Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

When I was in college, I was friends with a group of women who shared a flat on Divisidero Street in San Francisco, decades before it became a trendy neighborhood.  In the 1980’s, four college students living on four or five hundred dollars a month  each could come up with enough money to rent a flat.  As longs as no one spends all the rent money on cocaine.

One month, that happened.  The leaseholder, who collected all the cash, spend the rent money on cocaine.  When the land-lord came to call, they almost all ended up on the street.  One of them managed to convince the landlord to give them an extra month to come up with the money and to move the lease over to a different room-mate.

The former leaseholder, the one with the fondness for cocaine, was evicted by consensus.

So, yes, I do understand that addiction is a disease, but the rent is the rent.

Which is why I have less patience for stories of addiction than I might have.

Which is why I had a tough time with Michelle Tea’s novel, Black Tea.  I should have liked it more.  The first half of the story is set in San Francisco, much later, some 30 years or so, than my college days, but familiar territory that I am fond of. The main character is a lesbian woman who shares the flat with a series of roommates and girlfriends.  She even works in a book store.  But, boy does she use a lot of drugs. I kept thinking as I read her story that her roommate should throw her out.

So I found it all very tough reading in the same way I found Charles Bukowski’s Ham and Eggs tough reading.  I just don’t have much interest in stories of how far addicts go to serve their addiction be it alcohol or hard drugs.

Still, since Black Wave is in the Tournament of Books this year, I kept reading.  I think I’m glad I did.


Just short of halfway through the novel, the story shifts to Los Angeles.  The main character then turns to the reader to admit that not all of what she has told us so far is true.  The girl she introduced briefly as a sort of one-night-stand was really a long-term girlfriend.  She just didn’t want to be included in this “memoir.” Other details had been changed as well. So what’s really going on.

In Los Angeles we discover that the world is about to end.  Things are decaying around the main character who manages to get a job in a bookstore like the one she had in San Francisco.  Things get worse, gradually then dramatically.  It’s an unclear end of the world scenario that features the main character in a bookstore strewn with unshelved books, reminding me of Paul Auster’s wonderful novel In the Country of Last Things.  But Mr. Auster and Ms. Tea are up to very different things.  Ms. Tea is doing something much more in line with Samuel R. Delany’s Dahlgren in which a city, probably New York, decays in chaos while the hippie-like main characters build a temporary utopia amid the soon to be ruins of civilization.  I loved Dhalgren and came to enjoy the second part of Black Wave.

But what really surprised me about Black Wave is how moved I was at the ending. Even though I was enjoying the book by the end, I did not expect to care about the main character, this drug addled hipster with an attitude she is in no position to hold.  But I was.  The final scene, her last moments of life, struck me, profoundly struck me.

I did not expect that, not at all.

So I think I’m recommending Black Wave. 100 pages into the book I was ready to lay it aside for good, but by the final words on the last page I was thinking I might read more by Michelle Tea.  I think that’s a recommendation.

Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke

It took me almost three months to read this book.

The little page counter/timer on my Kindle claimed that I should have been able to read the entire book in just about three hours, but even when using the audio read-a-loud feature, I never made it more than a few pages at a time without falling asleep.

Okay, I was reading in bed, sometimes lying on the sofa in the late afternoon.

But still.

It’s easy to see why Arthur C. Clarke is considered a visionary, one of the standards to whom subsequent science fiction authors have been compared to ever since.  From what I know, Earthlight is not considered one of Arthur C. Clarke’s best novels, but it’s still a very forward thinking book.  At least it is technologically.  Mr. Clarke imagines a realistic future featuring a colonized solar system.  Humans have moved on from the earth to large settlements on the moon and Mars along with several other smaller colonies on various moons throughout the solar system.

Things have reached a point where the colonies have begun to rebel against their home planet much like American colonies rebelled against England.

It’s all very well thought out, very feasible.  Earthlight is what’s known as hard science fiction, based on real science, focused on technology and what future technology might include.  In spite of my sleepy reaction to the book, Mr. Clarke is good with plot and with characterization.  I also really liked the central image of the book, that of the earth in various phases sitting in the moon’s sky.  What it would be like to live your entire life with the blue earth as the thing you see in the sky at night, is an interesting question.

What I have a problem with is that in Mr. Clarke’s future not a single woman is capable of working on the moon.  Not only women, but every man who’s neither white nor heterosexual.  What is that about?

I understand that Mr. Clarke wrote Earthlight in 1955 but seriously.  You can imagine life on the moon but not a woman capable of working in the observatory there.  Even if women can’t work on the moon, if there’s a colony there, surely some of the men will be married with children.  They’re all straight, right.

