Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredI thought this would be a pretty slam-dunk book for me. The internets love it, it’s got time travel (!), it’s got complex social issues, somebody loses an arm… I mean, these things are catnip to me. Maybe not the arm thing. A little bit the arm thing. Whatever.

And, I mean, I found this book interesting, and compelling, and fascinating, but I just can’t bring myself to say it was a good book.

The story, and this is definitely the best part, involves a black woman from 1970s California who finds herself randomly and inexplicably transported back to early-1800s Maryland, when and where slavery is alive and well and not terribly friendly to educated black women. At first she goes back for brief periods, to save the life of a young white man when he gets himself into various types of trouble, but her visits get longer and she finds herself actually living in the household of this white man, as not quite but essentially a slave. She soon realizes that this household, and this man, are part of her lineage, and she feels obligated to protect all of it to protect herself, but that’s incredibly difficult when she can’t actually, you know, protect herself. Throw in her white husband who hitches a ride with her during one of her trips back and ends up playacting as her master, and you’ve got yourself a crazy, twisty, complex story about race.

So that’s great, right? It is. It’s sobering and fascinating to see how easily the 1970s characters adapt to life in the 1800s, how easy it is to do something you know is absolutely wrong when you know that doing what is right will probably get you killed. It’s awful to watch a child grow into a slave owner, and to see slave families broken up. It’s frustrating to see parallels in the characters’ thoughts and actions with the thoughts and actions of seemingly reasonable human beings today. This is a super important book.

But. For as much as I appreciated the issues of the book, and the crazy plot that tied them together, I couldn’t ever really get into the characters outside of their assigned places in the story. I didn’t really care about Dana, our heroine, or everyone else whose names I’ve already forgotten; they were just pawns in the greater chess game of the book. This is possibly the fault of, or just in addition to, the fact that my reading brain has never really gotten into the writing style of books from the 1970s, which rely heavily on the telling and are generally quite unsubtle. This book had a little more subtlety going for it, but I never found the writing especially exciting.

And possibly that’s on purpose, of course, and perhaps the point is that, hey, this whole thing that’s being written about race relations is really important and pretty sentences and deep characters are going to take a backseat to that. But the heart wants what it wants, and it didn’t quite want the book it got here.

Recommendation: Even if it’s not up to my apparently exacting standards of “good”, it is a book that you should read and that you should make everyone you know read, too.

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Weekend Shorts: Wayback Machine Edition

So, this summer went kind of insane on me, and I ended up reading a bunch of comics and then not blogging about them. So this post is about things I read, uh, two or more months ago and am just now getting around to writing about. Please forgive me for everything I am about to forget to mention!

Locke & Key, Vols. 2 & 3, “Head Games” and “Crown of Shadows”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key Vol. 2Man, I really do love Locke & Key. The art is amazing, the colors are amazing, the stories are amazing… it’s a complete package.

In Volume 2, our creepy ghostly Bad Guy, Zack, has failed to think about the fact that teachers remember their students, especially when said students show up in the exact same high-school age body decades later. While Zack’s cleaning up that mess, Bode finds a key that literally opens up a person’s head and lets you put things in and take them out. This is useful for both studying for a test and for removing debilitating fear, but of course these benefits don’t come without consequences.

In Volume 3, we get an awesome Bad Guy Spirit Fight to start things off, which, awesome. Then we see Kinsey making some new friends who lead her off to see some weird and dangerous stuff for funsies, and we see that Nina’s alcoholism is both out of control and maybe possibly kind of useful in this strange house. But mostly out of control. Also, even better than the Spirit Fight, we get a creepy-ass Shadow Fight, which is really kind of horrifying if you stop to think about it too long.

I’m going to stop thinking about it right now, and maybe go grab some more of these trades off hoopla. Love!

Giant Days, #13-14, by John Allison and Max Sarin
Giant Days #13After the Great Binge of Spring 2016, it took a while for new issues to show up on hoopla. But when they did, I grabbed them! (Of course, now there are a bunch more and I must go get them all!) Issue #13 is a day in the life of Esther — she’s run away from university back to mum and dad, and although it seems like a great adventure at first, it’s not uni and therefore is the worst. Luckily Susan and Daisy are on the case! Issue #14 covers the college student’s worst nightmare — putting off housing so long that there’s nothing left to find! A mad dash and a secret app may or may not get my favorite girls a home in the end. Can’t stop, won’t stop, loving this series.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThis one’s not a comic, but an audiobook. One of my book-club-mates picked this one out as an easy summer read, which, yes, but after my discovery, uh, seven years ago (so ooooold), that the series doesn’t really hold up to a second reading, I was not terribly excited. Then I discovered that I had the option to have Stephen Fry read the book to me, and I was like, oh, well, that’s all right then.

