"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
I had high hopes for this one going in, but it's turning out to be a bit more YA than I generally like. The teenage protagonist who yearns for more than his confining world can offer him is a trope that I am just. so. over.
The premise of an inbred human colony on a distant planet unlit by sun or star, waiting for generations for a ship to come get them from Earth, is admittedly fascinating to me, and so far the worldbuilding is intriguing - the glowing trees, the wailing predators, the simmering volcanoes, the gaping, fathomless sky.
Here's what concerns me, though: This line from the blurb on the back of the book. "[Protagonist] will abandon the old ways, venture into the Dark . . . and discover the truth about their world."
Oh, there's a "truth" about their world, is there? Because that might as well just say: "THERE IS A STUPID TWIST AT THE END OF THIS BOOK." Oh boy! Do you know what I hate more than stupid twists at the end of YA dystopias?? PRETTY MUCH NOTHING.
Let me guess: It was Earth all along! Orrrrr it was all a psychological experiment! Orrrrr it was all a dream! The possibilities are literally endful!
Is it too much to ask that a premise be played straight these days? That a story be built on genuine human drama and confronting obstacles instead of lazy trickery?
I'm hoping I turn out to be all wrong about this one.
Each issue of Lapham's Quarterly includes dozens of brief excerpts from historical literature on a particular topic. Spanning time, geography, form, and theme, each edition provides an interesting look humanity's evolving conceptualization of various universals - such as animals, youth, death, lust, and politics.
Comedy is an interesting subject because it's so culturally dependent. There isn't much that is universally funny, except for maybe poop and sex - which come up quite a bit in here. So I didn't enjoy this issue as much as I have others, just because not much of it was particularly funny to me. Even the modern stuff often wasn't to my taste - when the very first selection is Sarah Silverman trying to justify using the word "Chink" in a routine, it isn't a good sign. Worst fucking comedian working today.
Still, there's a lot of variety in here, from modern comedy routines to bawdy Roman poetry, from Freud's psychoanalysis of humor itself to a fascinating biography of Charlie Chaplin. There were enough pieces I enjoyed to outweigh the boring and awful ones.
Some snippets I liked:
In Florence, a young woman, somewhat of a simpleton, was on the point of being delivered. She had long been enduring acute pain, and the midwife, candle in hand, inspected her private parts, in order to ascertain if the child was coming. "Look also on the other side," said the poor creature. "My husband has sometimes taken that road."
Buttsex! Funny since at least 1452.
During the night a numbskull got into bed with his grandmother. When his father beat him on account of this, he said, "You've been screwing my mother for a long time without any trouble from me, and now you're angry at finding me with your mother just once?"
Incest! Funny since at least ancient Greece.
I'm a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
a service to the neighbors! No one suffers
at my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I'm hairy underneath. From time to time
a beautiful girl, the brave daughter
of some churl dares to hold me,
grips my russet skin, robs me of my head,
and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
with plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.
English riddle, circa 975. The answer, of course, is "onion".
Something which never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap.
The oldest known joke, from Sumeria, circa 2300-1900 BC. I don't think it's held up very well.
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."
T. E. Lawrence
Awhile back, Slate published an article denigrating the phenomenon of adults reading YA fiction. In my little black heart of hearts, I sort of agreed with it. Which isn't to say that all YA fiction is bad, or that people shouldn't read whatever the fuck they like to read, but I just fundamentally don't grok the adult obsession with YA -- mostly because I hated being a teenager. The thought of endlessly returning to that horribly awkward life stage via fiction makes me cringe, and I can't quite wrap my head around exclusively preferring a genre whose only defining characteristic is that the characters are teens... unless you are a teen. But the article's scoldy tone was bullshit, and some of my friends were offended when I said I thought it made some interesting points.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was being dumb. Just like it's weird to me that some folks read only YA, it's equally weird that I'd despise the whole concept so much. It's a very broad category encompassing all kinds of writers and all kinds of subject matter. And I mean, The Hunger Games was awesome, right? So, to prove myself wrong (and, partially, to appease my affronted friends), I picked this one up. It's Le Guin, it's spec-fic, it's short enough to breeze through in an afternoon. The perfect slap in the face I needed to remind myself that books aimed at teens could be wonderful.
But ooooohhhhh lordy, did I pick the wrong book.
