Sunday, July 04, 2021

What I'm Reading Now

Spiegelman, Nadja, I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This

Nadja is the daughter of Art Spiegelman, who wrote and drew Maus; this is an autobiography of her childhood and young adult years. If you're interested in the Spiegelmans, or in the children of famous people, it's worth reading. It's mostly about Nadja's mother and her relationship with her mother. I enjoyed it, but IDK if I'll ever pick it up again.

Robinson, Kim Stanley, The Years of Rice and Salt

As much as KSR's ideas interest me (colonizing Mars! A utopian space on the West Coast! How we save the world from climate change!), I always have trouble actually finishing his books. I'm not sure why. He's a competent writer and page by page the books are always interesting. Reading this one, I think I finally figured out why.

This is a novel which speculates about how the world might have developed if, instead of killing 1/3 of Europe in the 14th century, the Black Death had instead killed 90% of Europe. What would happen in a world in which Christianity and Europeans were not a dominant force? In which Christians, in fact, barely existed?

A very cool idea, which KSR approached obliquely. The title, The Years of Rice and Salt, refer to an Asian idea, a division of life into stages, with "years of rice and salt" being the years of adulthood in which we are engaged in bearing and raising children: the monotonous if rewarding years occupied almost entirely by mundane life. 

That's the subject matter for this book. He spends only a little time on the world-shaking actions -- wars, invasions, great men and their great actions. Mostly the book tells us about mundane people: kitchen slaves, mothers, two young girls growing up in Africa. Because of this, the book feels slow and meandering. There's no great forward momentum of the plot, in other words.

The other thread in this book is reincarnation. We follow a handful of characters whose karma is linked by a terrible event in their pasts as they move from life to life, interspersed with scenes in the bardo, where they reflection on their lives and their progression along the great wheel.

This is well worth reading (I finished this one!), but you can't approach it the way you might approach a regulat novel. Definitely a "be here now" experience.

Kress, Nancy, The Best of Nancy Kress

This is a collection, edited by Kress herself, of short stories and novellas written over her long career. As with KSR, I have a mixed attitude toward Kress. Sometimes I love her work, sometimes it annoys me. This collection, though, is excellent. It includes the novella which was later expanded into her most famous work, Beggars in Spain, about genetic engineering to create people who don't need sleep in a libertarian world.

Kress writes science-driven science fiction, but also creates engaging, interesting, non-stock characters, and realistic worlds. Among other things, her aliens are truly alien. This collection contains 22 stories and novellas, including ones I had never seem before. Very much worth reading, if you can acquire it.

Parker, Robert, Early Autumn, The Godwulf Manuscript, Promised Land, Looking for Rachel Wallace

These are mystery novels written from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Parker kept writing after that, but I only re-read the early ones, more for a kind of time travel than because I was all that interested in the stories here. The stories here are fine, but it was the look at the 1970s and 1980s that kept me reading.

What a strange time that was. Parker's descriptions of the clothes alone are worth the trip, but also the attitudes toward (for instance) LGBT people, and the unfiltered racism expressed not by our hero Spenser but by nearly every character, as well as the look at bars and entertainment and life in that ancient era in general. The last one, Looking for Rachel Wallace, is about a Lesbian feminist, and quite a read, especially the bits where Spenser gets patriarchal with Rachel. 

Delightful in an anthropological sense.

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