Thursday, February 21, 2013

Some Quick Thoughts

I don't think I can explain this week to anyone in a way that really communicates how it went, but I'll say it was a rough one to get through.  So let me give you some quick thoughts I wanted to jot down, and promise you some more thorough and thoughtful posts soon.

First, I think this is cute: Blind date with a book.

Next: The sequel to Sharon Shinn's The Shape of Desire came out, and I had it from the library for a while.  I liked Shape of Desire, on the whole--it wasn't that strong a book, but as I told Brenda the other day, I would almost read Sharon Shinn's summary of the Yellow Pages.  I love the way she writes about day to day life, fitting the pieces together so that everything just seems to make sense.  And I respected what she was doing with the book--taking the intense romance of the paranormal romance and showing what it really looks like 20 years later--the missing time, the parts of his life you can't share, the loneliness of keeping secrets from those you love.

Unfortunately, Still Life With Shapeshifter was a little closer to reading from the phone book that I can get on board with.  I think, first of all, that the sister relationship is a little harder to sell me on--sure, there's love and protectiveness, but at some point you have to let a person lead her own life.  Second, she meets a hot guy very early in the book and totally falls for him--it's not exactly instalove, but anyone who's sucked in by the charms of a good looking TV reporter who's trying to get information out of them has sketchy judgement in my book. 

So I gave up on that book, sadly.  Luckily, the world is still full of Sharon Shinn books I haven't read yet.  Mystic and Rider--soon!

And my final point: I have volume one of Fables: Fairest out from the library right now, but the very notion of this book has been bothering me, and I think  I finally figured out why.  Giving the women of this series a spinoff is kind of ghettoizing them.  Fables has some amazing female characters--Frau Totenkinder is probably my favorite, but Snow White is a powerful, intelligent leader; Rose Red is a charismatic and clever leader; Cinderella is a kick-ass spy.  You've got the evil Baba Yaga, the upstart Ozma, and the Beast's Beauty, who's working to find a role of her own in Snow White's shadow.

Why do theses women need a special "girl" series?  I'm really afraid to open it.  But I'm trying to convince myself that it's really just a chance for more Fables.  After all, it's the same excellent writer, and it looks like the spin might be a bit more on the history of the characters, rather than the modern storyline that's taken over the current series.  So I'm really hesitant, but I'm holding out hope.

I need to do a comics review soon; I've got some good stuff on my list.  I'll try to hurry; February is kicking my butt, so it may be a bit.  Thanks for your patience!

Friday, February 08, 2013

Loneliness II: The Dispossessed

As I mentioned before, the two unrelated books that I've been reading have turned out to be about solitude, loneliness, and being apart from your community.  This could have been the grimmest month in reading history.  Fortunately, the two books are very different and they're both really enjoyable.

It took me a long time to dig into Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed.  I love so much of her work, but her books are always about Ideas, and in some of them--especially some of the older ones--these themes can eclipse the characters and the story.  Even though I've come around to start enjoying this one very much, it's definitely a novel of ideas.

Shevek is a scientist who has left his home world of Anarres for the nearby Urras.  More like defected; Anarres was colonized hundreds of years ago by Urrasti exiles who followed the philosophies of anarchy.  Anarres has no laws, no government; people work for the love of work, and the cooperate because it's the best way to get things done, and if this seems idealistic, well, it's got its flaws.  Urras, on the other hand, is a world much like ours, where the dreaded "propertarians" rule all.  The story of Shevek's adaptation to this new world is told alongside the story of his life in the old one, and we come to see what's wrong with each society, and presumably with human nature.

This is a "man without a country" story, so loneliness and alienation are naturally on the menu.  What's sadder is the loneliness that follows Shevek throughout this life.  It's perfectly possible to be alone in a crowd, especially if the crowd kind of depends on everyone doing the same thing.  Somehow, this book more than most others illustrates for me the poignancy of the fact that the status quo usually works for the majority of people.  That's why it's the status quo.  It's those few people who don't fit nicely into the system who suffer for everyone else's comfortable stasis.

There's a lot of unhappiness in Shevek's life, but it's alleviated in a weird way by the fact that the story switches back and forth between two unhappinesses.  In the chapters on Anarres, Shevek starts to see the problems with the idealized society he was raised in and the gaps between himself and his fellow Annaresti.  In the Urras chapters, you see a man of ideals trapped in the bureaucratic machine of a materialistic society, without allies or a way out.  Both situations are kind of miserable, but they're so differently miserable that just when you feel like you can't stand another minute in the soul-crushing environment of (X), you switch over to a chapter where the totally different environment of (Y) is described--until you start to remember just why (Y) seemed so oppressive two chapters ago.

Annares reads like an analog of Soviet Russia, with anarchist custom in place of the machine of state in stamping out alternate ideas.  But there's an interesting twist, in the Urras actually has two major nations, and there's an actual communist state to compare things with, as well.  The notions of personal freedom in this book--its idealized status on Anarres and the complexity of what freedom really is and what it is meant to be used for--are, I think, the most interesting part of it. 

Honestly, all the philosophical discussions are fascinating.  When teenaged Shevek and his friends debate Odonian philosophy, when professor Shevek discusses the implications of sequential physics on morality, these are the most fascinating parts of the book to me.  I wish I had more opportunities to think like this, to have these discussions.  But the plot of the book holds it together enough that I'm able to enjoy the story, too.

I'm not sure how many stars I'm going to give this book when I rate it--do I base the rating on the value the book holds for me, or on the pleasure I got reading it?  On how long I think it'll stick with me?  However I go with that, this is a stretch, an intellectual book, and one I'm quite glad to have read.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

On Loneliness, Part I: Seraphina

I have been in the same two books for weeks, and they're echoing off each other in thematically in ways that are so interesting that I've been writing a post about it.  I've been in the middle of the post for a while, picking apart the ideas of loneliness and society and materialism in Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and contrasting that with the ideas of fear, privacy, and prejudice in Rachel Hartman's Seraphina.  It was a thoughtful, complicated blog post about themes and undertones and the human condition.

But then I was reading Seraphina, and I was so busy reading about her and feeling about her and worrying about her and looking around her that I completely forgot to look for themes.  I was too busy being swept away by the details of the winter celebration in her city, worrying that someone horrible would find out her secret, puzzling out the odd behavior of the dragons and humans around her, agonizing with her over her mistakes and aching with her for things she can't have.  I stayed up way, way too late last night finishing this book, because I absolutely couldn't put it down.

I'm a sucker for good, solid, fun worldbuilding, which is really the strength of this book.  Politics, geography, history, religion (the many saints, the many blessings!), dragon lore, personalities, music--it's intricately constructed and solidly based.  People make mistakes and love the wrong people and lie when they should tell the truth and tell the truth when they should lie.  But it works out, and you want to know what happens, and it's all as wonderful as you could hope.

Seraphina's loneliness is absolutely touching to me.  She has a secret that prevents her from being close to people--if anyone knew that she was half dragon, she would be in danger.  Even with her secret safe, she must be o guard to keep the signs hidden, and she knows she can never have a normal life.  This sadness, distance, and low-key fear are underscored by the extreme hatred of dragons and physical danger that exist in her world.

Her sense of personal isolation, of being alien and unlovable, really touched me, and the ways that the world revealed itself to her as she opened herself up to it were thrilling in that emotional, personal way that normal joys can be in really wonderful novels.

I know this book isn't flawless.  But my experience of reading it was that of being enthralled, and I'm incredibly sorry it's over.  That's five stars in my book.