2020 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 31, 2020

Since 2008 on December 31st I blog about my year in reading. I used to list all the books I read during the year, but since last year I’ve been using Goodreads to track my reading. If anyone is interested go see the 2020 titles there. I only finished 45 books, down from 48 in 2019. My goal was 52. However, I did read over 400 short stories in 2020. That’s kind of impressive, but wait until you read why.

The books I recommend most this year are (links to my reviews):

I’ve got to admit I read damn few novels while making another orbit of the Sun. Instead, I was gorging on classic Sci-Fi short stories. I’ve become obsessed with old science fiction. This is partly due to belonging to the Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction where we group read old SF anthologies. It’s a lot of nostalgic fun. Membership is currently at 322, and most of the members are old guys like myself who grew up reading short fiction the science fiction magazines.

However, switching to reading short stories is also due to a change in my reading habits. I just hate committing to a long book, even one that’s only a couple hundred pages. It’s amazing I finished War and Peace this year because my mind now craves short fiction. And it’s not because of the pandemic. I started this shift in 2018. Maybe it’s age related and I’m just losing my patience with fiction. That’s also true with movies and television shows. I now prefer spending my TV time on YouTube videos or documentaries.

I’m not sure how to explain this mental shift away from the longer fiction of novels, movies, and TV series. Only a few years ago I was binge watching TV shows and mass consuming novels and movies. I can’t decide if I’m just tired of fiction, or just tired of padded stories. Or maybe I’m just jaded with certain kinds of plots. Even my new passion for old science fiction short stories is wearing out. Of course, after sixty years, it might just be I’m having trouble finding something new and novel to entertain my old mind.

For example, I’ve been trying to get into Bridgerton, the new Netflix series. I love Jane Austen, I love historical stories from the 19th century, and I love movies and TV shows with beautiful period costumes and sets. However, a tale about young Regency ladies hunting rich aristocratic husbands has grown stale, even with the added bonus of graphic sex. Bridgerton is no Belgravia, and a far cry from War and Peace. At best, it’s Jane Austen let’s pretend. And let’s face it, without their costumes, those naked bodies seem way too 21st century.

I’m even starting to get testy with the old science fiction short stories too. That worries me. I’m scared I’m developing a tolerance to my last favorite kind of fiction. Oddly, enough, it was my first type of favorite fiction. Is that a sign of regression?

I worry because I’m constantly searching for more potent SF stories to read. I crave great stories, but I mostly find lame tales that were crude and silly even back when they were first published. The more I read, the fewer jewels I discover. And for some reason, the more stories I read the more I feel the total number of jewels I thought I discovered dwindles. It’s become a process of reading distillation. I used to think there were hundreds of great SF short stories, now I wonder if I can find 100. As I get closer to the end of my life, will it be just 50, or 25? Or will the wonder of them finally disappear?

I wish I had kept a reading diary of the short stories I read this year to chronicle their highs and lows. I started one for The Best American Short Stories 2020 but I didn’t finish it. The reviews I did write go a long way to explaining my changing reading interests and abilities. I only read and reviewed 8 of the 20 stories, but I still hope to finish all of them before the 2021 edition comes out next October.

I also wrote “I’m Having a Problem With Science Fiction – And It’s Due to Getting Older” for my Classics of Science Fiction blog that explains some of my reading problems with science fiction. That site is where I review the science fiction I read. I’ve morphed into reviewing individual short stories there instead of novels and whole anthologies. And I wrote “What I Love Best About SF Short Stories” that explains my current infatuation with SF short stories if anyone is interested.

I actually getting more excited about the nonfiction I’m reading or watching. For example I read Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner about startups in Silicon Valley in the 2010s. That bit of reality was actually more thrilling than most old fantasies about space travel. I also read Bart D. Ehrman older book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Again, that history trumped most of the science fiction in far out ideas. I’m currently reading Evil Geniuses by Kurt Anderson and it’s inspiring me to do tons of research. However, I mostly fall back to reading old science fiction short stories.

I hate to say this, but I think aging is playing a role. It takes a lot of mental effort to read a big novel or nonfiction book. It takes even more effort to read the supplemental material to research those books and write about them. So, I’ve fallen into the trap of seeking the path of least resistance. I just grab another SF short story or watch a YouTube video.

