June 26, 2009

How Not to Pitch

One of the things that happens to you when you're a book blogger is that authors and publicists email you about books they'd like you to read and review. And sometimes those emails are insane.

One time, early on in my book blogging saga, I received a poorly-written query from an author, let us call him MF, who addressed me as "Dear Editor". I wrote back -- admittedly, somewhat snarkily -- and  suggested that next time, MF might find out my name and use it rather than spam me with a form letter. Then I got this reply:
oh, dear, the anal-retentiveness has been awakened; the narcissism and the pomposity is too much. I have been reviewed all over the world by better and more expoxied reviewers than yourself. As a practicing psychotherapist you have more than issues, my dear, inflated sir. Do not respond as I will delete your email; that you would spend so much time crafting a response like yours reveals how little is going on in your life. You are not only an aberration but a self-important prig, a remnant of the 19th century.

I did not write back. It didn't matter; MF is a little notorious for spamming book bloggers and he queried me several more times both through email and through my blog. I don't know why he'd keep writing to a narcissistic, anal-retentive, pompous un-expoxied, inflated, self-important, aberrant, 19th-century prig, but there you have it.

I got another email this week -- two, actually -- from an author whom I'll call TR. This is the content of TR's first email to me:
I had a near death experince 9 months ago. As a result I reached nirvana. The buddhists suggest I am teh buddha of teh age but I assure them I am simply heimdall.
In the last 5 months I have written and published 5 books and I have determined to write ininfite books and everplain everything there is to explain in all of existence and I do it rather swiftly.
Now here is where you come in.
[amazon link redacted]
That is the link to the first fouth books.
I will attach the 2,3,4th volume in this main in PDF format becasue I am looking for a harsh critic.
I do not want you to be biased because you had to pay for the books. I am sending them to you freely so that you will be unbiased in your judgement of them. I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say about my books, sunshine.

Thank you for your compassion and understanding,

And this is the content of his follow-up (sent 20 minutes later):
If you hate volume 2,3 & 4 you are going to love volume 5 & 6
Attempt to keep this comment in your mind written by freud as you read.

"Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity."

Thats a nice way of saying, if you hate my books it is becasue subconsiously you love them.

I would like to point out that this author's email display name was "Me". Do you know how odd it is to get mail from "Me" that you haven't yourself sent? It is truly bizarre (as is the rest of this pitch).

I don't even know where to start. There's the poor spelling, the linkening of oneself to a Norse god, the unsanctioned nickname, five books in five months (hello, iUniverse! Thanks for making publishing a joke industry!), the misunderstanding of some irrelevant Freud, the audacity of claiming that you'll write infinite books in order to explain everything ever ... this is a mess. The kicker, though, is the last line of the second email: "if you hate my books it is because subconsciously you love them."

Ladies and gentlemen, this is called denial. This means that even if you are asking for a harsh critic, you are going to have your hands on your ears and be yelling -- LALALA YOU ACTUALLY LOVE ME -- when harsh criticism comes. Up to this point I was almost interested, despite the trainwreck factor of it all.

Le sigh.

I hasten to assure you all that yes, it is possible to successfully pitch to a blogger or reviewer. Authors and publicists do it all of the time. Would you like to do this too? Here are some hints:

  1. Learn to spell. Or at least to use spellcheck, for the love of pete.

  2. Include a teaser or blurb, like on the back of a book.

  3. Ideally, include a writing sample as well.

  4. Do not give the reviewer you're querying an unsolicited nickname, sunshine.

  5. Show that you know who you're pitching too -- use their name, and be demonstrably familiar with what they like (ie, don't send a YA novel to a blog that only reviews nonfiction).

  6. If your pitch makes the person you're contacting afraid to give you her address, you're probably doing it wrong. Don't be these guys.

June 24, 2009

Review: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola

This is a book that you're either going to love or loathe, because it is absolutely crazy. C-R-A-Z-Y. Crazy.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was written by Amos Tutuola, a 20th-century Nigerian author. Tutuola was very briefly educated under the British system (Nigeria then being a colony) but led a largely unremarkable life until, at the age of twenty-six, he wrote his first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, in the space of a few days. It was published some decades later and followed quickly by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

The guy who wrote the forward to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts comments that Tutuola's writing is "original and highly imaginative ... a beginning of a new type of Afro-English literature ... distinct from the correct but rather stiff essays that some more highly educated Africans produce." Er, yes. If by "a new type of Afro-English literature" we mean that Tutola's writing is completely batty, I agree completely. And while I'm not really in a position to judge his influence or importance in the wider literary scope, I can tell you that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a great read.

