Thursday, 26 September 2013

Loving Adams' Watership Down

I hadn’t read Watership Down since the 1980s—and it is just as good as I remembered. Only this time, I have rabbit experience, having lived with two house rabbits for over a decade. This book made me nostalgic for my years with Mr. Doofy and Miss Blackberry, my two bunnies who hated each other’s guts, but loved me. I frequently recommend this book (as well as several ‘how-to-take-care-of-bunnies’ books) to anyone contemplating adopting a rabbit. It continually surprises me how little most people seem to know about rabbits—in fact, it was difficult to find someone to take care of my little charges when I went travelling. The pet-sitting companies declared that rabbits to be ‘exotic animals’ and refused to have anything to do with them. I, as a result, ended up bribing and threatening friends and family to take care of Mr. D and Miss B whenever I bought a plane ticket.

This book captures very well the strong personalities of rabbits. They do have a prominent streak of mischief, just as Adams portrays them. And I swear that mine did have ESP as well—whenever I thought that it was time to put them to bed, they would go on high alert, even before I looked at them! Miss Blackberry, in later years, seemed to be able to dematerialize at will. I would look everywhere for her—not many places in a 2 bedroom apartment—and she would be gone. I would think about something else for a while, and she would rematerialize in one of her usual spots. Perhaps I should have named her Fiver. And I concur with Adams that rabbits are very project-oriented—furniture in my home was frequently arranged more to cover bits of carpet that they decided must be destroyed, rather than for human use or comfort.

I have great sympathy for does (female rabbits)—Mr. Doofy considered me his mate, resulting in plenty of awkward situations. (You haven’t lived until a buck rabbit has run figure eights around your ankles, spraying you with urine. Repeatedly). If I crouched down anywhere in his vicinity, he was soon nipping my rear end and he was forever attempting to chase off any suitors who dared come to the house. Unfortunately for him, rabbit aggression looks pretty cute to human males.

Watership Down gives us greater empathy for the other species that we share this world with. We have to acknowledge that they have their own concerns and dramas, separate from humans. I had completely forgotten the ending, but it is perfect.

Read April 26-27, 2013.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Reading Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I have really mixed emotions about this book. The science of the comet-strike on earth is dead on (so to speak). And this was written well before 1994 when we watched in fascination as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smacked into Jupiter. That part is flawless. I also thought it was a great idea to have astronauts in space watching the entire thing--and trying to rejoin the world after the disaster.

And I realize it was written in the 70s and society was MUCH different then. For one, it was the swinging 70s, HIV/AIDS was completely unknown and sexual mores were very different. Feminism was still fragile. Ditto civil rights. Maybe that's why this book never felt comfortable to me.

Today, I don't think anyone would imagine that women would fold under the pressure of the apocalypse--at least not any more than many men would. So, gents, don't count on having a 16 year old girl scout come crawl into your sleeping bag, as happens to Gordie Vance in this novel. In fact, women are very good at planning, being patient enough to do the hard work required and can be pretty fierce when they need to be. I think of my grandmother who raised a bunch of kids in primitive conditions on the Canadian prairie--she really hated the sod hut that they started out in and without her hard labour, its doubtful whether the family would have survived.

And let's not even mention the cannibalism, shall we?

For my money, better versions of the end of the world can be found in The Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and/or Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. No doubt there are newer ones that are also superior to this offering. I hope to get to them eventually.

I finished this because it was part of my reading project--all the classic sci-fi and fantasy on the NPR list from August 2011. But I must admit I am mystified as to why this novel made it onto that list.

(Read from February 25 to March 5, 2013)

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

On GoodReads, Author Behaviour and Where We Go Next

There are shenanigans currently going on at the GoodReads website, since its take-over by Amazon.  Now, I have nothing against Amazon—if fact I buy from their site semi-regularly and find it quite handy.  But other people are not feeling so generous towards them.

There was a lot of trepidation earlier this year when Amazon bought GoodReads.  Many people jumped ship at that time and started their own blogs and websites on which to publish their books reviews.  Mind you, these are the people who are producing lovely, thoughtful, well-written reviews.  They spend a great deal of time putting their thoughts together in order to share them with the rest of us.  I appreciate my GoodReads friends, who have brought books to my attention that I would never have heard of otherwise.  Often, the review of a thoughtful friend will reveal aspects of a book to me that I would never have appreciated on my own.

