Fresh look: old books

In the realm of science fiction writing, it mostly seems like the guys get all the love, so for this foray into older reads, I’m going to focus on some interesting and talented women writers, those who specifically address the interaction between humans and “aliens,” or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent. The fact that these books, some of them decades old, are also completely relevant to many of our current circumstances is the mark of a good speculative fiction writer…

sparrowFirst up are two books by Mary Doria RussellThe Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans’ first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated, resulting in a compelling read.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She wrote the entire spectrum from fantasy to hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to “what if?” (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

earthseaOn the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea) and two more sequels (Tehanu and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn’t want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she created, a world that is deceptively simple but that contains timeless and sophisticated themes.

dispoAmong Le Guin’s many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed—about a group of utopians who left their planet’s surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets—and The Left Hand of Darkness—about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a person who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch genders, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it’s a strange experience for him, needless to say. LeGuin was always “fashion forward” in terms of the themes of her books, so for her to explore gender issues so thoroughly before the rest of us took notice is no surprise.

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who had a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, later in life, a prolific science fiction author.

famtreeMy favorite is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can’t drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can’t reveal because it’s such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read, not to mention environmentally relevant for all of us in this particular moment.

Tepper has her own entry in the “alien contact” trope, and it’s a good one. It’s called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she’s “not anybody,” to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that’s an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It’s wickedly humorous, as well.

snowAnother great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers-that-be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years the “star-gate” closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo. The theme of exploitation of a native people to maintain use of their natural resources lifts this trilogy beyond simple fantasy.

5thA classic book about what can happen when natural resources are treated with respect and what will happen when they are not is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by ecofeminist and permaculture teacher Starhawk. A group of spiritually and politically enlightened old women start a radical movement in the streets of San Francisco designed to result in a utopia in which water runs freely, everyone has enough to eat, and perfect equality is more than just a goal. By contrast, Los Angeles has adhered to the old ways, in which the people in power are privileged and everyone else is starving. What happens when these two cultures clash, the one an advocate of nonviolent resistance, the other a society with drug-reliant soldiers enslaved and trained to destroy? Walking to Mercury and City of Refuge are the sequels.

irustanFinally, although I’ve mentioned it here before, I’d like to remind readers of a particular book by Louise Marley, The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers and their tantalizing works. I hope you will consider them when you are in the mood to be entertained but also want something of substance to occupy your mind.

 

Book women

There has been a recent controversy in book world about which librarians have been (sometimes vehemently) taking sides. I decided that, rather than go with the most convincing or simply abstain from the argument, I would read and find out for myself.

Two novels have been published about one subject in recent months, that subject being the Pack Horse Library Project. This was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program established during the Great Depression that delivered books to remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains between 1935 and 1943. Nearly a third of the population of the United States had no access to library materials, and Kentucky led with an illiteracy rate of 31 percent. The terrain meant that traveling libraries couldn’t access most people in eastern Kentucky, so the Pack Horse Library Project picked up the slack by sending single riders into remote parts of the Appalachians with books in their packs.

Carriers_in_Hindman,_KY

It also, of course, provided a much-needed income for those women who participated in the project. The WPA would pay $28 a month to women who were for various reasons the sole breadwinners for their families. This was, at the time, a salary that many men would have envied.

The two books in question are Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and JoJo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars. Book Woman author Richardson has raised the dreaded specter of plagiarism, due to some striking similarities between Moyes’s book and hers, while Moyes says she has never read Richardson’s book.

The timing was interesting: Richardson’s book was published in May, while Moyes’s book was slated for October. Moyes was still finishing up her book in September of 2018 when Richardson’s was being made available via both electronic galleys and advance review copies. A blogger who received one of the ARCs brought the similarities to Richardson’s attention, and this was echoed in a tweet by a bookseller. Moyes says she had no knowledge of Richardson’s book at that time.

Since both books are based on historical events, one would assume that similarities would arise based on common source materials consulted by each author. But Richardson maintains that the similarities are not, in fact, anything in the historical record, but are rather “fictional devices/plot points I invented.”

The truth is, if you read just the list of passages that Richardson calls out (there are eight of them), it does seem damning. And no one but Moyes herself can know whether she did, indeed, read Richardson’s book and incorporate these plot points into her own. But having read both books, I can say that the overall plots, the manner in which the books are written, the differing focus, and the cumulative effect of each novel as a story are significantly dissimilar, and that one person could easily read both books and be entertained.

bookwomanAlthough The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is, indeed, about one of the WPA Pack Horse librarians, the focus of that book is almost entirely on a singular character, a coal miner’s daughter, Cussy Mary Carter. Cussy (or Bluet, as she is more commonly known to the people in her neighborhood) is one of the last of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky, a group that suffered from a rare genetic anomaly that caused their skin to carry a pale blue tint that darkened, with a blush, to the shade of a blueberry. Because of her skin color, she is feared or hated by a large percentage of the population of her rural Kentucky settlement, treated even worse than the regular “colored” people, and this proves to be a danger as she goes about her work as a Pack Librarian. But it also allows her a little hope, as the people who are grateful for her efforts to bring them books and reading begin to be open to the idea that she is no different from them despite her peculiar shade.

