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!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tales from Moominvalley

I don't normally like short stories, but I loved this collection because it fit so perfectly into the entire collection of stories about the Moomins and their friends. Many of these tales gave us a closer look at some of the minor characters - the Fillyjonk, a Hemulen, the woodies, the Hattifatteners - but we were also introduced to some new ones, and I was delighted when Sniff made a reappearance (after his absence from the last couple of books, I'd been afraid he was gone for good). The focus on understanding and accommodating introversion remains, and care for others is demonstrated to be equally as important as self-care. Moomin stories always seem to navigate the tension between the two in a way that I find complex, nuanced, and truly beautiful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Did not finish: A College of Magics

After struggling through Lev Grossman's The Magicians, I've pretty much had it with magical boarding school tales where the focus isn't actually on the mechanics of the school and its magic system, and where apathy substitutes for character development. I'm not really interested in a bunch of bored teenagers not doing their homework. Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics isn't quite this bad, but Greenlaw College frustrated me in many of the same ways as Grossman's Brakebills College, and I'm not really willing to push through another three hundred pages (especially because the book moves away from the magic school) when all I wanted was Hogwarts for adults.

Why can't anybody properly write a Hogwarts for adults? Why does "adulthood" have to mean "ennui"?

Monday, August 17, 2015

High Rising

Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series is supposed to be fantastically light-hearted, solidly middlebrow English domestic fiction, and it's spoken of very highly by a number of book bloggers who, like me, really enjoy this sort of thing. Virago has even been reprinting the series a book or two at a time (with really gorgeous covers). With all this to recommend it, I didn't hesitate when I was secondhand book-shopping in Boston three summers ago. I found a beautiful hardcover version of High Rising, the first in the series, which has turned out to be part of a set of the first Borzoi editions of 1951. (Mine is like the one on the right; I was looking around to see if there was a copy of the matching Wild Strawberries to be had.) It was so pretty, in fact, and I was so sure I'd love it, that I was willing to spend rather more than I usually am for a secondhand book.

Alas! I've been having some bad luck this summer with books I was certain to like. High Rising isn't awful, but it's not the sort of book I would have made sure to purchase after the first read. Enterprising career women, gossiping servants, romances that end exactly as they's all pretty standard fare, but here these comfortable tropes are matched by some absolutely horrible classism, which I can't in this case simply excuse as an accurate reflection of its time, because we readers are asked to align ourselves with it in a most uncomfortable fashion. I rather enjoyed Laura Morland's son Tony, a schoolboy with a singular obsession with trains and an inability to talk about anything else, but I couldn't get behind the vilification of the secretary Miss Grey ("the Incubus"). I like my frothy fiction to be free of oppression and prejudice, wherever possible, so this one just didn't cut it.

Now what to do with the book, which, as a physical object, is indeed very pleasing?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An artsy middlebrow novel

Like The Weird Sisters, which I read over Holy Week two years ago, Meg Howrey's The Cranes Dance felt like it was trying too hard to be artsy and literary. I'm glad it did, I suppose, because if it didn't I wouldn't like it: it'd just be a middlebrow novel about family relationships without even any magic to make things interesting. A beach read (although I say that loosely because I don't think I've ever actually brought a book to the beach). On the other hand, I can sense The Cranes Dance trying so hard. It's not a perfect novel, but like The Weird Sisters, I couldn't put it down, and I genuinely enjoyed it, especially the Shakespeare bits. So it does rank a bold entry in my list of books for the year, and might make it onto my favorites list.

In The Cranes Dance, Kate Crane struggles to finish out a season of dance with a prominent New York City ballet company after her sister Gwen - younger, but more talented, and of higher position in the company - has a psychotic break and returns home. While dealing with a breakup, a neck injury and subsequent drug abuse, and a preteen dancer who idolizes her, Kate tries to understand her codependent relationship with Gwen as she is assigned Gwen's role of Titania, the lead in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

What I liked most about the novel was Kate's voice, which was often extraordinarily funny even as she muses on the tragedy and suffering of life. Her acerbic and often litotic (is that a word? using the literary technique of litotes, deliberate and ironic understatement) descriptions of ballet culture, daily routine, and show plots felt just like we academics griping about the nagging details of our own chosen profession. So while I know very little about ballet - I was a baby doll in a Nutcracker when I was very small, but that was it - Kate's voice still felt very familiar in her summaries and complaints.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


A sociologist studying the origin of fads. A scientist who studies chaos theory, whose funding for his macaque research has fallen through. A trendy but completely incompetent mail clerk who stirs up chaos, especially in her anti-smoking activism. Add in the complete works of Robert Browning, a joint experiment with really stupid sheep, and some now hopelessly dated discussion of 1990s coffeeshops, plus the fascinating histories of a number of historical fads. Connie Willis's Bellwether was tremendous fun, an expose of the daily frustrations of academic research. (Though it would have helped my reading experience if I'd known what a bellwether was when I started out.)