Second Chances, Part One

My husband and I moved to Charlotte about two months ago. We’re about as settled as we can get considering the place we’re renting now is intentionally temporary, somewhere to stay while we look for a house to buy. There are lots of boxes that it doesn’t quite feel worthwhile to unpack, pictures that don’t go on the wall because they’ll just be coming down again so soon. I’m trying to make myself comfortable with the transience.

The first time I visited Charlotte was in 2012. I was with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. He was in town for a business related conference, which we’ve since realized are not good things for me to tag along on. There wasn’t anything objectively bad about the city. We had friends already living here, and we could have moved then, too. At the end of the week, though, we looked at each other and decided we would stay in Connecticut. It wasn’t until this past spring, three apartments, three jobs, one wedding, and almost four years later, that we really reconsidered.

The view from our porch this morning, blue skies and a little folliage
The view from our porch this morning, blue skies and a little foliage

 

It wasn’t love at first sight. Maybe it’s not even love at all yet. When my family and friends ask how I’m doing, I want to be enthusiastic. I want to tell them that everything is perfect, but I can’t yet. I’m tired of the traffic, the job search, the way I can’t walk or run in my neighborhood. I miss the people I’m far away from.

But there are good things, too. A new coffee shop, a band to play in, a part-time job. The weather is glorious. We’ve been hiking, an activity I resisted for years but found myself enjoying in practice. I’m finding my footing, one step at a time. There is enough here to convince me that Charlotte will be worth the second try.

Hope everyone is settling in right where they need to be this week- talk to you soon.

Reconsidering Chuck Palahniuk

A few days ago I found a Kickstarter for a film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby. Or rather, I got a direct message from whoever runs Palahniuk’s Twitter (it’s not him) pointing it out to me, in case I wanted to contribute any money to getting the movie made.

Cover of Lullaby, with the iconic starling
Cover of Lullaby, with the iconic starling

I showed it to my husband. Palahniuk was one of our first shared literary interests when we started dating. We still have duplicate copies of several of his books on our shelves, relics of a pre-cohabiting, pre-Kindle era.

Even though we’re arguably fans, we laughed a little over some of the backer rewards for the Lullaby movie. $15 for a PDF of the shooting script is one thing. But for $500, you can have a leather-bound, signed, limited edition copy of one of one of Chuck’s books. For a little more, you can get a tattoo of the movie’s logo. For two grand, you can be in the movie.

“Didn’t they used to pay people to be in movies?” I asked. “Not the other way around?”

Making fun of the Kickstarter was not classy of me, I’ll admit. Movies are expensive. If fans are willing to put that kind of capital into getting a thing made, they should have something to show for it. I should not mock people for spending money on things that bring them joy.

But I personally am not going to fork over $20k so I can own the prop grimoire from the movie.

Palahniuk’s best-known work is still his 1996 novel Fight Club. By the time I hit puberty, the 1999 film adaptation  was on its way to cult classic status. I can’t shake the sad feeling that this, his first published novel, was also the height of Palahniuk’s fame. Fight Club and it’s rules are a part of the cultural lexicon in the way that none of his other books ever were.

When I was in high school, I got into Palahniuk because that’s what all the cool kids were reading. Maybe not the class president, captain-of-the-sports-team cool kids, but the nerdy, witty, acerbic types. These were the people who started bands and wrote poetry and stayed up to see the sunrise. They pushed boundaries and broke rules, or at least it felt that way to me. They were the ones I wanted to be around and be like.

We worshipped these books wholeheartedly. Palahniuk’s words made their way into our yearbook quotes, and we joined MySpace groups called “Chuck Palahniuk for President.” For my junior year science fair project, two friends and I researched all the anarchic chemistry proposed in Fight Club. We didn’t actually attempt to drill holes in a gun barrel or make napalm out of orange juice, but we did make soap. We used grocery store-bought lard that did not come from humans, as far as we knew, anyways.

There’s a sense now that Palahniuk was something we were supposed to give up after a while. The bizarre, gross details that pepper his books, the inevitable plot twists—it could get gimmicky, overly theatrical. Adolescent boy stuff. We were meant to grow out of loving this.

Confession time: I never actually did.

