#BestReads2015

The good news is that this year, I read a lot of books. 

The bad news is that most of them were for external obligations, not for the straight enjoyment of it. That always casts a shadow on reading, because it's hard to savour some prose when at the back of your mind you're thinking, "Gah! I'm only halfway through this thing and I've got eight more books to go after this!"  

It gets worse if those "eight books to go", plus other obligatory lists, are outside one's normal genres to read in. Left to my own devices, I mostly read science fiction and mysteries, with some non-fiction, fantasy, historical, and literary fiction mixed in. This year, I mostly read literary fiction, because that was what populated the majority of those aforementioned lists. I find myself siding with the camp, mostly of SF fans, who call literary fiction "domestic fiction". In fact, I'd switch over to that term exclusively except that so few other people would know what I'm talking about. It's not that I don't like literary fiction — I did wind up enjoying a number of these obligatory novels, despite the pressure to read through them promptly — it's just that the more I read them, the less I understand why literary fiction is considered both deeper and more neutral than so-called genre fiction. Literary fiction has a tendency to portray people and relationships — family, friends, romantic attachments — in a certain light, with certain cultural signifiers attached, and say, "this is normal; you can relate to this; now here's the extraordinary part" while at the same time being wholly alienating (to me). Science fiction and mystery stories say, "here's the extraordinary thing" and then let you orient yourself into the story with the signposts you recognise.

A quick note on The Martian: I had my paperback copy of The Martian all pulled out and flipped to a reference page when I started this post, and then decided not to put it in the list. Not because I didn't love it, because I did, both the film (which I saw first) and the novel. I liked the pop culture references, and the way it reminded me of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (of course), both in the "castaway" plot and the amount of prose spent showing the math and working out things. People think showing the math was invented for hard science fiction, but that's because not enough people read both hard science fiction and Daniel Defoe. And not enough CP Snow, for that matter, but I digress.

I wound up leaving it out, though, because... it's problematic. It's plausibly problematic, which is to author Andy Weir's credit, but it opens a whole can of problematic worms about where "nerd" ends and "asshole" begins, and while I think it's great that it does that, it deserves its own blog post. I should write that. I should write lots of things.

Anyways, here's this year's list. Fiction first, then non-fiction.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I reviewed Persuasion last March as part of a different group reading & blogging event. I always like Austen, even when her characters are annoying me, like they do in Emma. For all that people love to make fun of Austen fans, for all the jokes about Darcy and formal dining room manners, Austen's actual work has almost painfully incisive observations about the human condition. She spends a lot less time describing ladies' dresses than her modern-day detractors do. I'd even argue that Austen is more important to read now — her psychological observations hold true even though the world has changed, and put paid to the "oh, but technology" arguments condoning poor behaviour.

Persuasion is particularly compelling, because it spends more time than some of Austen's other novels showing how easy it was to lose one's place in the gentility, how easy it was to become destitute and cast out. For all the gentle social outings described, it depicts a harshness one doesn't often see in a novel categorised as a "romance".

Here's the extraordinary thing: if a woman was stuck with an unsupportive family, if she was browbeaten into refusing just one marriage proposal, she was at real and serious risk of becoming homeless and destitute, because all other options for supporting herself either paid very poorly or were illegal.

The Cuckoo's Calling/The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith

I always said JK Rowling would be fabulous at writing mysteries, so when it was revealed she was doing just that under the pen name Robert Galbraith, I was thrilled. I think the magic and wizard-jargon and other world-building details from her fantasy books made people forget (or not notice?) that she's a very sharp observer of human nature. She's in Austen's literary lineage in that sense, I suppose — both of them can depict character so accurately it makes the reader wince a bit, then turn it this way for a humorous effect, or that way for pathos.

Cormoran Strike, the detective protagonist of both novels (I haven't read the third one released this past autumn), is the kind of barely-hanging-on yet incredibly capable character mystery readers have seen before in Sam Spade and Kurt Wallander. Strike's own personal life is often a spectacular mess, which contrasts beautifully with his adept way of determining the truth.

I'm recommending the first two books as one here, but The Silkworm will be of particular interest to writers, given that the murder victim is an author and all of the suspects are writers or otherwise connected to the publishing business.

The Killing Moon, NK Jemisin

NK Jemisin has been on my to-read list for at least two years, and now that I've read one of her books, I definitely want to read more. I know she's been a target of the people behind the various Hugo Puppies slates, and I have to wonder if they've actually read any of her work, because they claim to prefer the science fiction and fantasy genre as it "was" in some version of the past or another, and The Killing Moon, to me, is very classic fantasy. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy books I read in the 80s and 90s, though the books were all published in the 70s.

