Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The future of another timeline (a review of Trouble and her friends by Melissa Scott)

Reading Trouble and her friends made me nostalgic.  Remember when we thought that Usenet would evolve into an entirely different world that was separate from, but connected to our own?  When we visualized it as a place of abstract shapes and arbitrary physical laws, a virtual frontier where outlaw crackers would battle through corporate Intrusion Control Entities (ICE) for data or for valuable code?   Remember when we thought the internet would be "Cyberspace"?

As I was reading Scott's book, I was reminded of the title of Annalee Newitz's latest book:  The future of another timeline.  Trouble lives in the future of a timeline not our own.... the future as imagined in 1993 or so, a future where you visit cyberspace by plugging a cable directly into your augmented brain.  A future that is an oddly hopeful dystopia where dispossessed kids can develop world-shaking skills, and world-shaking reputations.

I wonder if Scott is ever nostalgic for that future too? It seems so remote from us now.  The internet is ....just so ordinary.  It's out-of-date websites that local businesspeople don't have the access or the skills to update with their COVID-19 opening hours (if any). It's corporate news sites, struggling to find ways to gather the money to do journalism. It's advertising tracking you through your days.  It's working from home, doing yoga from home, having video calls with your pet. It's the crazy uncle you used to only have to talk to at Christmas posting offensive political memes on your Facebook page.  It's community and an excuse never to talk to anyone directly, all at the same time.

Unless you're William Gibson (who scares me), we suck at predicting the future.

And all of that is a digression from saying that Trouble and her friends is a well-imagined world with engaging characters, an interesting plot, and interesting ideas.  Why haven't I read more Melissa Scott?  I need to scare up more of her books, and visit more of her past futures.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Grocery Story by Jon Steinman

The full title of this book is Grocery Story: the promise of food co-ops in the age of grocery giants.

I bought this book in my local food coop.  The author was there with a table one Saturday, flogging copies to shoppers.

The author is very dedicated to food:  local food, empowering farmers, empowering eaters, growing diversity in the food economy. He spent a decade creating a weekly podcast on food issues, helped organize a collective that put grain grown by local farmers directly in the hands of eaters, and served on the board of the Kootenay food Co-op in Nelson BC for a few years.

He wrote the book as an expose of the state of food economy and the enormous power yielded by food retailers on consumers and on the entire supply chain.  Farmers and food manufacturers can be bankrupted by the fickleness of huge monopolistic chains who contract for a supplier's entire production, and then renege on their obligations, leaving farmers with huge quantities of unsellable food.  Manufacturers are universally forced to pay retailers tens of thousands of dollars in "shelving fees" in order to get their products stocked....only to have those same retailers copy their products by issuing cheaper "own brand" versions, undercutting their business. Whole Foods required a small-scale chocolate manufacturer of the author's acquaintance to provide days of volunteer labour annually to take her turn managing the entire chocolate section of every BC store: removing all products, cleaning shelves, and restocking in exchange for the privilege of selling what she produces the rest of the year. 

The solution?  Well, Steinman points out that until well past mid-century, anti-monopoly laws controlled the concentration of ownership of grocery stores.  But the days of government acting in the interest of communities or of consumers is well past.  Today Steinman advocates food coops as a way for consumers to take direct power over what they eat, and as a way to create the food economy that they want to participate in.

Steinman means the book to be inspiring:  he even ends with a call to action, telling readers that they can found their own coops, join existing coops, and participate in a food revolution.

But the stories he tells about coops .... are mixed.  He discusses the history of food coops, mostly in North America, focusing on the wave of natural food food coops founded in the 1970s. He talks about the history of his own Kooteny coop, including the story of the recent-to-eater grain collective sponsored by that organization.  And he talks about a new wave of food coops founded post 2008. 

The two "modern" coops whose stories he tells in some detail, both founded in "food deserts" in American low income communities....failed, no more than 3 years after they opened, despite the huge amount of fund-raising and organizing that went into their creation.  After a roaring start, the Kootenay grain coop shrank....Steinman seems forcedly patient at the lack of commitment of members who found that they couldn't manage to mill all their own flour and then use it to make all of their own pasta and bread.   He doesn't talk about how many of those 70s era coops are still thriving, and why...I know that some are barely hanging in there, and many have closed.

Overall, the book has many ideas for improving coops, best practices from active coops, and a whole lot of passion for the ecological, economic, and practical benefits of local control of food. It just isn't inspiring in the way that the author intended. 

