Books I Read Lately: Mid-October 2009 Edition (Part The Second)

I took out Understanding Your 6 Year-Old by Deborah Steiner in an attempt to understand my six-year-old, and it worked pretty well. Six-year-olds are in a horrible state: they realize they're not good at everything, they realize other people don't always like them, they realize other people's lives are different (and sometimes better) than their own, and on top of all that they realize that Mum isn't infallible. It's too much. No wonder they're so crabby. Reading this book helped me understand Delphine's perspective.

This is an English book translated for an American audience. I hate it when they do that, nominally because it's patronising to Americans to assume they can't understand Anglicisms, but in truth probably because I'm an Anglophile and I think (irrationally) that English English is better than American English. Anyway, either it's impossible to completely Americanize a book like this, or they did a lousy job because right from the first paragraph when she talked about "infant's school" I knew it was an English book, so all the Americanisms they did manage to slip in came off as glaring incongruities. Goodness knows what it would have been like to read as a unilingual American; very disquieting, I imagine.


The September 16 issue of New Scientist magazine had a section on science fiction, guest edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson said, "the range, depth, intensity, wit and beauty of the science fiction being published in the UK these days is simply amazing", so I thought, hey, I used to love science fiction, I should try it again. Sounds cool.

Robert J. Sawyer is a Toronto SF writer who gets some favourable press, so I picked up his novel Rollback. It's about a woman who initiated conversation with aliens in 2009. By the time the aliens' reply reaches earth, the woman is in her eighties and near death. A rich businessman offers to pay for a "rollback" treatment for the woman, which will return her to the health of a twenty-five year old. She accepts on the condition that her husband gets the treatment, too. To say more would spoil the plot, but there's romantic intrigue and alien contact and tragedy and stuff.

Plot-wise it was a good read, but I can't say it renewed my love of SF. I didn't buy the premise that the only person who can continue to communicate with the aliens is the person who started to. The writing was no better than servicable—my bar for writing quality has gone way up in the last few years. The dialogue was lumpy; do writers not say their dialogue out loud to see if it sounds like something anyone would ever say? And there were some very awkward pop culture references which were very clearly the author's own opinion, put into the mouth of his characters: diatribes on TV shows, extensive discussion about the Atkins diet, a Slashdot reference. The book was published in 2007 and the near-future part was set in 2009, and already the Atkins and Slashdot references were painfully anachronistic. The world changes so fast that writing near-future SF is playing with fire. (Although I'm not sure that any astrophysics professors were reading Slashdot even in 2007. I could be wrong; I stopped reading Slashdot in 2003.)

The characters were likeable and believable, the plot was interesting and kept me turning pages, and there were some interesting ideas presented about aging, and fidelity. But if this is the best the SF has to offer (and Sawyer does keep winning SF awards) I'm not surprised that SF writers don't win any "literary" awards. But I'm not giving up yet—Kim Stanley Robinson talked about UK SF writers, so I will read some of his recommendations, and my brother (who loves the same kind of writing that I do, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro and Khaled Hosseini) likes the writing of Charles Stross, so I will read him too.

Speak of the devil (hah!), my next read was Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, which I read for Book Club. I thought it was great, nice and light with a million references (pop culture and otherwise) to pick up, and a nice rich allegory to mull over when the book is done. (Okay, am I the only person who thinks "Butt the Hoopoe" is a "Mott the Hoople" reference? It could be!) This book manages to be both light and richly complex, like some kind of light but richly complex wine. (That's what you call the Trivial Metaphor.)

Before I read Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction edited by Lee Gutkind I didn't know what Creative Nonfiction was, and I'm not entirely sure I know now, but I think I read quite a lot of it. It seems to refer to those books and magazine articles which take a nonfiction topic and write about it in a literary way, like Mary Roach's books about sex and corpses, or The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. This book is a collection of short (very short, a page or two) chapters about various topics relevant to writing Creative Nonfiction: research, composite characters, libel, fact-checking, quotation marks, etc. That the chapters are arranged alphabetically brings a certain randomness to the book, but each chapter is clearly self-contained and there isn't much repetition. The shortness of the chapters keeps it interesting, resulting in a quick, easy, but very informative read.

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