The Bell Jar

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

Premise: Esther seems to have everything: talent, ambition, a prestigious summer internship in New York. But her brain is a jerk, as we might say today, and will drag her down.

Similar to Wintergirls, this is a book I recommend, but with reservations. I knew it was about depression, and realized quickly that it is a lightly fictionalized story of Plath’s own experiences with mental health treatment.

I knew The Bell Jar is highly regarded. I didn’t know how vivid, evocative, and painful a picture of depression it paints. I felt like I was walking in a fog for hours after I finished it.

It’s not just about severe clinical depression, but that particularly female intertwining of internal malaise with experiences of systemic and personal sexism. It’s no coincidence that The Bell Jar was first published the same year as The Feminine Mystique.

The combination of self-doubt, contradictory cultural messages, impossible choices, harassment, and mistreatment that many women are still more than passing familiar with doesn’t cause depression, but it doesn’t exactly help.

In that sense, Esther’s story is both universal and specific. Specific in the detailed pictures it draws: the publishing world in New York in a particular era, the experience of residential asylums in the same era, Esther’s personal downward spiral and impetus toward self-harm. Universal in that you easily feel why her depression seems logical to her, why she can’t see any way up from where she is, why she makes the choices she does.

The prose is masterful and moving, and it is for just that reason that today I give this book a big warning sticker. Know yourself, my fellow readers. Know whether you are likely to come through a story like this (knowing that Esther does make it out in the end, though Plath eventually didn’t) feeling empathetic to others, reassured in the reality of the descriptions, or shaken by how much of yourself you can see on the page.

5 Stars - Extremely Effective

Speaker for the Dead

Monday, May 16, 2016

Speaker for the Dead
Orson Scott Card, 1986

Hugo Winner - 1987

Premise: Follows Ender’s Game. Ender and Valentine have traveled the galaxy, time has passed, and now no one knows their connection to history. But a new colony has begun on a planet with an unknown intelligent species, and tragedy will draw Ender there to meet them.

Many celebrated authors have won more than one Hugo Award. But to date, the only other person to win the Best Novel award twice back-to-back is Lois McMaster Bujold (whose work I adore completely).

I addressed in my review of Ender’s Game the difficulty in returning to these books now, in 2016. It gets even harder here.

Because I loved this book.

I think it’s much better than Ender’s Game, although it needs that story as its prequel. It touches on more interesting issues, such as the nature of sentience, understanding across seemingly impossible barriers,and the individual perception of time and how it affects how beings relate to each other.

There is still a lack of imagination shown in how little aspects of human society have changed in thousands of years. To be fair, though, in 1986 it seemed a lot more likely that the Catholic Church could proceed unmoved for a few dozen more centuries. Also, a piece of the plot revolves on the fact that at least in this colony, married couples legally have no private files from each other, not even for work. (It’s framed in a more sexist way than it would actually work out, which is unfortunate.) It just made me think: wow, that is a) terrible for cybersecurity and employment, and b) terrible for people in bad relationships. A bad idea all around, but one that I’ll accept in the (half-closed-minded and handicapped by religion) future society as presented.

The exploration of time and perception almost goes unnoticed under the more overt struggle, but it’s intriguing and delicately done. The questions about alien morality and how humans should respond to sentient species are extremely well done. (Note, though: nothing groundbreaking, see The Snow Queen, Startide Rising and original Star Trek, among other things.)

I found the story moving, even though I find it more heartbreaking that the author has often seemed unable to apply in real life the morals in his fiction about compassion and understanding towards those who are different from you.

5 Conflicted but Honest Stars

Further Reading:

Lumberjanes: Volume Three: A Terrible Plan

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lumberjanes: Volume Three: A Terrible Plan
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Carolyn Nowak, Maarta Laiho, et. al., 2016

Premise: Follows Friendship to the Max. Collects Lumberjanes #9-12. The major mystery of the summer is solved, so the girls get down to the real business of camp: telling scary stories, earning merit badges, and...getting trapped in alternate dimensions?

