On Reading Challenging Books

I’ve been thinking lately about book reviews and the way that people respond to books, specifically how enjoyment becomes equivalent to quality.  First off, you might notice that I don’t rate books that I review on here.  I’ve got to the point that I really only even review books that I enjoyed, because I don’t feel like bad-mouthing books, and because it’s just more enjoyable to me to write about things I liked.

I save that for the snarky side of this blog, but even then it’s only when I really have the energy for it.

But, we were talking about Challenging Books.

By which I mean, books that take effort to read, that take longer, feel less enjoyable, or require more thinking than whatever genre object you’re used to.  People choose to read challenging books for many reasons, and while it’s perfectly fine to either decide not to finish or to admit that it wasn’t particularly enjoyable, assigning a quantitative value marker to a book based on personal enjoyment seems a bit disingenuous, particularly for book reviewers.

But then, there are book reviewers and book bloggers and the two do not always coincide.

I will say that if enjoyability is affected by poor or harmful representation, then, yes, that’s a marker of quality, but the fault lies with the book’s construction, not with whether it “ticked all the boxes,” as some bloggers like to say.  There are many reviewers doing important work who point out this type of harm and it is important for readers to be aware of these issues.

But not all books that are challenging fall into this category.

I’m thinking, particularly, of a novel I’ve been working my way through for over four months now, Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko.  It is by far not the longest book I’ve read, though it clocks in at over 700 pages in trade.  It’s simply… a marathon.  I try to read a little every day, but usually don’t get through more than 20 pages at a time.  But it’s not a bad book, by any means.  I would even go so far as to say it’s a very good and necessary book.

It’s simply written in a narrative style that requires effort to keep up with, a huge cast of characters, most of whom aren’t what we would generally consider “good” people, and it deals with a subject matter that is full of trauma and violence and colonialist history.

It’s the story of the violence perpetrated on indigenous people of the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, and Central America, and though it takes place some years ago, reading it is a manifesto to everything that continues to be wrong with the way indigenous populations are still being treated.  Though many plotlines deal with indigenous beliefs that some might lump in with folklore elements, as well as a certain amount of mysticism, the style is realist and literalist, and every character is so many shades of gray that I gave up looking for the traditional “hero” protagonist a long time ago.

But it’s still a great book, a very necessary book, the kind of book every person should read exactly because it is not an “enjoyable” book.  It is a challenge.  As a white person it’s a challenge for me to read it and to consider my own complicity in everything that it describes.  As someone who’s never faced poverty or significant violence or the affects of drug addiction/the war on drugs it’s a challenge to put myself in these characters’ positions and really understand what motivates them and the stories they are really trying to tell.

But then, I’ve never really read books in search of enjoyability.  I’ve read books in a voracious attempt to consume every column inch of text and to catalog every word and every character and every plot twist, because if someone has taken the time to write it, I want to be the one to read it.  I’ve backed off a little as I’ve aged, but I still feel that pull, sometimes.

Books are life, and it’s a reader’s job to live them all.

 

Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

Passive Females, Aggressive Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the constant push by so-called “pro-life” individuals to limit the ability of those with birth-capable bodies to control their reproductive health.  Ok, let’s be honest, I think about this stuff all the time but I read an article not long ago, the second such in the past year or so, that talks about the biology of human reproduction and the ways in which the gestating parent’s body literally fights for control, and survival, with the growing fetus pretty much from the second the thing is implanted.

The article, published on aeon.co, essentially lays out the many ways in which human reproduction is anything but romantic, natural, or, especially, safe for those doing the gestating, and only instilled in me even further the idea that a fetus, until the person carrying it effectively gives it birth and, by so doing life, is nothing more than a parasite that will kill the person carrying it if it can, all in the name of its own survival.  Likely, this is largely–the article goes on to explain–due to evolution, which has caused these conditions to occur over many thousands of years in order to create humans with large brains, brains which require huge amounts of resources during the pregnancy stage in order to properly develop.

