Love, charm, and optimism

Becky Chambers writes charming science fiction novels that are primarily about all of the forms that love and family take, and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no exception.

Humans have long since left Earth and been integrated into Galactic society, but there are people who still live on the ships they first set out on, constantly improving and working on and changing those ships so people can continue to live comfortably on them. (And in a great touch: those ships are built from dismantled skyscrapers and other buildings and city structures from Earth – the Golden Gate Bridge or the Chrysler Building could be part of any ship.)

The plot comes from the fact that humans are relatively poor and technologically backwards and the Fleet is essentially that small town every teenager wants to leave for the big, exciting city. But there is also at least one person looking to come back, looking for a place to belong.

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” – Tolstoy

(Not that the book is on par with Tolstoy, but the quote is relevant here.) Record of a Spaceborn Few is the story of the town and the people in it, full of warmth and love in many different forms. Definitely recommended.

Can Florida really be that weird?

Honestly? I wanted This Is Not My Beautiful Life to be weirder. The pitch was: a woman, pregnant with her first child, opens up the door at her parents’ house to a police raid because they’re being charged with stock fraud, with possible drug charges. Did I mention this all happens in Florida? Because it all happens in Florida.

It was still a lovely story of a woman handling first her pregnancy, then life with a small child, coming to the realization that she has postpartum depression, trying to deal with the fact that her parents and their weird, weird friends are probably all hustling just on the other side of the law. It’s a situation that would drive anyone to distraction. She handles it sometimes poorly and sometimes well, like anyone would.

But with that pitch on the back of the book? It should have been crazier and weirder. I’m sure if it gets optioned for a TV show (and it would be a great mini-series) they will contrast her parents’ weird life with her much more normal family life.

Recommended for your late-summer reading needs.

Read this book

I have been avoiding writing up I Contain Multitudes because I’m not quite sure what to say about it.

It’s one of the first science books I’ve enjoyed in a long time? Check.
I learned a ton about how my body and its symbionts work? Check.
The world is a really amazing place and you should learn more about it by reading this book? Check.

And that’s about it. If you like science books about science, read I Contain Multitudes. You’ll probably enjoy it.

Joie de vivre

I had not heard of the Mitford sisters until I read The Sisters, a joint biography of the six girls, brought up just in time to become adults around/during WWII. I found that book fascinating, not knowing anything about any of them.

Hons and Rebels is the memoir of one of those sisters, Jessica Mitford. She was one of the younger three, and the only one who became a communist. The girls were raised in the 1930s, when Hitler was on the rise, and there was a debate in the house about fascism vs communism, with at least one sister going heavily for each side.

What I liked most about Hons and Rebels is the sense of life and vitality that comes through it. Jessica is not one to do anything halfway. She cares, she is passionate, and she truly sucked the marrow from life (to quote Dead Poets Society for a second). It was the joie de vivre that made me love this book, and her.

It’s not so much about the walking as it is the time to think about things

I am always up for a good book about either Paris or walking as a form of meditation. Flaneuse is a combination of the two. It’s part memoir, part exploration of other women walking around in art (literature, music, movies) in many cities – not just Paris – and taking the time to absorb the world around them.

Flaneuse was good, and reminded me that time is often more valuable than money, happiness-wise. Recommended.

Science + History = Awesomeness

I found The Fate of Rome SUPER fascinating. And I’m usually not into the whole Rome-is-dying-lets-find-out-why genre of Roman History. (I prefer stories about people doing their jobs well rather than people screwing up.) But The Fate of Rome applies all kinds of updated scientific techniques to history, telling a story of disease and climate change affecting the Roman Empire, and how competent (or not) rulers played into that.

There are two parts that really stick in my brain.

First, there’s a thing in Roman History called The Crisis of the Second Century. Basically after Commodus (the emperor portrayed in Gladiator), the Roman Empire kind of falls apart. The usually theories that are put forth are around inflation and rulers who don’t get the trust of the military (both of which were problems, don’t get me wrong). There’s a whole line of study that tries to answer the question, “Why didn’t the Empire fall apart during the second century? Because it maybe should have.”

BUT, there is new analysis of the epidemic that hit the Roman Empire during the second century, with a truly appalling death rate of somewhere around 60%. The Antonine plague, as it’s known, has been discussed plenty. It’s typically identified as a type of smallpox. There was a plague about 100 years later that has never been identified, and it is usually assumed to be another wave of smallpox. However, using modern epidemiology & pathology techniques and Galen’s discussion of the symptoms, it seems way more likely to be a type of ebola. Both diseases have truly appalling death rates: 30-40% for smallpox, possibly as high as 70% for ebola. Either way, the combination of plagues had a HUGE destabilizing effect on society.

