Monday, 29 February 2016

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec

I mostly sat at the kitchen table while I read this, while eating oatmeal in the morning, with cream and brown sugar. There were always cups on the table in front of me, a vase of flowers, bowls from my mother with a pink and white floral or checked pattern, silverware, a mug with a picture of The Fat Pony on one side and "Small, Fat and Mighty" written on the other, a box of plastic wrap that I propped the book on while I read, a tupperware container full of white sugar, a pinch pot of salt. 

Then I would move to the living room with the book and read it seated in my corner of our couch, beside a chest of drawers my maternal grandmother made for me, and rest my cup of tea on top of a coaster that was a present from my mother's partner's daughter at Christmas, in front of an iPod speaker that barely talks to my iPod anymore, a lava lamp I haven't plugged in in ages, and a glass block with a celtic knot and fairy lights inside it that a friend made as a guest favour at his wedding. 

I have not, alas, sudden stories of murder to intersperse with these long descriptions of things. I have the things, but not the outbursts of violence amongst the things. 

I could, of course, go on like this for a while, but you probably get the idea. This book is filled with massive lists of things, either as part of a paragraph, as above, or an itemized list. There are lists of furniture, foods, paintings. All the material world, and that's interesting, but...five hundred pages gets to be a bit much.

Then, when there are bits of story, they're almost all murder. All obsession, but at least five or six murders. Related to people living in one apartment flat. And many of those five or six are multiple murders. It...strains credulity a bit. One murder, perhaps. At a certain point, it seems that everyone's just got some murder in their past and...really?

Particularly when this book is called Life: A User's Manual. The material surroundings make sense, but the rest bears so little resemblance to life as I've experienced it. All the murders. All the people making their living selling one particular thing to rich people. (I'm not saying that doesn't happen, but...almost everyone?)

I just don't know what to make of this book. It feels like he's trying something, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what, how this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to fit together. It's the story of an apartment building, in which the richest man is embarked on solving jigsaw puzzles made of watercolour drawings he did all over the world, which will then be taken back to the places they were done and erased.

That's interesting, but it's far from the centre of the book. We keep coming back around to it, but if there's a deeper meaning, then I'm stuck in a mass of blue sky pieces without any sort of clue as to how they're supposed to all fit together.

Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm just not erudite enough for this book. Or maybe it's that the book is needlessly obtuse, and I don't have the sort of obsessive personality that you would need to make this jigsaw puzzle make sense.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Book Blogger Hop: Familial Reading Habits

Book Blogger Hop

Participate here!

This Week's Question:

Do your children, siblings, or other family members enjoy reading as much as you do?

I'd say yes, absolutely. I come from a family of readers. We didn't have a television most of the time I was growing up, so books were the go-to entertainment of choice. My mother devours mysteries like nobody's business, my one sister read three books a day before her work visa came through in New Zealand, and my other sister certainly enjoys reading as well!

Bookshelves are a constant in all of our homes. I get a little weirded out when I go into someone's house and can't see their books. 

Thursday, 25 February 2016

"The Glory of Ippling" by Helen M. Urban

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Galaxy, December 1962

It's so nice to get back to these! The one I'm starting off with has the interesting distinction of being written by a woman, although in the story itself, women don't fare any better  than they often do in these stories, and even a bit worse than some. It makes me sigh. But we'll get back to this.

In this book, the main character has come to Earth to expose it to the glory of Ippling, their obviously amazing civilization of the stars. If only he can get those damned humans to pay attention!

That's actually pretty much the plot. At first, he tries at a wrestling match, then at a strip show, then as a carnival barker/streetcorner preacher. However, as he fundamentally doesn't understand the Earthling mind (I'm not saying human, and there's a reason), it all flops. Urban's last few lines say that the defining feature of Earthlings (although really, all we see is a small section of the United States) is that they don't really "believe in their religions and superstitions." That also seems like a bit of a broad statement, particularly to apply it to the whole planet.

Let's start with the first thing. Urban apparently subscribes to the trend in science fiction where all aliens are humans. There's rarely any discussion, but they're physically identical, and apparently interbreedable. I've decided to call this school of thought Pan-Spermanic.

So Boswellister (the names are absurd, and maybe that's why no one takes him seriously) is here to show the earth the glory of Ippling. At first, it seems like he's a representative of a galactic government, but then it later appears he's the youngest scion of a feudal society, out to make Earth his fiefdom. This story is inconsistent like this quite a lot, and that's too bad.

