Homer has a question for you...
Homer has a question for you…

Question: What are you doing right now?

Answer: Checking this blog in order to get the link to the Almeida’s day-long reading of The Odyssey!







Good!  Then here it is: http://www.almeida.co.uk/the-odyssey

Also, for people who do The Twitter Thing, you can follow along with Odysseus and his water-logged crew: @almeidaodyssey,  and #Odyssey

Fair winds, and fair sailing, beloved patrons!  We’ll check in again once the journey is over and share our impressions!



The day the world stopped.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
(“Everyone Sang”, Siegfried Sassoon, 1918)

As a historian of the First World War, today is a pretty big day in the Calendar of Days Worth Remembering.  Though we in the US use the day to thank living veterans of wars, it also important, I think, to realize why we have a holiday today at all…


The First World War changed life for nearly everyone, in some way.  Soldiers from India and Africa were brought to Europe, encountering their colonial leaders face-to-face for the first time; revolutions overturned centuries-old governments.  Humanity got penicillin, plastic surgery, the wristwatch, the passport, and the spork (no seriously.  The American Army developed it as a way of saving metal).  The landscape of Europe remains scarred in some places with the remnants of trenches that stretched across the entire continent, from the edge of the North Sea in Belgium to the very edge of neutral Switzerland.

Lochnagar Crater, the Somme Valley, France…a shellhole created on July 1, 1916

That’s one of those facts that people like to throw around.  It’s a big, sprawling fact that doesn’t begin to tell you what it was like to live in those trenches.  Side-by-side with other human bodies, who didn’t bathe, or change any article of their clothing for weeks.  Who had to sleep in caves carved into the sides of those trenches, and, as a result, were always tired.  Who often only had canned food and crackers to eat, because the cooking posts were behind the lines.  Cooks would strap these huge barrel-like things filled with soup or oatmeal onto their backs and walked them up to the men…and snipers took special pride in shooting the barrel, so that when the cooks arrived in the trenches, the barrel was empty.

war_2724931bSimilarly, we’ve all heard about the enormous casualty figures from the First World War…the horrifically short-sighted battle plans, the endlessly repetitive attacks that never obtained their objectives…But what we can’t reclaim just how big the whole thing was…To say that the were 54 combatant nations were involved, that war was fought in Asia, in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the sky, on and beneath the sea still doesn’t convey the sheer number of people who fought, who nursed, who made munitions, who provided care, and who protested the war on moral or political grounds. Telling you about the size or scope of a battle can’t convey what it was like to be in the middle of that utter, total chaos of a battle.  We can’t imagine what it was like to be that scared.  We physically cannot imagine the noise of it, especially on that last day.

Official communications had gone out the day before, so all officers, and most of the men knew that the war was going to officially end at 11am on the 11th of November in 1918.  As a result, more shells were fired that morning than had been fired for the entire month previously.  Casualty numbers were higher on November 11 than they had been for three months.

And then…the war was over.

But for those at home, the losses that had been endured were endless.  Some 17 million people had died.  In France, that amounted to roughly one man a minute.  In England, the government officially banned the wearing of mourning clothes, out of fear that home front morale would collapse at the sight of so much loss.  And even though church bells rang out in nearly every combatant nation, it couldn’t drown out those memories.

Even today, there are reminders of that war.  Memorials abound in the combatant nations, and dot the farmlands of France and Belgium.  There are nine villages in France that literally ceased to exist during the war because they were so heavily bombed–but they remain on maps and in ordinance surveys as a way to commemorate their memory.  The ground still yields unexploded shells and grenades that have to be collected and defused by specially-trained volunteers.  In Belgium, the Last Post is played every evening at the Menin Gate, where some 3 million Allied soldiers passed during the course of the war.

French military cemetery, Albert, France

So, even while we’re thanking our veterans today, it’s worth taking a moment and remembering the day the world literally came to a stop–and for just a moment, was silent.

