Monday, January 25, 2016

Comfort reads

Between Husband leaving after a long stretch of being home, which always makes me a bit melancholy, plus a cold (very brief – I’m learning how to take care of myself! Self-care is important!), coupled with a whole bunch of DNFs (seriously, this is the worst run of DNFs in a while), I’ve been enjoying comfort reads.

Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons is the first in her Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it’s by far the best. The others are worth reading – Mendenbar is pretty great, and Telemain is awesomely insufferable – but the first one is just such a perfect gem of a book, with an unforgettable heroine and just exactly the right tone of love and absurdity. It might not feel all that original now, but its story of a princess who didn’t want to do princess-y things and ran away to have adventures was utterly unique at the time. It was one of my childhood favorites, and in fact, for a while, I didn’t know there were any sequels.

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was not a childhood favorite, but a recent release that immediately became one of my favorite books. It marries a retelling of a Russian folk story with the rugged harshness of 1920s homesteading Alaska. I re-read it every year now, with the first snowfall of winter. Each time, I get something different out of it. My first read focused on the central tension, “is she or isn’t she real?” with special attention paid to the way that Jack and Mabel seemed to embody realism and imagination respectively, but ended up almost switching roles. My second read was all about the violence of the Alaskan winter and of hunting, and I marveled at how different my experience of The Snow Child was. This time, I spent the whole book wondering if Faina existed at all, or whether she was an embodiment of the Alaskan wilderness itself, shaped to the needs of the people she interacted with. It’s amazing how a good novel can produce so many different responses, and even more so when the book itself is a debut.
 

Then I got sick. And when I’m sick, I get apathetic. I don’t want to watch anything, I don’t want to read anything; I just sit staring at my bookshelf or DVD shelf getting steadily more frustrated that nothing calls out to me. With a fuzzy head, I don’t have the desire to read something new, so I always end up with a comfort read of some kind. First, I tried Piers Anthony’s first Xanth book, and got so angry I almost threw it across the room. Oh my goodness, the suck fairy (c.f. Jo Walton) has visited this childhood favorite in a big way. Sexism, objectifying women, rape culture, toxic masculinity, it's all there. I was amazed and appalled and will probably give this omnibus back to my father. So instead I read a little-known cyberpunk series that, most improbably, has always held a place among my deepest loves. Raven in Hex (first of Rhiannon Lassiter’s Hex trilogy) is a manic-depressive, psychotic, antisocial, selfish, violent, rock music-loving computer genius, and I wanted to be her. Hex isn’t the best-written book, and it doesn’t clearly fit into a category anymore because it was published before YA became a thing (so it’s middle-grade length with YA concepts, but without any romance). But I have loved it for so long that it will always hold a place on my bookshelf.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fangirling

I’ve been rediscovering my geek roots. Getting back to sci-fi and fantasy novels was just the start. This past winter break was a pretty spectacular time for rediscovering my love of fandoms and fan culture. It all started with Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which came out last semester. I’d adored the concept of her earlier novel, Fangirl, though I didn’t love the execution – it’s a story about a Cath, a first-year college undergrad and fanfic author writing what’s essentially the last Harry Potter book before it comes out. Instead of Harry Potter, it’s Simon Snow, but Fangirl was unmistakably a book about HP fan culture. Cath’s fanfic, Carry On, Simon stuck in Rowell’s head even after Fangirl was published. So she wrote that story – not as Cath would tell it, but as she, Rowell, would. So Carry On is a realization of a fictional fanfic of a fictional alternate Harry Potter. It’s fantastically meta and yet another love story to fan culture. (Although yet again, I adored the concept but not the execution. Rowell’s prose and romances just don’t do it for me.)

And then for Thanksgiving, Amazon had a huge sale, and Husband and I splurged: we bought ourselves all 8 seasons of The Big Bang Theory, which we’d begun watching together in our summer in London. My university library only has the first 5 seasons, so we’d been considering buying the later ones...but the sale was too good to pass up. So now we own all of them. And after Husband finished his semester and came home for a solid month (I was a happy wife, let me tell you), we watched them all. Now, Big Bang Theory has its problems. It is often unconsciously offensive, completely tone deaf in its depiction of power relations, sexist, racist. It doesn’t understand academia at all. It gets stuff wrong about the very geeky things it depicts. But it depicts geeks loving geeky things without embarrassment. And a lot of the those things are things I love, or at least, I used to. Stuff like the board game Talisman, Dungeons & Dragons, collectible card game tournaments at comic book stores, sci-fi conventions, wanting to grow up to be a Vulcan or a hobbit. A lot of things I haven’t thought about in a while, but being reminded, now I miss them.
 
