Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.

 

Amberlough

Goodreads is on the whole one of my favourite web sites, because I’ve had a mania for keeping a record of the books I’ve read and want to read since I was about 11. Getting to do so online where I can see the covers of the books while I write about them and compare notes with friends and virtual acquaintances has been hours of endless fun. The one thing that truly irritates me about the site is its recommendations algorithm, which keeps recommending that I read Fifty Shades of Grey, presumably because I read Outlander and liked it, and read most of the Twilight series in a fit of depression and wish I hadn’t. (Hate reading is a thing. I was thrilled to discover recently that I was not the only person guilty of doing this, although by no means do I encourage it and I’ve done my best to avoid any such rabbit holes since. There is no point in wasting time on poorly written books.)

I usually rely on friends’ recommendations or actively browsing through bookshops to find new authors I want to read; I pretty much ignore the Goodreads recommendations altogether unless I’m looking for books on some obscure aspect of history, for which its algorithm is oddly useful. Back in January, however, it kept insisting I look at Amberlough, so I forgive it its other failings and promise to stop muttering profanities at it as long as it isn’t pushing Ravished by a Rake or some other such rubbish.

Most of my new books these days are either kindle books on sale or second-hand paper books in decent condition; occasionally I’ll find that I like something so much that I need the audiobook and a physical copy. Sometimes, however, a book just deserves to be read in a good-quality hardback edition. I couldn’t manage without my kindle for long, but there’s a pleasure in reading a well-designed physical book that an e-book can’t replicate. I spent a couple of days looking at that lovely cover and decided I wanted this one in hardback.

I haven’t finished it yet–I was waiting for a time when I knew I’d be able to spend hours at a time reading, and it’s been a hectic six weeks–but I finally got a couple of hours when I was clear-headed and not overwhelmed with other tasks, and read the first quarter in one sitting. It is as good as promised. It is not your typical fantasy: There are no dragons, no magical powers as yet, no prophecies or chosen ones, and the setting is an analogue of 1930s Berlin rather than Middle Earth. Donnelly does what I had hoped China Mieville would do in The City and The City, but where I found Mieville’s work disappointingly dry, she knocks it out of the park. She has created “an alien world, faithfully described,” and her characters are as vibrant as the world she builds. The detail is plentiful and lush without detracting from the pace of the story, which quickly becomes intense–Amberlough is as much a political thriller as a fantasy novel.

As much as I love the Tolkein tradition in fantasy, worlds full of magic and dragons and mysterious curses, it’s refreshing to see a new novel that owes more to Bulgakov, Angela Carter, and political thrillers like The Crying Game than to George R. R. Martin. Her characters aren’t struggling with moral dilemmas disguised as quests or having to learn how to manage unexpected supernatural powers; they’re dealing with conflicts that strike closer to home for most of us, such as how honest we are with those we love, how much hardship we’re willing to endure for a political or moral ideal, sexuality and gender identity, and how to make a living when the odds are stacked against us, albeit some of these challenges are on a grander scale for said characters than most of us will ever encounter. Given the current climate of our politics in the West, it feels much more pertinent to real life than most novels, let alone most fantasy, usually gets.

I’m actually glad I didn’t hear about the novel until late January, because waiting more than a month or so for it would have been deeply frustrating. When I was in Boston I went looking for a copy, thinking that I’d read it on the plane ride home; the very helpful woman at the counter explained that it hadn’t been released yet, but that she could order it for me. Then she looked back at the screen and said “oh, I think we need this book. This looks good.” Yes, you need this book. Preferably in its lovely hardback form.

Two Beauties

Every book I have ever read has left an imprint on me. Sometimes it’s so slight as to be forgotten; sometimes, as with Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the mark is indelible. This telling of Beauty and the Beast represents the best of fantasy writing to me: a genuine sense of magic grounded with dimensional, fully realized characters, and writing that may be lyrical but never overwrought.

I did not realize until a couple weeks ago that McKinley–who wrote Beauty at the tender age of 18–returned to her favorite fairy tale as an adult to write Rose Daughter. Since on paper I ought to have loved it, it’s taken me some time to work out why I in fact disliked it so much.

What I did like: Lush descriptions, a carefully built world of real people with real jobs and problems and grime under their nails, the brooding mystery at the heart of the Beast’s story.