If you’d like to learn some more about the First World War, stop by the library, and check out:

2650670The Greatest Day in History: Nicholas Best has compiled the recollections of some of the war’s more noteworthy participants from November 11, 1918.  Among the voices in this book are Agatha Christie, Harry Truman, Marlene Dietrich, Douglas MacArthur, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi.  It not only gives the reader an idea of just how many lives were shaped by the war, and profoundly changed by its ending, but just how varied a war it was, in terms of experience and reaction.

2139061Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World: All of Margaret MacMillan’s books on the First World War are expertly researched and beautifully engaging, but this particular book does a sensational job at showing just how makeshift the process of crafting the Treaty of Versailles truly war.  The strong personalities that sought to bring an end to the war, from Woodrow Wilson to George Clemenceau to Lawrence of Arabia are all here, and each of their voices can be heard throughout the text, making a tale of diplomatic history into something fascinating and vital.

1743433The Guns of AugustBarbara Tuchman was one ofhte first female historians to intervene into the history of the First World War…and history was infinitely the better for it.  Her book, detailing the opening weeks of the First World War, is one of the most accessible, personal, and sympathetic works of military history you can find, and it really challenges a lot of the over-simplified explanations for the outbreak of war that we are taught in school.

2662347World War One: The African FrontEdward Paice is one of those rare historians who can tell completely factual story that reads like fiction.  Granted, a lot of the story of the First World War in Africa seems too fantastic to be believed, so he is perfectly suited to write this story.  For those who already know about the Western Front, or want to explore other, less discussed aspects of this war, this book is the perfect place to begin.

Happy Birthday, Ennio Morricone!


A young boy leads a mule to a water pump in the middle of a sun-parched desert.  He gazes out over the utter wilderness, and sees a single man riding towards him, a dusty hat casting a long shadow over his face.  The man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in a world where no visitor is ever greeted without suspicion.  As the boy looks, a Spanish guitar begins to play a simple tune, accompanied by the gentle sighing of some violins.  Without a word being said, the viewer knows that, while this place is a dangerous one, it is also redeemable.  As the violins ascend to a major chord, we also realize that this man is not the villain of the piece–but he is in danger.  The moaning of some pipes picks up a familiar warbling tune….

It’s incredibly how much the score of a film can tell us, without a single word being said, or a single look exchanged.  But it takes a pretty remarkable composer to make the world of a film so tangible, and so unforgettable.

Today, though, is a day to celebrate one of those rare and wonderful composers, as the magnificent Ennio Morricone, celebrates his 87th birthday.

Ennio-MorriconeMorricone’s career is, in many ways, a history of modern film-making itself.  He began, though, as a musical prodigy in trumpet, completing a four-year course of study in six months (at the age of 12).  After nearly a decade as a classical composer, he began scoring radio plays, and eventually television dramas and comedies.  Apparently, it all came easily to him–in a later interview with The New York Times, director Barry Levinson, who worked with Morricone on Bugsy and Disclosure, said “He doesn’t have a piano in his studio, I always thought that with composers, you sit at the piano, and you try to find the melody. There’s no such thing with Morricone. He hears a melody, and he writes it down. He hears the orchestration completely done.”

It was the advent of the ‘Spaghetti Western’, however, that raised Morricone to international fame.  These films were relatively cheap to make, but scored enormous box-office success, because they played on myths of the American West, and the glory of the indomitable everyman hero.  By far and away, the best known of these films is A Fistful of Dollars, staring Clint Eastwood, and directed by Serio Leone.

Because Leone and Morricone were school friends, Morricone was invited to score A Fistful of Dollars…and the rest was history.  He went on to score the rest of the Dollars trilogy, as well as numerous other films, including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, producing arguably the most familiar musical theme in cinema:

The soundtrack itself is kind of bizarre when heard out of context…the blend of mouth organ, Fender guitars, and chanting were as jarring for audiences in 1966 as they are today.  But it works for the film, cluing the audience in to the tough, blackly comic nature of the protagonists, and offering a strident, relentless beat to set the film’s tone.

From Westerns, Morricone moved into other genres, from political dramas to horror flicks, before being asked to score John Huston’s epic film The Biblewhich brought him to Hollywood.

