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Ten Books or, Where are the ladies at?

"In your status line list 10 books that have stayed with you. Don't take more than a few minutes. Don't think too hard. They don't have to be great works or even your favorites. Just the ones that have touched you."

These sort of lists are always nervous-making, but they're kind of fun — and maybe even a little interesting, too. Meme yoinked from Samuel R. Delany's facebook page. To which he seems pretty liberal about responding to friend requests.

Note that I arbitrarily limited myself to fiction. Non-fiction might make for another meme, another day.

  1. Dhalgren (by Delany himself);

  2. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien;

  3. Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carrol;

  4. The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham;

  5. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller;

  6. Something Happened, by Joseph Heller;

  7. The World According to Garp, by John Irving;

  8. The Mars Trilogy (Red, Green, Blue), by Kim Stanley Robinson;

  9. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy; and

  10. Barney's Version, by Mordechai Richler

I said "kind of fun" above, but the results of my not taking "more than a few minutes" to come up with a list of books "that have touched" me is more than a little disconcerting. For a number of reasons.

First, I confess to being a little embarassed by how genre the damned thing is? Where's Goethe's Faust? Where's The Magic Mountain or Julius Caesar? What happened to The Waves or The Edible Woman?

In short, nevermind genre, where are all the women at?

While I was (briefly) thinking about it, names like Le Guin and Russ quickly came to mind, but I rejected the former because I've been more moved by her non-fiction than her fiction, and for the latter, although The Female Man impressed hell out of me as a youth, I can scarecely remember it now — and I've re-read it more than once in the intervening years.

Virginia Woolf always left me cold. In truth, if I were to wipe the slate clean, I might replace the Tolstoy or Irving with Pride and Prejudice, but when you get right down it, I don't think I've read all that many women writers. Certainly as a percentage, it's much lower than chance — even in a genre like SF (and F) — would allow. (And, y'know, much as I loved it back in the day, The Mists of Avalon hasn't aged well at all.)

Be that as it may. The books that are on that somewhat arbitrary exercise in memory and prejudice share another commonality: I read most of them quite a long time ago, at least for the first time. The Lord of the Rings and Dhalgren are pools into which I've dipped again and again (and again), and with the exception of War and Peace, I've revisited the others all more than once. As for Tolstoy, I doubt I'll go there again; it's on the list more for how much his lunatic's 100 page diatribe on the inevitability of history and the impotence of the individual to effect change is what I remember more than anything else from the book.

Still, it's a somewhat instructive exercise. What are your top 10 most memorable books?

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Some time ago, in one of your guises and I think in a remark directed towards someone other than yours truly, you mentioned Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy as a fantasy (more than) worth reading.

Well. I'm only two-thirds of the way through the first book and so, more than normally aware that my opinion is subject to change, but thus far (mind you), I just want to say a heartfelt Thank you!.

At this point I'm even more baffled than I was before that Tolkien doesn't speak to you, because Grossman is sure as hell speaking to me. The man knows his teenagers and (I think) a whole helluva lot besides.

Long story short, I've never read a book like this one, and for those of us who love fantasy, that is a kudos in monstrously short supply.

So, thank you.

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John le Carré, image courtesy of Wikipedia.
John le Carré in 2008
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Some writers have but a few stories to tell — think of Joseph Heller or John Irving, whose reputations would have been far better served by a Salingeresque retreat into silence than by their painfully pointless later works.

Other manage to keep working at or near the levels at which they made their reputations. Think of Mordechai Richler, whose final novel, Barney's Version was his masterpiece. Or consider John le Carré, now in his 80th year and still producing work of a very high level indeed.

If not quite as savagely powerful as 2003's Absolute Friends, his newest novel is significantly more controlled — and so more powerful — than his previous offering, A Most Wanted Man, which suggested a writer whose moral outrage had got the better of his novelist's instincts.

If Our Kind of Traitor isn't, quite, a masterpiece, it is a solid, subtle and (yes) thrilling novel that is vintage le Carré, almost without violence or action, but still a story that finds the reader anxiously awaiting its resolution right up to its final three paragraphs.

Read the full review at Edifice Rex Online.

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Yoinked from [livejournal.com profile] sooguy:

"Apparently the Beeb reckons most people will only have read 6 of these books...

"Bold those books you've read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started, but didn't finish..."

Make of it what you will, by my count I've read 42 of 'em.

It's a meme; of course it's under a cut! )
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Tuesday afternoon saw me on Java's patio for the first time in quite a while, scribbling in a notebook with a pint near to hand. Yes, I have actually been writing at long last! Nothing that I am yet willing to show anyone, but the mere fact of putting pen to page for something other than a blog leaves me glowing, just a little.

I have also been reading. Tuesday morning saw me discover a new bookshop on Roncesvalles, where I picked up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I managed to read a couple of hundred pages before making my way downtown. And, downtown at Java, a couple of gentlemen at a nearby table were discussing some to do with Harry Potter, loudly enough that I feared I would be struck down by a dreaded spoiler.

