Friday, July 26, 2013

Reading for the season: summer

Seasonal eating exists, but how about seasonal reading? Look no further than to Finland: people there love their libraries, and one genre is completely over-borrowed during summer months--in this section, shelves are empty.

Detective novels, or dekkari, as they are affectionately called. Other times of the year you might get your hands on Agatha Christies, John Grishams, Tom Clancys and Stieg Larssons, but not when it's hot outside.

The phenomenon is explained by the popularity and availability of summer cabins, where Finns tend to spend if not their weekends away from cities, their evenings away from nearby home. This cabin is usually at a lake, so a lot of time is spent sunbathing, swimming or just lying around on the dock (or if we are talking about my parents' cabin, on a massive, warm rock) keeping an eye on the kids. And what better way to spend time than have a good book by you!

But it can't be any old book. Remember, that you are soaking in the sun and your senses are possibly dulled by just having eaten a nice meal and taken a swim, and you smell like after sun lotion. But you still want to read... Something that won't require too much brain power but is still entertaining and keeps you reading.

Detective or crime novels. Heck yes.

I'm not aware of such trends in the US, maybe simply because I have not paid as much attention. Beyond gardening books in the spring, what genres match with seasons around these parts of the world?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Horsey to king prawn

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The About: Jernau Gurgeh is a game player. That's his skill: he is incredibly good at games. He's sort of a superstar, actually, which gets him into trouble: forced by an offer he cannot refuse, he travels years away to take part in a game that extends beyond the board; a game of savagery, moral outrage and good old political plotting; a game that will determine the future of an entire civilization.

Thoughts: I'll ramble a bit, because Iain Banks is dead and we can't read fresh words from him ever again.

Sci-fi is my favorite out of often sneeringly called "genre literature," mostly because of this slightly depressing reason: it seems that only by imagining humanity in way, way out in the future is it easy for us readers to engage in stories that do not lean on old tropes, especially when it comes to gender. Even fantasy still uses traditional gender roles no matter how fantastical the setting is.

In Banks's Culture, humans are advanced enough not to care about such details: they can change their biological sex at a whim. It's a society where biology does not determine skills or worth--or to be more accurate, where nobody expects a human being to have a certain skill set just because they have a certain set of sexual organs.

But that is not the only reason I have reread this novel after hearing of Banks's untimely death.

He was a good writer. Bear with me.

Not just once would one find me and my husband (if for some reason barging in...?) in the bathroom before bedtime, brushing teeth and quoting passages of amazing writing to each other, and just marveling at how good Banks is.

How to describe it? It's hard, because he is defined perhaps more by what he never does: his stories lack flowery prose and pretentious vocabulary that reeks of the author just browsing through a thesaurus and selecting something, anything, that would sound somehow more special than what actually would be appropriate; he only uses cliched metaphors if it is an intentional wink at the reader. He does not create a shroud of ambiguity for lack of being able to write beautifully with clarity.

I guess that's it. He knows usage--when and what is appropriate. All of his characters have a distinct voice without tropes such as fake accents or stuttering. Not once was I confused about who was talking.

Banks is also just damned funny. To describe a character he may use a single word that is refreshing, absolutely spot on, and that one word is all that is needed for great big belly laughs. He also gets away with naming his characters with the most ridiculous names that seem entirely plausible and not just sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and strained efforts at using, let's say, clicks from an African language to create an uncomfortable exoticism. I mean, Jernau Gurgeh? This is magic!

The only downside to reading Banks--whether it is his sci-fi or his non-sci-fi work--is that anything read immediately after feels like crap. I need to apologize in advance for anything I will write about The Skinner, because I can't move a page without righteous annoyance at word choices in an otherwise fine story. "He grinned a grin"?? Seriously, that's the best you can do? Iaiiiiiiiin!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Vietnam - scarred

Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman

The About: A group of scientist-soldiers find a creature on their exploratory mission on another planet that offers telepathic skills between two people who are touching it at the same time. The mindbridge, as it will be dubbed, is also extremely lethal--it did cause a heart attack for the first person who touched it, which is the least gory way of it dealing with touchy-feely humans--and the scientists on Earth are willing to test its capabilities. In the quest to find more mindbridges to experiment on, humans stumble upon a community of ruthless aliens that kill without hesitation.

Thoughts: That description sounds pretty actiony, and sure enough--there is plenty of suspense and action in this novel. At the same time it's wonderfully literary, with changing modes of narrative (from a screenplay format to a report card to a psychologist's evaluation) that expose different aspects of the characters without needing to do lengthy flashbacks.

While I was reading the story, we were talking about the book at home. K. said, that like some of Haldeman's other novels, this also exudes his weariness of the horrors he saw in Vietnam during the war. And the more I thought of it and progressed in the story, the more evident this became. The mindbridge is an attempt of humans trying to connect with each other, while still trying to destroy other living beings for no other apparent reason than expanding territory. Or maybe it is not about getting connected but the idea of being the only ones to possess the mindbridge.

Haldeman is tired of the usual reasons for war, and it shows. Without being lecturing and hippy-like, the novel takes an unexpected turn at the end toward a radical idea of living in harmony that for individualistic humans is scary.

I kind of want to reread this already.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Reboot, Part 2--the Analog Didgeridoo

It's 2013 and time for a reboot! Wait, where have I heard that before...

A lot has happened, meaning that nothing much has happened except less time spent at the computer or reading full length books, resulting in less blogging. I am sorely in need of writing practice, so I'm back.