Category Archives: On Reading

One Dollar and Eighty-Seven Cents by Ratesjul

One Dollar and Eighty-Seven Cents. That’s the opening sentence of O Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”, first published in December 1905 in a “The New York Sunday World” newspaper (though the title then, if Wikipedia can be believed, was “Gifts of the Magi”).

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Until a few days ago, while I knew the story and the author, I hadn’t thought about it that much beyond that. I knew it had been written “a while ago”, but not when. Certainly I didn’t have much of an impression of the buying power of Della’s one dollar and eighty-seven cents. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale of the young couple who each – no, wait, spoiler alert. If you haven’t read the story, go read it now. You can find many versions of it online, some with slightly different text to others. It won’t take you long.)

But when I ran across the story in a book of assorted Christmas themed stories, articles and poetry recently, the first line struck me in a way it never had before. I dug through my collection of assorted coins in many currencies and pulled out as many pennies as I could find. While I couldn’t get close to the 60 or so pennies Della had collected over many bargaining (or “bulldozing”) sessions with butchers and vegetable men, I amassed a small collection. Then I eked this collection of pennies out to the assigned one dollar and eighty-seven cents, using as many coins as possible.

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About two thirds of these coins are from the US, the rest are Canadian (I live in a country where neither American nor Canadian change is easy to come by). It gave me a small picture of how much change Della might have amassed. How carefully she had to count it (once, twice, three times) to be sure of the total.

One of my aunts, for whom this is a favourite story, challenged me to find out how much this one dollar and eighty-seven cents might be worth today. This required two pieces of information – where and when was this tale set? I was almost certain of where – the story talks of “Broadway”, and to me that had to mean New York. As for when, sources pointed to December 1905. 110 years ago. Inflation? I could make a guess at 3%, but that’s a lot of years to pick an average target for. The marvellous website “in2013dollars.com” uses more than a stab in the dark to come up with inflation calculators.

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Della’s $1.87 in 1905 equates to $48.62 today. That seems to me to be a reasonably respectable amount to spend on a Christmas gift, though perhaps not as much as you might wish to have as a spending limit for your husband.

Out came the collection of change again. Still using as many pennies as I could find (but sticking to a single currency this time), I pulled together a collection of cash to make up what Della started out with today.

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For further illustration, using the same calculator, I began converting some of the other figures in the story. James Dillingham Young’s $20 a week salary equates to $520.03 today. Their $8 a week furnished flat, pier glass mirror and all, would be $208.01 a week.

A platinum fob chain (“simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation”) cost Della her hair (which “grows so fast, Jim!”), and $21 ($546.03). Today on the internet I can find antique platinum watch fobs from $495 through twice that and more.

It’s hard to know what Della’s combs cost Jim, other than his watch, because the story doesn’t put a price on them. I found a copy of the script for the musical, where the set of combs, “pure tortoiseshell, with jewelled rims” are quoted as costing forty-seven.
But because you really appreciate them, forty-two.
But because you really love your girl, thirty-seven.
($47=$1,222.07, $42=$1,092.06, $37=$962.06)

With so much fake tortoiseshell available now, it’s hard to link this to a cost in today’s market. One final note from my research – O. Henry was the pen name for William Sydney Porter, and the name of the “Oh Henry!” chocolate bar might be an homage to him.

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Ratesjul is an avid reader (of almost anything) and keen amateur (emphasis on the amateur) photographer. She loves looking through collections of family photos and hearing family stories – and is in awe of her aunt’s collection of photo albums.

 

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Very Specific Book Recs: Books without Romance by Amanda

Sometimes I have a great deal of sympathy for tiny Ben Savage in The Princess Bride when he doesn’t want to listen to “the kissing parts.”  Sometimes, the kissing parts are the last thing you want.  Whether it’s because you’re lonely or because of a recent heartbreak or because you like being single and wish authors would write books where it’s okay to be single, goddamn it, WE DON’T ALL HAVE TO END UP WITH SOMEBODY, OKAY or you know, whatever less reveling about me reason you might have, here a few books with little to no romance in them, thank god.

mechaniqueMechanique by Genevieve Valentine

Where to start with Mechanique.  It has steampunk sensibilities and a non-chronological timeline.  It also has a circus and is about family of choice and doing what is right, even if that’s not nice or easy.  It’s about people who have found a place in a world that is falling apart and who are willing to fight to keep that place, and the people who make it up, safe.  It’s evocative and moving and so, so lovely.  Read it now.