I first tried the old stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears-while-mumbling, but found that was conducive neither to writing nor drinking, nor even to smoking. Also, I suspected it made me look a tad sillier than even I do normally. I finally removed myself to the back of the patio and waited until they - happily - took their loud leave a few minutes later.

That said, I finished the final Potter volume yesterday, and I will do my best to avoid loosing any spoilers below, though in my ever-so-humble opinion, there isn't much to spoil.

Obviously, given that I read all 600 pages of the book over a 30-hour period, J.K. Rowling's words are as compulsively readable as ever. And possibly, her prose has improved significantly. At the very least, I noticed far few extraneous adjectives accompanying the dialogue (eg, "he said crossly, happily", &ct).

Other than that, though, the book was a let-down. As one very long climax, it lacked dramatic tension and none of the surprises surprised me all.

The final 125 or so pages consist of a battle for Hogwarts, as the good guys and bad guys line up to (mostly) cast spells at one another. While I kept turning the pages, the battle scene - despite its length - felt more like it was meant for the silver screen than to be prose.

The novel - and by extension, the series - lacks pathos and I closed the book happy that it was over. If I'd known Tuesday what I know now, I'd have waited for the paperback.

All dissing aside, it is eminently readable and reasonably entertaining. I imagine that, were I a teenager rather than a jaded goat in the late days of his youth, I would have liked it quite a bit more.

Recommended for those who've been waiting for it, but if you've avoided the bandwagon this long, you might as well keep on walking.
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Blogger's note: It is with a measure of personal irony, that one of my most literate lj friends recently posted a screed in which he decried a tendency among some bloggers who seem to believe that reading a certain number of books is a mark of some kind of achievement. Not that I have set any such goal for myself, but at the same time Colin has announced that he will review fewer books, I had decided that, this year, I will try to say at least something about every book I do read this year.

Will I prove to have much to say about them? Time alone will tell.

Space Opera Is Alive and Well and Living in Britain

Well, there's "space opera" and there's space opera. The former, at its best, is Stars Wars written with at least some consideration of internal consistency, if not with the laws of physics. The latter, on the other hand, can go toe-to-toe with the best non-genre popular fiction and Alastair Reynolds, a relative new-comer to the field, is a heavy-weight, writing with a sure hand novels and stories of epic scope, well-drawn characters and a healthy dose of scientific verisimilitude.

Reynolds' latest is a collection of stories set in his "Revelation Space" future history, one spanning tens of thousands of years.

The stories in this volume are printed chronologically - not as written, but in terms of when they are set. The first takes place a couple of centuries in the future, the last ends around the year 40,000. However, unlike too many SF story collections, Galactic North makes no pretense to being a novel (and yet, I can think of some "novels" that hold together as a single narrative less than this collection of stories does).

Reynolds' future is one of spectacular and sometimes disturbing change, yet his characters - even those barely recognizable as human - still manage to be people in whom the reader can believe, even on those occasions when they are repellent.

From war and treachery on Mars, to genetically-engineered humans living 100 kilometres below the ice of Saturn's moon, Europa, to the far reaches of insterstellar space, Reynolds' book kept me turning the pages with pleasure and anticipation.

If you enjoy adventure that makes you think, if you take pleasure in comtemplating the complexities - good and bad - the future might hold, Galactic North seems to be an excellent introduction to Reynolds' universe.

Interestingly, Reynolds seems to stick pretty scrupulously to what is currently known to be at least scientifically plausible (if not necessarily likely). Though there are star-farers galore in his universe, there is no faster-than-light travel or miraculous gateways in time, no god from the machine.

Along with other recent writers of high-end space opera like Stephen Baxter (another Brit), one is tempted to suggest that Science Fiction risks entering a second "golden age".
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I've been looking in on a friend's cat this past week, cleaning out the litter, filling up the food and water bowls and getting down on my hands and knees to make sure the feline's eyes are gleaming at me from beneath the couch.

In an email after he'd left town, he suggested I borrow his copy of new writer Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. Though it is not, as Steve suggested, "the best Sci-Fi book ever written", it is a hell of a good read, and one of the most unusual science fiction novels I've come across in a long time.

Told from the points of view of Henry DeTamble and his wife, Clare Abshire, this writer manages to brilliantly jump from one view-point to the other - and from one point in time to another and another - all the while advancing the tragic narrative with a master's control of the writer's craft.

This is a time travel story like none other, and all of you should rush out to your local independent bookstore and pick it up. It's a moving, complex and very human piece of work.
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Kim Stanley Robinson ought to be the most important novelist in the world, his ideas debated in the corridors of power, his books enjoyed and discussed by readers everywhere.

Boldly inventive, he has made a career out of exploring Big Ideas without ever forgetting a novelist's chief obligation - to tell an entertaining and engaging story, with characters a reader can care about.