What I did not like, not one bit: The lack of magic. There’s plenty of magical accessories to the action of the story. Take your pick of sorcerers and greenwitches, invisible servants, unicorns. But there is no magic.

I took a playwriting class in college. I was terrible at it. I mean, that semester holds some memories so cringe-worthy that I can barely stand to touch on them 15 years later. The only thing my professor liked from me the whole semester was my final. I wrote 60 pages of a play in one night: I realized, at 11pm the night before it was due, that the piece I’d been laboring over for weeks was as dull and lifeless and hateful as everything else I’d done in that class. So I scrapped it utterly and started over with 8 hours left on the clock.

And overnight I wrote something magical–that is, a transformation took place on stage. It may not have been a play that anyone should ever produce (I never even wanted to finish it), but I had arrived at something. I stopped thinking about how an actor could change costumes that fast, or how something that size could get on stage, or how that effect would be visible to the back row; I just wrote the magic and it worked.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is the true magic that I got a glimpse of that one frenzied night. Rose Daughter never gets there because it is crushingly concerned, like I was that whole awful semester, with how and why the magic could happen. It’s the difference between a rose blooming for a month and a day because it is enchanted, or because it happens to be from really great stock and its fertilizer was at just the right pH.

But Rose Daughter worked its own kind of enchantment on me–or broke one I hadn’t known was there. Over the past year I have written very little. I think about my novel and feel tired of it, defeated by it. Reading this lovely yet empty story by this wonderful author made me realize where I’ve gone wrong with my book. I’ve been looking behind the curtain, telling the stage manager what to do, worrying about how the sound will carry. As that so-frustrated professor kept trying to tell me years ago, I ought to be looking at what’s on the stage. That’s where the magic happens.

blooming orange rose

Queen Girls

I’ve been hearing pronouncements and dire warnings about printed books and literacy itself dying out for–decades? Most of my life? A really long time. I was going through old books recently and found an ad from an advocacy group at the back of one from the early 80s warning that by the year 2000, it was estimated that only 20% of adults would be able to read. (Commas and apostrophes may be under threat, but whoever came up with that dark future plainly underestimated the popularity of computers and mobile phones.)

We have a variety of new and newly popular means of reading and listening to books, but the form isn’t going anywhere. People haven’t ceased reading and writing books; there are more than ever. While this has produced some markedly disappointing trends (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*), it has been a joy to watch people take advantage of these new formats to find books that speak to their personal experience so much more easily, and the number of independent presses and self-published works that have taken off–particularly in YA and children’s literature.

One such effort I came across recently is a new publishing venture called Queen Girls, a currently small outfit that produces children’s books featuring real-life women who were heroes of their time. Their first book is Bessie, Queen of the Sky, about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African- and Native-American descent to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921.

The kickstarter campaign for this first book is proving wildly successful, and there are plans for further titles in the future. The women running the imprint are focused not only on telling women’s stories, but on the achievements of women from a variety of backgrounds–stories that still aren’t being told as often as they should, because they come from other cultures, other classes, or just periods of the past that aren’t in fashion, so to speak, and are thus neglected. The illustrations are also lovely, which is a definite plus for attracting younger readers.

The books are designed for reading ages 4 to 8, and are available in e-format in English and in Spanish. The publisher is also partnering with literacy organizations here in the U.S. and internationally: For every book that is sold, another copy will be donated, in the interest of encouraging literacy and empowering girls. A limited edition hardback copy of Bessie, Queen of the Sky is available here, for those who prefer paper books. I find the book wholly charming, and look forward to seeing more titles in the series.

 

Friday Fave: Vampire Films

the-hunger
The Hunger (1983), starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie

Vampires actually aren’t my favourite paranormal theme: I much prefer ghost stories. The trouble is that ghost stories made into films are usually rubbish, in my experience; there are a few notable exceptions, such as The Others, but on the whole they’re a disappointment unless done tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never found werewolves a particularly appealing theme either, again with the occasional exception such as An American Werewolf in London. Vampires are the reverse–often (although not invariably) dull in fiction, but frequently excellent as subjects for film stories. As supernatural/paranormal type films go. When I was a teenager, The Lost Boys (1987), (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) were the best recent offerings of the genre; after that the focus seemed to shift to ghosts and all the horror films inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Saw (2004). There were the Underworld and Blade franchises, and the occasional silly or incredibly dark vampire film (Van Helsing, 2004; 30 Days of Night, 2007), but while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were going strong on television, there was a bit of a dip in production of films about vampires.

