Monday, 22 December 2014

A Christmas Carol / Charles Dickens

5 out of 5 stars
Cruel miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has never met a shilling he doesn’t like...and hardly a man he does. And he hates Christmas most of all. When Scrooge is visited by his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, he learns eternal lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill. Experience a true Victorian Christmas!

My first experience with Dickens and it was very pleasurable. A Christmas Carol is very short, but how much it packs in! I think this is a story that we all think we know, having seen TV versions, theatrical productions and even advertising based on it [very ironic, yes?]. Scrooge has become synonymous with grasping selfishness and we forget that he undergoes a significant transformation during the course of the story.

One theatre company in our city has been performing A Christmas Carol for over 20 years, with the same man playing Scrooge every year. He was interviewed on CBC radio this year and told a remarkable story of having a high-powered businessman come backstage one night, in tears, saying, “I am Scrooge and you’ve made me realize that I have to change my life.” Calgary is an oil and gas town and there is a lot of right-wing conservatism of the flavour that seems to think that poor people deserve to be poor and that helping them is someone else’s problem. I think that it is interesting that a story written in the 1800s still has relevance in the 21st century!

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to live in a secular society, but I sometimes wish that capitalism was still balanced with societally sanctioned requirements to care about our fellow human beings, that companies be required to consider the good that they can do for the community, not just make money for shareholders. Many do charitable deeds, of course, but I still feel that it is mostly for public relations, rather than because they actually believe in them.

I was surprised to find that A Christmas Carol is rather non-religious. The factors that change Scrooge’s behaviour are personal, emotional, and universal—none of his motivations are about the afterlife, they are all about how people think about him in the past, the present, and at his death. We are social primates and we cannot help but care about these things.

An important reminder during a season of materialism in a society that is obsessed with consumerism that there are things that transcend money and possessions. I haven’t yet attended a performance of the play, but I think I will plan one next Christmas.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dhalgren / Samuel R. Delaney

2.5 stars out of 5
A mysterious disaster has stricken the midwestern American city of Bellona, and its aftereffects are disturbing: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a white/American Indian man who can't remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, the outcast--the marginalized.
Dhalgren is many things, but instantly accessible isn't one of them. While most of this big, ambitious, deeply detailed novel is beautifully pellucid, the opening pages will be difficult for some: the novel starts with the second half of an incomplete sentence, in the viewpoint of a man who doesn't know who he is. If you find the early pages rough going, push on; the story soon becomes clear and fascinating. But--fair warning--the central nature of the disaster, of its strange devastations and disruptions, remains a puzzle for many readers, sometimes after several readings.

There is a lot going on in this novel—lots of references to mythology, I think there are deliberate parallels to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a lot of exploration of what it means to be an artist and to live an artistic life.

Our unnamed protagonist begins the adventure when he encounters (and has sex with) a woman who turns into a tree, a dryad. It is she who ensures that he receives the chains that will mark him as special in the place where he is going. He is then picked up by a truck driver, who reminded me of the ferryman Charon who delivered souls to Hades in the Greek underworld. The truck driver stops, without a word, and the main character knows that he must get out and enter the city of Bellona, which has gone through some unnamed calamity and has become a literal Underworld. On his way in, he meets a group of women who are leaving and receives from them an orchid—not the flower, but a bladed weapon worn on the wrist. Between the chains and the orchid, he is marked as a person of consequence in this new, violent world that he is entering.

Most of the people of Bellona go by nicknames or aliases and the protagonist soon receives his—Kid/Kidd/the Kid. Delaney emphasizes that he is in his 30s, but looks like he is 16 or 17 and this appearance of youth is noted in his name. He soon becomes de facto leader of a group of Scorpions, a gang by any other measure. Kid is King Arthur to a dirty, scrofulous bunch of knights of the Round Table, or maybe Hrothgar to a shaggy, stinky bunch of Danes. But this is ironic, as they seem to suffer most from boredom—having nothing of any consequence to actually do. Violence is just a way to alleviate the tedium. (They refer to their house as a nest, perhaps a nod to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

The cover proclaims Dhalgren to be “The major novel of love and terror at the end of time.” I didn’t see it that way—rather there was a lot of sex and neurosis. It takes the sexual banner that Heinlein began championing in his fiction and extends it to the gay and bisexual communities. Kid’s triad with Denny (male) and Lanya (female) is central to the last half of the book—perhaps if King Arthur had crawled into bed with Lancelot and Gwenivere that myth could have had a happier ending? The sex scenes are very much like reading a porno magazine—catering only to the male gaze and often involving coercion or, at the very least, questionable consent.

