Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What Makes a Good Book Good?

Two great tastes

Never mind.

I just read two really awesome books that couldn't be more different. One is a cute teen romance, and the other is The Future of Us. Haha... is it wrong that I amuse myself so easily?

Anyway, The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler is the incredibly fun story of Emma and Josh, two teenagers in 1996 who get on the internet for the first time. They find their future selves' facebook pages and do their best to manipulate their futures with their actions in the present. I was especially drawn to this book because I was 17 in 1996 and utterly fascinated with the internet. I had exactly one friend with a computer and access to AOL. I remember the days when getting an instant message was mesmerizing. I cannot stress enough just how much fun this book was. I wonder if teens who have never known life without the internet would understand the sheer funitude of this book. 

A person can wet their pants from either glee or fear.
World War Z by Max Brooks is the exact opposite of fun. World War Z is a series of "first person" accounts from survivors of the zombie apocalypse, from political and military personnel to every day civilians all around the world. Each nation dealt with Zach in a different way - all of them terrifying. This is one of the most horrifying books I have ever read, not because of the gore (because there really wasn't much), but because of the realer than real accounts of how nations and individuals dealt with such an improbable and seemingly impossible to overcome scenario. Abandonment, betrayal, genocide, cannibalism... it's all covered. World War Z gave me nightmares. And yet, I read it over the course of two days and devoured every page. Max Brooks is now one of my favorite authors, and I bow to his genius.

Hahahahahaha! I just googled 'black metal kittens'!
And this got me wondering how there could be enough room in one person to love two books that are so very, very different. I've always had bi-polar tastes. I love kittens and have a Metallica tattoo. I listen to Rammstein while I sew. My two favorite film makers are Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. But, does a person have to swing from one end of the taste spectrum to the other in order to appreciate vast differences?

Oh my god, I'm going to be up all night looking at the results...
Each novel evoked such different feelings. But I felt deeply satisfied after reading both. I can only compare this to the feeling of catharsis one gets after a really good cry or a really good laugh. It's more fun to laugh, but having one or the other gives me the same sort of cleansed feeling when it's all over. 

*pees pants*

So, I'll take it to you guys. What makes a good book good? What sort of eclectic tastes do you have? Have you ever been surprised by how much you've liked something because it didn't seem to fit with your perceived personal tastes?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Of Geeks and Gays: The Orson Scott Card Mess

Gay rights issues have finally permeated geek culture. I say "finally" because for the most part, geeks are a tolerant lot. Sexuality has never been a hot button issue for us. Comic books and fantasy literature have been early adopters in the gay equality movement. Every step geek culture takes toward equal representation of gay and lesbian characters is a reason for celebration. I'm not saying that gay rights aren't an issue for geek culture. It's just that geeks haven't experienced a whole lot of opposition among other geeks to the movement's progress.

Enter Orson Scott Card.

 Here are the facts so far:
1. Orson Scott Card, famous sci-fi author of Ender's Game, was hired by DC to write some Superman comics.
2. Orson Scott Card is adamantly and offensively anti-gay marriage and gayness in general. Keep in mind there is a difference between adamant and offensive - OSC just happens to be both.
2a. He's been this way for a long time.
2b. We cannot judge all of Mormonism for OSC's views just as we cannot judge all of Christianity for the Westboro Baptist Church, so let's not even go there in the comments.
3. Geeks, both gay and straight, made it clear to DC that because of his hateful views, OSC writing Superman was unacceptable.
4. As of yesterday, Chris Sprouse, the proposed artist for OSC's Superman, quit the project.
5. As of two hours ago, DC has canned OSC's Superman story.

Apparently, the immediate issue has been resolved. However, the underlying issue has been and always will be a problem: Is it possible to separate an artist form his or her offensive personal/political beliefs? If it is possible, should we?

Normally, I do try to separate talent from personal politics. But I have only ever had to do so objectively in the past. As an LGBT ally, it's easy for me to say things like, "I will never eat at Chik-Fil-A!" This is because I have never had access to Chik-Fil-A until recently so didn't care about missing what I'd never tasted. It's a lot harder to read hate speech from someone whose writing you admire.
I like my steaks barely bruised.
Here's another fact: OSC was once an amazing writer. I say "once" because in considering whether or not we as fans should separate talent from offensive political beliefs, we have to question whether or not an artist can do the same. OSC used to be able to. This is no longer the case. My husband and I took a road trip to New York in late December. We took this opportunity to listen to Ender in Exile (2008), the story of Ender Wiggin that takes place between Ender's Game (1985) and Speaker for the Dead (1986). As you can see, there's quite a bit of time between Ender in Exile and the original two books in the series. In the two decades plus between books, OSC has become far more vocal (almost rabidly so) in his hatred of homosexuality, and his opinions spill into his writing. Ender in Exile is not only a meandering mess and poorly written from a literary perspective. It seems to serve no other purpose than to act as OSC's own personal, thinly veiled soapbox on the purposes of marriage, sex, and the proper place of women. For a not so thinly veiled account of OSC's anti-gay views, check out his novella, Hamlet's Father.

