Monthly Archives: January, 2009

Odysseus’ Last Stand

I can’t decide whether this is a play on Odysseus finally going home, or on the Led Zeppelin song Achilles’ Last Stand. Doesn’t matter, I guess.

Dave Stamboulis, a Greek-American, decides to travel the world. He decides to do this by bike. He ends up riding 40,000km over seven years. This is the book he wrote from his journals and notes afterwards.

It’s a truly remarkable journey, of course. 40,000km?! I read this because my love has found a few books recently dealing with cycle touring, to help get us psyched up for our jaunt this year. It did help with that in some ways, but at the same time there are certain aspects of Stamboulis’ journey that I have absolutely no interest in replicating. For one thing, he meets and marries a woman on the trip… and then separates from her, too, in quite ignominious circumstances. Hopefully seven years of marriage will help us not to face the same sort of trials in our relationship! (I’ve made him promise never to ditch me in an unknown city, though, as a consequence.)

Stamboulis is not a professional writer, so it may seem unfair to criticise his writing. Nonetheless, there are some aspects of the book that annoyed me. He’s inconsistent in whether he focuses on the riding itself, or on the country. This may well reflect his own notes and journals, of course, and maybe he figured this was the more interesting way of approaching the world. Plus, probably in some areas the riding itself was quite boring. It is fascinating to see his perspective on the world: he travels through Kashmir, and through Turkey, and through some of the ‘Stans, and gets a remarkable view of the people and culture. Plus, he finishes up riding through America, and while I’d like to think that he exaggerates the reactions and attitudes of some of his compatriots I’m quite sure he hasn’t. Which is, frankly, terrifying. Also annoying is the here-and-gone discussion of his emotions. And before any of your blokes start shaking your head at such a girly thing to say: he separates from his wife, and for chapter upon chapter she’s not mentioned! This, for me, is simply unrealistic. Perhaps he decided that he wanted to keep that part of his life out of the book, but I would have preferred a statement to that effect – or, if not, then the rest of the book should have been equally emotionless. But it’s not, so it feels inconsistent.

Overall, though, Odysseus’ Last Stand is quite well written. (Odysseus, by the way, is the bike – the same bike for the whole trip, with remarkably few mechanical issues.) It’s generally engaging and interesting, and is certainly inspiring. He’s heavily influenced by Buddhist and Zen philosophies, and this of course impacts on how he views things like materialism, ambition, etc. While I got impatient with some of his philosophising – some of it was a bit hokey, some I disagreed with – he does make some interesting points about interacting with other cultures, with being willing to take risks and chances, and more generally about not simply following the rat race simply because you’re expected to. Obviously, this is something that I do agree with.

This is not a book that will appeal to all. I went through a big travel-book phase a little while back, and am still somewhat in that zone. I would recommend it as a way of thinking about the world, and also to marvel at one man (sometimes with one woman) facing huge differences in culture and language, and making do.

Battle of the Sexes…

in Science Fiction.

I have finally finished reading this, by Justine Larbalestier… pity it wasn’t in time for the podcast on Larbalestier’s work, but oh well.

It’s given me an enormous amount to think about, not least of which the fact that, despite the reality that women are still not yet equal with men in so many facets of life (the recent interweb spat over the very issue of women in SF as a case in point), still things have improved out of sight in less than 50 years. I would guess that no man these days would be given the print-space to vocalise the idea that women are unwanted in SF (unless it was to set him up for target practice); but this is exactly what happened only a few decades ago, in complete seriousness.

It’s also given me a huuuuge list of books to find, starting with the Tiptree Awards winners. I think it might be time for me to start stttrreeetching myself in my SF-reading, get out of the comfort zone every now and then, and that seems like a good way to start. Good thing the lists are online; pity some of them are short stories that might be very hard to find.

Because Larbalestier includes a big section on the contribution of women to fandom, I’ve also got quite a sense of history and community from reading BoTS. Despite having been a reader of SF&F for a significant period of time, I’ve really only been part of the ‘fan community’ as it’s usually known for a very short period of time, and I still often feel uncomfortable there: both because I’m not sure that I belong, and also because sometimes I’m not sure I want to belong (although why, I’m also not sure). Reading about women writing letters to pulps from the moment of their inception, though, is just so damned cool that it makes me excited to be following in that mode – and I feel that the reviewing etc I get into does follow that. So that’s a really great outcome from reading this wonderful book.

(The book came out of Larbalestier’s PhD, so there are some sections that are a bit tech-heavy for those not very comfortable with literary theory. Much of it, though, is very accessible to the intelligent ‘lay’ reader.)

Joshua fought the battle of…

Jericho, you bunch of heathens.

We finally watched Jericho a few months ago, and I’ve kept forgetting to blog about it. Quite simply, I adored it. More specifically, I adored the first season; having looked up wikipedia and read about the issues attending season 2 (ie there wasn’t going to be one, until fans basically militarised, leading to another half-season being filmed to bring the story to a close), I was relieved to discover that yes, it finished way too quickly.