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

These two books don't have very much in common, other than being the two novels that I have most recently completed. Why am I discussing them together?  Maybe because the alternate title for this post could be "Literary fiction".

I don't read much literary fiction.  Mostly I find it dull or I assume that I will.  I think of literary fiction as books about the boring problems of boring middle class people much like myself.   Who could possibly want to read that?

But in fact, that sort of literary fiction has been out of fashion since at least the 1970s.  You can read A portrait of an artist as a young man if you want to, but The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen or A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles are a lot more au courant.

So why do I think of literary fiction as dull and/or simply unattractive, especially given that I quite liked both Underground Railroad and Ragged Company, and wasn't tempted to put either book down despite my new resolution not to waste time with books when they aren't working out?

Good question.

When I'm reading for relaxation, I want books that are both engaging, and predictable in certain prescribed ways.  If I'm reading crime fiction, I need to know that the heroine's beloved pet cat will not be harmed and that the villain will be brought to justice by the last page. If I'm reading "junk SF", I need to know that there will be a strong coherent plot with lots of action and adventure, relatively few inconsistencies, and an engaging protagonist.

If I'm reading for ideas, I want a novel that explores "what ifs" about society, human nature, or science. I want a novel that stretches my mind, and makes me think about what could be, what might have been, and why things are the way they are.  In other words, there's a reason why I never say "SciFi".  My best-loved genre is "Speculative Fiction", thank you very much.

Where does that leave "literary fiction"?  On the shelf, usually.  Literary fiction can be very unpredictable.  There may not be a  predictable story arc: in fact, there might not be much of a plot. Characters might be unsympathetic and difficult to empathize with.  If it's very literary, literary fiction can be dense and difficult to read.  Bad Things are very likely to happen, because this is Serious Fiction.  You are (or at least I am) constantly suspicious that there's More Going On Than Meets the Eye...which means that I feel like I really ought to be trying harder. 

In short, I don't try to read literary fiction for relaxation.

If I'm interested in reading something "harder"....well, there's lots of good SF that I haven't gotten to yet, and good SF seems to ask more interesting questions. 

All that being said....when I was trying to take out an e-book for my Christmas trip, I couldn't find anything that looked interesting that was available to download now. So I reluctantly defaulted to Underground Railroad, because I'd heard that it was based on the conceit that underground railroad for escaped slaves had been an actual physical undergroud railroad.  That sounded interesting....almost SF-like.

Underground Railroad reminded me why one wants to read literary fiction.  It is not dull.  It is not predictable (in the Bad Way of having a hackneyed plot and stale characters).  It is beautifully written.  It tells a searing story.  And while the novel might not be necessary reading for me, as a non-American -- I don't live in a society where I have a visceral need to be reminded of the realities of this particular horror because of the way that it continues to scar every day's social and economic reality -- it's still an important reality to understand.  I really enjoyed it, insofar as you can enjoy something like this or like Slave Narratives of the Underground Railroad (a nonfiction collection of stories collected from contemporary books, pamphlets, and newspapers, which I read in 2017). 

It inspired me to finally download something by Richard Wagamese, who I've been meaning to read since running across his obituary in 2017 (a sad way to learn of an author's existence).  Reading stories by and about Canada's indigenous peoples IS a visceral need for Canadians, given that the ongoing story of colonization is the equivalent Canadian scar.

Ragged Company is the story of four homeless people who band together as a "street family", and what happens when they unexpectedly find a lottery ticket worth $13 million.  It's not one of Wagamese's best-known books.  I'm also assuming it's not one of Wagamese's best: the characters are well-drawn, but the story doesn't move quickly and it's a bit predictable.  But it is an interesting read.  Three of the five main characters are indigenous, although First Nations identity and traditions are only truly important to one of them.  All of the homeless characters are deeply traumatized (which is something far more likely to happen to indigenous peoples here in Canada), and the point of the book is not so much the story of their unexpected good fortune as it is the story of how those past traumas have made them the people they are today, and what a path out of that trauma might look like.

It's a book that made me think:  not about the novel's structure or its literary conceits (which is the kind of question that Underground Railroad left me with), but about the people who surround me.  Who are the homeless people that live around Granville and Broadway?  What are their stories?

It made me see them as people again, not as panhandlers to be guiltily avoided or as a Social Problem personified. 

That's a valuable thing.

