book review: the break

The Break by Katherena Vermette is a multithreaded novel about a crime that takes place in Winnipeg. A young Native woman is attacked in the February night. There’s a witness who calls the police. So it’s a story about a crime, but it’s definitely not a procedural.

We get to know the family around the incident through a number of different viewpoints, including a couple of outsiders (a girl who’s escaped detention and a police officer). The story mostly takes place over less than a week, but is filled with flashbacks that give it a lot more depth than that.

It was a great book.

I often talk about how for me, the practical reason for reading fiction is to build empathy. If you get into the heads of people who are different from you, you help expand what your world can be, and it makes you better at understanding and helping people with different experiences from you. The Break is totally going to be my go-to example for that. Vermette gets us into heads really deftly and her descriptions were incisive and made me shudder. We feel for the weaknesses and we feel the strengths everyone shows.

It’s great. You should read it.

book review: the collector

John Fowles’ The Collector is a novel of the 1960s about a man who wins the lottery and then kidnaps a young woman, keeping her in a dungeon in the British countryside. It’s an unsettling book, even in our age of antiheroes, but what’s great about it is the structure. (I am such a sucker for an interestingly constructed novel.)

See, the first half of the book is the story from the collector’s point of view. We’re in his head and we see his reasons for everything he’s doing, and because he doesn’t rape the young woman immediately there’s this dread that builds and builds. The hassles and frustrations of buying a house and building a dungeon in it are all treated in a very matter of fact way and it lulls you into this weird headspace. It never has you rooting for him, but you can find yourself feeling sorry for him.

Then for the second half of the book we see everything through the victim’s eyes, including her preoccupation with an affair she was having with an older artist. It’s kind of amazing. I love that we don’t alternate points of view on things as they happen (or even on a chapter by chapter basis). Since we know the incidents that will happen from how the collector experienced them, it builds even more dread in the second half, not about what will happen, but about how will she feel when that thing we know is coming happens?

The conclusion isn’t anything special (I was kind of hoping for something amazing like in Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman) but this was his first novel, so I’ll forgive that. The whole book is quite restrained, and makes something like The Silence of the Lambs (just to pick a kidnapping story) seem really crass and obvious.

refdesk assistance and all the feels

I haven’t written about specific reference interactions I have with library members as much as I used to in this job. A big part of that is a privacy concern because the library I work at now is the only library in a small town and I’m more conscious here that a lot of locals wouldn’t need names to identify people I mention. It’s kind of sad, because people tend to ask about interesting things, and telling stories about cool funny things that happen at the refdesk is a lot of fun.

So I totally wish I’d written this post Andy from Agnostic Maybe did about helping a library member use the internet. The gentleman who asks a lot of questions while he’s learning about word processing on the computer says “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions.” It is enough to melt a librarian’s heart. Here’s some of Andy’s reaction:

It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.

In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave.

One of the phrases that Andy uses in response to the person he’s helping is “that’s what I’m here for,” which is something I totally say every day. It’s funny how people apologize for asking me questions when I’m on desk, when that is totally why I’m there. “I don’t want to interrupt,” they say even though anything I’m doing out there is just filling the time between questions.

Yesterday I got to do one of those really fun reference interviews, where the library member and I were bouncing between the shelves and the computer looking for everything we could find about salamanders and how they regrow bits of themselves and if that has anything to do with the symbolism of mythological salamanders. We didn’t need to find anything super in-depth, just enough to satisfy his curiosity. In terms of pure informational transfer, I’m not sure how much real use he got out of it (I learned a bunch of good bits for possible trivia nights). But in terms of how he felt about the interaction, I know he was excited that I was excited to help him look this stuff up.

Anyway, I just thought that Agnostic, Maybe post was a good important one about how empathy matters.

book review: blindsight

Blindsight was fucking incredible. Peter Watts put it out under a Creative Commons license so you can go download and read it now if you want. The book has sort of a backgrounder website, which I’d also recommend. If you like hard science fiction that deals with first contact, sentience vs intelligence, predator-prey relationships, people being superfluous so they upload themselves to Heaven, sex, relationships with a person who doesn’t understand empathy, all sorts of awesome brainhacking, the wondrous effects of electromagnets on the human nervous system and vampires, or even a substantial subset of those, you need to read it right the fuck now.

I’ll warn you; there aren’t a lot of likeable characters. One of the blurbs for the book is by James Nicoll:

Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.

The story is told by a man whose brain has been half removed and filled with machinery that helps him analyze what people are thinking based on their body language. But he’s pretty severely lacking, not in social skills, because those are skills you can learn and that he did learn, but in the motivations behind those skills. He’s also hilarious. There’s a great bit where he tells the story of Sperm and Egg and the war they are constantly fighting and he tells this story after presenting his girlfriend with flowers, commenting on the oddness of presenting another species’ severed genitalia as a token of affection, just before they are to fuck.

The best part of this book was all the stuff about intelligence and what human consciousness is worth and what it costs. It’s amazing, and the kind of thing that’s hard to find outside of science fiction. The afterword is filled with the references Watts used (he’s a marine biologist so is used to doing science) and I kind of want to read the huge dense one he mentioned. The one that actually tries to sort out where our consciousness is in our meat.

It’s not for the faint of heart, or for people who like warm fuzzies, but it’s awesome.