 

772606Valor’s Choice by Tanya Huff

Space Marines!  With Tanya Huff’s wonderful sense of humor!  What, you need more?  Alright.  The main character, Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, is a complete badass and I’m not sure if I’d rather be her or marry her.  It’s the start of a series, but only this first one is romance free.  Fair warning, these books are about active duty soldiers and can be heartbreaking, despite the well-developed humor throughout.

 

71X23Oy4s6LThe Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Gen claims he can steal anything.  He backs his claim by stealing an official seal from an important government minister.  Due to his bragging after the fact, Gen is caught and thrown into prison.  The king’s Magus offers Gen a deal.  Steal the unstealable, a mythical gem that will win the Magus’s king the right to rule the next kingdom over, and Gen can go free.  Is Gen up to the task?  Read the book and find out!

 

pegasusPegasus by Robin McKinley

I hesitate to recommend this one because it is the first half (or third, depending on which of Robin McKinley’s blog posts you’ve read) of a book and ends on what may be the biggest cliffhanger I’ve ever experienced.  The second half (or third) has not been published yet and the last I saw on McKinley’s blog said it was due out in 2014 and, well, *looks around at all the 2015 up in here*.  That said, if you’re good at dealing with cliffhangers, this is a really, really fantastic book.  Where it shines is the (non-romantic!) relationships between the characters.  Father to daughter, friend to friend, princess to wizard, they’re all fascinating.  Whatever else is to come, this first half (or third) of the book is truly fantastically written.
18p0vr2afhl88jpgYou by Austin Grossman

Oh, You.  I first read it when I was the same age as the protagonist and it really spoke to my wandering-late-20s-what-am-I- doing-with-my-life soul.  It is largely a book about video games and the video game industry, but other than the occasional bout of Tetris with my mom and step-sister, I haven’t played video games since about 1996 (when the old Nintendo finally crapped out on us) and I never felt left out of anything while reading this book.  It’s also a book about building relationships, finding where you belong, and self-exploration.  It’s a bit slow at times but lovely nonetheless.
81dSlqYK3SLThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

To paraphrase kids these days, I can’t even with Ursula K. Le Guin.  She’s beyond amazing and if I were to ever meet her in person, my fangirl weeping would surely embarrass us both.  The thought, the depth, the understanding of humanity she puts in her writing is both inspiring and breathtaking.  Not to oversell her or anything.  This book explores gender, how society functions, friendship (oh my goodness, the friendship!  Seriously, can’t even), and basic human nature.  Seriously, so read all the Ursula K. Le Guin you can, as soon as you can.  You won’t regret it.
*Inspired by a request for recommendations from the marvelous Miranda and suggestions from the lovely Liyana.

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Amanda enjoys making people laugh and receiving compliments about her pretty, pretty hair.

 

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The Curious Intimacy of Sharing Books by Liyana

I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse because Suzan-Lori Parks—the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright—told me to.

Okay, I exaggerate. Suzan-Lori Parks didn’t tell me, specifically, to read To the Lighthouse (although she did shake my hand, sign my copy of her novel, and offer some encouraging words when I told her I was studying acting, and believe me, I was walking on air for the rest of the night after that, because I am a shameless Suzan-Lori Parks fangirl). But when she lectured at my university, she mentioned that even though she had always wanted to be a writer, she had been so discouraged by her high school English teacher that she entered college as a biology major, which lasted until she read To the Lighthouse and was so incredibly blown away by it that she walked straight over to the English department and changed her major.

When she told that story, I immediately thought, “That’s it. If To the Lighthouse convinced someone as brilliant as Suzan-Lori Parks that she had to be a writer, then I need to read it.” So, the following summer, I found myself a copy at a used bookstore, and I fell in love with this strange, lush, modernist piece of literary glory. I loved To the Lighthouse on its own merits. But I also loved the experience of reading it while knowing how deeply it had affected a writer I admired, imagining which parts had spoken to her and influenced her. In reading To the Lighthouse, I got to have two reading experiences at once: my own and (my imagined version of) Suzan-Lori Parks’s.

Which is precisely why, even though I love reading books that friends recommend specifically for me, I also harbor a deep and abiding love for reading books that have been important to other people, regardless of whether or not they are books I would have chosen for myself. I love seeing a book through someone else’s eyes and understanding what it meant to them…and then comparing that to what it means to me.

And it’s taken me to some fascinating literary places.

