that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar in an effort to broaden my travel reading beyond country guides, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson. The Lonely Planet book recommended Paul Theroux as a ‘contemporary master of travel writing,’ so it seemed like a good place to start.

This book represents the kind of travel writing that I’m most interested in: I’m going on a journey and I’m going to take you with me. Not so different from Michael Palin or Bill Bryson for that matter. There wasn’t a larger point or any kind of manifesto – just the details of an interesting journey.

Paul Theroux’s descriptions were wonderful, more evocative, more visceral, more poetic than other travel writing I have yet encountered, and I’m sure that’s why the Lonely Planet folk recommended him. But, to be quite frank, I’d rather skip the carefully tailored words and spend the time with Messrs. Palin and Bryson instead. The narrator of The Great Railway Bazaar was a condescending, racist dick. And the complete and utter lack of women as people rather than as sexualized objects was truly appalling.

A masochistic part of me, however, is debating reading his follow up, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he reprises the same journey thirty years later, just to see if he has grown as a person at all.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

This book is billed on the back cover as, basically, a steampunk story with zombies, and it’s the ‘with zombies’ part that has stopped me reading it before now. Feed by Mira Grant aside, I’m not really a zombie kind of girl.

Still, the whole steampunk side of it intrigued me enough that I put it on my to-read list. And I was pleased to discover that the zombies were mostly incidental. As with Feed, the zombies rose more than a decade ago, and this is how life goes on around them. Sort of.

Rather than reinventing the wheel and summarizing the book myself, the Goodreads description (which I believe matches the back cover blurb) reads as follows:

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I was more than halfway through this book before it really sucked me in. I found the first half dragged quite a lot as the characters meandered through the plots and bumped up against various obstacles that didn’t seem to have much of a point. I think part of the problem is that I never understood what Ezekiel’s “secret crusade to rewrite history” actually was, what it was about. Or how and why he came up with it and what exactly it meant to him. I didn’t know what he wanted. So it felt like he just… went into the walled up city. Briar seemed to have a very firm idea of where he was going and why, but as the reader it kind of felt like she was making it up out of thin air.

In the back half of the book the threads of the plot began to interweave more smoothly and hold more tension. I finally felt engaged with the story and the characters. Zeke finally *became* a character and not just a bumbling idiot boy. And I really enjoyed the secondary characters of Swakhammer and Lucy.

I think if this book had been shorter and more tightly focused, if it had more beginning and less middle, it could have been really great. It was good enough by the end, though, that I might go on to read the next one. So that’s something.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley

This book, unexpectedly, inspired quite a lot of feminist rage in me. So this post is going to be me getting ranty-pants more than it’s actually a book review.

Nicola, the ‘protagonist’ (or, at least, the point of view character) for the modern half of the book, is a bundle of neuroses. Rob, the romantic interest, is practically perfect in every way. His job is perfect, his volunteer work is perfect, his family is perfect, his psychic abilities are perfect, his every reaction to every situation is perfect. Also, he’s gorgeous, of course. And his clothes are perfect. And his body is perfect.

Nicola does not do a single thing for herself for the first 400 pages of the book. She doesn’t drive the plot. She barely makes a choice. She’s too overwhelmed. All the time. By everything she’s encountering. She doesn’t drive herself anywhere, doesn’t open a door, doesn’t pay for a meal, doesn’t carry a bag. Ever. She doesn’t even have to think, really, because Perfect Rob is there to lead her around by the hand for the whole damn book.

It’s telling that, in one of the reviews on Goodreads, despite the fact that the book is narrated by Nicola in the first person, when the reviewer mentions the “hero” of the book, they mean Rob.

Why? Why do women – because this book is written by a woman – perpetuate the fiction that chivalry is romantic? What is romantic about being treated like a child who can’t take care of herself? Once in a while, as a game on a special occasion or something, fine, yes, I get it. But every day? Being infantilized every day? This book doesn’t even trust Nicola to walk along a coastal path by herself. Rob is right there to put himself in the way of danger, hovering in case she should fall. Like she’s two years old. There’s never any suggestion that Rob might fall. He couldn’t possibly. He’s perfect.

