Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me

“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)

Toph GIF Avatar: The Last Airbender

Oh, Fuck, not this bullshit again.

(I hear you, Toph)

****
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!

Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”

(My eloquence: admire it)

At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”

My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”

Me: “Whazit?”

Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”

This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.

Zuko GIF angst Avatar the last airbender

AAAARGH

I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.

Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.

Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.

Massive.

Facepalm.

Aang GIF Avatar headdesk

Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”

Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet

(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).

He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.

Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.

BOOM, BABY.

Emperor's New Groove Boom Baby

(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)

***

This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.

It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”

This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?

[Note: In this post, I will use the term "girl" books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don't mean to imply that there are actual "girl" books and "boy" books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don't have cooties!]

***

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering  a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”

Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.

One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”

Cat and bath

How Boys Feel About “Girl” Books.

And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.

Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.

Apaa Flying Bison Avatar GIF

Think about your life, anonymous author. Think about your choices.

Urgh.

SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.

Toph Earthbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

ON POINT

Let’s get to the important part.
Now that you’ve read all this “evidence” about how boys can’t read “girl” books and it’s a HUGE CATASTROPHE, OH NOES, let me remind you that my brother regularly reads lots of “girl” books.
BUT BOYS CAN’T READ BOOKS ABOUT GIRLS!  HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY HAPPEN?
The answer, my friends, is the Great Feminist Experiment:
Azula GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT. Scared yet?

Ahem. So. The Great Feminist Experiment.
I have known about this whole “boys can’t read “girl” books” since I was… oh, eight or so? It’s been around for at least that long. I vividly remember reading an interview of Eoin Colfer where he claimed he specifically chose a male protagonist for the Artemis Fowl series because it would attract more male readers – and female readers would just pick up the book anyway. I also remember JK Rowling explaining that she used her initials (instead of her first name, Joanne) to avoid scaring off male readers.
I knew what was up.
And when I acquired a baby brother, I decided he would be an ideal Test Subject for a Great Feminist Experiment.

By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.

Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!

Katara GIF waterbending Avatar: THe Last Airbender Waterbending

Example Chosen at Total Random (I <3 you Katara!)

I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.

It was a deviously simple plan.

And it worked.

Tiny Fey Amy Poehler SNL GIF Bitches Get Stuff Done

Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda.  His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.

Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.

And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!

Azula Avatar the last Airbender GIF madness

MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.

I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.

You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.

Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.

What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)

What if we taught them something else?

Iggy Pop

Think about it.

***

Quick story to wrap things up!

So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.

Anyway!

One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”

And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”

My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”

After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.

Avatar GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.

[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]

Azula Avatar: The Last Airbender

Scary Feminist Out!

Notes:

1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!

2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!

3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”

4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.

Katar waterbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

Stop Everything and GO WATCH.

Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.

Further reading: 

The Book Smugglers: The Airing of the Grievances 
The Problem is Not the Books
Gender Balance in YA awards

May Reading Roundup: Who saw the Fantasy?

This morning my brother and my stepsister woke up at five (am) to – and I quote – “work on their abs.” Because they’re going to a waterpark today, and they need to look good in their swimsuits.

Hedgehog Headdesk

**Headdesk**

I will refrain from comment. At least they didn’t wake me up. [Thank Maud for small mercies]

***

Anyways! Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Now that WisCon is over – and now that I’ve gotten a couple social-justice related rants out of the way – it’s time to move back to what really matters in life: giant lists of books.

Because why did I start blogging if not to inflict my bizarre reading taste on the public? [Let us ignore the fact that "the public" right now is my brother and a few devoted friends]

In spite of the fact that this month included: the return of the “four times a week” migraines (joy), a transnational move, a Feminist Science Fiction Convention and at least four gazillion doctor’s appointments (if one more person asks me for my family medical history, I’m going to throw myself off a cliff), I did manage to do some decent reading. HURRAH!

Twelve books! Woo! Five better than last month! (yes, yes in fact I am ridiculously competitive, why do you ask?)

Reviews follow the list:

1. A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
2. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
3. Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire
4. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente
5. The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
6. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
7. The Orphans Tales: In the Cities of Coins and Spices by Catherynne Valente
8. The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
9. Chicks Dig Time Lords ed. by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
10. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston
11. The WisCon Chronicles Volume 6: Futures of Feminism and Fandom ed. by Alexis Lothian
12. Impolitic! by Andrea Hairston and Debbie Notkin

[Fair warning: the longer the summer goes on, the longer these lists are likely to get. I think my record last year was 22 books in a month]

This is a very WisCon inspired list – seven of the books (The Orphan’s Tales, Shine Coconut Moon, Chicks Dig Time Lords, Redwood and Wildfire, The WisCon Chronicles and Impolitic!) were read in anticipation of the convention.

I’ve talked about Redwood and Wildfire, The WisCon Chronicles and Impolitic! at other points during my WisCon recaps, so I won’t go over those again here. Because yes, I do take pity on my devoted readers. I will say that all three books are fantastic and well worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in WisCon, or the Tiptree Award.

WisCon also inspired a rare event at the House of Disorientation: two re-reads. Yes, in fact, I have already read both The Orphan’s Tales: The Night Garden and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coins and Spices. But I presented a paper about the series at WisCon, so I needed to re-read them for research [I have over thirty pages of notes. Have mercy upon me]. If you’ve never read Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, you really should. They’re some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking books I’ve read in the past few years. Plus, Valente is an incredible prose writer, and her style has never been better.It’s quite difficult to explain what the series is about, so I’m going to cop to the very-basic and somewhat-inaccurate description: it’s a feminist retelling of One Thousand and One Nights.

The Orphan’s Tales are also tailor-made to my interests – they explore gender, bodies, monstrosity, mythology, storytelling, and above all, the concept of belonging. And part of the reason I love them so much is that the books aren’t a critique of fairy tales – they’re a reconstruction of tales along feminist lines. The books show us how stories could be different – they’re rebuilding an entire tradition from the ground up – which I think is arguably harder than just deconstructing a genre.

And the last scene of the last book makes me cry every time. It’s – you know the last two scenes of Lost? When Jack walks into the church and sees all the castaways again, and he remembers? And if you’re me, you completely lose it? Yeah. It’s like that. *sniff*

Okay, let’s move onto a happier note, shall we? [Sorry - the final scene of Lost always gets to me]

Seanan McGuire! Seanan McGuire is always a happier note.

When I discovered Mira Grant’s work, I wanted to read all her books.  ALL her books. Unfortunately, there was only one them out at the time. Whoops. [There are now three books. Yay!] So I was thrilled to discover that Mira Grant was a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire, who had published LOTS of books.

After reading the first book of McGuire’s popular October Daye urban fantasy series, Rosemary and Rue, however, I was… underwhelmed. It was good, sure. But it didn’t quite work for me.

And then I read the second book, A Local Habitation.

A Local Habitation Cover Seanan McGuire

(great covers, by the way)

HOLY FREAKING MAUD I MUST READ ALL THE BOOKS NOW! NOW! WHERE ARE THEY? WHEREEEE???? I NEED THEM NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! I MUST HAVE THEM OR I WILL -

Hem. I, uh, really liked the second book. As in: forgoing food and sleep in order to finish reading it. As in: reading it on the plane (which is a terrible idea, since I get motion sickness). As in – okay, I need to stop with the fangirl SQUEE. Calm down, C.D. Remember that people read this thing. It’s public. Get a grip.

Okay.

So, er, plot summary. Yes. I can write cogent thoughts.

The October Daye series centers on October “Toby” Daye, the only changeling (half-human, half-faery) to have earned Knighthood. She’s also a faery detective operating out of San Francisco. In A Local Habitation, Toby’s liege lord, Sylvester, sends her to the County of Tames Lightning (Fremont,CA), to check on his niece, the CEO of a computer games company.