The Beginning Place follows two city-dwelling teenagers, Hugh and Irene, and their adventures in an unnamed and thoroughly bog-standard magical land. All of your typical bad fantasy clichés apply: Pseudo-medieval setting? Check. Quest against evil? Check. Chosen One narrative? Check. Time spent in magic land taking up virtually no time in the real world? Check. Adventures in magic land as metaphor or catalyst for protagonists' coming-of-age and sexual awakening? Check.
And the thing is, I don't really have a problem with any of those clichés per se - I'll get lost in Narnia or Middle-Earth as happily as the next nerd. It's how shallowly and mechanically everything is slapped together here, with no sense of meaning or purpose or basic coherence.
The prose is the first problem. It's choppy and bloodless, alternating between flat declaratives and run-on sentences of doom. Here's one:
As if all the suburbs, the duplex development motorhome supermarket parking lot used cars carport swingset white rocks juniper imitation bacon bits special gum wrappers where in five different states he had lived the last seven years, as if all that was unimportant after all, not permanent, not the way life had to be, since just outside it, just past the edge of it, there was silence, loneliness, water running in twilight, the taste of mint.
As if all the arbitrary nouns repetitive clauses floating adjectives commaless flatulence purple monkey dishwasher added up to anything readable.
And then there's the dialog. Here's an exchange between Hugh and his mother:
"I'm going to miss the beginning of that movie on Channel Six, you watch it for me till I get home."
"Bye bye then."
"What kept you so late?"
"Walked home a different way."
"You sound so cross."
"I don't know."
"Take some aspirin. And a cold shower. It's so hot. That's what I'd like. But I won't be late. Take care now. You're not going out, are you?"
This is not a conversation between two human beings. When I hear this in my head, it is in the voices of Beldar and Prymaat.
Or, my favorite utterance from Irene:
"What shall I do?" she whimpered aloud.
If there's one thing modern American teens whimper when they're under stress, it's the word "shall".
It's not just the writing style that I hate, though. The plot is hollow and capricious, full of events that obey no logic or consistency. Hugh and Irene discover that something is preventing the denizens of the magical land from traveling; whenever they try to leave their town, they are struck by a paralyzing, indefinable fear. Thus, no trade can occur and people are beginning to starve. Despite never having seen it, they seem to instinctively know that this problem is being caused by a monster that lives on the mountain, and that only Hugh is capable of killing it. Why Hugh? Because as a non-native, he isn't subject to the fear. Why Hugh and not Irene, even though she is smart and strong, actually speaks the native language, and knows her way around the land far better than Hugh? Well, who knows. I guess hero-questing isn't a job for girls.
But what is this monster anyway? Where does it come from? Why is it so scaaaary? None of this is ever explained. I guess it's just supposed to be a metaphor for Hugh and Irene's fears out in the real world, and once they kill it (or, Hugh kills it, and Irene fawningly tends to his masculine wounds - and yes, sex is part of this tending), they can go back to the real world and be empowered to be like, fuck you crazy mom, fuck you rapey stepdad, I'm moving across town to live with this person I've known for three days.
None of the plot developments make any sense, and the reader is practically mocked for wanting it to be otherwise. Now, granted, I am a sci-fi girl much more than a fantasy one, because I like things to have explanations. If some weird shit happens, I want some wacky pseudoscientific expounding on how it functions. But in fantasy it tends to boil down to "a wizard did it". And that's not my style.
But still, Hugh and Irene's complete lack of curiosity about how and why they've ended up in Middle-Earth-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off is so grating.
Here's Hugh: "Either he was crazy or there was something unexplainable going on, some kind of monkeying with time, the kind of thing his mother and her occultist friend were interested in and he was not interested in and had no use for."
Cool story, bro. Your lack of interest or sense of wonder or even mild surprise at THE STOPPAGE OF TIME is so welcome and refreshing! Please, tell us more about all the shits you don't give about THE LAWS OF PHYSICS AS WE KNOW THEM breaking down and ceasing to function!
"Maybe it did not stop, maybe it ran very slowly there, time was different there, entering the glade you entered a different time, a slower time. That was nonsense, not worth thinking about."
Yeah, I mean, who cares. I'm so glad we have you as our intrepid guide on this magical mystery tour.
