Bits and Bobs (the question mark edition)


Could Science Fiction be not as bad as I thought?
For those who listen to The Readers, you will know that Simon accepted a challenge when he recorded a special episode with Michael and Ann from Books on the Nightstand. They decided that the four of us would read each others’ favorite books. Ann’s choice was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I groaned when I heard that it was science fiction. Despite my absolute love of Atwood’s “speculative fiction” MaddAddam trilogy, I can’t say that the genre interests me much. I (most certainly wrongly) equate it with all kinds of too colorful covers, made up facts, unpronounceable names, and pimply, greasy-haired teens with “Why be Normal” buttons pinned to the lapel of the vintage overcoat they picked up at Ragstock for $5.

Much to my surprise I ended up liking The Sparrow quite a lot. It hooked me quickly. I founded it compelling enough that it pushed aside about four other books I was reading at the time. I was going to write a quick paragraph about it in this post, but then I realized I actually want to write a real review of it. There were so many things about the book and my experience reading it that I feel the need to talk about it. No doubt I will have a chance to do that on The Readers but I don’t think we are going to have that discussion until 2015. It’s one of those books you want to talk about. Even absent knowing anyone in real life who has read it, or who would read it, I started talking about it with friends. That conversation didn’t go very far.

So I figure it this way, any book that I find so compelling to both read and talk about can’t be too bad right? I know there are large swaths of sci-fi that I would not find compelling at all, but it made me think there might be more opportunities for me to enjoy the genre than I previously thought.

Why don’t I have a favorite book?
Choosing my book for the above mentioned favorite book challenge on The Readers and Books on the Nightstand was not easy for me. I just don’t have a favorite book. I know that many real readers (like some of you all) are capable of coming up with one book about which you don’t mind saying “this is my favorite book”. Even though you have ten other books that are closely jockeying for the top spot, you still feel okay, perhaps even good, choosing just one. I just can’t. I have had favorite books at different times in my life, but to look at all of them and say “this is the one” seems like a ridiculous and ultimately unfulfilling activity. Heck, even if I segment it into periods of my life I can’t narrow it down to a single book.

Grade School: Harriet the Spy (Fitzhugh) and The Ark (Benary-Isbert)
Junior High: I read a lot, but no real recollection of a favorite.
High School: Narcissus and Goldmund (Hesse) and On the Beach (Nevil Shute)
College: The Edible Woman (Atwood), Where Angels Fear to Tread (Forster), and The Carnivorous Lamb (Gomez-Arcos)

And then, after that it degenerates into a mass of really good books that I really liked and sometimes loved, but nothing that comes close to being able to beat out all the others that I also really love. In the end, for the challenge on the podcast I made my choice not just by choosing a well loved book by one of my favorite authors, I also kept in mind what I thought others might enjoy and what I thought deserved a broader audience. A book that I knew that bookish people would love if they knew it existed. That’s how I came up with my choice of Swann by Carol Shields. But even with that, I haven’t read it in years. Will it still be a favorite?

Anyone else annoyed by Goodreads’ iPad update?
I’ve never been much of a fan of Goodreads’ iPad app. Compared to the webpage interface, I always found it a bit clumsy and lacking in easy functionality. I tended only to use it for viewing information. For any sort of input I would go to the web version. Well they updated the app and I must say I find it even worse than it was before. Has anyone else been similarly annoyed? I thought since the deathstar purchased Goodreads and began scooping up NSA-level data on our habits the product would get better. Then again, I also expected all sorts of aggressive advertising, and pay-walls for certain features. Of course that might be still to come. Still, don’t you hate it when something new turns out to be something worse?

The good old days before they made an okay thing worse.