This volume is plenty of fun, although it feels like a breather after the climax of issue #8. Regular series artist Brooke Allen must have had other projects, as 10-12 are drawn by a new team, and 9 has a whole passel of guest artists.

Issue 9 finds the girls telling scary stories. Each story is done in a different style, and both the story and the style each say something about the teller. I think the art for the framing panels is a smidge feminine for Lumberjanes, but this is a solid, enjoyable issue.

Issues 10-12 follow two plots over the course of one day: Jo, April and Ripley try to earn a bunch of merit badges now that they have a free day and no supernatural forces are after them, and Molly and Mal go on a private picnic. The merit badge plot is mostly humor, but fleshes out the camp at large much more than we’ve gotten to this point. The picnic naturally turns into a dangerous adventure involving dinosaurs, plant monsters, and dimensional travel. Molly and Mal do get a bit of time in between running and plotting to talk about their homes and how much they like each other, which is a-freaking-dorable.

This is another strong entry in the series, although I miss Allen’s art.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

How English Became English

Monday, May 2, 2016

How English Became English
Simon Horobin, 2016

New release! I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Premise: A layman-friendly history of the English language: the roots of its complexity, the source of its foibles, the ways people have sought to define or legislate it, and the ways it is continuing to grow and change.

What a joy for a word-lover like me! This book lays out English in all its glory.

I loved learning about the languages that came together to make Old English and all the reasons that other languages and words were folded in later. It was especially interesting to get examples of how the long-ago mashing together of people and language created specific inconsistencies and quirks that carry through to the modern language.

The book has a humorous, modern tone, which I enjoyed, and the author clearly has little sympathy for prescriptivists who would put the language in a box and freeze “correct” English in place. There’s a good deal of commentary on the history of language authorities. I enjoyed the description of the circular nature of certain important references, i.e. citing Shakespeare’s use of a word to prove the meaning of the word, and then using the citation to prove the importance of Shakespeare to the language.

I would have liked more about emerging dialects and the future of English, although the commentary on the classism inherent in the codification of Standard English is well done.

This was a proof copy, so the book is not necessarily final, but the ending was a bit jarring, just sort of: “Well, and that’s a list of all the things about the history of English you should know.”

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation

Monday, April 25, 2016

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation
Sheila Weller, 2008

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography)

Premise: This joint biography of three iconic female singer-songwriters tells the story of being a woman in the music industry during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Unlike most biographies I’ve read, I went into this one with very little prior knowledge of any of the subjects. Music history, particularly popular music, has never been a strong suit of mine. Erin sometimes despairs at my feeble guesses as to which rock group plays such-and-such a song. If it isn’t classical, showtunes or from a small group of celtic/folk artists, I probably have no clue about the people behind a piece of music, even if I recognize the song.

The positive of this approach was that the book was potentially full of surprises. I knew all three women had been successful, I recognized their names, but I literally had no idea without some help from wikipedia what songs/styles were theirs or what arc their careers would have.

The negative is that I had an extremely difficult time keeping all the names and stories straight. The book alternates chapters between different women, and sometimes I got confused as to what had happened to who, or who all these side characters were (other famous and semi-famous musicians of the time, mostly, but I don’t know their names or what they’ve done).

About a third of the way in, I was really struggling, and fell asleep reading a few times. The lists of clubs they played or people they played with just glazed over to me. Like reading the thick bits of The Silmarillion, except with less potential payoff for paying attention.

Happily, I was able to get a handle on the disparate stories eventually, and I enjoyed the book fine overall.

My favorite aspect of the book was how it conveyed, through three very different life stories, the choices and attitudes facing professional women in the music industry, and in society in general. Telling this overall story was clearly the author's intention in writing the book, and it mostly came together, although I found myself wondering how much massaging of facts and careful choosing of quotes may have gone into building that narrative. Not that the approach was wrong, just it felt a little manufactured at times.

Only at times, though. Overall, I was willing to go along for the ride, learn a little about music, and get a sense for how it was to live through a time that was not that long ago, but already feels far away.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Monday, April 18, 2016

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Nicholas D. Kristof, and Sheryl WuDunn, 2009

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book about politics, in your country or another, fiction or nonfiction

Premise: Two New York Times journalists lay out the arguments why people should care about oppression of women worldwide and what people can do about it.