And Irene's no better. She's been coming to this place for years, and is basically like, meh. "Always outside the benign hearth-center lay the twilight and the silence, the unexplained, the unexplored. She had been content that it was so." Such a sense of adventure on this one too!
Meanwhile, much of the story is spent explicating all the ways Hugh and Irene just can't fucking stand each other. Not in that obnoxious cute rom-com way, either -- there's no spark or chemistry between them, it's just bitchy Irene and sullen Hugh spitting bile and hating each other's face.
Instead, pages are devoted to Irene's worshipful love for this dude, the Master.
Well, no. "The Master was a spare, swarthy man with a hawk nose and dark eyes... A harsh man, a dark man."
So more like
Anyway, the Master is the mysterious mayor of the magic municipality (AUGH I COULDN'T HELP MYSELF), and Irene wants it rill bad.
"She came here because her love was here. Her love, her master. No one would ever know that, no one would ever understand it, that center and secret of her life, that silence. In his age, in his mastery, in his strangeness, in his hardness even, in all that divided them, in the distance that held them apart, there was room for desire without terror, there was room and time for love without effect, without penalty or pain..."
Remember what I said above about the run-on sentences of doom?
MEANWHILE, Hugh is lusting after the blonde daughter of the Lord
... sure, let's go with that.
Anyway, he's known her for about three minutes and doesn't speak her language, but that doesn't stop him from rhapsodizing for FOUR FREAKING PAGES about his deep and abiding love.
"It was as if he had been blind and she had come to him, and his eyes had cleared to see her... Each act and object had its meaning, now, for when she had touched him her touch had taught him the language of life..."
And so on and so on. FOUR PAGES of that, my friends.
But then, as soon as Irene and Hugh (who HATE each other, remember) are sent out on their quest, it's only a few days before they're fucking and deciding they're married. Not a single mention of the Master or Blondie ever again. Ho-kay. I get that their previous passions were silly crushes, but I don't understand why the book treats their sudden proximity infatuations with each other as so much more emotionally mature. But by this point the book was mercifully almost over, so whatever, woo-hoo, those crazy kids finally got together, can I stop reading this yet??
I tend to think of YA fiction as being fluffy and theatrical, full of hooks and cliffhangers and character drama, but light on depth and literary quality. So it's ironic that I picked this book as a YA standard-bearer, when it has none of the striking characters, dramatic plot twists, snappy dialogue, or crackling romance that characterize the best books in the category. Instead, it's stale and impenetrable, boring and dark. There are no emotional or conceptual hooks, no sympathetic or interesting characters. It's like YA fiction from some grey alternate universe, where there is no joy in storytelling, where magic and romance and questing and valor are so desperately tedious and sad.
You have failed me, Ursula Le Guin.
On vacation and stuck with this boring-ass book.
After the riveting weirdness of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, I was not expecting this trilogy-ender to focus endlessly on political unrest that is neither supernatural nor interesting. Hey China - I read these books for soul-sucking moth-monsters and dimension-warping creatures of the deep. NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOUR COMMUNIST REVOLUTION.
In the post-WWII days where the story picks up, Faraday is called out to Hundreds to attend to a sick maid. He finds siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres frayed and beaten down - Rod by his war injuries, and Caroline with household chores. The massive house now employs just one maid and a part-time cook, and the siblings have taken over much of the cleaning, gardening, and repair work on their own. The only other living Ayres, their frail mother, seems content to live in the moribund mansion as well as she can, as if times have not changed. The estate has sold off much of its land to pay the bills, but its debts continue to mount. While anyone can see that Hundreds will not survive much longer (either as an institution or as a physical building), Faraday remains enraptured by its decaying opulence. That old desire he'd had since childhood, to possess this magnificent house and everything it represents, comes rushing back.
The class divide in Britain is one of the major themes of the novel. Faraday's parents had been very poor, and he had to work very hard to put himself through medical school. Now he's a doctor and starting to make a decent living, but he still resents the society that would look down on him for his humble beginnings. And Caroline and Rod have their own struggles with the ramifications of their social standing - he, buckling under the weight of Hundreds' failure on his shoulders; she, forced to give up a liberating nursing career to help manage the estate and care for her injured brother. And Mrs. Ayres has her own concerns - the sale of neighboring estates to boorish nouveau-riche, the accompanying pressure on her to abandon her home and her once-esteemed position in the community.