01884895We’d be here all day if I tried to list all the films for which Morricone has provided the score, but I can guarantee you that you have heard his music (outside of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, of course) in films as diverse as Lolita and The Legend of 1900 to Mission to Mars and Bulworth So, in honor of Ennio Morricone’s 87th birthday, why not come into the library and check out the music that has made films great.  With nearly 500 scores from which to chose, I can guarantee you that you’ll find something to your liking.  In order to save time, though, here are a few favorites for your consideration:

2273319The Mission: Morricone’s second Oscar nomination came for his score for this utterly profound, stunning beautiful film about the Spanish colonization of South America in the 18th century.  Check out a scene (featuring the most lovely oboe solo ever) here, which also features members of the Waunana tribe, who used the film as a way to protect and promote their indigenous language.    The blending of European hymns with their tribal chants can be heard here.  Though the subject matter may seem remote, this a wonderfully human film that features what is generally recognized as one of the most impactful scores in film history–AFI even listed it as one of the greatest scores of all time.  But my Grandfather said it should be first.  So we’re listing it first.

2712672The UntouchablesBrian De Palma’s depiction of the larger-than-life Al Capone (also played by DeNiro) and his persecution by Elliot Ness and his titular Untouchables has all the hallmarks of a classic gangster film–with the addition of a sensation score (check out the main theme for the film here).  This score, which includes period-specific pieces by Duke Ellington, earned Morricone another Oscar nomination in 1987.

3368502Cinema Paradiso: If we really want to talk about unforgettable film scores, let’s talk about Cinema Paradiso, a film in which a successful film director, Salvatore, recalls the relationships that shaped his life–with a film projectionist in his home town named Alfredo, and with the films that they watched together.  The final scene of this movie, when Salvatore realizes that Alfredo spent his whole life collecting the magical, human moments of films that the local priest demanded cut out, is backed up by the simplest, and loveliest of themes, composed by Morricone and his son Andrea…just watch it.  Seriously, I’m not crying.  You’re crying.

Finally, for those looking to revel in Morricone’s orchestrations by themselves, you simply can’t do better than this recording by Yo-Yo Ma, featuring some of Morricone’s most well known and beautiful pieces.

“By hook or by crook this peril too shall be something that we remember”


I hope you remember back in August, when we covered the live reading of The Iliad that took place between the British Library and the Almeida Theatre in London.  It was, as I said at the time, by far and away the greatest-super-colossal-fantastic days I can remember, and proof positive that people telling people stories is still one of the most powerful forces in the world.

Indeed, because the event was live-streamed and covered by Twitter, the reading became a worldwide phenomenon–I even understand some of you lovely patrons were able to watch parts of it!  For those who missed it, here is the link to all 16 hours of readings.  As mentioned, one of the most memorable moments was when and Marco Brondon read his passage out loud on the bus from the British Museum to the Almeida Theatre in order to ensure that the marathon would not flag.


Well, thanks to the enormous acclaim and overwhelming success of The Iliad, and no doubt because of my near-hysterical promotion of it to anyone who will listen, the good people at the Almeida are upping the proverbial ante….

Oh, hello Homer.

That’s right, beloved patrons.  In honor of the end of The Greek Season, the Almeida is planning a marathon reading of The Odyssey, another epic poem attributed to the poet/poets known as Homer, and the second oldest extant piece of literature in the ‘Western’ canon.

Now, at 12,110 lines, The Odyssey is noticeably shorter than The Iliad (which is 15,693 lines, for those of you who need to know these things), which should, logistically speaking, make this piece somewhat easier to manage, right?

Scoff, scoff.  The good people at the Almeida are never ones to take the easy route–a statement as factual as it is now literal.  Because this performance is going to be an actual Odyssey, performed at five as-yet-undisclosed locations throughout the city of London.  Listeners in the City will have the opportunity to listen to readers for up to 90 minutes at a single site, and there apparently are plans to read on public transport, and even the Thames.

When will all this wonderfulness take place?  November 12, 2015, 9am BT (4AM EST).

How will it look?  What will happen?  Who knows?  But I know that I’ll be watching on the Almeida’s live stream site and via Twitter (#Odyssey & ).  And I hope you will be, too!