And after Toby arrives, the county is suddenly cut off from other Fae domains, and employees begin to die, one by one.

I love these sort of tense, psychological, edge-of-your-seat narratives, and McGuire writes them like none other. Her characters are fantastic – Toby alone is a masterclass of a character, one of the best urban fantasy heroines I’ve ever encountered.  Add to that McGuire’s portrayal of Faery politics, her exploration of the Faery world, and the computer-science-magic that emerges near the end (a dryad uploaded into a computer, for example), and A Local Habitation is sheer, frackin’ brilliance.

Oh, and it’s terrifying.

Love. It.

Also, as your resident Literature student nerd, I should point out that all the titles of the October Daye series are taken from Shakespeare’s Plays.

Rosemary and Rue – Hamlet
An Artificial Habitation – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Literature nerd alert, everyone!

I also read Discount Armageddon, the first book of Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy series (Incryptid).

Discount Armageddon cover Seanan McGuire
The protagonist, Verity Price, comes from a long line of cryptozoologists  – people who study and protect creatures whose existence has not yet been proven (also known as monsters). But Verity only wants to do one thing in life: dance. So she moves to New York to pursue a ballroom dancing career.

But don’t let the sequins and the high heels fool you. Anyone who can high kick over their head is someone you don’t want to mess with. Verity straps guns and daggers under her dance costume, and she knows enough about the lifecycle of unicorns to scare off a ghoul.

So when a professional monster-hunter shows up in the city and monsters begin to disappear, Verity is ready.

And the result is awesome. Discount Armageddon is the most entertaining of McGuire’s work so far – it’s sheer, ridiculous fun.

One of McGuire’s best traits as a writer – both as Seanan McGuire, and as Mira Grant – is her humor, which laces throughout all her work. In Armageddon, McGuire’s humor isn’t a sidenote, it’s front and center. I could not stop laughing.

“When in doubt, play dead. Well, unless you might be dealing with a ghoul, or a basilisk, or something else that likes its meat a little ripe. Actually, when in doubt, just start shooting.” (44)

“I really don’t think you should put your hand inside the manticore, dear. You don’t know where it’s been” (1)

“Mother nature is a freaky lady who probably created pot so she could spend all her time smoking it.”

Verdict? Fantastic. Like Buffy the Vampire slayer on steroids – if Buffy were protecting the vampires. Can’t wait for the next book.

One of my most anticipated reads of the month was The Killing Moon, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s new series (Dreamblood).

N.K. Jemisin The Killing Moon Cover

Orbit does the best covers. Seriously.

I  became an instant fan of NK Jemisin after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms last year, and I’m convinced that the Inheritance series is one of the most best and most original epic fantasy trilogies to come out in the past ten years. So naturally, when I saw The Killing Moon was available a few days earlier than expected in my local bookstore, I bought it.*

(and by “bought it,” I mean “I started caressing it and murmuring “my precious” over and over, until security asked what was wrong”)

Needless to say, I had very high expectations.

Blown. Out. The. Park.

Seriously, I need to start reading some bad books, or people are going to be convinced that I love everything. I really don’t.

But equally seriously: The Killing Moon is incredible. It’s quite different from the Inheritance trilogy, which is good – I do eventually get bored with authors who are too one-note.

[Spoiler: Ninja Priests. Ninja Priests in the city-state of Gujareeh, on a world with two moons]

In Gujareeh, peace is the highest law. The city worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams. The magic-system is based on dreams, which citizens tithe to the priests of the Hetawa. The priests, in turn, use these dreams to heal, to guide, to soothe and sometimes, to kill.  Gatherers – the aforementioned Ninja Priests – bring death to those who are on the verge of dying – but also to those judged corrupt. You don’t die in your sleep in Gujareeh. You are Gathered.

But when Ehiru, a powerful, faithful Gatherer, is sent to Gather Sunnandi, a diplomat from Kisua, he discovers a corruption that taints everything from in Gujareeh.

The world N.K. Jemisin has created is so different, so rich, so well-thought-out, so vibrant and internally consistent, that it feels genuine. Alive. Real. There’s almost no suspension of disbelief necessary, Jemisin’s work is so thorough. And her world is one that isn’t, unlike 90% of epic fantasy secondary worlds, based on a pseudo-european-medieval setting. And hey, I love european-medieval epic fantasy, but damn if it’s not refreshing to see something else for a change. And damn if it’s not refreshing to see something so fantastically well-constructed. We’re so used to medieval settings, we stop noticing how flimsy a lot of the world-building is. Jemisin’s is so superior that it highlights the fault lines in other works. With this book, I have little hesitation in saying that Jemisin is the most original world-builder we have working currently. She’s also one of the most original writers of magic we have working currently – an entire system built on dreams and dream theory? Really? Whoa.

The characters and their trials are equally well-depicted. Although I don’t have space to discuss these in great detail, I would like to briefly highlight what for me was the heart of the book: the relationship between Ehiru and his gatherer-apprentice Nijiri. Although the two are deeply loyal to one another, there are dark elements to the relationship. Ehiru starts to lose control of his magic about halfway through the book, and asks Nijiri to Gather him – to kill him – before Ehiru himself becomes corrupt. Meanwhile, Nijiri is in love with Ehiru. Ehiru is aware of this, and relies on Nijiri’s love, despite not being able to reciprocate it (Gatherers are celibate). That Ehiru uses Nijiri’s love for him to (try) to convince Nijiri to kill him is a fascinating, and repelling, dynamic. This is one of the book’s great strengths – the characters (and the city’s) ambiguous, complex morality.

I’ll leave the final word to my brother, who read the book right after I did.

“God, I love N.K. Jemisin so much!”

(Indeed).

This seems to be my month for fantasy – now that I’m looking over the list, it’s evident that I read almost no science fiction. The Cloud Roads is sort of science fiction, if you squint and look at it sideways. But everything else is fantasy (or just literary). With the possible exception of Chicks Dig Time Lords, which is about science fiction (although it’s nonfictional).

Chicks Dig Time Lords Cover

Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It is a collection of interviews, essays and cartoons written by female fans of Doctor Who. The contributors examine their relationship with fandom, and their love of the series.

Now, I’ve never watched Doctor Who (I know, I know. It’s on the to-do list). And I still found this book immensely entertaining and insightful. As a fan, I love watching other fans indulge in SQUEE. As a female fan, I’m always interested in seeing how women engage with fandoms that are typically viewed as “male.” And as a science fiction fan, I always like looking at analysis of science fiction shows! So I was quite pleased. SQUEE, science fiction and gender analysis all wrapped up in one shiny package: it’s like my birthday came early.

The book is extremely well-edited – it varies in both tone and content, so it never feels repetitive or one-note. There are essays that are pure fannish SQUEE. There are essays that address the specific trials and tribulations of female fans. There are essays dissecting particularly Doctor Who companions. There are near-academic essays. There are fun stories. There are sad stories. There are interviews with Who Actresses and writers. There’s a discussion of costuming at Doctor Who conventions. There’s even a comic (from the creators of Torchwood Babiez)

Chicks Dig Time Lords won a Hugo Award last year – and now that I’ve read it, all I can say is: Well deserved.

Before I close, a quick shoutout to the books I’m not reviewing in depth, but that I still loved: Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon (great, snarky, dark YA; fantastic narrator; cannot wait to read the next book) and Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads (old-fashioned fantasy in the best possible way; wonderful prose; interesting social dynamics)

And that’s it for May! I’m already well into June reading, and I’ve tentatively titled this “The Month of All The Incest” – because seriously, three books, all with incest. What’s going on?
But the books are good, so there’s that!

