The Rocket Man

My mum had a knack for finding books for me from the library that I would be sure to like.  I think I was ten or twelve when she brought home this book of short stories called R is for Rocket, by, of course, the great, now late, Ray Bradbury.

I fell immediately in love with his visions of dark summer evenings and skies filled with stars.  In my early to mid-teens, I gobbled up S is for Space and then tracked down the sources for many of the stories in those collections – The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles.  I was already a fan of Francois Truffaut’s marvellous film version of Fahrenheit 451, and used to imagine which book I would memorize, because of course I would join that company of readers that we meet at the end of the book/movie.

Ray Bradbury is often someone thought of as a “young adult” writer, perhaps because many of his stories feature children, and that’s ok, but readers should not underestimate his subtlety and mastery of understated horror.  Think of “The Veldt,” where children casually trap their parents in a virtual landscape to be eaten by lions, or “The Invasion,” where children are used by aliens to take over the earth.  Anyone who thinks his work is “cosy” science fiction ought to read some of those stories.

But there is also a lovely, lyrical romanticism to much of his work.  His stories reflect an ideal, 1950’s vision of  small town America, where children may run freely (but perhaps not entirely safely) through long summer twilights.  He captures the wonder, as well as the danger, of space travel.  His space ships really are rockets, tubular, with fins for tails, mechanical but not computerized.  In his universe, the US would settle on Mars, but his was not a vision of colonial conquest.  Rather, the American invaders would be beguiled and assimilated into becoming Martians themselves. And “Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.”

One of my absolute favourites of his stories has the devastating poignancy that I associate with his work: “All Summer in a Day.”  If you haven’t read it, treat yourself.  You will be blown away, as I was, as I continue to be.

Ray Bradbury was 91; we should be celebrating his life rather than mourning his death.  Yet, I sense that many share my feeling that I’ve somehow lost a part of my childhood, that a lovely, innocent vision of the world has now passed away as well.  In another favourite story of mine, “Kaleidoscope,” an astronaut whose ship has failed plunges to earth, burning up as he enters earth’s atmosphere.  A child spots the falling star, and his mother says “Make a wish.”

Ray Bradbury has gone.  Make a wish.

Adventures with E-Books

I just finished the first novel I have ever read entirely in e-format (A Discovery of Witches), on my new e-reader. Following the lead of Sybil Harrison, the head librarian at my college, I bought a Kobo, the e-reader associated with the Canadian bookstore chain Chapters/Indigo, rather than a Kindle. I love Amazon, and had originally intended to get a Kindle, but in Canada we are only able to purchase kindle books from the US site, in US dollars, and the Kobo also would allow me to borrow books from the local library.

I have to admit, that techie person that I am, early adopter of many things, blogger, twitterer, online teacher, I am still not 100% convinced by this little device, though it has many advantages.

One thing I love about it, and what will keep me using it, is being able to buy books still only available in hardcover (like A Discovery of Witches) for paperback prices. And getting them instantly via wireless delivery. That is very cool. I like being able to sit in my armchair with a mug of soup in one hand, a spoon or some bread in the other, and my book “open” and available to read easily. I am thrilled by its potential for travel – imagine being able to take as many books with you as you can actually read on a trip!

I like the idea of, although so far have not taken advantage of, the ability to synch whatever book I am reading on my various electronic devices. I suspect this works better in theory than in practice, as you would have to remember to synch things constantly in order to read on one device at breakfast, another on the bus and another on your laptop without losing your place.

I don’t like not being able easily to skim quickly or skip through a book or article. I am far more likely, in consequence, to use my Kobo to read novels than to use it for research. I am skeptical, therefore, about its uses for education. I wish there was a way to annotate with it.

So the jury is still out, or at least I can easily see it for me as one more device, something with particular uses, not something that is going to replace “real” books, any more than iPods have replaced stereo systems. I continue to await developments, though.

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

I spent what I count among the happiest three days of my life in Bristol, in early July 2009, attending and presenting a paper at the international conference on Diana Wynne Jones. Scholars, students, editors, and many who “just” read and enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ novels came together, and spent an entire weekend discussing, enthusing, reminiscing, delighting in and celebrating her work, and rejoicing in the company of so many who shared a love and admiration for this not-well-enough known author for children and young adults. That time could only have been made more sublime (is it possible?) if DWJ herself had been able to attend, as she had planned. She could not, because she was ill with lung cancer.