How is it possible I didn’t enjoy a book sale?
My new job is walking distance to the Arlington County Central Library which has a big, blowout book sale each year. When I showed up with my empty book bags two weeks ago, it was a week too early. My disappointment was palatable. So when I got there on the right day this past Friday I was loaded for a good time. The fact that I was able to go during a week day rather than on the crazy, busy weekend also had me quite excited. But when I got there I was almost immediately disappointed. As I looked at the first shelf I thought “you didn’t like this book sale last year”. Then I tried to figure out why.   One of the big reasons is that it takes place in a parking garage and I think the light levels are a little too low for good book hunting. Unlike many other big book sales this one has most of its offerings on shelves rather than tables. This makes it much hard to comb through the stock. They also have the fiction broken down in a way that isn’t very helpful. Mass market classics, trade paper, hardcovers that seem to also have mystery and sci-fi mixed in, a section called literature, and then one simply called “old books”. And aside from the rather dusty, not very interesting old books, most of the stock seemed to consist of lots of recent titles. I tried my best to focus but realized this sale, as big as it is, just isn’t for me. Still I did manage to buy three. But none really made me jump up and down.

Are we really here for the books?
I know we all found each other over our love of books and reading (two different things in my estimation), and I know I couldn’t turn this blog into just a big dump about the ups and downs of my life and have you all still show up from time to time. But it is amazing to me (in a good way) how posts about more than just books always do better in both page views and comments than the ones solely focused on books. I know other bloggers have found this as well. Is this the online equivalent of the book club that is really a wine drinking in the presence of books club? Even if that is so, I don’t think it matters. If book are the very pleasant excuse for humans to interact with each other, why not?

22 thoughts on “Bits and Bobs (the question mark edition)

  1. Teresa October 12, 2014 / 10:17 am

    Oh, The Sparrow. I adore that book. The writing, the story, the characters. Everything about it is terrific. Did you know there's a sequel? I've not read it. (Jenny HATED it, which pretty much put me off trying it, but maybe I'll get to it.) I think science fiction is like any genre in that heaps of it is no good, but there's plenty that is. I usually just rely on people's whose taste in other genres is similar to mine to help me figure out if there's something I want to try.

    With that said, you might want to look into Octavia Butler. Her book Kindred is about time travel, and her dystopian Parable books are in a similar vein to Margaret Atwood but with less science. She's written some space books too, but I haven't read those.

    Connie Willis might be another good option. She writes lots of time travel books, with historians from Oxford going back in time to study particular periods. I've read any enjoyed both To Say Nothing of the Dog (Victorian farce) and The Doomsday Book (medieval plague).

    And there's John Wyndham. He's wrote about alien invasions (Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos) and futuristic dystopias (The Chrysalids). It's good, vintage science fiction.


  2. Mystica October 12, 2014 / 10:43 am

    The Mitford book would have made me jump a bit. I doubt I will ever be able to get my hands on a Mitford.


  3. Serenknitity October 12, 2014 / 11:09 am

    Oh, Thomas, I love you. You have the makings of the bookish, curmudgeonly uncle I never had (even though you are probably a good 20 years younger than me).

    I so hear you re the book sale. Disappointing! Though you still managed to do OK (the Mitford, as Mystica mentioned, looks rather a find). There is a charity shop near me that has a huge book section. But they are all in huge long shelves, jumbled together, fiction and non, hardback and paperback, cookbooks and children's books. I can't even go in there any more, it just makes my teeth on edge. And this week I met a friend for coffee near an Oxfam bookshop that we usually browse in, but we were both in a hurry, so I went back on Saturday…and it was closed! On a Saturday! 'Crushed' doesn't begin to cover the emotions that swept over me (and 'Relief' doesn't begin, I'm sure, to express the feelings of my 15-year old non-bookish son, who'd come along because I promised him lunch after).

    Love your blog; books, life, anything you care to write about.


  4. James October 12, 2014 / 11:58 am

    Glad to see that you have broadened your reading tastes to include some “science fiction”. The Sparrow is one that I have read more than once with what I called “mixed results” in my most recent review. However, I share your enjoyment of Margaret Atwood's “speculative fiction”, having read the first two parts of her “Maddaddam Trilogy”, and hope that you will consider adding a bit more literary science fiction to your future reading list. By literary I mean SF like that written by Ursula LeGuin or Philip K. Dick.