The Killing Moon takes place in a world modelled after (but not identical to) the Nubian reign of ancient Egypt. I love watching archaeology documentaries on ancient Egypt, so I got hooked very quickly. In fact, reading this book got me into watching videos about the real-life ancient Nubians.

Like Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong series, The Killing Moon is a novel which reads as fantasy, but as I understand from the author's afterword, the fantastic setting does have a science fiction backstory supporting it. Certainly the worldbuilding is very complete and compelling — it's easy to imagine other characters yet unknown, on other adventures in other realms of the same world.

The central characters in The Killing Moon all belong to a state-sanctioned religious order which... let's just say their central tenets do not match very well with the Abrahamic ones we're used to taking for granted in the Western world. It was fascinating to read of the characters working through decisions and actions based on a moral code which was alien to the industrialised world. Favourite detail: in the city which serves as the main setting, it is illegal to have buildings with doors to shut off rooms, because that makes it more difficult for the official priest class to steal into residents' bedrooms at night... and kill those sleeping within for ritual purposes. The wonder of it is, Jemisin convincingly portrays it, when done with the right intent and methods, as a caring, considerate act. It's a sublime empathic experience for a reader.

The use of magic in the story is, like the world-building, logical and immersive. I don't remember reading anything in the afterword about the science behind the magic, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if there was some.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

This is such a hard novel to describe. Batman meets 1,001 Arabian Nights is probably the closest, but that falls very short. It's an incredible adventure in a very classic vein — I could see it as a filmed adventure series like they used to show in cinemas in the 30s and 40s — but there's this undercurrent of sadness to it, of despair, so when the funny parts happen (and they are hilarious) it feels a bit like the reader is, like the characters, laughing to distract themselves from the calamitous ending of an era.

But over that sadness, lots of adventure happens. Swashes are buckled, magical beasts vanquished, enchanted potions drunk. One thing I appreciated is that instead of being relegated to obscure, Yoda-type mentoring, the older characters are all front and centre. They may be too old and stiff for this adventuring stuff, but if evil threatens their city, they're going to go down fighting, damnit. The younger characters (and they're present and involved as well) are also important, but they bring a different focus. That that, Joseph Campbell.

The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer

I am not part of the legions of stalwart Amanda Palmer fans. Some of her songs I like a lot; others I don't. When I agree with her, I agree with her completely, but I don't always agree with her.

In The Art of Asking, though, Palmer isn't asking the reader to agree with her all the time, or give her everything she asks for. She's just asking us to learn how to ask for help when we need it, learn how to give help when someone else needs it. That might sound very basic, but as much as she's known for being a forward-thinking artist, it almost feels like the book is asking us to remember something which seems to have been lost along the way: the idea that a social interaction can be mutually beneficial, the idea that, as social animals, human beings do need to work together. My favourite part was when Palmer described how, the whole time Thoreau was living by Walden pond and writing about self-sufficiency and isolation, his family would drop by once a week and give him a batch of their home-made doughnuts.

I listened to the audiobook version, and this is one time I strongly recommend listening to a book instead of reading it. The audiobook has all sorts of extra aural goodies, mostly in the form of songs at the ends of major sections. It's part autobiography, part manifesto, part call to action. What action? You'll have to ask yourself.

Here's the TED talk Palmer gave which led to her writing this book:

 

Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull

By my estimation, there are approximately fifteen gazillion business books out there, out of which about fourteen gazillion are about productivity and work culture. They all range from overly narrow to just plain wrong.

Creativity, Inc. is the history of Pixar, from Ed Catmull's initial research into computer animation when he was a student, to Disney's acquisition. Catmull himself outlines in an early chapter what makes it different from other management books. Most business books crow about the successes of the author, and claim that if you copy them, you'll be successful too — except it seems they're never quite applicable to the situation you find yourself in. Instead, Catmull gives example after example of all the things he, Pixar management, and Pixar in general did wrong, and then goes over the consequences of the mistake and what happened to make things better again. A lot of what he presents is counter-intuitive to current corporate thinking, but he argues for why the Pixar approach is better. And no, he doesn't just say, "we've had a string a hit movies — even the duds had good box office returns".

Maybe it's his software development background coming out, but the case studies and framework Catmull depicts are applicable well outside the constraints of a computer animation film company. He's talking about how to work a problem, about attitudes, about creating an environment where people are truly safe to speak up when they see a better way of doing things. And, oddly enough for someone with no formal business education and who works in a very specialised industry, his ideas make way more sense than anything I've read in other business books. A lot of what's in Creativity Inc. would apply to a volunteer group or a one-off, family-based project (say, a major home renovation) just as equally as it would to the for-profit working world.

