In my general “trying to read more nonfiction” project of this year, I got kind of a freebie: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville. A freebie, because I’m going to read a new China Miéville book pretty much regardless of what it’s about. That it’s about a moment in history I didn’t know in any great detail, and it’s now a time in my life when I’m trying to understand a bit more about politics and history is a good coincidence.
Miéville is a writer whose sentences I enjoy and this book benefits from him being good with narrative. Each chapter covers a month between February and October 1917 (with a pre- and post- chapter bookending them) and follows the activists and reactionaries who are doing things. There were a lot of things going on in Petrograd at that time. I’d had no idea how much stuff happened between the abdication of the tsar and the Bolsheviks finally assuming power. Yup. A lot of stuff happened.
Probably not as scholarly a treatment as the sources in its works cited, but I know a bit more about history now, without feeling like I was slogging through a dry text. It also didn’t overdramatize things and felt well-researched (though he does say in the afterword that he was relying on works in English, not primary sources). I do prefer Miéville novels though, since I really enjoy his shaping of the reality in the pages rather than simply (though evocatively) reporting on things.
I’ve been waiting to read China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris since it came out. I own a copy. It’s in one of the boxes of books I still haven’t unpacked. After reading about Hitler I was ready for something beautiful and this book was.
It’s mostly about Paris and Surrealist art. Because it’s a Miéville book we’re following Paris’ 1950s resistance against the occupying Nazis in a city where art and demons fight in the streets. It’s about how art can’t be controlled and about secret agents and heroism and discernment.
I loved it, and loved that the appendix has a list of most of the artworks referred to in the novella so if you wanted to study up on surrealism, you have a good launching point.
Dial H: Into You is the first trade paperback I own from DC’s New 52 initiative (though not the first I read). The New 52 was DC’s superhero universe reboot that happened in 2011 in an effort to get new readers. I’m not a huge fan of being reminded how crassly commercial the literature I consume can be, so I haven’t been reading a lot of mainstream superhero stuff recently.
Dial H is not a normal superhero book.
I mean, sure there are cosmic problems which are solved by punching, but China Miéville is writing this book so those problems get weird. Plus the superhero at the centre of it is a Colorado schlub named Nelson Jent who, when he dials H-E-R-O on a payphone, taps into some other universe to become a random superhero for a while. Random superheroes like Boy Chimney (powers of smoke-control and telepathy through pollution), the Iron Snail (heavily armed and power-armoured snail shell and tracks dragged by a ‘roided-out soldier-type), and the Cock-a-Hoop (a giant metal hula-hoop with the head of a rooster).
I like how the book makes a ridiculous concept into a kind of exploration of the universes of weirdness and how they’d intersect with DC’s own universe of “normal weirdness” (with its aliens, magic, unnatural disasters and high-technology). The main story is about learning how to deal with the powers of the dial (which does get disconnected from the payphone) and coming to terms with weirdness. I also really like that his superheroing partner is in actuality a woman in her 60s.
I bought this one because it’s China Miéville doing superheroes. While it’s not as good as a Miéville novel, there’s enough good stuff in here to let me forget that it’s part of a stupid comics event. At least while I’m reading it.
One of my friends did a list of her top 12 books from 2012 for her library. I saw her list and went, man, we read very different stuff. I’d heard of four of her books and read none (though a few are in my interminable and not written down anywhere “to read” list). But here’s my list of books I really liked that were released this year. All the links go to my reviews if you want more information than might be conveyed in the specific prize each won.
- Best book about art: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan
- Best book about love: Ask The Passengers by A.S. King
- Best book about politics: The Five Nations of New York by Brian Wood (Technically this is only the end of a much longer tale spanning many years of story, but it was a damned good ending.)
- Best book about sex & politics: The Complete Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau (Technically these are older books than 2012 but putting them together in one volume, as was done this year, makes the experience different enough to make the list.)
- Best book about war: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
- Best book about mechanical bees (with spies): Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
- Best book about giant moles (with philosophies): Railsea by China Miéville
- Best adaptation of a book: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson and Madeline L’Engle
- Best adaptation of that feeling you get from the best episodes of the Twilight Zone into a book that isn’t really an adaptation at all: The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
- Best book about a society I would no-shit never ever ever want to live in: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
- Best book about high school (with ghosts): Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
- Best book about books (with immortality, data-visualization, friendship and epic fantasy quests): Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
What were your favourites?
The second in a short series of posts where I talk about what exactly I do in my new job as a Children’s and Youth Librarian.
My least favourite part of my job is figuring out where to put books. Our library system has a floating collection across dozens of branches, which means that when a member returns a book to a branch in the system it stays where it was returned and doesn’t have to get trucked back to some other branch where it nominally belongs. What it means in practice is that we get these huge gluts of books on our shelves based on who the last requester was. It also makes getting all of the volumes in a series together on the shelf tricky.