So. Jericho. Post-apocalyptic small town America. Quirky characters, a bit of action, small-town relationships and interactions, not tooo much American gung-ho patriotism (although enough in various bits to have me rolling my eyes), and a rather fascinating look at the possible consequences of targeted nuclear strikes on the US.

Skeet Ulrich, as Jake, carries it for me. He’s the main character: Jericho is his hometown, basically run by his family, but he’s been away for a long time (ooooh sekrits and dubious histories), which allows him to be bewildered by changes and new people, and also form new relationships that would otherwise perhaps not happen. Plus, he’s pretty cute, although the thing with the eyes (if you haven’t seen it, he does this thing where he sort of looks sideways – I can’t describe it very well), which initially was rather charming and quirky, got a bit overdone and tired, much like Mulder’s goofy looks. Brad Beyer, as the fairly goofy Stanley, is also great to watch and a cool character. Most of the women have bit parts; Ashley Scott – Emily – manages occasionally to get in on the action, but is more often cast as the romance; Heather, played by Sprague Grayden, is about the most interesting woman but doesn’t get much of a role really. I enjoyed Mimi (Alicia Coppola), big-city girl stuck in a small town, but there’s only so much mileage to be had out of that.

I was surprised by some of the turn-ups throughout this series. There were a few relationships, for example, which I had thought that an American show couldn’t possibly present in a positive light – a man who leaves his wife for his mistress, in particular. Overall the relationships were a strength of the show. Admittedly, it didn’t break any ground – no homosexual relationships, can’t recall any ‘mixed-race’ couples, etc – but those it did portray had a reality to them that were basically the reason for watching. I liked the tortured family relationships, the new relationships having to overcome suspicion and mistrust, and old relationships having to re-establish themselves.

The plot itself was not the most original in the world – there’s never been a shortage of post-apocalyptic literature, especially in the nuclear age – but it was just convoluted enough to keep me wanting to know more, and also to keep me guessing. The Lennie James character, Robert Hawkins, is the main driver of this. He is so secretive, and has such a complicated background, that I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going to end up for a significant part of the series. I liked him.

Jericho is a great series. It’s also only a season and a half, so if you’re like us and tend to inhale TV series on DVD, it doesn’t consume too much of your time.

Son of a Witch

I read Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, a while back, and it changed my world. The politics of Oz – the complex, contrary, and convoluted characters – and the rather converse way of looking at Dorothy (and her little dog, too) were breathtaking. Elphaba – who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West – is not a particularly nice person, and not even always very sympathetic, but she is irresistible. Having read this, there is no way I would go and see the musical. I’m sure it’s very well done, and I hear that it manages to be quite complex, but… there is simply no way it could do the book justice.

Son of a Witch is the sequel. It follows Liir, who may or may not be Elphaba’s son, over about 10 years of his life. Again, it’s stunningly well written – Maguire has a beautiful way with words, quirky and yet apt descriptions that conjure up pictures effortlessly. (I think I’m going into raptures here… it really is that good, though.) Liir is a bizarre critter in many ways. Nothing about his childhood was conventional; with no real family history, he feels adrift and rootless in a world that is going through its own turmoils. I had to check the copyright page to see when this was written, and 2005 doesn’t surprise me; it feels very much like a book written in a world of Wars on Terror and all the attendant issues that the West has experienced over the last eight years or so. (I’m sure this sort of politics was written about before that, but I do think it’s had a huge impact on worldbuilding recently.) Again, Liir is not entirely sympathetic as a character. He does some dreadful things, and his willy-nilly-ness sometimes gets annoying. Nonetheless, he is compelling and engaging.

This is a brilliant book. I’m a bit sad there doesn’t appear to be a third, since the conclusion seems to leave it open; there’s another book set in Oz, but it focuses on the Cowardly Lion and I’m not sure I’m ready to read about Oz and not have it focus on Elphaba, just yet. (Instead I’ve bought Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which I’m terribly excited about.) Even if you’re not a huge fan of the ‘fractured fairytale’ type of story, don’t be put off – I’ve not read the original Oz books, and I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. It’s about family, and politics, and finding your place, and living in history’s shadow, and taking responsibility… and did I mention that the writing is to swoon over?

Clive Cussler

As a teen, I had a Thing for Dirk Pitt. It complemented my Thing for James Bond (book version), and Biggles. I read all the Cussler I could get my hands on.

Last night, overheated and unable to sleep, I watched half of Sahara – which I thoroughly enjoy as a ridiculous and entertaining movie.

On the back of that, I decided to read Black Wind, cowritten by Dirk Cussler (!). What better way to spend another scorcher of a summer day?

Answer: reading something that is actually readable. I don’t think it’s just that I’ve become more aware of reading things like “the perky receptionist”… it’s just that the details are presented in about the most boring way, and the predictability – which in some ways I used to love, because the repartee between Dirk and Al was humorous to my teenaged eyes – is now just… predictable.

I don’t think I could ever go back and read old Cusslers, for fear that they will turn out to be as badly written. Same as I could never read the McCaffreys I loved, again.

Black Wind is going into the off-to-second-hand-bookshop pile, with just three chapters read.