Along the way the reader gets a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some already-classic films, and some refreshing observations on what it was like to work with Steve Jobs. Catmull's depiction of Jobs — appreciative and respectful, but nowhere near a hagiography — feels far more realistic than a lot of the other material out there.

book review: Afraid of Everything

"I’ll need an hour to get there, don’t you think? I know exactly where it is, over near the shopping center at Old Pasadena. A thirty-minute drive from our house, but you never know with delays. I’ll head west on the 210 and take the San Fernando exit, driving the rest of the way via surface streets. Or I could get on Colorado and take it straight there. No, on second thought, I don’t want to accidentally end up at the mall, so forget Colorado Boulevard."
I slipped the card into my wallet. “If there’s extra time, I might call this Gloria person. If I feel right about it. Meanwhile, I’ll tidy up. It’ll help to calm me down.”
Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything was an interesting book to read. I went in expecting, based on the back-of-book blurb, that this was going to be a Nora Roberts-type story of a woman overcoming emotional and psychological challenges. It is that, but the structure and plot are more in line with much older forms of literature than the novel. Large parts of it reminded me of the dialogues between Socrates and Plato; the entire middle section read like the allegorical journeys undertaken in proto-novels from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The main character, Helena Carr, is an unemployed nurse who suffers from general anxiety disorder. As the book title tells us, she is afraid of everything. The reader mostly knows this because Helena is constantly telling everyone she knows that she is afraid of everything: her therapist, naturally, but also acquaintances as slight as her next-door neighbour's nephew, whom she meets at a barbecue party.

The first half of the book lets the reader meet Helena, find out about her current situation, and discover her history of anxiety with some well-placed flashbacks. This exposition is completed with skill, and there are some acute observations about life in suburban America that many readers will find themselves nodding along with. I did wish that the reader could have learned what led Helena to quit her job through a more immediate narrative; instead, we read a version of what happened as she explains it to her therapist, which made the events less immediate, more difficult to empathise with the anxiety it caused Helena. Even so, given later events in the book (no spoilers!) this may have well been by design.

Helena has a serious car accident halfway through the book. Now, no spoilers again: it's mentioned in the About the Book blurb (see below). Helena is in a coma, but her consciousness is on a different plane of existence, with only a vague awareness of what is happening around her physical self.

“Of course you could have. I’ve been with you for a very long time, Helena, well before you chose to turn your back on that little girl. This was before I got promoted.”
“From being a Trusted Guide to something more?”
“The Trusted Guides stay on the Other Side, waiting. They aren’t allowed to visit here as I do with you,” she ended with a slight toss of her head.
“What are you?” Helena asked, hardly hoping for an answer. She expected any minute to see Coriander stand up, reach into Helena’s close quarters to pat her hand as she always did and disappear until next time. “An angel?”
“I am a Friend. A Third-Level Friend, I might add,” she stated.
“A . . . a Third-Level Friend?”
“My duties are to comfort and protect. To succor the weak, to lift up the hands that hang down. To minister. To counsel.” Coriander counted down the five points on the fingers of one hand as she spoke. “I don’t claim to be perfect, not yet anyway, but I think I’m fairly good at what I do.” She peered down at Helena and added demurely, “I hope you think so, too. I hope I have been a help to you during your time of need.”

It was the second half of the book which reminded me of allegorical narratives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very much. The language is in the style of contemporary America, but most of the dialogue (and there is a lot of dialogue, here and throughout the book) is on this level of metaphysics and philosophical exposition.

I wasn't sure if the author was drawing from an established mythos or one she'd invented for the book. Christianity seems to be present in the concepts of heaven, angels, and a singular God, but there's also a lot about past ancestors watching over us, a version of reincarnation, and some other aspects which reminded me more of New Age/non-Abrahamic religions. Of course, since Helena is in a coma at this point, it could also be construed as different parts of her brain constructing a dream reality in which to consult, comfort, and heal each other. Parts of it, such as the excerpt I quoted above, reminded me of George talking to Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life.

Even in this altered state of consciousness, Helena is, as a medical professional, very aware and very concerned about her both her chances for survival and the hospital procedures which may influence that. I have to say, as someone who has lived all her life in a country with universal healthcare, the idea that a coma victim would spend time worrying her relatives might be forced to "pull the plug" when the insurance money ran out terrifying. To people who live in different circumstances I would guess it would come across as a serious but practical consideration.

I think if you're someone who can relate to the American suburban lifestyle but wants to experience a journey which mostly takes place in metaphor and metaphysical discussion, Afraid of Everything is a book you should check out. I recommend trying the excerpt on Amazon.

