book review: the lathe of heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is an awesome bit of science fiction. There’s a man named Orr who sometimes changes reality in his dreams. No one else knows that anything has happened, but the guilt over the responsibility of shifting reality is too much for him, so he does too many drugs to stop sleeping, is caught and put into therapy. This is in the first few chapters. Then it gets interesting.

His therapist has a machine that makes Orr’s dreaming more regularized and controllable and then starts using him to radically reshape the world to better fit his idea of what would be better.

It’s an amazing Dickian conceit but less madly written. I don’t know how I’ve missed reading this for so long. I found a trove of Le Guin paperbacks at a recent used book sale so I’m hoping to find a few more such gems in the heap (and am not reading anything about any of them ahead of time).

new job-like thing for my non-work hours

This month I almost forgot to renew my BC Library Association (BCLA) membership. I originally got membership as a student for free but now that I’m a totally legitimate professional, it costs money, so it’s something I can easily let slip through the cracks. But letting my membership lapse would be kind of awkward and weird at this point since I’m now officially a co-chair of BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) with David Waddell. Woo!

In his “passing the baton” email to the BCLA and IFC lists the outgoing chair, Jon Scop, commented on how it’s kind of interesting to have an intellectual freedom leadership position going from one male children’s librarian to two male children’s librarians. To me it seems obvious that children’s librarians would be big intellectual freedom advocates.

This was banned books week in the states, and it’s totally commonplace at this point to note how many challenged books are kids’ books like Captain Underpants. Minors are a chunk of our society with very little power and there’s a huge swathe of society that wants to protect kids from ideas adults don’t want them to have. I see my role as a children’s librarian as serving kids, not their parents or teachers, which is quite fundamentally anti-elitist and subversive (one of the things I love about librarianship).

Saying “I can’t let you see that” to a segment of community members just because they don’t have a bunch of legal rights (to vote or drink or go to war or whatever) is kind of anathema to the librarian ideal. While teens are fierce defenders of their own intellectual freedom, librarians are natural adult allies, especially since we don’t have any real power over them (I suppose we can kick them out of the library), just expertise to offer. As a children’s librarian, part of my job is to take seriously what kids are interested in pursuing when they are looking for help, and not saying “Ugh, more Fairies/Pokemon/Sparkly Vampires?”

One of my formative kidbrarian experiences happened on my first day working a refdesk (which I blogged at the time). I’m still proud of my instincts to bring the 12-year-old kid over to the shelf where we kept Mein Kampf. In one of my post-MLIS job interviews I was asked what I’d do with an 11-year-old girl asking about Fifty Shades of Grey. In that interview I fucked up. I tried to make myself more hireable by waffling a bit and adding some more questions to my reference interview to make sure the kid knew it wasn’t a book for kids. Seriously, I hate that I did that and I totally blame the whole job-search process for making me less than confident in my ideals and whether someone would actually hire a kids librarian who wouldn’t blink at giving an 11-year-old steamy fanfic. That’s the kidbrarian I want and try to be.

Yesterday I was in a middle school talking to a bunch of 8th graders about the library and why we’re relevant to them. This was one of the things I stressed to them. In the eyes of our library, once they’re 13 they have adult cards and we won’t tell anyone what they’re borrowing. I told them that we don’t care if they want to read Pokemon comics (or other materials “below their level”) or Anais Nin. If we find something for them and it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. That’s the whole point.

Anyway, all that is to say that youth librarians make total sense as intellectual freedom defenders (but I won’t subject you to my theories of why it makes sense there’d be a confluence of male children’s librarians doing this stuff, because I wouldn’t want to paint any other librarians with my weird gender-role identity issues). I’m looking forward to working with BCLA’s IFC on these issues, but as always whatever I say is just me talking, not official views on anything unless I clearly mark it as such. You can read our blog and follow us on Twitter.

books review: dead mothers, the gravel in your guts, high lonesome (scalped vols. 3,4,5)

Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.

The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.

A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).

At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.

The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.

Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.

book review: should we burn babar? essays on children’s literature and the power of stories

I read Should We Burn Babar? because I’m interested in the idea of radical children’s literature. Herbert R. Kohl’s book is a collection of essays that are about this but are also about radical education, which, I guess would be more interesting to me if I were a teacher than a librarian.

The first essay, on burning Babar, is very good at looking at the racist colonialist enterprise that Babar is enmeshed in and questioning how to read this book with kids, and if we even should. Kohl’s conclusion is that it can be read, but it must be done critically so the readers don’t get sucked into the idea that all the troublesome things that happen in the story (the bringing of European customs to the naked elephants who are left behind, the complete lack of agency that Celeste has in marrying Babar, the fact that symbols like Babar’s hat are bandied about as if they self-evidently mean something in regard to power).