I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent last summer because a good friend pressed it into my hands and said, “You haven’t read it? You need to read it. I had to stop reading it during my commute, because it would just make me sob on the bus. It made me feel so connected to other women, like I was part of this incredible sisterhood.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Red Tent, but while I enjoyed the story and the writing, the thing I enjoyed most of all was noticing the places that evoked womanhood-as-sisterhood and how connected that made me feel to my friend.

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is probably not a book I ever would have read if left to my own devices. But a close college friend handed me her copy and told me that it had helped her through a rough patch while she was dealing with depression and recovery from addiction. Ordinarily, I would have found Paulo Coelho’s particular brand of self-help-thinly-disguised-as-literature simplistic and grating, but when I filtered The Alchemist through my experience of my lovely, thoughtful friend and the knowledge that she found it inspiring, it became a sweet, gentle fairy-tale about one way out of the dark woods of the soul. (I do still like the Rumi poem it was based on better, though.)

I’ve had Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison on my to-read list for years, ever since one of my most brilliant acting teachers brought it to class with him one morning. He explained that several years before, he had taken it to the gym with him to read on the treadmill and ran across a passage that discussed using speech to communicate something deeper than just the words that perfectly expressed his feelings about acting. He read us the passage and then said simply, “I read that…and I fell off the treadmill.” And I knew that someday I would have to read the book that affected someone I respect that much so deeply.

There’s a difference in intimacy between sharing a favorite book with a friend because the two of you have a shared love of action-packed science fiction or lyrical prose or swashbuckling, badass queer ladies and in saying, “This book was important to me. It changed my life/shaped my thinking/perfectly captured my feelings.” Sharing the books that inspired us to make changes in our lives or that made us lose control of our feelings or our bodies is a profoundly intimate act. It’s like saying, “Here’s a piece of my soul. Please look at it.” When our listeners read that book, they reaffirm that intimacy with us, effectively saying, “You matter to me. I see you, and I want to know you better.” This shared intimacy can transform a mediocre reading experience into a good one, and a good read into a sublime one.

Have you ever loved a book because of the person you knew who loved it? Come tell me about it.

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Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”

 

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Why You Should Consider Becoming a Hugo Voter by Glory

hugo_blogThis year will be my third year participating in the Hugo process. So far, I’ve really enjoyed it, and I think you might enjoy participating too.

First, let me offer a quick summary of the awards and how to vote. The Hugo Awards are probably the most widely recognized speculative fiction awards. Awards are given for Best Novel, a variety of lengths of short fiction, Best Dramatic Presentation, and more. (A list of all the categories is here: http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-categories/ ) They are voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon. But you don’t have to go to WorldCon to vote; you can buy a supporting membership for $40, which comes with Hugo voting rights. The Hugo selection process takes part in two stages. The first stage is nomination. Each person can nominate up to five things in each category. The five things with the most nominations go on to become the finalists. In the second stage, voters chose between the finalists using ranked choice voting. Most voting is online, though paper ballots are available for people who want them. The winners are announced at a ceremony at WorldCon. If you become a supporting member before January 31, then you can nominate for the 2015 Hugo awards (for works published in 2014). If you join after that but before voting closes, then you can vote in the second stage and nominate next year.

Now that I’ve explained what the awards are, I’m going talk about why I think you might want to take part. The first and foremost reason you should consider voting is because it is fun. I enjoy the process because it encourages me to read books and stories as they come out. If it weren’t for the Hugos, I would not read and recommend nearly as much short fiction. For me, nominating is about reading things  and then telling people about the works you loved. Voting is fun too and gets me to read stuff I might not otherwise read and find new writers and new stories.

One of the most fun things about the Hugo Awards is talking about them on the internet. Lots of people write about works they recommend, how they feel about the ballot and how they feel about the results. I read a lot of things that I don’t have many people to talk to about, but I love talking about what I’m reading. So having a lot people reading for the Hugos helps to create a community of readers all reading the same works, which is awesome.

Another reason to participate is because of the Hugo Voters Packet. For the last decade or so, WorldCon Members have received a voting packet consisting of electronic copies of the works on the short list and examples of the finalists in categories where the award goes to a person rather than a work. This doesn’t always include everything. Last year, it only included samples for three of the novels (out of five). But it does generally include all the hard to find short works, a good bit of non-fiction, quite a few novels, and also art. Many people think the voter packet is worth the $40 by itself.

Award design and photo by Deb Kosiba.
Award design and photo by Deb Kosiba.

The final reason I think you should consider becoming a Hugo voter is to represent your taste. There are a lot of groups that have historically been under-represented as Hugo voters, such as women, people of color, and people from outside the US. Those voices are especially needed to help the Hugos reflect the broader SFF community. Even if you aren’t part of one of those groups, you have unique taste and a unique perspective on science fiction. So I strongly encourage you to consider voting. Don’t be shy.

