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Young Geoffrey

For the Record: Reading List, 2009

January 2009

As always, this is more for my benefit than yours, but feel free to

A month of reading lazily

Sometimes one feels the urge to dip into the comfort of old and familiar friends. January was mostly one of those months, as I re-visited close to half the Le Carreée volumes on my shelves. And Obama, for something new.

  1. The Secret Pilgrim, by John Le Carré, 1991

  2. Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, by John Le Carrée, 1974

  3. Smiley's People, by John Le Carré, 1979

  4. A murder of Quality, by John Le Carré, 1962

  5. The Russia House, by John Le Carré, 1991

  6. A Small Town in Germany, by John Le Carré, 1968

  7. Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama, 1995
  8. I can't help but think that a big part of the enthusiasm for Obama's presidency comes not from who he is, but who he isn't.

    Leaving aside the historical fact of his ethnic/racial heritage, Obama is a man who not only reads books, he writes them.

    If Dreams From My Father is any indication, Obama is everything George W. Bush wasn't: intellectually curious and open, thoughtful, cosmopolitan and worldly, a man of moral convictions but not ideological rigidity.

    Dreams From My Father is a well-written book and a fascinating tale of self-discovery and self-exploration. Though the fact of race in America implicitly infuses the narrative, Dreams is nevertheless a deeply personal story about one man's search for identity through the quest to understand the father he never knew.

    Of course, reading it after Obama became president-elect, it it's difficult at best for me to separate the book from my knowledge of the man, but I do think it's a book I would have found fascinating even had he been "only" an otherwise anonymous writer. Highly recommended.

  9. Analog Science Fiction and Fact, April 2009, Stanley Schmidt, ed.</p>

    A solid issue, with an outstanding novella by Adam-Troy Castro, "Gunfight On Farside".

    February 2009

  10. Analog Fact and Fiction, May, 2009, Stanley Schmidt, ed.

  11. Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 2005
  12. Reynolds is one of those who have in recent years proudly gone back to space opera, possibly in reaction to the near-future visions popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Pushing Ice is a very readable novel and covers thousands of light-years, with the time-dilation effects of relativity to permit a single cast of characters.

    Unfortunately, it is in the characterization that the novel falls apart.

    Reynolds' two main characters are both women and for a while, he manages their relationship with subtlety and realism — but in the latter half, irrationally harsh decisions simply fall apart in terms of their psychological verisimilitude.

    If you enjoy space opera, the book is well-worth reading, but it is seriously-flawed.

  13. Star Trek Memories, by William Shatner with Chris Kreski, HarperCollins, 1993
  14. I know, this piece of pop-cultural ephemera has appeared on my list before. I picked it up while in the midst of packing for a move (as a volume I was going to toss) and I found myself getting all caught up in it again.

    Shatner's tale of Star Trek's original run feels reasonably well-researched and has the added benefit of including material that doesn't reflect all that well on Shatner himself (he's had falling-outs with at least a couple of cast-members).

    March-May 2009

  15. Whit, by Iain Banks, Abacus, 1995
  16. The story of Isis Whit, a young woman raised in a cult. Grandaughter of the cult's founder and, due to the timing of her birth, his presumptive heir, Isis sent on a spurious mission into the outer world, where she aquits herself well only to discover that intrigue at home has left her in an untenable position.

    Isis is a beguiling character, preturnaturally intelligent, but still (if only just) a believable teenage girl with wisdom beyond her years.

    I'll be looking for more Banks, whether Iain, or Iain M.

  17. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K.Rowling, The Children's High Level Group, 2008
  18. A "joke" Christmas present, belated delivered, Tales is ostensibly a selection of wizards' fairy tales, with anotations by Harry Potter's Professor Dumbledore. The stories are reasonably charming, but this volume is for Harry Potter completists only.

  19. Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, by Lin Carter, Ballantine Books, 1969
  20. Lin Carter was once an author whose name was common on paperback racks (if I recall correctly, mostly as the writer of various Conan sequels), but this is the only book of his that I have read.