With all of this turmoil festering in Hundreds Hall, it's not surprising that it all begins to erupt in terrifying ways. Vicious animal attacks, objects that move of their own accord, ghostly writing appearing on walls, shrieking whistles emanating from abandoned nurseries. Footsteps traipsing across empty corridors, doors that slam and lock spontaneously, strange burn marks appearing across ceilings and walls while the occupants sleep. Sarah Waters is so skillful at building tension that the smallest spectral anomaly takes on paralyzing weight - I could not read this at night, and even in broad daylight it gave me shivers. This hulking, treacherous house and its unknown malevolent presence.
But is it so unknown?
Whenever something dies -- a person, a legacy, an ambition, a way of life -- it leaves a phantom behind. What is haunting Hundreds Hall? The last gasps of the British aristocracy? The resentful memory of a family's deferred hopes and dreams? The simmering jealousy of a man who feels wronged by an entire social structure? Or just a dead little girl -- little Sukey Ayres, sister of Rod and Caroline, dead before her seventh birthday?
Wouldn't it be so much simpler to blame it all on a child's ghost? This seething, greedy, thwarted thing, welling up out of the past and infecting the present -- this unearthly force, this little stranger?
When I went to Town Hall last month to hear a lecture on scientifically important case studies of brain damage, I had no idea that the speaker would be the author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb, two of my recent favorite pop-science books. It was a pleasant surprise not only to hear Sam Kean speak, but to get ahold of his latest book, The Dueling Neurosurgeons ("The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery").
I was expecting this to follow in the footsteps of Oliver Sacks, albeit from a lay writer's perspective and featuring Kean's entertaining, conversational style. And I really wasn't wrong, but I still left the book feeling vaguely disappointed. It took me awhile to figure out why.
There is this trend in modern non-fiction to strain out all the boring parts like context and details in favor of wacky or funny stories. Certainly, there is plenty in science and history that is wacky and funny, and for subjects I don't know much about and/or am not too terribly interested in, this kind of book is an entertaining way to glean some new information. For instance, I find chemistry pretty dry, so The Disappearing Spoon was perfect for me. I am interested in genetics, but am hardly an expert, so The Violinist's Thumb sat fine with me, though I wished it had been meatier.
But I'm very interested in neuroscience and have been reading about it in some detail for many years. So the superficial focus of The Dueling Neurosurgeons grated on me a bit. It's not that none of the information was new to me - many of the case studies were unfamiliar, and others I'd known about but not in any detail - but for subjects I actually care about, I'd prefer a book be scientific first and wacky/funny second. In other words, I'd like an informative framework that gives me a deep understanding of the subject, with the fun stuff sprinkled in. I don't like a framework of weird stories, with some theory thrown in to back them up. If Kean couldn't find a weird story to illustrate a point, the point didn't get made. And that kind of shit annoys me.
Still, who doesn't like a weird story? Like the girl who lost her amygdala and so became incapable of feeling fear - it was interesting to read about how she reacted to things that would terrify an average person. Or the horrifying story of kuru - colonialism, cannibalism, pedophilia, horrific brain damage, and lethal laughing fits - all wrapped up into one appalling whole.
So this book scratches that itch I sometimes get for "beach-read nonfiction". I truly did enjoy it, but it was like licking off the frosting and leaving the cake untouched. Frosting is wonderful, you know, but it's so much better with some tasty cake to give it structure.
There are some beloved things from childhood that don't translate at all into an adult state of mind. And there are some things that do translate, but lose something essential in the process. For me, The Secret Garden is one of the latter.
Prior to this year, I was about ten the last time I read this book. Starting it this time, I remembered less about the plot than the general feeling of magic that had imbued the entire story when I read it as a child. There was a lot I simply hadn't understood very well - cholera, moors, hunchbacks, and the Raj were all muzzy concepts to my younger self, and the phonetic transliteration of many characters' Yorkshire dialects might as well have been Greek. But that sense of awe and mystery when Mary first finds her way into the Secret Garden - that I would never forget.
I think the very fact that I now understand the story better - that I can place it in its historical context, and picture a real moor, and hear a Yorkshire accent in my head when reading Martha and Dickon's lines - has ruined a bit of that childish sense of wonder. The book used to be an inscrutable marvel, exotic and strange and perfect. Now, though I still love it, it's a book about some neglected kids who rejuvenate a garden.