I couldn’t get through Haunted. It wasn’t just the infamous opening story “Guts;” it was the rumors of auto-cannibalism later, and my fear that something bad was going to happen to the cat in the frame story (no one tell me what happens to the cat, I don’t want to know). I stopped reading his new releases after Pygmy. I probably should have quit after Snuff. The porn industry has its problems, but I’m not sure Palahniuk was meant to tackle them. Pygmy was further out of his experience. It read like a bad episode of South Park, a poorly drawn satire that has transformed into the very thing it meant to skewer.

But everything that came before…

Lullaby, the book that is being kickstarted into a movie, is heartbreaking. It’s about a mysterious poem that’s really a spell. Saying it aloud or even just thinking it kills people. Lullaby is also about families, both biological and found. It’s about guilt and grief and how easy it is to do harm, even when all you want to do is help. There’s also a necrophiliac coroner and a real estate agent trying to sell haunted houses. Someone gets gum in their hair, or maybe it’s boogers.

Palahniuk has written some of the most memorable things about boogers I’ve ever read. The only other author who’s come close is Charles Dickens. Both the phrase “pendulous excrescence” and the nose picking in Rant will haunt me to my grave, so thanks for that, Chuck(s).

Invisible Monsters was a personal favorite, reread many times. The events that kick the story off are horrific—the main character has lost most of her jaw to a gunshot wound—but it somehow manages to evolve into a hopeful, chaotic road trip story. It asks how much we sacrifice when we obediently fill the roles others have chosen for us rather than following our own passions. “Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there,” the narrator urges.

There were others, too. Diary, with it’s creepy parody of both art school and small-town living, is my husband’s favorite. I’m least-fond of the protagonist in Survivor, but it’s absolutely worth a read for the counterpoint structure alone. I consider Choke to be the worst-of-the-best, but it’s surprisingly charming for a book about an amoral conman who’s addicted to sex.

These books got into me in a very real way and never left again. They colored the way I looked at the world. The stories are full of ordinary things transformed into fateful objects. IKEA catalogues, birth control pills, suicide hotline stickers, Easter eggs. The cap of a restaurant ketchup bottle, a letter opener, an email password. After you finish one of Palahniuk’s books, it’s like you’ll never feel the same about these things again.

Maybe this is nostalgia talking. I’ve that most people will like the music they liked at age 13 for the rest of their life. They might not listen to it on a regular basis, but when one of those songs comes on, they won’t change the radio station. Palahniuk is literary equivalent to that, at least a little bit.

If the amount of money the Kickstarter has raised is any indication, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I still believe there was something valuable in those books, though. Hidden beneath the shock value exterior was truth and beauty. Many of them have happy endings. Our younger selves might have pretended to be cynics, but it turns out we were romantics all along.

Books That Made Me Want to Travel

A good book can transport you to a new place, sometimes literally—with a few intervening steps, like packing, of course. It’s immensely satisfying to see places after reading about them. There’s a flash of recognition, a feeling that you’ve been there before, if only in your mind.

I’ve been lucky enough to get my passport stamped a few times in the last decade, and my travel bucket list is heavily influenced by my reading list. I read a lot of fantasy, so sometimes I wind up visiting the real-world inspirations for imagined worlds. I’ve been known to pick up more realistic fiction and nonfiction, too, though. Here are some cities I’ve visited and the books that made me buy the plane ticket:

Istanbul, Turkey—The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

historian

This sprawling novel about academics chasing after a vampire takes place in several different countries, but the sections set in Turkey made me yearn to go there. Kostova describes Istanbul in the 1950s as a place that mixes the modern with the ancient. The two empires that ruled the city, Byzantine and Ottoman, both left their mark without managing to erase the cultures that came before. It’s all still there today: the Hagia Sophia, the mosques, even the skewers of grilled meat and locals selling talismans against the Evil Eye to tourists.

 

Athens, Greece—The Queen’s Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

thief

Part of what drew me to The Thief and its sequels as a teenager was my already-established obsession with Greek mythology. Attolia, the fictional setting of the books, isn’t Greece, exactly. It’s not Turkey either, although Turkish history also influences the novels. It’s more of an alternate history where neither the Roman Empire nor Christianity reached the region, and the culture mixes ancient governing systems with Renaissance technology (like primitive guns). All these disparate elements work together smoothly. The result is kind of like visiting Athens. Above the very modern city sits the Acropolis and some of the most iconic ancient ruins standing today.

