The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011
by Nancy Jane Moore
I did watch a few TV shows via Netflix (Mad Men was especially good, and I really liked the new Sherlock Holmes series with Holmes as a young computer geek), but lately I haven’t even done that. And every time I think about going to the movies, I read the list of what’s actually showing and decide not to bother.
Which means I’ve been reading a lot. When I’m really brain dead after a day of work, I tend to re-read old novels on the (misguided) assumption that I can easily put them aside and either get more work done or go to bed at a respectable hour. Alas, I have discovered that I have not outgrown reading a compelling book into the wee hours, which does not fit in well with my other recent discovery that a good night’s sleep is very valuable indeed.
One of the exciting re-reads that kept me up last year was Starfarers, the first volume of Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet. This is perfect science fiction: imaginative but possible science, political hassles, compelling and diverse characters with very real human motivations, and the grand idea of exploring beyond our home. It’s been out of print, but Book View Café has brought the series back in ebook form.
As for books that were new to me: In one of my hunts through my large and disorganized book collection for something to read, I stumbled across another one of those books I can’t remember buying and didn’t even know existed: Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife. This book sucked me in so completely that I didn’t want to leave the world when the story was finished (even though the story ends perfectly). The desert Southwest, artists, mythological characters who become real, humans who can understand more than the daily grind – all add up to a magnificent fantasy world.
I reviewed those two books and a number of others that I enjoyed on the Book View Cafe blog over the last year. Here, in no particular order, are some of the books I liked enough to review (I only write about books I like, as a rule). And yes, several of them are published by Aqueduct, because Aqueduct publishes the kind of books I want to read, including ones I didn’t know I wanted to read until they hit print.
• Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire, a magnificent story that makes the truth of the Jim Crow years in the U.S. more real by adding fantastical elements.
• N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, a worthy sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (I have to get around to the third volume of this trilogy soon).
• L. Timmel Duchamp’s Never at Home, which collects many of Timmi’s most imaginative and fascinating stories.
• Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains. Just think about that for a moment: What if there had been mammoths ranging the U.S. in the 19th Century?
• Eclipse Three, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which proves that it is quite possible to have a great anthology dominated by women authors. I particularly liked Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things” and Karen Joy Fowler’s “Pelican Bar,” but really, there’s not a bad story in the book.
I did read some books by men this year. I finished (sigh) reading the wonderful Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series and am now just waiting for enough time to pass so I can read it again. And I finally broke down and read Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo et al), which I’d avoided for years on the principle that hardback bestsellers prominently displayed in airport bookstores can’t possibly be good. I was wrong: these books are compelling (definitely kept me up to the wee hours), if grim in spots, and the casual political assumptions that are common currency in Sweden were very refreshing in contrast to a summer of idiotic U.S. political posturing.
It always amuses me that the supposedly “true” written word is called “nonfiction” – that is, it’s defined in the negative. I take this to mean that fiction is the higher art, since other work is defined by its absence. Not, of course, that there isn’t quite a bit of fiction in some nonfiction, not all of it acknowledged.
But I do respect and appreciate good nonfiction. This year the death of Joanna Russ inspired me to read her critical works. While I know Russ’s fiction well, I’d only read a little of the nonfiction. Two books stood out for me: How to Suppress Women’s Writing and What Are We Fighting For?
I’d like to think that How to Suppress Women’s Writing was outdated, that things had changed dramatically since it was first published in 1983. Unfortunately, it is still very relevant, as witness all the discussions about the barriers to women writers that periodically travel around the Internet (many of them held here on Ambling Along the Aqueduct). All too often while reading this book, I found myself going, “Oh, that’s what happened to me.”
In a slightly different (but in my mind, related) direction, the book Why We Cooperate, edited by Michael Tomasello, provides an insight into the theory – currently being explored by biologists and anthropologists – that the human ability to get along with others has been a major factor in our evolution. This slim anthology of essays by scientists in different fields is a good starting point in the study of cooperation.
The most beautiful book I’ve seen this year – almost a coffee table book – is a collection of Michael Ventura’s essays illustrated with photographs by Butch Hancock: If I Was a Highway. Ventura is one of the most provocative thinkers of our time. His essays appear biweekly in the Austin Chronicle, but they don’t read like columns written on a deadline. Ventura is a writer who cares about how he says things as well as a thinker who cares about ideas, and every word he puts down is carefully chosen. The title of the book is from one of Butch’s songs, which are just as provocative as Michael’s essays – Butch knows how to use words as well as how to take fascinating pictures. This book is published by Texas Tech University Press, which shows that intelligent publishing can flourish even in the Texas Panhandle.
I’ll end with the book I’m reading now, even though I haven’t finished it and find myself arguing with it as I read: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. This is his book arguing that human violence has declined over our history.
I am not a fan of Pinker’s; even when I agree with him I find him irritating, and I disagree strongly with his public statements on sex differences. This particular book is annoying because he has decided that violence has declined and then presented the arguments that he thinks best support that thesis. It is not an exploration of the idea, but rather an attempt to bludgeon the reader into agreeing with him.
But – and it’s a big but – I think he’s right: Human attitudes about cruelty and violence have changed for the better. I’m not sure he’s right about why, but some of his theories are worth pursuing. I suspect he’s leaving out some important ideas – such as those about the human need and capacity for cooperation – but since I haven’t finished the book yet I don’t know what all his ideas are.
Despite my doubts about this book, it does seem to be the first book on the subject to get major attention and is a good starting point for a discussion of whether the human race is on the road to eventually becoming civilized. As an optimist by nature, I’d like to think so – assuming we survive climate change, overpopulation, and the other disasters we’re not dealing with right now without losing the progress we’ve been making toward true civilization.