As I said oh those many years ago, a lot of this book relies on its unexpectedness, so again, it wasn’t really the most exciting re-read. But! If you have the chance to talk about the book with a bunch of people reading it for the first time, it’s totally worth it, even if the book club meeting is just people going, “42! Slartibartfast! Vogon poetry! Fjords!” Also, Stephen Fry.

Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin

Another Find MythThings are looking up between me and my coworker, reading-wise… after reading Touch of Frost I have a better idea of what she’ll like and I also know that I need her to explain what’s awesome about a book before I go ahead and read it. Also, she’s promised to give The Eyre Affair another go at some point in the future, which is all a girl can ask for, really.

With this book, though, we almost had a situation on our hands. My coworker was talking about this series to one of our patrons, and she mentioned that it was a send-up of fantasy series, with all the appropriate dragons and such but also a good amount of humor. At the exact same time as I was saying, “Oh, funny fantasy, I love that!”, my coworker was telling the patron, “It’s humorous; Alison wouldn’t like it.” I’m pretty sure a Look was given, and the patron was definitely laughing at us. I couldn’t find this first book in our library or my home library, and I feared I would be unable to prove my clearly advanced sense of humor, but luckily my coworker had a copy and was willing to lend it to me, possibly only to avoid getting stuck on shelf-reading duty. I will take it!

Aaaaaanyway, to get to the actual story part of the story, this turned out to be a pretty funny book! The narrator, Skeeve, is an apprentice magician whose master decides to summon up a demon for a proper introduction and then proceeds to die at the hands of an assassin. Skeeve is terrified of the demon until he finds out that “demon” is just a terrible abbreviation of “dimension traveller” (suuuure it is) and also that this demon, Aahz, would be no worry anyway as Skeeve’s master happened to take away Aahz’s power when he summoned him. As a practical joke. As you do.

Of course, Skeeve soon becomes terrified again, because, you know, dead master, assassins, potential future death, not actually a magician yet, stuck learning all the important things from a guy with no powers. But Aahz is smart and funny and not unlike a certain Bartimaeus, so he is of course able to shepherd Skeeve through all of the ridiculous things that are about to happen to him. These things include mastering disguise, travelling through dimensions, meeting a hot chick, and, you know, going up against the guy who sent the assassin, so there’s something for everyone!

The writing style and the plot of this book reminded me of a slightly less absurd Terry Pratchett novel, which is excellent except that I’d rather gotten used to the absurdity and this book seemed practically straightforward in some places. Asprin also focuses his satire more on the fantasy novel and less on, say, everything in the world, so I felt like I was missing a few things since I’ve never been a big classic fantasy reader.

It’s nothing terribly new to me (though it was probably new in 1978, when this book came out). But I still enjoyed it rather a lot, and after I finish my giant work-based TBR pile (ha… haha… ha…) I may see if my coworker will let me borrow the second book so I can keep up on the exploits of my new friend Skeeve. He seems pretty cool.

Recommendation: For those who like a good satire and a snarky demon.

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

Weekend Shorts from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach

What the whatting what. This is like the tiniest of tiny books — 123 very small pages, wide margins, lots of pages dedicated to pictures of seagulls, read it in an hour — and yet I still wouldn’t have finished it were it not on my TBR Challenge list. I rue the day I decided against alternates!

I knew pretty much nothing about this book going in. It ended up on my challenge list because a few years ago my sister-in-law said something was “like Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and I was like, who? And she and some random other person were like, how have you not read this book? And then they probably explained it to me, though I don’t remember, and I was like, okay, fine, I’ll read it.

And what it is, is a tiny little book about a seagull (the eponymous JLS) who really likes flying. He’s all about flying to the detriment of everything else including learning how to find food, but apparently he still eats because he continues flying through the rest of the book. He learns how to fly real fast and real fancy, but then he irks the Head Seagull or whatever and gets shunned, and then he goes off to live a life of fast- and fancy-flying solitude. Until some other birds show up and are like, let’s go to the afterlife, where you can fly totally faster! And then they’re like, but it’s not really heaven, just a further world on your way to nirvana, and also you can learn to fly through space and time without flapping your wings! And then JLS goes back to his original flock and teaches some other birds to fly real cool-like, and he gets mistaken for Jesus or something, and then he brings a bird back from the dead, maybe, and then he’s like, I’m outta here you guys can take care of yourselves. The end.