Then came Twilight. Love the series or hate it–I’m closer to the ‘hate it’ end of the spectrum, although I did read all of the books in a single binge during a fit of depression–Stephenie Meyer did bring vampires back to the forefront of pop culture. The first book in the series came out in 2005; in 2006 there was a sudden burst of vampire films, and the vogue has remained in effect since then, dominated, of course, by the film adaptations of the books. Lots of these films are dross, of course, but there have been a few gems in the flood.

Let The Right One In
Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In (2008) was in theatres at the same time as Twilight. Everyone I knew went to see Twilight; few people I spoke to had even heard of Let the Right One In, which I felt to be a crying shame, because it’s an excellent film regardless of genre, and so much more interesting than its more famous rival. Most vampire films incorporate some element of sexual attraction in their vampires, or else make them horrific, repellent creatures (Coppola’s Dracula manages to do both); Let the Right One In takes a different approach, telling the story of a lonely boy who befriends what he thinks at first another similarly lonely child; the sweetness of relationship between the two makes the child-vampire Eli’s predatory nature all the more eerie. The two kids in the lead roles, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are brilliant–Leandersson is currently studying theatre and seems intent on pursuing acting as a career, but Hedebrant seems to have abandoned acting for music, which is the film world’s loss but, I presume, music’s gain.

caleb-landry-jones
Byzantium

Byzantium (2012) flew even further under the radar than most of the artier vampire films. I remember reading a review of it and thinking I wanted to see it, but somehow I got it into my head that it was a tongue-in-cheek vampire story about a girl’s boarding school. (I have no clue where I got this idea. All I can think is that I was reading a preview or review of American Horror Story: Coven, which started at about the time Byzantium would have been released on dvd, and I conflated the two in my memory. It wouldn’t be the first time my mind has played such a trick on me.) I forgot about it until I noticed it playing on one of the film channels and recorded it; even then it took me a couple of weeks to get around to watching it. I particularly regret this–it’s one of those films that would look particularly good on a big screen.
Byzantium isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, but neither is it a blood-and-guts horror film. It’s a little like Twilight in being at its core a romance between a vampire and a human, but it’s also an engaging, if flawed, thriller. This time the tension isn’t between vampires and their human prey; it’s between the race of vampires, here a sort of eternal Victorian men’s club a la Boodles or The Athanaeum, and the only two female vampires in existence, who are being hunted down for violating the rule of the order (i.e. that only men should be vampires). It’s a feminist vampire story, something that, to my knowledge, is entirely new in the genre, unless you count Buffy. It isn’t perfect; Gemma Arterton’s and Sam Riley’s characters are well-acted but inconsistent in their aims, and their respective about-faces at the end of the story, though necessary for the conclusion, make little sense psychologically. Saoirse Ronan and Caleb Landry-Jones, on the other hand, are pretty much perfect. (Landry Jones, unprepossessing as Banshee in the X-Men franchise, is absolutely magnetic as the terminally ill Frank, and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were terrible.) The film also features Thure Lindhardt and Jonny Lee Miller being evil and Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy being cluelessly human. Its greatest weakness is its title–Byzantium is ostensibly the name of a bed-and-breakfast in a small coastal resort town in Britain, which presumably opened some time in the sixties or seventies. I can’t imagine an English family opening a B&B called Byzantium in any decade, even the swinging sixties. A bar, maybe, but not a B&B. Interesting and evocative as a title for a vampire film; completely at odds with the tone and locale of the story that the film unfolds.

Image result for The Only Lovers Left Alive
The Only Lovers Left Alive

The best and most recent of my favourites of the genre is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous lovers (Adam and Eve), Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s wayward (well, possibly psychotic) younger sister, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. (The Christopher Marlowe.) There is some existential angst and fear of a mysterious plague that is killing vampires, but mostly the story is a snapshot of what Adam and Eve experience during the course of one of their rare reunions, on this occasion interrupted by Eve’s younger sister Ava. There really isn’t much in the way of gore or terror in this one; it is instead littered with a wealth of cultural references and gorgeous cinematography. It is the most accessible of Jarmusch’s films, and the most elegant of Tom Hiddleston’s–well, except perhaps for his turn as Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (swoon). I’d like to add a superlative for Tilda Swinton, but when is she not unheimlich and beautiful in a performance?

