Sunday, March 24, 2019

What I'm Reading

Spring break is almost over. We drove the kid back to school this morning, and this evening I've been working on edits of a short story. I really like Spring Break. And winter break. And summers. I'm a very slow writer, and I need long stretches of time in which to write. That hardly ever happens during the school year, so I end up writing scrappy bits and pieces. Not the long slow days of writing I need to work well.

Here's what I read over Spring Break:

Kate Hope Day, If, Then

This is a weird and well-done take on the multiverse novel -- only marginally science fiction, a story about people slipping between different versions of their own lives.

The novel takes place in a small suburban town in northern Oregon which is built near a volcano which is supposed to be inactive. (Spoilers: it's not.) The volcano's rumblings and eventual eruption are connected with the ability of the people living in its shadow to slip between worlds.

As befits a multiverse novel, there are multiple points of view -- the four main characters are four people living in the same cul-de-sac. There are a massive number of minor characters, but Day writes so well we never lose track of who is who.

The main point of view characters are a surgeon, a new mother/philosophy graduate student, the surgeon's husband, and a realtor who moved home to be with her sick mother, who has since died. All of them are having doubts about their lives, and the decisions they have made that have created these lives. Tumbling through the different worlds helps them sort out these doubts -- and there's a really cool plot twist about halfway through the book which I won't spoil here.

I love the descriptions of Oregon, and the writing, and the musings of the philosophy grad student on how multiverses might work and why.

Definitely recommended.

Francis Liardet, We Must Be Brave

Set in England, this book is told from the point of view of Ellen Parr, its main character. It skips around in time, from the 1930s, when Ellen is an impoverished child, to the early 1940s, when Ellen and her husband take in a child, Pamela, whose mother has been killed in the Blitz. The latter half of the novel deals with Ellen in her old age, in the late 1970s.

The early part of this book is the best -- the 1930s and 1940s. Ellen's story, especially as it becomes entwined with Pamela, is engaging, and the historical details as wonderfully done.

Also, the relationship between Ellen and this six-year-old she has taken in and comes to love is very well written.

The latter half of the book is not as interesting, sadly. I think Liardet takes a wrong turn when she sends Pamela off to Ireland. The forward momentum of the story dies at that point, although the ending redeems it a bit.

Worth reading for the first half, though, I think.

Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

This book was given to me by one of my students some time ago now. "You'll like this," they said, and I do, even though many things about it are antithetical to my worldview.

Specifically, it's about a city run by witches -- not fantasy witches, Starhawk obviously believes witchcraft is real and effective. She also clearly believes in the power of crystals, and how people can manipulate crystals with their mind. I'm willing to believe in witchcraft as a form of medicine, as in these plants to this to fix that. But witchcraft as someone's power to heal people with spells and their mind-force, yeah, no.

That said, if you can accept this, The Fifth Sacred Thing is a pretty good book. Set in the near future, it's the story of a multicultural pacifist city-state invaded by White National Christian Dominionists who are definitely not pacifists.

How to fight an evil empire without resorting to violence? This book gives an answer.

Kate Mascarenhas, The Psychology of Time Travel

As all y'all know, I love time-travel stories, so I had great hope for this one. And it's not terrible. But it's also nothing special -- there's a locked-room murder mystery at the core of it, but given that we have time travel, I'm not sure why that's supposed to be a mystery. Why does it not occur to the police, who live in a world with time travel, that someone might have jumped into the locked room and then jumped out again?

To be fair, maybe this was explained at some point. The multiple points of view sometimes left me muddled in this one.

And it does appear that the people travel about in time-travel pods or something like that. But that brings up another point -- there's a bit about psychology here, in that time travel messes with your circadian rhythms and thus can set off manic or depressive episodes, and also have other deleterious effects. But there's not much about actual time travel.

I mean, we get some world-building, and that part's pretty good. Time travelers, for instance, often meet up with their younger and older selves and... do things. Go to their own wedding, for instance. Have sex with themselves. (Audrey Niffenegger already had that, in The Time-Traveler's Wife, though.)