Florence, Italy—Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King

dome

Kind of cheating here, because this book was gifted to me in college after I’d already decided to spend a semester in Florence. I had a nannying gig that spring, and while the kiddo napped I would sit at the kitchen table with this book and daydream about my upcoming trip. Filippo Brunelleschi was chosen to design a dome for the Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s grandest cathedral. No one in living memory had built a dome that large, and Brunelleschi had to solve the problem of how to do it without buttresses or scaffolding. Knowing the history of the Duomo made living in its shadow more exciting. The best part was climbing to the cupola and knowing that I was in the same spaces the builders used hundreds of years ago.

Venice, Italy and others—Kushiel’s Legacy Series by Jacqueline Carey

kushiel's chosen

The characters in these alternate history/erotic fantasy epics are well traveled. In the first book alone, the protagonist goes from living in alternate Renaissance France to being enslaved by a proto-Germanic tribe to negotiating a marriage treaty in England. I might never catch up, but I did go to Venice after reading Kushiel’s Chosen, the second book in the series. I was fascinated by the history of the old Republic and the contrast between the opulent masked balls and the wretched life of the state’s convicted criminals (although Carey’s prison, La Dolorosa, is markedly more isolated than Venice’s real-life Prigione Nuove, for plot reasons). Venice is very much in the business of preserving its Renaissance grandeur for tourist consumption, so I was able to get a mask, take a gondola ride, and peek at the Ponte dei Sospiri.

So far most of my trips have taken me to Europe. Even in Istanbul, I never crossed to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I’d love some recommendations that would give me the itch to go to some new cities, countries, and continents. What books have influenced your travel dreams?

 

A State of the Novel Update

Hi there, and happy Friday! I hope you all had a good week. Today instead of a book review, I want to give you a quick update on my writing.

I’m working on a novel. It’s about a high school teacher who sees ghosts. Not only sees them, but helps them cross from this life into the afterlife—she’s a psychopomp. It’s mostly urban fantasy, but it has elements of horror, romance, and a twist of historical fiction if you look very closely and I don’t cut it all out in the next draft.

I started writing this for National Novel Writing Month, also called NaNoWriMo. If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it’s an international challenge that takes place in November. Participants aim to write at least 50,000 words in thirty days. There’s no cost to join in, but there are some neat prizes (mostly only things that book-nerds would call neat, but if you’re not a book nerd you’re probably not doing NaNo in the first place).

I did hit 50k words in November, and I finished a first draft in December. I took a few weeks off from that to launch this blog and spend some holiday time with the people I love. Since the beginning of January, I’ve been rewriting and revising. My goal is to have a respectable draft finished by the end of February, and then to look for someone to edit the draft.

When I made that goal it was mostly arbitrary. I work better with deadlines than without, so I gave myself a deadline. But all of a sudden it’s not so arbitrary anymore, because I’ve met a person who would like to read my work. I won’t mention their name here because nothing’s set in stone, but they have more writing and publishing experience than I do, and they are interested in reading what I’ve got so far. We’re set to meet again on March 1st, and while we’ve both acknowledged that Things Can Happen in a month and this may not work out as planned, I now have an added degree of motivation to get this done.

I’m also going on vacation this month, which I’m very much looking forward to but which will cut down on my writing time. This is all leading up to me apologizing in advance if things should slow down here in the next month. I still want to keep to my update schedule, and I will definitely keep recapping The Magicians on Wednesdays, but some of my Monday and Friday posts might be less “1,000-word in depth analysis of my feelings about a book” and more “Hi I’m not dead this is what I’m reading goodbye.”

I’ve written a lot of things in my life. I’ve written nonfiction, fiction, microfiction, fanfiction…and I’ve edited some of those. I even finished a very short novel once, when I was fourteen, but that’s in the drawer with some scrapbooks and concert programs where it belongs. This is the first time I’ve rewritten something on this scale. Tiny changes that I made to the early chapters wind up having huge implications in later chapters, and now I’m making decisions about the ending that force me to go back and rethink the middle. I’ve spent the last day and a half mired in a very boring part, lots of talking and no action. I’ll probably scrap the whole thing later, or at least rewrite it into a shorter scene, but I’ve realized I need to write it so I can better understand the character who’s doing all the talking. It can feel absurd, but I think it’s all going to be worthwhile.