Further, the number of pregnancies successfully carried to implantation, and not even to term, is significantly lower than those which end up in the toilet every month, carried away by a menstrual cycle that is guarding the person’s health so rigidly it is literally safer for the person to bleed for 5-7 days than to carry a developing fetus anywhere other than (un)safely attached to the uterine lining where the parent’s body can keep a watchful eye on it.

This isn’t the miracle of life, it’s fucking war.

But the point I’m trying to make is that in a situation where the person’s body is actively trying to starve and stymie a fetus’ access to the parent’s resources, for so-called pro-life individuals to portray abortion as an act and allowing an unwanted fetus to gestate as simply allowing “nature” to take its course is not just hypocrisy but actually quite monstrous.  The act of gestating a child has become so dangerous to the human species that the parent’s body will fight tooth and nail to get rid of it because the alternative is being stripped of health and life one heartbeat at a time until the parent’s body is nothing more than an essenceless husk at the end of it.  I’m put in mind of the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road in which the lifeless fetus is cut out of Angharad’s dying body in order to take possession of a potential male offspring.  So-called pro-life individuals see only the poor dead fetus, so ripe with potential and life, while completely ignoring the life of the woman draining out on the dashboard, robbed of autonomy and made into just a vessel for someone else’s ambitions.

The passivity with which so-called pro-life individuals try to paint themselves is so aggressive, so demeaning to people with pregnancy-capable bodies.  It’s wrapped up in the false premise that pregnancy, the state of being pregnant, is a passive state, and any movement to change that state is an aggression, when, as the article referenced earlier ad nauseum shows, pregnancy is anything but a passive thing.  To end a pregnancy is less violent than the violence being enacted daily between parental body and fetus.  The article poses it as a sort of natural selection, that any embryo not strong enough, not fully implanted, must die in order to protect valuable resources, but when it comes to abortion, shouldn’t it be only the natural progression that the final say over the continued existence of a parasitic embryo lie with the one in whose body said embryo came to be?  And to take it further–because a lot of people are afraid of so-called late-stage abortion because suddenly the even-more-voracious parasite is bigger and has a face–shouldn’t the decision of whether to potentially sacrifice one’s own life in order to bring that squalling parasite into the world lie with the one, the only one, who will forced to give up their life for that to happen?

But this all plays into the idea that pregnancy-capable individuals–generally gendered female–be always passive, accepting of whatever comes to them, never taking what they want or in any way making demands on others, especially on cis males.  Besides being just wrong–not all pregnancy capable bodies are female–it feeds into cultural norms that are designed to privilege the cis male individual, which we can all identify as patriarchy.

In thinking about these juxtapositions of passivity/aggressivity, I’m minded of a novel I read recently (on audiobook, to be specific), by Emma Donoghue.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder portrays the experience of an English nurse, a Nightingale Nurse, to be specific, trained by the redoubtable pioneer of the profession herself, hired by a tiny Irish village to investigate the wondrous little girl in their midst who seems to subsist indefinitely without eating.  Now, this post is soon going to cross over both into the realm of Discussion of Actual Scenes in the Book (aka spoilers) and also pregnancy and sexuality specifically dealing with cis women.  I’ve done my best to keep this post as non-transphobic as I am capable till now, but as the subject matter of the novel specifically deals with cis-coded women, I will generally be talking about women and gendered cultural expectations around being women, so please just know that I’m not unaware of what’s happening, but to avoid complications I’ll use the gendered terms from the novel itself.  (I certainly understand that trans women and trans men are even more pressured to conform to cultural gender expectations and receive even more harassment.)  As to the spoilers, well, reader beware, I guess.  Or stop here and go read the book.

The Wonder deals with the parallel storylines of Lib Wright, a widowed nurse, and Anna O’Donnell, and eight-year-old girl who refuses to eat and has become a source of spiritual tourism for her community.  Lib has been hired to watch Anna and ascertain whether she is in fact eating from some hidden source, or to keep her from eating, or to prove she is a saint, depending on whom Lib meets during her two-week stay in the impoverished village.  Already this is ringing cultural bells–a little girl becomes famous for literally doing nothing, the only acceptable way for a female to gain notoriety.  Lib, on the other hand, is part of possibly the only profession remotely acceptable for a woman to have outside the home–taking care of others, mothering–even though to do it for money is a cultural indicator that Lib is used up, not good enough even to care for her own family, which the reader finds out is far too close to home for her.

