Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Incredibly Belated Thoughts on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I was super psyched to read it for my 8th grade English class. This is what I remember about the experience: 7 zillion pages of snoozeville descriptions of fish, half a page on a giant squid attacking the sub. What. The. Hell.

The worst part? I read the abridged version. Abridged. Compared to Verne, Tolkien's treks through various landscapes are positively riveting.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Larry Niven's Ringworld: A Sexist Sci-Fi "Classic"

For those familiar with the Halo games, Ringworld is where the concept of a world on the inner edge of a circular strip of metal was borrowed from. In case you're wondering, that seems to be all that has been borrowed.

The setup of the book is essentially this:

In the distant future everyone knows that in the somewhat distant past the stars at the center of the universe all went crazy supernova together and that the radiation of their explosions are racing toward the section of the universe where a bunch of life (including humans and other sentient species) hangs out. Because all of that is travelling at the speed of light, it will arrive in the slightly more than somewhat distant future but at present almost no one is terribly worried about it because they're procrastinators. One particularly cowardly species called the Puppeteers (at least, by the humans) has already gotten the hell out of Dodge in the slightly distant past.

One day a Puppeteer called Nessus shows up and propositions a human called Louis and a Kzin called Speaker-to-Animals to come with him on a secret mission in exchange for a seriously advanced spaceship that would help move their respective races out of the way of the radiation. Louis accepts because he knows that humans will procrastinate until it's too late to get everyone out safely and the faster-than-light ship will be useful. Speaker accepts because the Kzin are big catlike warriors and he wants the combat advantage that such a ship would provide. (Humans are great and normal and balanced and Kzin are warlike to the point of stupidity while Puppeteers are cowardly to the point of stupidity--this probably should have warned me that the gender dynamics would be obscenely unbalanced but it didn't).

Nessus tells the others that they need one final crew member--a human female named Teela. It turns out that because human population growth has been controlled by lotteries and other regulations, Teela has essentially been bred for luck. Which would be fine except that she is so ridiculously lucky that she's never had anything not go well for her. She's never stubbed a toe, never had her heart broken, etc.--and because of this, she is incredibly naive and self-centered, like a child who happens to be twenty years old. Also, surprise surprise, she decides that she wants to have sex with Louis, who is 180 years her senior even though he doesn't look it. There are tons of moments that made my gender criticism radar ping like mad, but here's one that caused me to stop, look for a pen, and simply write "What." in the margins:

(At this point they think that Teela might not actually be freaky lucky because their ship has crash-landed on the Ringworld. Teela is mad at Louis for letting her climb on a dangerous lava flow without warning her, essentially letting her get injured for one of the first times in her life.)

"Her lips, he saw, were perfect for pouting. She was one of those rare, lucky women whom crying does not make ugly ...
[Teela:] 'You wanted me to burn my feet!'
[Louis:] 'That's right. Don't look so surprised. We need you. We don't want you killed. I want you to learn to be careful. You never learned before, so you'll have to learn now. You'll remember your sore feet longer than you'll remember my lectures.'
'Need me! That's a laugh. You know why Nessus brought me here. I'm a good luck charm that failed.'
'I'll grant you blew that one. As a good luck charm, you're fired. Come on, smile. We need you. We need you to keep me happy, so I don't rape Nessus'" (141).


Granted, Louis is trying to lighten the mood, but the joke that Teela's primary function is to warm Louis' bed is made a few too many times throughout the novel--including at least once by Teela herself--for me not to have a problem with it. Moreover, as the novel progresses, Louis concludes that Teela's luck manipulates the environment around her to such a level of detail that she can hardly be said to have free will at all. Oh, good.

But what about the other human women? We don't see any of them except as sex-props at a party Louis throws.

What about the female Kzin and Puppeteers? They're nonsentient. Really, that's the word used to describe them in the novel. Hurrah.

A swift kick in the balls to you, Larry Niven.

Finally, it's a small detail by comparison, but the swearword that Niven made up for his characters, "tanj", annoys me because we're told that it's an acronym for "There ain't no justice!" but it is used in all of the ways that "fuck" can be used: "We're tanjed", "Tanj it", and so forth, which really aren't grammatical when you replace the acronym with the actual phrase: "We're there ain't no justice-ed!" and "There ain't no justice it!". Niven would have been better off leaving them saying "tanj this" and "tanj that" without an explanation.