There are two parallel, almost equal protagonists in The Giver of Stars, and both to some extent also represent “the other” in their interactions with their society. One is Alice, an English girl who is wooed by Bennett Van Cleve, son of a wealthy coal mine owner, a big fish in a small town in Kentucky. Alice is desperate to escape her claustrophobic life in England, and decides that marrying Bennett and moving to Kentucky will be just the ticket. But her new life similarly begins to pall as she realizes that women have not much more than an ornamental role at her level of society. Just in time, the opportunity to be a Pack Librarian opens up, and in the face of no other volunteers, Alice jumps at the chance to do something different with her life.

starsThe other protagonist is Margery,
a tough hill woman who has had to make her own way in the world, and who is the de facto leader of this branch of the Pack Librarians. Although Alice admires Margery for her independence and accomplishments, Margery is reviled and looked down upon by the rest of the town for both her heritage and her present devil-may-care conduct when it comes
to men.

Although both books focus a fair bit on women’s rights (or the lack of them), their affect is quite different. Bluet’s story is an inturned one of a person who has been raised to be self-effacing—in fact, self-hating—and humble, while Alice and Margery are outspoken in their desire for and expectation of different treatment. Book Woman, despite its detailing of routes, methods, and circumstances of book deliveries, is more squarely a biographical piece about the solitary Cussy Mary Carter and her difficulties as a shunned minority, while in The Giver of Stars, much more detail is to be had about the workings of the Pack Horse Project as a whole. Richardson’s book is written in a more formal language, a literary collection of adjectives meant to give the reader a picture of both the extreme poverty and oppression and the transcendent beauty simultaneously present in Appalachia. Moyes writes with her usual straightforward narrative style, focused more on her excellent character-building than on language.

For these reasons, I can enthusiastically recommend both of these books as worthy of your time. I can’t honestly say that I prefer one over the other; both have merit in different arenas.

Regarding the similarities Richardson has called out, as I read through both books I attempted to explain them as coincidence, and was able to do so for about half of them. Ironically, one of the non-historical things that both authors included as part of their stories did, perhaps, make sense in terms of separate points each wished to make, but was not logical in context of the times.

As for the rest, since the publisher has declined to consider that the two works are substantially similar, which is the main test of copyright infringement, they are a matter for JoJo Moyes’s conscience; but unless you simply refuse to give her the benefit of the doubt, they should in no way preclude your enjoyment of both The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars as good stories and fine contributions to the historical record.

BlogDingbat

Parenthetically, does it bother anyone else that the skin of the girl on the cover of Book Woman is NOT BLUE?

 

Discussing appeals

Speaking of best opening paragraphs—or lines—I just rediscovered one of them:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.”

beantreesThat’s the first sentence of The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. I decided on a re-read, following my rediscovery of her as a writer with Unsheltered, last week. Since I already gave a brief review of the book in my “Fresh look: old book” series, I thought I would instead go into the appeals of the story, the reasons why someone might want to read it and you might want to recommend it, while the details are fresh in my mind.

Since I already shared it, let’s start with that opening line—what does it tell you about the book to come?

  • The protagonist probably lives in a rural setting, since tractors are in use.
  • Referring to it as the “Standard Oil” sign could give you a clue about the time period in which the story is set.
  • The name “Newt Hardbine” gives a clue to what particular type of rural setting it’s going to be—most likely somewhere in the South. It could be a name found in Yankee territory, I suppose, but it’s definitely not Sebastopol, California, unless it’s by way of Oklahoma.
  • There will probably be something in the story to do with tire maintenance.

That’s a lot to get out of one sentence, and that is the gift of a writer who knows her characters and her story and gets right to them.

The protagonist of this book is immediately painted as a vivid and complex character. Within the first 30 pages, you know and understand where she came from and her connection with her past, you understand her love for her mama but her need to get away from Pittman County, Kentucky in order to find her place in the world, and you can even grasp why she is the sort of person who, when faced with the challenge of taking on an orphaned three-year-old, would flinch a little but then get on with it. If you, or the person for whom you are trying to find a good read, is a reader who loves character development, this book is a good bet. Every character in it has an individual, one-of-a-kind persona, and each is lovingly developed in whatever way he or she needs to be in relation to the main character. These are characters that you would recognize on the street if you walked past them.

The other thing this book has going for it is pacing. If you view it from a superficial standpoint, there are big swathes of it in which nothing much happens: People get and lose jobs, find places to live, make some friends, and live fairly mundane lives. But the overwhelming experience of this book is an exquisitely maintained tension: From the moment the Indian woman dumps the three-year-old in Taylor’s car and drives away, you realize that this is a never-ending source of questions that will pervade the rest of their story.