Throughout her two-week stay in Ireland, Lib fights the opposing urges to nurture Anna and convince her to eat, and to conduct her watches as a strict experiment, reveling in the moment she foresees herself finding Anna out and proving that there is no such thing as manna from heaven upon which a little girl can sustain herself.  Lib wants science, not superstition, to be proven the authority–something all people who believe in reproductive autonomy can support–and yet for that to happen Lib must completely relegate Anna to the guardianship of people who have something to gain from her continued starvation, which runs completely counter to what Lib’s professional calling.  This internal conflict isn’t helped by the apparent inaction of Anna’s parents, who seem to revel in Anna’s wondrous behavior and treat her as though she were some sort of saint come to earth.  The aggressive passivity of Anna’s mother, in particular, is almost violent in its insistence that Lib, a representative of science and reason, is an enemy to be defeated through Mrs. O’Donnell’s faith alone.  Adding to all this is Lib’s own ignorance of Catholicism and treatment of the Irish she encounters; she looks at all of them as superstitious savages who continue in their poverty and malnutrition out of some perverse desire to follow their backwards religion, when in reality the post-Blight state of Ireland is anything but simple.

Lib’s ability to solve the mystery of Anna’s wonder is primarily the result, though, of her character arc as she meets various members of the community as well as an outsider–a newspaper reporter from Dublin who is both educated and intelligent–and comes to understand their position and why they act the way they do.  Lib grows as a character, is brought to see her own errors, and is then in a position to investigate the true mystery behind Anna’s situation.  Lib is that horror, the intelligent woman capable of thinking for herself and coming to logical conclusions, whom many of the so-called pro-life agenda seek to hobble, or in whom they don’t believe; they harbor such fear of those capable of pregnancy making their own choices about their bodies, and take the–un-asked-for–role of “my sister’s keeper,” seeking to take away choice before a choice can even be made, in case that choice runs counter to the aggressive and broken morality of those who value the unborn over the living.  Of course, as Lib learns, so does the reader.  The reader is exposed, through Lib’s interactions with Anna’s family, and eventually with Anna herself, that Anna’s wonder is a result of sexual abuse and the inaction of those who are supposed to care for her physical and emotional well-being–namely, her parents and her priest.  Anna is starving herself to get her brother into heaven, on the belief that reciting a particular prayer while fasting will release him from purgatory sooner.  The problem is that her dead brother is only in purgatory–or better, hell–because of the sins he committed against her.

Like Lib, Anna’s situation is a direct result of the actions of a male member of her family, but she has been blamed for it.  Nothing Anna could have done could have prevented her brother’s desire to rape her, just as nothing Lib could have done would have saved her newborn child and made it live, and thus her husband’s leaving her because, in his words, there was no reason to stay any longer.  Even when women are passive, they are forced to carry the blame for men’s actions.  Lib went to the Crimea and became a nurse, attempting to care for men injured in imperialist violence; Anna tried to starve herself.  Both were trying to atone for something they didn’t do, and for which they could never be redeemed in the eyes of their respective societies.

The events of The Wonder may not be identical to what happens today, in a modern society that still actively keeps women from exercising autonomy over their own bodies, but it is a stark illustration of the fact that women–and girls–will always be held responsible, will always be culpable for the actions of men, will always be expected to adhere to an enforced–and false–passivity, as long as women are considered second-class or not-the-default.  Being pregnant is not passive; to be and remain pregnant is the violent path, the way of force, the dangerous way to travel.  To end what can turn out to be the most perilous thing a person can do–is the path of least resistance.