About the Book

Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything is a touching and expertly written book about the life and experiences of Helena Carr as she explores an intriguing new world.

Helena Carr is afraid of everything. After a crisis at work, she quits her job and feels lost. It’s time for a serious change, to beat the extreme anxiety that has plagued her since childhood. Something different, unplanned and radical. Sell her house, move to a foreign location, turn her life upside down in an effort to end the emotionally paralyzing fear. 

Before Helena can act on her options, however, she has a terrible accident on a Southern California freeway. Instead of going on an exotic vacation, she is in a hospital, in a coma, traveling to strange worlds in another dimension, meeting people who seem to know more about her than she knows about herself. 

As Helena explores this intriguing new world, she realizes the truth about her past and the purpose of her future. And she is no longer afraid. She is at last ready to live. But first, she must wake up from the coma.

Paperback: 285 Pages

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (October 7, 2014)
ASIN: B00OAC0N6U

Twitter hashtag: #AfraidGowen

Afraid of Everything  is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon

About the Author:

Born and raised in central Illinois, Karen Jones Gowen now lives and writes in Panajachel, Guatemala. She and her husband Bruce are the parents of ten children. Not surprisingly, family relationships are a recurring theme in Gowen's writing. Her children’s stories have appeared in the Friend, and her essays in the Jacksonville Journal Courier. Gowen's published books are Farm Girl, Uncut Diamonds, House of Diamonds, Lighting Candles in the Snow, Farm Girl Country Cooking: Hearty Meals for Active Families and Afraid of Everything. She blogs at her website, karenjonesgowen.com and at Coming Down the Mountain.

Karen can be found online at:

Website: karenjonesgowen.com
Blog: karenjonesgowen.blogspot.com
Email:
karenjonesgowen@gmail.com
Twitter:  @KarenGowen
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/karen.gowen.1?fref=ts

book review: Thieving Forest

 

When Susanna looks down at the peapods again she sees the new black lace on her cuff. Her parents died almost two weeks ago and only one day apart, Ellen first and then Sirus, as unexpected as two suns setting in the same evening. Susanna, who is superstitious, has put a piece of rowan wood in the pocket of her black dress to guard against ghosts, although she misses her mother, and would almost chance the frightening encounter in order to see her again. She's lonely for her. She's lonely for both of them. Part of her feels gone as well, like there's a room in her home that she can't go to anymore, a locked door. She thinks of her mother's freckled hands cutting bread.

Thieving Forest is being marketed as a Young Adult book, which I think is very unfair. It is suitable for young adults, being focused on a sixteen-year-old girl and with suitable content, but it would appeal just as well to anyone who enjoys well-researched historical novels. The main character is Susanna Quiner, the second-youngest of six sisters, and of life in the swamps and forests of Ohio in 1806. The youngest sister, Lilith, still lives in Philadelphia, which makes Susanna effectively the youngest. Before their parents' deaths, and certainly afterwards, the older sisters tend to order Susanna around, which is precisely why she is out of the house doing chores when the rest of her sisters are kidnapped and taken into the nearby forest. The only one left free, Susanna decides the only right thing to do is lead a search party to rescue her sisters.

The first thing I noticed reading Thieving Forest was the use of the present tense. It was unsettling for the first five pages or so to read an historical novel using this, but after the brief adjustment period it becomes an excellent device for pulling the reader into the story. The choice of verb tense reflects well on the rest of the prose elements — the writing is vivid but not florid, in a style that reminded me of Hemingway, but without his intense brevity.

The next noticeable thing is the incredible care taken with historical accuracy. Certainly the details all tallied with what I remember from school about the same period in Canadian history. The characters embody what is beautiful, ugly, great, and awful about this part of America in the early nineteenth century. To accomplish this, of course, the characters need to be well-rounded, and it was a real pleasure to see all of the various character arcs weaving through the story. Characters it was easy to dismiss as minor grow in importance, while ones that were essential fade away. Susanna is the through line, the reader's window into this world. The author doesn't shy away from depicting common prejudices of the time — instead, they are included as important plot points, as much as they may make the contemporary reader wince. A major theme is that any community will include good people and bad, leaders and layabouts.

The men shake their heads. The woman who collected bird bones looks at Seth. "Your women lost?" she says in English. "No good."
He tells her in Potawatomi that the two women are heading north. They are going to the Maumee. One has red hair.
"Many streams here." She shakes her head. "You are the first chmokman I see."