For those of you would like to get into the spirit of things beforehand, here are some ideas to get in you in the mood for a day of high-stakes adventures, startling adventures, and sweet homecomings.  And a Cyclops or two.  It’s just no fun otherwise.

2599829The OdysseyPerhaps a bit of an obvious first choice, but there is no better way to get into the Odyssey than by traveling along with Odysseus and his beleaguered crew who suffer the wrath of Poseidon in their desperate attempt to return home.  It stands to reason that, since the Almeida used Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, it’s a pretty fair bet they’ll be using his translation of The Odyssey as well.  Truth be told, it’s a very accessible translation that sounds simply wonderful when performed aloud–but don’t take my word for it.  Check it out for yourself!


2033697The Odyssey: Against all odds, this 3.5 hour adaptation of Homer’s epic (co-produced by the Hallmark Channel, who would have thought?) is actually quite good, overall.  With excellent performances, and special effects that are pretty impressive for turn-of-the-century television broadcast, this is a highly entertaining way to get introduced to Odysseus’ tale for those who don’t have the 12+ hours it is estimated to take to get through the print version.


3150458Torn from Troy: Patrick Bowman’s YA spin on The Odyssey stars Alexi, a fifteen-year-old Trojan boy who is made Odyssey’s slave following the conclusion of the Trojan War.  The trilogy of Alexei’s journey may parallel the events of The Odyssey, but this is by no means a simple re-telling.  As an outsider, and a conquered slave, Alexei’s view of Odysseus, and his analysis of his actions, are very different from Homer’s narrative, and Alexei’s personal story adds a very human dimension to this sweeping adventure story.  These books are a fun read no matter what your age, especially because they allow so many most characters in the story to come forward and tell their own stories and journeys.


2313233The Penelopiad: And for those of you who are a little tired of all the men unable to find their way home and seemingly unconcerned about their lack of punctuality, Margaret Atwood presents a cycle of stories about Odyssey’s wife Penelope, who appears here as a much more complicated figure than any of us ever expected.  Inspired by the “hanging of the maids” reference in the original text of The Odyssey, Atwood set out to reimagine Penelope’s world, her birth and childhood, as well as the events that took place after her marriage and during the timespan of The Odyssey.  The result is a woman who is strong and enigmatic, proud and secretive and, overall, utterly compelling, as is everything that Margaret Atwood writes.

Be sure to check back for more news regarding this performance, and see you on Thursday for the live-streaming of The Odyssey!

Saturdays @ the South: On Fantasy, or Don’t let magic scare you away from a good story

Books Flying Through Nature

Occasionally when someone comes into the South Branch looking for something different to read, I have to catch myself from evangelizing some of my favorite books, remembering that not everyone has the same taste in books as I do and that offering advice to readers means focusing on their preferences instead of my own. All that goes out the window, however, when someone (patron, friend, random stranger) asks me what I’ve ready lately, in which case I start to gush about some of the books that have just been brimming up inside me waiting for this exact question to spill forth. I often find myself recommending these books just by talking about them so excitedly, but when I do, I’ve noticed that some of my suggestions come with caveats. A common one is some version of “don’t let the magic scare you off; it’s so [insert enthusiastic adjective here], you won’t even notice.”


I’ve often wondered why I feel the need to hedge such a genuine offering. I stand behind every exuberant recommendation I’ve given  (either in person or here on the blog), recognizing that while it may not be everyone’s taste, my excitement for the book is honest and heartfelt. So why should I add a trigger warning for a caveat that might not have been an issue in the first place? I think part of it stems from books with magic in them being classified as “genre” reading. Similar to romance novels (which we’ve learned from the Library’s regular blogger often garner the misnomer of “trashy”), books with “magic” or supernatural element or different worlds in them, commonly referred to as fantasy books, are often looked down upon as not being “literary,” which, in book-snob terms usually means not good enough for people who take their books seriously.