There are certainly other excellent vampire films, but if I covered them all we’d be here all day. (If you haven’t seen The Hunger, do, because–well, David Bowie is in it, do you need another reason?) Also, if you’re looking for a novel dealing with vampires that is not modeled on either Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, I strongly recommend Lauren Owen’s The Quick–a bit steampunk, a bit literary, all kinds of awesome. And of course there is the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Happy Halloween!

Friday Fave: Possession, by A. S. Byatt

possession

“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.”

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a perfect treasure-box of a novel. I keep a shelf of books in my room of those works that have changed my life, changed how I look at the world: Possession is one that I take with me when I travel, like a literary comfort blanket. Dark Hour of Noon was the first of those; unless I count Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark and Sheila Finch’s The Garden of the Shaped for introducing me to fantasy and sci-fi, Possession was second, and possibly the most significant. I had always known I wanted to study English at university–what else does a person do when reading is as important a part of her life as eating and breathing?–but when I finished Possession I knew I wanted to make a career in the literary world beyond being a writer, be it as an academic, in publishing, book-binding, something. It also instilled in me a life-long habit of hunting through second-hand bookshops looking for lost treasures.

I discovered the novel via one of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror yearbooks with the gorgeous Thomas Canty covers, among the list of novels worth reading at the back. I’ve always found this a bit odd, even at my first reading; it is not a fantasy novel, although it does incorporate a few short fable-like stories and a lot of discussion of mythology on the part of the main characters. I looked for it at my local bookshop because I liked the title, and because it had won the Booker Prize; I didn’t know what the Booker Prize was (I was fourteen, and had only a hazy idea of what the Internet was at that point), but it sounded interesting. When I found it, I fell in love with the cover alone, and it remains one of the most perfect choices in terms of using a preexisting painting to illustrate a book, in my estimation.

I had been reading adult novels for years at this point and by no means did this end my love of sci-fi and fantasy (or comic books, which I had also discovered a few months before), but this changed my taste; I stopped reading the small, cheaply bound paperbacks, quickly coming to the conclusion that most literary fiction worth reading came in the larger-sized paperbacks with better quality paper and fancier covers. I discovered The English Patient and E. M. Forster shortly afterwards, and remained convinced well into my twenties that being published by Vintage was almost a guarantee that a novel was good. I continue to hope that someone will make a mini-series out of it–the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow was a good film, but was pretty loose in its telling of the story, and a great deal had to be cut out. A version starring Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai and directed by Suzanne Bier would probably be close to perfect, although I know this will never happen.

The intersections of the two parallel stories told in Possession have so many layers to them that in over twenty years of re-reading this novel it’s never become “predictable”–I know the story, but can’t memorize the intricate turns of the narrative because each reading highlights some different aspect, or in the months since my previous reading I’ll have learned something new that reveals a different significance to some scene or reference which I never noticed before. It is an investigation of all the different meanings the concept of possession can have, from the physical to the legal to the paranormal. It is a mildly satirical portrait of academia, and the impact of feminist theory on traditional literary criticism; it is an explication of what feminism and feminist theory represents, and why it is necessary; it is a literary detective story; it is an homage to the mythology and its influence on culture and the imagination; it is an exploration of the different ways sexuality shapes our lives and the consequences of denying it–personally and culturally. It is two (literally and figuratively) related love stories, one Victorian and one contemporary, one doomed and one founded on hope. At its core, it is itself a love letter to art and literature, to how a work of art is born as an expression of one’s own identity and goes on to shape the identities of others. It is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and if you haven’t read it already, you’re missing out.

“An odd phrase, ‘by heart,’…as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.”

 

A Note on Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights

 

I discovered Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy last year and fell head over heels for the steampunk London she created and the characters inhabiting it, so much so that I barely cared about the anachronisms and inconsistencies in details of the story that are supposed to be realistic–something that usually strikes me like nails on the proverbial chalkboard.