So I read Sam Maggs’ fabulously affirming Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, which introduces names of fandoms, gives a guide to attending cons, even outlines major concepts in feminism and how they apply to the geek girl’s experience. It’s a light, frothy sort of book that reads more like an informal blog post with all its internet jargon, and it was super fun. I read it in a single afternoon.

Then I turned to David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. The good: a detailed story of the early history of the making of D&D: where the ideas came from and how they were brought to life and marketed as what would become the world’s most successful role-playing game ever. I loved the discussion about how role-playing shapes your creativity, your ability to problem-solve, your teamwork. But, and here’s the serious but: when the title says “Of Dice and Men” it means it. This is not a story about “the People Who Play It.” This is a story about the men who play D&D, with almost no recognition throughout the entire book that women have, can, and do play it. There was exactly one reference to a woman playing D&D in the entire book – one, I counted! The worst bit was when the author criticized an acquaintance for being sexist without realizing that he himself had been sexist throughout the whole book. Well, newsflash, David M. Ewalt: women play D&D too. There’s no gender essentialism that says only men can ever be interested in role-playing. Stop being surprised that we might ever care. Women are not some foreign species, we share all the same interests as you men.


Oh, and more geeking out: Husband and I watched all seven of the Star Wars movies over break too. I’m planning to buy Hot Topic’s awesome corset-top TARDIS dress. Stephen Moffat is leaving Doctor Who (next step, female doctor??!). And I’m a hundred pages into John Crowley’s totally ethereal and sensuous novel Little, Big.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Favorites, series, and disappointments of 2015

2015 was generally a really fantastic reading year. I feel as if I've come into my own as a reader of several very different genres. SF/F and British domestic fiction aren't normal bedfellows, but they are both my great loves, and alternating between them has kept my free-reading time feeling fresh. It's been fun to go through my lists for 2015 and note some highlights for the year:

Series read this year (hmm, mostly SFF! Perhaps because domestic fiction doesn't as often come in series?):
  1. Moomins, Tove Jansson (except for Great Flood, the rarer first book which I still have yet to acquire)
  2. The Hero’s Guide, Christopher Healy
  3. Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson
  4. Inheritance, N. K. Jemisin
  5. Memoirs of Lady Trent #1-3 (all that’s been published so far), Marie Brennan
  6. Xenogenesis, Octavia E. Butler

 Series I was really expecting to love but ended up abandoning after the first one:
  1. The Magicians, Lev Grossman
  2. Finishing School, Gail Carriger
  3. The Queen’s Thief, Megan Whalen Turner
  4. The Mortal Instruments, Cassandra Clare

Most disappointing DNFs:
  1. Black Dove, White Raven, Elizabeth Wein (I expected to love this; perhaps it couldn't grab me the way her WWII novels did because I didn't know anything about the political situation in Ethiopia)
  2. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (loved the female-gendered pronouns! But I couldn't get into it)
  3. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (680 pages in and I'm setting it aside. This book is just too long and drawn out, with a far more interesting beginning than middle.)

Favorite Re-Reads:
  1. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  2. Guard Your Daughters, Diana Tutton


And now, the most important and most fun list: favorite new reads! I loved each of these books for very different reasons. Some are among the best in their genre; others were simply what I needed at the time. Some were beautifully written; others were not so well-written but stuck with me for one reason or another. I found it impossible to narrow this list down to ten. What do I leave in? The books that I still think about, or the books I couldn't put down? The books I've had the most conversations about? The books that moved me deeply at the time, or the books that still make me smile when I think of them? This list of fourteen encompasses a lot of SFF, but even a lot of those are genre-crossing in other ways (such as Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw, a Victorian manners novel starring dragons). There's even a ballet novel.

Favorites New Reads:
  1. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  3. The Greengage Summer, Rumer Godden
  4. Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton
  5. The Crown of Embers (Fire and Thorns #2), Rae Carson
  6. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritence #1 and #2), N. K. Jemisin
  7. Among Others, Jo Walton
  8. Greenglass House, Kate Milford
  9. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  10. Wake, Anna Hope
  11. The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
  12. Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis #2), Octave E. Butler
  13. The Martian, Andy Weir
  14. Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman


Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in review

I read 151 fiction books last year, plus 17 non-fiction. This year as my dissertation began, I started keeping track only of books read for fun, in one single list: fun nonfiction joined fiction, and the hundreds (I really think it's up in the hundreds by now) of dissertation-related books that I read (or skimmed) no longer count. I'm not disappointed that my reading total for this year has gone down, especially considering all my extra dissertation reading.