I should note here (as would a good readers’ advisor for this book) that although it stands alone and is in no way concluded as a cliff-hanger, the reader will probably experience a certain feeling of incompleteness without reading the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, and learning Taylor’s and Turtle’s ultimate fates.

Other elements of the book (and its sequel) that could be significant in appealing to a certain reader:

  • It is issue-oriented—it explores several themes that could be considered controversial, and which broach ethical and social problems;
  • Although it is realistic fiction, the world-building, better described for these purposes as scene-setting, is beautifully realized. The atmosphere of rural Kentucky, the characteristics of desert living in Tucson, Arizona, are wonderfully detailed;
  • The tone of the book is simultaneously serious and upbeat, with unexpected moments of hilarity;
  • The writing style is engaging, with a conversational tone and descriptive language that employs regional dialects to advantage.

These are all ways to examine and perceive the requirements of the reader and match that reader with the story that will suit their taste, temperament, and interests. Think about some of the readers you know, and also consider the books with which you are intimately familiar; pair up the desires of one with the appeals of the other to see if you can accurately predict a good match. This is the gift of readers’ advisory.

 

Ch-ch-changes…

I had forgotten how vivid are the characters in a Barbara Kingsolver novel. It’s mostly because she doesn’t write her novels vaguely; she sets them solidly in the events of the present-day, whatever that time period may be, and allows (or forces) her protagonists to confront the facts of their lives and of life, without filters.

unshelteredKingsolver is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. There is a reason for that—Kingsolver does not write fiction that isn’t political. Unsheltered, her newest novel, is no exception, but it is political in such a simultaneously personal and universal way that it fastens onto the mind of her reader with a compelling message it’s hard not to understand.

Unsheltered is the parallel stories of two people—and two families—living at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, an unlikely setting for revelation, one would think. The contemporary family is narrated by Willa Knox, wife of Iano Tavoularis, daughter-in-law of the irascible Greek Nick, mother of Zeke and Antigone (Tig), grandmother of Aldus (Dusty). Circumstances of life (loss of tenure at a previous job, the disappearance of a profession, the death of an aunt, the death of a daughter-in-law, the end of a romance) have brought them all together to live in an inherited, falling-down house in this small town, each of them trying (though no one harder than Willa) to figure out how to get back on their feet in the face of tragedy after disaster after unfortunate circumstance.

The second family, living at the same address in the 1870s, is headed by Thatcher Greenwood, a young man who started out poor and made good, married to a girl who started out wealthy and fell from status when her father’s failures and her marriage to Thatcher reduced her circumstances. Rose and her mother, Artemisia, live lives of constant discontent, filled with complaints about their straitened circum-stances (one of which is the drafty house falling down around them), while Rose’s little sister Polly is Thatcher’s one bulwark and champion within the family nest. If it weren’t for his unexpected friendship with his eccentric neighbor, self-taught botanist and biologist Mary Treat, his curtailed life and thoughts would have no refuge.

The political story of this book is in the confrontation of its protagonists with a shift in the wind, a change in society so profound that only a few can acknowledge it properly and understand its significance. In Thatcher’s case, it is the emergence of the discoveries of Charles Darwin, which make complete sense of the natural world, and which are being stifled at every turn by religion, fear, and willful ignorance. In Willa’s case, the realizations are brought home to her by her daughter, Tig, a small but mighty whirlwind seemingly sent to blow away all the illusions from Willa’s eyes. Tig would make a fitting companion for the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortezes of this world, with her insistence that capitalism is dead, that the old white men still clinging to growth as a signal of good are deluding themselves in the face of the real possibility of human oblivion within decades of this current moment. The metaphor of the house in which each family is living, which is literally falling to pieces, leaky roof to collapsed ceiling to failing floor joists, brings the whole message home.

But there is light within all this darkness, there is new life both botanical and human, there are hopeful interactions and solutions and triumphs. Ultimately, Unsheltered calls for living in a more authentic way, and the reader, if he or she is in sympathy with this message, can only rise to the challenge.

redwoodOn Goodreads, one reader noted that “If there was such a prize this one might win The Most Polarizing Novel of 2018.” Being a fairly enthusiastic fan of Kingsolver’s (I disliked Poisonwood Bible but have loved everything else she has written), I found it hard to believe, when scrolling through the ratings, that some people gave this book a one- or two-star rating, in the face of my solid five. People’s reasons for these ratings varied, from “preachy” to “didactic and heavy-handed” to “too much dialogue.” My suspicion is that at least some of these readers were as at odds with the book’s message as were the general public in the novel with the realizations of both Thatcher Greenwood and Willa Knox, that the message made them uncomfortable, and they took it out on the book. As one who found it profoundly moving and distinctly eye-opening, I will have to say, read it for yourself and see where your vote falls.

“Unsheltered, I live in daylight.”