One detail of the story really did bother me, though, and it isn’t something Clare alone is guilty of. When the heroine, Tessa, is falling for the boy of her decidedly literary dreams, she envisions him more than once as Heathcliff, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

When and how did Heathcliff get turned into a figure of romance and desire?

Wuthering Heights is a phenomenal novel, one of my personal favourites and one of the greats of English literature. If you haven’t read it, do, it’s amazing. The thing is, it’s not a romantic, bittersweet love story. It’s a story about a boy who is tormented by his adopted family who grows up into a violent, bitter sociopath. Heathcliff is not a nice man, and he is not written that way. I am endlessly confused as to where this idea that he belongs among the ranks of Mr. Darcy and Pip from Great Expectations came from; why it persists is less of a mystery, but it’s still frustrating.

It must have happened before the 1970s, for Heath Ledger’s parents to name him and his sister after Heathcliff and Cathy. Was the soppy 1939 film version responsible? Are people reading the Cliffs Notes version and skipping the actual book? I would love to start a conversation about this, because it isn’t the sort of thing one can find an answer to in any volume of criticism on Emily Bronte, and unless I know where to read for the answers I want I’ll be trailing around in the dark for who knows how long. If you have any insights, please please please feel free to leave a comment.

(P.S. if you’re looking for a more faithful adaptation of the story, the 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche and the 2011 version by Andrea Arnold are both excellent, although Arnold’s only covers part of the story. I love Tom Hardy and all, but the 2009 version was a disappointment–particularly because he would have made a brilliant Heathcliff if the script had been better. )

Friday Fave: Dark Hour of Noon

20160513_082841

This is the first novel that changed my life, that shaped a part of who I am. I was nine years old, wandering through my school’s library, looking for longer books with appealing covers because I was still at an age where I liked illustrations–it would be another couple of years before I started to dislike them because I found my imaginings of the characters to be so much more interesting. (This book is also the root of my dislike of the idiom that you can’t judge a book by its cover–I’ve discovered a number of excellent novels because I

was attracted by their covers. I do realize that’s irrelevant to the meaning of the saying, but it still irritates me.)

I knew about World War II–my father was a child in London during the Blitz, and my mother remembers the German POWs who worked for her father and other neighbours when she was very small. Our bookshelves at home are still lined with biographies of Churchill and dozens of histories of the military aspect of the conflict. I was always more interested in the social side of history, though, and beyond watching Hope and Glory every time it came on TV, I didn’t know much about that side of things at that point. I picked the book up because I was intrigued by the illustration, and I loved the title; there was no synopsis on the back of the book, and most of the excerpt on the inside of the front cover is a discussion between two characters about the mythological heroes of Poland. I may have thought it was in part a fantasy story–I’d already discovered fantasy at that age, and was enchanted by all things mythology-related.

Fantasy is is decidedly not, although it is nightmarish in many parts. It follows Trina, seven years old in 1939, as her world is torn up by the Nazi occupation of Poland. She watches what her friends and loved ones endure at the hands of the invading soldiers, and soon decides to fight back in whatever way she can. The novel chronicles Trina’s life during the war, and the ways that she and several like-minded children mounted what resistance they could to the occupation.

It is still my favourite novel about WWII, and my favourite YA novel. I don’t remember how many times I read in the three years between my discovering it and graduating the school whose library owned the only copy I could find. I looked for it in every bookshop I went into, every garage sale. Everyone always thought I was talking about Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. A few years later I found another copy in the library of the elementary school attached to my high school and seriously considered how to steal it, leaving money in its place, but I never had the chance–it was not a room I routinely had access to, and I could hardly have come and gone unnoticed, as the librarians knew all the children they worked with. Then came the age of online book stores, just after I’d finished university, and Margaret found a pristine first edition for me one Christmas–one of the many reasons she’s an amazing friend. I shrieked like my nine-year-old self when I unwrapped it, much to my parents’ consternation. I spent that Christmas day re-reading the book, and have done so again many times since. It isn’t one of the books I carry around with me from country to country, because I’ve done my best to keep it from damage, but it is always on my favourites shelf.