Finally, my self-policing statistics (for gender and race):

12 books

14 authors (or editors)

14 women (I swear, this was not intentional).

10 white editors/authors
4 People of Color editors/Authors
(better than last month)

Related Posts:

I Never Wanted to be a Boy: A tribute to Authors

Please Don’t Tame the Shrew: WisCon 36 Wrap-Up

April Reads are Trapped in Heiddeger’s Hermeunetic Circle

March Monthly Reading Roundup is Winning the Alliteration Award

 


Home is where the Library Lives (College Edition)

[Content note: I have put Cat Pictures at the end of this post in a shameless attempt to get people to read the whole thing. Then again, you could just scroll to the bottom. My super-evil plans would then be FOILED]

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t buy a lot of books.

Oh, sure, I read a lot. But I don’t buy that much. Most of what I read comes from libraries. I do feel quite guilty about that (although NK Jemisin argues I shouldn’t) – I know authors need book sales, and it’s important to me to contribute to the book publishing industry.

At the same time, I read a lot of books. Like, over 150 books a year. And if I bought over 150 books a year? Yeah, I wouldn’t…eat. I’m a college student; I don’t have that kind of disposable income. And I like eating. It keeps me alive.

So yes. In the interest of eating, I don’t buy that many books.

You can thus imagine my shock when I was packing to go home for the summer, and realized that there were books on every single wall of my college-home room.

Apparently I do buy a lot of books.

I blame the major. You can’t be a literature major without buying a lot of books. Five books per class minimum, multiply that by four to five classes a semester… mucho books. And I do resell a lot of mine, because I’m callous and I need the money, but I keep ones that I think will be useful.

Just so you know? I think all the books will be useful at some point.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so surprised. I’ve always accumulated books one way or another, mostly because I’m terrified that I’m going to run out of things to read. When I visited my family in France as a kid, I developed a super-secret (and effective) method of lining my suitcases with books (as I recall, I mostly took Tamora Pierce novels. You can’t travel without Keladry of Mindelan. You just can’t). I usually take three to four books with me on plane trips, even if the trip itself only lasts three hours. I never go anywhere without a book or two in my backpack. I start freaking out whenever my to-read pile dips lower than four books. And when it was time to move to college, I insisted on sending two huge boxes of books across the US border so I could fill the bookshelves of my dorm library.

Small, portable, giant, unwieldy, literate, speculative, diverse or juvenile, I’ve always had some kind of library with me. If only because my greatest terror in life is running out of reading material.

Then again, at this point in my college home (not a dorm anymore, thank the Lords of Kobol), I’m starting to worry that we could just take out the walls of my room and replace them with my books.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

Exhibit A: the printer

Printer Books

I used to have a printer. Now access to it is completely blocked off by these two piles of books. Can you see my printer? No.

My point exactly. Trust me, it’s there.

At a glance, I’m pretty sure they’re all books from last semester. A book of Chinese history, two collections by H.D., a film textbook and Ovid’s Metamorphoses… yep, definitely the fall semester. I’ll give a quick shoutout to the one book that wasn’t from the fall semester for my Hardy-obsessed friend, JYP – Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, hanging around the far left with price-tag still attached. This section isn’t even that bad – it used to be triple the size, but I had to bring all my research books back to the school library. Which is good, because now I can open my closet without tripping over Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.

Speaking of my closet…

Exhibit B: The Closet

Book closet

I deny everything

WHY ARE THERE BOOKS IN MY CLOSET?

And why is my window-spray container leaning on top of them?

Yeah, that I have no good answer for.

Returning to the original question: WHY ARE THERE BOOKS IN MY CLOSET?

Oh, wait, I know why. There isn’t room anywhere else. Especially not for my giant textbooks.

Yes, I’ve become the kind of person who hides books in her closet. I’m not proud. I’m even less proud of the fact that there might be an entire suitcase filled with old books hidden in the back of this closet. Might. Might. I didn’t check. I had… other things to do.

Like feel shame.

The bad news is that I’ll probably have to put even books in my closet, since I’m running out of other places to put them. That’s going to be a problem because, you know, my closet actually serves a purpose: keeping my clothes off the floor. I feel like “book stashing” and “clothes stashing” are eventually going to clash. There’s only enough real estate for so much.

Now this! This is a good use of real-estate.

Exhibit C: The Wall

19th century science fiction

This is the wall space between my bed and my closet. Correction: this used to be the wall space between my bed and my closet. Now it’s a miniature library. Hurrah!

I’m actually mildly impressed with how organized my books are (famous last words). I know exactly what’s in this book-section: 18th century British novels, post-war British novels and (American) civil war textbooks. The pile on the far right is made up of my giant cookbooks (it’s not a super-practical arrangement, because I keep needing to use said cookbooks and thus disturbing the entire stack). It also contains two European women’s history textbooks and a History of the Book Reader (which is a great textbook, by the way. Highly recommended. Very interesting). When you think about it, there’s some sort of meta-ironic-commentary being made by the fact that I shelved the women’s history textbooks and the cookbooks in the same place (because obviously all that women did during the medieval era was cook! Am I right, ladies? /sarcasm/).

That was totally planned, by the way. It wasn’t just that the women’s history books and the cookbooks were vaguely the same size. *cough*

On top of the deeply ironic women’s history/cookbook section, I’ve got my small but awesome collection of 19th century British Science Fiction, from one of my favorite literature courses. It’s telling that I haven’t resold any of the books from that class, despite the fact that I had to buy them all new (and with Canadian prices, even the paperbacks cost $15-$20). Well – that’s a lie. I managed to get a great used copy of M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. It’s from the 1950s; it’s got a buxom lady on the cover and a cigarette advertisement inside. I love it.

Now – here’s what’s interesting about the last three photos. All the books I’ve shown – excluding the cookbooks – were bought for class. Which, er, says something about the classes I’m taking, huh?

Oh, but you say. That’s not that many books (for school)! Only about fifty or so. And you’ve been in school three years now…

Fair point! Then let me show you…

Exhibit D: This Semester’s Books

Class Books Winter Semester

And that’s one semester’s worth of books

These are (almost) all the books I bought for this semester of college. ONE semester. My rough calculations say that I bought 28 books and checked out an additional five from the library (they were on the syllabus, but I was too cheap to buy them. Can you blame me?).

And yes, this is a pretty precarious bookshelf. In it’s defense, it’s not actually tilted – I was taking these photos with my computer’s photobooth (I don’t own a camera), and I couldn’t shoot an untilted photo without hanging upside down from teh ceiling. But I keep fearing that the poor shelf is going to collapse and send all of my school books crashing onto my desk. Which is why I never keep my computer at my desk.

Paranoia saves lives, people! (okay, it saves computer lives. Still)

A few times the books on the right have come unbalanced… and then they slide right into the trash can (I’m not even joking). It’s pretty hilarious. And sad.

Also, note the photo of Shakespeare right under the bookshelf. Hey, I’m a literature student. I have to have a photo of Shakespeare somewhere.

So yes. This is what one semester’s worth of class books looks like in my world (and yes, I did read all of them). My conclusion? Maybe I’m not a book-buying addict. Maybe my classes are trying to turn me into a book-buying addict.

And they say school is good for you.

The worst part is: what the hell am I going to do with these giant piles of books when I need this space for next semester’s books? There’s no more room in my room! GAAAH.

And I can’t sell all of them… they might come in handy at some point.

Maybe I should invest in another bookcase.

No! That’s just the crazy talking. Think of how many books I could buy with the money I would spend on a bookcase (even one of those cheap $30 IKEA bookcases). LOTS of books.