And now she is gone.

That she was loved by many is attested to by the outpouring of tributes and expressions of grief all over the blogosphere and the internets. She even trended on Twitter yesterday (and would have been highly amused, I’m sure). No doubt, there will have been many on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere scratching their heads, wondering “who the heck is Diana Wynne Jones”? She was not well enough known. Mention Howl’s Moving Castle and more will have seen Miyazaki’s movie than read the book. Mention a school for wizards, and everyone with think “Hogwarts,” though DWJ created Chrestomanci castle many years earlier. Those of us who love and admire her work gnash our teeth at the popularity of a certain JKR or the books about sparkly vampires, when DWJ has been writing richer, funnier, more literate and just plain better books for so long. It took the popularity of JKR to bring DWJ’s books back into print. But back into print they are, and she will live on in her words.

And what words they are. What books. So many! Not all equally great, but even her weakest books are worth reading. And her strongest are … oh, so good.

Everyone at the conference agreed that Diana Wynne Jones writes books for intelligent people. They challenge you. They make you think. They are inventive, and original and can be tricky. But they are exciting and often hilariously funny.

She writes about strong children and weak adults. She writes about how easy it can be to lose your identity and sense of self-worth when everyone around you is preoccupied with other business and no one cares about your feelings. She writes about the importance of independent thinking and self-reliance. She writes about reading, and writing and the power of the imagination and of words. She writes about power, and vanity, and getting things wrong, and making things right, and responsibility. She writes about girls and she writes about boys and she writes about wizards and griffins and a fire demon and a goon and dogs and cats, and every single one has more character in his or her or its little finger than many other author’s characters put together (JKR, I’m talking about you).

One of my favourite little moments in DWJ’s books comes in The Ogre Downstairs, an early domestic fantasy, already demonstrating how delightful and original her work could be. It’s about a newly blended family of children who hate each other, and the “ogre” who is stepfather to half of them, and who are brought together through misadventure with a magical chemistry set filled with mysterious (but entirely logical) ingredients that do things like give the power to fly and bring inanimate objects to life. One of the ingredients is labelled dens drac. (dragon’s teeth). Remember the myth of Jason and the Argonauts? And the dragon’s teeth that when scattered on the ground spring to life as fully armed soldiers? When the children drop these on the driveway of their house, a motor-cycle gang springs up, speaking Greek. Written in Greek. And if you happen to know Greek, there’s a wonderful inside joke, because it’s not Greek. It just looks like it. If you read it out loud they say things like “Let me at ‘im!” and “Full of spirit, aren’t they?” And it’s such a readerly joke, because the family hearing it doesn’t understand the “Greek” but we reading it (maybe) do. And the awful stepfather, who at this point in the book is becoming not-so-awful, saves the day by following the trick that Jason uses in the original myth. And it’s all metafictional and thoroughly delightful.

Ask me to name a favourite of her books, and I will unhesitatingly offer Fire and Hemlock, a lovely, rich, strange, complex, bewildering and truly wonderful riff on love and heroes and reading and enchantment and poetry. But, oh… there’s Howl’s Moving Castle with the vain but charming wizard Howl, and Sophie, who doesn’t know how powerful she is until she’s turned into an old woman, and the fire demon Calcifer who wants to be free but is loyal to them both. And there’s the debonaire and mysterious Chrestomanci. And Archer’s Goon. And The Homeward Bounders, whose final line “But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

They are there now.

Thank you, Diana, from the bottom of my heart, for years and years of reading past and to come. Those bright characters and complex worlds will never die; they will be there always, ready to spring to life in the pages of your books.

