Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Super Hugos Presented by Isaac Asimov

I have been having an ongoing conversations with friends about a good example of representative science fiction. There are so many suggestions, so many types of science fiction, so many great authors out there. Nailing it down to one or two stories that would represent the entire field is a near impossibility.

In the midst of chatting a friend told me about a book of hers (or maybe her husband's), The Super Hugos, a compilation of ten or so of the best science fiction stories ever written. The stories were voted on by science fiction fans who chose the best of the Hugo Award winners over the years. (Among the many awards given in science fiction every year, the Hugo is the only award that is voted on by the readers.) Isaac Asimov was slated to introduce each of the stories. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could write the introductions.

I had heard of most of the authors. A handful of the stories were familiar, either because they had been turned into movies or because I had reason another version of them in the past. But there were some completely unfamiliar stories and at least one new author which is always a bonus considering the huge amount of science fiction my husband knows and has read.

I enjoyed the variety of stories in this compilation. There was familiar fantasy - the first Dragonriders of Pern story written by Anne McCaffrey; familiar sci fi - "Enemy Mine" made famous with the movie staring Dennis Quaid; a bit of horror - "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin; and infinitely famous - the first rendition of "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes. And truthfully a dated story that I just didn't feel has held up to the test of time.

I am so glad my friend gave me this book. But, I will say, it was a hard read consecutively. Each story entered a brand-new realm with all the requisite descriptions of the people, the world, the traumas. It was a lot to wrap my head around every night.

And the final question - were there one or two stories in this compilation that could be described as representative science fiction? In a way, yes. I think the short Arthur C. Clarke story was incredible. That is a story I would recommend. I think McCaffrey has had such an incredible influence on the fantasy world that her story is classic. "Flowers for Algernon" is obviously a well-known representation of the impact of science on the everyday. But one story? I have come to realize, with the help of The Super Hugos, that there is no such thing as one story or book that can define the genre of science fiction.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement by Mark Hamilton Lytle

For the first time in a number of years I feel like I have the energy, the time, and the interest to read something vaguely academic. In the search for an academic topic, I realized that my growing interest in environmental history did not yet have an academic basis. Limited to the local public library and without a syllabus in hand to guide me, I went for a familiar name to direct my research. Living where I do, the name Rachel Carson has come up more than once, so that's where I started.

I picked up Mark Lyttle's The Gentle Subversive to be honest, because of its relatively small size compared to some of the other Rachel Carson biographies. I'm thrilled that I did, not only because it was short enough to get through (I'm an academic but that doesn't mean I'm a glutton for reading 300+ page scholarly works on a regular basis) but more importantly, it was extremely well-written and engaging - not always true in scholarly works. Moreover, it was a good academic book written by a well-respected environmental historian. As a result the facts were well-researched and comprehensively described.

In the afterword Lyttle admitted that he focused on Carson as a writer, in part to differentiate himself from the other books written about Carson previously. That focus appealed to me as an aspiring writer myself. Reading about her frustrations with writing and her attempts to get published gave me hope about writing. But I also found her personal struggles as she grew increasingly despondent with lack of government response to harmful pesticides intriguing. Never having read any environmental history, I found Lyttle's attention to the growing public discontent gripping.

By the end of The Gentle Subversive I realized that I definitely want to read Silent Spring, Carson's chef d'oeuvre about the harm of pesticides on nature (which is currently sitting on my desk). I also feel continually encouraged to work towards a greener, healthier earth. Finally, unlike some dry books, I did not walk away disengaged with academia. Instead I was anxious to find something more to read.

If you are looking for a book to stir your environmental juices, pick up Lyttle's The Gentle Subversive. It is well worth the time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer

Initial Thoughts:

I read Eclipse over the weekend. First, it's a quick read, even at 600+ pages. Second, it is highly requested at the library so I thought I would try to return it quickly for the next person in line. Third, I have so many good books in line to read that I wanted to get through this one quickly and get back to better literature.

So why did I read it at all?

Sheer curiosity. I am still intrigued by the incredible appeal of this series. And most of my intrigue is at the women my age who are so gaga over it. The teenagers I can understand, it's a simple love story, with vampires and werewolves thrown in. But why does it capture everyone's imagination?

I still don't know. It's definitely not the writing.

**Spoiler Alert** (Everyone probably knows the plot by now, but just in case.)

This story picks up very shortly after the end of New Moon. Bella is getting ready to graduate and is desperate for the day when Edward will turn her into a vampire. Charlie, her dad, is annoyed at Edward and Bella is grounded for the events of the previous book. Jacob, the werewolf, is annoyed at Bella and won't return her phone calls. And behold... the first 200 pages of the book. Really.

Then everyone discovers that a bunch of vampires are killing people in Seattle. The vampires and the werewolves ally to take out the bad vampires. Jacob hits on Bella a lot (she finally goes to see him and they reconcile quite easily.) while Bella keeps refusing his advances. After all, she's in love with Edward, the love of the millennium. And there you have the next 200 pages.

Jacob kisses Bella. She kisses him back. She loves them both! How could this happen! Trauma. Edward is ever understanding. Jacob gets hurt. Bella feels remorse. Edward remains handsome and understanding. The End.

Can someone PLEASE explain the appeal of this series to me?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris

Undoubtedly one of the best books I have read in months. Maybe even years. However, I have NO doubt that not everyone will agree with my assessment of Finding Nouf. For me the book was fascinating because I was allowed an inside look into a culture that I am imminently curious about.

Finding Nouf is a murder mystery set in modern day Saudi Arabia. Zoë Ferraris, the author, is an American who was married to a Bedouin and lived in Saudia Arabia for a time. Therefore, she has an American's knowledge and perspective but an insider's view of a world that is rarely open to Americans. The thing that I appreciated the most, given that background, was that Ferraris was NOT condemnatory towards the Saudis. She does acknowledge problems within the society, but she never suggests that the choices the Saudis have made are across the board wrong. Peopling her book exclusively (aside from two very small tertiary characters) with Saudi citizens, she show the variety of beliefs and lifestyles within a very closed world.

The main character Nayir, is a pious Saudi (Palestinian) man who believes in the rules of his society. When a friend's daughter disappears he agrees to help search for her in the desert. Questions arise about her death and he cannot reconcile himself to the answerless questions that remain. He continues to investigate and through unusual circumstances enlists the help of his friends fiancée. The resolution to the crime is interesting, but not overwhelmingly novel.

The relationships between Nayir and his friends and family really make the story for me. Nayir lives in a world in which looking at a woman is a sin and speaking with a woman who is not his wife is a crime. As the book progresses, the reader begins to unravel the frustrations he has because he has no access to women at all. He would like to marry but has no social openings available to allow him to interact with women. Ferraris does a good job of not suggesting that this social realm is wrong; it just *is*.

As Americans we have such strong opinions about the Islamic world. And the information that we have about Saudi Arabia is so heavily influenced by politics and the media that finding a book that gives an honest insight into the Saudi world is difficult, if not impossible. I can't think of a non-fiction book that I could read which would give me as genuine an understanding of Saudi Arabian life as Finding Nouf. I recognize that it is still fiction. But, from my limited experience, I would like to suggest that it is a fictional story in a real world.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wanted to better understand the conservative Islamic world without getting a negative spin on the choices the people have made (or had made for them).