Sheri S. Tepper. Somehow I missed her. A FANTASTIC sci-fi/fantasy author who’s been publishing award-winning novels since the Eighties and I don’t recall even hearing her name. Wikipedia has her as an author ‘particularly known as a feminist science fiction writer.’ If I’d heard that before, obviously I would have run to the library to check her out! But it’s never too late, and who doesn’t love finding a new favorite that has DECADES of writing behind her – meaning there’s lots of books waiting to be read.
It was John Scalzi who waved the flag for me – he wrote about Grass being one of ten sci-fi books that mean the most to him. He lauds her as a world-builder equal to Frank Herbert, and a better writer of characters than most. That’s a huge recommendation, and I was in the market for a new book. The library had Grass immediately available (it was written in 1993) so I got it right away.
I devoured it, and it was everything he said and more. A great example of how the science and fantasy elements of this genre are not separate things, but , in the right hands, the best way to build a new world and populate it with beings, human and other. The plot and characters are impressive, but the theme put me over the top. I’m a die-hard believer in cooperation over competition, and Tepper makes a case for love and trust winning over separation and fear that includes a future Earth of scant resources and fringe religious groups in power, and other worlds full of rainbow grass, murderous horse-like animals and mind-reading alien wildcats that will keep you turning the pages until early in the morning. It was my first Tepper and so far my favorite.
It’s the second book by a new (to me, in this case) author that can really tell the tale. Sometimes that first book is an aberration, or a side trip, or a pinnacle, and the rest is average fare (or worse). So I approached Singer from the Sea with great hope and a bit of trepidation. Could she hit the same bar as Grass a second time, or even get close to it? Yes, she can. Singer from the Sea holds themes similar to Grass (environmental disaster back home, new worlds populated by familiar-seeming humans doing stupid things), but the world-building and character development are equally engaging and I again stayed up way too late.
I started Grass on October 23, and I’ve read three more Tepper novels after Singer;The Waters Rising, The Companions and The Gate to Women’s Country. Not a dud in the bunch. The only negative to reading them all in a row is the repetitive themes feel, well, repetitive. But even that very minor caveat is more an artifact of my reading them one after the other than any borrowing or repeating of story. Each world looks and feels different, each heroine (because, yes, each book has a female protagonist) is her own unique individual and each plot wanders a different road, a different fork and arrives somewhere new. The Gate to Women’s Country stands alone as a more negative view of the future (and no aliens). It reminded me so much of The Handmaid’s Talethat I had to go back and read that again.
Wikipedia has 34 novels listed for Tepper, plus various shorter works, poetry and essays (she wrote pamphlets for Planned Parenthood in the 60s and 70s!).
Here’s the answer to the two questions I get most often – ‘what have you read lately?’ and ‘what are you reading now?’ It’s going to be Tepper, Tepper, Tepper for a while!
From Dad, I learned that everyone is worthy of respect. No one is less-than.
I learned that violence is never the answer, and never to be tolerated.
I learned the joys of wandering road trips. Any road/trail is worth exploring at least once, and in the meantime you are building a map of your surroundings. You’ll always be able to find your way home.
Reading is always a good thing. If you have $5, spend it on a book.
Being alone is okay. Good, even.
Never admit to being vulnerable.
Never show weakness.
If you tell a lie enough times, you’ll start to believe it.
So much I learned in opposition to what he (and my mother) did.
Let your children be children.
Talk to them.
Hug them & tell them you love them until they are sick of hearing it and then tell them some more.
Let them make their own choices (in a SAFE environment) and let them learn from their mistakes.
Tell the truth.
Take care of yourself and do not expect others to take care of you (because they might not, and then where will you be?).
Don’t count on anyone.
I don’t wish I had different parents. I don’t know how to do that. They were my PARENTS. I wish they had been better parents – better people, really. Better in the sense that they wanted to be good people and/or good parents and worked at it, or even thought about it more. Well, I think maybe Dad thought about it, but thinking is not doing – and who got that tendency in spades? Mom was not a doer, and I don’t have evidence that she was much of a thinker, either.
But wishing they were someone else is like wishing to sweep away MY ENTIRE EXISTENCE. How could I be happy now and then wish for that?
I watch Facebook as people I know talk about their dads, change their profile pics, gush about how wonderful they are, say how much they miss them. I watch those who have complicated relationships with their fathers try to be honest while still honoring them. I respect that. Certainly more than the ‘perfection is my dad’ idea. Tara has a fantastic blog post about how lucky she is and what she learned from her dad (which is what sent me to writing this) and, without pretending he’s perfect, she talks about how lucky she was in the Dad lottery – a big winner, indeed.