Lately, there seem to have been some “incidents” between some authors and some reviewers on the GoodReads website.  Namely, some authors have gone postal on some reviewers who gave them less-than-stellar reviews.  And there are some reviewers who seem to get all their satisfaction in life by tearing apart the hard work of authors, who after all have a hard job: writing well, telling a decent story and entertaining us, their readers.  Having said that, some books are just stinkers and there are polite ways of making that clear without abusive language.

Let it be hereby acknowledged that the numbers of authors & readers engaged in this hostility are a very, very small percentage of the total number of people who use GoodReads.  Amazon, however, seems to have come down hard in favour of the misbehaving authors—many people are finding their reviews disappearing from the website, sometimes whole “bookshelves” if the name of those shelves suggests criticism of an author’s behaviour (i.e. authors behaving badly).  No warning, no notice, just deletion.

Issues like this are on people’s minds lately, as we deal with situations like the anti-publicity campaign for the movie of Ender’s Game.  I loved the novel, which I read back in the 1980s when it was first published (and plan to re-read in the near future as part of my reading project).  However, in the last few months, there has been an emphasis on the personal views of its author, Orson Scott Card.  He is not, to put it mildly, a supporter of the LGBT community.  And that community has decided to make an issue of this new movie, stating that buying a ticket to it is enriching the author, giving him more money to spread more anti-LGBT propaganda.  It’s an economic argument that has some legitimacy to it—do I as a movie goer want to support someone with this viewpoint?  I think that is an issue on which each person needs to make their own decision, but they need to be supplied with the relevant information from which to make that decision.  Amazon/GoodReads seems to disagree with me on this crucial point and they are deleting such discussions.  Period.

It’s also ironic that this is going on during Banned Book Week—apparently it’s Banned Book Review Week on GoodReads.  Also, I have seen instances of 5 star reviews (the rating system on GoodReads is one to five stars) which have been deleted as well, for unknown reasons.  As a result, I am going to be moving some of my favourite reviews from GoodReads to The Next Fifty as a preventative measure.  Not that I believe my reviews are deathless prose, but I would like to keep track of my thoughts on some of my favourite books.  As a result, there may be more book reviews that usual on this blog and some of them will be from my reading past.  

Please bear with me as I save some of my babies from potential oblivion.

Our Beloved Brontosaurus

 Just like the author of this book, Brian Switek, I did not get the memo that only children were supposed to love dinosaurs to distraction. I grew up next to dinosaur country, the badlands of Drumheller and Dinosaur Provincial Park by Brooks, Alberta. My first dinosaur book was a How and Why book and my father used to claim that I knew the names of "all the dinosaurs" by the time I was two. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I do remember insisting on going to the Chamber of Commerce display of dinosaur bones almost every time the family went to Drumheller for any purpose and I was absolutely delighted when the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology opened there in 1985. My birthday was often celebrated by a trip to the museum and I don't feel like a summer is complete without at least one visit to the Museum and Drumheller. In fact, I just recently made my 2013 pilgrimage.

I'm still fascinated by all things dinosaur, although I don't have the time I used to have keep up with all the new discoveries and new interpretations of old material. That's why I enjoyed this book so much--its Switek's job to keep up with it all and he provided me with a much needed update on all the latest information. What are the paleontologists debating these days? Many of the same things from different angles, actually. Figuring out which fossils, currently identified as separate species, are actually growth stages of other species. Finding out more about the original dinosaurs of the Triassic period and about what actually defines a dinosaur. Figuring out what made them so successful as a group and why they finally went extinct after all those millennia of awesome. Bringing birds into the dinosaur fold and determining why they are the only dinosaurs to survive the K/T extinction.

Switek is obviously and completely devoted to dinosaurs, which I can understand and appreciate. His passion comes through in his writing and its very inspiring for those of us who have to make our livings in other fields, but have always wanted to be paleontologists. I would love to have coffee with him!

I also adored the book jacket artwork--a kneeling man offering a lovely boquet of flowers to an enormous sauropod, which is taking it gently from his hand. It beautifully captures his tribute to Brontosaurus, which runs throughout the book.