I wanted very much to enjoy this book, but while I think it is well written and deals with important subjects, it left me rather cold.

This book hasn’t been out for ten years yet and yet it feels dated. The biggest reason is that this is from before the largest spread of mobile and social media that has drastically changed communication and social movements across the globe. There’s a tossed off line near the end that implies that their case for girls’ education being a paramount solution (built throughout the book) may be a good tactic, but the spread of television may be as much or more effective. At the time the book was finished, they could only say: more research is needed about television. So what about the spread of the internet?

I also couldn’t even forget that, whatever their racial and cultural backgrounds and their empathy, the authors are journalists with the New York Times. Their attitudes about how people should travel to understand other cultures, occasional word choice around both personal stories and politics… these are people who come from a particularly privileged place, even within the US, and the narration just felt a smidge too pedantic and patronizing for me.

Also, at this point, anyone holding out hope for bipartisan support for anything, even global health issues, seems a bit naive.

All of that said, the personal stories are compelling, and the accounts of women and girls suffering because of social structures, lack of health care, obstruction at governmental levels, etc., are heartbreaking.

But I wanted to come out of this book inspired to help, and only got depressed. Despite the list of organizations at the end, I didn’t feel I’d gotten a current, accurate, feasible case for something concrete and beneficial to do.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Ender’s Game

Monday, April 11, 2016

Ender’s Game
Orson Scott Card, 1985

Hugo Winner - 1986

Premise: Years after a catastrophic attack, the world military tests and trains children in an attempt to find and mold a mind smart, fast, and flexible enough to lead the fleet against a galactic force of creatures that think nothing like humans. You know this book, it’s the one where they teach kids to fight wars with video games unironically.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. Orson Scott Card is an asshat who has said a lot of despicable things and supported heinous organizations.

I have heard nothing but terrible things about his recent work, and I wouldn’t pay money for anything with his name attached unless he were to publicly change his tune drastically.

I was dragging my heels to read this book, ending up borrowing it from the library. But I read Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide years ago, and I remembered them as not awful.

So I tried to give the book a fair shake, and found that… the ending held up pretty well. The book overall has a real telling-not-showing issue with how much time it has to cover with the first two thirds. There’s a lot of plainly saying that characters developed feelings or stating (paraphrase) ‘And Ender was further isolated from the others, even as his team continued to win.’ The style gives it a feeling of distance, which I guess isn't a terrible choice, but it lacks any tension for much of the first half.

The weirdest/worst thing about reading Ender’s Game today is how there is an unspoken, unexamined assumption at the heart of many character interactions. This is: that even given years and years facing an external threat, and huge advances in technology, humankind will not move past the prejudices and internal conflicts faced in the 1980’s.

Notable examples of this (besides the endless continuation of the Cold War) include a character who embraces Jewish stereotypes and a side comment about how army leaders beat in the game by his forces became ‘Jew-haters,’ as if that was an understandable reaction. Another is a General’s comment about why girls don’t generally go to the Battle School: “too many centuries of evolution working against them.” Even aside from the utter hilarity of the idea of ‘centuries of evolution,’ this sexism passes unquestioned, even though they’re not actually training infantry fighters to carry hundreds of pounds. They’re training kids to be fast and clever, and most of them start prepubescent.

It’s not that these comments couldn’t make sense for the characters who utter them given the world of the book, it’s that the choices feel deeply lazy. It feels to me as though no thought was given to whether/how society would change given an alien attack.

Now, all that said, Ender’s Game is still important. It foreshadowed the rise of the internet as a source of influence in a big way. The ending reveal still hits pretty well, even though I knew it was coming. The whole closing of the book feels mythic in an interesting way, although I think the version I read includes the 1991 rewrites which were added to link this book with the larger series that followed.

So did I like it? It’s a hard question to answer in the end. I think I liked it. I think most of it is actually well-written. However, I think anyone reading it today should go in with a healthy awareness of how dated some of the material is.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book, despite serious issues.