I’m a little tired of granting people leeway just because they come from a time and culture other than our own.  If someone who writes about the future is to be considered visionary, it’s not too much to expect that their vision include social progress along with technical progress.  And if you want to give an author credit for creating a world, you have to prove the existence of at least one fully realized female character in their work.  Yes, I’m talking about Mr. Tolkien.  The most emotionally complex female character he ever created was a giant spider.

That’s right.  I said it.

End of rant.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., a few years back, but I still stand by my little rant. Since I’ve been focused on science fiction this past week or so, it’s been clear that the above rant is right on.


Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn

It’s easy to compare William Tenn’s 1968 science fiction classic Of Men and Monsters to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Set far in the future, Of Men and Monsters describes life on earth after a race of Brobdingnagian sized aliens have colonized our planet.  Unable to defeat the invading species, humanity has been reduced to living inside the walls and floors of the new dominant species’s homes, scavenging off the giant, six-legged aliens.  Think, The Borrowers writ very, very large and crossed with John Christopher.

While Jonathan Swift made his satirical points comparing the habits of  Brobdingnag’s giant citizens with humanity, Mr. Tenn builds his satire by looking at the humans who now live within the walls of the alien homes.  Of Men and Monsters follows the life of Eric the Only, later Eric the Eye, who comes of age after making his first theft, stealing something of value from a monsters.  Eric’s tribe, called Mankind, is made up of Ancestor Science followers.  Other tribes are followers of Alien Science. Both groups live within the walls of the same building– two communities in direct competition with each other although they are both sworn to strike back at the aliens who invaded many generations ago.

The book  works very well as an adventure story. Eric is a compelling enough character.  The journey he takes through parts of his world he has never seen before makes for a very good read. The fact that his journey takes place within a single alien dwelling serves to make the book even more interesting.  I had as much fun reading about the various human communities that live within the walls as I’m sure Mr. Tenn had writing about them in the first place.  Of Men and Monsters never becomes a complete page-turner, but it does keep events flowing at a quick pace building up more than enough narrative tension to satisfy anyone looking for a diverting read.

While Mr. Tenn does take time to make sure the reader gets his more satirical points, this comes in small enough doses to keep from overwhelming the plot.  It’s easy to see that he is comparing humanity to rats which wasn’t a new idea even in 1968 when the novel was first published.  His future simply takes a much more literal look at the analogy than anyone I’ve ever read before.  While Robert O’Brien’s classic children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH came out three years later and closely follows the plot of Of Men and Monsters, I’ll have to leave it to others more knowledgeable than I am to establish a link between the two books.   I can say that if you liked Mrs. Frisby as a child, you’ll probably enjoy Of Men and Monsters as an adult.  I did.

Unless you’re a feminist.  If you are, then you’re likely to find Of Men and Monsters frustrating.  Ana, who blogs at Things Mean a Lot,  pointed me towards two excellent pieces in her favorite posts of 2012 article.    In the first Renay of Subverting the Text looks at the coverage of women authors on Science Fiction/Fantasy blogs and finds about what you would expect.   In the second Foz Meadows of Shattersnipe: Malcontent and Rainbows argues that stories are genderless.  Both are worthwhile reading, and both left me thinking in general about issues of gender, specifically about issues of gender in science fiction.

Looking at Of Men and Monsters with this in mind, Mr. Tenn does not present a very hopeful future for women.   In his book women have a position of some respect within the tribes of humans–they are the knowledge keepers, the ones who take the raw materials and technology the men find and make useful objects.  However, gender rolls are clearly defined in all groups: women are never allowed leadership positions, their primary purpose is to bear children, and they must submit to the will of their mate (always a male) whether he be worthy or not. Mr. Tenn’s future looks a lot like the distant past.

At one point in the book, Eric mates with Rachel, a young woman from a tribe much more advanced than his own.  He takes her as his mate on the condition that she will teach him what she knows.  During one of her lessons she makes a speech about all the horrors humanity visited upon itself and upon the world before the aliens invaded.   In a well-written speech lasting almost two pages, she blames mankind for enslaving members of its own race and for crimes committed upon other species as well.  The only mention she makes of the oppression of women throughout the centuries is a quick remark blaming both men and women for harming the other:

Sometimes men would trample on women and mock their hurt, sometimes women would trample on men and mock their hurt.

While I do believe we should critique the book the author wrote, not the one we wanted him to write, someone writing in 1968 really should have been able to see the situation of women throughout human history in a more thoughtful light than that.

However, there is still much to enjoy in William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters.  Not the least is the way he envisions mankind finally travelling to other planets.  In the future, if mankind is reduced to the position of rats, then mankind will travel to new worlds the same way rats did.

It makes for a very funny, if slightly disturbing, ending.