Like Stephen Daedelus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kid seems to be a stand-in for Delaney himself in Dhalgren. Wikipedia helpfully let me know that Delaney was ambidextrous and a bisexual who eventually identified himself as gay—characteristics of Kid. But the major issue that Delaney explores through Kid is the nature of the life of an author. Kid writes (or does he copy? It’s never made explicit) poetry and enjoys notoriety in Bellona society for this quirk. When his book of poetry is published, he titles it Brass Orchids (is this a play on the etymological meaning of orchid, which is testicle in Latin?), which one must have to survive the publishing world and/or Bellona. There is an especially interesting scene when, during the launch party for Kid’s book, another poet critiques his work harshly—not a safe course of action when Kid has his orchid and a loyal gang of Scorpions along with him. Lanya convinces him that the other guy is just jealous and that Kid should let go of the criticism rather than beating him senseless. Criticism is a part of being published, she tells him, and something that authors must learn to live with.

I am not a fan of modernist literature—I admit to preferring full sentences and more traditionally structured narrative. There is much more going on in this novel—I’ve only scratched the surface of all the complexities—and I could definitely appreciate Delaney’s talent at folding so many things into this almost-900 page novel. I’m sure that with study, I could write a dissertation on it. However, I didn’t enjoy the reading experience enough to re-read the book. I can appreciate why it is considered a ground-breaking work of science fiction while acknowledging that it will never be a favourite book of mine. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Maus / Art Spiegelman

3 out of 5 stars
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.  

If this book hadn’t been a selection for my book club in January, I would never have picked it up. Not because I’m a snob about graphic novels—I think they are legitimate form of literature and very enjoyable to boot. But I might have avoided Maus because of the subject matter—I haven’t read very much about the holocaust and that is by choice. I guess I’m a chicken, but I hate exploring just how terribly we can treat one another. I haven’t yet read Romeo Dallaire’s book about the Rwandan genocide either—I’ve got exactly the same issue with it.

Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities, the fear, and the damage done to those who survived the Second World War. And survival is never taken for granted—it happened when luck and hard work combined to keep people alive. I think that works like this are important to keep the memories of these events alive and in the public consciousness—our first hand witnesses are aging and won’t be with us much longer. The Canadian veterans that I know are in their 80s and 90s, so holocaust survivors will be in the same age range and probably experiencing health problems relating back to war time conditions. This graphic novel format makes this history accessible to a new generation in a form that they can appreciate.

I am of two minds regarding the depictions of various nationalities as animals, Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, etc. On one hand, it insulates us a little bit from the harrowing history that is being related. We can feel a bit of a remove that makes it easier to read. But I can help wondering if that is a good thing? I also a bit bothered by the nationalities being represented by completely different species. After all, we are all one species and if one nationality is capable of genocide, every nationality is capable of it. We’ve had enough atrocities take place since WWII that we know that to be true. Separate species draws the “us” and “them” boundaries just a little too clearly, when we know from the novel itself that some Jews were “collaborators” and some Germans resisted the Nazis. There’s enough bad and good stuff to go around.

I did, however, admire Spiegelman’s brave decision to explore his relationship with his father on the page. It became obvious very early in the narrative that survival itself had not made his father a happy man. Instead, he seemed to become deeply suspicious, rigid in his ideas, selfish, and generally unpleasant. The suicide of his wife (who suffered from mental illness before the war) may have solidified him into this barricaded position, to which he cannot admit his second wife or even his son. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a man who so desperately needed human compassion and love and who kept stubbornly poking it away with a stick. How many generations will it take to remove this psychic damage from families of holocaust survivors? Spiegelman is brave to expose his struggles to help, accept, and love his father—he is loaded with guilt for not having been present during the worst years, for being the child that survived, for disliking his father, for not being able to provide the unconditional support that his father seems to expect. Smaller versions of this play out in many families (I watched my father struggle with miniature versions of these same issues), so in many ways this is a universal story.

A valuable study in human nature and family relationships as well as recent history.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Lock In / John Scalzi

3.5 stars out of 5
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselvs “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people “locked in”...including the President's wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse....