Consider, if you will, the chapter titles alone:

  1. The Meaning of "Bad" and "Good"

  2. In the Bush of Ghosts

  3. The Smelling-Ghost

  4. My Life in the 7th Town of Ghosts

  5. My Life with Cows

  6. A Cola Saved Me

  7. At a Ghost Mother's Birthday Function

  8. My First Wedding Day in the Bush of Ghosts

  9. On my Way to the 9th Town of Ghosts

  10. River-Ghosts. Gala-day under the River.

Those are the first ten; there are about thirty in all, each more wacky than the last. And, I ask you, how can we not be charmed by the above? "My Life with Cows" -- !

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts tells the story of a young Yoruba boy who, while escaping from a slave raid, finds himself in the bush, where the ghosts are.  He then spends the rest of the novel wandering more-or-less aimlessly through the Bush, while crazy things happen. He marries a ghostess. He's transformed into a cow. He's kept in a jar and worshipped. He sees a television-handed ghostess. He meets his dead cousin, who has set up a Methodist church and school in a ghost town. He runs from a "flash-eyed mother" who is covered with millions of baby heads. I can't even explain it. You'll just have to find it and read it for yourself.

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:
In those days of unknown year, because I was too young to keep the number of the year in my mind till this time, so there were many kinds of African wars and some of them are as follows: general wars, tribal wars, burglary wars and the slave wars which were very common in every town and village and particularly in famous markets and on main roads of big towns at any time in the day or night. These slave-wars were causing dead luck to both old and young of those days, because if one is captured he or she would be sold into slavery for foreigners who would carry him or her to unknown destinations to be killed for the buyer's god or to be working for him.

But as my mother was a petty trader who was going here and there, so one morning she went to a market which was about three miles away from our town, she left two slices of cooked yam for us (my brother and myself) as she was usually doing. When it was twelve o'clock p.m. cocks began to crow continuously, then my brother and myself entered into our mother's room in which she kept the two sliced or cut yams safely for us, so that it might not be poisoned by the two wives who hated us, then my brother took one of the yams and I took the other one and began to eat it at the same time. But as we were eating the yam inside out mother's room, these two wives who hated us heard information before us that the war was nearly breaking into the town, so both of them and their daughters ran away from the town without informing us or taking us along with themselves and all of them knew already that our mother was out of the town.

Even as we were very young to know the meaning of "bad" and "good" both of us were dancing to the noises of the enemies' guns which were reverberating into the room in which we were eating the yam as the big trees and many hills with deep holes on them entirely surrounded the town and they changed the fearful noises of the enemies' guns to a lofty one for us, and we were dancing for these lofty noises of the enemies' guns. (pp 18-19)

So! My friends, this is wacky. It is what most of us would probably call ungrammatical, but there's a certain rhythm to it as well. I found that it took me about the first chapter to get into the prose -- at first I spent too much time noticing errors and trying to figure out what was going on -- but when I was able to relax into the story I was swept away and it was all very enjoyable. Albeit nuts.

June 15, 2009

Read More Canada

It has recently come to my attention that lots of people don't seem to know what's being written and read in Canada these days. "Canadian Literature?," they cry, "You mean that awful stuff we had to read in class?"

I do not mean that awful stuff, dear readers. I mean the stuff that you're not going to get in class. You know, the good stuff.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood hardly needs an introduction, as her publication list is about as long as my leg -- and, furthermore, you probably have read her in school, at least a little. Most classes on Canadian lit will read The Handmaid's Tale (as well they should!). My favourite -- the one I'd tell people to start with -- would be Alias Grace. Both that and The Robber Bride are frequent re-reads of mine.

Pierre Berton

Do you like narrative nonfiction? Great, me too. Read Pierre Berton for very interesting histories of Canada. I enjoyed Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border (about the war of 1812). The Last Spike is one of his best-known books and is reputed to be very good indeed.

