to a blogpost by Neil Gaiman that includes a narrated version. It’s lovely.) As Neil Gaiman stated in his blog post, he wrote the poem for his friend Tori Amos at her request for her daughter, one month prior to her birth.

When I first read the book, I think wanted it to be The Blueberry Girl, again. Really, I wanted the same emotional experience that I had the first time I read it. I find this type of comparison is a way to ensure that I’ll never be satisfied with any artist’s next work. I did enjoy my first reading of Instructions, but it was actually the second reading that enchanted me. Now, for me as a writer, I think I prefer Instructions. Or they are both awesome in different ways.

The Blueberry Girl is a prayer, filled with hopes for a child; Instructions is a guidebook on how to actually live a good life, to go on a good journey. Normally, I don’t include dedications in my posts, but I loved these.  Both Vess and Gaiman dedicated this book to well-known writers. Based on this, I feel like the book is a “thank you” to all those who go on adventures into their fantasy worlds, risking danger and failure, to return with something amazing for the rest of us. It’s more than just returning with a lovely tale. Most folklore, fantasy stories, and fairy tales are instructive and have good life lessons: on what we should seek and what we should avoid.  (In fact, I’d argue this is true of most good stories including religious ones.) As I’ve discussed before, books are such an important agent of socialization. They teach us values and norms—and challenge them.

I think that you can read this book in a couple of different ways: as a writer preparing to create something to be shared and as a person trying to live a good life. Be cautious, but also, trust.  Back to the themes I’ve noticed in other works by Gaiman (see my posts here and here), the theme of avoiding greed is woven in. The character enters a house and is instructed: “[w]alk though the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.” On the next page, “However, if any creature tells you that it hungers, feed it. If it tells you that it is dirty, clean it.  If it cries to you that it hurts, if you can, ease it’s pain.” In this scene, the cat adventurer picks up a small cat that then travels with it. Yet, later on “when you come back, return the way you came.  Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.” You can give help and other times you accept help. Both are important to living a good life.

In terms of the art in this one, my favorite pages include an eagle soaring with the cat adventurer’s arms outstretched, with his cat companion sitting in front of him, looking as if he is enjoying the breeze. I loved the last page: “And then go home. Or make a home. Or rest.” In our efficiency-driven, constantly-streaming, multitasking society, I believe that we need it to be okay to live our lives how we choose. We might be producing something, including art, but sometimes, it’s okay to just be.

I highly recommend getting a cup of tea, or coffee, or whatever you prefer, sitting somewhere cozy with a blanket (mine pictured below), and giving this book a few reads. After that, you might want to check out the narrated version of Instructions that will open on YouTube.

IMG_1609

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

A Return to U.S. classics: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

This year, as I’ve reduced my participation in social media and blog writing, I’ve increased and changed the focus of my reading. I established this blog to mainly talk about science fiction and fantasy books with a sociological imagination. However, I’ve found that my reading habits have shifted some this year. My interests have always waxed and waned so I’m sure that I’ll return to reading science fiction and fantasy again. (In fact, I did read one piece of fantasy, an incomplete work by J. R. R. Tolkien where he started an epic, Arthurian poem using alliterative verse. It was fascinating. I want to learn more about Old English and a have a desire to reread The Lord of the Rings again.)

First, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway looks at the impacts of World War I without having the characters directly discuss or even think about the war much. Reading this allowed me to think about how when traumatic events happen, they may impact people so much that they no longer talk about the event. They may actively try to avoid thinking about it while still facing the direct and indirect effects of said event. In turn, this attempt at trying to ignore the pain may intensify problems like alcoholism or risk-taking.

Then, I had stumbled across Eudora Welty’s photography at our local art museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art. The ethereal nature of the photography, much set in southern states, spoke to me in a way that made me curious about her writing. I decided to read The Optimist’s Daughter since it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. The book was psychologically powerful and impacted my thinking about the past, memories, and letting go.

On a recommendation, the next book I read was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It really seems to be an human soul locked in novel form. It took me a month to read it since I was busy at work. But it was worth it.  It truly is a masterpiece. He was writing about the upheaval occurring in the United States around the time of World War I, with a primary focus on the Salinas Valley in California. (This book was helpful for me, as I can relate to themes of rapid social change inspired by changes in technology and globalization.)

The extremely short version of what the book expands on is the idea that human beings have a choice to be good or evil. It isn’t all destiny, biology (nature), or even culture (nurture). The characters debate a section in the Book of Genesis  related to the Cain and Able story, particularly the meaning of the Hebrew word, “Timshel,” in different translations of the Bible. The characters explore meaning of this story and word together across time, deciding that “Timshel” means, “Thou mayest.”  Individuals have a choice. They also discuss how Cain was marked not to be harmed, despite the terrible, murderous act he committed.