    In fact, this was at least my second go-through, despite the fact it reads like a lazy thesis paper rather than a serious analysis or critique.

    Carter spends entire chapters synopsizing The Lord of the Rings itself, along with The Hobbit and any number of fantasies with might have influenced Tolkien's epic.

    There's some interesting material about the history of fantasy in the Western tradition, but that's nearly enough to recommend what can only have been a quickie attempt to cash in on Tolkien's popularity.

  21. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, Penguin, 1965 (originally published 1847)
  22. I need to read more classics.

    Bronte's only novel really does deserve its place in the cannon. Wuthering Heights is one of the strangest, most monstrous, stories I've come across.

    The story of Catherine Earnshaw and the foundling called Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights is a tale of abuse and its vengeful return ten-fold. Only the final scenes come across as slightly false; all else is rivetting and deeply twisted.

    As with most classics, read the introduction only after you've read the novel itself, unless you've no concern for spoilers.

  23. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein, G.P. Putnam-Berkley Medallion, 1968
  24. Arguably Heinlein's last good novel, Mistress holds up quite well. Heinlein throws a lot of SFnal thinking and extrapolotation into it and here has not yet succumbed to his late-period gigantism.

    There are some cringe-worthy assumptions about the Nature(s) of men and women, but Heinlein's attempts to paint some kind of post-racial, post-sexist society is both admirable and admirably imaginative.

    As political commentary, it falls into the naive Libertarian camp (he throws in at least one oblique reference to Ayn Rand), and I don't entirely buy his analysis of how revolutions work, but it remains a compelling story well-told and a vital book for anyone with an interest in the history of the field of American SF.

  25. Failed States, by Noam Chomsky, Metropolitan Books, 2006
  26. Widely derided as a left-wing nutbar, Chomsky is in fact, a fiercely logical critic of American foreign policy and the mainstream media which, consciously or otherwise, offers almost unfailing acceptance of the fantasy of innocence which allows the American people to, by and large, deny their Republic operates as an empire.

    You might argue with Chomsky's analyses, but his densely-footnoted work is difficult to criticize on the basis of fact.

  27. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad; edited by Robert Kimbrough, Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, 1971
  28. Even 20 years or so since I last saw Apocalypse Now, I found it difficult to read this dense, short novel without comparing it to Coppola's film.

    More than a century after its first publication, Heart of Darkness makes for uncomfortable reading; terms like "nigger" are used freely and a superficial reading will stop there and declare it a "racist" book and be done with it.

    Big mistake. Heart of Darkness deserves its status as a classic and deserves a close reading, closer than I can do now (May 25), a month or two after I read it.

  29. Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns, by Pauline Kiernan, Gotham Books, 2007
  30. This is the sort of artifact that gives the term, bathroom-reading, a good name. Kiernan, a Shakespearan scholar, offers up an extensive collection of quotations along with translations/explanations of the word-play involved.

    Shakespeare didn't swear directly, but (according to Kiernan) he was not especially subtle in disguising his "filthy" wordplay.

    This is the sort of volume you expect to read an entry or two at a time, but you just might find yourself plowing through to the end in a single sitting (as it were).

  31. The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, by John Ralston Saul, Penguin, 1995
  32. Speaking of bathroom books, Saul's "dictionary" is another which you might find yourself reading right through to the end. Long a rigorous (and now, clearly a prescient) critic of so-called "globalization", The Doubter's Companion is snarky, witty and occasionally deep, though its unlikely to convince new-comers to his thinking of its validity. Still, of the following entry appeals to you, you'll likely take a great deal of pleasure from the entire book.

    Manager Drawn from the Frend word "ménager" or one who does domestic housework, this funtion has gradually been elevated to the noblest of levels.

    The strengths of the manager are continuity, stability and the delivery of services and products from existing structures. Unfortunately managers also discourage creativity, imagination, non-linear thinking, individualism and speaking out, an insubordinate act by which problems are identified. The manager distrusts public debate, abhors any admission of doubt and stifles unpredictable behaviour.