Highly recommended to every one who hasn't lost their love of all things saurian.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.   (1 Corinthians  13:12)
I don’t think that Philip K. Dick chose this title by accident.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this novel, wondering how it related to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Paul, like Bob/Fred in the novel, knew a thing or two about living a double life—first he was Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians, until he had a supernatural experience on the road to Damascus, after which he became an apostle of Jesus and eventually Saint Paul.  Fred is at first a policeman doing undercover work to prosecute drug addicts and dealers, until he becomes addicted (as Bob Arctor) and eventually unravels, finally becoming “Bruce” in drug treatment.
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul is comparing how we see life while we are involved in it to how we will see it at/after death.  Corinth was apparently *the* place to buy mirrors in the ancient world, but not the glass kind that we are used to—they produced polished metal mirrors, in which one saw their image faintly, rather like the reflection off a silver teapot.  So one never saw themselves clearly, as others saw them—rather like life, where we are too closely involved in our own circumstances to be able to be objective about them.  Paul maintained that we would see clearly after death, when we were removed from those circumstances.  And indeed Bob Arctor, when he becomes Bruce and is removed to the drug rehabilitation facility, does gain some perspective on his situation, although he is so damaged that it is debatable how much good it will do him.
My little bit of research on Philip K. Dick reveals a very complex man—a mystic, a drug addict and a man suffering from mental health issues as well as a first rate writer.  Like St. Paul, he also had a transforming supernatural experience and for a time he felt he had been possessed by the prophet Elijah.  He also understood Bob Arctor’s drug addition, having lived many of the experiences in the book during the 1970s and being involved in its drug culture.  In one interview, he said, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.”  He was addicted to amphetamines at one point—a drug which revs up the limbic system (emotional part of the brain) and disconnects the prefrontal cortex (higher decision making & planning part of the brain).  This novel gave me the rather surreal experience of seeing life as an addict does. 
One of the premises of the book seems to be that each hemisphere of Bob/Fred’s brain becomes a separate personality, until they both break down.  I’ve read a bit about epileptic patients who have had their corpus callosum (the fibres that connect the two brain hemispheres) cut in order to control severe seizures.  One of the possible side effects is a psychological phenomenon known as Alien Hand Syndrome, where the patient’s non-dominant hand seems to acquire a life of its own under direction from its associated brain hemisphere and the patient loses the sense that they have any control over it.  Rather like Fred losing control of his alter-ego Bob, and Bob starting to make his own independent decisions.
PKD is a damn good writer—he kept me caring about Fred/Bob/Bruce right to the end and I did not find him a particularly sympathetic character in the beginning.  He also writes the paranoia, the drug-addled confusion and the total loss of perspective very honestly.  It is such a joy to read a well crafted book!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Re-reading Vonnegut's Slapstick

I was prompted to re-read this Vonnegut novel by a non-fiction work that I read recently.  The Juggler’s Children was about the use of genetic research in relation to genealogical research and about the search of the modern North American to make some connections with people around them.  People are lonely and looking for distant relatives assuages the loneliness somewhat.

I was put in mind of this novel and its alternate title, Lonesome No More!  I’m not sure why that slogan and the new middle-name scheme espoused by the main character stuck in my mind when all the other details had faded to a hazy blur, but they did.  [Each American was assigned a new middle name, a natural object noun and a number—those with the same word are cousins, those with matching word and number are siblings.  Voila, instant family!]  Like Vonnegut himself, I am lucky to have a large extended family, most of whom seem to enjoy spending time with me as much as I love visiting with them.  Also, as a certified introvert, I am perfectly comfortable spending long stretches of time alone--alone but only very rarely lonesome.  I do realize, however, that not everyone is so fortunate.

KV calls this book semi-autobiographical.  It seems to me to be a paen to his relationship with his deceased sister Alice, who he declares he has always secretly written for.  I guess we all have an audience in mind when we write and he lost his dearest audience.  In Slapstick, Wilbur and Eliza, the freakish twins, who do their best thinking together, are the fictional counterparts of Kurt and Alice.  Wilbur is the writer and reader of the two, Eliza is the one who can figure out what is actually going on.  Separately, they are much less intelligent, calling their alter-egos Bobby and Betty Brown.  If I remember correctly, KV claimed in another work that Alice was actually a much better writer than he was, but did not feel compelled to do something with that talent, as he did.  

I know what it is like to lose family and how that can affect one’s life.  After the death of my mother, I quit reading fiction for many years.  Fiction was something that I had shared with her and without being able to talk to her about such books, I just didn’t have the heart to continue reading them.  Non-fiction became my go-to reading.  So I believe I have some idea how crippling it must have felt to Vonnegut to lose his sister and how he could end up feeling like a much duller Bobby Brown without her.  When I read this book in my twenties, prior to losing my parents, I had no proper appreciation of all of this—re-reading the book now, I have much more sympathy.  