That’s starting to bother me. I wonder where my reading in 2021 will take me. I’m going to stop making predictions and plans because they never come true or get accomplished.

JWH

Finally Finished War and Peace – But Do I Recommend It?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2020

I began reading War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy back in April after watching and reviewing a recent 6-part BBC miniseries (2016) based on the book. I finished about forty percent of the novel and then stopped reading it in early summer. Then a couple weeks ago I decided I needed to finish it before the year was out. Every year I read one literary classic, and I had promised myself that War and Peace was going to be my 2020 read. War and Peace is currently #7 on The Greatest Books list. It did make an excellent companion to 2020, and illuminated the present with the past.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, War and Peace reminds me of Jane Austen because it’s set from 1805-1812 (plus epilogue 1813-1820), which was around the time Jane Austen was writing her famous novels. War and Peace has always been intimidating for his size – 55 hours and 30 minutes on audio, and 1,300+ pages in teeny tiny print. That’s almost like listening/reading all six of Jane Austen’s novels together. The plot and characterizations of War and Peace is about as complicated as reading all the Austen novels by round robin her novels chapter by chater.

That wouldn’t bother some readers, however, War and Peace mixes in countless pages of Tolstoy pontificating about war, power, military command, freedom, history, free will, leadership, etc., and I’m afraid that could turn them off. Thus it makes for a hard novel to recommend emphatically.

War and Peace wasn’t hard to read. Many people have asked me about that. Yes, the Russian names are problematic, but I think it helped that I watched the BBC series first, and watched the Russian language Mosfilm version that was released as four films over two years (1966-1967) while I was reading the book. Those four films of War and Peace are currently available on HBO Max.

My friends also ask me if War and Peace is worth all the trouble to read. When I’ve mentioned to folks that I was reading it, many reacted like I was doing something yucky. It’s actually a wonderful novel, quite philosophical, but mainly about romances within large aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or Jane Austen, just imagine that kind of story on a much bigger scale with two epic battles, and the downfall of an emperor thrown in. I enjoyed the war parts, but I’m not sure if most readers will.

Again, I’m reminded of Jane Austen. Much of the book is about life and love among the aristocratic which is very similar to Austen. However, in Austen, the men go off to the Napoleonic wars but we’re never told of their experiences. In Tolstoy we are, and it’s important. The men are shaped by their experiences in battle, and two of them have intense spiritual conversions. War and Peace gives us the men’s view of the age, whereas Austen gave us the women’s.

I’ve never really understood Napoleon before. While reading this novel I went and read the entry at Wikipedia about Napoleon, which was very informative. But I actually believe Tolstoy gives a much better picture of this historical figure, even though Tolstoy obviously wanted to write his novel to give a revisionist assessment of Napoleon. I still don’t know enough history to know if Tolstoy is accurate or not, or even if he’s doing hatchet job on the man.

I have to admit that I wished that Tolstoy had published his soapboxing as a separate nonfiction supplement to his novel. It’s quite fascinating to hear Tolstoy’s 1860s knowledge of the sciences, including the new ideas about evolution, applied to events and people. Tolstoy is impressive in his insights, even by 21st century standards. I even used some of them to see Donald Trump in a new light. By the way, I was completely surprised by how important the French language was to Russian aristocrats at the time. I’ve always imagined Russia being very isolated from the rest of Europe.

On the other hand, I was always anxious to get back to the story, and I always wanted to know more about the characters, of which there were too many to chronicle here. Pierre was my favorite, but then he is much like Levin from Anna Karenina, my favorite character in that novel. In both cases, I wondered if those characters were stand ins for Tolstoy himself?

Still, do I recommend this monster of a novel? I am very glad I read War and Peace, and I found it very compelling, but it requires a tremendous commitment. I’m not sure I will ever try to reread it, but I think I will dip into every now and then. Some scenes and chapters are exquisite.

I can recommend reading War and Peace to anyone who loves 19th literature, to anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, or to anyone to enjoys finding philosophy entwined with fiction.

By the way, it’s quite cheap to try War and Peace since it’s in the public domain. Get a free Kindle copy. If you get hooked keep reading. I enjoyed reading it and listening to it on audio. My Kindle edition let me switch back and forth instantly.