    Management is a tertiary skill — a method, not a value. And yet we apply it to every domain as if it were the ideal of our civilization. Our confusion can be seen in the current attempts to revitalize basic school training by aligning it with the "needs" of the business community. In a time of prolonged economic crisis we have decided to concentrate on utility. But these business attitudes are themselves part of the managerial obsession. They reduce even science and mathematics to a narrow, goal-oriented management tool.

    If growth and progress are what we need to get out of our crisis, then it will be found not through managerial attitudes but through the release of talents. That means teaching students to think. If mere utility is what we want, then its place is not in the schools but in a revised and modernized apprentice system.

    At the level of élite education our assumptions have taken on disastrous proportions. For example, between 1975 and 1993 Canada created 3.1 million new jobs of which 2.1 million were managers or professionals. One million were low-paid and unskilled. Managers and professionals represent an important cost to the economy while producing nothing. Where then is the wealth to come from to pay for the managers? Instead of asking themselves this question, they continually look for reasons to increase the percentage of their own kind in any organization.

    The more we train these people as if management were a primary skill, the more we handicap their ability to become citizens capable of providing direction. It is an understatement to say that the Western élites have increasingly failed in their obligations over the last quarter-century. They spend their time cleaning houses that are falling down.

  33. Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Standley Schmidt, ed., June 2009

  34. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, edited by Q.D. Leavis, Penguin, 1966 (originally published 1847)
  35. Another classic I have somehow avoided reading for many years; so many years, that my copy fell apart as I read it (Penguin's bindings have really had their good years and their bad years), I suspect at least in part due to a more or less sub-conscious presumption that Jane Eyre was some kind of "chick lit", and so lesser literature than those novels written by her (male) contemporaries.

    Like most prejudices, this one has empoverished me. Though there is a temptation to contrast this novel with her sister's Wuthering Heights, in truth Jane Eyre stands very much on its own — a weird and wonderful fantasy with nevertheless an impressive depth to its portrait of human nature.

  36. Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, by Evelyn Lau, Harper Collins, 1989
  37. Despite its subject — nearly two years of surviving as a runaway, drug-addiction, prostitution, &ct — this remarkably precocious memoir, published when Lau was only 19 years old, is no Go Ask Alice for the 1990s.

    Neither preachy nor self-pitying, it is instead a a highly individual story and no matter that it is what it is sub-titled, a diary written while the author was a young woman for whom life on the streets was better than foster care, let alone returning to her emotionally abusive parents.

    And excellent first book. I need to find out what she's been writing since.

  38. Such Is My Beloved, by Morley Callaghan, New Canadian Library, 1957 (originally published 1938)
  39. A Canadian classic, I guess, but frankly it held not much beyond historic interest for me. The story of a young Toronto priest who naively attempts to help two young prostitutes, both the prose and story feel thin and dated. Of interest only to those interested in the origins of Canadiana.

  40. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IIA, Ben Bova, ed., Avon, 1973
  41. Speaking of dated prose, there is one hell of a lot of that in this nonetheless still quite good anthology of "classic" science fiction novellas.

    Selected by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, this three volume series was intended to honour stories which might have won Nebula Awards, had they existed when the stories were published. With writers like Poul Anderson, John W. Campbell, Jr., del Rey, Heinlein, Kornbluth, Wells and Sturgeon, there is some excellent fiction here, but ...

    ... but a lot of them are also object lessons in the danger of using current slang in your fiction. Especially when that fiction is set far in the future, vernacular from the streets of Brooklyn in 1947 just sounds, well, silly, even if the rest of the story might be a good one.

  42. Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 1993

  43. Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 1994

  44. Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 1996
  45. Yes. I've read them again. Get off my back.

    Seriously, I picked up the first volume because I intend on writing a long (and, I hope, saleable) critical appreciation of this brilliant and surprising series. Expecting to skim through them looking for my scribbled notes, I instead ended up devouring them again (and I'm nearly through with yet another re-through of Red. Brilliant stuff.

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