And what happens when someone treats you that way – and I know this from personal experience – is that you start to doubt yourself. If a person you respect, a person who cares about you, doesn’t believe you can take care of yourself, you stop believing it yourself. You become dependent. This is plainly apparent with Nicola, who started as a capable professional woman, but 200 pages in doesn’t believe she can do anything by herself anymore. Rob always has to be there to hold her hand. Literally! Like it’s her first day of school. And yet the book isn’t commenting on this, it’s saying, ‘Look how wonderful Rob is! Wouldn’t you love to have a Rob of your very own?’

In fact, no. I kind of wanted to punch Rob in the nose. Because I live in the 21st century, and I’m an intelligent adult who is capable of taking care of herself in most everyday situations. I’m also capable of knowing when I need help and asking for it. I would much rather have someone who trusts me, who treats me like a grown-up, who will share burdens with me, so we can take care of each other. If we’re walking down a coastal path, for example, let’s hold hands together so we can both be safe.

You know, like equals.

so many books

My to-read list has gotten out of hand recently – I’ve been picking up hours working at a bookstore over the holidays and keep coming across books that look interesting. A lot of them are by authors that are new to me, so before I start buying, I thought I’d take some of them out for a test drive.

So last week, I placed a whole stack of holds at the library. Many of the books had other holds on them ahead of mine, and what with the library closing repeatedly over the holidays, I thought it would be next week before any of them arrived, and that I’d get maybe one or two a week as books became available. Easily manageable.

Boy did I guess wrong. I got a call from the library on Saturday that there was “one or more books” waiting for me on the hold shelf. When I went on Monday to pick them up, there were four. On Tuesday I got another call from the library, and on Wednesday I picked up four more from the hold shelf.

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Oops?

I do have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, though, so it’s possible I’ll get through all eight of them in three weeks. I’ve finished two already, both of them light, quick reads. The first was A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan (not pictured above, because I took it back to the library on Wednesday when I picked up the second batch of holds), which I really enjoyed. The other was Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, which I didn’t like at all.

I’ve just launched into The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. It’s on the borderline of being the kind of chick lit I really don’t enjoy (I threw a book called The Tenth Gift across the room once for being insipid and annoying), but so far I’m still on board.

I can’t remember how many holds I placed in total, so I’m not entirely sure how many more books (if any?) I’m expecting to receive. I could look it up, but it seems like more fun to wait and be surprised.

the five books that have stuck with me

I have not been officially tagged by anyone – except, indirectly, by the act of reading Chuck Wendig’s list – but I never needed much of an excuse to talk about my favourite books. I’ve also reduced the list from the top ten to the top five books that have stuck with me, because it turns out I have quite a lot to say about each one.

1)  Oath of the Renunciates, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is a complicated choice, given the recent accusations that Marion Zimmer Bradley physically and sexually abused her daughter. But I cannot deny that this book stuck with me in a way that no other book ever has.

Also, technically, this is two books – Thendara House and The Shattered Chain – but I first encountered the hardcover omnibus edition called Oath of the Renunciates in the basement of the library in the small town where I lived during my teenage years. I was fourteen years old, and unhappy, and I read this book over and over and over again. It was formative in a way that books can only be when you encounter them at fourteen.

Oath of the Renunciates is sword and sorcery about women, and only about women. A whole subculture of women who choose to live without men. A wide variety of women – midwives, travel guides, mercenaries, bakers, priestesses, and so on. I hadn’t ever encountered that before.

Most of all, though, the lead character goes through the process of realizing she is sexually attracted to women. I wasn’t ready, at that age, to admit even to myself that I might feel the same way, but seeing those feelings, that process reflected back at me by characters I admired was hugely important. It widened my world, and it made the idea of being lesbian or bisexual less scary. And this, this book, this reaction, is why it’s so important to have diversity in science fiction. This is so much more important than ‘it gets better.’

This book was SO important to me, in fact, that I can’t actually read it anymore. It is irretrievably linked with my teenage years, and trying to bring adult sensibilities to that relationship just doesn’t work.

2)  Hellspark, by Janet Kagan. By rights, all three of Janet Kagan’s books (Hellspark, Mirabile and Uhura’s Song) should be on this list, but I’m going to let this one stand in for all of them. I love every word Janet Kagan ever wrote, and I’m crushed that she passed away and there won’t ever be more than three of her novels.

