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A teacher, student, writer, and opinionated reader. Retired from fanfic (mostly), but not writing. Responsible for the cleverpun's Critique Corner review series: http://tinyurl.com/h3ftsm3

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cleverpun's 2016 reading journal · 11:04pm Feb 4th, 2016

A common piece of writing advice is that to become a better writer, one should read a lot. There is truth to this, of course, depending on what one reads.

Last year, because of school, I didn't read very much. My spare time was often taken up by assignments. One thing I noticed, however, was that taking a book to work and reading it during my mandatory breaks actually let me get through a lot of material. Add in the regular access to a library (since I work at a college and they thus give me an employee library card), and I think I read more (non-fan)fiction in the last four months of 2015 than I had in a very long time. I read several collections of science fiction short stories from the 60/70s, in particular.

So I thought I would try something a bit different this year. Each month I'll log the books I've read and some brief thoughts about them. I don't want to set any arbitrary goals or standards, but at the end of the year I can reflect on the list and see if any patterns or lessons emerge. Because I often devote blog posts to writing-centric topics, I thought I would make this a public journal rather than a private one. Perhaps we might learn something together. Who knows. But it couldn't hurt.

* January: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick; a science-fiction story about how drug culture and surveillance have overtaken society. Immersive and carries a great twist at the end (or perhaps a package of twists). I'm always a bit wary of how classics will hold up to scrutiny down the line, but this absolutely does. The questions it asks about drug use, escapism, and surveillance are as relevant as ever, and the dark humor is periodic but executed perfectly. The old-timey slang is also amusing.
Like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I read the book then watched the movie after. And like that story, the movie was a huge letdown compared to the book. Perhaps I'll have to put The Man in the High Castle on the list later in the year (and be disappointed by the Amazon series after).

* February: The Opal Deception by Eoin Colfer; A standard-issue adventure story, focusing on a teen genius and the magitech fairy world. The main character comes up with cunning plans, the villain is theatrical and is defeated by her own pride, there's a good deal of action scenes and deus ex machina, a beloved character dies to illustrate the stakes, and there's even some amnesia thrown in. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, of course; as far as entertainment goes, this story will competently take up 340 pages of your time. Better than waiting at the bus stop with nothing, as with most entertainment.
Being fairly average is probably the main reason it's marked "Young Adult". There's a lot of mediocre writing in it: passive voice, lavender unicorn "Irish youth" syndrome, said bookism, inconsistent comma mechanics, and the aforementioned deus ex machina. Still, the characters are all serviceable, and there's some clever descriptions at parts. While not edge-of-your-seat reading, it serves its purpose as entertainment. I can see why they're making a movie of the series: it fits Hollywood well. I won't bother watching the movie, however, nor am I terribly interested in reading other books in the series.

Ebony Rising edited by Craig Gable; An anthology of short stories from the Harlem Renaissance era. This is a book whose importance lies in its historical value, not its entertainment value. The vast majority of the stories follow extremely similar formulas, and they all generally address a depressing topic such as lynchings, suicide, or societal oppression. The vast majority are character pieces. Almost every single story has no or a very abrupt ending. Most of the stories were memorable only for their absurdity. "The Comet" in particular stuck with me as patently ridiculous. I think the only story I enjoyed on its own merits was "The Return of a Modern Prodigal".
I understand that, at the time these stories were written, African-American authors getting things published at all was cause for celebration. The fact that they wrote stories that appealed to the issues and values of their day helped the movement evolve. They don't stand up to scrutiny in the modern era, however, and that is unfortunate. They are products of their time in the most explicit way possible.
If anyone is interested in reading this anthology, I would highly recommend taking a class that involves it. That would provide the historical context needed to enjoy this.