It grieves me every time I see a list of books for children and teens about the Holocaust and this is not on it. At times I wonder if this is because too many parents and teachers found it too grim–it is grim subject matter, and unsparing in its depictions of the violence committed by the Nazi army and by those who resisted them–but most of the time I’m inclined to think it’s just because it wasn’t advertised successfully. Since the recent success of Elizabeth Wein’s excellent Codename: Verity and Rose Under Fire, as well as other YA novels such as A Northern Light, I keep hoping that it will be republished and get more attention. I’ve seen it mentioned in a few scholarly works on the representation of war in children’s fiction, but it doesn’t have the readership it deserves. I continue to hope it will be rediscovered, and that this will change.

 

Reading: Octavia Butler, Kindred

Author Octavia Butler

Kindred is a seminal work of science fiction. This is what I had been told, and this is what I went in to the book expecting. It’s not what I came out thinking (although I thought plenty of other things). Octavia Butler’s novel features a woman who finds herself inexplicably pulled through time whenever a particular person is in mortal peril, which unfortunately happens a lot. She is a black woman. He is a white man in early-19th century Maryland, the son of a slave plantation owner.

Published in 1979, Kindred is generally referred to as the first science fiction published by a black woman. 1979 was the year in which Margaret Thatcher was elected, Michael Jackson released “Off the Wall,” and five people protesting the KKK were shot and killed (by the KKK) in North Carolina. As relevant as the complex issues Butler raises in her book felt to me today, I truly can only imagine what they felt like to the average reader in 1979.

Cover of Octavia Butler's KindredButler’s writing is thoughtful and well-crafted, the pace of the story fast and yet each scene lingers. The relationships that Dana (the heroine) develops–with her white husband in both their own time and the antebellum South; with the slave-owning, abused boy to whom she is so oddly tied; and to the enslaved blacks on the plantation–are richly imagined.

That being said, I had a lot trouble reading this book as science fiction. Sure, Dana is pulled through time. That’s pretty weird. Turns out the guy is her distant relative. That’s intriguing. But there is no more exploration of that theme, and no investigation into what greater meaning it may have. The characters seem at best bemused.

I enjoy a lot of speculative fiction that doesn’t fit squarely within the box of a genre. And yes, science fiction has evolved a lot since 1979, but Dune had been out for 14 years, Star Wars for two; the genre was pretty well established. There is so very little in Kindred that could identify it with science fiction that I wonder if it hurts rather than helps the book’s tremendous power.

Reading this as a straight parable, or as historical fiction in which liberties are taken (see: Outlander…), might open it up to new readers. Far from diminishing Butler’s work, I would rather see it correctly homed so it could have the broader recognition it deserves.

Stuck for POC-authored sci fi? Try this excellent Buzzfeed list of 19 books, and one from Colorlines for comparison.

Still, perhaps I am not accounting sufficiently for the glass ceiling effect. Kindred does not constitute science fiction to me, but for a black woman to write herself in to a genre that had previously excluded her? That is extraordinary.

Have you read this or other works by Octavia Butler–forget that, by any person of color in this still very-white, very-male genre? Do you think I’m being too restrictive in my definition of science fiction? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

The Friday Fave: Rabih the Divine

About ten years ago I tried to read one of Sebastian Faulks’ novels–Birdsong, I think. I got about fifty pages into it and then gave up in disgust, bored to tears. A few weeks later I came across some interview with him in a paper wherein he was asked why he thought his novels appealed so much to women; his answer, if I recall correctly, was something along the lines of ‘I think women like my novels because I write from their perspective and in order to do this you have to really, really love them.’ This is patent nonsense. You can love a thing (or a person) to distraction and not have the faintest clue how they work inside. As far as I could tell from my attempt at reading his work, Sebastian Faulks’ novels are popular with women because they are romance novels in the line of Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier; better written than your average pulp/Harlequin nonsense but often relying on the same tired damsel-in-distress motif to model a plot on. (Perhaps I do an injustice to Seton and du Maurier; from what I’ve read of them their damsels do have a bit of gumption and don’t–always–rely on a man to save them. Perhaps I do an injustice to Faulks–Charlotte Grey seemed like she might be a more interesting heroine. However, there are so many other writers whose work does not make me want to throw the book across the room in irritation that I have no intention of reading more of Faulks to find out.)