I met her once at a convention in New York. I was there to see the media guests – Claudia Christian and Nana Visitor – and I didn’t even realize there would be author guests as well until I got there. I kicked myself the whole time for not bringing my copy of Uhura’s Song with me for Janet Kagan to sign. I bought a copy of Hellspark and she signed that instead. (For K – Rise with the sparks!!! Cheers, Janet Kagan. PS – I love your outfit!)

I tried three or four times to read it, and kept miring down in the prologue. I couldn’t get into the book at all. And then one day I picked it up and managed to push through into chapter one, and the book just opened up like a sunflower.

I realized that the reason I was having trouble with the prologue was actually the same thing that made the book amazing. Janet Kagan’s aliens were alien, with alien body language and thought patterns and customs. The prologue was told from the point of view of one of those aliens, and I was having a lot of trouble connecting with how different he was. In chapter one, the point of view character changed, and the new narrator was much more accessible and able to ‘translate’ for the reader.

I devoured Hellspark after that. I love this book. In it, as in all of Janet Kagan’s work, her love of learning and language and science – biology in particular – is wonderfully, accessibly, enthusiastically woven through. Not only did I learn things while being thoroughly entertained, this book changed the way I look at the world. You can’t ask more from a book than that.

3)  Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery. And its sequels – all of them. And the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. And Louisa May Alcott. And Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read a LOT of historical fiction as a child, and something about that Victorian sensibility has stayed with me. It’s something about the self-sufficiency of the women in these books. All my crafty hobbies, my delusion that I know anything about horses, my dream of one day growing my own food from my own garden, my yearning to learn to make jams and preserves and quilts, they all stem from my love of these books and their worlds at a very young age.

These books gave me strong female role models at a time when it was harder to find them in science fiction and fantasy. Not to mention that Anne Shirley and Jo March were both young writers.

When I first started writing, it took me a long time to shed the Victorian wordiness I had picked up from these books. I’m sure it has had a lasting impact on my ‘voice’, though I’m too close to see it anymore.

4)  Summon The Keeper, by Tanya Huff. I met Tanya Huff at Ad Astra (a literary science fiction convention in Toronto) the same year I met Janet Kagan. I had been to a number of media conventions by that point, but hadn’t ever been to a literary con before. It blew my mind that published authors would get together and talk to me (not personally, but you know what I mean) about writing in general and writing science fiction in particular.

I sat down in one of the panel rooms on Saturday morning, and stayed there for hours as the guest panelists came and went in front of me. I soon realized that Tanya Huff was by far the most entertaining panelist there, so instead of letting the discussions come to me, I sought out her panels and basically followed her around the convention for the rest of the day. We bonded over a discussion of Star Trek vs Babylon 5 in the afternoon, and then again when she broke a beer stein over my head (well, next to my head, and it was accidental – long story) in the evening. We’ve been friends ever since.

I bought a copy of Summon the Keeper at that convention, the first one of Tanya’s books I ever read. The book was just as funny and clever and entertaining as Tanya herself, and I have since read my way through every single book she’s written (and even made a minor guest appearance in one of them). I think her Valor series are my favourites, but Summon the Keeper has stayed with me most in the form of the friend I made that day.

5) To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. I have bought so many copies of this book it’s possible that Connie Willis owes me royalties. I hand them out like candy to anyone who will stand still long enough.

I love this book. It has exactly my wordy sense of humour, it’s smart and complicated without being impenetrable, it’s set in both the past and the future, and there’s even a little romance in there. It is so thoroughly researched I learn things just from reading it, and I think the book could qualify as a master class in plotting all by itself. (It is also the reason that Victorian furniture makes me laugh, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Last year I was in Oxford for work, and all I could think of the whole time was this book, which is partially set there. I found myself taking photos of various places and landmarks mentioned in the story and emailing them to a friend who loves the book as much as I do. It’s been probably 15 years since I first read it, and yet it is clearly still firmly lodged in my brain.

What are the books that have stayed with you most? If you’ve already blogged, you can link back there in the comments. I’m always curious about how books can shape people. So much power in those little black squiggles.

 

Book Review: Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, by John. J. Ross, M.D.

Apparently, Shakespeare died of mercury poisoning and Emily Brontë had Asperger’s.