Unless, that is, those who would prevent an abortion consider it a personal attack on themselves and their petty, interfering morality, just as Mrs. O’Donnell considered Lib’s attempts to find the cause of Anna’s starvation a personal attack on the righteousness of the entire family, on the Catholic church itself.  Lib only wanted Anna to do what was natural–to eat, to take care of herself, to find a way to live a good and normal life–just as every person capable of bearing a pregnancy should have the ability to make the natural choice about what is right for themselves and their bodies, independent of the self-righteous and holier-than-though guilt being heaped upon them by those who violently persist in confusing intrusiveness with saintliness.

After Atlas, by Emma Newman

Salvation has come and gone for most of Earth’s population, barely holding on as the environment is eroded along with their aspirations of ever living in free societies again.  Unless they’re incredibly wealthy, of course. Carlos Moreno, however, is nothing of the sort, a wage slave owned by the English Ministry of Justice, just trying to get through the next murder case and hang on to the dream of one day being owned by no one but himself, and doing his best to avoid all mention of Atlas, the Pathfinder, and those who left to seek God.

When someone close to him is murdered, though, and Carlos is asked—told—to investigate the murder, he finds himself being drowned all over again in the details of his childhood and former life after Atlas left, confronted with a past he would just as well forget.  After Atlas is an excellent example of an imaginative and accomplished writer’s ability to take the same basic premise and create two entirely different stories out of it.  It is also a stark view of the future we all face, without the prospect of a convenient ship to take anyone away to a better existence.

Newman’s use of first-person present narration, juxtaposed with the conflicts between technology users and non-users in the development of the murder case lends the novel a private eye noir feel, even as Carlos watches people have dinner conversations with interlocutors who are only there via technology and does all his research via a networked personal assistant implant.  It isn’t a complicated plot, but it is a satisfyingly logical one, with twists and turns that increase the claustrophobic feeling of Carlos’ story and the hopelessly devolving situation on an increasingly distracted and intellectually depressed Earth population.

Readers who enjoy near future science fiction narratives will get pulled into Newman’s dystopic vision of Earth, whether or not they’ve read Planetfall first, however an understanding of the events of the first in this series will certainly help. Those who look for mystery elements blended into science fiction or fantasy stories will like the pace and logical twists of this character driven story.  There are more layers to this novel than at first meet the eye, giving the reader plenty to chew on while contemplating the eventual demise of modern society.

The Poison Eater, by Shanna Germain

In an isolated city in the middle of a vast desert, Talia waits, scraping together the vestiges of a normal life, friends, loved ones, knowing every day that it could be her last. When the moon comes, Talia must take the poison, and hope she survives.  But survival, sometimes, is the worst thing a person could experience. Especially when no one else does.

Having escaped the mire of the Blackweave, Talia has come to Enthait seeking a new life, or simply to die in another place, one not so full of memories.  What she didn’t expect was to find life, not simply a place to live, and people about whom she cared more than her own life.  It is a familiar story with a new ring to it, thanks to the steady hand of Germain, who imagines a fantastic city full of half-forgotten lore and amazing techanical creations, created by humans and creatures alike who have made Enthait their home.

Germain’s realization of Enthait is vivid, to the point that the reader can taste the dust in the air and murmurs of a living city like bees buzzing around the hive, and her ability to twist a story round history and half-dreamed memories builds the kind of novel that is tantalizingly missing just the right pieces to pull the reader in until the end.  The Poison Eater is written in third person limited, clinging close to Talia’s thoughts and feelings in a way that compliments the bleak and beautiful aspects of Enthait and Talia’s new life.

Readers who enjoy their fantasy and science fiction together need look no further than the mech-enhanced cast of characters in this alt-world fantasy story.  Like the work of Kameron Hurley, this novel is bleak, full of tough-as-nails women willing to do what they must to survive, yet tells a universal story that many fantasy fans will relate to.  Anyone who likes fantasy that hides far more than it tells will be intrigued by the mythology of Enthait and the mysterious and terrible Vordcha from which Talia is running.