And I do, in fact, sometimes buy books that aren’t related to school. Case in point:

Exhibit E: The To-Read Pile (with an appearance by Mr. Calvin and Mr. Hobbes)

To-read pile

This is my to-read bookshelf (located right above my bed). Usually it’s a lot fuller, but since I was on the point of leaving my college home when I took these pictures, I returned all my library to-read books. Because stealing library books = not okay.

Anyways. The central pile? Those are the “Thank Maud I finished another semester of college without jumping off a building, now let’s go buy some science fiction and fantasy and pretend we never heard of “literature,” shall we?” books. All those books I’ve been eyeing for months, but couldn’t read because I had to finish Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park? Yeah, I… went a little crazy and bought most of them.

THERE WAS A SALE! It’s not my fault. Also, I’d just finished my last final, and I was in a really bizarre state. Nothing I did in those hours can be held against me.

Okay, I have no defense. I’m a horrible person. But look! Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads! Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon! More Seanan McGuire (A Local Habitation)! N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon! Sooo many good booookssssssssssss…..

I admit it. I’m a horrible, no-good, bad book-buyer. I’m an addict. Something must be done.

I actually read all of the books in the central pile between the time the photo was taken and the time I wrote this blog post (about two weeks). Well, almost all of them. I still haven’t gotten around to A Clash of Kings. My friends keep assuring me it’s great; I enjoyed the first book in the ASoFAI series. Besides, I have to read it so that I can get to the rest of the series and vote appropriately for A Dance with Dragons in the Hugos. But for some reason, I really don’t want to read it. I blame the yellow cover.

This shelf also contains my knitting books and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics. And my Firefly DVDs. And a bouquet of dried flowers my Marat/Sade cast gave me for being a decent Assistant Stage Manager (because they are awesome). There’s clearly a link between all of these things. Who says my library isn’t organized? *cough*

There’s also another picture of Shakespeare somewhere, if you can spot it. Literature student!

(oh, and yes, I did blur one of the photos under the bookshelf. PARANOIA SAVES LIVES, people. Especially on the internet).

Ahem. Moving on.

(yes, there’s more. Told you I had a problem).

Finally! FINALLY, after showing you all of my “secondary” libraries and book-storage areas, I will get to the central culprit. The true locus of readership and literature.

My actual bookshelf.

Exhibit F: THE ACTUAL BOOKSHELF

Bookshelf bottom

I love my actual bookshelf. It’s wonderful. It also contains no class books whatsoever – all the books here are ones I shipped from my regular home back in Freshman year. They are my very favorite books in the universe (or at least, my very favorite books back when I was in high school). My entire collection of Tamora Pierce books. My entire collection of Tudor history books (most of which are by Allison Weir). The Abhorsen Trilogy. All my Libba Bray novels. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Karen Joy Fowler. The Sparrow. Jane Eyre, The Professor, Wuthering Heights and the Austen novels. Also, all the Young Adult novels that kept me floating throughout my horrid high school years – Born Confused, The Truth about Forever etc. And a bunch of books about US politics like The Nine and The Dark Side, because apparently, I find those fun.

I sent all of these books to my college because back when I was in high school, I didn’t read a lot of new books. I mostly re-read old favorites – and I expected I would continue this pattern when I arrived in college. So having 100 books I already liked that I could re-read was quite important to me.

I still do re-read now, occasionally. Mostly when the world is exploding all around me and I need some comfort. But I love having my old books around, even if I’m not reading them constantly like I used to.

The giant pile right by the bookshelf is yet another “book storage” area. These are my “read” books – the books I’ve finished. Every few weeks I do a purge and bring a bunch of those books back to the library, then freak out over where to put the other, non-library books. There’s no room left on my “for fun” bookshelf. No, seriously, I’m not kidding. Look.

Bookshelf top

Like I said. No room. I’m now stacking books on top of rows of other books, and I’ve still got tons of books in my “read” pile to store.

…I really have a problem, don’t I?

From this not-so-brief survey of my college room, I have concluded a few things:

1. I buy a lot more books than I think I do

2. WOW, I buy a lot of books for class

3. I am quickly running out of real-estate, and am going to need to find some kind of radical solution next year. Like selling books (NO) or buying a bookcase (maybe). Or getting rid of my bed to make room for more books (yes!)

And since you have made it to the end of the post, I shall reward you with some obligatory cat pictures.

Look! Cat!

Cat with Books

The Cat is Judging Me

The Cat has been sick, and as a result, she has been spending a lot of time in my room. I think it’s because I keep the temperature pretty high. The Cat is also a very, very black cat, so it’s hard to get a picture of her where she doesn’t look like a big black blob. She’s absolutely gorgeous in real life, and does not resemble a Big Black Blob. That’s the Photobooth’s fault.

The Cat was in no way amused by me frantically running around my room, taking pictures with my computer. She was particularly put out when I decided to step on the bed – the bed where she was sleeping, thank you very much  – to take a photo of my to-read bookshelf.

The Cat thinks this blog is a complete waste of time, particularly since it involves disturbing her bed (the fact that it’s also my bed is lost on her).  She thinks I should spend more time in worthwhile pursuits. Like petting her. Or acting as her pillow.

But for the record, The Cat also thinks I need a new bookshelf.

(those things are EXPENSIVE, The Cat. Even the cheap IKEA ones)

The Cat with Books

North America’s Next Top Cat Model

The Cat does not like me taking photos of her, because that takes time away from Petting. But she does think this is a satisfactory photo.

*sigh* I miss The Cat.

(I flew home – home home, as opposed to college home – last week. So I have not seen The Cat in a while).

I also miss my books. But the good news is, my home-home has libraries of its own. And I just made two trips to the city library. So I feel pretty good. I’ve got a pile of eight unread books… that should last me for a week, right? Right?

*starts to panic*

Related Posts:

France and The USA get something right in the Same Week! Celebration Ensues

A Letter to My Future Russian Bride

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women

Reaction to the Hugo Nominations


“Always Wear Armor When Walking Through the Classics Department”: A Review of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Hello everyone, and welcome back to your regularly scheduled blog posts – the ones where I try to review all that is Fantasy And Science Fiction before the beginning of the summer. Because that’s totally possible, especially now that my workload has lightened and I’ve only got three essays and two finals to work on!

Oh wait.

But before I start to freak out, I’d like to remind everyone that the Hugo Nominations are coming out this weekend (OH GOD). I will be covering those sometime in the next few posts. I’ll also be posting some kind of rant about the Hunger Games/Trayvon Martin correlation, so watch out for that.

*****

Book: Tam Lin

Author: Pamela Dean

Publisher: Firebird Fantasy

Published; 1991

Tam Lin cover picture

***Mild Spoilers for the Entire Book***

In my University, there’s a tunnel between our Arts Building and our Library of Incredible Inefficiency.*

* (I’m not a fan of the main library. But moving right along).

I love this tunnel. It’s a road out of time and space, made of sharp turns that make you quickly lose sight of where you were, and where you’re going. There’s a hint of the medieval about it – a bizarre gate right in the middle that reminds me of torture chambers and ancient sewer systems. But it’s not all medieval either: the copper piping and the violent fluorescent lights give a 19th century Science Fiction vibe. This tunnel would be a great set for a remake of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or Thomas Lewis’s The Monk.

And sometimes there’s graffiti.
Over time, I’ve learned not to look at the graffiti. It only disappoints me. It does not match the atmosphere of the tunnel at all, but simply repeats the usual “My Life Sucks” and “LOL’s” that are found at every graffitied location in the school.

Yes, in fact, I judge the quality of graffiti. Is originality too much to ask for in our public defacement?