Douglas Coupland

Hey, remember Jpod and and Hey Nostradamus! and Girlfriend in a Coma? Coupland may be dang depressing, but he is also Canadian, and we will therefore crush him to our collective bosom with pride. Plus, sometimes you need to read something depressing. Too much happiness isn't good for you, right?

Robertson Davies

Another writer who is already well-represented on syllabi everywhere? Why, yes. Like Atwood, Davies deserves it. Davies was fond of writing trilogies, of which the perhaps best-known is the Deptford trilogy, comprised of Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. I am also particularly fond of What's Bred in the Bone. If you're looking for something lighter (and more delightful) than the novels, try The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks.

Cory Doctorow

Woo, science fiction, woo! Start with Little Brother. Or, you know, his blog.

Lawrence Hill

Four words: The Book of Negroes. Hill is another Torontonian, now living in Brampton and writing things like said  The Book of Negroes (published in the States as Someone Knows My Name, because I guess you can't say "negro" there anymore?).

Michael Ignatieff

I haven't read any Ignatieff myself, but I think that I should, because he could well be our next Prime Minister. I do have smart friends who love everything he's ever written; they are also card-carrying members of the Liberal party, though, so take that as you will. A list of works published is here.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is a fantasy writer who lives in Toronto, and deals with Toronto to greater or lesser extents in his writing. My first encounter with Kay was through The Fionavar Tapestry, which comprises three novels: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. You could start with those, or with Tigana which is monstrously brilliant.

Stephen Leacock

Stephen Leacock is a little dated now, and doesn't help the trend of Canadian reading lists being over-weighted with books that are old and not much else. But Leacock is more than just old; he is very funny, in that dry mostly British way. I would star with an anthology, like Laugh with Leacock or another best-of collection.

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Ann-Marie MacDonald writes chunksters, brilliant chunksters that will leave you reeling. At least, Fall on Your Knees affected me that way; I stopped reading As the Crow Flies early on because it's too big to easily carry around. But I'll finish it, don't you worry.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod wrote No Great Mischief, which I loved and my friend Elizabeth hated. But since this is my blog, and not hers, I urge you to consider my opinion the better one.

Stuart McLean

I actually first encountered Stuart McLean as a radio presenter -- he has a show on the CBC called The Vinyl Café, which you may listen to through various methods. Frankly, I don't think much of his taste in music, but I greatly enjoy the stories he tells on air, many of which have since been published. I would start with Stories from the Vinyl Café, or Secrets from the Vinyl Café. You can also get them as CDs, and we have many of those as well.

Yann Martel

Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi, which you will hate if you stop after the first hundred pages or so, but love if you make it through to the end. More interestingly, he maintains the site What is Stephen Harper Reading?, in which he sends our Prime Minister books every fortnigh.

Robert Munsch

Anybody who doesn't know who Robert Munsch is shall be punched in the face.

Michael Ondaatje

Another writer rightly found on reading lists. I liked In the Skin of a Lion very much. Many people have read The English Patient, or have seen the film, although I have done neither. I do, however, know a cat named after him.

Kenneth Oppel

I ask: who wouldn't love young adult novels about bats having adventures? Describing them like that makes them sound lamer than lame, I know, but they're actually pretty cool. First in the series is Silverwing.

Spider Robinson

Spider Robinson writes smutty science fiction / fantasy, and his books are very punny. Also, his name is "Spider". That's almost as good as Banana Yoshimoto.

Sinclair Ross

Just kidding! Sinclair Ross sucks.

Fred Wah

I read Diamond Grill, by Fred Wah, for my Asian-North American Lit class last year, and enjoyed it very much. It is almost poetry, and among the best of what we read in that class (at least as far as the Canadian books were concerned).

This is not a complete list by any means, and there are doubtless many writers I've overlooked. For those of you with adventuresome spirits, Wikipedia has a large list of Canadian writers for you. And, as always, you can click the covers below to be taken to Amazon for purchasing purposes.

June 13, 2009

Home and Native Land

Here's a confession: I get kind of ridiculously excited when books mention and/or are set in Canada. Not the CanLit type of books set in Canada -- where everything is ostentatiously Canadian, the kind of books that teachers like to thrust at you with crazy eyes, proclaiming that yes, we do have a literary culture here -- but books where characters are Canadian, or things are set in Canadian cities, and it is what it is, with no fuss about it.

