Monday, April 24, 2017

What I'm Reading

I slept last night, which was pleasant. Not eight entire hours, mind you -- but six and a half. Better than the past five nights! Tonight I'm going for seven.

Meanwhile, what with averaging three and four hours a night (going to bed at five or six in the morning and waking up at ten or so) I've been doing a ton of reading.

Reading all night is a pleasure I had forgotten. It's different from the usual reading I do, which is a couple hours here or there, between prepping for class, or while I'm waiting to pick the kid up from school, or while I'm eating. Reading all night is seven or eight hours of sustained non-stop reading, broken only by forays into the kitchen for more tea or another sliced-up apple, Then it's back to my big comfy chair under the lamp by the open window, where Jasper cat is waiting grumpily to climb back into my lap. (She does not approve of these interruptions to her sleep.) The Fort, at least my part of it, is very quiet at night, not even any noise from the interstate; and the nights have been cool. These long hours of reading have been blissful -- almost worth the exhaustion the next day.

What I've been reading:

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

This is an amazing book. I hardly know how to describe it. The plot is simple -- a young scientist comes of age and builds her career. (The book is based directly on Jahren's own life, to the extent that it's almost more memoir than novel.) The power of the novel lies in the writing and in Jahren's insights about not just trees and plants, but about the humans in her life.

She keeps the cast of fully developed characters very small. (A tactic I am constantly trying to persuade my students to employ.) Really there are only two of these: her, and her lifelong lab partner Bill. Maybe three, if you count the dog that accompanies them most of the way through the book. And this pays off. The richness of their relationship, both to one another and to science, fills this book.

The science is what makes this book amazing -- that and Jahren's writing, which is just brilliant. This is some of the best writing -- not just science writing, though it's great science writing, but best writing, I've read ever. I got this book from the library, but halfway through it I knew I needed to own a copy, and ordered it from Amazon. You need to own a copy too. This is a winner.

Lynn Sharon Schwartz, A Life Ruined by Reading

This is a short memoir by the author of one of my favorite books, Disturbances in the Stream. Scharwtz writes several short essays about her childhood memories of reading, how she came to learn to read, what she read, how the books influences her. This was interesting, but not the sort of work I was hoping for -- not on the level of her earlier work.

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

Recently we had Undergraduate Research Day at our university. This is a day when select students present the research they have been doing to faculty judges and to members of the community. I was one of the judges, and among the presentations was an excellent paper arguing that Huckleberry Finn had been misread (and mistaught) for years now. It is commonly taught as a bildungsroman, as you probably know -- a coming of age story -- and as a bildungsroman it has certain problems. Specifically, there's the problem of the ending, which under that reading is just bizarre. (Famously, Hemingway has claimed that the ending should be eliminated, that the book should end at Chapter 31, after Huck makes his decision to do the "wrong" thing, and save Jim.)

This student, though, argued pretty persuasively that the book was not a bildungsroman, but a picaresque novel. (You can read her abstract here, on page 28 of the .pdf )

It was a fascinating presentation, and stirred me to re-read Huckleberry Finn, which I hadn't done since my undergraduate days. I am sad to say that even reading it as a picaresque novel, though, did not make me like it any better. There are bits of it that are readable, but jeez did Mr. Twain need someone to smack his hand and take his pen away. You're just not that funny, son.

Jo Walton, The Just City, Philosopher Kings, Necessity

These I had all read before, but never all in a row and at once. As a trilogy, they are well worth reading that way. If you are a Friend of the Blog, you've read my review of at least one of these, so you already know what these are -- but in short, these are a SF/F trilogy in which the Greek God Athena decides to "do" Plato's Republic, by taking 300 people from various places in history who had all prayed to her to be taken to just that place -- to Plato's Republic -- and setting them up on the island of Thera before the volcano destroys it, along with ten thousand orphaned slave children. Also robots from the 25th century.

And then what happens? That's what the trilogy is about. It's Jo Walton, so it's wonderful.

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

I'm reading this one to teach it, for my Zombies, Vampires, and the Apocalypse class. And maybe that's not giving a fair shake, since I'm reading it here at the end of a class of relentless apocalyptic fiction. But jeez, son.

Or maybe I'm just fed up to my chin with sensitive boys showing that they're sensitive by how lyrical they can be about catching fish and shooting deer.

The almost entire lack of women characters got on my nerves, too. We do get the woman he goes and fetches from the canyon at the end. I suppose I should give him points for her -- she's a doctor, so there's that. And at least all the women aren't dead or peripheral, they way they are in McCarthy's The Road.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

The trilogy based on Athena and the Republic, etc. sounds fascinating! I'll have to add that to my summer reading list! Thanks!

delagar said...

It's SO GOOD! You're going to love it.