Absolutely not. Consider the case of Blackstock College, the setting of Pamela Dean’s cult fantasy novel, Tam Lin. Students aren’t writing LOL in those tunnels:

“First ten lines of the Iliad. That’s been there long and long. Somebody ought to touch it up.” (52)

When Janet and her newfound college friends find an Iliad quote in a tunnel on their first day of school, they start arguing over the best translation of the greek, and then exchange quotations for a few lines, before ending with an impromptu recitation of my (second) favorite Keats’ poem: “On Chapman’s Homer.”

“His tone was rather sardonic; but it hardly mattered. Lost, thought Janet. He quotes Keats, too. Well, let’s enjoy it, then. She said, ‘Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo Hold.”
Robin rattled “But never did I breath its pure serene Til I heard Chapman speak loud and bold,” and began walking again. “We’ll miss dinner,” he added.

If the past paragraph or two bores you to death… this book is probably not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who goes through tunnels and buildings and matches them to the setting of your favorite novel; if you fall into friendships with people based on the books and movies they can quote in their sleep; if you long to find the free, passionate discussion that can only exist in a group of similarly obsessed people, the discussion where everyone trips over their words and jumps in on the ends of each others sentences -

Tam Lin is the book for you.

Janet, the main character of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, is a new student at Blackstock college. Her Advisor keeps pushing her to be a classics major, but Janet hears (and notices) that All the Classics Majors are Crazy. Besides, she know she wants to be an english major, because “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”

(there is only one right answer to that question, and it starts with a “y”)

Tam Lin follows Janet and her friends’ four years at Blackstock. On top of all the academic drama and the intellectual, quote-heavy dialogue, there is, of course, a supernatural plot – but it’s so subtle and quiet, you won’t notice it until it hits you in the face. Pamela Dean interlaces the “realism” of the plot with moments of absurdity – for example, Janet and her roommate Molly wake up several times during the semester to find classic books of literary criticism (and when I say classic, I’m not talking Roland Barthes – I mean literary criticism written during the Victorian Era) just outside their window.

They’ve been told there’s a ghost; they have no other explanation for how such rare texts keep appearing. There’s also something strange going on with the classics students, who are all terrified of Professor Medeous, the department head. But all of these mysteries are kept just below the surface, and allowed to grow into full bloom near the end. It is with no particular sense of urgency that we and Janet discover the truth – and by then, Pamela Dean has led up to it so organically that the revelation seems just as realistic as anything else in the novel. Pamela Dean is so skilled with her subtle allusions that the Star Trek Enterprise could have landed in the middle of campus, and I wouldn’t have thought it out of the ordinary.

What makes this novel particularly appealing to me, to English literature lovers, and to nerds of all stripes is that the academic endeavor is the point of the story, not the backdrop. There are lots of movies, books and TV shows that are set in colleges or high schools, but there, the classroom is the setting, and the relationship drama (Gossip Girl), or the action story (Spiderman) is the focus. Here, the opposite is true: the characters are passionately, madly, lovingly enthralled by the work they do and their relationships (platonic or romantic) grow from their obsessions. Janet, for example, falls in “like” with Nick after hearing him recite Keats. Astute reader, meanwhile, note how much better a match she is for Thomas, who takes her to see Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade.**

(another reason I love Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: I’ve been involved in productions of all three of those plays.)

Janet realizes Nick’s potential herself after watching a play “about two people named Thomas and Jennet (…) she knew perfectly well, that if examined with the eye of logic, these associations would unravel.” (408).

But in Tam Lin, as in life, the associations don’t unravel. Not really. Tam Lin never slips into the (popular) fallacy that art is somehow “detached” from everyday life, that it’s entertainment, that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, Tam Lin treats Janet’s forays into literature with as much seriousness as it does her forays into sex and relationships.

You shouldn’t worry, however, if you don’t have a strong English Literature background, or if you’re not interested in literature in the least. I’m an English Literature major, and I missed about ⅓ of the allusions in the novel. Doesn’t matter.  Despite the specificity of Janet’s dialogue, it’s her passion – her nerdiness – that makes her so easy to like. The novel describes, without mockery, the passions and obsessions that end up shaping our lives, no matter how obscure or “unimportant” they are.

In this vein, one of my favorite scenes in the novel depicts a conversation between Janet and Nick, Janet’s first boyfriend at Blackstock College. Nick has a strong pedantic streak, which leads to a memorable argument where Janet tries to convince Nick that the only writer who resembles Shakespeare is Keats:

“Keat seems so much like whom?”
“Shakespeare.”
“Keats? That querulous, agonizing little emotion ridden pestilence beffudled liverer’s son?”
“All right,” said Janet. “All right.” What in the would could she recite? He knew the sonnet “On Chapman’ Homer”, most of the rest he probably would have labeled querelous.”Not “Ode to a Nightingale” which had illnesses and drugs in it (…) I’ll give you querulous, Janet though, and cleared her throat:
“This Living Hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt,they days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood (…)”
“Nicks hands had fallen to his side. Janet, looking straight at him now that she had done remembering, and feeling a little smug, realized witha  shock that he had turned rather pale. He pushed his glasses up his nose with a hand that shook. “That’s Measure for Measure,” he said, just audibly. “Or The Winter’s Tale. Or Troilus and Cressida. I always forget what gems are hidden in that dunghep. That’s not Keats, is it?” (…)
“Yes it is,” said Janet. To her fury, she sounded apologetic. “It was written in the margin of The Cap and Bell. His unfinished play.”
“I cry you mercy,” said Nick, getting up. “I’m unwell. No, it’s all right, don’t bother. I’ll call you later.” (116).

This is such a perfect scene. Of course an argument about Keats and Shakespeare is of critical importance. Of course one might need a bit of a lie down after realizing how much Keats does sound like Shakespeare. Of course such a fundamental shift in one’s worldview might take a few hours of bed-rest to get used to. It only makes sense.

Tam Lin understands the joy of finding people who share your language – the moment of recognition when you realize you don’t have to perform your life in a bizarrely constructed vernacular, but can slide into speech that reflects your thoughts.I’ve been lucky enough to be in a few groups like that – where we all speak the same language. Usually they involve theater, and only last a few weeks. Still, there’s something magical about them – about that intensity of communication. Who doesn’t want that?

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I should make something clear. Although I get quite sentimental writing about Tam Lin, and although Pamela Dean wrote it as a love letter to her college experiences, Tam Lin itself is not a sentimental novel. It’s clear and crisp and fast; there’s a sharpness to it that belies any sentimentality.

A big part of the reason Dean manages to prevent Tam Lin from sliding into an overwrought, overly indulgent novel is her brisk, no-nonsense prose. There’s a reason I’ve quoted the novel so thoroughly (and not just because I want to make some kind of obscure “meta” joke about allusion). Dean’s style is clear and concise and crisp. It pulls you along, demands your attention. No pausing, no stopping, make sure you turn the lights on as you go.

I knew I was in good hands when I got the description of Janet’s thrilling escape from her friends:

“Janet crawled along as fast as she could manage, bumping her head and cursing Nick Tooley and his children unto the nth generation, until she found a suitable hollow by catching her knee in it. She removed the knee, saying “shit, shit, shit,” under her breath because there was no time to think of anything creative, and scooped leaves and dry needles out of the hollow. She dumped Schiller into it unceremoniously, covered him over, limped on through the larch grove to the sidewalk, trudged down it to the bottom of the hill, and took off running in plain sight along the edge of the lake just as the chase came howling past the Fine Arts building.” (82)

Dean’s description is masterclass in efficiency, sly humor, and style. Let us all pause to consider how many more words most writers would take to say exactly the same thing (hell, let us all pause to consider how many CHAPTERS more I would take to say the same thing).