It bears repeating: although I like a lot of Canadian literature, I don't like it because it's Canadian, really. And some of it I don't like. Actually, a lot of it kind of sucks. There's this one book in particular, As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, that is probably in the twenty worst books I've ever read. Nobody likes it -- but it's still on syllabi everywhere because it's So! Canadian!, and so we have to read it even though it's terrible.

That's silly. And I think that it does a disservice to the amount of books out there that are written by Canadian authors and are really darn good. Things like Fall on Your Knees, for example, or Tigana, or Life of Pi. I wish more of the Canadian lit studied in school was less self-conscious, and more well-written.

What brought this up, you may ask? I just started reading Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear, and I am so very excited because it's full of Toronto, which is where I live. It's full of streets I've eaten on, or shopped on, or gone to school on -- streets I've walked almost every weekday, although hers are set in 2062 and are no doubt different in some crucial respects. But still: it's neat. And E. Bear is American and lives in Connecticut or something like that, and so it is doubly charming.

Of course, this probably wouldn't have charmed me as much as it did, had I not received a very peculiar piece of mail earlier in the week, of which I have provided a photo:


Yup. "Canada". Canada, the magical fairy land that may or may not exist, hence the dubious quotation marks. I live in "Canada" -- allegedly.

Now, normally I wouldn't make fun of Phenix & Phenix (blog/company site) at all, because they are staffed with very nice publicists who often send me very interesting books. But come on: this is silly. I know that Canada is rather far away from Texas (and, like, a millionty times BIGGER than it, don't even get me started) but I feel compelled to assure everyone that, yes, it does exist. Also, a lot of the rumours are true: we have a Queen, two official languages, a socialized healthcare system that mostly works, and we eat poutine (the food of emperors). We do not typically live in Igloos.

(Yes: I know. This was probably someone's hurried addition to the envelope, since the CANADA part of the address was initially left off. Honest mistake, etc. I'm still going to laugh at it.)

It makes me wonder, though -- and this question is for you, Americans, et al -- what do you notice if/when books are set in Canada? Do you notice? Do cultural references sometimes leave you hanging? I know that I am often called upon by my American cousins to explain points of governance or culture -- are you inclined to call up an Canuckian friend for clarification, or do you just let things be?

And does anyone else get excited when they read things set in their hometown? I am lucky; Toronto's a big city and there's lots written about it. But I wonder about smaller cities. Does anybody write about Toronto, Ohio, population 5676?

Maybe they should. Authors, I bring Toronto, Ohio to your attention. But if you'd rather write about the original, that's definitely fine with me!

June 11, 2009

She Reads Books, BA (Hons)

Guess what I did today?

Yup, I graduated.


.... and pretended to be a Dementor.


.... and danced in a doorway.


.... and was happy & very accomplished.


June 10, 2009

Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to theNation, Volume I, by M. T. Anderson

This book is exquisite. Seriously: the prose is so good that I want to roll around in it. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Volume I: The Pox Party) is exquisitely written, and tells the story of one Octavian Gitney, a boy slave raised by a New England philosophical society just prior to and during the American revolutionary war. Octavian and his mother, Princess Cassiopeia, live a life of leisure; Octavian, dressed in finest silks, is taught Latin, Greek, and music from boyhood, receiving one of the finest classical educations of his day.

Until it all changes, that is.

The war plays havoc in Boston -- rumours are adrift, smallpox is marching toward the city, the British navy is massing in the harbour, and nobody knows which side will win. Octavian's master and all his household remove to the country for a Pox Party; they will innoculate themselves against the coming plague, and dance the war away.

Until that all changes, too.

I don't want to give too much away, because this is a book full of twists and turns, and it's so beautifully written that I'd want all of you to just go out and read it, anyway. Here are four passages to whet your appetite. The first begins a day out in the country:
Shortly after two o'clock on June 3rd, 1769, Venus descended into the plane of the ecliptic and came between the Earth and sun. It is with awe that I treat of the event -- so minute, so silent here upon the Earth -- but there -- one can scarce imagine the roaring of that vast orb through those frigid depths, tumbling, flung through the plane of our orbit; the glaring heat, the searing glare of Sol -- and the gargantuan prodigality of that body, consuming its own substance ceaselessly while planets whirled like houris, veiled and ecstatic around the thrown of some blast-turbaned, light-drunken king. (96)

The second is the most elegant way I've ever read of telling someone to do what she tells him to do:
"Mademoiselle, you are delightfully scurrilous."