* March: Paradox Lost and Twelve Other Great Science Fiction Stories edited by Frederic Brown; An anthology of science fiction short stories from the 40s-60s. They all generally follow the pattern of science fiction from that era. The first part of the story sets up a situation or explains the mechanics of the world, whilst also building atmosphere. Then the climax is a twist. All the stories are at least good, and several of them are excellent. "Ten Percenter" and "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" were probably my personal favorites, but I can't really summarize them without spoilers. The "worst" one was probably "The New One": it was very well-written, but the ending was incredibly corny (though it still gave me a good laugh).
For anyone who likes science fiction of the era, this is an easy recommendation.

* April: The Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac; This is the first entry on this list that I couldn't finish. Jack Kerouac has one of those meandering, purple styles that doesn't really age well. I know he's a very important literary figure and all that, but I don't think his writing is for me.

* May-June: Chobits by CLAMP (re-read); Okay okay, I know. This isn't really a "book". But I had a huge cold/allergy attack/etc for a week, so I needed something light while I was up at night hacking up mucous.
I think this is the first manga I ever read, many moons ago in high school. Upon rereading, it has so many overwhelming flaws that I'm not sure why I ever enjoyed it. Perhaps high schoolers just have horrid taste.
The story makes attempts at a very classic science fiction theme: the role of robots in society. The way it approaches these themes, however, is blunt at the very best. Characters often talk to themselves at length, or repeat ideas many times. This might be partly explained by the main character being a moron, but other characters do it too, even one who is ostensibly a child prodigy.
The story is also severely lacking any sort of conflict for a large majority of the story. This slice of life-y nature would be more forgivable if not for the aforementioned repetition. There's also the fact the conflicts that do appear (particularly the adultery and chastity sub-plots) are very contrived. The first major conflict (the kidnapping subplot) even gets interrupted by two separate subplots (one of which is a flashback)!
Add in all the other constant cliche elements (sex jokes, harem overtones, sight gags, excessive onomatopoeia) and you have a story that is cliche and underwhelming even during its best parts.
But hey, at least the artwork is decent.

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo; This was famously one of the most vehement anti-war novels of its time. It concerns a soldier--one Joe Bonham--who awakens in a hospital. He gradually realizes that his arms, legs, face, and ears have all been blown off. The entire story is told from his perspective, and so a large portion of the plot is him getting lost in his memories, or spending great effort on doing mundane things (like trying to tell time or communicate).
The story avoids being grotesque: we never get any description of Joe's physical state except from his own perspective. And the story has a good rhythm to it, switching between memories and other events.
That's not to say this story is perfect, however. For starters, it is written in the third person limited, and it milks this for all its worth. There's not a single comma in the entire book. Flashbacks and tangents and rants pile on top of each other. There's a pair of prolonged drug trip sequences. And all this is fine. It helps us identify with the protagonist, and there is a sort of manic-but-deliberate pacing to it all. I wouldn't say I was on the edge of my seat, but I was definitely interested.
This all falls apart at the ending, though. The story ends on an extremely disappointing note. It peters and sputters to an abrupt end, which makes all the previous events seem rather wasted. Given the protagonist's physical state, perhaps this isn't surprising. It could even be called symbolic or something. And I suppose given the historical context, a character filibuster was a valid climax at the time. But it's neither satisfying or interesting or even properly depressing. The story just ends.
I enjoyed the ride, but it's a shame that such an interesting narrative fails on such a major point.

* July-October: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; This story was a famous satirical novel, and it focused on the bureaucracy and logistical insanity of war. Its ostensible protagonist is one John Yossarian, a captain in the Air Force. It jumps perspectives and characters so often, however, that it reads more like a series of vignettes. To name every major character would take several paragraphs, but I suppose Yossarian is the protagonist in the sense that he receives the most screentime, and ties all the other stories together.
Each chapter is named for a character, and covers a small story or scene. The story is generally told in chronological order, but there are so many flashbacks and asides littering the narrative. Not only that, but the narrative often abruptly changes tack: it might be talking about a character for paragraphs on end, only to casually mention their death at the end. These literary smash cuts make the narrative feel choppy, but this is a rare occasion where that feeling is both deliberate and effective.
If there are comedies of errors, then this story is perhaps a comedy of incompetence. The theme of the story--that bureaucracy is self-defeating--undercuts every chapter. The stupidity of the system, and the idiocy of the situations it creates, is hilarious. And yet, the story is still a war story. There's a dark overtone to many scenes and chapters. After all, all those bureaucratic stupidities have a cost.
I don't like using quotes in reviews; letting a story speak for itself rather invalidates the point of a journal/review, doesn't it? But I think this is one of those stories that must speak for itself, simply because there is little else like it.

