Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

Hogarth engraving of street life among the poor.jpg

William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.

The Palm PDA as pioneer e-book reader, and Ernest Shackleton, and war

Before the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, there was the Palm

I got my Palm some years ago, to help out my fibromyalgia-diminished memory. It was like a proto-tablet, on which I could take notes, write, outline, draw and paint well enough to illustrate notes, and keep a calendar and to-do list. There were all sorts of games for it, and apps to change the look of the interface. The one feature I thought I’d never use was the ability to read entire books on that tiny screen.

But it came loaded with a mystery by a popular author and, compulsive reader that I am, I took a look at it and found it quite easy to read. Fonts and font size were adjustable and later I got a third-party app that enabled me to change the background color to one my eyes found more comfortable. I’ve been reading on my Palm ever since.

It’s a small device, about the size of a pack of cards, and with an upgraded memory card it can easily hold 50 or 75 books in addition to all the other stuff. iSiloX, companion app to one of the readers, would convert text files to Palm format (.pdb), so all of Project Gutenberg was mine.

Like most people, I don’t find it pleasant to read text continuously on the computer screen for an hour, and I would never have printed out these copyright-free books, but to have them available to read any time I wanted on the Palm—that worked for me. Is it easier to concentrate my visual attention on the small screen than on the large one? I don’t know what the reason is, but reading the Palm is more comfortable for long periods whether by daylight or in a dark room.

Shackleton Palm.jpg

Some of what I’ve been reading in the wee hours

Although I’ve bought a few e-books and issues of sf magazines for the Palm, mostly I have read my way through free downloads, 19th and early 20th C. works from Jack London’s social fiction and reflections on his own alcoholism, to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays. I’ve found several good reads among women writers including novels like Wives and Daughters (1865), and North and South (1854), by Elizabeth Gaskell, and excellent short stories by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Katherine Mansfield. The Woman Who Did (1895) by Grant Allen, is about a “New Woman” who dared to live her life as she wished, having an affair but refusing to marry the man, raising the child, with tragic results. Then there’s the wide range of popular adventure fiction, of which I’ve enjoyed works by such out-of-fashion writers as H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, and Ouida, with titles like The Snake and the Sword, and Under Two Flags (both stories of the French Foreign Legion). All these have been enjoyable to read in themselves, and of course provide fascinating windows into life and attitudes, with the same sort of caveats that attach to judging our times by our popular fiction.

I’ve got some familiar big-C Classics on the Palm too, like Fagles’s recent translation of the Odyssey (a purchased e-book, I have it in print as well), Northanger Abbey and Tom Jones (haven’t been able to finish either one of these), a couple of Anthony Trollope novels (more readable, enjoyed The Warden), and a bunch of poetry. There’s a goodly selection of older sf to be found online as text files, and even some new sf books that have been made freely available by authors such as Cory Doctorow.

Views of Antarctic heroism, and of the world before ours

Just now my 2 am reading is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South, his account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17)—often known as the “ill-fated” Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their sturdy ship was trapped in pack ice for nearly a year, then crushed by the movement of the ice; the men lived on ice floes for some time since the current was taking them closer to land, but when the floes broke up under their feet, they took to 3 small open boats…and on it goes. The privation endured, the courage and resourcefulness shown, are astonishing. One aspect of human beings at their best.

Shackleton replica boat in pack ice.jpg

Replica of one of the expedition’s open boats, among pack ice.

And here too, are found glimpses of how differently some things were perceived.

Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left England just after the outbreak of what was to become World War I; at the time many thought it would be over by Christmas. I just read the part where Shackleton and a few companions reach South Georgia Island, having left the rest of the company slowly starving on Elephant Island, while they cross 800 miles of ocean in a small boat in order to send back a rescue ship. They are forced to land on the opposite side of the island from Stromness Whaling Station, and Shackleton takes the two fittest men on a 36-hour trek over glaciers and rocky peaks, without a map, to reach “civilization”.

The first thing Shackleton says to the whaling station manager, after introducing himself, is “Tell me, when was the war over?” It is May, 1916, and he cannot conceive that the war might still continue. The manager replies, “The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” Later, after arranging for the other two men on South Georgia to be picked up, Shackleton and a companion hear details of the war. “We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad,” he says.

I’ve often read of how shocked and demoralized people of the time were by this unprecedented industrialized war that dragged on and on, by the use of poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery, and planes, and by battles such as the Somme, in which over one million men (on both sides) were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, over a 4 and 1/2 month period. British casualties on the Somme (in these same three categories) were 80% during that time; by November, 80% of the original men in a division were gone save for those lightly wounded who returned. The total advance of the Allied lines was 8 miles.

But this scene, in which men in such an isolated and inhospitable place learn all at once of the war, has a different imaginative impact. After all, the late 20th-century reader may be appalled by the Somme, but knows already of things as bad or worse: the Holocaust, Rwanda, visions of nuclear war. To imagine Shackleton learning about his time’s Great War suddenly, in one conversation, is to experience a little of how it was for those of his time.

Many well-educated young men with literary leanings joined up in 1914, and some of them wrote poetry while in camps and trenches. The early World War I poetry is of a high idealistic tenor probably not equalled by any war poetry since, because that war changed reality for everyone then and since. Never again, I hope, can anyone write something like this, about dead soldiers:

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

First stanza of 1914 III: The Dead by Rupert Brooke.

As I recall, Brooke died just as his attitude toward the war began to shift from public-school “play the game” patriotism to something more hopeless and grim. But many another British war-poet showed this change of reality that took place for his generation and those to come, including us. Things were never the same. Though it is long, I’ll reprint here one such poem:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, written in 1915.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (Latin) means “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. This famous quotation from Horace would have been extremely familiar to public-school boys, in that time when education always included the Latin language and literature as well as some indoctrination about the Empire. In 1913, the first line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Wikipedia), and the text and the sentiment were used to encourage enlistment and support of the war.

Indeed, Ernest Shackleton and his men (not one perished, incredibly) did emerge from the ice-bound wilderness “like men arisen from the dead” into a world forever changed.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918).jpg

Detail from John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918). This painting hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over seven feet high and twenty feet long. It depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment. (Source)

Finding good fiction—a new place to look


What is the difference between a book that libraries and bookstores shelve as “Young Adult” fiction, and one that goes into regular fiction?

This is a question that has occurred to me before. In the process of giving away kids’ books at the food pantry (described in a previous post) I also end up reading my stock which includes picture books, board books for infants, “chapter books”, and “YA” books. Most are ex-library, so Young Adult (defined as ages 13 – 18) books come bearing yellow “YA” tape markers on the spine. Some are as absorbing and satisfying as I could wish, and a few seem to defy their labels. “Yes, it’s a great book for a teenager, but also for adults,” I find myself thinking.

The most recent such experience was from a science fiction YA book by an author whose adult science fiction book I had just read. Searching for more of his work in the library I found the YA novel and checked it out. The author is Paolo Bacigalupi, and the books were The Windup Girl (2009, adult sf) and Ship Breaker (2010, YA). Mr. Bacigalupi is very hot in sf (see note 1), more than I realized; I think I read a story of his in Analog or Asimov’s, and off I went looking for more. That’s one of the good reasons for subscribing to fiction magazines, having new authors (or unfamiliar established authors) brought right to your door. And supporting the incubators of new writers, that’s important too.

Anyway, while his adult book is very good, I have to say that I enjoyed the YA novel just as much, and the writing, characterization, and plot were not inferior to the adult book.

So what does make the difference, why does one get a yellow YA label and the other not? Certainly it is not quality of writing.