First, he tries to show off the glory of Ippling at a wrestling match, then at a strip show (the only appearance of a woman, with no dialogue), then on a street corner, trying to emulate a carnival barker. He is ignored, ignored, and then pursued by people who think he's giving away free samples.

(Also, the glory of Ippling seems to be a bright light. No wonder people aren't that impressed.)

How could he have misjudged so badly, he wonders? Well, rather than giving it another try, he gives up and moves on to another planet, where he will misjudge them just as much.

It's funny, but the first thing that struck me was that it was a fine example of Boswellister trying to be "hot" in how he forced people on Earth to notice him, a la Marshall McLuhan, when he should have tried to be 'cool' instead. Freaking out and yelling how awesome you are and how you have all the answers to everything on Earth - not really a great selling point at a wrestling match. Or street corner. Certainly not at a strip club.

The story is weak, and that's a problem. But it's amusing in its lightness. Except for my disappointment that a female author included only one female character, gave her no lines, quickly disappearing clothes, then ushered her off-stage. Literally.

No mentioned non-white characters, either, and the strip show is all we get of sexuality, so it's all very much about the male gaze.

If this story had been more pointed, it would have been better. Instead, it sets up a straw man and then proceeds to demolish it, which leaves the reader going "yeah, but...."

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Image result for long earth

This book solves a long-niggling problem for me! It's a silly problem, but it has seriously kept me awake at nights. You see, when I wake up in the middle of the night and my brain decides, hey, there's this idea I want to think about instead of sleeping, I often turn to one daydream. It's designed to relax me - I go through each of my senses, very carefully, and there's nothing unpredictable in the dream. Most often, I'm walking through a woods to a little cabin that is all mine, and when I get inside, I make tea and sit in front of a fire, reading. 

There are other variations on this theme, mostly depending on what's missing in my life. If I'm drowning in my dissertation and haven't seen friends enough, I'll go the same cabin, and have a party. The point is, I have a science fiction brain. And because in my head, this is always a different world, not our world at all, sometimes when I'm in the middle of relaxing, my science fiction brain will turn on and start asking questions like "then why are the trees the same?" "How long are the days and nights?" "How can things be so similar if you're on a different planet."

I realize this is dumb, but it seriously derails me getting back to sleep sometimes.  Pratchett and Baxter have solved that problem for me, with this idea of an infinite number of Earths in a row, to which you can pop over with the aid of a device and a potato.  The ones nearby are very similar, those further Earths away can be radically different.

An inventor releases the design for free on the internet, and suddenly a good portion of the population strikes out for further territories. The Earths nearest ours get built up, those further out attract the truly intrepid. The only thing is that iron and steel in their metallic form can't travel with you. 

Some people turn out to be natural steppers, not needing the potato or machine, while about a fifth of people can't stand to step at all. This creates dissatisfaction amongst those left behind, even though they're suddenly in much more abundant circumstances. 

Joshua is a natural stepper, indeed, he was stepped when he was just born, long before the invention was released or even thought of. He gets enlisted by a reincarnated Buddhist monk in an AI to go with him on a zeppelin through the worlds. Out there, they discover other humanoids - mostly peaceful singing trolls and bloodthirsty elves. Something is causing both of those races to stampede through the Long Earth, getting closer and closer to our Earth. Even if their intentions aren't bad, they can clearly panic.

Weirdly, when you combine Pratchett and Baxter, it reads a bit like Douglas Adams. Perhaps it's the potato and AI/Buddhist monk. I have only read one previous Baxter book, at least two decades ago, and despite the last name we have in common, did not like it at all. He has, it seems, gotten better over the intervening years, or maybe it's Pratchett's influence, but this was an easy read, an intriguing one, and as I know there are further books from here, I'm curious to find out where the series goes next.

At any rate, just its very existence may help me sleep better at night. Unless my science fiction brain finds something else to worry about.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Week in Stories

The Dust Cover Dust-Up is finished, and I can return to some of my irregular features. Gaming stories on Tuesdays, old science fiction stories on Thursday. When I've got something to write about, anyway.

So, we had the second sitting of our crazy reincarnation game, Not Fade Away on the weekend. It was a bit of a shorter session, but I think that worked out well enough - sometimes having less time means more focus.

