Our grandson Quentin is here for his annual visit. His parents ship him down on Southwest Airlines. He flies on unaccompanied minor status: his parents take him to the gate at Las Vegas and we meet him at the gate in Tucson. This is the last year he’ll have to be escorted to and from the gates; next year he’ll be twelve and can fly as an adult (of course we’ll still do the gate thing … we’re not monsters!).
The drill is the same every summer: Quentin flies down and spends the end of June and the first part of July at our house. His parents drive down to spend the 4th of July weekend with us, then take Quentin with them when they drive home. We’ve been doing this since he was six or seven.
Every year I try to get Quentin interested in reading. Our first grandfather/grandson outing is always to the library, sometimes Barnes & Noble. He’ll read a bit when he’s here … if I nag him into doing it. I think it’s fair to describe my grandson as a reluctant reader. He’s grown up on TV cartoons, Disney movies, and computer games. I can’t generalize, because I don’t know that many eleven year olds, but I suspect reading is not as popular with his generation as it was with mine. I’m sure this crop of kids’ll grow up just fine, and the few among them who are book nerds will someday have steady careers correcting the rest of their generations’ spelling and grammar mistakes.
I took Quentin to the neighborhood library yesterday and showed him how to identify science-fiction books in the young adult section (they have a little atom symbol on the label). I’m hoping he’ll get hooked on SF, which so hooked me when I was a kid. He came home with two YA SF books and one collection of Tintin stories (which I’ll probably read myself).
We have a second hummingbird nest, this one on a storage hook way up in the rafters over the breezeway between the house and garage. There have been nests there before, but not for the past two years. I like to think this mother hummingbird is one of the chicks hatched in a nest on the other storage hook last year. Or maybe this year … they don’t live very long, so they must have to grow up in a hurry. This nest, being so high, is hard to get to and I don’t plan to risk my neck taking photos. Just the one:
The new hummingbird nest
Sunday we invited some of Quentin’s Tucson friends over for a pool party. There’s always one kid you wish wasn’t in your pool … thankfully it wasn’t Quentin. He had a ball, and so did our two doggies, Schatzi and Maxie, who, even though they suffered in the heat, couldn’t tear themselves away from all the excitement. I wish they were water dogs, but they aren’t and wishing won’t make it so. They’ll go right up to the edge of the pool but they won’t go in. When it’s just me and things are quiet (no shouting, splashing kids), I’ll carry them into the water and hold them in my arms to cool them off, then let them swim to the ledge at the shallow end. I want them to know where to swim to should they ever fall in the pool, and they do seem to know the way.
But not Sunday, not with five screaming kids in the pool. Schatzi kept a close eye on the pool toys, and whenever one floated close to the edge she’d crane her neck down, almost to the point of toppling in, to grab it. I can’t resist posting critter photos, so here goes:
Panting in the heat
Chewie wants treats too
The dinnertime truce
Ha, just realized I don’t have any good photos of Quentin yet, not from this visit. What a crap grandfather I am!
In that instant they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition’s original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.
– Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
I’ve read a lot of contemporary adventure writing, and all of it has been exciting and good, but this narrative, written in 1959, is of another age. That is a good thing. A contemporary writer would have burrowed deep into Shackleton’s head, unearthing (or simply making up) personal quirks, foibles, self-doubts, and sexual fantasies; he would have probed the personal conflicts between expedition members, poking at them until they burst; he would have made his book two or three times longer than this one, lingering on each individual long lonely day on the ice. He would have sensationalized the sad fate of the expedition’s sled dogs.
Not our man Alfred Lansing, a man of the mid-20th century, no sir. Lansing recounts the historical facts, dispassionately describing the travails of the exploration team and the dangers they faced and overcame in a simple, linear, straightforward manner. Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic Expedition was incredibly daring and audacious; Lansing’s simple recounting of what happened, laid out in the order in which events occurred, emphasizes what an incredible story the team’s survival really is. Any more would have distracted from the story itself, which will stand on its own for all time.
Endurance is a riveting read from cover to cover. It never bogs down. It’s reawakened my interest in old school adventure writing, and now I want to re-read some of the exploration epics I consumed in my youth. Were they all this good?
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
It would be easy to pick at this novel, to gripe that the basic idea’s been done before, to point out that the reader is asked to believe the unbelievable, to make fun of the classic good guy/comically evil guy conflict at the center of the plot, blah blah blah … but I can’t. I just can’t. Claire North’s story is too damn good for that.
