Reading journal: Mid-February

Reading has slowed down, although I have one new recommendation to post shortly. I reread The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin with my son, which I think was a bit too old for him, but I still love it.

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I also reread Dracula on audio. I last read Dracula as a pre-teen or youngish teen. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember the book: it was a large hardcover, text printed in columns, with deep blue and black illustrations. I wonder what happened to it. My current edition is also lovely, from Penguin Classics. I have to admit that I’m amazed at what my younger self read all the way to the end. Of course, back then we didn’t have video games, tablets, DVDs (or even VCRs), or personal computers. We had three television stations. (I’m making it sound like the way-back old days, but truthfully, I am not that old–things have changed a lot!) There wasn’t much to do but read, and I was game for just about anything.

Does it hold up? It’s a trifle bloated, more than a trifle sexist, very purple at times, a touch anticlimactic, but still has so many wonderfully scary parts. What can top Dracula crawling headfirst down the wall of his castle? So I’d say yes, it holds up. There’d be no vampires without him.

I finished an interesting ghost story by an Icelandic author: I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It’s fun exploring a familiar genre from a new point of view. I’m following it up with a vampire story, Let Me In by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. A lot of snow and desolate places in my reading right now.

New acquisitions! I treated myself to several collections focusing on specific genres.

 

Book review: Three Themed Anthologies

I have never been a huge fan of short stories. I prefer to seek my teeth into something meatier, a novel. Short story collections by a single author have always felt particularly unsatisfying to me. Invariably, the stories vary in quality but share similar themes, insights, and style, so that they all start to run together and no one story stands out in mind. A short story collection doesn’t seem to impact me the way a novel does.

This year in particular, I have read several anthologies chosen for a specific theme, and I’ve found these collections to be much more satisfying reads. It takes a good editor, and I think when it comes to choosing genre fiction, John Joseph Adams has a track record you can count on. He chooses stories from a wide range of authors, ranging from the can’t-miss classics to very contemporary writing. The stories are a well-balanced mix of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and that blend of genre with realistic fiction that can be called slipstream. Adams presents a comprehensive take on his themes that will give any new reader to the subgenre a terrific grounding as well as add several more authors to your reading list.

th_8d08406c8df1fa0ceb5e75df46389a5a_1259119130_3_1_1_2_book_coverWastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a collection of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, which examine surviving the end of the world from every angle, from the religious to the posthuman to the mundane. It’s worth reading just for the classic and rarely collected story “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. This excellent collection introduced me to Paolo Bacigalupi.

th_8d08406c8df1fa0ceb5e75df46389a5a_1357693050Brave_New_Worlds_2ndEdBrave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories is the strongest of the three anthologies I read, a real retrospective of dystopian literature. There are so many essential stories here by world-class authors: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson; “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin; “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick; and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut–just to name a small sampling. A story by a new-to-me author, “Evidence of Love in Case of Abandonment” by Mary Rickert, absolutely terrified me.

th_8d08406c8df1fa0ceb5e75df46389a5a_1334685330Other_Worlds_Than_These_149pxOther Worlds Than These: Stories of Parallel Worlds is a balanced mix of science fiction multiverses and fantasy wonderlands, all about people traveling to alternate realities and what they find there. While there are not as many classics in this collection (barring a terrific old story by Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”), there were plenty of new discoveries by such contemporary authors as Kelly Link and Jeff VanderMeer. “[a ghost samba]” by Ian McDonald just blew my mind.

A well-edited anthology can be a great introduction to a genre you’ve been wanting to try and a good way to discover new writers.

Gothic horror: We’re all mad here | Noir Femme

I try to define gothic fiction and why I love it so much: Gothic horror: We’re all mad here | Noir Femme

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I discuss a less brutal and, I think, more realistic approach to the post-apocalyptic novel in this essay.

Sci Femme

This essay also discusses Into the Forest (Jean Hegland; 1996);A Gift Upon the Shore (M.K. Wren; 1990); and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985), among various other stalwarts of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. There will be spoilers for these books.

