Why You Should Push Your Reading Genre Boundaries

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I’m not a girl who reads a lot of westerns. Sure, I enjoyed Appaloosa. Who doesn’t love cowboys like Han Solo, or Malcolm Reynolds? But books about Texas, where the inside cover talks about old families gaining cattle wealth, then oil wealth, are not my thing.

But “The Son” came highly recommended. So I got it from the library. It sat. And sat. And sat. So I returned it.

Then it was propped up on a display table at the library. I grabbed it. It sat, then found it’s way into my book stack.

Finally, the other day I picked it up. You know how sometimes you pick up a book, figuring you’ll just read the first page or so, and twenty pages later realize you’ve sat down? “The Son” is that kind of book. It’s glorious and complicated. It has interesting characters, living in “interesting times.” They are characters filled with regret, and yet animated by forces bigger than themselves. Men and women who love the landscape of Texas, who cannot live anywhere else, who thrive only on those plains.

It’s a fantastic read. And I almost dropped it back at the library. Lesson learned.

To Buy, Or Not To Buy A World

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When you’re in a new world, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. Words show up in conversations. Histories are referenced. A created world has to seem as complicated as our own. It’s really, really hard to do well. It’s much easier to write in our world, or to write a world so ridiculous, a novel so filled with annotations and made-up words, it’s only value is novelty.

Robin McKinley doesn’t write that kind of world. She writes worlds that you believe in so totally, seamlessly, you almost forget that it’s entirely fiction. She alludes without explaining, she gives the reader a pathway in without holding your hand and taking baby steps.

In the face of an alien world, McKinley also knows that we need the familiar to hang onto. If your protagonist is some all-powerful wizard, or if she’s involved in crazy vampire plots, make her a dog lover or a baker. Give her family conflicts, the kind we have with our Dads and Moms.

Worlds like these are the kind that seem so effortless, they clearly took lots of effort. “Shadows'” world is, like many McKinley novels, a different version of our own. It has a system, and its magic follows rules. We may not know the rules, but there is a sense of the diversity of the magic, of the different ways it is used and treated around the wold, and in the institutions that spring up around it. Familiar East-West conflicts are embedded in this new magical landscape, engaging with and breaking stereotypes as one.

And at the heart of it all is a girl, trying to grow up. In the end, everything else is detail.

On Reading The Place

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A lot of travel books–especially those written with the guidebook in mind–are just boring. They talk in matter of fact tones about sightseeing, the best restaurants, the can’t-miss art installations. People write chattily, wanting to give you the impression both of their expertise and -approach-ability. And the spirit of the place falls between the cracks in the words.

“Prague, I See A City” is so far from those books, it’s in an entirely different world. A world where ghosts haunt Prague around ever corner. Where the writer muses on her walks through the city, on the meaning and metaphor in what she sees, on the depth and layers of the city.

I’ve found that Prague books fall into two categories: those which take place in the city, and those which take place in Prague. The books that take place in Prague are filled with alienation, with doubt, with astonishing hidden depths behind the seemingly innocuous. Ever panorama has a history, every building its haunting, each street its winding and terrible tale.

“Prague, I See A City” guides the strange through those streets, in the only way that matters: the way that looks beyond the easy, the obvious, the tourist and the traveler. It brings you as close as any book ever written in English to the city on the Vltava. If you want to know Prague, this is the only book to read.

I Know Where I Am, Even When I Don’t

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Two men hit a woman’s bicycle. Another woman undergoes reconstructive surgery. A freezing man stumbles into a remote cabin. These are stories we know, more or less. The characters make sense, the plot is logical.

Science fiction collections are tricky beasts. You have to build a world, a situation, and you don’t have a whole novel to do it. You’re writing a short story, so you don’t have the luxury of inspiring too much disbelief from a reader.

Swanwick is a master storyteller, and his solution to the problem of the scifi short story was to make the characters, and their stories, real even as the setting became more strange. The men hitting the women are driving a truck through a radiation zone, and the woman’s bags hold a terrible secret about just how far the zone extends. The woman’s face and body are fine: it is her mind and soul that are being reconstructed, into something beyond understanding. And the freezing man is running from the consequences of his actions, into the arms of a woman whose hands work by pulley system.

It all makes sense, and yet it should be utterly mad. With stories like these, as far away as you are from what is normal, you always know exactly where you stand.

Loss, Grief, Hope: “The Leftovers”

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The planet keeps spinning on. But what if it did so without a chunk of it’s inhabitants? What if people just vanished, en masse, for no reason? If everyone were in mourning, if everyone were overwhelmed by grief, all over the world, all at the same time?

That’s the picture Tom Perrotta draws for us in “The Leftovers.” A world where the Rapture–or its equivalent–took place. But instead of looking at grand philosophical or religious schemes, Perrota goes for the microcosm. The mother who lost her husband and children. The woman looking for the reason, abandoning her family in its pursuit. The boy who can’t decide who to believe.

The action centers on a small town and its reactions. Like any great worldbuilder, Perrotta effortlessly draws us a world we can believe in, filling the novel with details and nuggets about the Rapture’s wider effects that ring true and make the world seem organic. Thus, even the strange becomes familiar.

Which, in the end, is what loss is about. Getting used to the holes in the world.

Life Is A Complete Mess: “This is Where I Leave You”

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Life is really, incredibly, unbelievably messy. People fall in and out of love, or they can’t tell. They do things they can’t explain–or things they can explain, but don’t really want to. People we care about can surprise us in ways we would never have anticipated.

“This is Where I Leave You” is about that mess. A big family, sitting shiva for a dead father. Friends and acquaintances filter in and out, and everyone tries not to kill each other.

They’re a normal family. Three out of four siblings are married, one is a screw-up. They reunite for holidays. Live scattered up and down the East Coast.

They’re normal, and they’re unhappy in normal ways. We all know unhappy families are the interesting ones. But Tolstoy left out an amendment–the unhappiness that makes us interesting is linked to absurdity. There’s something ridiculous about the way an unhappy family interacts with one another.

These people are both miserable and happy, their interactions both hilarious and heartbreaking. Choices are made, life changes. There aren’t any answers that make sense.

It’s a novel about adulthood, about complicated questions without easy answers, about decisions made in ignorance–and, let’s not forget, ludicrous sexual antics.