One always looks for logical inconsistencies in time-travel science fiction. Claire North’s logic, once the reader agrees to go along with the premise that a few individuals among us live the same lives over and over again, remembering their previous lives in full, is meticulous and thorough. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the method the ouroborans, as they call themselves, employ to to communicate over centuries with past and future generations of their tribe, but it makes sense, and also makes possible a chilling science fiction adventure of the James Bond variety, with a malignant genius set on achieving his own goals, even if it destroys the world.
Harry August lives the same life again and again. By his third life he realizes what he is. Others of his kind contact him and he resolves to live his lives to the fullest. He learns, at great cost to himself, the value of keeping his secret knowledge to himself. He learns that it is almost impossible to change the future in any meaningful way. But then, in subsequent lives, the future does change in meaningful ways. And he thinks he knows who is responsible.
I know, I sound like I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t do in the first paragraph, picking at this novel. But I’m not. When I say it has a James Bond-worthy evil-genius-bent-on-destroying-the-world plot, I mean there’s a superlatively engaging edge-of-your-seat page-turning James Bond-worthy evil-genius-bent-on-destroying-the-world plot.
This is brilliantly crafted science fiction with believable characters and a gripping plot, intellectually satisfying and fun to read. I want more.
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)
Space opera in the grand tradition. Ann Leckie’s world building is one of the great attractions of this book; reader reviews mention it again and again. So is Leckie’s exploration of the human intelligence/artificial intelligence theme; in her world the differences are very small indeed.
Ann Leckie could easily have written an 800-pager, explaining and exploring the ins and outs of Radch society; how ancillaries are created; what happens to AIs when their ships are sent to the scrapyard, why the Radchaai don’t use gendered pronouns, etc. But she doesn’t; instead, she immerses us in her world and lets us figure it out … and I liked that.
Things I didn’t like: not understanding why Breq, the last human-bodied ancillary of an interstellar warship AI, didn’t simply wink out of existence when the rest of itself, the warship Justice of Toren, was destroyed. Not understanding why Breq decided to save Seivarden’s life the first time, or why Breq jumped off the glass bridge to save Seivarden a second time — Breq was on a mission, after all, and Seivarden was at that time merely a distraction. Not understanding why Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radchaai, didn’t instantly vaporize Breq at the Station the second she realized what Breq was.
I would have liked to read about the lives of normal people in Leckie’s world. The few humans we meet are scions of wealthy houses, the 1%ers (and just as insufferable). I’m not even sure Anaander Mianaai was human; I read into the text an implication she was an AI too … I’m still mulling that one over (hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone).
These small objections aside, Ancillary Justice is a damn fine example of old fashioned space opera. I wanted to recharge my science fiction batteries, and Ancillary Justice did the trick.
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy
The edition I read, a hardcover by Knopf, contained photos from another book: interleaved with pages of relevant Japanese and Pearl Harbor attack photos were pages of photos of American actor Jack Nicholson at different stages of his film career. I haven’t seen this mentioned in reviews, and now I feel I should have stolen my library copy … it might have been the literary equivalent of the upside-down airmail stamp from the 1920s!
Eri Hotta’s history will fascinate anyone with an interest in the Japanese expansion prior to WWII, as well as the leadership’s decision to attack the USA. With the exception of a leader determined to attack another country for purely egotistical reasons … for indeed Hirohito was no George W. Bush … the actions and views of subordinate Japanese leaders and military chiefs presage those of their American successors during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.
I was aware of some of the leadership issues Eri Hotta expands on. What I did not know was how enthusiastically the Japanese population, suffering recession and hardships at home as a result of Japan’s occupation of China and Manchuria (which had been going on since 1937) greeted news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here, at least, Japanese history differs from that of the US, where few people were happy about the invasion of Iraq.
Eri Hotta manages to weave hundreds of minor and major details into a coherent whole. Her history is clearly written, engaging, and easy to follow.
I really should give The Circle two or two-and-a-half stars, but something about the story engaged me and kept me turning pages all the way to the end. I enjoyed the read, and by my standards that’s three stars.
What kept me turning pages? It certainly wasn’t Eggers’ characters, who are paper cutouts, as two-dimensional as they come, there only to advance the statement Eggers is trying to make. Nor was it Eggers’ technical knowledge of the inner workings of cyberspace or the social media industry, which is not much deeper than my own. Nor was it Eggers’ subtlety, because he’s as ham-handed as they come. No, I kept turning pages to find out what the main character’s tipping point would turn out to be, the point at which Mae would finally say, no, you’re loading too many time-wasting social media interactions and mandatory zings on me; no, you’re asking me to share parts of my life that I insist on keeping secret; no, what you’re doing to my family and friends is wrong, no, you may NOT follow me into the restroom! Actually … perversely … the thing I liked best about The Circle is the ending. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone, I’ll just say it’s dark.