So a big part of my job is dealing with stock rotation. I’m responsible for the Children’s/YA collections in our library and our 5 other small branches in the zone. I get a box of unwanted books from one small branch and go through it to see if we already have copies at our branch; if we do I check which branches in my zone don’t have a copy, then I label it and get it ready to get on the truck so it can be delivered to a small branch where they curse the arrival of new books because their shelves are packed. So they go through their shelves and send unwanted books back to me and it keeps on going. If we have copies in all our branches I have to go and beg and cry on the email lists to get some other library outside our zone to please take some books, and no one wants the stuff I have 18 copies of because they’ve just gotten down to 6. I send books to them and they send books to me in this endless dance of keeping the shelves interesting/relevant without overloading any one branch.
Stock rotation haunts my fucking dreams. I hate it so much.
Weeding, though, weeding I like. That consists of going through the collection and seeing what’s old, beat-up or just not being used and removing it so the stuff people are interested in doesn’t get cluttered out by the rest. One of my favourite things to do is check dinosaur books to make sure there’s at least mention of feathers, and the space books to ensure Pluto isn’t still being called a planet. Weeding is the main way I have a say in our collection development, because the way our system works there’s no librarian selecting material for the system. In order to get new books in our system we rely on our members making suggestions (awesome!) and on the vendor to tell us what we want (umm… less awesome). I get to keep the good books even if they’re old and try winnowing out the less-good ones.
In any case, this stuff I have to deal with collection-wise is in a lot of ways just part of being part of a biggish library system. If I worked in a one-branch system and was in charge of the children’s and youth stuff there, I’d probably be griping about how I have to go through catalogues and pick everything myself even if I didn’t feel qualified. Because the collection is shared among all these branches and there are shelf-space issues everywhere and boxes of books keep on showing up, this feels like the part of my job where I have the least control over anything. And that kind of sucks.
I was at one of our local high schools this week. I loved the fact that I could do a couple of mini-booktalks on China Miéville books and the librarian, who hadn’t heard of him before that, could be really impressed and order them for the library. Just like that. In a larger system that doesn’t happen. Or at least I don’t feel like I can do that.
But my next post in this series will be happier again because it’ll be about something I do have power over. I shall leave you in suspense about what that may be.
Photo Credit: Gastown Railyards by Evan Leeson
Railsea is China Miéville’s a story about a boy named Sham who is working on a moletrain. A moletrain is like a whaling ship, but in the world of Railsea, there are no seas like we know them, only the loose earth that terrifyingly dangerous creatures (like moldywarpes and antlions) burrow through. This earth is crisscrossed by an impenetrably tangled network of rails that require expert navigation and track switching. The trains navigating the railsea are hugely various, some powered by sails, some by steam, diesel or even fusion. Out in the dangerous earth there are islands and communities, and many wrecked trains to salvage. There’s also the upsky which is poisonous and filled with alien beasts that sometimes drop inexplicable bits to earth for people to find. It’s all kinds of awesome.
Sham begins the story as a mediocre doctor’s apprentice, serving a captain in search of her philosophy, a giant ivory mole named Mocker-Jack that took her arm. Miéville does this thing where this creature she’s hunting is explicitly philosophical at the same time that it’s a physical beast that could crush a train. It’s directly inspired by Moby Dick but is wildly divergent from Herman Melville’s story.
Strangely enough not everyone likes China Miéville’s use of language. It’s filled with words that are made-up but make sense and I am a fan. The book is published as YA and while the language is intricate and ornate, it will knock the right reader’s socks off. Comparison-wise, it’s got similar themes to Ship Breaker, but the language is less straight-forward. The plot is stronger and more direct than Mechanique, which had a similar kind of language/mood.
I loved the hell out of this book and am only sad it’s over and I’ll have to wait for Miéville’s next one.
I hadn’t been on an organizing committee before last year, when I joined up to be the Website Coordinator for the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference. It was kind of a funny situation, since I was in Australia when I signed up, but being the web person meant I could do all my work remotely anyway. I set up the website, found us a Creative Commons licensed graphic to use, got the web registration forms set up to work with the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable PayPal account, and generally made things accessible to the internet. It worked pretty well. I also did some techy stuff at the conference, helping to make sure people’s presentations worked okay.
On a more personal note, at the conference I presented my first paper. It’s called Unreliable Instructions and I made the slides for my presentation public. We only had fifteen minutes to present our work, so I had to bail out before I reached the “librarians have to change the world!” bits, but it went okay. I tend to have more passion than clarity when I’m presenting something to people, especially if there’s a time limit and I’m not being asked questions. I need to know what the audience gets and what they’re confused by so I don’t waste words explaining what everyone knows. Nobody asked any questions in the session, since my critical literacy stuff ended up being much less practical or theoretical than the other presenters. I was primarily talking about stories by China Mieville and Terry Pratchett and how they encourage critical literacy.
My favourite part of the conference was actually afterwards talking about YA books with one of the Creative Writing presenters. We talked about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Ship Breaker and man, reader advisory is my favourite thing in the world.
Happily, I get to use that love next week at the BCLA conference, where I’ll be on the “Ain’t on the Globe and Mail Bestseller List” panel. We’ll be talking about books that don’t get much attention from libraries. That’s restricted to 90 seconds per book, which suits my presentation style quite well. I’ll be presenting indie comics and games, because that’s the kind of thing I do. It should be fun and it’s cool that Shirley thought of me for it.