I am not a winner. If it’s a contest, I guess I’m a loser. My dad chose distance over connection, again and again. And now he’s really gone, and my life is hardly different than it was when he was alive. I lost him long before he died.
Because of my dad’s choices (and my mother’s acquiescence), I have almost no connection with an extended family that could have helped me (and the rest of my family) weather the windstorm that started as gusts and ended as something like a hurricane – blowing Susan far, far away and slowly scattering the rest of us like debris, with no relation to its origin. I now feel like I actually know some of those aunts and uncles and cousins – but it’s much too late to be rescued by them.
What bonds my siblings and I have now are almost entirely of our own making – other than the early encouragement to be kind to one another. We were (or at least, I was) rarely told to ‘be more like your sister’ or allowed to exclude each other from our activities. But my parents did nothing to try to keep this family together once we started leaving. No. Thing.
Susan has worked to make sure that Mom stays connected, and I have worked to make sure that Laurie stays connected. I think Susan and I have not had to work very hard to stay connected, once I visited her in Montana that first time (what would have happened if she’d been in Texas or something? I shudder to think). We both wanted it, we both just took it as normal – because, hello, it is pretty normal to want to know what the fuck’s going on in your sister’s life. That’s pretty much what our family is built on right now – Susie & I staying close. If I stopped talking to her (which I cannot currently envision) then I would lose all touch with Mom. And she would likely lose touch with Laurie (or not, I’m hardly a psychic). Such a small thing. Such a powerful thing.
Most people just don’t understand – and I’m happy for them. Some people do, and I am incredibly grateful for them.
There are fathers and families much worse than mine out there, and I wish their children peace and the courage to move beyond them. It can be done. It’s being done every day by far more people than we like to imagine. Love is the only house big enough for all the pain.
I’ve been dipping back into Jane Austen the last week or so. I stumbled on a ‘sequel’ to Sense & Sensibility by Joan Aiken — a favorite author from my childhood — so I jumped on it. And of course, reading Eliza’s Daughter, made me question my memory of events in S&S, so I had to re-read that. Then I was deep in, so I wanted to read Persuasion (mostly because it’s the one I don’t own of the Austen books I like best — those being Emma, S&S, P&P and Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is okay but lighter, and Mansfield Park I don’t like much at all).
So anyway, I went to pick up Persuasion at the library (no need to put this on hold, every location has multiple copies of all things Austen, and Persuasion being less popular, it was indeed there on the shelf waiting for me). And… right next to it was something called A Visit to Highbury, a ‘different perspective’ of the events in Emma by the great great grand-niece of Ms. Austen. There’s another one after it, Later Days at Highbury.
Sequels done by someone other than the original author are always iffy. And sequels written 200 years after the original, even iffier. Sequels of fantastically popular, iconic, still-in-print works — well, that’s taking a risk of a whole other magnitude. Purists will despise you, fans might mock you, and haters will crush you. These two novels took very different attitudes toward their source material, and the results are very different indeed.
Joan Aiken is a pretty popular author. She wrote Nightbirds on Nantucket, Black Hearts in Battersea, and dozens of other children’s books. I own those two plus The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — three related books (and there are many more, apparently, that were not in my local library as a child). She wrote more than 100 books in her 79 years on the planet. This is no upstart trying to get a bump from the Austen obsessions of the rest of us. I was excited to read this one.
Aiken’s book is a first-person novel from the perspective of Eliza’s daughter, Eliza’s daughter, also named Eliza. That would be Eliza — first love of Colonel Brandon — her daughter, Eliza — child of the unknown father who seduced Eliza in her marital misery – and her daughter, Eliza — daughter of scapegrace Willoughby, first love of Marianne. Got that? It was a bit of a struggle, I kept losing track of which generation we were on. For instance, when this Eliza (and we never see the others) says she’d never seen Colonel Brandon, I had to go to S&S and check the story, because I was sure he said he’d seen her often — but that was her mother, not her.
Aiken has no qualms writing a very different future for the principal characters of S&S — we see Elinor, Edward Ferrars, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood, as well as brief glimpses of Lucy Steele Ferrars and her husband, Robert. Edward is bitter and stoic, Marianne is unfeeling and selfish, Mrs. Dashwood has lost her mind, and only Elinor comes off as a decent person — but she’s miserable. This is NOT the future we wished for them! And the Interwebs is quite full of people telling Austen fans to avoid this book at all costs. I saw none of that chatter before I picked it up, and I was sorry to see Aiken’s complete lack of faith in these characters’ futures. I wonder why she even wrote a book that dealt with them, since she seemed to dislike them excessively? Maybe she wanted us all to know how she felt about them.
Eliza’s story is compellingly readable and rings true as a real person and a real life in almost every instance. Actually, it all rings true (because who actually reveals everything about themselves?), but a few choices made by the author rendered the whole book less satisfying.