I read The Circle concurrently with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The two novels have much in common: both are near-future dystopias; both posit unhealthy developments based in current social, scientific, and economic trends; both focus on one or two big-picture issues while ignoring others; both employ a minimum number of characters … most bent on advancing whatever horrible new trend is making the future unlivable, one or two rebelling against it, trying to stave off the inevitable.
When the company’s CEO announces a plan to embed chips in all children … all children in the world … and then track them throughout their lives, everyone cheers. Not one person says hey, wait a minute. Now perhaps you see what I mean when I say Dave Eggers is ham-handed. His people aren’t of this world, where we can’t even get consensus on vaccinating kids against polio and smallpox. Eggers’ people exist to convey Eggers’ message, which is that we should push away from our laptops and desktops and tablets, take a vacation from Facebook. Good advice, but trivial. He’s hardly the first to offer it, but he offers it in a fun way with this little novel.
Don’t expect life-changing insights or William Gibsonesque cyberspace adventures, and you will probably have as much fun reading The Circle as I did. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for dystopian reading with great characterization, technical knowledge, and realistic scenarios, read Margaret Atwood (Oryx & Crake) or Paolo Bacigalupi (Ship Breaker).
Books I Didn’t Finish
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
I thought Jill Lepore’s historical speculation would be interesting, and perhaps to most readers it will be, but after a few chapters I had to admit it wasn’t doing anything for me. Certainly no fault of the author’s … but I have read other histories of the period and know a bit about Benjamin Franklin, and it didn’t look to me as if I would learn anything new here. Jane Franklin, Ben’s little sister, didn’t leave much of a footprint: little is known about her, and apart from a few semi-literate letters to her brother, there’s just not much to go on. Jill Lepore makes much of the few scraps of information available to her, but frankly a lot of what I read was filler … known accomplishments and quotations of Jane’s famous brother Benjamin.
You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
Street art by Escif*
* Yeah, I thought it was Banksy too. Click the image to learn more about Spanish street artist Escif.
YCRT! Banned Book News
The best stories are local, and here’s a hilarious one from my own town, Tucson, Arizona: Censored Sabino high school yearbook quotes revealed. Among the quotes covered over with black stickers (12,350 stickers in all, carefully glued by hand over 13 student quotes in 950 yearbooks … oh, and they made the students on the yearbook committee do it): “Every white girl needs a Mexican best friend,” “I’m drunk on you and high on summertime.” It is to ROTFL, as the kids say.
An Avon, Connecticut family accused three Spanish teachers and a guidance counselor at Avon High School of luring their daughters into a religious cult promoting martyrdom and celebrating death. How’d they do that? By teaching a block on magical realism in literature.
Point: High School Principal Cancels Entire Reading Program To Stop Students From Reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother
Counter-point: Why I’m sending 200 copies of Little Brother to a high-school in Pensacola, FL
Counter-counter-point: I read Little Brother. I thought it was shit. And Cory? It’s high school, not high-school.
Trigger warnings and book banning: ” … if trigger warnings become more widespread, if it becomes common for books to be listed in catalogs with trigger warnings, then we will be handing the book banners another weapon in their fight to remove literature from libraries and schools. We might even see parents groups pressuring schools and libraries to not buy these books in the first place, simply because they come with a trigger warning. And if that happens, we are all going to be harmed.”
There’s been yet another parental challenge to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this time in Wilmington, North Carolina. So let me get this straight: you think not allowing kids to see the word “masturbate” in print is going to keep them from doing it?
The Tennessee school board I wrote about in an earlier YCRT! post has rescinded its vote to ban The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. But they only did it after the school board’s attorney explained that banning the book and literally confiscating copies from students who had already taken them home and were writing book reports would not stand up to a lawsuit. “I certainly don’t believe in censorship, but I believe that we could find a book where the author could express themselves and get their point across in another way than what this particular author did,” explained a school board member who totally does believe in censorship.
Tropic of Cancer, the banned book of banned books, was first published 80 years ago. Here are two interesting articles about Henry Miller and his novel, here and here. Both articles, to my dismay, describe Henry Miller as a forgotten author. I certainly haven’t forgotten Henry Miller. Have you? Paperback and electronic versions of Tropic of Cancer are still in print and available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Forgotten? Says who?