Like I said, my next step will be to let some other people read it. I already have the one person who’s interested, and I’m hoping I can find more people who have different experiences and perspectives as well. After that, I want to shop it to potential agents and/or publishers. I haven’t ruled out self-publishing, but I want to try the traditional publishing route first.

I’ve already accomplished way more, writing-wise, than I even set out to do back in August. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had the time and the space to work on this. I’m lucky enough to have always had wonderfully supportive family and friends when it comes to writing and any other thing I take it into my head to try. I’m really looking forward to sharing this book with all of you.

I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend! See you next week, when I’ll be posting about Francesca Lia Block, but not that one book that she’s really famous for, another one.

2016 Resolutions, Part 3: Nonfiction

Looking back, maybe I should have started my series with this post. The subject matter isn’t as emotionally fraught as the other two. I could have eased you all into it. Then again, I am always the best at tackling the tough stuff first thing, while I’m still feeling fresh. Ask my college friends, who watched me go to class all day on Monday, then practice, then come back to the dorm to claw my way through a chapter outline or whatever was on the syllabus next. By late Friday morning, they would routinely find me in the basement of the music building, clutching a bagel and moaning about how much I wanted a nap. So, if you’ve had a stressful first week of work in 2016, sit back and enjoy a fluffy Friday post about my last resolution.

I finished 70 new books in 2015. The biggest, most undeniable, un-ignorable number in my reading tally was 69 (go ahead and chuckle at that if you’re fourteen at heart, like I am). That’s the number of works of fiction that I read this year. Even I can do this math; that means I only read one nonfiction book.

That book was Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over The World (link) by Anne Jamison. Here is a screenshot of the not-particularly-articulate review I wrote of the book on Goodreads:

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.33.19 PM

Note the starting and ending date on this one, it took me over three months to finish. Granted, it’s a book of essays, not one cohesive page-turning story, but still. Obviously I wasn’t terribly excited to pick it up. The five status updates are also telling, I usually only update my progress on a book if I’m bored with it.

The sentiments in the review really do hold true. There were parts of this book that really interested me. And yet.

I can count on my fingers the nonfiction books I remember reading for pleasure in the last decade. If there are more, they were so dull that I completely blocked them out. My justification of this, for many years, was that I had to read a lot of nonfiction type things for school, so there was no point in eating up my spare time with books of the same type I was already reading for class.

Well, I am no longer in school, so that excuse is thinner than discount leggings. I still like knowing things about the world, but I’ve become way too complacent in my ability to learn them through other means. Mostly the Internet. Recently I came across this interview  with Arissa Oh, the author of To Save The Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. I devoured the interview, but I really didn’t give a second thought to reading the book. Could I have learned more if I read it? Absolutely. But it wasn’t in my hand, and to get it there immediately would cost fifteen dollars. Whereas I could just keep surfing for free.

As wary as I am of nonfiction books, it concerns me that my ability to read them has atrophied. I don’t want to be the type of person who can’t focus on a topic for more than a few thousand words. I want to learn how to engage with information again the way that I did in high school and college, and maybe even enjoy it more without the pressure of a grade hanging over my head.

So, resolution time: in 2016, I’m going to finish five nonfiction books. I’m starting small– set low goals, feel good about yourself.

My task now is to find nonfiction that I’m interested in reading. Here, in no particular order, are some other topics that I am a nerd for and/or would like to know more about:

1) Teaching. I have a teaching degree, I have been a teacher, these stories are fun for me. I downloaded The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy this week, which gets bonus points for being a memoir about a teacher in North Carolina.

2) Music. Mostly classical and jazz, but there are some other individuals or styles I’d like to know more about. I’m not sure I’m down for any 900-page biographies of Sousa, but the topic is so incredibly wide I’m sure I’ll find something before the year is over.

3) Folklore and fairy tales. One of the most enjoyable nonfiction books I read for school was The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of Grimms’ Fairy Tales by G. Ronald Murphy. I love learning about the stories that people tell and why they endure.

4) Travel/Other cultures. I really like reading books about places I’ve been to, or want to go to. I spent four months studying abroad in Florence, so I could pursue that. This summer I was in Istanbul for two days, and I’d really like to do some more reading about the history of that city in particular.

That’s a start. I could definitely enjoy other topics, if they’re handled well enough. The last nonfiction book I really enjoyed was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is part science, part American history.

