Tag Archives: Books

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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2016: My Favorite Books

[Minor spoilers]

This year, although I didn’t write many blog posts, I read more books than I have in recent years (28). I used to force myself to finish all the books I started. Now, probably as a product of aging, I’ve gotten more discerning in the books I begin, as well as the ones I’m willing to continue.

Philosophy:

If I had to pick my favorite book this year, I’d pick the book that transformed my thinking the most, Spinoza’s The Ethics, originally published in 1677. (It’s available on Project Gutenberg, if you’re interested, although we read it in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works.) My husband suggested it, and we read it together. It was a challenging read that took me several months of study, but it was worth it. However, I can tell it’s a book that I need (and want) to return to again. It’s amazing how we can connect across time with a writer.

Fantasy and Science Fiction:

My favorites this year in terms of science fiction and fantasy were The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, and The Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi. The Shepherd’s Crown is one of the few novels that I actually reviewed on my blog. In light of his own impending death, I thought that Pratchett treated death in a thoughtful and reassuring way in the book. It also dealt with how to be a good person in a time of crisis and battle.

I loved the Escher-esque feel of The Jean le Flambeur series. It a heist story, but it’s also so much more than that. It begins with Jean in prison and tracks his story from there. The dream-like quality of these novels actually impacted my dreams recently. I loved the spaceship’s personality in the books.

Literary Fiction:

In terms of literary fiction, I loved the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.  I loved the series as it traced the complicated relationship of two friends over decades. It was set in Naples, Italy, and its look at social class was fascinating. Once I started reading this series, I couldn’t put it down.

Art and Writing:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as well as her podcast, Magic Lessons, helped me get back to work on my creative writing. I stumbled across the podcast by accident: someone had posted a link to the one with Neil Gaiman as a guest, one of my favorite authors. The basic format of the podcast is that Gilbert interviews a person who has written to her with a problem relating to their artistic process.  Then, she makes recommendations, gives them homework, and sends them off to work.  Meanwhile she consults with an artist who she thinks can help with their particular problem, and then calls them again after time has passed to see if they have made progress. I found it very helpful, even when the artists’ fields were quite different than mine.

Finally, I really enjoyed A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, written in 1920. I wrote about my thoughts on his active and passive adventurers and how it relates to living and writing in this blog post.

What were your favorite books this year?  I’d love recommendations.

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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.

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Lessons from “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer”

“Adventure books are dangerous” (22).

Pierre Mac Orlan

My spouse and I adventured to Boston last summer and visited the Institute of Contemporary Art with family. (It’s a beautiful museum in terms of both architecture and exhibits if you ever get a chance to go.) When we were browsing the museum store, my husband pointed out a book, “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” knowing that I love adventure stories, writing, and learning about writing craft.

The book by Pierre Mac Orlan is short, only 73 pages including the notes, but I savored it over many nights at bedtime. It’s translated from French by Napoleon Jeffries. Mac Orlan was a prolific writer, although I hadn’t heard of him before, likely due to how few of his books have been translated to English.

Although the book made many references, often to French literature that I wasn’t aware of, I loved the book, especially its dramatic flair. The tone cracked me up at points. It seemed tongue-in-cheek, silly, etc. Mac Orlan was a pithy writer, and I enjoyed his turns of phrase.

While it’s entitled “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” it raises the question of what exactly an adventurer is.  The book explored the idea of active and passive adventurers but is written for the passive adventurer to assist in writing.  Mac Orlan’s premise is that behind every passive adventurer (e.g., writer) there is usually an active adventurer. The active adventurers are often have sociopathic tendencies while the passive adventurer merely watches the raucous adventures of others and then writes about it. He states with considerable disdain that parents often say of the active adventurers, “[t]hat child will end up on the scaffold” (12). Often, the active adventurer’s life does end in punishment. I loved this line about the active adventurer:

But his good luck, his health, and the guardian demon that watches over bad boys guide him with impunity through this torture garden which he adapts to his own size (12).