The other thing that makes the novel seem so grounded (and this is a supremely grounded novel) is it’s insights into the academic process. Especially if you are, or have ever been, in College.

For example, we have the (invisible, but at the same time completely obvious) fight between the Classics Department and the English Department. The whole thing starts to feel like two armies recruiting students to their cause. Every time Janet goes to consult her academic advisor, Melinda Wolfe, a classics professor, Wolfe tried to steer her into becoming a classics major. At one point, Wolfe goes “if you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus,” which made me howl with laughter. Because who hasn’t had a Professor be like “Come to the Biology/Latin/English/History/Dark Side Department. WE HAVE COOKIES/Herodotus/genetic experimentation/Shakespeare/Crazy Department Heads who Might Be Sleeping with Everyone.

Most Professors I know have been more subtle about it, but yeah, I’ve been there. And hey, I’m an English major because of two such pushy Professors. Not going to name names, but they know who they are (actually, they have no idea).

There’s also this brilliant moment from Janet’s father, an English Professor:

“Take it from me,” said her father. “It is possible to get a Ph.D in English while ignoring no less than three literary periods. You must have read something in all of them, so as to fling their names about, but you can be quite ignorance of at least three and still do very nicely.”
“Which three are you ignorant of?” said Janet.
“The moderns, the whole of the twelfth century and the jacobeans.”

Which just explains everything about every Professor I’ve take a class with, ever.

And that’s, maybe, what I loved most about Tam Lin. Every page felt like I was discovering a secret – a familiar secret. A secret I’d always known was there. It’s real life, but it’s real life with that extra-sharp twist of insight – real life with all the magical underpinnings revealed, from Professorial mysteries to the gossip between nerds. Tam Lin lets you in on the secrets. It’s a story that oozes with so much intelligence and acceptance and joy – joy of learning, joy of growing, joy of confusion – that it’s one of the few novels I actually made an effort to read slower. I didn’t want to leave its coy, secretive, joyous pages.

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is one of the rare speculative fiction novels I recommend without pause to my English Major Friends. Or to my non-Science Fiction reading friends. Trust me. You will like it. Even if you don’t like magic. Trust me. You should read it. Everyone should read it. If the above review has you interested, drop everything and read it. Trust me, it’s a thousand times better than anything I could describe. You will like it. A lot.

And it’s a rare novel that can get me to engage in some public defacement of my own. But in no small part thanks to Tam Lin, there’s now a Shakespeare quote plastered between some of the LOL graffiti on the walls of my favorite tunnel. From Richard III. Maybe it’ll start a tradition (but don’t tell anyone. Can you get expelled for graffiti? Oh God.)

Pamela Dean on Tam Lin:

“It all reminded me of college, where the fear of getting pregnant collaborated with the conviction that you weren’t nearly as smart as you’d thought you were, that you would never amount to anything, even if all the Professors thought you were a genius, and the world was going to hell so fast that you’d be lucky to have a B.A. to show the devil when it got there to produce a sub-clinical state of frenzy; where juggling your love life with anything else was almost but never quite completely impossible, where we all did any number of foolish and peculiar things while surrounded by and occasionally even absorbing the wisdom of the ages.” (460)

Blackstock College, by the way, is based on Pamela Dean’s real college (at least in appearance) – a small liberal arts college in Minnesota called Carleton College. I visited Carleton as a high-schooler (I was deciding where to apply for University) and I can attest to how gorgeous a campus it is. Even under the pouring rain, it was absolutely beautiful.

Carleton College Tam Lin

*** We do have some great graffiti in my college. Mostly in the girl’s bathrooms (can’t speak to the boy’s). The best one is “Books Before Boys Because Boys Bring Babies.” Indeed.

Other Reviews of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean:

Tansy Rayner Roberts: The Lady’s Not For Burning - it was Rayner Roberts’s love for Tam Lin on the podcast Galactic Suburbia that got me to pick up the book to begin with (I owe her a debt of gratitude for that one) and her written review is equally good.

Things Mean A Lot: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tor.com: College as A Magic Garden: Why Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a Book You’ll Either Love or Hate (Jo Walton). (I love Jo Walton)

Related Posts:

Let the Djombi Eat Cake: A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo

Nebula Nominations are Wearing the Awesomepants

Frantically, Florally February: A Monthly Reading Roundup


Frantically, Florally February: Monthly Reading Roundup

I go through a lot of books –  most years, I read at least a hundred and twenty novels. Last year, I hit 162 books, which was a record for me.

Before you ask: of course, I count! I’m so competitive that I can’t help but compete with myself (can I read more than 160 books this year? Or will last-year me win? NEVER). It’s pathetic. But hey, it gets me to read.

Since I consume so many books, there’s no way I can ever review all of them on this blog – or even most of them. Thus, I’m planning on doing a monthly roundup, which will allow me to discuss most of them briefly. And then I can stop feeling guilty that I’m not reviewing all my favorites.

I’m also doing these roundups because I’m a narcissistic, self-obsessed literature student who likes to obsessively document all the books she reads. But we don’t need to go there.

I’m starting with February books, even though it’s March. March isn’t over yet; it’s not too late to talk about February. At least, that’s what I tell myself (allow me my delusions).

The reviews follow the list:

(note: any book that is starred (*) and in italics is one I enjoyed enough to recommend)

1. Dawn by Octavia Butler **
2. Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen **
4. The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroescht
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins **
6. Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
7. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton **
8. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton **
9. Green Grass and Running Water by Thomas King **
10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen **
11. Genealogy of Morals by Nietzsche **
12. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons  **
13. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzochelli **
14. The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
15. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine **
16. The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaage
17. I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
18. Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey **

Given how busy a month February was, I’m retrospectively shocked by how much I managed to read. Eighteen books? Really?

But most of them are books I read for school – twelve out of eighteen, in fact. If I didn’t have to read for class, this would be quite a sparse list. It’s hard to be a vigilante literature reader… I need some kind of structure.

February was a bit of a low month in terms of quality. I only liked twelve out of the eighteen, which sounds decent, but is far below my personal averages. And a lot of the books I didn’t like, I really didn’t like – The Studhorse Man, for example, was a complete trainwreck for me.

That said, there were a few standouts. Other than the Austens, which are always a treat, I thoroughly enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique (nominated for a Nebula in 2012), Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Oliva, David Mazzochelli’s Asterios Polyp and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.

My two favorites this month were Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Both are genre-defying, hilarity-inducing mashups with lots and lots of knotty thematic stuff for me to sink my metaphorical teeth into (I assure you, I do not chew books, except when they’re made out of candy).
Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm is a mashup of the highest order. In the book, it’s as if Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma suddenly showed up on the set of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and proceeded to put everyone’s life in order.

With no-nonsense vigor and an arch sense of humor, Flora Post (the Emma Woodhouse lookalike) sends the brooding, woman-hating man of mystery (*cough* HEATHCLIFF *cough* ) off to become a Hollywood movie star. She transforms the imp-like but beautiful young woman (*cough* Catherine Linton *cough*) into a desirable mate for the local aristocrat. She teaches the overly fertile maid the importance of contraception. She deals with Aunt Doom (yes, her name is Aunt Doom), the owner of Cold Comfort Farm, and a woman who has refused to come out of her room for some sixty years, because she saw “something in the woodshed” as a girl.

We all know Healthcliff just wants Fame...

The book also presents some subtle discussions of feminism and the treatment of female authorship. When Flora meets an aspiring author (Mr. Meyerberg), he tries to convince her that the Bronte sister’s entire oeuvre was written by Branwen (their brother).** Mr. Meyerberg pursues Flora romantically, and blames her indifference on sexual frigidity.