"This is no banter, sir. This is no game." I could hear the fury in her voice. "This is no jest, no frolic, no badinage. I was a princess, once; I am a princess still. Royal blood will mix only with other royal blood. Otherwise, it demeans the line. Tell me what nation you offer me, what alliance, what regal house -- or leave."

Still in a tone of play, he said, "My lady, you know what scepter I offer, and what orbs."

There was a stunned silence. And then she replied, "Then, sir, look out at the privy. There is my throne. Reach inside, sir, and you shall find the wedding feast. Eat well, My Lord. Eat abundantly." (107)

This passage comes during the preparations for the Pox Party:
A harpsichord was rented for the festivities. We placed it in one of the experimental chambers and hauled the philosophic machines against the wall so there should be space for dancing. The day before the party, one of the grooms was employed to wax the floor.

He wore a slipper on one foot and a brush on the other. They required him to dance there alone for three hours.

I passed and watched.

In the silence, he skated.

The afternoon sun was cast across the floor. Where the bowing and leaping should soon commence, there the old man slid and spun by himself, his arms fluttering, making pretty courtesies to chairs; pausing for a pas de Basque; his heels thumping; executing secret glissades in beeswax.

Silence and sunlight were his partners. (188)

And after Octavian does some very exciting things, and then has time to repose:
The times, the seasons, the signs may have been mythical; but the sufferings were not. I lay in the dark with the breathing of men around me and knew that then, at that selfsame moment, where dawn groped across the sea, my brethren lay bound in ships, one  body atop another, smelling of their green wounds and fæces; I knew in dark houses, there was torture, arms held down, firebrands approacing the soft skin of the belly or arm; and still -- there is screaming in the night; there is flight; mothers sob for children they shall not see again; girls feel the weight of men atop them; men cry for their wives; boys dangle dead in the barn; and we smoke their sorrow contentedly; and we eat their sorrow; and we wear their sorrow; and wonder how it came so cheap. (326)

This was the book that had me incoherently tweeting about wanting to lick prose. It's gorgeous and difficult and poignant, and I think it will stay with me for a very long time.

June 6, 2009

The Ethics of Royalties

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know, beyond doubt, that I am a huge fan of purchasing, acquiring, and reading used books. The first post that I wrote to really make it big in terms of comments and social media talked about why I love second-hand books. And a few weeks ago I wrote about how it's important that second-hand book markets exist.

One point that came up in both posts (and to which the second was a partial rebuttal/exploration) was the issue of royalties: that is, the question of whether it is ethical to purchase used books, on the grounds that the authors of said books do not receive royalties for said purchase. My argument was that things like libraries and used book stores support authors (and the general reading community) in plenty of ways besides with royalties, and that it's not the end of the world if you can't buy new very often.

And, yup, here's another post on the subject. This is obviously something that I'm still thinking through.

Various commenters chimed in on both posts, with diverse opinions, and also with some ingenuous ways of supporting authors. Mark B wrote,
Here’s an idea to support an author you like - especially a new one. Find their address and mail them a five dollar bill. Tell them what you enjoyed (or didn’t) about the book and thank them for their work.

And Ali said,
If the author is my friend, I’ll buy their book new as a personal show of support. Otherwise, I support authors by reading their books and talking/writing about them, by showing up at their readings/signings, by choosing something other than the latest bestseller to read and then sending the author an email about it.

These are well and good, but I'm still not completely satisfied. I mean, yes, I do talk about books and recommend them to people, review them -- but is that enough? What debt, if any, do I as a reader owe to the authors whose books I read? I know that these kind of referrals work, because I've acquired many a book after another blogger has reviewed it. But book bloggers are going to buy books anyway -- most of us are talking to each other, not to the vast unwashed non-reading public, right? So while such things may be effective, I don't know if we can reckon them as particularly super virtuous.

What, then, of our own purchases? Heavy readers know that it's hard to sustain a reading habit while buying new books -- that is, author-supporting and royalty-paying books -- exclusively. Books are expensive, and are to some extent luxury items, and used bookstores and libraries remain brilliant and necessary outlets for those who cannot necessarily pay full price for everything (or anything) they read. I think that most people are able to accept this.