Final verdict: I know it's supposed to be a classic but even without the intense sexism, it just wasn't as impressive as quite a few of the other classics in the genre (Ender's Game, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, etc.).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, David Sedaris

The sixteen short animal stories of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk don’t quite measure up to Sedaris’s previous work, but they’re still a quick and enjoyable read.

Sedaris plays with traditional expectations of animal fables by skewering ignorant and self-righteous (cough…conservative) characters, including overprivileged birds who ridicule the “backward” inhabitants of a Guatemalan holiday destination, a stork who denies sex education to her inquisitive chick, and a militant rabbit preoccupied with violent defense of his forest (even filing down a unicorn's horn...poor unicorn). It is rather satisfying to let Sedaris have at these characters from a socially-minded perspective that challenges ethnocentric/political norms. From there, Sedaris delves further into the tension within individuals of limited experience who, through tragedy and acceptance of their own personal weaknesses, achieve the sometimes jarring, but transcendent effect of empathy. The title story features a chipmunk overcoming her fear of the unfamiliar (in this case, a taboo inter-species relationship with a squirrel). After she succumbs to pressures to break up with the squirrel, she realizes that he actually signifies “every beautiful thing she had ever failed to appreciate” (21). For Sedaris, it is not through upholding (personal/philisophical/national) boundaries that one achieves insight, but rather through relationships. He calls for the building of a type of self-directed wisdom bred from the desire to connect and to understand others. The final two stories extend this theme: a cat and mouse who find redemption through a shared addiction and a widower owl who rejects his role as predator to seek out knowledge from his prey, stating “[w]hat changed things, albeit slowly, was learning” (157). 

Deep right?

Now, I love me some Sedaris stories. After standing in line for hours at a signing for his last collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Mr. Sedaris not only signed and drew a funny little crab on my book, he also gave me a mini shampoo from his Beverly Hilton hotel room. Despite the goodwill I may have towards this quirky gift-giving writer and despite my fandom for his brilliant NPR readings (here is one from this collection), I can admit that, though I really liked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I feel that it is overly restrained and a bit too…neat. The distinct authorial perspective, the observations of eccentric family members, the poetically-odd circumstances from previous collections are practically absent. Sedaris’s turn to animals places the anthropomorphized creatures in the mundane world of domestic responsibilities, marriage, body image, childrearing, and religion. The effect, though clever, layers an additional device upon his writing and distances the reader from Sedaris’s singular voice, overwhelming the more compelling aspects of his style. On the bright side, even a diluted Sedaris is still very readable.

Final verdict: Kind of like a mini-snack to tide you over until Sedaris’s next collection. Also, great illustrations by Ian Falconer. Better to pick up Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day, if you are new to his work. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: A Disappointment

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is advertised as an awesomely exciting steampunk book and has some seriously intriguing cover art:

The front and back covers are plastered with quotes like "A steampunk-zombie-airship adventure of rollicking pace and sweeping proportions, full of wonderfully gnarly details. This book is made of irresistible." It's being made into a movie and Wil Wheaton reads the chapters with the male lead for the audiobook. This book and I were made to be best friends. When I saw that it was one of the employee recommendations in Borders (/sob) I had a Liz Lemon "I want to go to there" moment and snatched it up immediately.

If it had lived up to even half of the hype, I would have been satisfied. Sadly, the two main characters are just--flat. I don't find either of them particularly compelling and was underwhelmed by the steampunk, zombie, and airship aspects.

Zombies should be terrifying! I should worry! There should be fleshy bits and people getting turned or eaten and it should all make me afraid to walk down my dark hallway. Sure, The Walking Dead series and graphic novels have probably spoiled me a bit but it was like Priest was trying to tell middle schoolers about zombies without worrying them. Only one person was turned in the book and it was the result of too much of a certain poisoned beverage, not a bite. Only one person was bitten, and *minor spoiler* since it was the main character, I wasn't particularly worried that the bite would have penetrated her thick gloves as that would have obviously derailed the plot.