Also, some lessons that I found embedded in the book were: (1) humans deserve the truth of things, even when it may hurt them, (2) people should be trying to see the truth of situations, other people, and themselves, even when painful, (3) words have power to transform people, and (4) people (and horses) deserve to get names to live up to. We should hope for the best but be prepared to see what is. Many of the characters do not see themselves or others clearly, and it leads many of them into dire situations or even death. The surviving characters at the end, on the other hand, grapple with the problematic aspects of their personalities and delusions. When thoughtful people get together to discuss their problems, it makes them better. In the middle of the book, Lee says:

But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe.  It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest.’ (302).

I particularly really liked one line of dialogue: “‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good, is that it?” (583) Finally, as I was reading, I wondered what Steinbeck would make of fake news sites and people intentionally misleading other people and what kind of treatment he’d give it.

Now, I’m reading sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest on how new technologies are changing social movements and our lives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Psychology, Sociology, Technology

“Hallelujah Anyway”: Mercy and Change

This week, I stumbled across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, 12 truths I learned from life and writing, through Twitter, and it inspired me to get her newest book at the library. (It also inspired me to write my own list, which was an helpful process.) I tore through Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, in a few hours. It’s a short book of essays. I intended to just read the first essay, but I happily spent the afternoon reading.

I love how she interweaves her own stories with Bible stories on the loss and rediscovery of mercy, particularly in challenging times. I particularly liked her story of tadpoles and loved this quote from the last page of the book:

Images of tiny things, babies, yeast, and mustard seeds can guide us; things that grow are what change everything. Moments of compassion, giving, grief, and wonder shift our behavior, get inside us and change realms we might not have agreed to have changed. Each field is weeds and wheat, but mix the wheat with yeast, the most ordinary of elements, and it starts changing the flour.  It becomes bread and so do we, bread to eat and to offer…(176).

We always have room to grow, as individuals and as a society. It isn’t always comfortable, but we can change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Writing

Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, capitalism, Science Fiction, Sociology, Writing

Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, capitalism, Sociology, Uncategorized

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

For months, I’ve been anticipating Neil Gaiman’s book, Norse Mythology. I’ve always loved Gaiman’s fiction relating to mythology like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (For my thoughts on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Buddhism, you can view this post.) I don’t know much at all about Norse mythology beyond what I’ve picked up in comic book movies—so very little. For years, I’ve tried to pinpoint why Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. After reading Norse Mythology, I can better articulate why. He notes in his introduction to the book:

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from (15).

Neil Gaiman is a writer who understands that stories are a process across time and weaves them accordingly.  “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own…” (16).  He absorbs stories from the past and, as a member of the current zeitgeist, he then transmutes them with his own distinctive style.

Specifically, in this volume, he weaves together various stories of the Norse Gods into a narrative. The idea of Ragnarok, or the apocalypse of the world, is a fascinating one. In the end, while there are epic levels of destruction of gods, men, and the world, some survive, humans are created again.  Gaiman ends the book with chess pieces, and the last line of the book is: “And the game begins anew.”

Someone dear to me died two weeks ago, and I’ve been contemplating life and death so the book’s arrival was a bit synchronous for me.  Life and death are a process. And stories help us think about these processes. Storytellers played (and continue to play) an important role in the socialization of a culture, passing on ethical values from one generation to the next while also playing an entertainment role.

I don’t want to say too much about the specific stories: you should read them for yourself.  However, I loved Gaiman’s style when it comes to characterizing the other gods’ reactions to Loki’s trickery.  Loki is frustrating if he’s working against you, but he can be a very compelling ally—until he’s not anymore. One of my favorite stories, as a writer, was “The Mead of Poets,” where poetry comes from. The ending of it made me laugh.  The stories include the gamut of human emotions and experiences. The book was delightful, and I can see myself returning to read it again in a few years.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews

First Thoughts on Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”

I just cracked Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend, open a few days ago. (I read Ann Goldstein’s translation from Italian.) It’s the first of four novels in a series. I tore through it. The last paragraph ends in a cliffhanger of the best type, and I’ve already put a hold request in at the library to get the second one. The book is beautifully written and the narrative engrossed me. It’s narrated by one character looking back on her friendship with another character as they grow up. The setting is in Naples, Italy. Most of the book is set in just one neighborhood.

Although the themes and symbolism are still percolating, I can say at this point that I loved the parallels between the two friends, the symbolism that the two of them expressed to one another knowingly (as well as other symbolism in the narrative), the cast of characters, and the inequalities discussed. One of the most important topics in the book is the connection between social class, education, mentorship, and relationships. The book interrogates both the broader societal conditions and relationships with other people, as well as the personal characteristics and traits that it takes to get an education. Until I finish the series, I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions. I highly recommend picking up the first book.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews