I've been seeing these around, and since I've actually had enough free time to read more than 3/4 of a novel lately, I thought I'd jot down some notes on the books I've been reading recently. I'm completely out of practice with actual literary criticism, so this will be more my thoughts and reflections than anything else. This list comprises what I've read over, hmm, the last 3 weeks or so. I may do this weekly, if I can manage to read enough in a week to make it worth it. Maybe biweekly.
Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein, 1961). I actually pulled this out again a few weeks ago in order to tipsily quote things out of it at Karen. (Er, sorry about that, hon.) But I ended up re-reading it again in its entirety. This is one of my "go-to" books, that I read over and over, and I was shocked to realized I hadn't read it since starting medical school. (In high school and college, this probably got read every 6 months or so.) It's not a good book, in the sense that the plot is carefully constructed or that the characters are well-depicted, or even internally consistent, and it's horribly sexist and homophobic in places but... it's one of the best meditations on the human condition - and what it means to be human - that I've ever across. Thoughts and phrases from this book just stay with me, in the way that poetry or quotations from religious texts do; they have that quality of simplicity that signifies something different every time you come across it. Some of these are one-off lines ("Obscurity is the refuge of incompetence" "'Love' is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own" "Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition; they're almost incompatible") and some are longer paragraphs that manage to express exactly my own personal philosophy on a number of topics. It's an incredibly thought-provoking novel, and I find something new in it every time I read it; I'm glad I was prompted to pick it up again.
Bee Season (Myla Goldberg, 2000). This was... weird. I found it engaging and difficult to put down, but I'm not sure the author was saying anything I particularly needed to hear. I found the characters one-dimensional, even at the times they were clearly supposed to be Very Deep and Troubled, and... I don't know. I didn't not like it, but I'm not sure that Goldberg achieved her purpose - whatever it may have been. (The overall plot, without giving too much away, is that the younger, less gifted daughter discovers a real talent for spelling. The development of this talent brings to the forefront the background level of intrafamilial conflict, and the family members react to this in a number of ... fairly bizarre ways that I didn't quite feel were reasonable developments.) Hmm. I think I enjoyed this book more when I was actually reading it, but I don't think it holds up very well to reflection. Not one I'd re-read.
Mind of My Mind (Octavia Bulter, 1977). This was very good. I inhaled this book in one 3-hour sitting, and I'm continually amazed by the tight spareness of Bulter's writing. This was actually a first read for me (I was just talking with Sarah about how I've been rationing Butler's works, especially now that she's passed away, because I enjoy knowing that there's more of her work out there), and it's set, hmm, probably a hundred years or so after Wild Seed, which I had read a number of times previously. I thought the plot was engaging - twisty but believable, as is Bulter's style - and I ended up liking the characters. I'm interested to see how this fits within the rest of the Patternist series. I did think this novel was very plot-driven, and lacked the more meditative, reflective side of Bulter's later works. Told mostly in dialogue, and from a cycling limited 3rd person POV, Mind of My Mind was interesting, but I wouldn't say it was ground-breaking, and certainly didn't have the cultural and societal insight and commentary that draws me, again and again, to the Parable novels. I'm curious to see if my thoughts on this novel change once I've read Clay's Ark and Patternmaster.
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2007). I was thrilled to see a story by Connie Willis in this collection ("D.A."), which ended up being good but certainly not my favorite of the bunch. Neil Gaiman's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" I had already read here, and I enjoyed it more on re-read, but I'm not sure it deserves the buzz it's been generating.
I thought Cory Doctorow's "I, Row-Boat" was phenomenal, and I need to look up his novels. (The main character is a sentient rowboat, who tends to human "shells" - bodies that are available for tourists to download their consciousness into, in order to vacation in the tropics - and he's an Asimovist, following this religion the AIs have made, founded upon Isaac Asimov's famous Three Laws. How can you not love that?*)
Similarly, Ellen Klages' "In the House of Seven Librarians" was marvelous - a story told as a fable about "a young girl raised by feral librarians" (cited from the editor's preface to the story). Feral librarians! I worried that the story would not live up to such an intro, but, to my glee, it did.
Walter Jon Williams' "Incarnation Day" is another story from this collection that has stuck with me, also - now that I think about it - with the downloadable consciousnesses, but told from a very different viewpoint: that of a young girl with a penchant for the works of Samuel Johnson, who was conceived as a computer program and who becomes a legal person only when she is accorded the use of a body. This story became a insightful discussion about what confers "humanity," and it possessed an engaging plot and excellently crafted characters. Another one whose novels I'll be tracking down.
I'd say the anthology as a whole was good, and definitely a worthwhile read. From what I could tell, it was organized semi-thematically, which I didn't love, as it seemed after a while that you would read the same story three time in a row, only interpreted in different ways. There were 24 stories in all, clocking in at just under 500 pages; I can't speak to whether these were truly the "best" short stories of the year, since I haven't been reading more recently published SF at all, but they were consistently good and occasionally superlative.
To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis, 1998). This was another re-read. I scored a copy of this book at the Raleigh-Durham airport, from the used bookshop whose very existence delighted me to no end. This is a cute little jaunt of a novel, the premise of which is a quest to locate, using time travel, the bishop's bird stump (it's this ... thing, that no one can describe except in terms of its ugliness), in order to properly store the Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during WWII. Combining SF and historical fiction, this novel is just fun - it's hilariously funny and a Romance in the classic sense of the word.
I'm almost positive I'm forgetting a few here, beyond the knitting books that I haven't included, and there are a few novels that I've almost finished, but I think that's it for now. The most bizarre thing about writing this post? I actually knew the copyright dates for almost every work before I looked it up. I didn't realize that was information I actually stored about books.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I find it necessary to say that my junior year research thesis for AP English was on Asimov's Foundation series. I ... may be a bit of geek, and I'm definitely a geek for Asimov's SF. Just sayin'.