Speaking of 80-year-old banned books, I just finished re-reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
YCRT! Banned Book Review
Brave New World
As a blogger who writes about banned books, I keep an eye out for stories about attempts to remove books from schools and libraries around the country. In late March this article popped up in my news feed: Cape school board debates “explicit” content in Brave New World.
Yes. Parents and school board members in Delaware are trying to remove Aldous Huxley’s classic science fiction novel from an English class reading list. In 2014.
I read Brave New World as a high school sophomore in 1962. Everyone I knew then read it too, usually back-to-back with another dystopian classic, George Orwell’s 1984. Part of the joy of reading these books was that they were controversial. Both had been banned at different times in different places, which added to their appeal.
Brave New World, immediately upon its publication in 1932, was formally banned in Australia and Ireland. India banned it in the 1960s. Throughout the book’s 82-year history, self-appointed censors all over the world have tried to keep people, especially students, from reading it. In the USA, a Maryland high school teacher was fired for teaching it in 1965. It has been challenged again and again in the years since, right up to the present day. It was 52nd on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books of 1990-2001. In 2010, the ALA ranked it one of the 10 most frequently challenged books of the year. In an echo of the 1965 Maryland case, the parents in the current Delaware challenge have threatened to sue the school for teaching it.
The most common objections to Brave New World, according to the ALA, center around the novel’s perceived insensitivity, use of offensive language, racism, and explicit sexuality. Opponents in the USA have claimed the novel makes “promiscuous sex look like fun,” and that it is “focused on negativity.” Others have accused the novel of showing contempt for religion, marriage, and family. In 2010 a would-be book banner in Seattle blasted Brave New World for containing a “high volume of racially offensive, derogatory language, and misinformation on Native Americans.”
Aldous Huxley wrote his satirical sci-fi dystopia in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the novel reflects the Big Ideas of the time: eugenics, capitalism, Marxism, mass production, consumerism. In the London of 2540 (632 AF … “after Ford”), children are inseminated and incubated in test tubes, then raised in factory-like schools, eugenically engineered and psychologically conditioned to take their places as adult members of stratified castes with specific social and industrial duties. The lowest working castes, Gammas, are short, simian, and swarthy, lacking intelligence and curiosity, happy to push brooms and dig ditches; the highest caste, the Alphas, are bred for intelligence and physical perfection, and hold down the white collar jobs. God has been replaced by Henry Ford (Ford in his Flivver, as they say), the economy is driven by forced consumption of consumer goods.
Everyone has been conditioned, a la Pavlov, to be happy with his or her lot. Most women are sterile; those who are not carry contraceptives at all times and are drilled in their use. Sex, free of the consequences of pregnancy and disease, is pervasive. Promiscuity is a social virtue in men and women alike, and is one of the tools used by the world controllers to keep the population happy, productive, and distracted from larger issues. Monogamy and parenthood are unheard of. Infantile recreational pursuits … sex, silly games, community singsongs … are encouraged during non-working hours. No one reads; today’s classics are forbidden knowledge. A Valium-like drug, soma, is distributed to all castes by the state, its use encouraged as yet another method to keep people content.
In short, everyone is happy and productive. No one gets pregnant, no one raises children, no one has a mother or a father (and in fact the very notion of family, of spawning children like so many cats and dogs, makes people blush and giggle). Citizens live their lives in the full vigor of young adulthood, free of disease and visible signs of aging until they reach their 60s, when they quickly die and are replaced.
Huxley’s is quite a different future than the one Orwell envisioned in 1984, and when I read Brave New World as a teenager, that’s what I focused on. 1984 was the sad future. Brave New World was the happy one, and if I had to guess then which of the two futures western civilization was more likely to embrace, I’d have said it would have been the happy one.
Re-reading Brave New World in my 60s has been an eye-opening experience. What a difference age, education, and experience makes in one’s appreciation of this hoary old classic! As a kid I was unaware of Huxley’s blithe acceptance of the racist views of his day, his unquestioned assumption that the Alpha caste of the future would be very similar to what Hitler at the time was already calling the master race. I didn’t pick up on Huxley’s patriarchal bias in relegating women to the role of pneumatic sex dolls. I missed the significance of naming characters after major historical figures of the late 19th and early 20th century. His use of the term “savages” to describe those who live outside civilized Fordian society escaped my notice. I thought nothing of it when I read words like “moron” and “octaroon.” This time around, each of these things clangs like a cracked bell. Where’s a trigger warning when you need one?
