A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kazuo Ishiguro, Douglas Adams, Laurie R. King, Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin

Ahem. So you see, lately I’ve discovered that while Widener may not be the perfect library that contains all the books that have ever been published, it still has an impressive contemporary fiction collection. Ah, Hollis, how I love thee. In any case, I’m still prepared to believe that Widener has very nearly all books published before 1900—I’ve seen a set of the entire annals of some British academic society, and even Ptolemaic Alexandria is available in all three volumes for checkout—but when it comes to authors that are still alive and writing, Widener is more on the scale of…say, Mid-Manhattan.

Which is to say, it has a very healthy collection of the latest fantasy books, including The Paladin of Souls, which was just published this year. The drawback, and of course there is a drawback, is that Widener’s entire circulating collection is in neatly organized stacks, left abandoned in dimly lit corridors with motion sensitive lights. Hardly the ideal place for browsing—the classic Widener expedition begins with the knowledge of one’s destination, its route mapped out neatly in Hollis searches with little room for detours. The cataloguing system is insanely scrupulous: fiction and literature are organized by the author’s country and date of birth. British literature is on the first floor, American literature on the second (both in the East wing, so you don’t have to travel too far), the shelves organized first by century, then by name. If you think about it, the librarians must research the books they acquire pretty extensively. I’ve wondered what they would do with authors like Neil Gaiman who are British by birth but have immigrated to America. Or what about authors born at the turn of the century? Should investigate one day.

In any case, I’ve been rather lax in updating this blog, which means that the books in my log has accumulated to the point where I really can’t afford to spend paragraphs discussing them, as much as I might wish. So hopefully, I’ll be able to confine myself to a few sentences per book without going off on happy tangents. Wish me luck.

Little Black Book of Stories, by A.S. Byatt: In my moments of soul-searching honesty, I wonder if I only enjoy Byatt out of literary pretention. Frankly, I don’t think I actually comprehend her at any deep level (or even agree with her for that matter), and I tend to admire her inventiveness and clever structure and sheer erudition (admit it, the natural history of thrushes and snails in Babel Tower was impressive). But she does fall in the category of contemporary literary fiction writers that I do enjoy, so why bother second-guessing my motives? Anyway, the story I particularly remember from this anthology is the one about the writing class because I finished it on the uncomfortable thought that writing requires suffering. One, you only want to write about life when living it has become sufficiently miserable. Two, while the maxim says to write what you know, you can also only really write well if you are distanced from your subject—that is, living a tragic or even simply pathetic life will give you the proper perspective to write about ordinary life. Three, you can only write about something you desire, and if your life is dull and ordinary, you desire dull and ordinary things like action and adventure and semi-pornographic romance. Four, on a deeper level, to be a writer, you must feel the need to write. My final conclusion: this is why I have no vocation as a writer.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood: Initially, I was reluctant to read this novel, but after repeated exhortations from ma meilleure amie, I caved in, bought it and read it. I still don’t know if I regret it or not—I have to admit that I didn’t really enjoy the book, although it didn’t commit the sin of boring me at all. On the contrary, that book is absolutely disturbing, and I had nightmares as I fell asleep after finishing the last page. It was scary. One, because I want to be a scientist, and prior to this, I thought my ethical position was pretty clear. Whole human cloning = bad, stem cells = relative to situation, transgenic organisms = good. I mean, I work with transgenic plants, and I plan to do research that involves genetically modified organisms! The book hit too close for comfort. Plus, the rampant commercialism, the…the cold godlessness of Atwood’s dystopia. Given Atwood’s axioms, my only choice is to give up and despair. I have no faith in human nature by itself, and it took me a few panicked moments before I remembered that I had a different framework in which I could think and look for hope. In any case, worth reading if only to creep yourself out. Thank goodness Atwood’s science is pretty unrealistic (people really should stop thinking of genes as the all-magical unit; they work in networks, you know, horribly complicated ones that places like the CGR are devoted to untangling). Oh, and don’t forget the priceless malapropism: “proteonome”.

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold: The sequel to The Curse of Chalion. Not quite as good as the first, but still, really wonderfully written. Reading Bujold is so refreshing—just clean, wonderful storytelling without any weaknesses to distract me.