The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

Dahlia Dutton approaches every salvage job like a transplant doctor determined to give sick people a second chance—with reverence for the gifts each decrepit house has to offer, each beautiful piece for which she finds a new home.  Dahlia knows each old house she has to take apart has a soul, a living presence. She just never expected the kind of presence she encounters in the old Withrow property, planted at the foot of the mountains just outside of Chattanooga.

Family secrets are always the worst kind, and on top of dealing with a creepy old house that alternately seems to want to kill her and protect her, Dahlia has to deal with her own family history and try to get as much salvage as she can in three days in order to save the family business from irretrievable debt.  Priest gets the interpersonal and supernatural tensions just right, strewing clues and false trails aplenty to keep the reader in suspense for the whole ride.

The setting is gorgeous and evocative, the premise one that can’t help but appeal to readers in an age of endlessly looping DIY and fixer-upper media.   Priest juxtaposes modern technology and family nostalgia in layer after layer that keeps the reader wondering what is the greater horror—a hundred year old secret or the ones that keep festering right below the surface of this seemingly easy-going family business in the here and now.

Anyone looking for a supernatural thriller should pick up The Family Plot immediately. The old house and family secrets elements are sure to appeal to anyone who loves gothic settings.  Readers who enjoy multiple levels of mystery and suspense will find much to love in this novel.

Reading for Pleasure

I haven’t had much to say on the book front for a while, although my book reading output in December was quite prodigious.  I actually reached a point in early December where I said something about taking a break, as though reading were a chore and I needed to take time off from it, when reading is generally the thing that keeps me sane.

As long as I don’t force myself to read shit.

This year has been a year of reading stuff that generally only makes me happy.  I was able to put down a couple ARCs that started off interesting and either went nowhere or bothered me, or were just poorly written.  I finished some other questionable ones, but with the understanding that I wanted to, not that I had to.

I’m a completist, and I have a hard time putting things down or giving them up unfinished.  When I was younger and din’t have so many opinions it wasn’t so bad, but these days I’m a lot more critical about what I read and what I’m willing to put up with.  

I’ve found that reading as a woman, who primarily reads women, primarily about women characters, is a radical act.  I imagine for a woman who is not white, or not cis-gendered, this is even more true.  One of the series I started, and proceeded to binge, was Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs.  

I listened to them all on audiobook, and didn’t really stop for breath between books.  At one point I decided to review the first one (though I generally don’t review every book in a series because boring), and looked at a couple review on Goodreads.  Someone complained that Maisie, the protagonist, was too perfect, that everything just worked out for her and it was totally unrealistic.  I assume the reviewer meant to say that women characters ought to have to be seen to work and suffer for everything because otherwise it wouldn’t be historically accurate for a woman like that to achieve anything.

Well, we all know this is bullshit.  Maisie is the only kind of woman who could have succeeded at this, and only because she ended up with all those perfectly timed opportunities.  Had just one of the turning points in her life not materialized, she’d most likely have been dead before ever World War I broke out and she went off to become a nurse and thus the beginning of the first novel in this series came to be.  Women, in reality, don’t generally persevere against all odds.  They die, or end up in shitty situations, or worse.  The only way women succeed in male-dominated, everything-stacked-against-them situations is to have all the small things fall carefully into place.  Because that’s how the world was built.

So there was that series.

2016 was also the year I really pushed myself to diversify my reading, even further than I had before.  And I have to say, my reading pleasure has increased immeasurably.  Reading the work of people with so many different backgrounds has exposed me to new ideas and ways of telling stories within the SFF framework, as well as simply showing me how beautifully and masterfully the written word can be crafted.  I see the works of men cross my Twitter feed all the time, and I’m sure they’re good, and I’m sure there are men out there who can write well without making me feel like I’m getting punched in the face every other page, but actually… I’m good here.  I’ll keep reading what I’m reading, because I have faith that there is enough competence and artistry and talent among the women I’m choosing to read, and honestly, every time I finished a novel or story written by a women, even if it’s not the best I’ve ever read (which rarely happens, not being great, I mean), it’s like balm for the soul.