Yes, Huxley was a man of his times, trapped in prevailing prejudices, but his goal in writing Brave New World was to warn us away from certain social trends, so his heart was in the right place. The hero of the novel is John the Savage, a white boy raised by an actual mother on an American Indian reservation in New Mexico, ignorant of civilized society, armed only with the works of Shakespeare, who is suddenly dropped into the very heart of London. He sees what the citizens of 632 AF have been conditioned not to see: that by being shallowly happy all the time they will never be really happy, that they have unwittingly given away what it is to be human. He can’t fit in; he becomes for a brief time a hermit, then an object of national ridicule, then commits suicide. The novel is short, brilliant, and devastating.
As for the quality of the read, Huxley wrote Brave New World with a broad brush. The emphasis is on big ideas and social trends; satire is uppermost and characterization brings up the rear. Still, though, even 82 years after its initial publication, the novel makes readers think. As I have learned, the more experience, knowledge, and education the reader brings to the task, the more historically interesting Huxley’s ideas are. The dystopian novels I read today, the ones by authors like Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Hugh Howey, and Paolo Bacigalupi, are far better novels, rich in character, detail, and background, with audacious visions of possible futures. But Huxley’s novel still packs a punch, and it was rewarding to study it again after all these years.
Back now to the censors’ objections:
- I’m always suspicious when book banners cite vague concepts like “insensitivity” or “negativity.” What are they getting at? I suspect what they’re getting at … without wanting to spell it out … is that character names like Lenina and Marx, references to Freud and H.G. Wells, and use of terms like “Bokanovsky process” and “Pavlovian conditioning” are a tie-in with communism and socialism, and that’s the real reason they want to take Brave New World off school library shelves and reading lists.
- As to objections centering around sex and the lack of respect for marriage and family, yes, it’s undeniably true that a central characteristic of Huxley’s Fordian future is promiscuous sex, practiced with equal enthusiasm by men and women who never marry and certainly never ever have children. But that is satire. Did anyone ever honestly believe Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal would lead to the eating of children? Does anyone honestly believe that a satire about a future society where people behave sexually as they have never behaved at any time or place in human history will actually lead to such behavior?
- Religious objections? True again, Huxley’s satire posits a future where Ford supplants Jesus. Like there’s an actual danger this book is somehow going to make that happen. Like letting a kid read Huxley’s words on paper is going to turn him or her into an atheist.
- Racism? Yes again. Huxley takes it as a given that whites are and will remain the world’s dominant race. Who else are we going to ban along with Huxley? Every other western writer born before approximately 1960? As for the cringe-inducing descriptions of the “savages” on the Indian reservation in New Mexico, for all Huxley’s apparent cultural hostility, don’t forget that his point was to hold the Indians up to the citizens of the Fordian future, to show by comparison the Indians as humans in full, the Londoners merely debased cogs in a machine run by shadowy world controllers.
In short, the censors’ arguments are contemptible ones, mere excuses. What they’re reluctant to come right out and admit is that Brave New World challenges their notions of what’s right and proper and by gum that’s reason enough to try to keep their kids from reading it.
I hope Brave New World is as central to the experience of being an teenager today as it was when I was one, and that it is still a book everyone reads in high school or college. I hope the know-nothings keep trying to ban it … and that every time they do a new generation of readers will pick it up.
Yesterday’s comment was harsh:
I don’t have many fucks left to give today, but I can always muster one up for the Republicans, the party of assholes and assholism. I turned irrevocably against them sometime during the Clinton administration, and everything they’ve done since has hardened my contempt, which by now is so dense and compressed it could scratch a diamond.
Lacks nuance. So let’s give it some.
I’m talking about the post-Nixon southern strategy Republican Party, not conservatism in the classic sense. I’m personally very conservative. I believe in pulling yourself up, acting morally, being self-sufficient, exhibiting rectitude, living within your means. I oppose excess in anything. I despise thieves and cheats and people who can work but would rather suck on the public teat. If I could be certain only the guilty would be executed, I’d have no problem with the death penalty.
What I hate is racism, stupidity, greed, and the petty spite that motivates people to be assholes toward others. Eisenhower kept those elements at arm’s length during his administration. Nixon welcomed the worst with open arms and promised them a home in the Republican Party. He did it for the votes, and didn’t worry much about the consequences. The consequences are what have made the GOP what it is today, the party of stupidity, racism, greed, and spite. That is what I hate, and that is why I have such a visceral dislike of Republicans.
Is that nuanced enough? God, I wish we weren’t stuck with a two-party system, but that’s another subject altogether.