So anyway. This is not a post about Sebastian Faulks. This question of how well writers of one gender can write from the perspective of another is forever popping up in literary journalism, and it’s one I’ve always been interested in, mostly because I think it’s not actually that difficult to do if one can separate what makes a person human and from the boxes and labels that social prejudice has trained us to fix onto whatever is “other” to us, be that gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. Alameddine excels in this regard, and has a particular gift for rendering characters of extraordinary quiet human grace.

The first of his works I read (well, listened to as an audiobook) was An Unnecessary Woman, in one of my sporadic attempts to keep up with novels when they’re published, rather than ten years afterwards (I still kick myself for having waited so long to read The Blind Assassin). I loved it and intend to read it again–as a paper book, this time–but it was that level of enjoyment that makes me seek out another of the writer’s books (in no great hurry) rather than immediately place that work on the shelf of my very favourites.

A few months later I decided to listen to I, the Divine, because it kept popping up on my Amazon and Goodreads recommendations and I loved the cover. Once in a while a publisher does give a book a cover as gorgeous as the story within. (I didn’t set out to consume all of his novels as audiobooks, it was kind of an accident of circumstance.) About an hour in I started finding excuses to keep listening–I get so much more housework done when there’s an audiobook I’m desperate to finish–and wondering why it had not won *all* the awards when it was published. Did its publisher not submit it for prize consideration? Did people just not read it? Why? Once I’d finished the novel, I sort of understood why didn’t win all the awards, but I maintain that it should have won some and it deserves to be much better known. Upon Googling the book, I found a handful of reviews, but there wasn’t a huge amount of press–his more recent novels have happily garnered more attention. I’m glad An Unnecessary Woman and The Hakawati got all the attention that they did, but I, the Divine, is every bit as good. I suspect Koolaids will be as well–that’s next on my list.

I, the Divine is the story of Sarah and her rather large collection of parents, step- and grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, ex-husbands and lovers, at various points across their lives in Lebanon and the U.S. Each chapter is the “first”, approaching Sarah’s story from a new perspective, moving backward and forward in time until a full picture finally emerges. It is not a story about achieving a grand understanding, or how a single event shapes one life, or a number of lives; it is about one person learning to understand herself, and a group of people learning to understand each other, shaped by a series of events and relationships that not all of those involved are aware of, even as they are affected by the consequences. If you prefer straightforward, linear narratives, then this is not the novel for you, but if experimental and unusual narrative forms are to your taste, give it a try. It is variously wickedly funny, moving, and heartbreaking. It is about a large family in Lebanon and their experience during the war there; it is about living as a foreigner in the United States; it is about being a woman in two different cultures where women are still seen as less capable, and whose value is ultimately measured in terms of how well they fulfill the roles of wife, mother, and sex object, regardless of their other talents and accomplishments; and, like most good novels, it is an insight into how we can be damaged by events and actions we have no control over, how we try our best to conceal and grow past those traumas, and don’t always succeed. There is also a foul-mouthed parrot named Cookie whose few scenes would be worth reading the novel for even if the rest of the story was dull. (Trigger warnings: There is a lot of swearing, not least of which is the parrot’s x-rated commentary during his few appearances; there is also a fairly graphic description of a sexual assault. This is not a novel for young teenagers.)

I, the Divine made Alameddine one of my favourite writers, so like all objects of my hero-worship I started looking up everything I could find on him. He was a successful artist before publishing his first novel, and he maintains an active and interesting presence on social media. His blog, The Art Divas, is full of gorgeous poetry and visual arts, and he announces his presence on Twitter every morning with a spate of the funniest, most random, or just plain strangest gifs on offer on a given day. He also posts poetry from other writers on his Facebook page on a regular basis, and has excellent taste. I very much understand why some writers eschew social media altogether, but I love how he uses his presence to promote the things he loves and believes worthy of more attention, and I wish more artists did the same (Janelle Monae and Lin-Manuel Miranda do similar things, but we need more in this vein, I think).

A few related links worth checking out:

http://rabihalameddine.com/

http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-rabih-alameddine-20140209-story.html

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/09/rabih-alameddine-interview-an-unnecessary-woman-national-book-award

https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/this-is-also-my-world/

If you haven’t read any of Rabih Alameddine’s novels, do yourself a favor and pick one up the next time you’re in a decently stocked bookstore, or order one from Powell’s or Amazon or wherever. His next novel, The Angel of History, is out next October, and I can’t wait.