Soooooooooo yeah! Obviously there are a lot of religious themes here, with the heaven/nirvana/Jesus business, and I noticed them and I think they could have been interesting but then they just got kind of thrown off to the side? And I really can’t figure out just what I’m meant to take away from this book — is it that having a very one-track mind is awesome and somehow leads you to a Higher Power and also keeps you fed? Is it that you should completely ignore your seagull heritage so that you can fly like a falcon and encourage others to do the same? I have no idea. None.

Also, seagulls. I don’t really like them. And there were lots of pictures of them. Yay.

Have any of you guys read this? What am I missing?

Recommendation: I have no idea why anyone would read this, but if you have a reason you might as well.

Rating: 3/10
(TBR Challenge)

The Shining, by Stephen King

Here’s another entry from my TBR Challenge… I saw this movie a while back and thought it was terrible, so I got it into my head that I should read the book because maybe it was better? And then my mother said, “No, really, the book is way better,” and then I found the book at the used bookstore for cheap and THEN I totally didn’t read it. Hence its addition to the challenge.

So! Now I’ve read it. Well, okay, I listened to it. And, in fact, it is way better than the movie, or at least what I remember of the movie — the problem with the movie is that it’s just so middling that there’s nothing to remember. Even after reading the book, my memory of the movie is this: Dude gets a job at a hotel. He goes all Jack Nicholson (see what I did there). He says, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” There is snow and possibly a snowmobile. The end.

The book, on the other hand, goes like this: Dude gets a job at a hotel, the only job he might even remotely get as a recovering alcoholic who, while sober beat the crap out of one of his students. His plan is to lay off the booze (which will be easy with no booze in the hotel), do some writing that will make him awesome and employable, and fix the problems with his family that are not all related to his alcoholism. This is a good plan. His wife and son come with him to take care of this hotel, which is closed for the winter, but the son has “the shining” which makes him a little bit psychic and a little too attuned to the horrors that have taken place in the hotel and that threaten to take place again. Dude is not attuned to these horrors, even as they start seeping into him, ruining his plan a little at a time until he goes all Jack Nicholson. He does not say “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” There is lots and lots of snow and one too few snowmobiles.

I didn’t exactly like the book, but compared to the movie it is downright wonderful. There’s so much more backstory in the book that makes things make sense, and that also makes things more interesting and creepy. Like, the dad was an alcoholic until one night he and his bud ran over a bicycle in the middle of the road that may or may not have had a child on it; they can’t find a kid but also can’t figure out why there would be a tiny bicycle without a tiny human. And the psychic kid sees a lot more than just REDRUM; he sees what his dad has been and will be capable of and somehow does not pee his pants in fear. And the hotel is dang creepy with its dead people and midnight parties and moving shrubbery and I really don’t think I’ll be able to look at an animal topiary the same way again. Like, ever.

There’s a lot more depth to the novel, is what I’m saying, and it allows King to be more subtle with the creepy and the psychological, which is just the way I like it. It didn’t hurt that the audiobook narrator channeled a little Jack Nicholson into his reading — just enough to be fairly terrifying without going all Witches of Eastwick.

Unfortunately, the depth also comes with a lot of long boring bits, which made me not like this book so much. Also, an epilogue. I have been reading an inordinate number of epilogued books lately. Someday I will find a good one. Today is not that day.

Recommendation: Read this if you didn’t like or don’t remember the movie; it’ll make you feel a little better. Not sure I would recommend it on its own strength.

Rating: 7/10
(TBR Challenge)

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1 October — 5 October)


This book took a little while to really get going for me, and then just as soon as it did, it ended! Sadness.

The Chocolate War is a story about power and conformity and how even when you win, you still lose. Depressing, right? So right. The chocolate part comes from a private high school’s chocolate sale (oh, memories) for which each student has to sell 50 boxes. The war part comes from Jerry Renault, who is assigned by the school’s secret society to refuse to sell the chocolates for ten days, you know, keep the teachers on their toes. He does this, but then after ten days, when he’s supposed to start selling again, he doesn’t, and some of the other students follow in his path. The teachers don’t like this, the secret society doesn’t like this… and bad things happen.

I wasn’t sure last night whether or not I liked this book, and… I’m still not sure. It was a very honest account of high school and how hard it is to navigate the social dynamics there, but I’m not really sold on the story itself. The story jumps back and forth between points of view and tries to use that to let you learn more about the characters, but I just never felt terribly involved in any of their lives. Perhaps I’ll ponder this some more.

Rating: 6/10
(My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge)

See also:
an adventure in reading

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.