Clevinger was a troublemaker and a wise guy. Lieutenant Scheisskopf knew that Clevinger might cause even more trouble if he wasn't watched. Yesterday it was the cadet officers; tomorrow it might be the world. Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous, and even the new cadet officers whom Clevinger had helped into office were eager to give damning testimony against him. The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.

I'm always skeptical of "classics" and "must-reads". Like A Scanner Darkly, above, however, this is a classic that easily matches its reputation.
Haven't yet watched the movie, but I'll update this when I do.

* November-December: Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (re-read); This book is a part of the Discworld series. The Discworld is a flat planet that is held up by four elephants and carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. But this doesn't come up very often. The series follows a set of various recurring characters, and focuses on satirizing various parts of real life by translating them (badly) into the fantasy trappings of the Disc.
This entry is concerned mostly with the precense of Rock'n'Roll on the disc. Except that it's called Music With Rocks In. A trio of musicians step into one of those shops that wasn't there yesterday and purchase a guitar of a potentially eldritch nature. Things spiral out of control from there as the band gets bigger and bigger, and the fad of Music With Rocks In spreads across the Disc. There is also the side plot of Death going missing, and his granddaughter Susan getting sucked in to take his place.
I always say that the important thing to remember about Satire or Deconstruction or whatever else, is that it must work as a narrative first and foremost. It doesn't matter if your story makes a lot of meta comments or creates satirical situations, if there isn't a compelling narrative to keep everything going.
This story (and the rest of the Discworld series), are perfect examples of this done right. While quite a few of the references and music jokes flew over my head, there's still an engaging story here. The satirical value enhances the story, rather than being the point of story. This is something that a lot of Pratchett's imitator's (and writers in general) often forget.
Not only is the plot interesting, it is told well. Pratchett's writing style has countless witty paragraphs and clever scenes. To count or summarize them all would obviously defeat the point, so I'll just quote one of my favorite parts (a description of a Valkyrie)

And after [the voice], mounted on a horse almost as fine as Binky, was a woman. Very definitely. A lot of woman. She was as much woman as you could get in one place without getting two women. She was dressed in chain mail, a shiny 46-D cup breastplate, and a helmet with horns on it.

I don't often re-read things: there's too much new stuff to digest. But my opinion of this hasn't changed from the first time: it's still a fantastic story, with some good satire, all wrapped up in Pratchett's usual style.

And that's the list! We finally reached the end of the year. I was sort of trying for a book a month (despite my earlier desire not to set any arbitrary goals), but some of the books I chose ended up much denser than I anticipated. Either way, I'm glad I set aside more time this year for reading actual books. Sometimes with all the Netflix and Steam and even Fimfiction, it can be easy to forget the pleasure of a good, published, physical book.

As always, don't be afraid to comment. Opinions and discussion is always welcome. And if you have anything to recommend, there's always next year!

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Comments ( 5 )

Bookmarking this page so that I can refer to it for recommended reading materials later.

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphrey is pretty great. It's a collection of obscure POV of the river Thames every time it has frozen in history. It's kind of a short read, but god is it colorful even with its "oh no, the old Catholic Church and black plague are at it again" setting. Definitely a staple for any instance where you're stuck on your ass for extended periods of time.

I have to agree on Catch-22. One of the funniest emotional gut punches I've ever read.

4275802 I'll have to check that out, sounds interesting.

Catch-22 is one of my favorites! And I look upon anything by Terry Pratchett with a reverence that borders on irrational. Looks like you've got a pretty healthy diet of creative nutrition right here :pinkiehappy:

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