Lock In is an interesting mash-up of genres—it’s a tale set in the near-future with interesting technology, qualifying it as science fiction. Part of the scenario is a nasty illness that causes people to be “locked in” to their bodies, making it somewhat of a post-disaster novel as well. Throw in a murder mystery/police procedural where the main character/investigator is a Haden (someone who is “locked in” and using a robot-like body to manoeuvre in the real world) and you have quite the combination.

Scalzi is an excellent writer and I especially like his dialog. I find that I read his books quickly and Lock In was no exception. But I really didn’t make any emotional connections with Chris Shane or any of the other characters. I suppose if Scalzi was to write more books starring Shane, I might be tempted to read them, but I won’t be rushing to do so, which I find odd since I really liked both Redshirts and Fuzzy Nation.

If you read Scalzi’s blog (Whatever), you will find many of the same ideas and attitudes toward society in his postings and in Lock In. Perhaps that was also a factor for me—kind of a “been there, done that” attitude with regard to his ideas on discrimination. If I had never seen his blog, the ideas might have felt “fresher.” But that is my problem, not Scalzi’s.

I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys this author’s writing or who is looking for a good quick read. If you are interested in sci-fi which explores issues surround disability and/or discrimination, this would be a good pick. I think it would be excellent to use with teens to discuss issues of how we all treat those we perceive as “other.”

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Bean Trees / Barbara Kingsolver

3 out of 5 stars
Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.

This is a character driven novel and if you don’t like the characters, I advise you to set it down, walk away, and read something else. If, however, you are willing to spend a while getting to know the two young women featured, I think you will enjoy The Bean Trees. This is not an action novel—it’s an exploration of the lives of two young women from disadvantaged homes and how they sort out their lives.

Who can’t appreciate the desire to get out of Dodge after graduation and see what else the world has to offer? Marietta re-names herself Taylor and truly starts over. She bravely starts out in a hunk-of-junk car and acquires a child along the way. LouAnn takes the more traditional route out—she gets married and moves with a husband, who proceeds to abandon his pregnant wife. But the two young women, from similar backgrounds, find one another and start building a firm friendship.

There is a study in contrasts—young women from poor families and illegal immigrants. Taylor, who has felt the weight of discrimination all of her life, is suddenly confronted with her white privilege. LouAnn, who has never felt worthy of anything, is changed by a job where her enthusiasm and hard work are recognized and rewarded. Instead of mooning around, hoping for a transformation of her absent husband, she finally takes charge of her life. Both of them learn new ways to cope with life’s problems and new ways to look at themselves.

These are issues that all young women face at some point in life (independence, marriage, careers, children, relations with parents)—how we each deal with them depend on the resources, both financial and friends/family, that we have available to us. I did find Taylor’s ready acceptance of the child, Turtle, to be less than believable. She had finished high school and I thought should have known better than to take off across country with someone else’s child, no matter how abused that child was. And I found the final solution to her legal position to be most unlikely.

The significance of the title, which refers to the Wisteria vine, gets rather slapped in your face at the end of the book. The scraggly, ugly vine which, after the life-giving rain, produces luxuriant foliage and beautiful flowers, just as the underprivileged, poor girls flower into a happier life with some kindness from others. Having said that, I loved Turtle’s obsession with plants—wanting to read the seed catalog rather than a story book—even though I can see exactly how it fit into this really obvious message.

Despite my perception of flaws, however, I found the book an enjoyable read. It made me appreciate my own age and station in life—I have said it before, I would never choose to be less than 40 again! 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Masters of the Vortex / E.E. "Doc" Smith

3 out of 5 stars
Runaway Vortex!  A churning nuclear fireball, appearing out of nowhere, bringing utter destruction--and countless numbers of them were menacing planets throughout the Galaxy!

"Storm" Cloud, nucleonic genius, set out in his spaceship Vortex Blaster to track and destroy the mysterious vortices--and embarked on a saga of adventure, discovery and conflict among the far stars that could have been told only by the incomparable "Doc" Smith.

Nice to read a novel set in the Lensmen universe, but not starring one of the Lensmen (although they still feature prominently in this tale). It was also interesting to note that computers make their first appearance in the series and that absolutely no one uses a slide rule in this book. In fact, Dr. Cloud is a human computing machine, performing feats of calculation unmatched by other mortals. He is partnered with Joan Jankowski because of her expertise with computers, which are improving but are still no match for Cloud’s brain.