It is a sprawling story, and in many ways we're still feeling out the edges, both of the plot and how our characters relate. There are bound to be some scenes where we're just trying to figure things out - but what I'm really impressed by is how meaty some of the scenes we're doing already are, and what they bode for things to come.

Time Periods We Played In:

Monday, 22 February 2016

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

I came to this one somewhat randomly, picking it up from my local library more or less on a whim, and because it was on a Nebula reading list from a year or two ago. For some reason, I had it in my head that it was young adult, and I can't really tell you why. Maybe there are a lot of YA that are the "City of" Something.

This is not Young Adult. It's very adult, and I liked it very much. It's complex in all the ways I like complexity, without using ideas as a shield around characters I don't care about. Characters, plot, and ideas all work together really well, and that's a rare thing.

There's a lot of detail here about oppression and othering. Should I go into world history first? That seems right. For a very long time in this fiction, the Continent was the preeminent power in the world, particularly since it had very real and present gods that looked after their affairs. Saypur had no gods, and its people were looked on as less than human and ruthlessly oppressed.

My chronology might be a bit off, but about 60 years ago, Saypur rose under a general, the Kaj, who discovered how to kill gods, and did so. That caused all sorts of cataclysms on the Continent that I will not detail - but they are amazingly vivid to discover when you come across them in the book. Now Saypur is dominant, and for the most part, seems to be setting out to be just as repressive as their forrmer oppressors. Those on the Continent are barred from even knowing about their history, speaking of or honouring their lost gods, or in any way having a past.

The Continentals are not chastened. In fact, some of them persist in seeing the Saypuri as less-than-human. There aren't easy sides to take here, no clear benevolent force in the midst of displays of power. Hate flows from both sides, justified and unjustified.

Into this, a murder mystery. The murder mystery and the strange city meant that this book reminded me quite a lot of The City and the City by China Mieville, at least initially. An eminent historian from Saypur there to study the Continent is found dead. A Saypur spy shows up to investigate, and she knows far more about the Gods than most would.

(Also she's accompanied by a giant Sigrud, whom I totally loved. Shara and Sigrud both.)

She's undermined by her superiors back home, hated by the Continentals around her, regarded with suspicions by the Saypuri dignitaries in Bulikov, the City of Stairs. It's a classic story of fighting alone (or almost alone) against all comers.

There is also an ex-lover and a sideplot about sexuality under the Continent and on Saypur, and how it is tied up with certain Gods, particularly the one who was all about law and order.

Of course, as the story goes on, it becomes apparent that the Divine might not be as dead as the Saypuri thought, and that might not be as good a thing for the Continentals waiting for a return of their glorious past as they thought.

There are some really great twists in this book, the kind that you don't even know will be coming, but which reframe things in profound and sometimes shocking ways. Bennett has done a really masterful job of layering in ideas and then bringing them to fruition in startling ways.

Overall, this book is really excellent, and I can't wait to read the next. It was a pleasant surprise, not just that it was more adult than I was expecting, but then also that it was so damned good.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Book Blogger Hop: Favourite Reading Spot

Book Blogger Hop

Participate here!

 This Week's Question:
Do you have a favourite place to read?

My absolute favourite spot to read would probably be in my recliner/rocker by the front window in our house - good natural light, I can rock or recline depending on my mood and how my back's doing, and our older cat loves to snuggle up on my lap while I'm reading there.

However, given that my husband's back has been bad lately, he most often gets that chair and I turn to the far side of the couch (which also reclines - we're all about the reclining), and create a little book nest around myself, with coffee or tea within easy reach.

Ideally, though, if we had a larger place, I'd like a reading spot that is away from the television.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up Top 10 of 2015

I made it! It took an ungodly long time, but here we are. The end of the 2015 Dust Cover Dust-Up. It's been a long road, but here we are. After I announce the totally unsurprising book of the year, I'll put down my top ten. We're down to two books:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman vs. Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

I loved both of these books a lot, and recommend that you should read both. Like, right now. In the end, though, it's not really that hard a choice. Jeanette Winterson's book knocked my socks off in a way no other book this year has, and I've been telling everyone I meet to read it. (And next month, making my book club read it.) So, there you go. The winner of the 2015 Dust Cover Dust-Up.

The Top 10 of 2015 are after the cut: