Reading: 16 July 2018
by Cameron N. Coulter
Posted on July 16, 2018
Over the last several months, my reading time has largely been split between genre classics and recent political nonfiction. (And short fiction.)
Let’s start with the genre classics.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Originally published in 1975.
This books succeeds by the strength of its wild prose and daring, imaginative worldbuilding. There’s certainly a plot here; although I confess, I couldn’t follow it very easily. But I hardly cared about that! The prose was so much fun! It was playful, smart, powerful, and surprising.
Looking for daring new wave feminist SF? Something that’ll make The Left Hand of Darkness look tame? Go read this. It still deserves to be read, and it’s tons of fun.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Originally published in 1959.
For first being published in 1959, this story has held up surprisingly, impressively well. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a powerful set of three post-apocalyptic novellas set in a Catholic monastery in the Southwestern American desert. The first novella is set in the nadir of a dark age, the second at the start of a renaissance, and the third takes place in a rebuilt civilization on the edge of war. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation series; both works chronicle a bastion of civilization and culture attempting to bring a dark age to an early end.
As a whole, A Canticle for Leibowitz is funny, powerful, and stunningly unique. The third novella is the pièce de résistance—it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. It’s basically speculative theology, situating an informed, sympathetic take on the Catholic teachings on euthanasia beside a nuclear holocaust. It’s disarmingly brave and challenging. This book left me changed, in the way the best books do, especially to younger readers.
Honestly, the third novella is stunningly original; at multiple times as I was reading it, I literally set the book down and thought, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m reading this. I can’t believe this was written. This is amazing!” In this way, A Canticle for Leibowitz reminds me A Wizard of Earthsea, another classic of the field that somehow still feels all to original, all too contemporary, important, and challenging.
Now that I’ve squeed at maximum volume for too long, I’m slightly concerned I may have given you overblown expectations that will ruin your reading experience. So let me boil my thoughts down to these two more restrained observations: (1) This is a deserved classic—it still holds up; (2) Admittedly, I love this book a lot because A Canticle for Leibowitiz hits a grand slam on one of my genre obsessions: serious, sympathetic treatment of religion and theology.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Originally published in 1973.
This book was okay. Although the prose was sharp and clear, the social norms were aggravatingly outdated, and the ideas were interesting but tame compared to more modern SF. I enjoyed this book well enough as I read it, but when I finished, I set down it and had no desire to read anything else by Arthur C. Clarke. Which is good. My TBR list is way too long. It’s actually really nice to have had a taste of an author and to be able to confidently remove them from your reading list. There’s so much other stuff out there, it’s nice to be able to narrow down my reading.
Relatedly, I also tried to read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester just the other month. I read 20-30 pages of it, but it was doing nothing for me, so I gave up, returned it to the library, and scratched it off my reading list. I was proud of myself! I displayed an important skill: being able to shamelessly give up on a book that’s not working for you.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
I hadn’t read these before. This series was enjoyable, but I needed to adjust my expectations to enjoy it.
Each book in the series starts with a warning and a suggestion. Snicket admonishes his readers that the events portrayed in the book are dreadful and terrible, and Snicket attempts to persuade this readers to put down the book and choose another. At first, I thought this was a cute bit of black humor to set the tone for the story. I was foolish and wrong. Snicket’s warnings, as unexpected and funny they may seem, are earnest. These are not happy books. The moments of levity and joy the Baudelaire siblings experience do not counterbalance their hardships. The first book was especially tough for me to read, as I watched the Baudelaires experience abuse, neglect, and exploitation—three harms I had to undergo training for before starting my last job.
But once I adjusted my expectations, I largely enjoyed the series. The prose is comfy. The plots are engaging. The overall series arc is intriguing and skillfully executed. The books become increasingly thematically complex. Interestingly, however, the final book of the series caught me off-guard again. Despite my experience reading the first twelve books in the series, I started reading book thirteen expecting (or perhaps just blindly hoping for) a nice ending, in which questions were answered, compatriots reunited, and safety reasonably assured. Instead, the final book answered some questions, raised new ones, left several threads either loose or knotted, and delivered a scene with shocking thematic and symbolic weight. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s my fault.
In the Pockets of Small Gods by Anis Mojgani
Write Bloody Publishing, 2018.
I’ve been waiting this book of poetry since 2011, when I read The Feather Room by Anis Mojgani. Sure, Anis has had two books out since then, but neither of those were books of dedicated new poetry. Songs From Under the River (2013) collected Anis’ performance repertoire. It’s a treasure to own, but it didn’t include much new work. The Pocketknife Bible (2015) is awesome and featured lots of new work, but it’s just something else altogether.
The Feather Room basically taught me how to write poetry. Eventually, I realized that 90% of my poetry was derivative of Anis’ style in that book. Which is fine, really—imitating good work is how we improve our craft. But I’ve been dying to see how Anis himself would improve his craft, wondering in what new directions he would take this future work. In the Pockets of Small Gods provides the answer. In this book, Anis blends mythology with his own life, and turns his joyful talent for magic realism to the waters of grief. It’s accessible yet deep, and I imagine I’ll be rereading this one quite a lot.
The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent edited Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira
University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
The Imperial University is an academic anthology, collecting essays addressing the history and politics of power at universities. This book did a good job introducing me to the field of critical university studies, and it also hooked my interest in the field. I’ve been interested in critical pedagogy since I was a junior in college, and critical university studies is a fascinating extension of those same questions.
My favorite essay in the book is “Teaching by Candlelight” by Vijay Prashad, a fascinating examination of how students’ academic freedom is subtly yet powerfully affected by neoliberal capitalism. I walked away from the essay with a clearer awareness of how my own studies have been affected and shaped by social trends. I highly recommend this particular essay, and the book as a whole is also worth reading.
The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village by Henrietta Harrison
This is a really cool book, but it was a little too academic for my liking. Basically, it’s something like a 500 year history of one particular Chinese Catholic village. Harrison puts forth and illustrates a few interesting observations about acculturation, and it’s fascinating to see how the terms “Chinese” and “Catholic” can actually seem not contradictory and possibly even complementary. It’s a cool, interesting book, but it’s dry. There were a lot less tales and a lot more academic legwork than I was hoping for.
The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power edited Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi
Harvard University Press, 2018.
This book is cool! It’s a collection of 36 essays about China, addressing politics, international relations, economics, the environment, society, history, and culture. The essays are written by a bunch of Harvard scholars writing for a general public audience, which is fantastic. The essays are detailed and intelligent yet still generally accessible. The essays are also short, which is nice, although some are surprisingly dense. I can easily imagine the scholars pulling teeth to make these essays as short and accessible as they are, and frankly I love it. We need to make academics write for general purpose audiences more often.
The China Questions was just published earlier this year, which makes the essays delightfully timely and up-to-date. If you have any interest in China, I recommend you pick up this book soon and read any essays that pique your interest. I most enjoyed the essays relating to politics and society, but I read the whole book and discovered something interesting in most of the essays.
The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age by Adam Segal
This is a great book to pick up if you want to learn more about the increasing role of “cyber” in geopolitics. This book is accessible, readable, interesting, and also fairly information-dense.
I was somewhat surprised by how many topics covered by the book I was already familiar with. It made the book slightly less engaging than I’d hoped, but it was also a nice affirmation that, after following news and commentary about these issues for several years, I’ve actually learned a thing or two.