Orlean notes that passive adventurers rely on the imagination to create narrative and atmosphere rather than their lived experience. It wouldn’t do for a passive adventurer to actually describe real, distant locales, for example. Rather, the setting must be imbued with the right atmosphere. Instead of traveling as an active adventure to actual culturally distant places, a passive adventurer needs a bit of travel like to Holland, rather than America. Also, the passive adventurer needs to be an avid reader, as well as learning slang. This helps the fostering of his imagination. He further points out:

And never forget, you other passive adventurers, companions of the ink bottle, that a crime perpetuated in a tavern has a fantastical flavor to it that a crime committed on a public thoroughfare does not (47).

(I definitely want to use the phrase “companions of the ink bottle” for some creative endeavor in the future.  Perhaps, it could be the name of a writing or gaming group. And I do feel that certain taverns do work well in many adventure stories.)

In the end, the passive adventures dies as most people do, unlike the  demise of the active adventurer.  Therefore, they often have time to consider the ending of their lives. As Mac Orlean notes:

At that moment when each of us considers his share of responsibility, they can take the liberty of writing a novel that will be read by no one. It is at that moment, I fear, that the passive adventurer creates his most beautiful work, this time by not withdrawing from the game (62).

The book ends with the possibility of the active adventurer returning to beat up the man who exploited his life in tales.  The active adventurer doesn’t spend much time evaluating his actions; whereas, the passive adventurer spends too much time in reflection.

After reading the book, I decided that Mac Orlan was actually saying that there is no such thing as a perfect adventurer, only maybe a good enough one. The passive adventure is superior to the active one, if flawed. Mac Orlan states, “[t]he passive adventurer generally feeds on corpses” (18). (Although apparently a rare person such as Jack London can do both so perhaps balance is actually the recommendation. Being an active adventurer doesn’t have to mean that someone is wicked but rather experienced and skilled. And some books are about a character attempting to transition from one to the other.)

How does this apply to writing and life today, particularly mine?  I’d suggest that, as in most things, a balance is needed between living and writing.  It isn’t beneficial to get stuck solely in action or reflection.  An excellent writer of adventures (or anything really), and perhaps an excellent person, needs both. If forced to choose, I’d side with Pierre Mac Orlan and the passive adventurer.

 

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A Quick Review of Jim Butcher’s “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”

[Ahoy spoilers]

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read one of Jim Butcher’s books, as I tend to cool out on long urban fantasy series. I’ve read many books in his Harry Dresden series, as well as his Codex Alera series. I decided to pick up The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in a new series, to read over the holidays. I was hoping for a fast-paced, swashbuckling adventure, and Butcher didn’t let me down.  The cast of characters was entertaining. He switches point of view often, which I found jarring at first, but eventually, I grew accustomed to the large cast. I also really enjoyed the world building and am looking forward to learning more about the how the magical crystals work, as well as the Etherialists’ magic. I liked the Horatio Hornblower-esque feel to some of the scenes with Captain Grimm. The book included flying ships, magic, monsters (of both human and nonhuman varieties), and fascinating technology.

My favorite part of the book was the characterization, as well as the characters’ interactions with one another. I’ve grown weary in the past few years with so many “troubled” anti-heroes in books, movies, and TV shows. I found it refreshing to read a book where the protagonists were actually well-meaning, “good” people (and cats). Also, I liked the fact that among the “good” characters, there were several women, all with different strengths, as well as weaknesses.  Although there were some gender roles in the society, like different styles of clothing, it seemed that women were either equal participants or nearly equal. However, it’s possible that the women protagonists may have all been exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the voice of the cat, Rowl.  I haven’t made my mind up yet about what I think of the the Etherialist villain from the book yet.

I did begin to get fatigued on the chases and fighting in the book.  However, around the time I began to feel fatigued, there was big pay off for each of the major characters.  It felt a bit like a crescendo. And I particularly loved the scene for Bridget, who was reluctant to leave her home at the beginning of the novel.  She winds up saving the day by staying calm, and using her both her wits and brawn. She rescues her love interest, which means something because he is also very competent.

All in all, I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series and would recommend it to others. I feel like this book would make a fantastic movie if you like swashbuckling and magic. It was a fun way to end my reading in 2015 and to begin my reading in 2016.

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