I assume that people who read my newsletters love to read as much as I do.
Reading is the best form of escapism. It’s a way of stepping into another life, another world. It can be completely immersive and totally consuming. You can read to match your internal moods or to shift them into a completely different direction. Reading is awesome fun. I’m sorry for those who don’t know this.
That said, even some great stories won’t be great for every reader or even be appropriate for a particular time in their lives (or circumstances in the world). I have been reading a lot lately, catching up on the giant pile of books that I acquired during the height of the pandemic but never got around to actually consuming. My pile is still very high, but I did discover some gems and also some books that are simply not for me (or not for me right now). I am getting better at putting those books away partially read — that’s a new skill that I just recently learned. Prior, I felt that I had to read to the last page (appendixes included) once I’ve started a book. Now, I am more careful with my time and with myself. Not all stories, even great ones, are for me — that’s a hard lesson to learn.
Some books I’ve picked up this past year were obviously good and engaging, but they didn’t fit the mood I was in. I still struggled through some of them because they were ultimately so well crafted, but it was hard work when usually such sublime stories are a pleasure to read even if the topics are hard. I don’t mind crying at sad stories, but sometimes, it just gets too difficult. One such book was a collection of short stories by Ursula Le Guin — one of my favorite authors and whose book was one of the first I’ve read in English (Left Hand of Darkness). My problem with this collection of short stories was that they are set in a world where slavery and rape are routine. How does one survive a diplomatic post to a regime of extreme injustice without losing one’s soul? That said, it was an amazing book and I strongly recommend it: The Unreal and The Real. I also loved another collection of her stories The Found and The Lost. Note that not all the stories in these two collections are set in the Acumen Universe, but many are.
Another clearly amazing book but thematically difficult for me was Station Eleven: A novel by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about what happens to the world after a brutal pandemic is over. It covers humans after the complete collapse of civilization, when people only have vague memories of before. Strangely, I really enjoy apocalyptic novels when I personally feel down, but not this time. It felt too close. Usually, my personal problems are at somewhat of a remove from an alien invasion and thus the story puts my own fears and anxieties in perspective: sure my creative life is a ruin but at least I’m not dissolving in alien goo… But despite my personal reservations, I thought it was a great read and another strong recommendation from me.
I have also been trying to catch up on some classic sci-fi that I’ve missed over the years. I was born too late for some of these. Those stories feel stilted now, not believable, not poignant. It’s hard to immerse in a world where women are second-class citizens not as a plot point but just as a “normal” state of the world. Thus I found reading The Midwitch Cuckoos unsatisfying. I remember a point in my childhood when Jules Verne became unreadable to me for the same reason — why weren’t women included on all of the adventures? Why were we left at home to wait for our men to come home? Once I saw the sexist problem, I couldn’t stop seeing and thinking about it. And that insight interfered with my enjoyment of Jules Verne’s novels. There are far too many books like that by very famous writers — sci-fi or otherwise — that haven’t aged well. Cultural differences are not only defined by geographical borders but by time periods. Cultures shift and previous norms sometimes become offensive to a reader.
I did discover other amazing short story collections:
The Very Best Of the Best: 35 Years of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Garner Dozois. This is a great collection of stories that will stay with you for a long time. The collection is a finalist for the 2020 LOCUS AWARD FOR BEST ANTHOLOGY.
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (The Best American Series) edited by Lorrie Moore.
I can’t recommend them enough. One is a grouping of classic sci-fi, spanning the ages of this genre. The other is a more “modern” collection. Both books will leave you wishing for more. I am starting to believe that one way of discovering great writing talent is by browsing short story anthologies.
I did pick up some works of nonfiction as well.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.
The Origins of Creativity by Edward O. Wilson (the ant guy).
I highly recommend both of these as well — it’s good to mix things up!
I’ve obviously read many other books that didn’t make my recommendation list, but “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is good advice to follow when writing book reviews.
Note: The Midwitch Cuckoos was used here as an example of cultural difference due to temporal shifts in our societal consciousness. I picked it up when I read Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, which referred to this book as part of that story. I loved Seanan’s story. And the Cuckoos was a perfectly great book in its time, but now it is a more problematic read. But then so are some of the other books I enjoyed as a kid…and definitely a lot of older movies. Times march on and we see the world a little bit differently each year. Those differences accumulate.
Look forward to hearing about some of your reading discoveries!
The Queen is dead, long live the King!