In many ways, this book felt like an episode of Star Trek (TOS). There are telepathy, super-human abilities, a cast which includes many interesting aliens, a mysterious source of “nuclear vortices,” a Dudley-DoRight type main character and a romantic sub-plot. Dr. Neal Cloud starts out more like the Lone Ranger (with Joan as Tonto), but ends up with a band of aliens (largely female) who refuse to leave his side. I loved the cat-woman, Vesta, and her unabashedly sensual ways! Also loved the cigar-smoking female engineer (I pictured her as rather reptilian).

Of course, Neal and Joan end up being strongly attracted to one another. I do love Smith’s insistence on providing intelligent female companions for his heroes. Mind you, when Cloud manages to become a telepath, he rates 6 on a scale of 5 and is acknowledged by all for his superiority! (Poor old Joan is only rated a 3). No ordinary heroes with average abilities for Doc Smith. He manages to convey a lot of romantic atmosphere with very little description, no doubt necessary for the morays of the time (published in 1960).

This is book number 154 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Female Man / Joanna Russ

4 out of 5 stars
Living in an altered past that never saw the end of the Great Depression, Jeannine, a librarian, is waiting to be married. Joanna lives in a different version of reality: she's a 1970s feminist trying to succeed in a man's world. Janet is from Whileaway, a utopian earth where only women exist. And Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and catlike retractable claws, from an earth with separate - and warring - female and male societies. When these four women meet, the results are startling, outrageous and subversive.

Feminism has evolved and changed over the decades and this book was written during the Second Wave of Feminism (often referred to as Women’s Lib) during the 1960s-1970s. I know that it is difficult for young women born in the 1980s and later to believe some of these things, but there was a time when your career options as a woman were very limited—you could be a nurse, teacher, secretary, or a housewife. When I was in high school in the 70s and making high academic marks, I was strongly discouraged from taking typing classes (something akin to some of the keyboarding classes offered today, but with archaic typewriters rather than computer keyboards) because I was being encouraged to think of myself as a potential manager, rather than a secretary. In those days, bosses dictated their letters and secretaries typed them—no self-respecting man knew how to type. Even if you worked in one of these roles outside the home, it was expected that when you became pregnant, you would quit your job—often, your employer would helpfully fire you to make room for a replacement who was not pregnant. After all, women just worked for “pin money,” to supplement the household income for the fripperies that all women desire (which of course justified paying them very little, as they weren’t “supporting a household” the way that men were supposedly doing). Hard to believe in these days when there are more young women in universities than young men, isn’t it? Now, women are free to become doctors and lawyers, professions which to all intents and purposes barred female students until recently, or to take any other university courses that they desire.

Birth control drugs were not an established thing—the pill was just coming on to the market during these decades and was not always easily available. Doctors were men, generally speaking, and reserved the right to tell you whether you were worthy of birth control. And this was an improvement from earlier years when people could be arrested for giving out information on various birth control methods.

If you were female and unmarried by your mid-20s, you were pitied. Poor thing, you’d never be a whole person and never have children. Being a wife and mother was the be-all and end-all. I don’t think it even crossed most people’s minds that you might be a lesbian, because there were so few women who were out of the closet. Sure, a few folks might say “nasty” things like that behind your back, but most people just considered you pitiable.

So, the Feminist Movement of this time period was very much a reaction against enforced domesticity. Women had acquired the right to vote, but really didn’t have many options in other facets of their lives. The patriarchy was still firmly in place, and feminists had to roar in order to be acknowledged or heard at all, let alone change the status quo. They burned bras (as symbols of their sexualization for the benefit of men), and they demanded equal pay, equal educational opportunities, and equal access to the job market. Some of the more dedicated feminists declared themselves political lesbians, to protest society’s ingrained sexism and “compulsory heterosexuality.” They were removing themselves from the patriarchal structure in the only way they could find and in a way that (during those years) was guaranteed to shock.

We’ve come a long way, baby! And if you don’t understand this background, you also won’t understand The Female Man. Russ shows just how much male privilege dominated, how inferior women were assumed to be. We still have a way to go [see for example, the Jian Ghomeshi scandal at CBC or the lack of a sexual harassment procedure on Parliament Hill—places where men still seem to hold the balance of power]. Male entitlement still exists, but it's circle is shrinking. As Russ says as the end of the book, won’t it be a happy day when readers of this book don’t understand what she’s on about?