Reading List 2011 (10/185)

Dear lord, the book backlog is getting dire and it’s nearly 2012. On the other hand, I’ve just written my very first grant application, so on the whole, I’m calling things a win.

In the meantime, have some books!

  • Among Others, Jo Walton
  • March, Geraldine Brooks
  • The Now Habit, Neil Fiore
  • Read This Before Our Next Meeting, Al Pittampalli
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • A Shadow in Summer, Daniel Abraham
  • A Betrayal in Winter, Daniel Abraham
  • An Autumn War, Daniel Abraham
  • The Price of Spring, Daniel Abraham

This was a surprisingly good batch of books. I had low expectations for some of it – particularly Read This Before Our Next Meeting, as Domino Project books have tended to lean toward the regurgitated-blog-post, and the Abraham series, because it’s so easy for fantasy to drop into the land of dull-and-blah. But really, there wasn’t a single book here I was sorry I read, even if I’m not sure they’d all stand up equally well to re-reading.

My least favorite book, weirdly, was March. This is weird because I love counter-texts, and I love Little Women, for which it is a countertext, and I love historical novels in general, and I think she’s a lovely writer in terms of craft. So why didn’t I like it? The sections of the book told from Mr. March’s perspective are quite good, but Brooks makes this unfortunate transition into Marmee’s perspective, and the book just falls apart. First we’re worried about, oh, I don’t know, a nation tearing itself apart – and all of a sudden we’re in a bad romantic comedy, where oh noes it looks like he’s cheated on her but really he didn’t, how dramatic. I found it insulting to me as a reader, not to mention to the heroines of the abolitionist movement. There’s a lot of good juicy flavor in the Marmee / Washington DC section of the book, which kept me reading – okay, that and my profound hatred of leaving a book unfinished. But I was annoyed at the book the whole damn time!

The most useful book here was, without question, The Now Habit. It looks at the psychological roots of procrastination, and shows you how to both address them (in the long run) and work around them (in the short run). I’ve occasionally struggled with procrastination – but more often, I get terribly worried that I might procrastinate and not be able to control it. (Is that weird? That’s probably weird.) This book gave me a ton of strategies to control procrastination, including some that I already use without knowing all the good they do. For example, when I get a big project, I break it down into steps and schedule them all, working backward from the completion date. Turns out this is a powerful anti-procrastination technique, though for a fuller explanation you’ll have to read the whole book.

In related news, Pittampalli’s book is good if you, like me, are thinking about what kind of research lab (or other organization!) you might want to create. Plus it’s a quick and easy read.

The most personal book, for me, was Among Others. It’s a magical-school fantasy, but with a twist. Instead of an ordinary girl attending a school for witches or wizards, it’s the story of a girl with magical powers who has joined a mundane boarding school after a terrible tragedy. She escapes into books, and eventually blossoms because of them. It sounds hokey but it isn’t; the details are sharply observed and emotionally resonant. Any smart, lonely girl will find an echo of herself here. Bonus points: the magic actually feels magical. No spells or rituals or magic wands – just the inexplicable, which might as well be subjective as real.

I’m not reading a lot of fantasy these days; I just can’t get up the emotional energy to care about it, particularly when it’s so often full of assorted bigotry* masquerading as “realism.”  Abraham actually managed to get and keep my interest without pissing me off, so I’m quite pleased on that front. The premise of the books is that just one civilization of his fantasy world has access to magic, which is controlled not by wizards, but by poets. Poets describe a single concept so carefully that they gain control over it – and its personification, an “andat,” which in turn works to regain its freedom by driving the poet to death or despair. In the first book, the andat Seedless helps the city-state of Saraykeht retain its economic dominance by removing seeds from cotton (seriously! it’s awesome!) – but when the Galts decide to invade, they have to destroy the city’s poet first. Chaos, unsurprisingly, ensues. I especially enjoyed the moral dilemmas that characters have to face, which are the heart and core of the book. Generally there are no good answers, and the characters’ choices flow naturally out of their personalities and experiences. While the story can often be dark, he doesn’t do gratuitous grittiness just to show how hard-core he is, which is nice if you (like me) prefer your fantasy without too much posturing. I’ll definitely read his other work at some point!

Finally, I haven’t re-read the Twain books in, as far as I can remember, at least a decade. What’s odd about re-reading them is how little my memories match what’s actually in the books. I remember, of course, Tom and Becky getting lost in the cave; Tom and the fence-painting incident; the boys attending their own funeral; the Royal Nonesuch; Huck’s decision to “be damned” and help Jim. But I found myself noticing very different things in this reading. Tom turning Jim’s rescue into an elaborate game. Huck saving the Widow. Encountering the abandoned steamboat in the middle of the night. I’m still thinking about how different the books feel to me now, and what that means. For now I’ll just close with the thought that reading these books in my thirties is different, and you might want to try it too.

Happy reading!

* Do I need to explain why “realism” is a bullshit argument for defending bigotry in books with magic and dragons and made-up cultures in them? **

** That is a rhetorical question. I hope.

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