A Reading Meme

Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?
I know it was before I started school, and I was four then. I do have a clear memory of being on a bus with my mother and suddenly realizing that I could piece together what some of the signs said.
What do you find most challenging to read?
I think the hardest thing is reading something I don’t want to read. Which for me, sadly, is often student papers… Or something very difficult, like the most obscure literary theory.
What are your library habits?
I mostly use the library to read things that I don’t want to buy. Since the advent of computers, I happily put my name on reserve lists for things and let the library do the work of keeping track.
Have your library habits changed since you were younger?
I have to confess that since I started earning a good living I tend to buy books without thinking much more often and I use the library rather less than I did.
How has blogging changed your reading life?
Not really all that much, to be honest, although it has led me to some discoveries that I might have missed otherwise.
How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog?
Quite frequently.
What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?
More time than anything else. It’s as much as I can do sometimes just to get through books without writing about them as well. But sometimes I won’t blog about a book that I don’t like by an author who I know follows my blog.
What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand books stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other? To be honest, probably about 90% from new books stores, although a certain percentage of that will be from Amazon or some such.
What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?
Not respecting that a book belongs to someone else and not giving it back. Laying a book down flat with the spine broken. Writing in or otherwise disrespecting someone else’s book.
Do you ever read for pleasure at work?
Not as often as I’d like.
When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?
I try to give people books that I think they would like, or that I know they would like. But I’m sure I’m guilty of the same thing others are towards me, which is giving them books I want them to read rather than thinking of what I know they would like.

Literate People Should Boycott Books

At least, according to this post that cites a Newser article by Michael Wolff arguing against what he calls the “vanity publishing” of books by the likes of Sarah Palin. He writes that such ghost written items devoid of real content are not “real” books and in fact are a con job by publishers.

Provocative ideas! What do you think?

Happy 80th Birthday, Ursula Le Guin

I find it an almost overwhelming task to write about what Ursula Le Guin means to me. Perhaps you will get an idea of how I’m feeling if I tell you that when I had a chance to meet her, at a reading, and get my copy of Tehanu signed, I got tears in my eyes as I mumbled some incoherent thanks for what her work has been to me over the years. She gave me a sharp look, out of that canny, lined, intelligent face that somehow looks exactly as you would imagine her, and wrote spontaneously “with best wishes” along with my name and her signature.

I think I was twelve when I first read A Wizard of Earthsea. I thought it was the best book I had ever read, which is saying quite a lot because I had already read Tolkien (though not with the depth and appreciation I brought to him later). I read the succeeding Earthsea books, the original trilogy, as they were published. I loved that harsh, cold, brilliant world of islands and dragons and raiders and wizards and Words.

I was in my thirties when Tehanu was published, and I loved that, too. It was, perhaps, the perfect time to read it, when no longer young, no longer captivated with the adventure-quest aspect of life, beginning to understand the world’s cruelty as well as its beauty, and to appreciate Le Guin’s recognition of the redemptive power of love against what can be a bleak existence in the world.

The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness made me think, and taught me new ideas about politics (anarchy) and religion (Daoism). I wrote a paper about The Left Hand of Darkness for a graduate seminar on Androgyny in Literature, and studying its images made me appreciate even more Le Guin’s austere and orderly mind.

Her work is intellectual, clear, serious, beautiful, always thoughtful. I love her essays as much as or even more than her novels, because I love the glimpse of the personal, the mind behind the words. I have taught, and continue to teach, her short stories such as “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which always raise deep and far-reaching questions about the world and about humanity.

Her work presents sentiments – love, hope, courage, faith – but is never sentimental. She is clear-eyed about the darker elements of human life, yet retains a steadfast optimism about the power of the imagination, of story-telling, of community.

Ursula Le Guin’s work has informed me as a reader, a writer, a teacher, a feminist, an activist, a woman. She has changed my life.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, from the bottom of my heart.

For Readers and Teachers of Poetry

This is one of those quote-within-a-quote-within-a-quote things that happen in blogs.

Litlove, in a post for the Sunday Salon is writing about reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

This post on its own is worth reading, as she captures vividly the ecstacy of reading Rilke.

But I particularly loved this quote from the critic William Gass, writing about Rilke:

The poet, while composing, struggles to rule a nation of greedy self-serving malcontents; every idea, however tangential to the main theme it may have been initially, wants to submerge the central subject beneath its fructifying self as though each drizzle were scheming a forty-days rain; every jig and trot desires to be the whole dance; every la-di-da and line length, image, order, rhyme, variation and refrain, every well-mouthed vowel, dental click, silent design, represents a corporation, cartel, union, well-heeled lobby, a Pentagon or NRA, eager to turn the law towards its interests; every word wants to enjoy a potency so supreme it will emasculate the others.

That is why I read. That is why I teach.