Reading & listening in 2018

Every year I keep a list of the books I’ve read and then add the list to the Books Read List page of this blog. If you look at the Books Read in 2018 list and compare it to the last couple of years, you might think that 2018 was a poor year for reading.

Well, I would counter, it wasn’t as bad as 2013 or 2015. Even so, I would admit that I feel a little bit of disappointment in seeing that 2018’s count is twenty books fewer than 2017’s.

Screenshot_PodcastsBut then I would remember that 2018 could also be described as the Year of the Podcast and the Year of the Non-Traditional Narrative: in 2018 I began listening to and watching actual-play D&D campaigns podcasts and web series, Eberron Renewed and Critical Role.

For the past few years I have chosen a book series to binge-listen to during my long commutes for my summer teaching job. Instead of choosing a book series in 2018, I chose to listen to my friend’s D&D podcast Eberron Renewed. Some 90 episodes later (each weekly episode running between an hour and an hour and a half), I estimate that the amount of time I’ve spent listening to this podcast is the equivalent to about a dozen audiobooks. Eberron Renewed is just a very long narrative being “written” collaboratively and in improv.

And if I had been reading instead of watching Critical Role? Well, that’s another very long narrative being told in real time that also amounts to about 15 books in terms of hours. (Though I could just as well have been watching other TV shows to be honest, which I haven’t had the time for.)

Then there are the BBC and PRI news and linguistic A Way With Words podcasts I listen to at work, when I could be listening to audiobooks.

So it’s not that I’m not getting healthy doses of narrative, fiction, news, ideas: I am. I’m getting them from not only reading and listening to audiobooks, but also from unexpected, non-traditional narrative sources by following along other players’ D&D campaigns. Getting my entertainment from these sources and from playing RPGs myself with my friends has had me thinking about role-playing games as narrative sources, as sources or modes of entertainment: a form of oral narrative, community narrative, an exchange between those who create entertainment and those who are entertained by it and the nexus of when those groups happen to be the same people gathered around a table with character sheets and dice.

I’ll be exploring some of the ideas that have sprung up in my musings about RPGs as non-traditional narrative sources in an upcoming blog series.

Do you keep track of what you read? From what sources do you get your doses of fiction?

In memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

I am still processing the loss of one of my favorite and admired authors: Ursula K. Le Guin. I have read most of her fiction, including fiction for children, some of her non-fiction and translations. It is one of my goals in life to read everything she has written — fortunately for me and the world, she was a prolific writer. Her novels, in particular A Wizard of EarthseaThe Tombs of Atuan, and The Dispossessed, have affected me deeply and helped shape how I see the world.

Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching The Left Hand of Darkness and its related short stories in my Literature by Women course. It was the first text I chose for the course and I selected the other texts to complement it. That unit was the most interesting and enjoyable to teach and was perfect for class discussions about the role of literature, literary theory, reception of a text over time, delving into an author’s changing perceptions of her own work, and more.

Left Hand of Darkness teaching

I do not want to say that the world is less magical than it was before now that she is no longer in it, because every soul brings its own magic into the world and with new souls being born every day, the balance is maintained — an idea I know Le Guin would agree with. The magic she instilled into her works succeeds her and, thanks to the Library of America, will never be out of print. But gone is the hope of one more Hainish novel, one more story set in Earthsea, one more blog post about her cat’s antics.

Gone also is the slim hope of someday meeting her in person. I am sad that she will not see the completed 50th anniversary edition of the Earthsea saga, though I know from reading her blog that collaborating with Charles Vess was immensely satisfying for them both. I look forward to its release and of putting inside it my last signed bookplate from her, a gift I have been saving for years for precisely the occasion of a special edition of Earthsea.

Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?


Blackout 
and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

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Beacon 23

Opening line: ‘They don’t prepare you for the little noises.’

Howey - Beacon 23 cover

After being shipped home with a war injury and decorated as a hero, the unnamed narrator is reassigned to Beacon 23, where he can have some R&R in the vast loneliness of deep space. The beacons serve as lighthouses for interstellar travel, warning ships of asteroid belts and other obstacles that a ship travelling faster than light would not want to run into. Most of the time it is quiet on the edge of space — except for when it’s not. And, as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Beacon malfunctions, bounty hunters, hackers and pirates, and alien enemies — the beacon keeper faces all of these and more on his own. He thought that Beacon 23 was as far away from the war as he could get. He was wrong.

Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey is an introspective novel as the narrator examines his own psyche in the solitude and isolation of deep space. He lives alone on the beacon and communication takes three months to reach him. His only visitors are the occasional ships bringing supplies; most of the time, his patch of space is empty, as it should be. The whole point of the beacon is to keep ships away from his asteroid belt.

The novel was originally serialized, and I could tell. The beginning of each section includes a brief recap of the previous chapters that felt out of place when reading the novel as a whole, but which would fit weekly installments. Each section covers a different episode in the narrator’s time on the beacon: a malfunction, unexpected visitors, repairs, a rescue, more unexpected visitors. The narrator’s monologue is simultaneously honest, funny, and poignant. The events that led to his becoming a beacon keeper are teased out bit by bit throughout the novel as the narrator shies away from them, distrusts his own mind, and eventually confronts his memories face to face. This is not only an entertaining and funny novel about a quirky lighthouse-keeper, but also an honest study of a mind with PTSD. This is novel worth reading.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Opening line: ‘The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.’

Kowal - Shades of Milk and Honey coverJane Ellsworth is a talented and eligible young woman in nearly every respect: she paints, plays the piano, and weaves glamour with ease. But she is not beautiful; that blessing was bestowed on her younger sister Melody. The summer brings several newcomers into the neighborhood: Mr. Vincent, the renowned glamourist invited to create a new glamour in the Fitzcamersons’ dining room; Captain Livingston, one of Lady FitzCameron’s nephews, is also back from serving in His Majesty’s Navy (and catches the eye of every matchmaker in the neighborhood); and Miss Dunkirk, the younger sister of Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is not at all surprised that Melody seems to hold the attention of all of the eligible young men in their set, and so she devotes herself to being a dutiful sister, daughter, and neighbor. Despite her admiration of the new glamourist’s work, however, he is always disgruntled with her. Meanwhile, it seems possible that Mr. Dunkirk esteems her instead of Melody! And what is Captain Livingston up to? Miscommunication and intrigue abound in this Regency-styled comedy of manners.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is set in a world similar to the landed gentry of Jane Austen, only with the addition of ‘glamour’, a type of magic that can create illusions. The ability to manipulate, or ‘weave’, glamour is another of the many skills a young noblewoman needed to know to demonstrate her refinement and education of the arts. For the most part, Kowal stays true to her source material; to the well-trained eye or experienced reader, it sounds ever so slightly different from Austen’s writings because it is written by a twenty-first-century author, not an eighteenth-century one. As someone who appreciates Regency-era novels, rather than loving them, I enjoyed Kowal’s novel because of the addition of magic and from recognizing the author’s homage to Austen. The novel is the first in a series, though stands well on its own.

For fans of fantasy and Jane Austen: This novel is for you!

the joys of audiobooks

One of the major counter-culture-shocks I experienced upon moving back to Texas from Scotland was the amount of driving I had to do. I had lived without a car for six years in the UK and managed both daily life and international travel without one. I took public transport, cycled, or walked. There was no need for a car.

Not so in Texas.

2017-07-01 - Highway 380

I may live only 2.6 miles away from where I teach, but the public transport that connects where I live and where I work takes 45 minutes for what is a 10 min drive; there are no bicycle lanes and Texas drivers don’t know how to drive around cyclists; nor are there footpaths/sidewalks between there and here; and also, it’s too hot for me to walk or cycle even if there were the appropriate lanes and paths for me to do so. The same problems apply for if I wanted to go to the grocery store, or anywhere else in my city.

Add to that: My best friends live in another city 30 miles away (approximately 45 minutes without traffic), my second job is in a different city also 30 miles away (40 minutes without traffic), and my church is in a third city (20 minutes without traffic). My health specialists are also scattered across the north DFW area and range from 35 min to an hour to get to, without traffic. Have you noticed a theme here? Without traffic. It seems like all of the major arteries in the metroplex have some amount of road construction, meaning that more often than not there is traffic.

2016-10-14 - I35 modern ruins

I haven’t mentioned yet that I hate driving. I get bored in the car. I find it stressful. I get tense even when the roads are relatively clear. I hate having to find parking. The first year or so back in the States I avoided driving as much as I could. I tried to use public transport. I tried cycling and walking. I didn’t go to weekly game nights at my friends’ house because I didn’t want to drive that far at rush hour. I didn’t have a church in my city. It was lonely.

That’s when K. handed me her copy of The Hobbit on audiobook. She hates driving, too, and also wanted me to come over more often. She promised that listening to audiobooks would make driving more bearable.

And it does.

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Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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