Slapstick contains many of the same themes that make Vonnegut’s writing dear to me:  his insistence that common human decency is worth its weight in gold, that kindness is always a good alternative, and that life is has its ridiculous moments even when it hurts. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Bore of Shannara

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”  Herman Melville

Melville was not speaking about Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, but his words sum up my feelings about the trilogy very well.

Writers have to begin somewhere and learn somehow.  If they can get paid for that learning experience, good on them.  Brooks was apparently attending law school while he wrote the first book, The Sword of Shannara.  The double focus (law school and writing a novel) may the reason that so much of Sword seems to be lifted directly out of The Lord of the Rings, maybe tweaked just a smidge, and inserted directly into Sword.  If you are feeling kindly, Sword is an homage to LOTR.  If you are me, these incidents end up feeling like a piece of furniture against which I was continually stubbing my toe.  It was distracting—instead of enjoying the story, I’d be identifying and analyzing.  “Oh, that’s X from LOTR and this is Z.” 
Stephen King has written, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”  See also Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing—he completely agrees.  I have to concur with both of them, as I found the number of adverbs in Sword to be maddening.  I was reading a library copy, so I couldn’t indulge in my desire to highlight every example with a yellow marker, but if I had a loonie for every adverb in the text, I would be able to afford quite a few books!  [A loonie, for you non-Canadians, is a Canadian one dollar coin].  There was also a preponderance of adjectives, often repetitive, that annoyed me.  I mean, how many times do we need to the told that Menion Leah is “lean”?  The writing was clunky and cluttered.  However, I struggled to the end and I loved the ending of the book—it was delightful and made me hopeful for the next book in the series.

Thankfully, the second and third books, The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, are much more original.  Brooks has found how to write in his own voice, rather than trying to be Tolkien.  He also seems to have received better editing, as the number of adverbs and adjectives is pared down to a reasonable amount.  As a result, books two and three are much more enjoyable, although still not up to the standard of writing of King or Leonard.  The Elfstones of Shannara covers some Elvish history, including the banishment of all Demons through the spell that created the magical Ellcrys tree.  Although it follows the Tolkien pattern (i.e., a protagonist who feels inadequate to accomplish the task, who gets separated from his friends and left to his own devices to find the required place/thing and succeeds beyond his expectations), Brooks gives it his own spin.  For one thing, the main character in Elfstones, Wil Ohmsford, actually gets a romantic interest or two.  (In Sword, Shea Ohmsford doesn’t rate a romance, only his friend Menion Leah gets a girl—although in order for Shea to have a grandson to star in the next story, there must have been romance eventually).  

Wishsong follows the Ohmsford family again, another generation or two along.  I particularly enjoyed that it was a talent of Brin and Jair (the Wishsong) that was powerful, rather than an accessory (the sword or the elfstones).   The introduction of a sympathetic Gnome character, Slanter, was a great addition, as was the disappearing moor cat Whisper.  The group of people that end up travelling with Jair are, once again, very reminiscent of The Company of the Ring, but there was enough originality in the book that it didn’t rub me the wrong way this time.  It ends, as all three books do, with the heroes/heroines realizing that the answers are within themselves.  

Maybe if I had never encountered Tolkien I would have been more enamoured of this trilogy.  Instead, it suffered by comparison.  I found that Brooks plunged the reader directly into the tale with very little background information—this was no carefully thought out world with back story that is so obvious in Tolkien.  Instead the background details are provided in awkward little information dumps here and there within the text, sometimes at the strangest moments.  I also wasn’t keen on his character names—Flick sounded to me like a good dog’s name, but not so good for a man.  Some of his elves have names that sound more like dwarves to me (Durin and Dayel in Sword, for example).  And I could never read about the Druid Allanon without thinking of the support group for families of alcoholics, Al-Anon.  However, on the plus side, the name Slanter for a Gnome seemed to fit extremely well.

So, book 1 drove me crazy, but books 2 and 3 redeemed the series somewhat for me.  Although they are good enough books, I am now done with the world of Shannara—the basic plot line that repeats through all three books is a grand old theme, but there are limits to how many times you can lead this old mare to that same well and expect her to drink.  With so many more enticing books calling to me, I just don’t care enough about the world of Shannara to pursue it any further.