I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., several years ago.  I still think this book is well worth a read, if you’ve never read it and you’re a fan of the genre.  But I don’t think it’s one I’ll be rereading in retirement, though I am keeping my copy.  I do like those Gollancz covers.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

After the earth is threatened by alien invasion William Mandella is drafted as part of the world’s first elite corp of soldiers and sent into battle light years across space.  A story as old as science fiction, perhaps, but what happens to William when he returns to an earth where decades have gone by during the months he spent travelling at nine-tenths  light speed makes Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War both a story of alien combat and of multiple utopian and dystopian futures.

It’s a mind-bending ride.

The Forever War is one of the defining examples of hard science fiction in that everything in the future Mr. Haldeman constructs is based on serious scientific knowledge.  Interstellar and intergalactic space travel is based on the use of collapsed stars,  the alien race is based on real world, or real space, biology, and most importantly, the effects of relative time are a key part of the novel.  Private Mandella participates in several battles, each involving a different trip to locations farther away from earth, taking him a few decades, then a few centuries into the future since his time, spent travelling at near the speed of light,  passes much more slowly relative to time back on earth.

This allows Mr. Haldeman to create a race of technologically advanced aliens along with several sets of futures for the earth, one just a few decades ahead of his own time, one 30 years past that and then two more much farther into the future.  Private Mandella is not only a soldier, he is a time traveler in a hard science fiction novel that recognizes time travel goes only one way, into the future, and that there is no going back.

While the worlds around Private Mandella change throughout the novel along with the cast of characters, his character remains the heart of The Forever War giving it a human touch many people who don’t read it think hard science fiction lacks.  Private Mandella is forced to give up not just everything he owns but everything he knows when he is drafted into the elite force.  He returns when his two year tour of duty is over to find that 29 years have passed on earth leaving a world so different from the one he left that he no longer has a place in it.  Even his own mother has changed so much he can no longer find a connection with her.  After his second tour of duty he finds the human race so changed he has trouble seeing himself as part of it any longer.  Each time he leaves for the battle field he knows that decades of relative time will pass before he reaches the front making each attack an invasion from the past as far as the enemy is concerned and leaving the elite corps always at a disadvantage.  How can they fight an enemy who is always years ahead of them?  Should they even attempt to attack when the war may have been won or lost in the time it took them to get to the battlefield?

When Mr. Haldeman wrote The Forever War the greatest threat to humanity, at least in the popular imagination of the time, was overpopulation.  When Private Mandella returns to earth for the first time, he finds a society that has begun to encourage homosexuality as a way to deal with overpopulation.  He finds his mother is in a relationship with a woman.  His second return to humanity finds a strictly homosexual race, bred in laboratories, engineered to be gay as a means of population control.  Private, now Colonel, Mandella must adjust to an army where he is the only straight person–the soldiers in Mr. Haldeman’s elite corp are equally men and women from the start of the novel.

I’ve no idea just how seriously this idea would have been taken as a cure for overpopulation when The  Forever War was first published in 1974 nor if it would have been received as pro or anti gay rights.  Mandella is not bothered by it much, though he rejects the surgery that would make him homosexual in spite of how lonely his position in an all gay society makes him.  In retrospect, overpopulation has not turned out to be the world ending problem we once feared it would become, so it’s difficult to judge its possible cures and consequences as presented in the science fiction of of the period.  Could Mr. Haldeman’s future have happened?  Today, genetic science is determined to find a DNA combination for every human characteristic.   When they do, if they do, they’re bound to try turning this sequence off, that one on.

Who knows.

But this story idea begs a more literary question.  How many science fiction novels have you read that imagined a world where something other than strict heterosexuality was the norm?  How many of those were written by someone other than Ursula K. Le Guin or Samuel R. Delany?


It’s been a couple of years since I read The Forever War for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. but science fiction and fantasy still remain largely heterosexual genres. 

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is a master of science fiction in it’s classic sense.  One could probably argue that he created the genre.  His novel Rendezvous With Rama is considered one of his best novels.  While I found reading it today, some forty years after is was first published, a bit problematic, I would have to agree with the editors at Gollancz who labelled it a “masterwork.”

Mr. Clarke typically deals with the probable.  While his work is set into the far future, it’s always firmly grounded in the scientific knowledge of “today.”  Rendezvous with Rama speculates about the arrival of a spacecraft sent to our solar system by a very distant and very advanced species.  The spacecraft, called Rama by the scientists and astronauts sent to explore it, is the size of a large asteroid, big enough to contain a small world inside its great rotating mass.  But once humanity finds away inside Rama, it becomes clear that no one is living inside the spacecraft/asteroid.

What happened to them?  Why was Rama sent to orbit our sun once and then head back into interstellar space?