If you read (or watch) Science Fiction and Fantasy and have opinions about what you read (or watch), then the Hugos are a great place to express those opinions. You don’t have to have read all the things to nominate. No one can read all the things. But if you read something that you loved that was published this year, you could nominate it. It doesn’t take that many nominations to get on the ballot. Last year, the novel with the fewest nominations that qualified as a finalist got less than 100 nominations. And the short story with the most nominations had only 79. So your one vote really can matter in nomination.

And, of course, your vote will also matter in choosing among the finalists. The Hugo Awards are ranked choice voting, which means your relative opinion of each work matters. Some people find the system a bit confusing, but I like that it means that more than just your first choice matters.

So voting for the Hugos is fun, you’ll get some reading material and you can represent your unique taste. I know not every budget has $40 to spare, but if yours does, I hope you’ll consider voting. Participating in the process has given me a lot of pleasure and helped build my online community.

Please note: “Hugo Award,” The Hugo Award Logo, “World Science Fiction Convention,” and “WorldCon” are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.

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Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planning. She also spends too much time reading and loves science fiction and fantasy.

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I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

MobyDickIf you haven’t read a big book in a while, I suggest you pick one up soon.

Big books are the warm bubble baths of the book world, but they’re often talked about as if they’re itchy woolen snowsuits instead. Sinking into a big, dense book should be a pleasure, not a headache-inducing nightmare.

What makes a book big? Size, obviously—let’s say (arbitrarily) 600 pages or more—but also, to a lesser extent, complexity. Although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pushes 800 pages (and I loved it dearly), I would hesitate before calling it a big book; it followed too easily the path laid out for it by its six prequels; it tied up too neatly every loose end with an escapist epilogue. But then again, the bigness of big books may lie in the heart of the reader. For me, the really big books are those that intimidate the reader, the ones that feel like a challenge at the start, but a best friend by the finish, the ones that most closely mimic an actual marathon; instead of churning legs over terrain for 26.2 miles, readers of big books sprain their fingers flipping pages and mentally race through page after page to the triumphant end.

As usual, the public reluctance to engage with big books can perhaps be traced back to high school (what problem can’t, really), when a deadline imposed on the reading of a big book like The Grapes of Wrath or The Iliad or Ulysses is a significant threat to getting any other homework done. Students dread large reading assignments, a feeling that usually persists throughout college and beyond.

On the other hand, there are those who see a big book as a challenge to overcome rather than a pleasure. They might read one big book a year, and then talk incessantly about how they read it, leaving out the fact that they haven’t read anything else that year except their Twitter feed. These people may or may not usually be men with scruffy beards who just finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Avoid conversation with them at all costs.

Here’s a list of some of my personal favorite big books, broken up by genre. What big books would be on your list?

Contemporary Literature
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Historical Fiction
Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Classics
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Fantasy
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

These books are all dear to me in their own ways, but they share one thing in common: they contain entire worlds and generation-spanning sagas so richly and completely imagined that they become real, and so real that they become road maps for navigating my own world.

So put a big book in your To Be Read pile–not just because it’s a classic or an award winner, though that’s a good enough reason, too—but because it’s epically, gloriously, luxuriously big. Sink it to it. Let it sweep you away.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

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Who is Your Favorite Fictional Villain?

Today, some of the Sheroes Blog editors dive into their favorite fictional villains and sheroes.

Zoë says: 

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My favorite villain is Hell (or an aspect thereof) from the book Summon the Keeper (Book #1 of The Keeper’s Chronicles) by Tanya Huff. The Keeper’s Chronicles are an incredibly engaging comic-fantasy trilogy, and the first book features the adventures of Claire, her feline sidekick, and a cast of other well-developed characters after Claire is called to deal with a gateway to you-know-where in the basement of a Guest House in Kingston, Ontario.  Hell (or some incarnation thereof) is discovered to be hanging out in the basement, sealed in by the actions of a previous Keeper, but trying quite persistently to escape.  Huff imagines this aspect of Hell as a multi-personalitied, witty, but not altogether brilliant “villain” desperately trying to encroach on the minds of the inhabitants of the Guest House.
Read this if you like light, witty fantasy along the lines of Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, or Patricia C. Wrede.
Ratesjul says:
coverI always find it hard to pick favourites of anything, whether it’s books or authors or characters (or even specifically villains)…. So I’ll give you two. One of my favorite characters is Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter of Three Firs (Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter and sequels). I like Paks because, well, she’s human. She has flaws, and admits to them, and strives to better herself. She goes from little or nothing to honors, and back again. She stumbles into traps, and extricates herself, but will also give in, when it seems best. I guess what I like most about her is that she fights, she doesn’t really give up (and giving in is not giving up), and even as a mercenary she won’t just follow blindly.

