The books of my youth: Anne Rice

A few years ago I was at a bar with a friend of mine named Kate, ignoring the other patrons and talking books, as is our wont. We got on the subject of books we'd enjoyed as teenagers, and she ended up telling me about what she called her Canon of Kate — these were more than just the books that she'd liked, or even loved; they were the ones that had shaped her whole literary aesthetic, that had introduced the tropes and themes that resonated with her, the ideas that she would pursue and revisit in later reading and writing. Beyond that, even, these were the books that had shaped her as a person.

Which got me to thinking: what was the canon of ME?

When Queers Read…!

…which is something straight writers seem to forget that we do. Like Brent Weeks, and every other writer who made their villain a sadistic pedophile without stopping to think about the Unfortunate Implications involved. Because with the exception of Orson Scott Card, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and venture that no, they’re probably not raging homophobes, they’re just grandly oblivious. If you tried to pin them down on it, I expect they’d protest that their villain isn’t gay, not the way that Elton John and Tim Gunn and I are gay, he’s a pedophile, which is totally different and self-evidently evil.

Well… yes and yes, but thanks to the way our society has tended to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, that’s roughly analogous to calling Michelle Obama “uppity” and then insisting it had nothing to do with race. Just be told that queer readers are going to take it personal when the only gays in your book are rapist villains.

But I digress. I’ve talked about gay villains before and I’ll talk about them again soon (when I review Gemma Files’ A Book of Tongues, which was ~amaaaazing~), but today’s topic in Things That Alienate Queer Readers is…

Boy meets girl and I don't give a fuck

ARISTOTLE EXPLAINS EVERYTHING, by Aristotle (9/107)

Socializing is awkward at the moment, because I’m “between jobs,” as the euphemism goes, but then every time I’m meeting someone new —

“So what do you do?” they ask.

“I beg for jobs worry about money do sweet fuck-all read a lot,” I say.

“Cool, what are you reading now?” they ask.

“Uhm…….” I say. “Stuff.”

Because it feels unbearably pretentious to say “Aristotle,” and yet…!

Granted, I make no pretensions that I enjoy or understand it particularly well. The first section, Metaphysics, by which they mean philosophy, re: study of the truth and nature of things, was so abstract and so navel-gazy that I was hard-pressed to give a fuck. Does knowing whether/how something ~really~ exists make the least bit of difference? No? Okay, then can I move on to something that does?

Philosophy: I’m glad that somebody’s doing it, but it is so not my thing.

It also started making less and less sense as I kept wading further in, with the word “something” appearing four times per sentence on average, every noun an abstract one with nary a concrete example in sight, MY KINGDOM FOR A METAPHOR, until I was like, “Are these words even supposed to mean something?”

And that’s when a lightbulb went on, because yes, they do mean something, we’ve had this discussion before. What was throwing me was the prevalence of words like “form,” “substance,” “kind,” “essence,” and “attribute,” which in everyday speech encompass a number of different ideas, but in philosophical writing each have ONE, and ONLY ONE, very specific meaning. Much like my abortive foray into hard sci-fi, I was trying to read it without realizing that I didn’t know the language.

Moral of the story: don’t skip the introduction. Once I knew exactly what was meant by, for example, primary vs secondary substances, or substance vs quality, it started making more sense and I felt like less of an idiot.

Apparently (as I discovered in the introduction) there are two modern approaches to Aristotle’s work: historical and philosophical. The historical approach focuses on how Aristotle’s ideas were shaped by the culture that he lived in, and the effect that his writings had on later generations of thinkers. Most of his writings on natural science, for example, are of only historical interest, because they’re about concrete facts that have either been proven wrong or proven so right that they’re taken for granted these days. Philosophy, meanwhile, can’t exactly get proven right or wrong, so the navel-gazy questions about the nature of the soul that Aristotle put forth in the 300s BC are just as alive and debatable now as they were back then. The Signet edition takes the latter approach, all philosophy all the time, and I really wish it hadn’t.

I want to try this Aristotle experiment again, because there were nuggets here and there that sparked some excellent world-building ideas — in particular, how to incorporate magic into natural science — but I want (A) more commentary and (B) a historical approach.

***

Aristotelian koan of the day:

If animals have souls, how do you account for a worm that can be cut in half and continue living?

Blows my mind, man.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold (8/107)

Excellent! A+

Set in a vaguely medieval-spain flavored fantasy world, Curse of Chalion features a protagonist very different from your run-of-the-mill fantasy romps (older and less stupid), legitimately clever and complicated court intrigues, and some excellent theological world-building. The first half of the book is largely taken up with laying bricks, establishing the world and the characters, but then when Shit Gets Real, it does so with a vengeance.

It even has a SURPRISE HOMOSEXUAL, the guy who’d been shaping up to be my favorite character, which pleased me greatly. My only complaints were that he kind of got shafted, and that the romance in this book wasn’t as well-developed as in Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. I’m perfectly happy for authors to leave out romance altogether, but if they’re going to include it, they need to make me care, not just assume that of course I think boy and girl should hook up.

Granted, both of those are very minor aspects of this book, far outweighed by everything it does right. Bujold’s prose is sharp and professional (something I always open a book expecting to take for granted, and yet), her protagonist is awesomely not made of suck, and her plot and pacing are excellent — easily one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read recently.

After Dark, by Murakami Haruki (7/107)

Not Murakami’s most groundbreaking story, but I always enjoy his writing. I think Philip Gabriel is the weakest of Murakami’s trio of translators, which makes me sad because we share a name.

Counter-recs:

– For anyone studying Japanese, Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese is a highly entertaining little collection of random Things That Give English Speakers Trouble.

– Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicles, Dance Dance Dance, or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Skip Norwegian Wood, it’s seriously overrated.

Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, by John W. Baldwin (5/107)

This topic is relevant to my interests for the purpose of world-building — specifically for Keilja’s story, because he grows up and becomes a university professor, and there’s more to writing a medieval university than sticking some turrets on UCLA. Initially I bought this book and Charles Homer Haskins’ The Rise of the Universities to get concrete details about university life, such as how classes were chosen and scheduled, where they were held, how students paid for them, what subjects were taught and how classes were conducted, how professors interacted with their students in and outside the classroom, and all the other things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

Some interesting facts about medieval academia

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson (4/107)

I was reading so fast…

…and then I hit REAMDE, which slowed me right the fuck down. Neal Stephenson’s latest doorstop, clocking in at 1036 pages, is far from the most unreadable thing he’s put out, but that said, it is still very, very long.

In short: If you’ve read Neal Stephenson before and you liked Snow Crash and Diamond Age, then REAMDE is something you’d probably enjoy. If you haven’t read Snow Crash then GET ON THAT, STAT. You can come back and read this later.

In long: Stephenson being a writer's writer, and using every single gun on the goddamned table. No spoilers.

Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano (3/107)

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is a collection of essays by writer (and activist and biologist) Julia Serano, confronting and dismantling a number of societal preconceptions about not only transgenderism, but gender relations and gender identity in general. Serano is sharp, funny, insightful, and justifiably angry, and Whipping Girl is A+ reading.

More quoting than reviewing going on here