But what are the time-travelers doing? In Connie Willis's time travel books they're historians, and they're visiting historical events as research. In Kage Baker's books, they're slaves to the Corporation, and they're recovering and hiding valuables lost in the past, in order to make the Corporation richer. In this book, we get some vague hand-waving. Apparently there is some historical research being done by someone. And some people are making money somehow?

But none of this is ever detailed or explored. Instead we get the murder mystery, and also a detailed examination of the character of the murder victim, who runs the Time-Travel company. Also a lot about who is dating who.

One interesting touch is that almost all the characters are women. We have a few male characters, but they just show up as husbands or boyfriends or students of the women. I liked that part.

Also one of the main love stories was F/F, so that was nice. Still, this is not what I'm looking for in a time travel novel. Other people seem to have liked it better.

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

I read this as an adolescent, once, and never read it again. But it was on the shelf at my library, which is my new standard for reading books, apparently.

Having re-read it, I see why I never read it again.

Not that it is all bad. The writing, especially the descriptions of mountains and storms and pine forests, is really nice. And the basic plot -- a demolitions expert is sent up to join a band of guerrilla fighters in some mountains in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, where he will enlist their aid in blowing a bridge at a precise moment -- isn't terrible.

I even support his decision to have Robert Jordan muse about Republican politics for pages on end, and the endless scene when Pilar is talking about what happened when her comrades took their village from the Nationalists. Among other things, Hemingway was trying to write a true story of the Spanish Civil War, and to do that, he needs to get into ideology and the reality of what happens in and after a coup.

On the other hand, Hemingway lets the ruminations over ideology and politics get out of hand. If he were writing a political tract, maybe this would work. And it almost works now, because he was careful to make his main character, Robert Jordan, an ideologue.

Robert Jordan is a professor of Spanish from Missoula who took a sabbatical to come fight in this war. His grandfather fought in the American Civil War, and in the wars against the American Indians after the Civil War, and he passed down to young Robert a belief in the holiness of war. This was complicated by Robert's father, who -- according to Robert -- was a coward. The evidence given for Robert's father (who he calls 'that other one') being a coward is that (a) he let his wife bully him and (b) he committed suicide.

On the other hand, what is Robert doing, but committing suicide in a much more elaborate and destructive manner?

At the core, as I've said, this book has what could have been a good plot. But it's buried under first the ideology and second a very silly love story. I don't believe for a minute that Robert would take up with Maria, not on a job like this; or that the partisans would let him take up with her; or that she would want to take up with  him.

There's a taint of White Savior running through the book. This is why we're supposed to believe the partisans who have been protecting and caring for Maria for all this time stand back and let her take up with Robert.

Pilar is a pretty good character, except for all the whining about not being pretty. I don't believe for a minute that Pilar, as she's written, would give a shit about her looks. That's Hemingway, who thinks that at their root women are just decorative, so of course an ugly one is useless.

On the other hand, this book taught me a new word, which is rare at this point in my life: aneroid. (It's not a very useful word, sadly.)

Ira Levin, A Kiss Before Dying

This was Levin's first book. It's a mystery novel, rather than fantasy or SF, which are the books he became famous for. And it's a pretty good one.

First published in 1953, A Kiss Before Dying is set in the pre-Roe v. Wade world, the one the "Pro-Life" crowd wants us to return to. Its main characters are a young man who is total sociopath and a wealthy family, one who made its fortune in copper mining and manufacturing.

The young man comes from the working class, but aspires to wealth and power. He begins dating the youngest daughter of the family, and realizes, when he gets her pregnant, that marrying her for this reason would destroy any hope he has of winning the wealthy father's approval.

He does attempt a medical abortion of the fetus (and twists the young girl's arm until she agrees) but when that fails, what can he do but murder her?

The best part of this book is the look at the world of the early 1950s, plus the very cool plot twists. Also, like all of Levin's books, it's very readable, and very short. Definitely light fiction, despite the grim-dark elements.

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