At this point I will turn to my friend Glumpuddle:
As an author, I’ve worked hard to write a book - but a living wage for that work are non-existent. As a general rule it isn’t authors who make big bucks off books - it is publishers and re-sellers. While everyone might not have equal access, not every one gets a living wage for their work… so I’m afraid I’m still in theoretical favour of buying so authors get something out of it.

Right. Living wages. Historically, being able to make a living wage from artistic endeavours of any sort has been a relatively rare thing. There's a reason that painters and musicians and what have you sought out wealthy patrons to support their endeavours -- and that's why so many of them seemed to die broke, too. Broke and/or crazy. You know. And authors who were paid a penny a word for their serial novels would have to keep pumping them out like the dickens (haha, I kill me) in order to support themselves. So the ability to support oneself solely from artistic endeavour is historically rare, and has never been a guaranteed thing.

Yet it's probably not acceptable for us to point at these facts and conclude that authors don't have to make a good wage from their work now, simply because most of them haven't before. To make a slightly hyperbolic comparison, you could as easily say, "Well, these people over here have historically been enslaved -- so why should we change that now?". Because things have always been this way is usually not an adequate support for -- well, anything, really. If we are preserving old traditions, modes of thought, etc. it should be because they are good, not simply because they are old. Age is not a particular virtue; everything attains it if you wait long enough. And, in theory at least, I think that most people are in favour of authors making a living off of their books -- after all, that means that they won't have to take other jobs in the meantime, and can write more books. Yay authors. Yay books.

But how to go about it? It is true that it's not authors who make the big bucks off of these expensive trade paperbacks. POD publishing might change that (see Wil Wheaton and his offer of Sunken Treasure as a book from Lulu and an electronic version, most of the profit seeming to go directly to himself) but it largely hasn't happened yet. We need to work within the existing system, it seems, where publishers get some money for new books, and no money for used.

Given all of these things, it seems that the best thing to do is to support authors directly whenever possible, by purchasing their books at new prices, as galling as that may sometimes seem. As stated above, however, most of us cannot afford to buy all of our books new -- there are simply too many books we want to read, and too few dollars to spend on them. So what do we do? How do we go about picking and choosing which authors are supported and which aren't?

Amy voiced her opinion:
In fact, it would seem that most people who don’t buy new only buy new when it’s a big name author. I would really encourage you if you have the money to buy new when it’s a midlist author, not a best-selling author. Many of these authors are losing opportunities and getting their contracts canceled. Why not help out a little IF YOU CAN.

So: mid-list authors. It still seems a bit sticky to me, though: who's defining what "mid-list" really means? It's the sort of vague descriptor that lends itself to manipulation, and I could see myself moving authors around through it depending on my purchasing impulses and not on their actual status. And that's not so great, right? Right.

After much ponderation, I've decided to go with this method: Before purchasing a book, I shall endeavour to find out if the author is still alive. If he/she is I will buy new if possible. If he/she is not, I will use the library or buy used without qualm. I think that's a logical approach: I will be supporting living authors who are (conceivably) still writing and still in need of money to live off of, but I need not trouble myself over supporting the estates of the deceased.

Seems fair to me. What do you think? Is this something you trouble yourselves over, or am I just thinking too hard?

June 4, 2009

Review: Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume

This is not your childhood's Judy Blume.

Summer Sisters begins with a phone call, as someone named Vix (Vix?) finds out that someone named Caitlin is going to marry someone named Bru (Bru?). Then Vix runs to the bathroom to puke, and then BAM! It's flashback time.

It keeps being flashback time for about the next forty chapters, as the readers meet Caitlin Mayhew Somers, and Victoria Leonard, and then it's all cottaging on Martha's Vineyard, and having le sex, and growing up and going to college, and boo hoo I am poor, and Caity is a right self-centered slattern, and oh yeah, more sex. I have to warn tell you, it's pretty explicit. Sensitive readers: be aware. (A lot of it is kinda squicky, too -- movie stars making out with 15-year-olds, people sleeping with each other's fiancés the night before the wedding, etc. Even if you don't accept moral indictions against extra-marital sex, there are still things that just aren't ethical. But perhaps I digress?)

