THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, PART 2: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THESE BOOKS

I have already written about The Great American Read, the program set up by PBS to determine Americans’ favorite novel (here).  In my last post, I discussed the odd choices the selectors made with respect to some of the authors. This time, to balance things out a little, I’m going to talk about the books that were excellently chosen, some of which I wouldn’t have expected to see in a list chosen by the public like this.  I’m not saying which books I’m voting for (truth to tell, I haven’t decided yet, and may split my votes over several books and several days), but I do want to highlight some of the books that will probably get my votes.

Some of them are obvious.  I’ve only loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, since I was a child, and passed that love on to my daughter (one year I planned an Alice in Wonderland party for her, and we had a blast).  The absurdity of the whole book, the inside jokes, the bizarre characters, the poems (which of course I memorized; I can still rattle off “You Are Old, Father Williams” after many decades), all of it tickled my imagination as a child and still does (try The Annotated Alice, if you want to get all the inside jokes and the references).

I have long contended that The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the Great American Novels (I realize there are people who disagree with me, but I believe they just haven’t read it in the right mood yet).  Such a short book, but so gorgeously written! You could just sit there and read and reread certain passages just to savor the beautiful language (one of the ways to tell, in my opinion, if a book is beautifully written, is to read the opening paragraphs and the closing ones, and if they sing, you know you’ve got something special in your hands), and the themes of rich and poor, of self-creation and the American Dream, are still powerful today (there are many people in public life, for instance, who could be described as the sort of “careless people” Daisy and Tom Buchanan were, and if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about).

But I also confess to a deep love for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which I am gobsmacked to find on this list, not because it’s not a great book (it’s a wonderful book), but because I think most people haven’t read it and know nothing more of it than the opening section set in Lilliput.  Which is a shame, because the other worlds Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked in are at least as impressive as Lilliput and provide the same satirical thrusts within seeming fantasy, and the last portion of the book, where Gulliver visits the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos (horses and human beings, respectively), is heartbreaking as well as biting. This, like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is one of those books people think they know without ever having read it, and that’s a real shame.

For different reasons, I’m surprised and delighted to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, on this list. I don’t care if anyone wants to say it’s not great literature, because if you look at some of the other books on the list (which I will not go into now; that may be another post), it’s very clear that a book doesn’t need to be great literature to be included here.  The fact is, the book (the first of a trilogy — well, it’s technically more than a trilogy but that’s because Adams regrettably kept adding books to the group, when he really should have stopped with Life, The Universe, and Everything, the third book and a natural ending point) is brilliant and funny, science fiction meeting Monty Python, containing warped ideas about the nature of human intelligence and the purpose of the earth, with unforgettable characters and a plot that never goes where you expect it to.  A fast read and a funny one, The Hitchhiker’s Guide probably won’t win this contest, but if its inclusion on the list means more people read it, I can only cheer.  

Having The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, on the list is a wonderful thing.  While her body of work since then has certainly been impressive, I confess I still have a special place in my heart for The Joy Luck Club. Not only is it an #OwnVoices book, and not only are the characters varied and vividly drawn, but the structure of the book, with the alternating stories from mothers in China and in America and daughters in America (and, at the very end, in China), works brilliantly with the book’s theme of mothers and daughters and the strains of being immigrants and first generation Americans.  If you haven’t read Joy Luck yet, let this be encouragement to get around to it.

In a way, the inclusion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seems an obvious choice (how many movie versions of this book have there been?  Not to mention all the spinoffs, including a murder mystery version by the late great P. D. James, and various books focusing on different characters who were given short shrift by Austen), though I would be hard-pressed to find an Austen book I didn’t like or want to vote for.  On the other hand, there’s something about the 19th century language and style of sentences Austen uses which take some getting used to for modern readers (as I discovered in a recent book group discussion of Persuasion, which is one of my all-time favorite Austen books), and I like the idea that people who might not otherwise actually READ Pride and Prejudice might pick the book up as a result of this publicity.  The more readers she gets, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m sure Armistead Maupin, writing the first book in the Tales of the City series, never expected his books to be considered almost historical novels, but now, decades after they were written and first became popular, they are a vivid, detailed picture of a particular time and place which has changed a great deal since: San Francisco in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, as AIDS began to make itself felt in the gay community. The stories were originally serialized in newspapers before being collected into books, a la Charles DIckens, but they don’t feel disjointed. There’s an almost soap-opera quality to the way the characters interact with each other over the course of the series, but that doesn’t matter because the characters, straight, gay, bisexual and transgender, are all so real and alive that you care about their relationships and about them. It’s wonderful to see these books included on the Great American Reads list, whether or not they get enough votes to “win.”

 

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SPACE: WHERE NO MAN HAS ROCKED BEFORE

As you know, sometimes when I write about a book that’s new to the library, I’m writing a preview and not a review.  Often when that happens, it’s a book that I want to read but haven’t had a chance to read yet. Which sometimes leads to a bit of a dilemma: when I do actually read the book, should I write about it again, because now I know more about it than the publisher’s description gave me, or are there so many other books I should be bringing to people’s attention that it’s wrong to write twice about the same book?  I usually resolve this by doing a review if the book in question is more amazing, more fun, or just wildly different from what it seemed to be when it first came out.

In the case of Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente, the description of the book pre-publication was accurate as far as it went, but it didn’t nearly go far enough, which is why I feel compelled to tell you what a fabulous, funny, inventive and just plain wonderful book it is, to encourage as many people with similar senses of humor to mine (and there must be some of you out there, right?) to check this book out and enjoy it.

I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, at least the first three books of the series (he lost some steam after Life, the Universe and Everything, in my opinion), and, having cut my teeth on that warped humor, I’m always looking for someone who can write with as much verve and wit as Adams had.  Space Opera, I’m pleased to announce, is a worthy successor to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I can hardly come up with higher praise than that.

The initial alien encounter is nothing like anything you’ve seen in the movies or in other books; as the author dryly observes, it’s much more like the work of Sir Looney of the Tunes than Sir Ridley of the Scott (quoting from Decibel’s beloved Nana).  It’s weird, it’s funny, and it sets the tone for the book quite nicely. I started laughing at that part and didn’t stop until the end, even reading some of the funnier lines out loud to anyone who would listen.

Humanity has to compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, but the aliens who first encounter us have a list of the potential performers who might, just possibly, if miracles occur, keep the human race from being destroyed.  Unfortunately for us, most of the performers on the list (including Yoko Ono — does that give you an idea of the aliens’ taste?) are dead, so they are left with Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, two thirds of whom are in fact still alive, even if they’re not performing together, or even performing at all, anymore.  

The aliens are varied and wonderful. They are far from humanoid, and Valente seems to delight in creating different kinds of aliens and imagining what their cultures might be like, what their ideas of musical performance might be like, even what their ideas of sex are like (my personal favorite is the alien race whose idea of sex is brushing hair and sharing feelings, which doesn’t exactly mean what you and I think it means). We get to see previous Grand Prix performances from various winners and near-winners, and, like Decibel himself, we can easily see that the chances of humans being able to keep from placing dead last in the competition are nearly nonexistent.

Of course, this being the kind of book it is, you’re pretty sure from the outset that humanity is not going to be destroyed by the aliens, which means that somehow there’s going to be a “victory”, which just means Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes don’t actually come in dead last.  The suspense in the book comes from not knowing exactly how this miracle is going to be pulled off, especially when we discover that cheating is not only allowed but encouraged, and one way some of the alien races manage to succeed in the competition is by hobbling other performers. Humans being both newcomers and ridiculously soft and easy to manipulate, there are all kinds of characters out to sabotage our protagonists before they even set foot on the stage.  

The book is light and hysterically funny. Valente bounces cheerfully back and forth, from tales of the Sentience Wars and their immediate aftermath to depictions of previous Grand Prixes to the background of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.  It’s a wild ride and a vastly entertaining one. If the world is getting you down and you desperately need a break, I highly recommend Space Opera.

WE WILL ROCK YOU — OR GET HUMANITY DESTROYED

One of my favorite science fiction series is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams (the first three books of the trilogy, anyway; after that the quality declined a bit, in my opinion).  There’s something about the cheerful mixture of science fiction tropes like time travel and galactic wars and faster than light travel with a silly sense of humor (my favorite joke in the first book is when one character says something is “unpleasantly like being drunk,” the other character asks, “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” and the first character replies, “You ask a glass of water”) that just does it for me. Along similar lines (science fiction that doesn’t take itself or the genre too seriously), we have a new book, Space Opera by Catherynne Valente (author of Six Gun Snow White, so you know she’s got a kind of warped way of looking at things right off the bat).

In the universe of Space Opera, there had been a series of horrible wars, known as the Sentience Wars, which nearly wiped out all intelligent space-faring life.  In the aftermath, the powers that be decided to create a new tradition to unite and cheer up the denizens of the galaxy: the periodic Metagalacitc Grand Prix.  Imagine a sort of interstellar Eurovision, with undercurrents of former wars mixed in the beauty pageant/concert extravaganza, as various species compete with their versions of song and dance.  This competition is not totally limited to those species already known to be sentient members of the galaxy. If some new species on some small planet somewhere wants to be counted among the movers and shakers as sentient beings, that species is allowed to join the competition. Of course, if the species fails, then it will be ruthlessly eliminated.  Nobody wants a repeat of the Sentience Wars, after all.