Personally, I will always love the original Ender quartet (Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind). I read them multiple times before I ever had any idea of who OSC was as a person. I still reference OSC's guide to good science fiction and fantasy writing (1990). He used to be a master of his craft and I feel like maybe he should go back and read his own advice. But I also consider my experience with Ender in Exile my last attempt to appreciate OSC post knowledge of his views.

I am geeked out for this movie and can't figure out if I should be mad at myself for feeling that way.
The whole mess saddens me. Jason Cranfordteague at Wired articulates it much better than I am able to. As a fan, it's hard to watch an icon topple from their pedestal. As an adamant supporter of gay rights and marriage equality, it's no longer possible to ignore OSC's increasingly vitriolic views. Did DC do the right thing by shelving this Superman project? I don't know. On the one hand, DC has it's own image to protect. On the other, does any company have the right to make creative or professional decisions based on belief systems as opposed to merit?

I think that Challengers Comics and Conversation in Chicago had the right idea. Carry the comic, sell the comic, and donate all profit to the Human Rights Campaign. But what do we do as individuals? As fans? As geeks? As gays? As allies? I'm opening this conversation up to you. I don't have any concrete answers.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Malaise - It's a Thing, and I Have It.

When I was a tween and a teen, back in the days before the internetz, I used to keep obsessive track of the books I read and their stats, including how many pages, the date I started, the date I finished, and even whether the book was from a library or a bookstore. I kept all of this info in one of those black and white composition notebooks.

Goodreads circa 1993.
The idea of not finishing a book was blasphemy. Once I started, I had to finish not only for my own sense of pride but because if I didn't finish, the "date finished" column in my little notebook would remain empty. I was OCD even then, and an unfilled column was simply unacceptable.

This about sums it up.
I don't remember why or when I stopped keeping a book log and I think those little notebooks went the way of the landfill a long time ago. But a couple of years ago, I discovered Goodreads and I went back to obsessively logging my reading activity. Somewhere in this time though, I realized that life was too short to read all the books I wanted to read. I don't think I'll die young. There are just that many books that interest me, and more hit bookstore and library shelves every day. If I wanted to keep up with what was new and interesting, I was going to have to set aside books that stole precious hours of my life despite my disinterest.

Setting a book aside is hard. Really hard. It feels like a personal failure, and I feel like I've been failing too much lately. I couldn't finish four out of the last five of my book club picks and I'm struggling with the idea of putting down the most recent one. I gave The Dresden Files another crack because my husband likes them so much, but I had to take another break from those. I stopped reading Pretties, the sequel to Uglies, by Scott Westerfield because I was reading everyone in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess.

This is the plot of Uglies.
I've given up on books for even less substantial reasons. I took one author's debut novel to the used book store because she used the word "patina" six times in 30 pages. I wanted to mail her a thesaurus. What I'm getting at is that I wonder about the state of books. When I was a lot younger, little things didn't bother me. I've tried to re-read certain books I loved 20 years ago and sometimes can't get through them. I know I'm older, my tastes have diversified, and I spent three years in a graduate level writing program, but I can't help but wonder if books are also sucking more.

Bookstores have a whole new section devoted to teen paranormal romance. NaNoWriMo is responsible for so much dreck. Just because a person has written 50k words in a row does not mean they have written a novel, let alone one worth publishing. I've gotten to the point where if I read that if a book started as a NaNo project, I won't touch it with a ten foot pole. And don't get me started on fan-fiction as publishable materiel... Author forwards and afterwards also piss me off. If you have to explain or justify your work, you're doing it wrong.

I hate everything.
I feel burned out. I feel like I can't trust publishers anymore to put out quality material. I feel betrayed by my own sense of what is good and what is bad. I feel compelled to analyze everything I read (which is good - to an extent) and can't remember the last time I simply just enjoyed a book without picking it apart. Part of my job is literature analysis. I also enjoy it. But I feel like I have crossed some line where everything that isn't awesome is awful.

So, I ask for your thoughts. Has genre fiction become so flooded that everything is crappy and derivative? Am I a hideous snob? Do you find it hard to set aside a book you've started? If so, why? If not, why not? What have you read lately that has either blown your mind or made you want to blow out your brains?