That being said, this seems like the type of novel something like Firefly Lane was trying to be. The two books have a lot of the same elements: two friends from different backgrounds thrown together as pre-teens, the story taking place largely in the 1970s-90s, the narrative mostly flashbacks, etc. Summer Sisters pulls it off, though -- it's the sort of book that you should be able to dismiss as trash, but can't, quite. As with all Judy Blume, there are some Big Issues that get touched on / worked through, and though it's definitely summer reading, it's not brainless by any means.

One thing that personally surprised me is the way that it touched on AIDS. Now, I wasn't surprised that a book would talk about AIDS -- far from it -- but it was strange to me in the way that it was talked about. Two peripheral characters (who exist offscreen) die of "the disease", as it's styled, and everyone's freaking it out and the token neurotic character starts covering toilet seats with toilet paper just in case ... and it occured to me that I've never actually known a world without AIDS in it, and that I've never experienced that sort of new-disease freak-out (SARS doesn't count, surely?) that occured in North America in the late 1980s. Isn't it strange, sometimes, to think of the things that have always existed for you? TV and computers. Compact discs. AIDS.

Blah, blah, blah, me. Summer Sisters was a basically entertaining novel, and would make excellent beach reading.

June 2, 2009

Review: Starman Jones, by Robert A. Heinlein

The tag-line for this book reads "Max was just a hillbilly . . . until he became STARMAN JONES". Is that not amazing?

The rest of the book -- the innards, I mean -- is pretty good as well, although with all Heinlein it reads as terribly dated. Starman Jones was first published in 1953, which is not so much the issue; there are many books much older than that that read as period pieces and don't feel stale. But Heinlein was a  science fiction writer, of course, and the future he wrote is not the one that we've ended up with.

There are two basic things whose importance he never seemed to anticipate: computers and women. Granted, it would be difficult to anticipate the way that computers would shape our lives, writing in the early 1950s. And maybe it would be hard to anticipate how women's social/political/etc. roles would expand during the next handful of decades. But in any case, Heinlein's fiction -- Starman Jones being no exception -- tends to come across to me as impossibly passé. I still enjoy it, quite a bit, but it doesn't feel real.

There are no female starship pilots in Heinlein novels. There are no female soldiers, or doctors, or politicians, or anything really. If there's a woman on a ship, you can bet that she's either a passenger or a secretary. Most of his novels are as near to all-male as it's possible to get without including at least some women as window dressing and/or spacemen's main squeezes. Starman Jones is no exception and is full of snippets like this:
Once when Ellie had fought him to a draw Max said, "You know, Ellie, you play this game awfully well -- for a girl."

"Thank you too much."

"No, I mean it. I suppose girls are probably as intelligent as men, but most of them don't act like it. I think it's because they don't have to. If a girl is pretty, she doesn't have to think. Of course, if she can't get by on her looks, then --" (210)

Charming, no? Of course, she turns out to be her planet's 3D chess champion, and whips him soundly before marrying the other man, but still. It's in there.

There are other gems of the time, too. Like this:
"Aye aye, Captain." Kelly sat down at the console, Max took the Captain's seat, feeling self-conscious. He wished that he had learned to smoke a pipe -- it looked right to have the Captain sit back, relaxed and smoking his pipe, while the ship maneuvered." (236-7)

Yup. Smoking his pipe on his spaceship. Like Popeye.
Walther abruptly changed the subject. "That phenomenal trick of memory you do -- computing without tables or reference books. Can you do it all the time?"

"Uh? Why, yes."

"Do you know all the tables? Or just some of them?"

"I know all the standard tables and manuals that are what an astrogator calls his 'working tools.'" Max started to tell about his uncle, Walther interrupted gently,

"If you please, sir. I'm glad to hear it. I'm very glad to hear it. Because the only such books in this ship are the ones in your head." (229)

Books! Imagine! The computers in this novel seem to essentially function as giant calculators, into which digits are punched by techs reading out of manuals. Nothing is digital; everything is "on tape" or on microfiche or on paper. It's wacky.

Aside from the twitch-enducing future-historical anomalies, Starman Jones is a pretty enjoyable book. It's not the best that Heinlein's written, but it's definitely passable. The plot is unremarkable -- kid from the sticks sneaks aboard starship, has adventures, becomes Captain -- but doesn't feel formulaic. If you're interested in science fiction, especially in the stuff coming out of its golden age, you may well enjoy Starman Jones.