Well, you can see where this is going, can’t you?  Those upstarts on the planet earth want to join the civilized galaxy, and are a little surprised to discover that they aren’t going to be accepted through some high level council of leaders, or through some kind of starship battles.  No, they’re going to have to prove themselves by performing. More specifically, singing and dancing. And somehow, the representatives of humanity end up being Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a band that has seen better days even before this competition. The future of the human race will depend on Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, and their ability to rock.

 

 

 

TIME TRAVEL FOR FUN AND PROFIT

So it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time that when I put together The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge, one of the categories would have to be time travel.  I am, I freely confess it, a sucker for a good time travel book, and, in addition to the list of time travel books which I have posted on the Challenge page, I would like to provide some personal recommendations for particular books involving time travel which are dear to my heart (and excellent books as well, of course).

Strange as it seems, the Field Library does NOT have a copy of the original time travel book, H. G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine (we do have a children’s retelling of that book, but it’s not quite the same, is it?).  However, don’t be too downhearted, because we have H. G. Wells himself as a character in one of my favorite time travel novels, The Map of Time, by Felix Palma. You don’t have to have read The Time Machine to appreciate Wells’ character in The Map of Time (though of course if you are familiar with his work, this book and its sequels become even more entertaining), because he’s quite an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character in his own right here.  The book involves several supposed time travel schemes, one to make money, one to save a person’s life, and one that involves real actual time travel.  The intertwining plots are surprisingly easy to follow, and it’s a lot of fun to read. This is in fact the first book in a trilogy, but I have to emphasize that it is a full-fledged and complete story in its own right.  As I was reading it the first time (it bears rereading, to appreciate exactly how Palma put the whole thing together) and I got close to the end of the book, I was afraid that there was no way he was going to make everything work (if I’d known it was the first book of a trilogy I would have been even more worried), but in fact, all the plots are resolved, and brilliantly (I was so delighted when I reached the climax of the book I actually laughed aloud when I was reading it).  You don’t have to read The Map of the Sky or The Map of Chaos, the next two books in the series, in order to love this book, but if you enjoy this one, you will LOVE the next two as well, even if they’re not part of this year’s challenge.

Want something simpler and more madcap?  Try the late great Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and no, even though this is the second in a series, you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy or follow this one, and in fact this was the first book I read in the series (aside from one tiny spoiler which I didn’t grasp when I read this, I had no problems reading the first book after this one).  The first book explains why the earth was made, and the results from one set of characters’ time travel in this book explains what, exactly, the ancestors of human beings were (it also explains who really runs the universe, but a different set of characters discover that).  The restaurant of the title happens to be poised at the very edge of the total destruction of the universe at the end of time, and in the universe of this series, it makes perfect sense that someone would have figured out how to exploit that moment and make a fine dining experience out of it.  If you’re not too bound by logic and reality and if you have a warped sense of humor (this pretty much describes me), then you’re going to enjoy The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the other two books in the trilogy (if you like Adams, I recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this book, and Life, the Universe and Everything; while there are other books ostensibly in the series, the first three are, in my opinion, the best).

The thing about time travel is that it makes for really complicated plots, and I can’t think of another time travel book I’ve read that has a more complicated plot than The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Our protagonist, Henry, has a genetic condition whereby he will suddenly and without warning jump through time, appearing in different places at different ages. He and Claire, his wife, are very much in love despite the difficulties his chrono-displacement causes.  This is a moving, romantic book, and I have recommended it to dozens of people face to face, so I have no problem recommending it highly here as well. You should be warned, though: the plot jumps around in time and place the way Henry himself does.  Pay attention to the headings of each chapter, which tell you where and when you are with each character, and by the time you’ve gotten through the first fifty pages or so, you’ll get the swing of it. It’s absolutely worth the effort.

The opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is : “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and that’s an accurate description of what’s going on in the book, but there’s so much more going on with the plot and with Billy Pilgrim than mere time travel. The book isn’t told sequentially because Billy Pilgrim, our protagonist, has been kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, aliens who live in four dimensions at once, to whom time is pretty irrelevant (their phrase, which Billy uses himself frequently, is “so it goes”, a fatalistic response to the wrongs of the world); we hop around from Billy’s youth to his early days in World War II to his capture by the Germans and his more or less accidental survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden to his death, then back to his marriage and the birth of his children, then to his experiences on Tralfamadore.  It’s actually easier to follow than the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I personally find it (along with Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night) one of the best books Vonnegut ever wrote.

For more of my thoughts on time travel books, you can check here and here and here.  But please do give the whole time travel genre a try, and not just because it’s one of the categories in this year’s challenge, but because it’s mind boggling and fun.