A year of books (6): Reading as refuge

Time now for the sixth installment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor, 2010). Wow, this book is terrific. I guess I’d call it magical-realism-meets-urban-fantasy, set in (approximately) Sudan in an undefined but near future.  It follows a young sorceress, Onyesonwu, who comes into her power while seeking revenge for her mother’s rape and resolution to a genocidal conflict (content warning, the scenes of rape and genocide can be difficult to read). Onyesonwu is a terrific character, both impressive and relatedly human, and the story is fascinating both for its plot and its setting.  This is one of those books that takes you somewhere absolutely new, and gives you a bit of a shaking along the way.

Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2003). I started this thinking it would be a sequel to the superb Curse of Chalion. It isn’t; instead, it picks up the story of Ista, a relatively minor character as the mad queen in the first book. What follows is a very entertaining medieval-castles-and-keeps fantasy with some interesting twists – and Ista has become a very compelling character. Now, I have perhaps been reading too many castles-and-keeps fantasies lately, as I’m getting slightly irritated by everyone’s fascination with this particular time period and by fantasy worlds that are thinly disguised Europe. This may be one reason I enjoyed Who Fears Death so much, and also a reason I should probably read something by Charles DeLint soon. But, Bujold’s Chalion books are excellent, and there’s no doubt I’ll eventually return for more.

Bloody Genius (John Sandford, 2019). OK, so the antidote for too much medieval castles-and-keeps fantasy is, in my case, a John Sandford mystery/thriller.  Bloody Genius is the 12th in a series featuring Minnesota detective Virgil Flowers. The books, like Flowers, are coarse, fast-moving, both funny and tragic, and always thoroughly entertaining.  The only hitch? This one is a campus novel, in a way – the murder victim is a medical researcher and campus politics figure in the plot. Here’s the thing: I wish there were more novels about scientists – but I don’t usually enjoy reading them. Reading, for me, is a diversion from what I do all day, and I don’t want campus politics or research culture coming into it! So I was irritated for a while, but in the end, Sandford is just too good at grabbing the reader and not letting go. Not my favourite of all the Flowers novels; but it scratched the itch.

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (Neil Peart, 2002). A travelogue of sorts: Neil Peart (who some will recognize as the drummer from the Canadian progressive-rock band Rush), grieving the deaths of his daughter and wife, chronicles two years of motorcycle trips around much of North America. I have a fondness for travelogues that began with John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. Peart’s started very well, as he headed west and then north up the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon Territory. It was compelling through a summer’s ride from Inuvik to Belize, but eventually succumbed, I think, to the simple fact that Peart isn’t Steinbeck; there isn’t quite enough in the scenery, or in Peart’s contemplation on grief and healing, to make this a lot more than a traveling man’s diary. As Peart himself remarks, “Art may be the telling of stories, but of course that doesn’t mean the telling of stories is necessarily art”.  There’s a palpable irony in that observation coming not long after I’d come to the same conclusion about the book. The diary was interesting enough to keep me reading, but not to leave me much influenced. I think now I’ll listen to Signals (for the umpteen millionth time), which I’d have to say is Peart’s better work.

Artemis (Andy Weir, 2017). Weir’s followup to the inescapably popular The Martian, which I admit was pretty darned good. Artemis is pretty good without the ‘darned’: I enjoyed it as a quick read, but there isn’t a lot of depth to it. This is essentially a Robert Heinlein juvenile, except the plucky young hero is female, swears, and talks about sex. Still, the plucky-young-hero-breaks-the-rules-but-saves-the-moonbase formula is as exciting now as when Heinlein wrote it, and Weir does plotting well. If you’re looking for escapism and a heavy dose of technology in your thriller, you could do a lot worse.

Neon Prey (John Sandford, 2019). Hmm. Sandford’s Prey novels have been among my favourites in the mystery/thriller genre – tightly plotted, compelling characters, and above all, clever. But they’ve become more violent through the series, and I think less clever – perhaps with the 29th novel in a series that’s to be expected. Neon Prey has the series protagonist Lucas Davenport on the hunt for a cannibalistic serial killer, and if you think that sounds sensationalisticly violent, well, that’s only the start. I resolved at the beginning of this series to tell you about every book I read, but part of me feels embarrassed to have read this one. But that’s part of the point, really: I’m not the kind of person who only reads A Sand County Almanac, and if that descrdibes you too, that only means you’re a real person. I just wish I didn’t feel so dirty making that point.

My Side of the Mountain, On the Far Side of the Mountain, and Frightful’s Mountain (Jean Craighead George, 1959/1990/1999). As a boy, I loved My Side of the Mountain – the story of 12-year-old Sam Gribley, who runs away from his family to live in the woods. As a parent, I was thrilled to see my own son adopt the book as one of his favourites (although as a parent I was also rather startled, upon re-reading, to discover just how many adults knew about Sam living alone in the woods and thought it was better to show him how to use a flint and steel than to tell his parents where he was).  It’s now among the set of children’s books I return to faithfully when I need some familiar comfort. Sam is captivating as he builds shelter, forages for wild foods, and captures and trains a peregrine falcon. The sequels, written long after I read the first book as a boy, seem flat to me – especially Frightful’s Mountain, which is tedious and preachy. When I return to Sam Gribley – which I will – I think I’ll stick with the wonderful original.

That seems like a good place to cap off an installment. I seem to have read a lot since the last instalment, less than six weeks ago.  That’s especially so since I’ve been flat-out, exhaustingly busy trying to do my very best for my students moving coursework online while keeping my head just barely above water in my commitments to grad students and volunteer roles.  But these things are not unconnected. When the world seems to be getting the upper hand over me, (nontechnical) reading is my refuge. There’s a reason a lot of entries here are light entertainment (and this instalment is particularly heavy on the light, if you will). So I’m not embarrassed by the absence here of Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe someday. But maybe not.

© Stephen Heard  October 15, 2020

Did you miss the first five instalments?  Need some books to read (and a few to avoid)?  Here’s the first, and here’s the second, here’s the third, here’s the fourth, and here’s the fifth.

Image: Stack of books CC0 via Needpix.com

3 thoughts on “A year of books (6): Reading as refuge

  1. Jacob Landis

    Thanks for posting your list of books. There have been a lot of great ones; some on my “to read” list already and others that I have never heard of before. Seeing others maintaining some hobbies during the pandemic stress of teaching and doing research is a very positive reassurance as many of us are struggling. Thank you.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting. I find myself wondering if people really care about these posts, but you’ve put your finger on why I’ve stuck with it. Yes, I’m struggling too; but it’s OK to be struggling but to still take time for yourself.

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