One aspect of the historical accuracy that I particularly enjoyed was how all of the major characters were multilingual. The ones who speak English as a first language know a little French, and are near-fluent in at least one First Nations language. The First Nations characters may or may not know English, but the major characters have at least a little French, or know other native languages besides the one their own nation uses. The characters' language knowledge doesn't slow down the dialogue or the plot at all — on the contrary, it enhances both. It also points out that the story takes place before the famous American "melting pot" effect has had a chance to work. The Midwest as such simply doesn't exist yet.

I have to admit: I was nervous about reviewing this book. The promotional blurb is up-front about the detail that the sisters were kidnapped by Potawatomi Indians, and I worried that the story would divide a little too neatly along the traditional Western "Indians bad except for this one token character/whites good except for this one token character" lines. I was relieved and very pleased to discover that this is not the case at all — even the sisters' kidnapping is a far more complex affair than it appears at the beginning of the book. I would be very curious to read a critique of the book from a First Nations perspective, though.

The only note of caution is that the depiction of life in 1806 Ohio is not romanticised at all. Characters get realistic injuries, and have realistic, 19th-century style medical care for them. Some characters die from injuries or illnesses which wouldn't even warrant a hospital stay in a modern city. Having said that, the physical details are sometimes grim but never gratuitous. There is absolutely no lazy-writer hand-waving over details like how to find food in a swamp with minimal tools and skills. When, late in the book, a character catches a vole for dinner, as a reader you're far too busy being happy that they won't starve after all to feel repugnance. (All right, not much repugnance. The point stands.)

Thieving Forest is the first five-star rating I've given on Goodreads since I read Wool, over a year ago. The clear writing style, vivid characters, well-turned plot, beautifully illustrated themes, and thoroughly-researched historical setting make it a very rewarding read.

About the Author

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

outrunning your readers

It seems silly to call spoilers on two books which were both released more than a year ago, but... spoilers. Just minor ones though.

I just finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and while I can't actually say anything against it — her narrative voice is spot-on, her characters are realistic to a wincing degree, and her plot is immaculate — it fell a bit flat for me. This post is about why, and why it's the same thing that made The Da Vinci Code a slog to get through for some people.

Let me explain.

Remember The Da Vinci Code? The plot structure wasn't unlike a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. A protagonist with deciphering bona fides finds puzzle after puzzle, each one leading him on to the next clue. The action and danger escalated geometrically, and the solution to each puzzle provided a new twist to the plot.

Or, at least, it was supposed to. Certainly for the readers who loved the book it did. It even led to a whole related flurry of books, documentaries, and TV specials running through which conspiracies were historical and which Dan Brown had made up whole cloth.

For other readers, however, it was all very underwhelming. One of them was my brother Rob, who studied art all the way through high school. "This is all stuff we took in class," he complained. "All that stuff about Da Vinci's The Last Supper... anybody who studied any art history or has ever bothered to read up on Renaissance painters is going to know that. It's no big secret."

I never studied art, so Rob was ahead of me there, but both of us received a lot of puzzle books as children. We used to try out ciphers and send each other messages all the time. Some of the ciphers in The Da Vinci Code were the same as the ones we used to play with. I remember there was at least one chapter (the one with the mirror written message) where I knew the solution at a glance, and had to march through twenty pages of the characters asking each other, "But what could it mean?" before they finally figured it out. Other chapters I had a pretty accurate idea of what the cipher was, and had to plod through until it was deciphered in the book.

This isn't to brag, not at all. It's to point out that if your reader has knowledge pertinent to your story context, they're going to get very frustrated with your story. It's sort of a variation on the "howler" of an inaccurate detail in an otherwise realistic story. The difference is, that while a detective story may make a police officer cringe, or a medical thriller make a doctor wince, these are bits of knowledge that a non-specialist may have acquired just by liking to read. Quite probably they are members of the book's target audience.

So: Gone Girl. At the top of this post, I described the characters as realistic to a "wincing degree". The two main characters (they take turns narrating in the first person) are both narcissists, possibly sociopaths. The issue is that if you've ever had the bad luck to know such a person well — I have — it's obvious after five pages in the book what they're about. It's a credit to Flynn as a writer that she portrays them so accurately, but it means that the three big plot twists people have discussed a lot are completely predictable. As a reader, I didn't know the exact details, but I could see the fallacies in what was being narrated (narcissists are the perfect unreliable narrators) and knew reality was going to give them a hard smack long before it happened.

That meant that the reading experience was a lot "flatter" and, well, non-thrilling for me. What kept me reading was that there was a sort of perverse joy in exploring the behaviour in two people who were married to each other. All the real-life narcissists I've known have always wound up connected to non-narcissists (all the better to make the relationship and the drama they get to generate from it all about them).

What do you think? Have you ever had a book fall flat for you because you had knowledge that blew away the mystery before the plot could?