Do you only like books if they’re about things that really happened, or are you a nonfiction slacker like me? Can you recommend any favorite nonfiction reads? Tell me in the comments.

2016 Resolutions, Part 2: Gender

On Monday, I talked about how I had a hard time tallying up the authors that I read in 2015. A little bit of it was just a numbers issue, and my legendary failure to be any good with math. Some of it was heavier, like assigning a race and gender to each author.

There’s the question of books by multiple authors, or books that have authors but also illustrators contributing. For example, last winter I read Let It Snow, a collection of novellas by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle. Is that two ticks in the women’s column and one in the men’s? Is it three ticks in the white column, or just one? I read multiple books by some writers. Do I count them more than once? Am I tracking books, or people? I hadn’t come up with any of these answers in advance.

No matter how you count it, I came up with a very small number of non-white authors. I talked about my resolution to read more racially diverse authors in Monday’s post. Today I’d like to examine my relationship to gender and how it impacts my reading.

When I was doing my tally, I assumed I would be able to discern gender from the author’s name, their picture, their pronouns, or a combination of the three, but that isn’t always true. For one thing, there’s a history of female authors writing under male or ambiguously gendered pen names. At one time, it was because writing was considered a masculine profession. These days, it’s because a book with a woman’s name on it is more likely to be considered just for girls or women, whereas a book written by a man is for everybody. I am rolling my eyes super hard at this idea as I write, but the bias exists. Just ask Joanne Rowling.

Then there’s the fact that not everyone fits into the gender binary. For all I know, some of these people might identify with a gender that’s different from the one I would assign to their name or picture. Presentation and pronouns might give me some hints, but who am I to say for sure?

At the end of my not-so-scientific book tally, about two-thirds of the books I read last year were written by women, the other third by men. Not nearly as drastic a difference as the racial one, and not something I see the need to address. I’m sure there were other years when I read more men than women, and I will probably have those years again. Once I really started to think about gender, though, I realized a concerning absence. To my knowledge, none of the books I read were written by a transgender or genderqueer author.

I say “to my knowledge,” because I can’t know for sure. There are post-transition people who choose never to come out to the general public. They just want to live their lives, and I respect that. But there are trans authors who are out, and I didn’t read them last year. Looking back, I didn’t even read any trans stories written by cis authors. In 70 books, I can think of only four that featured characters who were trans or nonbinary. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them side character, a genderfluid god, a murdered trans soldier, and a villain who uses their magical ability to swap genders as a method of disguise. Not great representation. I can find better.

I’ve lived my whole life feeling secure in my identity first as a girl, and then as a woman. I won’t say it was always comfortable, or that I didn’t struggle with femininity, because it wasn’t and I have. But I lived with the knowledge that this is who and what I am supposed to be. The gender I was assigned at birth “stuck,” as one of my professors in college liked to put it. That has afforded me undeniable privilege. At a glance, people assume I am a woman. They use my preferred pronouns automatically. People I’ve just met don’t ask me uncomfortable questions about my genitals. The same, unfortunately, isn’t true for trans people.

I’m beginning to feel like a broken record here, but part of why I read is so I will grow in empathy. Reading is the fastest, easiest way to ensure that I get out of my own head and into someone else’s for a part of every day. It’s important that I seek out people who have had different experiences from mine.

 

Now, how do I translate this into a plan of action? I’ve already said I’m going to read 35 books by authors of color this year. If I pick a smaller number of transgender authors, does that look like I’m placing less value on their experiences? I don’t want to do that, it’s not fair and it’s not my job. The whole point of this experiment is to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I’m not sure assigning myself a number, and then patting myself on the back when I reach it, is the best way to do that. Then again, having a quota does force me to actively seek out more diverse literature…

I have no answers. For now, let’s say that I’d like to read more trans authors, and more trans narratives, this year, and leave it at that.

How are your reading resolutions going? Found anything new or exciting yet? Do you have any favorite books by trans or genderqueer authors to recommend? A quick google found me this Buzzfeed list, which seems like a not-terrible place to start.

2016 Resolutions, Part 1: Race

On Friday, I wrote about the reading challenge I set for myself in 2015, and about the books I read last year. I mentioned that I tried to get a count of authors by race and gender, but after a lot of tally marks and frustration, I gave up. Not only was it complicated, it didn’t feel productive.