The characters in Mr. Clarke’s novel explore Rama as much as they can before it passes too close to the sun for humans to survive.  This makes Rendezvous with Rama a travelogue, much like so many early and proto-science fiction novels of the late 19th and early 20th century were.  While it’s very interesting reading, the way Mr. Clarke’s characters come and go made it difficult for me to immerse myself in the story the way I would have liked to.  I’m not sure this is a fault with the book.  It’s actually very realistic.  A military expedition would use personnel as needed, send this squad to climb a mounting, this other man to pilot a boat across an ocean; it’s unlikely that one single person, or even a small group, would do all the work of a large mission.

As for the ship itself, the ship really is the main character after all, I found it to be just about completely believable.  Mr. Clarke sticks very close to what was considered scientifically possible in 1973, as far as I know–I was ten-years-old at the time.  Most of what he predicts remains plausible today.  I was actually very impressed by this.

While he is very good with science, Mr. Clarke’s people remain a bit cold.  Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey which was based on a screen play by Arthur C. Clarke who worked very closely with director Stanley Kubrick.  While the visuals from the movie and its depiction of space travel, remain vivid and entirely believable, it’s very difficult to remember the characters.  There was a guy called Dave, but it’s Hal the computer most of us recall.  Tell me what Dave was like.  I couldn’t tell you anything about him, but I can do a decent impersonation of Hal, good enough to creep out my younger brothers.

In the end, this is one of the major complaints non-fans of the genre have against science fiction, too much science and too little humanity.  I think this is a fair criticism of Rendezvous with Rama, but the science, and the speculation, are both good enough to make it worthwhile reading, certainly good enough to consider the book a ‘masterwork.’


Since I first read this book for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I’ve kept in on my TBR in Retirement shelf, along the rest of my small collection of Gollancz SF Masterworks editions. I’m a fan of their covers.  I suppose there remains a good chance I’ll reread Rendezavous with Rama sometime.  I like the travelogue aspect of fantasy/science fiction books like this one.  They should constitute a sub-genre.  Were I still in graduate school, I might even write a paper about them.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

It’s long been my belief that you should never revisit the things that most impressed you when you were young.  My number one object lesson for this belief is the 1972  science fiction movie Silent Running starring Bruce Dern.  (I’ve posted the trailer for it below.) I was nine-years-old when I saw it.  The special effects, the ecological message, the robots, the final shot of one robot caring for the plants with a battered watering can, it all blew my mind.  I never saw it again, but I have always remembered it.

In college, late one night when the dorm conversation turned to classic made-for-television movies the way it often did, I brought up Silent Running, the movie with that guy alone in space who teaches the robots to play poker, you know, the one with the forests inside the domes…..  Turns out I was far from the only nine-year-old to fall in love with Silent Running in 1972.

I warned the group, don’t watch it again.  You know it’s going to look cheesy compared to Blade Runner and Star Wars and you’re just going to end up being embarrassed to admit you ever liked it.  Keep the memory alive. Don’t ever watch it again.

A few years later I heard from one of my college friends.  She had watched the movie.  I was right.

In spite of this long held belief, when Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man came up on Kindle’s daily deal for 99 cents, I bought it.

The stories in The Illustrated Man are not as good as I remembered.  While some of them have stayed with me since I first read the collection, probably 35 years ago, I can’ argue that many of them are particularly good.  Kaleidoscope about a group of astronauts spinning off into space each in a different direction after the explosion of their rocket; The Rocket Man about a poor father who buys an old rocket to stage a fake trip into space for his children’s amusement; The Exiles about the ghosts of dead authors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain who live on Mars with the spirits of all the characters they created hiding from a now bookless earth, all moved me profoundly the first time I read the book much in the same way Silent Running did.

This time around, I have to admit that while I still admire the ideas behind Ray Bradbury’s short stories, the only one in The Illustrated Man that I can really defend as being a very good short story is The Vedlt about two children who have become far too attached to their high tech television room.

All of Ray Bradbury’s work has a slightly dated feel to it now, but it always felt a little bit dated, didn’t it?  He spent his career in a stage of futuristic nostalgia, writing stories about people in the future who long for a world they left behind somewhere in their collective past.  One of the two episodes for The Twilight Zone Ray Bradbury wrote, I Sing the Body Electric is about a robot manufacturer who creates android grandmothers to provide comfort and care for children who have lost their own mother.  Technology so advanced it still remains yet to come used to create a grandmother figure from so far back in the past even people in the 1960’s only knew it as fictional.

The stories in The Illustrated Man are a lot like that.

It seems fitting to have read The Illustrated Man on a Kindle.

Here’s the trailer for Silent Running.  I swear to you that back in 1972, this movie was amazing.


I first ran this review back in 2013 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I’m still a fan, though I admit reading this does make he hesitate before going back to read more by Ray Bradbury.