Of course such formal classifications are not rigid, there is some overlap. They’re largely conveniences for marketing, and for the convenience of library patrons. Adults and teens do have some differences in taste, though, and those who stick on the labels must have some criteria. I listed some differences that I could think of:

YA fiction often includes
• a youthful protagonist
• the protagonist’s age as a defining factor: things are possible or not possible, things happen or do not happen, because the main character lacks the status, experience, privileges, that go with adulthood
• a “coming of age” story, either via a single event or a a longer period of growth; protagonist learns things that move her or him toward adulthood which may result in expansion of what’s possible for the character
• discovery of lessons or truths (appropriate to the culture): the value of the individual even if different from peers or expectations is a common one in our culture, along with the importance of loyalty, bravery, kindness; need for the young protagonist to strike out on his or her own, make difficult choices and make mistakes; learn that appearances are deceiving; find that one can sometimes master the unfamiliar, the formidable, through courage, persistence, hard work.
• following from the last two elements, there is often a moral structure to the book, making it clear that some choices are better than others and that choices bring consequences. I’m referring to a moral structure organic to the plot and characterizations, not something overt. (Preachy-ness turns off kids just as it does most adults, so it’s not going to be tolerated by most editors.) For myself, this added depth is high on my criteria for judging fiction, and a lot of adult fiction fails to deliver it.
• a less complex, more linear, plot than much—but not by any means all—adult fiction
• shorter length than many adult novels, although the Harry Potter series showed how even younger kids will read 700-page books if the book is good enough. And the extraordinary buzz among peers helped keep the enthusiasm up.

YA fiction almost never includes
• explicit sex
• graphic violence, pleasure from violence
• insanity or “perversity”
• the protagonist’s entire life history, birth to old age. Generally the book ends with adulthood or before.
• lengthy passages of description
• complex narrative devices such as multiple points of view
• politics or religion (except in denominational literature for youth)

You see that I didn’t make any of these rules absolute, though the first three under each heading probably come close. (The absolutism of the negatives—sex, violence, insanity—would be mostly for marketing purposes, not because books with these aspects wouldn’t appeal to teenagers!) The entire body of fiction published in a year is best viewed as a spectrum, with outright children’s books at one end, shading into YA fiction, then a range of books that can be enjoyed by adult or YA readers, shading into more and more adult fare.

spectrum line.jpg

Unlike this graphic, the distribution isn’t uniform, but would follow a reverse bell curve with a dip in the middle representing a relatively small fraction of published books which would be enjoyed by both teens and adults.

What’s the point of all this?

Aside from my personal urge to define and clarify, there’s the significant news for serious adult readers that the YA shelves hold some books well worth reading. When YA recommendation lists include Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings, it’s clear that the YA label can cover a lot of ground. All of these works were published before labelling came along, so we think of them as adult books. But now, a book like Ship Breaker may get a yellow tape label as a marketing decision because someone thinks it will sell more copies that way, not because it’s judged too simple or not interesting for older readers.

How do we find these books, other than by word of mouth and chance?

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has a website with lists of its awardwinners and recommendations. Lists include an annual Teens’ Top Ten determined by teenagers’ votes, Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Outstanding Books for the College Bound, and Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults. (Since I am such a promoter or reading by kids, I have to mention another list, for adults concerned about a teen who doesn’t read, called Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.) On the lists of award-winning authors there appear some familiar names such as Ursula Le Guin and Orson Scott Card, but more to the point there are lots of authors I’ve never heard of, and the net makes it easy to find out more about their books, maybe read a few pages on Amazon, and see if they’re at my library.

Easier yet, stop by the teen section of your library and sample some new fiction right there.

Give it a try, and I predict you’ll be rewarded with good books you’d otherwise have missed. And you’ll have more to talk about with the teenagers in your life!

Note 1: In fact, I see that The Windup Girl has won the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Awards for best sf novel and is a 2010 Hugo Award nominee, in the same category. Winning all three is the Triple Crown of science fiction. Bacigalupi has also received one of the awards named for science fiction masters, the Theodore Sturgeon Award. It also won the 2010 Compton Crook Award for best first novel. If I were Paolo, I’d be hunching my head into my shoulders anticipating some blow from fate after all this acclaim.