So, maybe I've been too hard on literary fiction.  Maybe I should be more open-minded. Maybe if I select the books I want to read, instead of having them selected for me (via a bookclub), I can actually enjoy and appreciate more literary novels.  Maybe I should start adding them back to my literary diet.

Monday, 9 December 2019

SPQR by Mary Beard

SPQR is a brief modern history of Rome from its earliest beginnings to the end of its prime years of empire.  Beard has a full and distinguished career as a classicist behind her, and in SPQR she writes fluently and insightfully not only about what we know about ancient Rome, but also about what the Romans thought they knew about Roman history, what most of us think we know about Roman history, and what we actually don't know and can't now ever know.

For example, did Livia really poison Augustus by painting the figs on a tree with poison to clear the way for her son Tiberius to become emperor?  Was Claudius really so in love with gambling that he outfitted his carriage such that he could continue to dice even as he travelled from place to place?  Did Nero use a self-sinking boat in an attempt to assassinate Agrippina, and was her maid murdered in her stead when the maid falsely claimed that she was her mistress assuming that the guards would rescue rather than kill her? 

These are the kind of stories that make Roman history the stuff of melodramatic television series almost 2000 years after the fact, and these are the kinds of stories that we love to read about Rome.  However, Beard points out that in most cases, we do not have contemporary accounts of these events. Roman historians like Suetonius or Tacticus wrote 50 or 100 years afterwards.  Just how could some of the stories they tell have escaped the palace walls in the first place?  How accurate were those stories 2 or 3 or more generations down the road? Especially when contemporary politics made it convenient to play up the debauchery of a Nero, or the competence of a Hadrian? It seems likely that substantial parts of the stories about Rome that we love to read might just be pure invention. 

Beard brings this kind of questioning perspective to the full sweep of Roman history, from the competing mythologies of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome by Aeneas to the economic and political reasons behind the fall of the Roman Republic.  She asks questions about what we think we know, and reminds us how much of our knowledge is based on a somewhat random collection of surviving stones and inscriptions, and a very incomplete collection of stories, letters, and histories. 

SPQR is an interesting read. 

But as I was reading, I wondered why. Knowing more about Roman history, or even knowing more about historiography, doesn't really serve any long term interests of mine. And SPQR, while well-written and erudite, isn't one of those amazing books that turns your understanding of some part of the world upside down. 

Fundamentally, these days I feel that I no longer have an infinite number of books in my future.  I've recently given myself permission to put down novels part way through if they aren't really working for me.  Maybe it's time to be a bit more selective about what which of my random curiosities I choose to pursue by reading nonfiction?

Unfortunately, saying that out loud makes me feel rather old. 

Sunday, 13 October 2019

On Writing by Stephen King and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are very different books.  On Writing is partly memoir, partly an inspirational work, partly a guide to the writing life, and also, in small part, a guide to writing.  Steering the Craft is a technical writing workshop in written form, complete with exercises and instructions on beginning your own writing group.

In composing his writing manual, King relies almost entirely on story.  He tells stories to illustrate the importance of "reading a lot, and writing a lot". He tells stories about the pernicious adverb,  and invents stories to illustrate their evil.  He tells stories about agents, about writing careers, about adding and removing detail in your work, and even tells stories about writing the book that we hold in our hands.  What his book is NOT about is language. This is ironic, given that the story that King tells about the origin of On Writing is that he was inspired by Amy Tam, who bemoaned the fact that no one ever asks writers of popular fiction about language.

In contrast, it's no surprise to learn that Le Guin is the daughter of professors. Steering the Craft reads like a beginning textbook for a creative writing class.  Let's start at the sentence level, and cautiously expand to discuss elements of story like Point of View.  Let's illustrate our points with references from various literatures. Let's give students an opportunity to practice what we've just covered by including exercises.  Let's learn.

I found both books useful, but I picked up more useful nuggets from King's book than from Le Guin's, despite the fact that I love Le Guin's novels and don't find King's very interesting.  Oh well.

I do regret a bit that I read these two books simultaneously.  I have a long-standing insecurity about paragraph breaks. After you get past the basics of  "one subject, one paragraph", just how are you supposed to decide exactly when to start a new paragraph?  I've always felt that there was some secret that I was missing.  But one of these two books gave me a great insight: after you get past the basics, paragraphs are about the rhythm of the work.  I wish I knew which of these two authors to credit.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Yes, of course I've read Northanger Abbey before.  But I ran across an omnibus edition of Northanger Abbey that includes Lady Susan and Sanditon, and thought it might be interesting to read Jane Austen's juvenilia and unfinished last work, respectively.