The whole story is funny as hell, in a mischievous, high-wire sort of way. I’d be fascinated to read the scholarship on the piece, because there’s so much rich, tangled intertextuality to work through.

Jo Waltons’ Tooth and Claw, meanwhile, is another 19th century parody (what can I say? I love the 19th century. I love parodies). Walton writes a typical Victorian comedy of manners: everyone tries to get married and find their vicarage and display proper conduct all while keeping their clothes in perfec order. But the “everyone” she writes about aren’t humans. They’re dragons.
Yes, you read that right. Every character in the novel is a dragon, from blushing maiden to overbearing aristocrat.

All he needs to be perfectly respectable is a vicarage and a nice cup of tea.

It shouldn’t work, but it does, in large part because of how Walton uses the biological realities of being a dragon to explain the bizarre traditions of Victorian society. For example, we finally understand why victorian girls weren’t allowed around men. When men get too close to virgin dragons, the virgin’s scales “blush” red, and everyone knows they’ve been near a man, bringing on scandal.

Walton explains the perpetual survival of the aristocracy in a similar way.  Aristocratic dragons are allowed the first bite of any dead dragon. They, for example, get to eat the stunted children of their tenants. Dragons grow big depending on the amount of dragon-flesh they eat – and since the size of a dragon determines their ability to survive a fight, aristocrats will always have a physical advantage over their tenants.

In these, and many other examples, Walton cleverly reworks the tropes of two genres (dragon stories and Victorian comedy of manners). It was a fantastic, funny, flaming (sometimes literally) read. And I hold out hope that there might be a sequel someday.

** Cue obligatory Joanna Russ reference. As Russ points out in her non-fiction masterpiece How to Suppress Women’s Writing,  the easiest way to marginalize womens’ writing is to yell “SHE DIDN’T WRITE IT!

Mr. Meyerburg, Joanna is Judging You.


Invasion of the Hugo-Snatcher: Or, How I wish I Were the Only One Deciding the Hugos.

This summer, half my family was in South Africa, half my family was camping – and I was stuck at home working. I’m not bitter at all, can you tell?

Actually, I’m not that bitter. My family being away meant I had the house to myself, which was glorious. I did enjoy the solitude, particularly in late July when I had a most fantastic evening. I cooked myself a nice dinner, I dressed up (I am not even joking. There was makeup. I broke out the good eyeliner). I set my computer up on the table; I turned on the internet and I sat down on the (very comfortable) couch to watch the live-stream of the Hugo awards.

To a passerby, I must have looked nuts – a girl all alone in her house, wearing a poofy lace dress and occasionally jumping up and down like a maniac (I have no shame. I love Mary Robinette Kowal).

As you can tell, Hugo awards are a big deal to me.

When I realized I knew absolutely nothing about my favorite genre – Sci-Fi / Fantasy, in case you were wondering – I went straight to the Hugos, and started reading my way through the Best Novel shortlists.Thanks to this little exercise, I discovered most of my favorite contemporary genre writers. Last summer it was China Mielville and Catherynne Valente. This summer, it was Lois McMaster Bujold,  N.K. Jemisin, and Mira Grant. Oh, and the fabulous Connie Willis.

The Hugo nominees were what got me excited about SF/F again. Before I started reading the shortlist, I was so entrenched in “classic” fantasy and SF that I was beginning to worry that the genre was stale. Or that I’d outgrown it. But no one who has read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Feed, Palimpsest and The City and the City in the space of two years could call the genre stale with a straight face.

This year, however, the Hugos are an even bigger deal to me. World Con is taking place in Chicago, which is only a two hour drive from my hometown. For the first – and possibly last time (at least until I stop being a poor literature student) – I can actually afford to go. I can go to WorldCon. Where there will be awesome people. And fans. And writers. AND THE HUGO CEREMONIES.

I can be there when they give the awards.

Excuse me, I think I need to lie down for a minute or two. I’ll be back.

I’m back. Sorry about that. The Hugos will do that to a girl.

Of course, if I was going to be at the Hugos, I had to buy a supporting membership so that I could NOMINATE for the Hugos. Got mine the day before the deadline, I might add – nothing like putting things off till the last minute!

For me, nominating is almost a bigger deal than getting to vote, in that I think shortlists are a better representation of the field than the winners. I’m in no way implying that the winners aren’t important, but when we make a shortlist, we make a statement about what we think our genre is and where we hope it goes. We reward the kinds of experiments – or the kinds of traditions – that we find valuable. We reveal the kinds of writing we think are worthy, and the topics we think are important.

A shortlist says something about who we are.

Now, I’m about to complain for a bit. And I realize there’s something unfair about complaining about a shortlist that doesn’t exist yet. But – I don’t care. I like complaining. And this way, if I’m right, I get to feel triumphant (especially since I can point to the blog and go “Look! I predicted this would happen in March! And it did!).  And if I’m wrong, I get to feel relieved. It’s a win-win situation.

Last year’s best novel shortlist was glorious, but frankly, I’m a little worried that this year is going to let me down. The Hugo-related chatter I hear on the blogs and the interwebs is heavy on the white male authored, very classic fantasy/ SF. From this chatter, I would put money down on Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin both being nominated, and tentatively guess that Lev C. Grossman and China Mielville will round out the top four. The fifth seat is harder to judge, but Hannu Rajaniemi and John Scalzi both have a decent shot.
I’m not seeing any of the same momentum around female or non-white authors.

(It should be noted that I have not read either Hannu Rajaniemi or John Scalzi’s work (which is pretty pathetic of me), but I intend to remedy that forthwith. It should also be noted that my complaints about the Hugos is in no way a complaint against the individual authors I think will be nominated. I love Mielville. I love Grossman. I think Scalzi’s non-fiction is fantastic, and I’m sure I’ll love his fiction. I am not criticizing these people for being popular or well-liked.  They deserve the accolades they get.)

Classic fantasy and SF is great, and far be it from me to condemn white male authors. Some of my favorite genre authors are white and male: China Mielville, Neal Gaiman, Lev C. Grossman, H.G. Wells, Bram Stroker etc. Hey, some of my favorite people are white and male! (Hi, little brother).

But last year’s shortlist was such a revolutionary statement about the state of our genre. It was everything I wanted in a list – recognition for some traditionally acclaimed writers who were still being awesome (Lois McMaster Bujold and Connie Willis), praise for writers who were taking risks and expanding the frontiers of the genre (N.K. Jemisin, Mira Grant, Ian McDonald); it had more gender and racial diversity (both within and without the books) than we’ve seen in a long time – I was ecstatic. Four of the five nominees were women (I KNOW). One was a black woman (two would have been black women if they’d nominated Nnedi Okorafor (No, I’m still not over it)). Two of the novels were dominated by characters of colour (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Dervish House). We had a post-colonial epic fantasy, a post-modern zombie apocalypse, cyberpunk set in Turkey, time travel, and a Vorkosigan novel. The only way I could possibly have been happier is if they’d also nominated Nnedi Okorafor, but I’m a perfectionist.

“Wow,” I thought. “All those people who say SF/F is a staid, conservative genre can go eat my copy of the Lord of the Rings. This is a popularly nominated shortlist, and look who and what is on it! And those people who say SF/F is a “male” genre? They can go jump in a lake.”

And call me crazy, but I was hoping that this would start a trend. I’m not saying that a year’s worth of reversion to the default white male will stop SF/F’s evolution in its tracks, but I was crossing my fingers for another surprising, interesting ballot, and right now I’m worried that it’s going to be “well, that was expected.”

We’ll see. I could be paranoid. But just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss aren’t trying to kill my shortlist.

Damn them.