And sure, there's more to it than that. The garden is, of course, a symbol for the healing process that turns crippled Colin into a running, laughing boy and sallow, sullen Mary into a caring friend. But Burnett also meant the story to be taken at least somewhat literally - she was a Christian Scientist who believed that nature and prayer, not medicine, would cure all physical and mental ailments. And it's just that kind of uncomfortable factoid that can contaminate a story for an adult like me. It's best to just not know anything about the politics or religion of authors whose work I enjoy.
But thankfully, not all of the old magic has dribbled away. To this day, whenever I come across an old skeleton key, or an ivy-covered brick wall, or an untended plot of land, I feel a bit of that old thrill. And it's not The Secret Garden I just read at thirty. It's The Secret Garden I read at ten.
Well, this has taken a turn for the weird, and has become a slog to get through. Whenever I pick it up, I find my eyes glazing over at the opaque language and frustrating lack of plot. How's about less poetry and more something interesting happening??
Also, it's definitely fantasy, not science fiction. More's the pity.
I am liking this a lot so far, though there isn't yet anything particularly special about it. It's just got nice writing, nice characterization, nice worldbuilding. And it harkens back to the type of light, well-crafted, sociological, female-authored science fiction* of the 80's and 90's that I've really missed. SF doesn't need to be flashy or meta or self-consciously literary all the time - sometimes it's nice to just read a good story.
*... Although now I'm arguing with myself over whether Olondria is SF or fantasy. It definitely takes place in a world that isn't ours, but there hasn't been any magic yet. So I think I'll go with the theory that we're on another planet.
I feel like I've been reading this book over and over lately. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, when it was called Dreamfall. Or earlier this year, under the title Woman on the Edge of Time. A couple of years ago, when it was The Word for World is Forest. All feature these futuristic or alien, usually matriarchal societies, who love nature and new age spirituality, where conflicts are solved through sharing instead of violence, and war is unheard of where empathy reigns. Then vicious capitalist humans show up wanting their resources, and hunt the hippies to near extinction, destroying their way of life and their childlike innocence in the process. But at least one human defects and goes native, standing up to the.... *snooooooooore*
Oh, sorry about that, I bored myself to sleep there for a sec. It's just, I've seen this show before.
And I'm really not a fan of this plotline, especially the way it tends to transpire in feminist science fiction. It's not just trite and overused, it's all tied up in that lame, gender-essentialist "if women ran the world, there'd be no war!" stuff. Look, I don't know if men are naturally more greedy and violent than women or not, but I have been educated and have worked in female-dominated environments, and the idea that they are tranquil dominions governed by nurturing and harmonious conflict resolution is ludicrous.
Still, a lot of good writers have used this trope, so I keep finding myself reading the same story, again and again, no matter how much it annoys me.
Slonczewski's version is about as predictable and formulaic as they come. There's an intergalactic empire (called the Patriarchy - no subtlety here!) which rules many planets and wants to take control of Shora, a landless ocean world populated by a race of parthenogenetic female humanoids called Sharers. The Patriarchy wants control of Shora's resources and the Sharers' superior gene-shaping technology, but it quickly becomes clear that belligerence will get them nowhere against a planetful of Gandhis. Blah blah blah, you can guess where this is heading.
But apart from the paint-by-number plotline, I liked pretty much everything else about the book. The worldbuilding is fantastic, Dune-like in its depth and scope. Slonczewski has a doctorate in biology, and it shows in all the fascinating details she includes about Shora's flora and fauna. The characters, too, are complex and interesting - at least, the Sharers and their human allies are. (Their human enemies are all disappointingly one-dimensional, caring only about conquest while completely lacking empathy, intuition, or any other "feminine" instinct.)
And the book's feminist themes, while familiar and not exactly my cup of ideological tea, did at times feel fresh and thought-provoking. So even though, in the end, the book's message boiled down to "war - what is it good for? absolutely nothin", it made that point in a way that had me really asking myself, "War - what is it good for?" as though that thought had never yet occurred to me.
That takes talent, for a writer, and Slonczewski's got it. I just wish she had used her powers for good - say, a storyline I haven't already read 7,000 times - and shucked the idea that a society ruled by women would be some kind of collaborative paradise.
(December 15, 2011)