The full title of the book is Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers. The author, John J. Ross, is a medical doctor who has gone back to examine the symptoms of several famous writers from history and give them up-to-date diagnoses of their various illnesses. There are ten chapters, each focusing on a different writer (or family of writers, in the case of the Brontës), with each chapter functioning as part biography, part medical history.

I raided the clearance rack at the bookstore not far from the theatre where I’m working this summer and scored six books for less than $40. This was the first one I read from the pile – and really looked forward to digging into it – because the subject matter just sounded interesting on so many levels. And on that front, for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed the pure nosiness of digging into the various biographies and the sometimes sordid details of the lives these writers led. The medical history of various diseases, their causes and their symptoms is gruesome but fascinating. And the historic medical treatment for those diseases could be a horror story on its own.

That said, the book was not well-written – the author is clearly a doctor, not a writer. For the bulk of the book, where he was simply explaining the details of a writer’s life or disease, Dr. Ross’ style was casual and certainly readable. But in three or four chapters, Dr. Ross decided he was going to write a little scene, as though we were there with Shakespeare while he visited his physician, and he did not have the writing skill to pull that off. The scene was still all about cramming in as much information as possible (which kind of felt like bragging, actually, in a ‘look at all the research I did’ kind of way), and the result was clumsy and awkward.

Dr. Ross was liberal with his diagnoses of Asperger’s and bipolar disorder – it felt like someone in every single chapter had one or the other. Or possibly both. He also acted as apologist for the appalling behaviour of several writers. Anything was excusable because they had literary genius. And in the chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne he floundered for too long in the biography section before he got anywhere near the medical issues.

I found the chapter on Shakespeare the weakest of them all. (And, having lived in the theatre world for fifteen years now, I was most interested in that chapter.) There is a dearth of actual information, so Dr. Ross falls into the trap of assuming that since Shakespeare wrote about something, he must have experienced it. Dr. Ross counted the number of times sexually transmitted diseases were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, and used an increase in that number to conclude that Shakespeare himself must have contracted one, and a later decrease in number as evidence that Shakespeare was then cured of it. Using the text of the plays as illustration for a point based in fact is one thing, using it as evidence of that point is something else entirely.

[I read a terrible biography of William Shakespeare called Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt that was an egregious offender on that front (I ended up throwing the book across the room halfway through). It was full of ‘Shakespeare wrote such-and-such, therefore he must have…’. And indeed, when I flipped through the bibliography at the end of Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, Dr. Ross cited Greenblatt’s book as a source. So clearly bad habits are catching. If you’re looking for a good biography of Shakespeare – or if you’re interested in the history of theatre or Elizabethan England in general – I highly recommend 1599 by James Shapiro. That man has done his research, and he is a magnificent writer to boot.]

But I digress.

Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough is an interesting book only moderately well executed. That said, I probably would recommend it if this kind of history and trivia was your particular cup of tea.

Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Over the weekend, I finished the book I was reading, Hild, by Nicola Griffith.

For a quick run-down of the story, I will quote you the Amazon book description:

In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, and she has a glimmering mind and a natural, noble authority. She will become a fascinating woman and one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

But now she has only the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing her surroundings closely and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.

Her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Hild establishes a place for herself at his side as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—unless she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

I’m still not entirely sure what to write about this book. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently.

It’s a fictional historical biography. I bought it at a science fiction and fantasy book shop and that seemed perfectly natural, until halfway through when I realised there are no fantasy elements in the book. The main character, Hild, is viewed as a seer, a prophetess, by those around her, but as we grow with her, we see that her predictions come from her unparalleled gift for observing the world around her, for seeing patterns and following them to their conclusions. She has no sixth sense as such.

Being a biography (sort of), the book doesn’t have the kind of driving plot that is expected in most novels. We follow Hild as she grows into womanhood in a world of early medieval kings and warlords. I did enjoy the experience of reading Hild very much. Nicola Griffith has wonderful use of language and she creates a richly detailed world. I loved learning about 7th century England just as much as I loved learning about Hild.

There was a core group of characters that I came to know and understand as part of Hild’s world, but I did feel overwhelmed by the vast array of secondary characters, all with unfamiliar (and often similar-sounding) names, who wove in and out of the story. Enemies and allies, messengers and priests, soldiers and servants. There were too many of them for me to remember who was who from one chapter to the next. (Particularly since, due to long hours at work, I was reading this book in slivers of five pages at a time.)