(Cross-posted to my journal, my website and elsewhere.)

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Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter ...

For the past few weeks it's been impossible to unaware of the name. No amount of Madison Avenue hype could have created the genuine fascination, the very real enthusiasm, that has been evident online, onstreet, onsubway. Adults and children, carrying the thick, colourful sixth volume; people on my friends' list saying "goodbye" for 2 or 3 days; Laura reading as I have never before known her to read, drowning for hours between the covers of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

So, at last, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

Enjoyed the first two as entertaining childrens' books with just enough meat to keep an adult curious to find out what happens next. Waited a couple of days and entered into the third volume, to find myself reading it every free minute I had.

I don't have anything to say about the series that hasn't been said before, so I'll keep this brief and do my best to avoid any important spoilers, since J.K. Rowling has written a very old-fashioned kind of book(s), in which plot and twists their in are important.

As a prose stylist, Rowling is no threat to the memory of Virginia Woolf, or even Isaac Asimov. She has a number of amateurish bad habits, the worst of which is the entirely unnecessary use of adjectives applied to the word, said. Unnecessary, because her dialogue is more than good enough to make it clear when a character is angry, or sarcastic, or surprised. These should have been caught and corrected before she was famous enough that no one could edit her without her permission - but now is not the time to bemoan the decline in the field of redaction within the publishing industry.

Another flaw is that it is clear she is making things up as she is going along. Harry Potter's world is not a fully-realized "secondary creation"; there are times one can see the backgrounds being moved quickly into place. Her secondary characters (particularly the grown-ups) are often thinly-sketched, though that is at least in part due to the story being told from the point of view of a boy largely cut-off from the adult world.

Judging by the first 6 volumes, the Harry Potter series will not take a proud space on the shelf of Great Books. It may well, however, find a permanent spot on the shlf just below, where sit the Flawed But Still Wonderful Books; certainly it will remain among the Great Childrens' Books for a very long time to come.

Rowling's strengths are strong indeed.

The world of Harry Potter is told from a child's point-of-view, and Rowling never lets us forget it. During the first 3 volumes, I found myself constantly siding with Hermione, wishing that Harry would put his faith in Dumbledore and tell (or McGonagall, for that matter), but it made sense that Harry, an orphan long mistreated by his adoptive family would not be quick to trust any adult.

Rowling brilliantly shows us a child's world, where interclass rivalries and sports are far more important than the goings-on in the outer world. For most of the series, Qiddich is in Harry's mind at least as (and much of the time, more) important than facing Lord Voldemort. In the emotionally complicated friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, particularly as they enter their teens, Rowling shows a master's touch in her depictions of jealousy, crushes, and the teenagers terror at revealing what is in his or her heart.

Though the Harry Potter books are almost as heavy on plot and surprise as an Agatha Christie mystery, there is a great deal more there than just mystery (and adventure) to hold our attention. I cared enough about Harry and Ron and Herminone to be sad when they were sad, happy went things went well - I even managed an interest in Qidditch, a game whose 150 point Snitch bears far too much resemblance to barroom pool's 8-ball for my taste.

Rowling also knows how to show - without telling - kids growing up, changing. A review of The Half-Blood Prince I read complained that Harry had become too much of a complainer, too bitter, to be a fully-sympathetic character.

Well, of course Harry was bitter. He was 14 years old! He was under enormous pressures, he was (as Dumbledore would admit, near the end of the 6th volume) wrongly kept in the dark about the reasons for his involvement in matters far beyond his experience.

Beyond the characterization and the plot-driven mysteries of each volume but the last (the only one that doesn't come to a satisfactory conclusion of its own), Rowling brilliantly keeps the reader wanting to find out what happens next. Not interested in pleasing academe or theoretions, she is instead intent on telling a tale on its own terms. Like Tolkien, another author largely despised by academics who want an artist to footnote his or her own work with roadmaps to their metaphors and symbolism, Rowling instead has created a world (and never mind that her puppet-strings occasionally show, that makes sense on its own logic.

There are clear parallels (or so I choose to believe) between Rowlings world and our own - government more keen to promote the public's confidence in itself than to do its job, unconcerned about "mistakes made" or the innocent men and women who sometimes take the fall for the real villains' deeds; uncomfortable, but not really concerned, about its alliance with the Dementors, creatures whose only pleasure is to suck all joy - all life - from the living. It is easy to sea political parallels with Rowling's New Labour England - but it is clear to me that Rowling is only using her experience from the times in which she lives to tell an entirely different story. Should the reader choose to draw those parallels, he or she is free to do so (and I suspect Rowling would not object if he or she did), but she is not writing allegory, she is "only" telling a story.

And that story is almost all that a good story should be. Engaging, exciting, frustrating, relieving, even moving.

I have spent almost every waking hour of this long weekend immersed in a wonderfully-realized story and I can hardly wait until the 7th volume appears, so I can visit it again - and find out what happens in the end at last.

July 2017

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