First the good: Eliza is scrappy and no-nonsense, kind and generous to a fault. She rescues a baby from her wet nurse’s neglect, refuses to gossip to make her school life easier, overcomes the negligence of her guardian (Brandon does not come off well, and the blame is placed on Marianne), escapes from would-be rapists, and rescues Elinor from starvation and fever. The plot is one damned thing after another for this poor girl from the wrong side of the sheets. But she never gives up, and rarely complains.
The bad: this ‘never complains’ part is part of the problem. Her sexual abuse as a child (by her tutor) isn’t even mentioned until she’s an adult — not even hinted at properly. And the book ends (seriously, the last paragraph) with her revealing that she’s PREGNANT, when there has been no hint of any kind of sexual encounter occurring in the previous decade or more. WHAT?! This is what sent me to the internet, wondering if there was a sequel/interview/close reading somewhere that could tell me what the heck was going on here. I found nothing but vitriol aimed at Aiken for her treatment of beloved Austen heroines and heroes.
This is not to say that the book is poorly written, exactly. If that sentence had been left out, I would have closed it happy — even with the character assassination. I can ignore Aiken’s opinion of the future Dashwoods, et. al., this book would have been a fine book unaffiliated with any Austen characters at all. But why make a poor attempt to dress up the ending by 1) revealing a pregnancy we have no investment in, and 2) making every reader doubt their reading of the whole book? Seems a poor choice for an otherwise accomplished text.
A Visit to Highbury is a VERY DIFFERENT voyage into the world of Austen. Joan Austen-Leigh (hey, both authors are named Joan… just noticed that) makes a point of saying in the introduction that she puts not a single word in the mouths of Austen’s speaking characters in Emma, adheres strictly to the timeline and details of that novel, and only makes up things about the silent characters in Emma (notably Mrs. Goddard, mistress of the school where Harriet Smith lives). The story is told in a series of letters between Mrs. Goddard and her sister in London. Mrs. Pinkney is newly widowed, remarried and lonely for people, so her sister sends her gossipy letters (almost wrote ‘emails’ right there) about the fine folks in Highbury. Mrs. Goddard’s opinions and descriptions of Emma and her friends and family mirror exactly what Austen wrote in Emma, so purists can read it with no qualms.
The book is thoroughly enjoyable. I read it in one go, not putting it down until it was done (it is only 180 small pages). The events taking place in letters written and then received and responded to create a kind of constant cliffhanger situation as we wait for the other to respond, answer questions and clear up confusion. Of course, there is more going on in their lives than what happens in Emma — will Mrs. Pinkney ever be happy with her husband. Are those poor girls at the school in London really being mistreated? Lots of new plot that in no way alters what we know and love about Highbury and its residents, but it adds some background and a new list of events and characters to love (some quite similar to other Austen creations, including the obligatory visit to Bath, Naval officers, illegitimate children and apothecaries for everyone). I look forward to the sequel.
I think there is room for some middle ground between the two approaches to (what amounts to) Austen fan fiction. Aiken makes you despair of every picking up another one, and Austen-Leigh treats the characters as demigods not be to besmirched by her unworthy hands.
I think the best Austen fan-fic I read was Death Comes to Pemberley, what could properly be called a sequel to Pride and Prejudice by P.D. James, a popular author of crime fiction.* The events take place a few years after the end of P&P, when Lizzie’s wild sister, Lydia and her ne’er-do-well husband, Wickham, arrive at Pemberley. The book is a murder mystery totally in keeping with the characters of P&P, and a great read. James clearly loved those characters, but wasn’t afraid to shake things up a bit.
I can’t imagine taking on the challenge of writing in Austen’s world — I’d be more likely to take the ‘inspired by but no way I’m actually calling my character Elizabeth Bennet’ route, done by tons of writers (my most recent favorite, the speculative fiction books of Mary Robinette Kowal). You get points for bravery, but be prepared for the firing squad.
*I also read a collection of short fiction ‘inspired’ by Austen’s work (Jane Austen Made Me Do It), an uneven collection that none-the-less contained some real gems.
I have several friends/family members who are baffled by my habit of re-reading my favorite books. But I’m baffled by their bafflement. Doesn’t everyone revisit their book-character friends? Don’t they miss them?
I imagine that I first re-read books because I had a limited supply. My house always had books in it, but there weren’t hundreds. We made frequent trips to the library (thank goodness) but the end of one book did not always coincide with an influx of new reading material. And a time during which there is no book-in-progress is a predicament not to be borne. As a result, I read every book that was in my house — sappy autobiographies of accident and cancer victims (Mom), mindless teen-girl fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder , and Nancy Drew mysteries (older sister).