  5. Steve Norquist October 12, 2014 / 12:46 pm

    Now you know what we have to comb through every day at the bookstore (and much worse) when people bring in stuff to sell. 80% unsellable. Out of date cookbooks, two years ago best selling novels, books that Aunt Julie (who just loved reading) hadn't taken off the shelf since the last time she moved in 1959, Barnes and Noble gift book remaindered coffee table books… and lots and lots and lots of YA.


  6. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf October 12, 2014 / 2:09 pm

    The Sparrow made me excited about the sci-fi possibilities that might be out there, too! Can't wait to read your review of it.


  7. M. Denise C. October 12, 2014 / 2:22 pm

    Thomas, your blog title and description say it all. Books are only a part of it . . . Happy Sunday!


  8. q October 12, 2014 / 3:17 pm

    Your opening paragraph esp last few lines are PERFECT :) what an un-pc absolutely spot on fun para…big smile here.
    And your last bit on bookclub/wine aspect of blogs….gave it a thought…so many blogs so we each can be picky about ones we follow…so blogger has to write well about certain bks that we see eye to eye on or a genre AND the personal aspects of their life have to be interesting to us or at least not repulsive :)….don't care how good the reviews if every 3rd article is say about their precious grandchild or whatever doesn't appeal to the reader…bye bye…
    so we're so lucky we can find such thoughtful reviewers w/ lives we are interested in also…if one can write a good review, read and feel deeply, then when they write about life events, those talents shine there also…win win…
    many thanks


  9. Paula Jarvis October 12, 2014 / 5:20 pm

    You might want to try “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes and “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury. The Keyes novel (which was made into the movie “Charly”) is about a retarded man who becomes a genius (and discovers the joy of learning) and is then grief-stricken when he realizes that the transformation isn't permanent. The Bradbury novel tells the story of two young brothers in the summer of 1928. A little fantasy mixed in with a lot of nostalgia for a simpler time and place.


  10. Paula Jarvis October 12, 2014 / 5:42 pm

    I noticed that you bought another book by Frances Parkinson Keyes (“The Letter from Spain”) after picking up “Joy Street” (great cover) a few months ago. I remember my mother and her friends reading Keyes' books (ditto for authors like A.J. Cronin, Thomas B. Costain, Taylor Caldwell, Frank Yerby, etc.), so I always feel nostalgic when I see her name. Per Wikipedia, Keyes (whose name, to my surprise, is pronounced Kyze) led a long and interesting life.


  11. Steerforth October 17, 2014 / 7:44 pm

    I've just really enjoyed Michael Faber's new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which some people have branded sci-fi, but is more of a postmodern, genre-hopping narrative, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.

    I've struggled with science fiction in the past, because the characters usually play second fiddle to the 'big idea' and frequently come across as two-dimensional. At worst, I've found myself reading a story that seems silly, featuring characters I don't care about.

    I'll try 'The Sparrow' on the strength of your recommendation.


  12. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:00 am

    These are great recommendations for sci fi. I don't have much basis for reference.


  13. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:02 am

    Nothing I hate more than a shop being closed when it shouldn't be. The fact that it thwarted book browsing makes it even more frustrating.


  14. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:04 am

    More good recommendations for literary sci fi. Good to have these. I can keep my eyes peeled when I am book hunting.


  15. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:06 am

    If I controlled the situation–that is I could pick up every book, look at it, and then sort them into yes, no, maybe, piles it wouldn't bother me. It is not being able to bring any sort of order to it, and worrying that something is slipping my notice that really makes it bad for me.


  16. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:07 am

    I just posted the review. More than I have been doing lately but still only scratching the surface.


  17. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:09 am

    John thought I might be alienating some readers with some of my decriptions. But hopefully everyone has at least a bit of a sense of humor.


  18. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:11 am

    Thank you so much for placing FP Keyes for me. I knew I recognized the name, but I couldn't figure out why. Eventually I would have noticed, but I really didn't know why I was buying it.


  19. Thomas at My Porch October 25, 2014 / 11:13 am

    I totally understand about characters playing second fiddle to the big idea. That can bother me when the author is trying to really say something but sometimes when I crave pure plot, actually like it. Nothing to get in the way of the story.


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