This year, I read 116 books for fun. I don't think I'll finish another one by tonight, although who knows? Part of the reason my total is lower is also because I was willing to branch out more. My fantasy and sci-fi totals are higher than ever in adulthood, and probably approaching those of my childhood and adolescence. This year, my reading was less carefully curated and more enthusiastically open. I tried books on bloggers' recommendations, according to bestseller lists and awards, and on whims. Some of these were successful. Some weren't. I abandoned an all-time high of 38 books this year, and oddly, I'm really proud of that. I don't regret the wasted hours. In some cases, I've had great conversations about why I abandoned such-and-such book. I'm proving myself to be a little more open-minded, a little more willing to try things I'm not sure about. And I'm living up to my reading philosophy: life's too short and there are too many good books to spend time reading something you're not really enjoying.

I'm still considering which of this year's reads will make a list of favorites (top ten? top eleven or twelve? top however many warrant the attention?). That post is coming. In the meantime, though, I want to revisit the bookish goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year.

  1. Finish Les Miserables. Nope. I didn't touch it all year, so my bookmark still stands at 478 pages out of 1463. I intend to come to it eventually, and I will definitely need to restart. Someday it will get off my nightstand where it waits!
  2. Finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. After my husband moved out to St. Louis to start his Ph.D program, I began reading a chapter or two before bed each night. For a while, I adored it. But as the semester picked up and I began having late nights of rehearsals or other obligations, I started realizing that the book is just too long. Whole twenty- or thirty-page chapters have only a single event in them, one that could easily have been relayed to us in a single paragraph or even sentence. The book was long, I was losing track of characters, and I was getting bored. So I finally gave myself permission to give it up. Oddly, though it's an abandoned book, I kept it - my husband thinks the introductory section about the magicians' society of "magicians" who only study magic without ever doing magic will be a useful pedagogy tool as he teaches theology.
  3. Read the long form of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. Well, I reread the short form, does that count? The mistake I made with this book was putting it not on my to-read shelf for fun books, but among the tangential-to-the-dissertation nonfiction, a shelf which largely got ignored all semester.
  4. Read Shirley or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for my winter break Bronte. This year it's Shirley, and I'm approaching 100 pages in. Not my favorite Bronte novel so far - it's not psychological enough. There's a large cast of characters (I'm having some trouble keeping track of all the names) and the narration isn't internal to any one of them for long enough. I don't feel connected to anybody yet. I am eager to see how the economic controversies work out, though. Oh, and also, I bought a copy of Tenant for next winter, so my collection of Bronte novels is complete.
  5. Begin reading my complete Sherlock Holmes for October. Check! I read A Study in Scarlet in a single sitting a few days before Halloween. It was great - very atmospheric. Also weird. I agree with everyone who told me that the digression about the Mormons is both offensive and unnecessary.
  6. Read another novel by Shusaku Endo. I did! This year I went back to the beginning and read an omnibus of two of his early novellas, White Man and Yellow Man. They were beautifully-written and packed an emotional punch, but I didn't love them in the way I've loved his longer and more developed novels.
  7. Read the Moomin series and The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh in conversation with each other. I read (adored) all the Moomin books I had, and the much more obscure The Moomins and the Great Flood is, I think, on its way to me as a Christmas present from my sister. I didn't get to Winnie the Pooh, in part because that hardcover book is too large to carry around easily. But I still think "Scandanavian Winnie the Pooh" is a good way to describe Jansson's wonderful characters.
  8. Get my TBR pile down from two and a half shelves to one. Hmm. No idea. Probably not. When Husband moved away, we moved out of the office to allow space for a roommate, which also meant consolidating my books (plus all the new dissertation books from the library needed a place to live). So my TBR pile is now literally a stack of piles on the two bottom shelves of my dissertation bookcase. I don't think I read very many of them this year. Then again, I haven't bought many new books this year either, so that's a win.
  9. Get my public library to-read list down from over a hundred to 75. Very briefly, for the last few weeks, it was down in the 80s! Now it's back up to 90. An overabundance of good books - it's a nice problem to have.
  10. Write my book. Well, this didn't happen either. I'm not unable to write; I wrote a 55-page dissertation chapter this semester. I'm just currently unable to write fiction, which depresses me, so I avoid thinking about it. The children's book I mean to write is one I've been planning to write since I was a very small child myself, and I'm terrified of getting it wrong. Thus I never start. Perhaps I ought to find a source for short fiction writing exercises to begin to stretch this muscle again.