JWH

You Can’t Criticize Hamlet Because You Don’t Believe in Ghosts

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 27, 2020

My friend Mike sent me an email yesterday that’s got me to thinking. Instead of paraphrasing what he said, I got his permission to reprint it:

We always talk about the best science fiction stories, but I was thinking that as an intellectual exercise it would be fun to nominate stories that we think should be in the running as the best science fiction story, full stop.

You have written many times about the need to read a story numerous times to truly understand it. I just reread "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin for the third time. I originally thought that the story was too implausible, but I've changed my mind.

An author creates a framework for a story, and the plot unwinds within that framework. It's not intellectually honest to complain that you don't like the framework.

For example, in Have Space Suit - Will Travel, Heinlein creates a scenario where Kip manages to refurbish a used space suit and use it to communicate with a space craft. Heinlein sets the tableau and we enter into that world. It is what it is. Any complaints about the story are dishonest because Heinlein can paint whatever picture he wants. He is the creator and sets the parameters.

In other words, to dismiss "The Cold Equations" because you don't like the premise is like saying you don't like Hamlet because King Hamlet is a ghost and you don't believe in ghosts. You are missing the point. The author is asking you to consider the life and death struggle taking place inside the conscribed plot.

So I nominate "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin as the best science fiction story. In very few pages, Godwin presents us with a drama of immense consequence. A Greek tragedy unfolds. Barton desperately seeks a way to change Marilyn's fate, but her fate is sealed. Godwin handles their interaction with a stark and beautiful sadness. When Barton contacts his superiors, they respond like a Greek chorus, confirming the inexorable outcome. A beautiful story, timeless and universal.

This struck a chord with me on many levels. First off, I’m guilty of criticizing stories by disbelieving in their ghosts. I never hated Hamlet because I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I have attacked stories because of their ghosts. Why am I so inconsistent?

I have read over 400 short stories in 2020. I read over 300 short stories each year in 2019 and 2018, meaning I’ve read over a 1,000 short stories in the last few years. That reading experience is compelling me to find aesthetic yardsticks to measure the quality of short stories, but developing that sense of judgment has been bumbling at best. It’s like I’ve been made a judge at an Olympic sport but haven’t yet learned what to score and how.

At my science fiction blog I’ve been struggle to review short stories as I read them, but I’m still fumbling with how to go about it. For example, here’s my review of “Think Like a Dinosaur” which was inspired by “The Cold Equations,” the story Mike nominates. I admire both of those stories, and I’m more than willing to suspend my sense of disbelief to let them work. On the other hand, I’m often critical of science fiction stories where I can’t believe in their premise. Am I criticizing some science fiction because I don’t believe in their version of Hamlet’s ghost?

I have a split personality when it comes to science fiction. If I love the story, I ignore judging it’s science. If I don’t like the story, I use science as a form of literary criticism. Mike has convinced me I need to stop doing that. I need to forget that science is part of the genre label for science fiction, that’s it’s irrelevant.

I recently wrote a piece called “Faith in Science Fiction” about how science fiction inspires some people to believe in crazy ideas. I still believe that’s true, but I realize now because of Mike’s email, that it isn’t a fair criticism of science fiction. Novels have inspired all kinds of craziness in people, but is it fair to judge literary merit by what readers do with the stories? Should Atlas Shrugged be judged by the politics of libertarians?

I called Mike and said my ideal science fiction story is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, which I’ve written about. Mike questioned if it was a short story since it’s so long. That’s true, I told him it’s a novella. So I offered him “An Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss which is a short story, and I’ve also written about.

What’s ironic is these stories trigger synapses that fire when encountering unscientific ideas, but just as intensely light up other regions of my brain that recognize wonderful stories.

I would love to develop a taxonomy of short story elements to judge. To list all the possible storytelling virtues to consider. I’m not sure if realism or scientific validity should or shouldn’t be a consideration. I guess if that’s a goal of the story, then it should be, but it shouldn’t be if it’s not really a factor in the story’s original blueprints.