Everyone knows that if you want to raise the stakes you have to be willing to kill off a few characters. I can't recall one death that I was concerned about. And the "major" twist/reveal at the end? Way too heavily foreshadowed. I guessed it after the first hint and spent the book going "Yes, I know" while the characters hemmed and hawed about what might have happened. I really had to force myself to finish it because by halfway through I really didn't care anymore about any of it.

Lack of interest in the overall plot aside, I had a few issues with the way that the novel handled the main character, Briar Wilkes, and the racial "others". Briar is set up as a bit of a hardass--she works in a factory, wears boots and thick gloves and is a single mother trying to take care of her son. The opening chapters paint her as kind but not the type for frills and nonsense. However, as soon as she goes out after her runaway son, she seems to become much more timid and dependent on men. A particularly large man shows up while she's hunting for an airship to lift her into the ruins of a city and she practically quakes in her boots. She's carrying a rifle and the guy is clearly not a threat so the fact that Priest seemed to think that her heroine should react in this way is troubling.

Then there are the African and Chinese people--whom the novel refers to primarily as "Negros" and "Chinamen". Granted, this is set in the 19th century and African-American and Chinese-American are a little anachronistic but these characters seem to serve primarily as set pieces on the stage for the "real" (White) characters. Case in point: on one of the airships, one of the "Chinamen" on the crew is named Fang and he is minus one tongue. Having just reread J.M. Coetzee's Foe, I am probably hypersensitive to the idea of the orally-castrated "other" but it seemed to me that this characterization was really only acceptable if Fang's silence turned out to be relevant to the plot. Otherwise, it just seems like perpetuating the silence when you could have just as easily shaken things up and made him the captain and had a white character without a tongue instead--steampunk is, after all, a revision of history. As far as I can recall, Fang's missing tongue was never made relevant, which makes it more "exotic" set dressing instead of challenging any of the stereotypes of the time.

I'm interested in seeing the transformation of the book into a film, hopefully it'll resolve some of the issues I had with the novel.

Updates and Lies

I was apparently lying in my last post about never getting a Kindle because a few weeks later I broke down and bought a Kindle Touch. And it's beautiful. So I guess I wasn't lying when I said the physical appearance of my reading material matters--I definitely judge books by their covers (and their weight, and size, and words per page, and page thickness, and paper quality...). In order to mitigate my betrayal of the standard non-digital codex format, I opted for the highly nostalgic kindle cover:
I read the remaining two Hunger Games books on my Kindle for free through the Amazon Prime Lending Library (woo!) and though they did not really live up to the promise of the first, I was at least able to set the type size to my liking with a few taps on my Kindle. Three cheers for the future!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Hunger Games

I had to borrow this book from a friend because every time I picked it up in Barnes and Noble the gigantic print just screamed "Young Adult!" and, snob that I am, I couldn't handle it. Maybe this is why I haven't already bought a Kindle; clearly, the physicality of whatever I'm reading plays a relatively large role in whether or not I'm willing to pay to read it. But seriously, the book was 374 pages and could have been half that or less if it had been printed in a format resembling any Charles Dickens novel.

My quirks aside however, it was definitely an enjoyable read. There are a few things that bothered me, like the fact that it is highly convenient that Katniss' kills are always in the context of moral superiority and that she's never placed in the position of having to kill someone we sympathize with. I would have thought she'd have had no trouble tracking the boy with the bad foot from District 10 or killing him, but she never even comes across signs of him. In fact, the only one she kills outright is Rue's killer, since even Cato is supposedly begging for death by the time she shoots him.

Secondly, I'm sure it'll be resolved in the next novel but it's a little silly that Peeta could be so dense and shallow as to resent Katniss for hypothetically acting out the whole "love story," given that A) It kept them both alive and B) He knew the whole thing was televised and that everyone had to act in order to give themselves a fighting chance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Several Awesome Books

off the top of my head:

Connie Willis- Bellwether
Connie Willis- The Doomsday Book

Sharon Kay Penman- Here Be Dragons

George R. R. Martin- A Song of Ice and Fire (Series)

J. K. Rowling- Harry Potter (Series)

Diana Gabaldon- Outlander

Frank Herbert- Dune

Marion Zimmer Bradley- The Firebrand

Juliet Marillier- Sevenwaters Trilogy