Setting these goals was an experiment, and, it seems, one that wasn't very successful. Only two out of ten goals were completely accomplished, with another three partly done. I do best with goals regarding individual books tied to specific times of year. October means a mystery, so that reliably happens; winter break means a Bronte; the first snowfall of winter means Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. But then, those aren't really goals so much as they are plans. I like reading plans. They fit my highly ritualized personality and routine lifestyle.

Was I unrealistic with this first attempt at reading goals? What sort of goals are you most successful with? How do you make sure to chip away at them throughout the year?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Winter break

I've been away from this blog for a while now. This semester got especially busy. November in particular was full of traveling to research and to sing. My free reading even fell off this fall, which doesn't normally happen. But once the semester ended - I got my students' work turned in to my boss professor and passed another voice jury - things settled into a really wonderful holiday. My husband came home from his own semester (I may have neglected to mention on this blog that he's now attending school in another state to begin his own PhD program). I've baked a lot and held both Thanksgiving and Christmas tea parties. I've sung three rounds of Lessons and Carols, plus an Evensong and a Christmas Eve choral prelude. Husband and I have been watching all 8 seasons of The Big Bang Theory, and we've now begun a Star Wars rewatch so we can go see the new movie. I've gotten back to reading in earnest (including on my new Kindle, Christmas gift from my mother after my old one died). I'm currently in the middle of Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding, Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion, Sage Blackwood's Jinx, and Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. And perhaps most excitingly, I completed and submitted my first dissertation chapter draft. It's been a really stellar winter break, and with two more weeks to go, I look forward to much more reading (both fiction and dissertation books), tea and pastries, and cuddling with my husband over sci-fi. If only the weather would cooperate and be properly wintery!


This is my new Kindle. I've named it Bodley, after the guy responsible for Oxford's Bodleian Library. Also, showcasing my new red hair, Christmas present to myself!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Martian

When Andy Weir's The Martian came to my attention, it was via fans of sci-fi books rather than because of the upcoming film...but because of the upcoming film, it took a tremendously long time on my library's hold list before my Kindle copy came in. Based on reviews, I thought it would be a cheerful MacGyver in space - and that's exactly what it was! It was an even better book to take to the gym than I'd hoped, and about three-quarters of the way through, I was so hooked that I took my Kindle to school with me one day as my regular free-reading book.

Stranded on Mars when his teammates are forced to leave him behind for dead, Mark Watney is a cheerful MacGyver in space, with believable problems to solve and remarkably easy-to-understand solutions. This book excels at explaining science for the masses. I never felt lost and I never felt patronized. Most of the book functions as Mark's diary, and his refusal to give up and creativity in finding clever new ways not to let Mars (or his own occasional stupidity) kill him are fantastically inspiring. However, where the informal voice works well for the diary entries, Weir's own inexperience as a novelist shines through in the other sections. Narratives of the NASA folks working 'round-the-clock to help Watney are stilted, their dialogue often comically awkward, and occasional brief histories of the making of certain parts in alternatim with Mark's diary entries are jarring in their shift from first- to third-person and their jump from optimistic informality to just plain bad writing.

Problems aside, I see why The Martian has become such a phenomenon, and I look forward to encouraging Husband to read it, and perhaps we'll even go see the movie together.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Natural History of Dragons

Oh, Marie Brennan's book was so, so close to making my list of the best of the year. Victorian gentlewoman goes off adventuring for scientific study of dragons? Fabulous. Made even better by its form as a memoir, written by Isabella in her old age, so she can reflect back on her earlier actions (often with a shake of the head and a rueful, "the tender age of nineteen..."). The narrative voice is what totally makes this novel; I couldn't put it down. And that glorious cover!

But. Oh, how I wish there weren't a but! Though nominally a fantasy world, with different names for countries and religions, it's basically Victorian England, which means it's basically the British Empire, which means imperialism. And while I give books of their time a pass for being of their time, a contemporary author writing for modern readers ought to acknowledge problematic aspects like colonialism rather than glorifying imperialist views of those poor ugly peasants who don't even make good servants.

I'm definitely going to read the next two in the series, and hopefully they get a bit better. Hopefully Isabella learns a bit about privilege and oppression, but I don't hold out much hope, because if she were going to, the older-self narrator would have already absorbed these important lessons.

So close!