The second part that really sticks in my brain requires a slightly longer explanation. By the 500s, the Roman Empire had been split into two and the Western half had fallen. The Eastern Half, now known as the Byzantine Empire, was still around. The emperors would occasionally try to reincorporate the Western Half, but would usually not make it very far.

Until Justinian, who was a super-capable human being. He had a general he could trust and who succeed in starting to bring Italy back into the fold during the 530s. And then 536 hit. No one knows why, but 536AD is the coldest year in the last 2000 years. Core ice from glaciers and tree-ring evidence show that there was a HUGE volcanic explosion in 536 and another in 539. This coupled with lower solar activity during the time (measured by the amount of certain radioactive elements in the air caused by solar radiation that then precipitate onto the glaciers), was hugely devastating. No sun means no crops means no food. Combine that with a conquering army sweeping across your land? Disaster.

Suffice it to say, Justinian didn’t succeed in rejuvenating the Western Roman Empire.

I learned SO MUCH about both how to combine history and science reading The Fate of Rome and so much more about why the Western Roman Empire fell. If you are at all into history, I highly recommend it.

Why does this website exist?

How to Read Novels Like a Professor gives you the tools to better analyze a novel: things like voice and chapter structure and ideas and beginnings and endings. But the thesis of the book is something near and dear to my heart: that you, as a reader, when you engage with a book, you make it better. These are the tools that Foster is giving you to better, more wholly engage with a work of fiction.

This is obviously near and dear to my heart – I write these reviews because they make me a better reader. What was that book about? Do I agree with it? Did I like the characters, and does that matter? Was the language any good? Reflecting on those things and more means I engage with the books I read (even the non-fiction) more deeply and enjoy reading even more than I already do. Caring about things like structure and sentences makes a difference. Knowing how to analyze a story makes a difference.

Obviously recommended.

It’s the Alaskan version of magical realism

I spent most of my last two weeks on vacation in Alaska. It was lovely: cold and wet and we spent lots of time outside and saw snow and wildlife and learned about native plants and animals.

In Ketchikan, I visited the local bookstore and bought a copy of To The Bright Edge of the World – what better thing to read than a book about the place you are?

We follow two stories in To The Bright Edge of the World: Colonel Allen Forrester and his initial explorations of Alaska for the United States government in the 1880s, and his new wife, Sophie Forrester, who was supposed to go with him until she found out she was pregnant. The book starts out with magical realism: Raven is the trickster god of Alaskan Native culture and features as a character, but the book is also very much grounded in reality.

I like how it captures both the struggle and romanticism of life in cold, barren Alaska. I also like how Sophie, stuck in Vancouver, Washington, changes as a person while her husband is gone.

Definitely recommended.

Don’t f*** with Circe

Madeline Miller collects the myths that mention Circe the nymph, gives her a backstory, and then puts it all into a very entertaining story.

If you remember Circe at all, it’s probably because you know her as one of the obstacles Odysseus had to face before he could get home (though, Calypso is the nymph with whom he dallies for seven years, not Circe). Circe is known for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs. In this telling, she still totally turns them into pigs – who knows what a bunch of hungry sailors are going to do to a woman living alone on an island. A woman has to defend herself, after all. But the story is more nuanced than that; she changes them back eventually and they use a hidden cove on her island to repair their ship over the winter, when it is usually too dangerous to sail anyway.

Overall, Circe is portrayed as a nymph who has been rather unjustly exiled to live on an island in the middle of the ocean, where she teaches herself magic from the herbs there. She makes friends with the animals – it’s very Cinderella in that way, now that I think about it. People and gods come to visit her over the years, and she’s even once allowed to leave the island for a particular task.

Circe is a woman who has been allowed to fully realize who she is and what she wants and figures out how to get it. It’s wonderful.

Recommended.

Having Feelings

I had so many conflicting thoughts while reading All The Single Ladies. I agree with her premise: that many women are marrying and having children later because that is how they get time to fully form who they are and what they want from life. We need to support women at all stages of their lives, from single hood, through partnership (if that’s what you want), through parenthood (again, if that’s in the cards), and beyond. All of this, and this is most of what she’s saying, is 100% correct, and we should celebrate all of the ways in which people, both men and women, realize their full potential.

Does my praise sound forced? It might. I do agree with what All The Single Ladies had to say, but at the same time, I felt vaguely attacked for my own life choices (married in my late 20s, having a child a year later). Did those decisions, negatively affect my career? Probably. Moving across the country twice didn’t help, though. I’ve always chosen a new adventure over building a career. It’s part of who I am.

And so: All The Single Ladies gave me Feelings. Feelings of “I didn’t do life right” except that I’ve done life right for me so far, and I hope to continue that. But that was a conclusion that took me some time to get to.

The later chapters also gave me feelings of “Yes, we absolutely need to make it easier for women to have both children and careers” and “female friendships are super important” and “society needs to realize how much money women have.”

So: recommended, but apparently I needed some psychoanalysis to get there.