I also had difficulty keeping track of the many place-names that were mentioned. Armies marched across the map, the royal court moved from house to house, shifting alliances changed the borders of the kingdoms… I’m familiar with the geography of present-day England, but no matter how many times I googled the map of medieval kingdoms, I couldn’t keep them all straight in my head.

That said, I also rapidly decided I didn’t care. It didn’t matter much to my enjoyment of the book whether I could hold on to the shifting politics. Hild did that for me, and I trusted her. I gave up all need to solve any mysteries ahead of her, and just read for the simple joy of the language and the world-building and the ensemble of core characters.

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to everyone, but I would say that it is an interesting book, well-executed. The end notes implied Nicola Griffith is working on a follow-up book chronicling Hild’s later life, and I look forward to reading that when it comes out.

Daily Science Fiction

I want to share a short story that I loved.

A friend of mine introduced me to Daily Science Fiction not long ago. It’s a mailing list (they also have a website) that will deliver a new science fiction story to your inbox every day. I fell in love with the concept, even though I quickly fell way behind in reading the stories. I do enjoy having them in my inbox, and will often dip in to read one or two on my lunch break – on days when I get a lunch break. (Work is still a little nuts.)

The other day I read a story that completely charmed me. I loved the characters and the tone and the language. There was a hint of mystery and a feeling of quiet melancholy. I have a huge love for post-apocalyptic stories, but this one was unlike any other I’ve read so far. It’s my favourite of the stories I’ve received in my inbox, so I thought I’d share it.

The Astrologer’s Telling is by Therese Arkenberg (who blogs at ThereseArkenberg.blogspot.com).

Time-Wasters Anonymous

Hi, my name is Katherine, and I… am not a reader anymore.

I came to this realization a few days ago, and it has triggered something of an identity crisis. Being a reader is a part of me in the same way that being a woman is part of me, or being Canadian. It’s defining to my sense of self. It’s something I’m proud of.

And yet, I don’t sit down to read a book anymore. Not a paper book, not an e-book. Not regularly. Not like I used to.

I used to stay up past my bedtime to keep reading. Just to the end of the page… just to the end of the chapter… just five more minutes… I knew the exact cadence of the creak in the stairs, and I could time it exactly so that I switched out my light before my dad could see it as he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs.

I got caught in grade five reading By The Shores of Silver Lake (one of the Little House on the Prairie books) under my desk when I should have been doing schoolwork. I was so ashamed of getting caught that it was years before I could pick the book up again.

When my father told me my grandfather died, I ran upstairs and picked up my book and kept reading until I could stop crying.

Books were my escape. Always.

When my mom and my stepfather moved us from the city where I grew up out to a house in the middle of nowhere, the little local library was my saviour. I didn’t mind the countryside so much, but I did not like my stepfather. We drove into town on Saturday mornings to run errands, and I camped out in the library while my mom went grocery shopping. I always left with a stack of books and spent the whole weekend reading.

My mom doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m not a fast reader. She remembers the stacks of books I used to go through. But it’s not that I read quickly, I just read a LOT.

As an adult, I have spent a lot of time travelling or relocating for my job, and I always drag a stack of books with me.

It’s just that recently I haven’t actually been reading them. I keep buying new books, because I still believe I am a reader, but they end up languishing in my to-read pile. There just doesn’t seem to be any time.

The internet has become my one giant, insidious time suck. I waste hours just noodling around, either falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, or planning my next trip, or reading about writing. It’s not that I’m not learning things, not accomplishing anything, necessarily. It’s just that I seem to be able to wander in Internet limbo indefinitely. And often with the television on in the background.

An additional consequence of stewing in this glut of stimuli is that my attention span is in tatters. I, who used to be able to read the same book all afternoon, cannot focus on anything for more than five minutes without checking my email, or Facebook, or my WordPress stats.

So today I forced myself to read. That, as a thought, feels so wrong, so alien. As though I had to force myself to be Canadian. I took my book and went for brunch. Then after my errands were done, I curled up in my armchair with a blanket, a cat, and a cup of tea and read for two hours. It was wonderful. It felt like home.

I don’t get to call myself a reader again until the book it my unconscious go-to rather than the internet or the television. But I least I recognise the problem now.