11 hours ago
Friday, July 13, 2018
What I'm Reading
I'm done with teaching until August 20, so I'm writing a ton. Also reading more fiction than usual. (Whaaat!)
Some of it is re-reading old favorites. I'm not going to list those. I'm also not going to list the books I've started and tossed aside after 10 or 20 pages. There were a number of these, by the way. I'm just not interested in reading another book about another rich straight white guy (rich straight white woman) who is bored with their life or marriage or having a midlife crisis or whatever and in which nothing happens except we hear about their feelings. Oh, and they have sex with people. Author-insert sex, usually. Author-insert-creepy sex.
This is why most new fiction in the Literary genre is so bad. Young writers have stopped using plot. When you get rid of plot, what's left? Just your characters, mooning about feeling moody about their dull lives. And it's not that their lives are inherently dull -- it's just that you left out the plot.
I mean, take two of the best books written in the past 20 years: Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Both of these are centered on mundane existence and on straight white people. Russo's Donald Sullivan is a 60 year old day-laborer in a small, dying town in upstate New York. Atkinson's Ursula Todd is the third child in an upper-middle-class family in pre-WWII and post-WWII England. Both books deal with the minutia of their lives. Both books are wonderful for two reasons: excellent writing, and a compelling plot.
Atkinson's plot is slightly speculative -- she imagines a world in which reincarnation is real, and then shows us Ursula's life, over and over (life after life). The plot bit is that it's the same life. That is, Ursula is always Ursula Todd, born on February 11, 1920, to this family, in this house, during this snowstorm. But after that, changes can and do occur. What happens when Ursula-the-soul begins to remember previous reincarnations? Especially with WWII hitting her and her family and her country square in the middle of her life?
Russo's plot is straight literary fiction. Sullivan is trying to make it through another year. He's damaged, both physically and psychically, and he's inflicted damage on those around him. But he lives in a community of people he cares about, and people who care about it. And we, the reader, come to care about him. We want him to make it through another year also. That's the plot. That's the entire plot. Can Sully make his life work? Can he help his son and grandson? Can the other main character, Miss Beryl, help Jane and Tina (shadow figures to Sully's son and grandson, the child and grandchild Sully won't claim)? Will the community of North Bath survive another year?
Just as George Eliot makes us care about Middlemarch and those who live in that community, Russo makes us care about North Bath and the fate of those who live in this community. That's his plot -- can they make it? We want to know, and so we read on.
I think this is why I like genre fiction more than what is being published in the genre called literary fiction these days. Those who write genre fiction know they're supposed to have a plot. Too many people writing "literary" fiction think they can just write "lush" or "intricate" prose and substitute that for plot. Bah.
Where was I?
Oh, right. What have I been reading?
Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars
I almost skipped this one because our library didn't have a copy and I'm trying not to buy books because we need to buy new tires for the car soon. But then Amazon had it cheap on Kindle, and I went for it.
Very much worth it! This is an alternative history in which an asteroid hits Earth in 1952, just off the coast of Maryland, obliterating Washington, D.C., where both Houses were in session, and President Dewey and most of his entire cabinet were present. The highest ranking survivor is the Secretary of Agriculture -- which turns out to be a good thing, since having a President who understands the effect of weather on crops and thus on humanity becomes key to the survival of humanity.
This is definitely genre fiction, and the plot is central: the asteroid strike creates a crisis, and our main character (a "computer" for NACA, this time-line's version of NASA) is central to solving that crisis. She and her husband and their community of colleagues and friends work desperately to get the space program kicked into high gear in time to save the human race from the disaster the asteroid strike has caused.
Lots of math in this one, and lots of science. Very readable, though! And the characters are great.
Holly Black, The Cruel Prince.
Also definitely genre fiction, this one is fantasy. I don't usually like fantasy much, but the Kid gave me this one and ordered me to read it. And the Kid is right! It's really good. I'm going to try not to give spoilers.
It's told from the point of view of a child, Jude, whose mother was romanced off into the land of the Fae. Fast-forward 17 years. The child is now on the cusp of adulthood, and the kingdom of the Fairies is having political issues.
I love books with political issues.
Jude wants to be a knight, which is something mortals can be but usually aren't. Her Faerie father can make this happen, if he wants to. He gives Jude ambiguous answers. Meanwhile, Jude and her two sisters (one is half-fae, the other mortal like Jude) are having trouble with their fae coevals, most of whom are royalty.
Plot abounds. Who is to be trusted and who is not? It's like a Tudor drama. Very much worth reading. But fair warning -- this is the first of a trilogy, and the next isn't out until January. Also, just as with Tudor England, we've got blood and abuse and intrigue everywhere in this one, so if you like your books without violence, maybe skip this one.
Ian Mortimer, The Time-Traveler's Guide to Restoration England
Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley
I blogged about one of these already. They're both really good. Both of them I'm reading for research on this one tiny story I'm writing. But worth reading if you're interested in the period even if you're not writing a story about trickster time-travelers! Mortimer is good for his period details -- he's written several of these books -- and Gordon's analysis is excellent.