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro: I’ve just realized that all of Ishiguro’s narrators speak with the same voice: modest in a subtly false way, convinced at once of their relative insignificance yet also secretly believing in their ultimate importance, deeply misguided in their perceptions of themselves and the people around them. Not that it stopped me from enjoying this—I felt it was subtler than The Remains of the Day (I wondered which was written first?) for some inscrutable reason. Self-absorbed teenagers should read Ishiguro, for the sake of their own maturity. Neither your achievements or sins are as great as you think; you are both important enough to be hated unconditionally and insignificant enough to be forgiven. Oh, and beautifully sad and evocative, as usual; in a way closer to The Remains of the Day in nostalgia for a more dignified past, than to When We Were Orphans which is…just odd and bewildering in so many ways. (Narrator’s voice is still the same though.)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams: I’m probably uttering heresy, but I prefer the two Dirk Gently books to the Hitchhiker series (well, the first three books were brilliant, but Mostly Harmless utterly confused me and sounded like it was written by a schizophrenic). Anyway, enjoyed it, although I’ve been vaguely wondering why an adamantly atheist Adams enjoys writing so much about coincidences and paradoxes. It’s quite possibly part of the deeper satiric commentary that I completely missed. Oh well, it was funny; we don’t always need to use our brains when reading for pleasure.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King: Read on the recommendation of one of my Greenough floormates. I think I would have fallen in love with the book only if Mary Russell wasn’t such an unforgivably annoying character. (Not to mention Mary Sue. Ew.) She’s too perfect: smart, sassy, rich, pretty, strong, talented, independent, etc., etc., etc. Plus, she doesn’t even convince me that she’s smart—all that stupid deductive nonsense was much less impressive than Conan Doyle’s version, and throughout the book, she never really actually shows any brilliant logic. We have only the author’s word that she was being unusually observant (hah!). Finding the senator’s daughter was more an athletic than mental exercise, and as for that “leap of intuition” for Henry VIII? Bogus, pure bogus. I hated her emotionalism after she claimed to be so tough-minded…I mean honestly, her adventures didn’t seem to be particularly dangerous or traumatizing. What a self-absorbed little creep. Sherlock Holmes, as the Love Interest, was suitably fascinating and wonderful, however. And I have to admit, I would have enjoyed the book, if Mary Russell’s personality didn’t drive fingernails up the chalkboard. It has proper respect and knowledge of the Holmes canon, I’d say that much.

Wyrms, by Orson Scott Card: Wow, another book that creeped me out, but in a delicious way. Whatever happened to Orson Scott Card’s ingenuity and subtlety? Oh all right, the religious parallels and partly-disguised didactic lectures are hardly subtle, but the idea of organisms that hybridize with alien genomes in order to imitate and out-compete—pure biological bogus, but genius bogus, nonetheless. And it’s not entirely baseless—especially in the case of plants, where hybrids are common, and there’s also convergent evolution. I have to admit that while I disagree with a lot of OSC’s opinions, especially his politics and his whole anti-intellectualism crusade, I do agree with many of his more fundamental ones, and so the lectures in this book didn’t chafe me at all. And seriously, this is such brilliant, original thinking, exactly why I enjoy reading science fiction.

A Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin: I’m starting to grow tired of this trilogy already. The second book isn’t as absorbing as the first, mostly because it drags on too long. I know people say they get bored of Lord of the Rings, but at least the plot developments move forward instead of repeating themselves in tiresome circles. Still, I’m interested enough to want to know what happens (have put the third book on reserve), unlike the Wheel of Time series (I still say that being unable to finish a story after eight 700+ page volumes is a sign of poor writing). Martin is also growing increasingly darker, more and more reminiscent of the author of Sandkings, an anthology of short stories that managed to scare me to the point where I actually just threw the book out to avoid having nightmares. (All right, so I’m overly sensitive! But it was a used book and bought for a $1, so it wasn’t heresy.) I really do like all the Starks, even Sansa in her own way, and I wish that the Others or the wildlings will hurry up and invade. I don’t have much fondness for anyone not from Winterfell though. Summer knights indeed, frivolous and doomed to rot. Who wants a king who throws tournaments on his way to war? Isn’t that sort of redundant? And ugh, Daenerys, who won my sympathy when Khal Drogo was alive but lost it as soon as he died. (So utterly naive. Incredible.) I think I have a bit of a soft spot for Varys, but that’s about it, on my list of characters I like.