(For the record, I do like George R.R. Martin’s work. I’ve only read Game of Thrones, so I’m not yet on the bandwagon. But I think he’s quite good. I do not like Patrick Rothfuss’s work, and I don’t understand the hype around him, which makes the fact that he’s probably going to get nominated and win all the more irritating. At the same time, it is entirely possible that I’m missing something important about Rothfuss. If so, forgive my idiocy).

Ah, my readers, I can hear the your complaints already. “Well, if you don’t like the shortlist, why don’t you nominate? Also, why are you complaining about a shortlist that doesn’t exist yet?”

I refuse to address the second question. We’ve already established that I’m a chronic complainer, and that no logic in the universe can stop me. But to the first question: Fair point! I thought of that myself. And having spent my hard-earned money to buy a supporting membership, I did, in fact, nominate.

But what did I nominate? Good question! I know you are all dying to know the answer, but if some of you would prefer not to die of boredom, turn back now, or forever hold your peace.

Novels:

The Kingdom of the Gods by N.K. Jemisin: it’s everything I never knew I wanted from an epic fantasy series. For me, at least, this series has completely changed my idea of epic fantasy, and what I think the genre can do. It’s provocative. It’s got amazing characters. It’s got incredible diversity (Queers! Women! Almost everyone is a Person of Color! Gods! Humans! Demons!) It’s got a plot with twists and turns that actually manages to keep my attention (usually after the twelfth twist, I’m done). And it’s that rarity: a last book in a trilogy that actually manages to be the best book in the trilogy. Which is saying something, because The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms? Probably my favorite book published in 2010.

Among Others by Jo Walton: Another genre-bending work: it’s a story about a young witch who finds her place in the world by discovering science fiction. I have high hopes that this one will actually end up on the ballot. It absolutely deserves to be there. It’s a love letter to reading, coupled with a description of  the awkward, horrible pain of growing up when you’ve already got a grown ups’ maturity and intelligence. It’s smart and insightful, and quietly moving, and you don’t even realize how good it is until a week later, when you have a “duh” moment.

Deadline by Mira Grant: The sequel to Feed. Or: what happens after you shoot your sister (who was transforming into a zombie). Hey, she did ask you to.
All zombie novels have some measure of social commentary, but none of them do it as subversively and intelligently as Feed and Deadline do. On the flip side, NOT all zombie novels have the depth of characterization that Grant’s do. Grant makes you fall in love with characters, and then she throws them on the ground and jumps on them over and over again and makes you watch, and it’s horrible. And wonderful. So wonderful. Deadline had me pounding at my brother’s door in the wee hours of the morning, because I just could not handle the pain Sean was going through (after major revelation 101). I never thought I would care so much about a book about zombies, but I did, and for that, Deadline got a nomination from me.

Embassytown by China Mielville: I’m a huge Mielville fan (he’s my designated male author-crush), but I actually didn’t enjoy Embassytown that much. I did, however, greatly admire it, and I think it’s got a chance to become a classic of the genre. It’s one of the most interesting alien stories I’ve read in quite some time, and reminds me of my all-time favorite sci-fi novel, The Sparrow. Both deal with similar themes – diplomacy, communication, colonialism. Except here, the conflict comes from the colonialism of language.
Embassytown has an incredibly claustrophobic feel to it. Humanity has abandoned the planet  and its human inhabitants to the tender mercies of the indigenous aliens. The human inhabitants, meanwhile, have abandoned greater humanity. The characters are completely and utterly alone. And even in the lulls, the reader can feel the oppression of space all around you.

God’s War by Kameron Hurley: I knew I was going to like this novel before I read it, and I did. Correction: I loved it. Any novel that opens with the heroine selling her womb is going to be a favorite. Heck, the first twenty pages alone are worth a Hugo nomination: I certainly knew it was going on my ballot at that point. It’s set in a militaristic, muslim matriarchy, which seems like a giant oxymoron waiting to happen, but Hurley makes it work. It’s about an assassin. It’s got aliens. It’s got war. It’s got lots and lots of gender examination and body horror and an amazing central character who will sell her womb and seduce your women and assassinate your deserters, and she’ll break a sweat doing it (I love a hero who doesn’t pretend that hard things aren’t hard work) and then she’ll go get drunk.
There are also a lot of bugs. Which I thought I would have a problem with. But I didn’t. I love the bugs. Bugpunk = awesome.

Novellas:

“Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Confession: I only read three novellas this year, and this is the one I thought was worth putting on the ballot. Kowal confuses the living daylights out of me. I discovered her through her novel Shades of Milk and Honey, which is essentially Jane Austen with Magic.  But her short fiction is pure SF. Actually, it’s SF with a liberal application of hardboiled detective, two genres that are… very different from Jane Austen. “Kiss Me Twice” is absolutely fantastic – it’s about what happens when AI’s stop functioning in a society where police work depends on AI. A great examination both of AI’s as conscious beings, and of AI’s as human technology, which is a difficult balance to strike.

Short Stories:

“Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler:

if you don’t like Twilight, you’ll like “Younger Women.” It’s Twilight from the perspective of the parent. It’s the story that goes: “Hey, what’s with all these thousand year old vampires and these seventeen year old girls?” And it’s fantastic.

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu: Liu zeros into an oft-forgotten facet of magic: magic as a method of cultural transmission. Magic as something you share as a family. Magic as the way you communicate your culture to other people. The story is quietly, gorgeously emotional.

“The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu: There are wasps. They make maps. They colonize the bees. The bees become anarchists. It sounds insane. In the hands of Yu, it’s completely and utterly realistic. And interesting. Oh, and also a little insane.

“The Bread We Eat in Dreams” by Catherynne Valente: Oh, Cat, how do you do it? Please, explain to me how you do it? Because I don’t think I’ve read anything of yours that isn’t absolutely exquisite and absolutely monstrous at the same time. I should have known that only you could take the salem witch trials, and puritanism, and new world colonization, and infused them with richness and warmth and canny sarcasm. You’re one of the few authors I know who looks at monstrosity – be it human monstrosity (femaleness, queerness, non-whiteness), or real monstrosity (demons, mermaids and griffins, oh my!) – and manages to look beyond the disadvantages of monstrosity. You write powerful monsters. You write the monsters we are, and the monsters we want to be.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form:

X-Men: First Class: I had so many problems with this movie, but it was still the best SF/F I saw all year. Especially the romance between Charles and Erik. And the makeout scene (listen, I don’t care that it didn’t happen. It did. Everyone knows it did).

Best Editor, Long form:
It’s surprisingly difficult to find out who edited what! Even the internet isn’t that helpful. I had to dig through author acknowledgments and industry blogs to come up with a list of names, but having done my research, I’m quite satisfied with this group of nominees:

Devi Pillai (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy, the Parasol Protectorate and Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic)
Jeremy Lassen (God’s War, Of Blood & Honey)
Anne Groell (Blackout/All Clear, The Game of Thrones series)
Kelly Link – I’m not 100% sure she’s eligible, but if she is, she should get a nomination for her work at Small Beer Press (The Freedom Maze)

Fancast:

There is a special Fancast category this year (what’s a fancast, you ask? A Podcast!), and I think we all know who I’m going to nominate for that: GALACTIC SUBURBIA, FOR THE WIN!
Man, I love that show. I’m going to write a post on it eventually. Because it is made of awesome. I hope they get a nomination – I’m pretty convinced they won’t, because it’s three Australian women talking about SF/F and feminism, which pretty much takes them out of the running. But they deserve it. Because they are awesome. And they make me read ALL the good books.

And that’s me done (for now). Any thoughts on my list? Any other Hugo nominators in the house? Will you be at WorldCon? If so, want to be friends?  CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?


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