And when nothing else appealed to me, I went back to the books I had loved enough to acquire or been lucky enough to receive as gifts. The Chronicles of Narnia box set was (and still is) a cherished gift when I was 11 or 12. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon/fire lizard books were chosen as free ‘Reading is Fundamental’ books, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet was permanently borrowed from the junior high library (sorry, Mrs. Hartner!). Lucy will once again discover that the scary wizard is really a kind old man, and Eustace will learn from being turned into a dragon. Menolly will escape from the thread, and find a place where she can be herself and thrive (and even fall in love). Meg & Charles Wallace will again blow my mind with a vision of the world as malleable and open to the will of every one of us.
But this doesn’t really explain why a woman with disposable cash and full access to one of the best libraries in the country still reads books she’s already read. Stories in which she has already discovered the surprises, admired the prose and pondered the lesson.
Why do I re-read them?
Because I’ve forgotten some minor detail of the plot and cannot rest.
Because my particular sad/angry/happy/wistful/etc. mood requires a book to match, and [insert book title here] matches that mood exactly
Because the book in question blew my mind wide open in a new and unexpected way, and I want to experience that again — and likely go deeper in, where there are more new things to ponder.
Because, once again, the end of one book did not coincide with an influx of new material. Or the available new material does not fit the current reading mood.
Because the series is 15 freakin’ books long and I don’t exactly remember everything from Book One (first read in 1992), which will impair my ability to fully enjoy Book 15 the way I want/need/deserve to.
Because the series is (currently) five books long, the new one is expected next month, and I can’t wait so I re-read Book Four. Or maybe books One through Four.
Because the series is 15 books long, and reading Book 16 reminds you how much you love those books/characters/plotlines, so you start over at Book One.
Because my current book brought a previous book to mind, along with the urge to read that book.
Because the book I just finished blew my mind wide open in a new and unexpected way, and I need time to sit with those new ideas — but since a time during which there is no book-in-progress is a predicament not to be borne, it is safer to re-read a book which I know won’t interfere with this pondering.
Because that book broke my heart/gave me a new attitude/made me want to run away to Hawaii and I want to feel that again.
I’m sure there are dozens of other reasons why I reread the books I love, but this is the hit list (or possibly the top ten – hey, there really are ten of them!).
Where do you stand on the read once/ read over-and-over spectrum? Why? Hit me.
My reading week in review: Miéville, Austen, Marcus Samuelsson, Mary Robinette Kowal.
I love how the things we read connect to each other in unexpected ways. But it is not so unexpected that a speculative fiction novel set in the time of Jane Austen would connect with Pride & Prejudice – it is quite deliberate. But it is rather unexpected that – three days after I re-read P&P, Without a Summer would appear on my hold shelf at the library. And since I’d forgotten the premise of the novel approximately 30 seconds after I put it on hold, it was quite surprising to my little brain when I opened it and was reading of proper ladies, gentleman of the peerage, and – oh, yeah – magicians. Good thing I love surprises. I’ve only just started the book (okay, I’m 125 pages in), but so far it’s good. It doesn’t try to be Jane Austen (which irritates me), it just lives in her world (well, her world if it had magic) – and does a good job of it.
Speaking of Pride and Prejudice, I think I figured out why Mr. Darcy has been such an object of female adoration for so long. Long before he was impersonated (quite ably, I might add) by Colin Firth, Matthew MacFadyen* and the like, he was merely words on a page. But such words!
We – or at least *I* – love him because he is articulate. And a critical thinker. And he listens when the woman he loves speaks, and attempts to improve himself when he sees his own faults. And Jane does the same in return. I think this consideration – and certainly the fact that both of them behave so admirably – is highly unusual in any romantic fiction (maybe I’m wrong ). And it’s essential in real life. And it’s DAMNED attractive. Even when he’s angry and humiliated, Darcy writes her a letter that compliments her in many ways and assumes she will give his words a fair hearing, even if she does hate him. At every turn, he treats her as a capable, thinking human being, not an empty-headed ornament. Who doesn’t love that?
I’m not sure where I saw Yes, Chef discussed – Twitter? a Powell’s email? I have no clue – but the story intrigued me. A very young man is adopted out of Ethiopia to Sweden, where he grows up helping his grandmother cook and becomes an award-winning chef in America. I’d never heard of Marcus Samuelsson previous to this (though there are several ways I might have if I paid any attention). His memoir is well-written and a great story of the global village we are living in today – plus lots of travel and food. So if I enjoyed this book knowing nothing about him, I imagine fans of his will be delighted.
*I originally typed this as Angus MacFadyen – an even more attractive actor I also adore. They are apparently unrelated except in some crazy place in my head.