Well, I say hogwash! I’ve already expounded upon the right to read whatever you enjoy, and I don’t think we should discount books just because authors are brave enough to dream up worlds beyond our own. However, I also don’t think that just because an author has dared to think outside our regular laws of physics, logic, or anything else that might ground us in so-called “reality” automatically discounts them from being a talented storyteller. Plenty of “fantasy” or other types of genre writers take pride in their craft and work to hone their skills. Many of these authors have profound things to say about our world, about life and even about writing. They just choose to make the hard topics more palatable by removing them a degree or two (or five) from our version of reality.

amazing-fantasy-book-1920-1080-6884It’s generally accepted that kids’ books can be magical or fantastic. The venerable Dr. Seuss often made up plenty of worlds (Whoville, the Hoober-Bloob Highway, or whatever world the Sneetches lived in) and used them to introduce kids to topics like warenvironmental destruction and stewardship, and the commercialization of Christmas. It seems that because these books and specials were meant for kids, it’s OK that Geisel’s imagination ran wild and so they can be considered classics. Yet, when adult books tackle similar topics through similar means, it somehow becomes less OK and more “mainstream.” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being mainstream or writing (and reading) books that have a simple, enjoyable plot. Where my bone of contention lies, is when books are dismissed as not having depth simply because they aren’t realistic enough, as though magic somehow detracts from a wonderful story with powerful themes.

So in the spirit of enthusiastic recommendations and embracing both magic AND a good story, here are some books that will take you away and still leave you pondering:

3248464The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This blog’s much-adored author deserves yet another mention because his books are precisely the blend of magic and depth that I’m talking about today. His most recent novel for adults deals with families, childhood, memories and overcoming fear. The characters are infinitely entertaining, the dialogue is charming and quick-paced and the inner workings of the main character are simultaneously child-like and relatable on an adult level. If previous mentions of Gaiman’s works haven’t enticed you before, this may be a good place to begin his oeuvre.

3690594The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

I mentioned this book a mere two weeks ago as an ideal Halloween read, but this recommendation goes beyond seasonal appeal. The protagonists in this story are transported into a world of history and exploration, but they also learn about friendship, sacrifice and the impetuousness of youth. While this books isn’t as heavy as Bradbury’s more famous Fahrenheit 451, it still deals with themes that belie a simple story.

2248593Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The late, great Terry Pratchett was a virtuoso satirist and like so many satirists, he took a view of our world and spun it with a masterful combination of acerbic wit, keen observation and downright silliness. In this book, he examines bureaucracy, the question of whether a person has the ability to fundamentally change himself and how a simple idea can change the world. These themes, however, tend to be overlooked as they’re explored in a made-up world where the planet is shaped like a disc that is carried around the universe on the backs of four elephants which are, in turn carried on the back of a giant turtle. Pratchett insisted that any of his Discworld books can be read in any order, so even though this isn’t the first, it’s a good place to start as it introduces several recurring characters and has a delightful mini-series adaptation that can help you visualize Pratchett’s amazing creations.

2191702The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

It’s difficult to ignore the depth of a book that was so incendiary it incurred a fatwa on the author and many involved in the book’s publishing. While the political ramifications of the book often overshadow the actual text, make no mistake that this is a beautiful work that deals with so much more than faith. When the library’s Classics group discussed it earlier this year, several members found passages life-changing. Many might not recognize how truly funny sections of this book can be while Rushdie deals with the ideas, concerns and challenges of emigration, being different and being an outsider with pin-point accuracy.

3637426After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Maguire is a master of re-imagining fairy tales and finding hidden depths in worlds that have already been created. In his latest work, he brings us into Wonderland on the heels of Alice’s childhood friend Ada and behind the looking-glass through the eyes of Alice’s sister Lydia. In doing so, he discusses themes of discovering one’s independent spirit, plumbing the depths of womanhood and even tackling evolution and imagination. Don’t let the short length of the book or the child’s story base fool you, Maguire packs a big punch into a brief text.

Sometimes in order to help us understand our own world or our inner lives, we need to gain context in the guise of another world. So this weekend, dear readers, don’t let magic scare you away from a good story. You never know what you might be able to uncover!


Five Book Friday!

“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

“If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month,” said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.