Joost Swarte’s Summer Reading issue cover for The Walrus, “Canada’s Best Magazine”.

At the Food Pantry: Boy and books

There was a gangly boy, perhaps 14 years old, looking through the “Free Books for Kids” at the Food Pantry as I walked over. “Hi, finding anything you like?” I asked. “Well…” he said, ”do you have any comic books? like Spiderman vs. …” “No, the place where I get most of the books doesn’t have any comics, I’m sorry.” He picked up a thick hardback. “This is Harry Potter in Spanish?” “Yes, pretty good way to learn a language once you have some basics.” He made a polite noise and put the book back, but kept looking, telling me that he was moving to North Dakota this summer. That could be real soon, I thought, since tomorrow was the last day of school. “Whoa, that’s going to be a big change from Oregon. Have you ever been there?” “Oh, yeah, a bunch of times, we kinda go back and forth.”

He was a serious young man, with a good smile and a clear gaze. The other two people who’d gotten out of the small car were an older youth, brother I figured—same reddish-blond hair and very fair skin, and a woman who was being “head of household” over at the Food Pantry dock. She looked old enough to be their mom, barely, but then lately everyone seems too young to me.

I rummaged among the books for teens, looking for something he might like. I got few bookseekers his age, mostly my customers were under twelve. At a certain age reading tastes become more individualized, much harder to satisfy from my small stock of secondhand books and library discards. Here, among the chapter books, a fat paperback with a boy hero and “wizard” in the title. And an S.E. Hinton book, Tex, about a boy on his own on a ranch with his siblings after his mother dies and his father leaves to find work. I remembered a line, “I just went on spreading mustard on the baloney and eating it. We were out of bread.” On the cover were a motorcycle, which featured largely in the story, and a rawboned young man wearing a sheepskin jacket and a battered cowboy hat. I put it on the table near him, and looked for more. The (fictional) journal of a boy in the Union Army. One or two more.

The boy bound for North Dakota was still working through the books behind me, arranged in the open back of the car. “What’s this?” he asked, holding out an old grey hardback, a book club edition of Collected Stories of Mowgli. I’d just added it today. “It’s about a boy who’s raised by wolves,” I said, watching his face for signs of recognition. Nothing. “In India,” I added, “and he goes on living in the jungle with the animals. The stories are about his adventures and what he learns from them.” One of my favorite books as a child, I thought to myself, I really should be able to say something more about it. But he was interested. “How much is it?” he asked diffidently. “Oh, it’s free, they’re all free.” His face lightened, and his hand took a firmer hold upon the book. He looked at a few others without choosing any, then turned to the table. The book with “wizard” in the title made the cut, and another. “I’m getting some books for friends,” he said. “Good, that’s good.”

After a bit I ventured to say that he had a long drive ahead of him. “Yeah, three days,” with an air of remembering just how long those days were. “I have some other books to read too, though. Ice Fire and Dark Fire, it’s a series. There’s these two people, they live in a house with a bunch of dragons made out of clay. And a boy comes to live with them, they’re not his family, but he comes to live with them and the clay dragons start speaking to him, they’re not just clay…” Inner voices, not yet silenced, I thought, nodding as he spoke. His head turned quickly, he’d heard his name called though I hadn’t heard. “I’ve got to go now, thanks.” A lot of my interchanges with kids ended this way. “Sure, you’re welcome.”

He made several trips back to the small car with boxes of food, half-gallons of milk, and his brother groaned in a comic fashion under the weight of a large bag of dog kibble. Oh good, they’ve got a dog, hope the dog gets to go, but I won’t ask. Finally they were done, all three coming smiling back to the car; the mother gave me a friendly look, the grey-haired woman with the second-hand books who’d been talking to her son. He veered my way and said, with his open face, “Thanks for the books.” “You’re welcome, I hope you all have a good journey. And good luck in North Dakota.” They smiled and waved and off they went.