There’s also an essay on Pinnochio, which was interesting because of its focus on how the real story doesn’t turn him into a good little boy. He remains mischievous and more human than Disney would have you believe.

Once the book got into educational methods and things I lost interest. He’s obviously an older guy and I wonder how much of what he discusses as radical has been incorporated into education curricula these days. I’d be interested to hear what people with more knowledge of that kind of thing have to say.

book review: akata witch

Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel set in contemporary small-town Nigeria. It was nominated for a 2011 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book (one of the Nebula Awards).

Sunny, the young heroine, is an albino girl with a couple of brothers who’ve moved around a lot in their lifetimes. They’ve lived in the US and visited Europe but now they’re back in Nigeria. Where Sunny learns she’s a Leopard-person.

Leopard people are people in tune with magic and spirits and their true faces. Most leopard people are brought up by parents who are leopard people, but there are also some who are free agents, which is what happens to Sunny (her parents are Lambs – the equivalent of Muggles). As soon as she learns what she is, she’s bound to secrecy about it by her new Leopard peers and teachers.

It’s a good book, but way more interesting for the characters and setting than the plot. There’s a serial killer in their area and Sunny and her friends have to put an end to his nefariousness, but that only really becomes important in the last sixth of the book. Most of the book is about Sunny learning about this strange new world she’s found herself a part of. There’s a soccer match, and they watch a juju fight between experienced warriors, and they undergo a bunch of trials in which the protagonists could have died, but the difference in the stakes between those things never really come through. Even though Sunny is shocked at what the adults could have let happen, it’s hard to be really pulled into what turns into the big conflict. Too much time is spent with Sunny wanting things explained to her, but the rest of the characters feel it’s better to keep her (and the reader) in the dark.

But Sunny is a great character. The worldbuilding (of both the fantastical world and mundane Nigeria) is excellent. I loved the different languages that were used and how the cultures were differentiated. I loved that leopard people are supposed to shun worldly goods and power, but some of them don’t, but everyone has to deal with each other anyway. The politics around everything are nicely gray.

I’d gladly recommend the book for anyone who likes urban fantasy type things, but wants to see some characters and cultures that aren’t already filling the bookshelves.

book review: z for zachariah

Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah is a post-apocalyptic novel that’s kind of awesome. There are only two characters in the book, Ann, a sixteen year old girl who lives in this farmhouse in a valley that’s been spared the fallout wastes surrounding them, and Mr. Loomis, a scientist who shows up with a one-of-a-kind radiation proof suit. The book starts off with her being wary of him, but then he does something stupid and gets radiation poisoning and then she takes care of him.

It’s a pretty great little book. It starts after Ann’s been there alone for a year after her family left to go find help so she’s competent at living alone and getting shit done on her own. The change that happens in her relationship with Mr. Loomis is really well done. The gender- age- and power-dynamics are all pretty first rate. I was tense tense tense.

It’s not a very subtle book, but it makes sense (and isn’t cartoony in its post-apocalyticness like Fallout nor wrist-slitting like The Road). A lot of the equipment she can use is in the store because there were Amish farms in the vicinity before the war. It was a well-thought out straightforward little story. I liked it a lot.

book review: a wizard of earthsea

I read Ursula K LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea for my YA SFF literature class, but this is one of those books that doesn’t seem especially for younger readers (this is the biggest issue I’m finding odd as the course goes on, but I’ll talk about that more specifically some other time). It’s a tale of the early days of the wizard Sparrowhawk, who, we are informed at the very beginning, will become the greatest wizard of Earthsea. It follows him through his young life and apprenticeships and studying at a wizard academy (which I suppose is why this is here in the YA section).

It’s full of good stuff. There is a duel with some dragons that is much less gritty than Aerin’s dragon fighting, and with much more majesty than Jack & Olaf’s. Sparrowhawk is arrogant and powerful and learns the true names of so many things, which is kind of the key to the novel. That’s how the magic works: you speak spells but in order to say a spell you need to be talking about the correct thing. And knowing the correct name of a thing or a person isn’t easy. In his training he unleashes a terrible thing on the world that kills the archmage and hunts him throughout. Knowing it and the difference between escaping and meeting your fate is a major chunk of the book.

There are a bunch of Earthsea books and while this didn’t have the same gender-issues or interesting political structures that some of LeGuin’s other books have, it was still pretty excellent.