(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Chapter 15)


Whether you are one who takes a hopeful view of November, dear Patrons, or one who scoffs at the earlier evenings, there is no denying we are enjoying a stunning beginning to the month–and a perfect weekend in which to come in and pick up a new book!  Here are five that have recently appeared on our shelves for your consideration:


3690565The Gold EatersWaman is a young boy living in what we now call Peru, but when he is kidnapped by European explorers and forced to work as  Francisco Pizarro’s translator, he must learn to define himself not by his relationship to his family and those he loves, but by the aggressive, wily men who have taken him prisoner, and demand his loyalty in a political game that means nothing to him–but will inevitably mean the destruction of the very world to which he hopes to return.  Robert Wright based his novel on real historic actors, and carves his love for South America–and his heartbreak over the cultural destruction that is still occurring there–into every line of this book, crafting what Joseph Boyden has hailed “a brilliant and difficult reflection on the breaking of an Indigenous people on the wheel of ‘progress.’”

3651733Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s SuperpowersThe title alone should give you a clue about just how wide-ranging and unique Simon Winchester’s biography of the world’s largest ocean truly is.  At the heart of his work is the idea that the Meditteranean Sea shaped our cultural origins, the Atlantic defined our past–but the Pacific will define our future.  Ranging from the coast of Africa to the ports of Asia, to those tiny little islands in between, this is a book that is mammoth in scope, and yet Winchester finds a way to make the whole work delightfully accessible.

3658365Eating Words : A Norton Anthology of Food WritingThere is as much an art to food writing as there is to any other form of literature, and this book celebrates all the delicious descriptions, sumptuous phrases, and delectable narratives that writers have used to talk about our meals and our menus from time immemorial.  Beginning with the Old Testament and continuing through to Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain, this is a book for the foodie and the word junkie in all of us.  Joyce Carol Oates raves, “Eating Words is a remarkable gathering of commentary on every aspect of food from the ritualistic and ‘symbolic’ to the pragmatic…There is much for carnivores here, not surprisingly, but surprisingly, there is a good deal here for vegetarians as well. Fascinating reading. A feast of a book!”

3637429The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine: Fans of Precious Ramotswe will be overjoyed to hear that the 16th installment of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series has arrived!  In this tale, Mma Ramotswe has reluctantly agreed to take a holiday–but it isn’t long before she finds herself plunged into the middle of a mystery surrounding a troubled young boy, and the reputation of a beloved politician. Booklist gave this novel a starred review, cheering that it “showcases the boundless compassion, humor, and occasional wiliness of the agency’s founder . . . The title comes from Precious’s reflection that she, blessed by the love of her husband…walks in sunshine. Readers of this and the whole series will feel similarly blessed.”

3699331StyxNot only does Bavo Dhooge’s series’ opener feature a high-stakes hunt for a sadistic murderer known as The Stuffer, who positions his victims as public art installations in and around a Belgian beach resort, but it features a crotchety detective…who just happens to be zombie.  Now, Detective Rafael Styx must hunt down the Stuffer, and learn to tame his hunger for human flesh.  I can’t even.  Richard Kadrey, who is among my favorite authors, says, “a taut detective story with dash of Surrealism. Imagine Dashiell Hammett sending Sam Spade into a dark, off-kilter world of artists, zombies, and serial killers”  …and that is good enough for me.

We hope you find something to travel with you this weekend, dear patrons!  Happy adventures, and happy reading!

No-one Puts (zombie) Baby in a Corner…in defense of genre fiction (And some other things)


Today, we dip into our Bookish News file and pull up an editorial written by author Glen Duncan for The New York Times in October of 2011.  The piece is, from its first sentence, a study in “nerd-baiting”, to borrow a phrase, though we should not ignore the charming threads of misogyny woven throughout the piece, beginning with the very first, sucker-punch of an opening line: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”


When I first read this article, it took about eight hours for my eyes to stop involuntarily rolling in reaction (this article sums up my thoughts beautifully), but I managed to shake it off.  Because the truth is that no one who loves “genre fiction” is going to stop reading because “the sad man who isn’t making as much money as the guy writing about zombies” said it was lame.  And hopefully, that same sad man isn’t going to stop readers from trying “genre fiction”, either.