For example, I recently read “The Monster-God of Mamurth,” the first published story of Edmond Hamilton from 1926. It’s not a great story – I don’t think, but can’t say for sure. Judging by how I felt, I did sense several appealing elements. Some of those elements were common techniques used in stories of the past that are shunned today. Should we judge stories by today’s standards or the standards of when they were written?

Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations we’ve been discussing Hamilton’s story, “What’s It Like Out There?” Edmond Hamilton was once a very popular science fiction writer, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. But unfortunately his fading reputation barely remembers his World-Wrecking space operas or Captain Future stories for kids much less his best short stories. We’re all surprised and even blown away by reading “What’s It Like Out There?” because it was so damn good!

At least it felt good. What exact elements made “What’s It Like Out There” so impressive? It was originally written in the 1930s but rejected by all the publications that took Hamilton’s stories back then for being too bleak. “What’s It Like Out There?” was rewritten and accepted in the 1950s, and became Hamilton’s most famous short story. Many readers recognize it’s greatness, but who can explain the mechanisms that make it work?

We all wondered how Hamilton wrote that one outstanding story. So I bought The Best of Edmond Hamilton and started reading. That’s when Mike’s email came in. The first story was “The Monster-God of Mamurth” from the August 1926 issue of Weird Tales. The story is about two men finding a dying man in an African desert who tells them a fantastic tale before he dies. The man, an archeologist found an inscription on an Egyptian monument in hieroglyphics about a lost civilization and an ancient god, which he went searching for alone. He found a dead city but a living god.

Now this is completely unbelievable by today’s knowledge, yet the story works pretty well. It reminded me of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones from “The Call of Cthulhu” or the Elder Gods as August Derleth called them. But Hamilton’s story seems to predate the Cthulhu Mythos. It also reminded me of the Ancient Astronaut craze. Fantasy writers love the idea of old gods continuing to live on, and other fans loves the idea that alien visitors were gods to ancient humans.

How long have writers been telling such tales about ancient deities and lost civilizations? How should we judge this particular theme? Did people once believe these ideas could be true? Did people actually believe Bible stories in Biblical times? Does it matter to the story? Is how the idea is developed what matters artistically?

Of course, ancient gods is nonsense, but Edmond Hamilton created a pretty good first story about one. In developing my taxonomy of creative writing elements, how would I judge this particular story? This post has gotten too long to answer that here, but it sets up my problem.

By what yardsticks do we measure short stories? Especially stories with crazy ideas. And is how well we’re fooled by foolish ideas an aesthetic consideration? Is how the idea has been evolved from earlier versions of the idea another consideration? Is even deconstructing stories to identify their artistic gears and wheels even a worthwhile pursuit?

Do we really need to know why we like or hate a story? It only seems important if we want to understand ourselves, or talk about a story with other people. And it really only becomes important when we try to identify the very best stories. And that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned from reading over a thousand stories in the past three years – some work extremely well on my unconscious mind, and most don’t. Why? How?

JWH

Not Quite a Pink Light From VALIS

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 14, 2020

Yesterday I needed to do laundry and I put on an old pair of overalls. As I was storing away my wallet and other items I was annoyed they didn’t have back pockets, or a front pocket on the bib, and that the shoulder straps were permanently attached to the bib. I remember thinking what kind of overall have straps sewn on? Eventually, I took them off, throwing them on the bed, and put on sweatpants when I discovered they were too much trouble in the bathroom. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t remember buying any overalls like those.

Then this morning when I went to hang them back up in the closet they had back pockets, a front pocket on the bib, and the shoulder straps had hooks.

?!?!

Was Susan gaslighting me? WTF? I looked all over for the overalls I put on yesterday but couldn’t find them.

Not quite a pink light from VALIS but it sure is weirding me out.

I just put the overalls back on to see if the perspective of wearing them hid the bib fasteners and the front pocket, and maybe I just didn’t feel the back pockets. But they were all clearly there.

These have to be the same overalls because I left my wallet and other things in them. It was when I was trying to stow all my stuff that I couldn’t find the pockets I wanted.

I’m pretty sure God isn’t screwing around with me, and this is a brain fart, but it’s fucking weirding me out.