I’ll talk about gender on Wednesday, but for now let me focus on race. While doing my count, if I wasn’t certain of an author’s race, I would Google them. It’s usually (not always) possible to figure out if a person is white from a picture, which is what I started off doing. Before long, looking at my own notes started to bother me. I had a column marked “White” and one marked “POC” (people of color). I might as well say that there are only two races, “white” and “not white.” Most of the authors I read are American, so the first line of their Wikipedia page isn’t likely to divulge their heritage in great detail. Names can be misleading, too. I think the one case that made me realize how reductive I was being was Lisa See, who wrote a book set in China and has a Chinese-sounding surname. In pictures, she appears to be white. But on her website she writes about her Chinese grandparents and her efforts to bridge Chinese and American cultures. People are more than a check mark.

Here’s my dilemma, then, as a reader. I am white. I grew up in a mostly-white community, where white teachers and librarians and friends and relatives gave me books written by other white people to read. I read those books and recommended them to my friends, who were also white. For a long time, all of my favorite authors looked like me, and I didn’t realize there was a problem with that, or really even notice it, until I was in my twenties.

At the risk of sounding super corny, reading is supposed to expand our horizons. It’s supposed to teach us empathy. I don’t need every book to shake apart my whole worldview, but it should make me think a little bit. If I only read people who look and live like me, that’s not going to happen.

Even though my tracking system was flawed, I was able to pick out a few things about my reading in 2015. Of the 70 books I finished, about 60 were written by white authors. I can’t ignore a discrepancy that large, so how to deal with it?

There were a lot of interesting pieces around in early 2015 written by people who had stopped reading white, male, cis, or straight authors, or some combination of the above, for a year or more. There’s a pretty good summary of that phenomenon here. I admire that dedication, but I’m not sure I could do it. I’m better at additive goals, exercise more instead of eat less, for example. Telling me to do or have none of something is usually a good recipe for making me want that thing more; just ask my Catholic upbringing and all the chocolate I “gave up” for Lent. Also I haven’t read the new John Irving book yet, and there’s no way I’ll make it all year without caving on that.

That said, my proposed resolution: I will finish 35 books written by authors of color in 2016.

It’s not perfect. I’m still not satisfied with the idea of lumping together all people of color into one “non-white” category. But I feel like I have to start somewhere, and this is it. I would have put less thought into it if I wasn’t blogging about my reading life, for sure. I am really grateful to everyone who is reading right now. You’re all keeping me accountable, just by behind here.

What are your book resolutions this year? Are you going to read more books? Are you doing a “Read Harder” challenge like the ones at BookRiot or Panels? Can you rec me some of your favorite diverse literature? Tell me everything in the comments.

Giving Books

A short post today, since I’ll be busy hanging out with my family, opening presents, and eating lots of delicious food.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through the holiday season without giving at least one person a book. For a while I was reluctant about giving people titles they hadn’t specifically asked for. It seemed more like an assignment than a present.

Then I started to think about all the unasked for books that people have given me over the years. Some of those surprises have become my favorites. Now I’m less reluctant to gift books. I promise, if I give you one, I’m not going to quiz you on it later. Feel free to leave it on the shelf or regift as you see fit.

Also, if we’re friends on Goodreads, I’m going to mine your “to read” shelf for ideas before I shop.

This year I didn’t go too overboard on the book buying. My husband recently finished Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card, so I bought him the rest of the books in that series. As I kind of mentioned in Monday’s post, we’re both reading and discussing these books, so it’s kind of a present to both of us.

 

I bought my brother two books that were on his wish list, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman and Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham. I’ve never watched Parks and Rec so I can’t really speak to the Nick Offerman phenomenon, but I’ve seen a little bit of Bo Burnham. He first got popular as a comedian/singer/songwriter with a YouTube channel when I was in college, which is incidentally a great time in life to sit around and watch YouTube videos. I paged through this book before wrapping it, and it was mostly made up of funny, sweet, and/or satirical poems illustrated with cartoony line drawings. If you squint it’s Shel Silverstein-esque.

My family buys each other a lot of books from the Best American Series. These are collections of short fiction and nonfiction, published annually. There are several different genres, from mystery to sports writing. My favorites are the “Nonrequired Reading” books, because they’re full of interesting, not-easily-categorized work.

I didn’t buy any copies this year, but I’ve given Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett many times. It’s such a weird, funny, poignant, smart story. I never get tired of it, and I think there’s something in it for everyone. This was the first book by either Gaiman or Pratchett that I had ever read, and it’s a great introduction to both authors.

That’s all for this Christmas. Tell me about the best books you gave and received this holiday season in the comments.

Out of Context

Have you ever re-watched a movie as an adult that you liked as a kid and thought oh man, I totally got none of the jokes in this? Or if you’re an adult who spends time around kids, maybe you’ve chuckled at a joke that flew right over most tiny innocent heads. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just check out one of the many clickbait lists devoted to the phenomenon. The stuff kids miss isn’t always about sex or drugs, even though most of the examples in those links are. Disney’s Aladdin was my favorite movie growing up, but at four years old I was too young to fully appreciate Robin Williams as the Genie impersonating pop culture icons like Groucho Marx or Jack Nicholson.

Lots of time, especially in family films, the dissonance is intentional. Kids don’t go to the theaters by themselves, and sometimes the filmmakers want to throw in a treat for the grown-ups. After all, they pay for the tickets.

Even though reading is often a shared experience between generations, I haven’t seen as much of this phenomenon in books. There are tongue-in-cheek picture books like Go the F*ck to Sleep and All My Friends Are Dead, but they’re really aimed at adults. I got my nephew a Star Wars board book for his first birthday. He and his dad seemed equally amused by (for the first twenty readings or so), but I can’t think of any other instances of humor in books that children are really meant to miss.

Still, those moments of childhood obliviousness and adult recognition happen to readers, too. I think they’re a powerful argument for revisiting books from our youth. By the end of elementary school, I was capable of finishing books aimed at people much older than I was. Even if I understood the vocabulary, I didn’t always have the context, the background knowledge that the author assumed the average reader has. I still had a lot of fun reading those books at the time, and I enjoy the little “so that’s what that meant” moments I’ve had returning to them years later.

When I was in fifth grade, I did a book report on Cat Crimes for the Holidays. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a book of short mysteries all featuring cats and set around different holidays, including Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and some less widely celebrated ones like Arbor Day. The teacher told me I could choose my favorite story from the bunch to do my report on. I picked the Halloween story, a short entry in Carole Nelson Douglas’s Midnight Louie universe, which features a black cat who solves crimes. The story was called “Iä Iä Iä- Iä! Cthlouie.”

At age ten I had never heard of H.P. Lovecraft or his Cthulhu Mythos, but I really loved that story. I got up in front of the class and chattered about Louie’s trip to Innsmouth while I showed off the little cut-paper tentacle monster I’d created as part of my visual presentation. I wish I could say the teacher was entertained, but I think she was as confused as my classmates. My love for Lovecraftian pastiche and parody endures to this day, and in fact eclipses my enjoyment of his original works.

There have been other many books I read without understanding their place in the larger canon, and I have really fond memories of some of them. In middle school I read The Knight of the Sacred Lake, the second of Rosalind Miles’ Camelot novels, without having read the first book or really knowing anything about Arthurian legend beyond The Sword and the Stone. Not only did I finish it, I think it ruined me for reading a lot of other Arthur stories, since I now have no patience for the ones that marginalize Guenevere and the other female characters. After my freshman year of high school I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because a boy I liked thought it was a good book. I didn’t disagree with him on my first read, but almost two years later my English teacher made me learn something about Irish history and the meaning of the novel deepened. I started Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology, which is heavily based on Lord of the Rings, despite my total apathy towards Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Carey is one of my all-time favorites, so maybe I’ll even finish someday.

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned from tearing through stories that I wasn’t ready for, it’s that there’s no such thing as ready. There’s no need to track down every precedent and inspiration for what I read, unless that means I’m going to read more great literature in the process. When I ignore my inner completist and jump into a genre or series I don’t know anything about, I can learn things, and find new things to love.

And if I start to feel really lost, these days there’s always someone online who’s willing to explain the joke.

 

Reflections on The Ender Quartet

Somehow I managed not only to keep this post under 1000 words, I also wrote it with only minor spoilers for all four books. It’s a Christmas miracle!

When I first picked up Children of the Mind, I didn’t plan on writing about it for this blog. I had a few reasons. It’s the final book in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Quartet, so a stand-alone review would hold little interest for someone who wasn’t already familiar with the story. It was first published almost twenty years ago. And finally, the more I read about Card the less likeable I find him to be. I’m not sure how I feel about recommending his books to anyone, or even talking about them, to be honest.

Then when I was about three-quarters of the way through Children of the Mind, I realized that whatever flaws this series has, it really does embody some of my favorite things about science fiction. I had to write something.

Just hanging out at the coffee shop with my book

There’s something special about Ender’s Game. Card claims he never planned to write this book. In the introduction to one edition, he explains that he had plotted Speaker for the Dead and realized that he needed to explore the backstory of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. A short story about Ender’s childhood grew into the novel we know today.

Ender’s Game stands apart from the other books in the original quartet, separated by distance, time, and scope. The other three novels, set in the distant future, grapple thematically with questions of cultural and individual identity as they tell the story of three sentient species living on several culturally distinct planets. Ender’s Game is the story of Ender Wiggin, and to a lesser extent his siblings Valentine and Peter, as they come of age in a world that no longer seems so different from our own. It tackles heavy themes and hard questions of its own—at what age, at what point are we considered responsible for our own actions? Do we also need to answer for the actions of the people we’ve influenced?—but does so elegantly with beautiful prose, never losing sight of the emotional lives of the characters.

Speaker for the Dead feels is a drastic departure from Ender’s Game. Instead of Earth, it’s set on the planet of Lusitania, where the human colonists coexist uneasily with the native pequeninos, a species of sentient humanoids. It’s part murder mystery, as the seemingly peaceful pequeninos have been responsible for the deaths of two humans. It’s also part family drama, following the emotionally damaged biologist Novinha and her equally damaged but brilliant children. Ender is still around, now an adult and seeking redemption. Although he plays a crucial role in untangling some of the mysteries, it doesn’t feel like his story so much as Novinha’s story. The plot is like a really good episode of Doctor Who. The source of the conflict is a staggeringly wide cultural gap, and it takes an anthropologist, not a warrior, to resolve it.

Xenocide and Children of the Mind were originally intended to be one book, and they read like two halves of a whole. In Xenocide, the story telescopes out beyond Lusitania to other worlds and perspectives. A new scientific mystery occupies Novinha’s family, the need to neutralize a deadly virus. A faceless villain emerges in the form of the Starways Congress, a Machiavellian interplanetary governing body. Thousands of years later, humanity has forgotten the lessons Ender learned a child, and the Congress is threatening mass destruction again. Children of the Mind picks up most of the unresolved conflicts right where Xenocide leaves off, as the characters race against an impending attack on Lusitania and try to communicate with another sentient species. The conclusion left more than a few threads dangling, but I also found it too emotionally neat—there are no deaths that can’t be mourned and moved on from, and there’s a big wedding just in case anyone didn’t know this was a happily-ever-after type ending.

All four books preach the importance of tolerance above all things—tolerance in the face of fear, revulsion, and even danger. The times when the characters are most threatened by the Other are also the times they must make the greatest attempt to understand the Other. It’s a message that has continued to ring true in the years since the books were first published.

My husband pointed out that there’s a significant disconnect between that message of tolerance and the author’s actions. Card is publicly anti-gay, and was famously a member of the National Organization for Marriage an organization devoted to opposing same-sex marriage. In 2013 queer activists called for a boycott of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game.

The question of whether we consume or not consume art based on the creator’s personal life or beliefs is difficult. Do we stop listening to The Ring Cycle because Wagner was an anti-Semite? Do we stop reading H.P. Lovecraft because he was a racist? Do we stop reading Card’s books because he is a homophobe?

We’re never going to eradicate problematic creators from the canon, nor should we try. That’s a censorship slope I have no desire to start sliding on. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what not to read, but there are authors I don’t read because I can’t separate the person from the books. Card isn’t one of those, as much as I disagree with him. After Speaker for the Dead, I bought all of his books used at Powells or Alibris, so he’s not getting any royalties. When I went to see the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in theaters, I donated the price of my ticket to GLAAD, in the hopes that their organization will help promote media with queer creators and more positive representation. That’s the compromise I make with myself, and I’m satisfied with it. You can decide for yourself. If you want to give the Ender books a try, I’d be happy to loan you my secondhand paperbacks.