…Actually, “Genre Fiction” is actually like a porn star, but not in the way that Duncan meant.  Just like the word “porn star” describes what someone does, and not who someone is fundamentally, “genre fiction” describes where a book is shelved, not what it is, fundamentally.  Neither should be seen as less than their peers, and neither should be discriminated against for the title given to their position.  Instead, we should get to know them, rather than standing back and judging them arbitrarily.

imagesIn the case of genre fiction, this means realizing that the little stickers on the spine doesn’t tell you what the book is truly about–for example, as we’ve noted before, Salem’s Lot might be about vampires, but it’s also about human love, and human fear, and human loss, and about a deep-seated need to find a home.  The Maltese Falcon may be about a private eye and a femme fatale, but it is also about the quest for truth, the vagaries of the human heart, and the need to make wrong things right.  Any of the romance novels we’ve discussed may have handsome men and lovely ladies and kissy-faces in them, but they are also about the search for personal validation, recognition, and self-fulfillment.  These novels do exactly what “literary fiction” claims to do…it just goes about it in a slightly different way.

570729-MAnd different is great; because genre fiction also tends to be more inclusive, and enjoy a more diverse readership–Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, used the science fiction to explore feminism, arguing that writers have a duty  “to spark the imagination of their readers and to help them envision alternatives to how we live.”  In so doing, she opened the whole genre to female readers, as well as female characters. Octavia Butler has used her genre fiction to explore not only feminism, but race, and racial relations, as well, giving perspective to issues that are all too real and present.  Genre Fiction provides the tools not only to evaluate our world, and our place in it, it also provides the tools to imagine a better world.

So here are a few ideas to help you get past the labels and the signs, and explore some genre fiction for yourself.  As you feel your imagination–and your heart–expanding, know that this is why those books are here, and why it is so necessary for us to explore them!

3019938Embassytown: China Miéville was one of the first modern writers to tackle ‘Weird Fiction’–that magical genre that exists somewhere in between science fiction and fantasy.  The world he creates have some of the unsettling oddities of Lovecraft, the strange inventions and scientific possibilities of H.G. Wells, but the way he spins these tales out is something wonderfully unique.  Though it might be difficult to relate to the alien/human hostilities and deep-space travel featured in this book, the heroine’s struggles to speak a language that has developed while she was in space, and her divided loyalties between two cultures that can’t quite accept her feels remarkably, painfully familiar.

1161903Making History: Speaking superficially, this book is a work of speculative history–a ‘what if’ that explores what the world might be like if one man was able to travel back into the past and ensure that Hitler was never born.  But beneath this premise is a shattering commentary on human nature, an against-all-odds love story, and a well-researched bit of historical analysis.  Honestly, there is nothing that Stephen Fry do that he doesn’t do magnificently, but this book…this book.  Funny, gripping, cynical and yet somehow hopeful, this is one book that is just too much to pass up.

1979090A Drink Before the WarDennis Lehane’s series of detective novels featuring PI Patrick Kenzie and his secretary/Girl Friday Angie Gennaro harken back to the pulp novels of the 1950’s, with their focus on the gritty underside of urban areas (in this case, Dorchester and Boston), and the struggle for survival that drives every schemer, con man, and mobster.  But Lehane, a former social worker, uses the genre to bring to light some of the true evils in our society–ignorance, jealousy, and cruelty to the defenseless, and that makes them incredible important.  Somehow, he is also talented enough to make these books utterly addictive and simply unforgettable, and his sense of place is spot on.

2336642Already DeadLike the best noir author, Charlie Huston has the ability to put pages-worth of angst, fear, and emotional impact into a few short words or phrases.  His dialogue is rapid-fire and pitch-perfect, and, like, Lehane, he is able to craft compelling investigations that gradually build to a fundamentally shattering conclusion…the fact that his hero is a vampire, paid by several factions of vampires to carry out their bidding among the Boroughs of New York City only add to the fun of this series.   Things only get weirder from here, trust me, but Huston is so perceptive, and so fiendishly clever in his plotting and characterization that you’ll be only too willing to follow him into the shadows.

2260048Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellOh hey, we haven’t mentioned this book in a while!

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass