Saturday, September 20, 2014

Boring, Stupid, and Terrible (and Two Amazing Books)

A few weeks ago, I went to the Decatur Book Festival and got to hear a panel of book reviewers, including Lev Grossman (who writes for TIME when he's not blowing our minds with the Magicians series) talk about why book reviews still matter. One of the threads of the discussion was about whether or not to write bad reviews. Some on the panel felt that, if a book wasn't good, why would you waste time and space talking about it in a publication? Others acknowledged that you have to fill the space and sometimes you just don't like anything you've been reading lately.

I go back and forth on this issue. On one hand, yeah, duh, we'd all prefer to only read great books, and have only great books suggested to us. It would make life a lot more pleasant if we never had to deal with anything even mildly Boring, Stupid, or Terrible (BST). So when you find something BST, why bother drawing attention to it when you could, instead, draw attention to something wonderful?*

On the other hand, I have learned a lot by criticizing books and TV. When I have to puzzle out why something is bad (or, let's be honest, why it rubbed me the wrong way), I learn more not only about the craft of writing but also about the underlying assumptions that inform my personal aesthetic. In those instances, I get to challenge those assumptions, see how they hold up to the cold light of conscious thought.

However, lately I've been reading some really BST things. Some of them are BST in new ways, so it's valuable to think about why and how they suck so much. But some are just the same old crap regurgitated and hearing me tell you about how Book 2 was just as bad as Book 1, and in exactly the same ways, is itself Boring (if not also Stupid and Terrible).

So while I'm going to continue to read and review all teh bookz over at FantasyLiterature.com, where our philosophy is "Life is too short to read bad books [so we'll read them for you]," I'm going to stop re-posting all of my reviews here, and only share my reviews of books that are REALLY. GREAT.

*********

Two books that I've read recently that are the categorical opposites of Boring, Stupid, or Terrible are Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett (who is super cute, btw). I didn't review them for FanLit cause other people got to them first and I didn't have time, but I want to tell you about them here.

Station Eleven is set in a post-apocalyptic US. The book follows several characters, all of whose lives intersect with one man, Arthur Leander, an actor who dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear on the eve of the collapse of civilization due to a viral pandemic. It goes back and forth in time, showing the world before and after. My favorite character, Kirsten, was too young to have many vivid memories of the pre-collapse world; she is part of a theater troupe that, 20 years after the collapse of civilization, makes yearly tours of the upper Midwest putting on plays. Their motto is "Survival is insufficient," a line taken from an episode of Star Trek.

I can't really explain the plot of the book here; the connections between characters are deeply-felt but also tenuous and telling too much would be giving away some wonderful reveals. But I will say that, while there is danger and hardness here (Kirsten herself has had to kill two people just to survive), there is tenderness and beauty, too. Mandel's intertwining of these two halves of the post-collapse world is moving. Without losing forward motion, Station Eleven is a meditation on humanity's relationship to technology and fame, on what it means to be "civilized," and on what makes living--survival--worthwhile.

City of Stairs is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part crazy-amazing fantasy. In this world, the Saypuris, who have been oppressed and treated as slaves and subhuman creatures for centuries, have finally risen up to overthrow and then oppress the Continent, a polytheistic society with access to magic. As part of the new regime, the Saypuris have scrubbed the Continental cities, historical records, art, and public speech of any reference to the gods, who were supposedly defeated and killed in the Saypuri uprising.

Into this inheritance steps Shara, a diplomat-slash-spy from Saypur who has come to Bulikov, the holiest city of the Continent, to investigate a recent murder. Shara suspects that the Continental gods may not all be dead. She and her bad-ass Viking-pirate-prince "secretary" (he's actually her bodyguard) poke their noses into issues that both the reigning Saypur government and the underground Continental rebels would prefer remains hidden.

This book is very different than Station Eleven. Mandel left me kind of like, "Hmmmm . . . " chin-on-fist, thinking about what it means to be human. But Bennett doesn't let up; his book is action- and revelation-packed, and left me more like, "Ahhhh!" hair-blown-back-in-the-wind-of-awesomeness. (I really need some gifs here; too bad I suck at the Internet.) However, this doesn't mean that City of Stairs has nothing meaningful or lasting to say. Some of my favorite parts were the characters' debates and ideas about religion. Shara is Saypuri, but has spent her life studying the secret history of the Continent; as such, she is stuck somewhere between belief and non-belief. Furthermore, the the centuries-long Continental oppression of Saypur was sparked by religion. The Continental deities told their adherents that they were blessed and that the Saypuri were created to serve them. Bennett also calls into question the relationship between human prejudice and religious imperative, suggesting that perhaps one creates the other.

Tl;dr: these books are great, and you should go read both of them. Now. (Starting with City of Stairs).

*Other than that being snarky is really fun.

1 comment:

Sonakshi Nathak said...

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Love your blog! Keep up the writing, its fun to read:)