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More Readings and Reviews: Books 19, 20, and 21 of my Lunar New Year List

It’s holiday-time, which also means it’s heavy-reading time for me. I’ve been devouring books, which is a good thing because I have a lot of them and I’d feel a bit funny not reading them. In fact, looking through my boxes of books at my parents’ home, I felt a bit sad seeing so many books I’d owned for years and never actually read.

Well, having hauled back at least 40 kilograms of books, probably 45 kilos, I have no excuse to say, “But there’s nothing I want to read right now…” I have almost all the books in my current reading plans.


Anyway, I’m trying to be scrupulous in noting books in my reading list, so I’m going to review them all, in keeping with my Lunar New Year reading list. Was it 40 books I pledged to read in the space of a year? I should do that quite easily, but now it’s all about seeing how many books actually make it into my reviews for the year.

These books are out of order, seeing that I’d actually read the first before leaving for Canada, and should have been number 15 or 16 in my list. But ah well, that matters little.

Book #19: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman.

This book got piles of praise, and was one book praised heavily by the person I credit with making me give SF another look during my undergraduate days.

Well, I don’t mean to criticize it when I say that it’s aged, and that you can see clearly it was a Vietnam-era book. It’s aged wel, actually, and the whole war-is-hell, war-is-technocratic-madness, and war-is-good-for-business set of angles are all addressed masterfully. I found it especially fascinating to see how life on Earth had changed over time, and how utterly horrid and destitute it had become during the protagonist’s main trip back.

The ending, of course, seemed a little pat to me: I was quite certain that it was coming, too, given the aliens’ seeming inability to understand how warfare worked. But still, it was a great piece of SF despite these blemishes. Or, perhaps, because of them, since they did date the book in an interesting way, and since the book held my attention both as an engaging tale and a product of a very particular period and culture.

If you do check out the book, make sure you have a newer printing, containing the author’s preferred edition. The book needs the stuff that was cut from earlier versions, in my opinion.

Book #20: The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy.

Derrick Jensen said that he couldn’t write a happy, affirmative book about interspecies communication basically (though I’m not sure it was the word he used) it was patronizing to affirm what is of course true, and arrogant of us to not think it exists. I’ve heard that elephants are highly intelligent and, among their own kind, extremely communicative.

Well, this novel takes the idea one step further, telling the story of various elephants on the African savannah, from somewhere very close to their own perspective. Now, for people who only read mainstream lit, Gowdy’s feat in writing this story must have seemed remarkable: she has a whole slew of idioms and terminology used by elephants, illustrates their (to us, nonstandard) communication methods, and paints the image of a society of creatures with a distinctly mammalian, yet utterly alien culture complete with etiquette, legends, laws, and an explicit matriarchal social hierarchy based on the age and size of each of the various cows and bulls.

Of course, to an SF writer, none of this is too surprising. In fact, reading the story, it seemed to have been written the way a literate SF-writer would do it: the characters were uniquely characterized of all the things that made them elephants, plus whatever transcended that and won my sympathetic disposition towards them. The vaguely-familiar but also quite-alien world of the elephants came alive for me in large part through the elephants’ consciousness, but then gain this is what we SFers call worldbuilding and it’s just an assumption that we do it in our own writing.

And even the basic thrust of the novel—a quest-plot, where elephants are seeking out a magical white bone that can guide them to an elephant’s idea of a utopia free from poachers and predators—seems reminscent of the quest-like basis of all kinds of fantasy and SF. Hell, there’s even a form of telepathy in the novel, a hallmark of SF.

And yet, the book isn’t SF, not at all. It’s built up using so many SF techniques, but Gowdy isn’t really regarded as an SF writer, but as a mainstream Canadian-lit author. Isn’t that interesting?

Anyway, the book was… I don’t know. The ending to me seemed a little abortive, but at the same time, I didn’t know where it could go. But more interesting, I didn’t care so much; for me, it was just cool to be immersed in this world of elephants. It interested me enough to pull me through the book in only two days, which is rather quick by my reading pace.

Book #21: Paul en appartement by Michel Rabagliati.

A young couple falling in love for the first time. Their day babysitting kids. The art class they met in. A gay graphic design teacher, and a trip to New York. A horrible repairman called (mistakenly) Mister Bone. A rat. A lost camera. The Sound of Music. A forgotten pyjama top.

These aren’t the kinds of things I tend to read about in books, much less graphic novels. They’re not the kinds of things I’m even interested in, and moreover, I could never have imagined myself reading about them in French.

And yet Rabagliati, a comic-artist I’ve reviewed before here, manages to make his story come to life with little things like that: the scent on the kid’s forgotten pyjama top. The way two little girls talk to one another. A bathroom demolished by the worst repairman imaginable. The way a young couple look at one another when they’re just first living together. The experience of meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The funeral of an old, beloved great-aunt.

He renders all of these tiny moments in just enough detail to make them breathe, and move. And they breathe smoke, the smoky air of a post-funeral crowd’s exhalations. It smells like, sounds like, and feels like what Montréal must have been like in 1983—not that I would exactly know, given that the best I can attest to is visiting a small town nearby around then, but it feels right, and I can map it back with my later experience in Montréal as a base.

Anyway, for some reason I have no trouble reading this. There were a few words or phrases I wasn’t sure about, but context made these few words and phrases matter very little. But for those of you living in Anglo-land, I assure you that you, too, can enjoy these books. The Paul series has been translated into English, and it’s well worth a read. I know I’ll be coming back to these books before too long.

Right, that’s it for now. I’ve got a couple more books on the go, and probably before long I’ll be posting about those, too…

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