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What I’ve been reading, № 3

16.February 2015

What was going to be a monthly feature last year lapsed. But now I’m back with renewed fervor! This year, I made a resolution to read at least one book for fun – alongside all my reading for WORK – per month. So far, it’s mid-February and I’m ahead of schedule. These are the pages that have been keeping me company of late.

For Fun:

Red Mars

I’ve become a MASSIVE fan of Kim Stanley Robinson lately. The first book that got me hooked was 2312, which is complete, utter genius. This one is a bit more linear, a bit less literary, but absolutely amazing. Telling the story of how humans settled Mars, it deals in depth with the ethics of terraforming and the difficulties of setting up a human civilization in a place that is extremely inhospitable to humans. Must read.

A Wizard of Earthsea

I’ll admit it: I’m not the world’s biggest fan of fantasy literature (I prefer fantasy films and often find fantasy lit way too earnest) and I only begrudgingly picked this up because one of my students is writing a thesis that involves it (so it’s also a quasi-work book, but I’m not going to be picky).

HOWEVER. This book was fantastic. It was a really quick read – partly because it’s compact (under 200 pages), partly because it’s written simply (although extremely well), and partly because about fifty pages in I found I couldn’t put it down. The world of Earthsea is beautifully rendered in text and maps, the characters are fully-realized, and the plot moves along at a good clip.  I can’t wait to read the rest of The Earthsea Quartet.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I’ve long been an obsessive fan of Cailtlin Doughty (especially her web series “Ask a Mortician”). Anyone who is at all skeptical of the death and funeral industry in the U.S. and/or feels traumatized by experiences with funerals and the reality of seeing an embalmed loved one needs to read this book. It will 1. Confirm your doubts about the funeral industry, 2. Convince you that Caitlin Doughty is the only person who should be in charge of your body after death, and 3. By turns move you to laugh and cry. It is seriously a revolutionary book and I can’t recommend it enough.

For Work* (also fun!):

The Time Machine

The classic of the time-travel genre. Admittedly not my favorite, for reasons of heavy-handed allegory, but it is a foundational text for SF and time travel and utopia. It starts slow, but quickly gets better about a third of the way through, then ends with more of a whimper than a bang, unfortunately. Still, it’ll only take you a couple hours to read and then you’ll be able to get a bunch of references you might otherwise have missed!

The Martian Chronicles

This, on the other hand, is one of my favorite all-time books, partly because of how great it is, but also in part because I really didn’t expect it to be great. A collection of stories woven together by interstitial text to create a history of Mars under human colonization, it records the decline of the Martian population, the rise of human civilization on Mars, and the eventual decline of humanity. The whole thing is amazing, but there are individual stories (“– And the Moon be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “The Million-Year Picnic”) that are utterly arresting. Honestly, “There Will Come Soft Rains” should be required reading for all of humanity. Go read it, now.

The Drowned World

This one’s weird, folks. You may find you need at least a passing knowledge of both geological epochs and Freudian psychology to wrap your mind around this. Also, you may be tempted to read this as a climate change prophesy, but don’t be tempted by the rising seas and giant iguanas – this is no normal global warming narrative. Al Gore is nowhere to be seen. Mostly, it’s a psychological study with an occasional wicked sense of humor. Don’t read it too slowly and don’t read it at bedtime. This narrative is calibrated for maximum nightmare potential, even though it really doesn’t seem it while you’re reading. Take my word for it.

*You may sense a theme with these books: I’m reading a LOT of sci fi right now because I’m teaching a fantastic course on SF and the environment. If you want/need more recommendations in this direction, including essays, criticism, and short fiction, drop a line and you’ll get a syllabus.

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