I started with Northanger Abbey.

What struck me on this reading is how much Northanger Abbey reminded me of a Georgette Heyer novel.

Why?  The book focuses on a young heroine making her debut in the world, as so many Heyer books do, and Northanger Abbey takes place in Bath, the scene of so many Heyer novels. But the greatest similarity is that this is a light book, written to provide amusement.  The heroine of Northanger Abbey faces no life-altering stakes.  Her immediate happiness is very often at risk, as is her social comfort.  At one crisis point, she is humiliatingly embarrassed by her own lapse of judgement -- but she learns from it, and becomes closer to the friend who provides her with guidance.  Even the climax of the novel, where she is thrown out of the Tilbury's house and forced to make her own way home, unprotected and uncertain even of how to get there...passes without serious threat.  Catherine Morland makes her way safely back to her family. And just as in a Heyer novel, the climax of Northanger Abbey is quickly succeeded by our heroine's marriage to her worthy and much-loved suitor.

This lack of stakes is in sharp contrast to Austen's more mature works.  When Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Collins, she is putting both her own future and the future of her sisters and mother at jeopardy. Elizabeth's only hope is a good marriage, but the neighbourhood has a paucity of eligible gentlemen and she and the other girls have only their looks and their characters to recommend them -- which is very little in a world where property is the primary requirement for belonging to the class that they were born into.  In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price lives as an undervalued poor relation -- but in much greater comfort and with much greater gentility than is possible for her mother and younger siblings, who suffer from their mother's improvident marriage.  Not to mention that the book features the utter ruination of Maria Norris, who marries for money but then falls into scandal when she afterwards falls for the fickle and irresponsible Henry Crawford.

Northanger Abbey is the book of a young woman, full of high spirits, who is amusing herself with her writings and aims to amuse her readers too.  The book not infrequently "breaks the fourth wall" when the author speaks directly to her readers with asides about the value of novels, or the happy fate of her protagonist.

Heyer doesn't explicitly do the amusing asides -- although she delights in showing her characters in a charming and yes, amusing light -- but almost all of her books very much feel like this one.

Comparing Austen to Heyer is of course absurd -- Heyer wrote in imitation of Austen.  But after re-reading Northanger Abbey, it seems that in particular Heyer wrote in imitation of Northanger Abbey, as well as in imitation of the types of melodrama that Austen satirizes here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Summer will show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Pages: 329
Published: 1936

This is an odd novel.

It does some things very well.  I'm not sure I've ever read anything that seems to capture so well the experience of living through momentous events.  As you live your life, you don't necessarily know that you're living through something that history will regard as significant.  And as the experience drags on, day by day, week by week, month by month...well, you have to eat, and get dressed, and be hungry or bored just as you would if History weren't happening. Your friends will still misunderstand you, your ex-husband might still betray you for the most personal of reasons.  And the fact that you're literally part of a Communist plot might not feel as important to you as your lover's life or happiness.

Some parts of the characterizations are also skilful.  The entire first section of the book captures in a very plausible way the interior life of an upper class British woman of the mid-19th century.  Mrs Willoughby of Blandameer is both focused on perfectly meeting the obligations of raising her children and of managing her estate, and is impatient with them.  The doctor's wife is a mouse who is fiercely, secretly opposed to meddling in her neighbour's life. The lime kiln keeper is equally indifferent to the expectations and the griefs of his mistress.

And yet, the novel does some things so badly.  It's disjointed:  there are jumps in time that don't really make sense.  The fatal, compelling attraction of the main character to her ex-husband's mistress Minna isn't well drawn, and the previous mutual attraction between the ex-husband and Minna seems implausible once you meet both characters. It also assumes things you may not be familiar with:  if you don't know much about the European revolutions of 1848 you might not realize that the characters are in the midst of them, and the ending of the novel will not have the same resonance if you don't recognize that Sophie is reading the Communist Manifesto.

I picked this up at the library, initially thinking that it was an imprint of the Virago Press. Instead it's a similar 'lost classics' imprint from the New York Review of Books.  It has a similar interest:  in the moment, it is impossible to tell which books will be thought to be important by a later era.  And yet, the books that "don't last", that aren't characterized as "classics", and that don't join the "canon"....can still be interesting reads.  This is one of them.