Pop quiz, hotshot. It’s the apocalypse: What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?

If hundred (thousands?) of post-apocalyptic books and movies are to believed, you break out your cache of automatic weapons, gun down every guy you see, capture a woman and lock her in a cage for later, then chow down on some roasted baby.

There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on there. The apocalypse novel is one part fear, one part fantasy. All the rules are suddenly gone; you can do whatever you want! It’s a dim view of humanity that assumes that all people want to do is murder, rape, and…

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The slippery genre of slipstream…

Of all the sub-genres crowded under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction,” slipstream is probably the trickiest to nail down. Bruce Sterling, who coined the term, called slipstream “…a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” (Presumably, his comments extend to the early twenty-first century as well.)

Also referred to as interstitial fiction, slipstream blurs the conventional boundaries of genre (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and literary fiction, and thus, by its very nature, is difficult to categorize. The end result is often surreal or weird, so slipstream can be called “the fiction of strangeness.”

Franz Kafka might be considered the grandfather of slipstream writing, and its forefathers were unquestionably the classic science fiction authors Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Magical realism was another important influence, including the authors Gabriel Garcia Marques, Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera, and Salman Rushdie.

Recently, slipstream has become more “mainstream” as contemporary literary authors regularly experiment with blurring the genre lines. Notable examples include:

Even though slipstream is tricky to define, I enjoy reading it whenever I happen upon it (and most often, I just know it when I see it). Examples that I have read this year and would recommend include A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber; and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. For more reading suggestions, see this expanded list at LibraryThing (based on a list originally created at Readercon).

Horror is a feeling, not a genre

Yes, I’ve started a new blog project called Noir Femme. This one is kind of a sister project to Sci Femme, about women writing horror and dark fiction, as opposed to science fiction. But before I could get started on the reading, I had to identify (for myself, anyway) exactly what horror is. Here’s my stab at it.

Noir Femme

Horror has one goal: to disturb. To remind us that we don’t have all the answers. To explode our illusions of being in control.

There may be monsters or the supernatural, but there doesn’t have to be.

There may be blood, gore, and guts, but there doesn’t have to be.

There may be psycho killers running around with axes, but again, it’s not necessary.

Horror can be, and often is, scary, but more important is a lingering feeling of unease, a delicious sensation of being unsettled.

The best horror takes place in our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. The best horror shatters the comfortable little worlds we’ve constructed for ourselves. It pulls back the veil and reveal the things in the shadows. Horror helps us understand exactly how insignificant we are in a vast, unknowable universe.

It reminds us that we are animals, and sometimes we are monsters. It reminds us…

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Reading with focus, or the annual theme read…

This year, for the first time, I tried reading around a theme or focus. The focus I picked was mysteries, a genre I have not paid much attention to since I devoured them as a youngster. To tell the truth, I really didn’t get focused until around August, so most of my reading was random and haphazard as per usual, but I did read more mysteries than I normally would (normal being zero).

I am enjoying it. I finally read some classics I had been meaning to get around to, I dabbled in a couple of the sub-genres, I tried a mystery set in my hometown, and I rounded it out with several mysteries from around the world. I know–the year is not done yet. I still have quite a few mysteries loaded on the Kindle and waiting for me.

To be clear, I didn’t read only mysteries. But I did make a list and tried to focus on them. I read with intent, which was to re-educate myself in the genre.

I think it might be fun to do this every year. Next year, I’m considering reading through time and reading speculative fiction by women as two potential focuses.

Since I love making book lists, I thought it might be fun to come up with some mini-courses that a reader could do in a year or less to learn more about a particular genre or type of literature. The courses could be organized in several ways. I could pick representative works or authors from the earliest examples through to the present day and get a broad overview. Or I could focus on reading the best example from several different sub-genres. Finally, I could narrow the selection to a focus within the genre, such as reading works by women or by minority writers. If I put a few of these mini-courses together, I’ll post them.

Have you ever tried reading around a theme or focus for a specific period of time?