I distinctly remember looking for a front pocket on the bib and even pulling at seams thinking it was just hidden. But this morning there was clearly one pocket with a zipper, and even more obvious a second pocket with a flap and snap. Too obvious to miss – so how could I have missed them? My spare keys were still in a lower side pocket by my knee where I had put them when I couldn’t find a pocket on the bib. So I didn’t dream that.

I also distinctly remember thinking how hard it was to deal with the overalls in the bathroom because the straps were sewn on. Clearly they aren’t. And I distinctly remember trying to put my wallet in a back pocket and not finding one, so I put it in a front pocket.

Now I understand how Philip K. Dick could get so obsessed thinking he saw a pink light, even inspiring him to write three novels. The mind is a weird thing, but even then I don’t want to lose it.

JWH

BASS2020: “This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 5, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill is the kind of cutting edge short story I expected to find in The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS2020). It is the longest story in the anthology by audiobook time. The New Yorker called it a novella for its online publication.

“This is Pleasure” are twin monologues by M and Q which switch back and forth to provide a kind of trial on sexual misconduct. Q is Quin, or Quinlan M. Saunders a middle-aged senior book editor accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women who have forced him out of his successful profession. M is Margot a close woman friend who believes Quin’s words and actions were stupid, but not evil enough to ruin his career.

Mary Gaitskill sets up the story so we can judge Quin for ourselves and she presents a fascinating conundrum of a case. Probably all men are on the #MeToo spectrum, but at what points along that spectrum do men deserve increasing levels punishments? Our legal system decides if a person should go to jail, but it’s the court of public opinion that often creates other kinds of punishments. And in this story Gaitskill suggests that every woman must judge Quin for themselves.

Quin is an interesting character of contrasts. He’s happily married, and doesn’t want to upset his wife. Quin is entirely open to everyone about how he likes to flirt, which his wife either endures, excuses, or ignores. Quin has countless women friends, who put up with different levels of his shenanigans. He offers unlimited support, sympathy, encouragement, and is willing to listen to anything a woman friend needs to talk about no matter what time of day or night. Quin craves intimate information, loves to tease, flirt, flit around sexual issues, while trying to cop whatever feels he can get away with. Yet, Quin is always adamant that he’s not after an affair or real sex, or at least that’s what he tells everyone. Most women consider him creepy but some also consider him well-meaning, even supportive and caring.

However, Quin does cross lines. He believes he always stops if told to do so, and always respects whatever boundaries the women set. But does he? He’s hyper-aware of women needing friendship and freely provides whatever emotional support that’s needed, but he also thrives on crumbs of sexual titillation. Some women don’t begrudge him those crumbs, but others do. So how should we judge Quin. How does society solve a problem that walks the razor’s edge of ethicality?

The only actual solution I can think for cases like Quin, is for them to have a Creepy Friend Agreement for women to sign when they first meet. Sure, this is a Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory solution, and probably absurd. But this story seems to ask how Quin could have protected himself legally and still be himself. In the end, Quin hopes he can defend himself in court, desperately believing he can provide proof that his accusers consented to their strange relationships. From the corroborative evidence Margot presents, we don’t know if this is true or not. She thinks it might be, but it’s doubtful courts will. More than likely Quin is delusional, even with all his skills for reading women, it doubtful he can read them all.

“This is Pleasure” is short story writing at its best.

Other Reviews:

Karen Carlson concluded:

It’s a perplexing story, kind of frustrating, but compelling. It’s long – it’s being sold as a 96-page novella – but reads quickly, if emotionally. I was a bit nervous coming into this story, since Gaitskill has scared me in the past, and not in a fun way. But this was excellent, the kind of story that doesn’t change your life, doesn’t even clarify your thinking, but helps you outline some of the problems a little bit better. Uncertainty can be a good thing, if only because it gives you some breathing room while you’re looking for certainty.

Jake Weber spent a good deal of time evaluating the ethical problems brought up by the story, and admiring fiction for letting him do that:

Is it too didactic of me to turn literary analysis into rules for flirting in 2020? Is that too narrow a purpose, too pedestrian a use to make of art? I'd argue no, that in fact, one of literature's best uses is that it allows us to look at a difficult issue from the outside and analyze it. The best proof of this story's artfulness is how easily it can be turned to a non-artful use.