20020712022127_105Another favorite character is Elizabeth from V M Caldwell’s The Ocean Within and Tides. I like Elizabeth because she struggles to continue to be herself, to fit within a tug of war between her need to not let anyone matter in case they go away, and to find her place. Particularly when it comes to a small boy who calls her turtle and worms his way into her heart. I read somewhere that there was originally a third book, set between the two of these, and I’d love to read it and see how the family changed in between. Even discovering these books as an adult, I love the characters.

TamLinAs for a favorite villain, I’m not so sure…. So many of them don’t really stick with me as much as the heroes and sheroes do. (I guess I like the happy endings!) One that sticks the most is Tam Lin, who doesn’t particularly have much of a choice in the matter of being a villain. In some ways he isn’t the villain – he is a product of the life he lives (or is forced to live) – but to Janet, in some ways, I guess he is.

Marie says:

119322Compelling villains are the backbone of good literature! I don’t even know where to start. I’m always most taken in by insidious, surprise villains, where you don’t know they’re bad until close to the end. Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of those villains. You can almost feel how evil this cloying, beautiful woman is but it’s not until the main character herself figures it out that you realize just how truly horrible Mrs. Coulter is.

As for a favorite character, again, I could pick a thousand! But I’ll stick with His Dark Materials, since those books are fantastic and if you haven’t read them yet and you like young adult fantasy that is deep and sweet and smart, you need to read them ASAP. My favorite character is Lyra Belacqua, the main character,  the girl-who-saves-the-world. She does this, with extreme personal sacrifice, at the age of twelve. She is wild and tough and vulnerable and loving and her sharp as a knife little-girlness is pitch perfect, as is her wrestle with what it means to grow up.

 

We want to know: who is your favorite fictional villain? Who is your favorite fictional shero?

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Marie, Ratesjul, and Zoë are Sheroes Blog editors who fight crime…er…read a lot of books in their free time.

 

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Very Specific Book Recs: Food Memoirs

I spend a lot of time thinking about food. I love to cook, to eat, and to feed people.  Since I love to read, I also spend time reading about food. While I do read academic books about food (especially history), I also read a fair number of food memoirs. These books center the experience of food: growing, cooking and eating.  Many have recipes.  Food is very universal and also very personal.  I enjoy learning what other people are eating, because it tells me a lot about them and their culture. Also, I love imagining eating yummy things.

animalvegetablemiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

What is it about?  Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from the southwest to Appalachia and decided to eat locally for a year.  They had an extensive garden and keep chickens and other fowl.  This is one of the books published in the early 2000’s that helped start the current food movement.

Read if: You like well-crafted prose and descriptions of gardening.

Don’t Read if:  You are uncomfortable with descriptions of killing animals.

farmcityFarm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

What is it about? Novella Carpenter moved to Oakland, California and started her own urban farm, including growing vegetables, keeping bees, and eventually raising rabbits and pigs.  As well as learning new farming skills, Carpenter had to deal with urban living issues like getting along with the neighbors and potential soil contamination.

Read If: You like funny books about urban living.

Don’t read if: You don’t want descriptions of killing rabbits and pigs.

 garlicandsapphiresGarlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

What is it about? Ruth Reichl moved from California to NYC to take up the mantel of New York Times Restaurant critic. To do her job, she wore disguises so that she wouldn’t be recognized by staff at the restaurants.  Reichl found that each disguise altered her personality. Through all of this, she also had to navigate relationships with her family and friends.

Read if: You like to hear about what other people eat in restaurants.

Don’t Read if:  The restaurant scene is not for you.

 relishRelish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

What is it about? In this graphic memoir,  Lucy Knisley uses a series of vignettes to  explore her relationship with food. Her mother was a professional chef, and Knisley grew up in a household with a strong appreciation for food.  The stories are not strictly chronologically but thematically arranged. The art is a bit cartoony but really shows the characters’ emotions and the food. I tried the chocolate chip cookie recipe, and it turned out great.

Read if: You want to try Knisley’s family recipes.

Don’t Read If: You aren’t into comics.

 bentoboxintheheartlandBento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya

What is it about? Linda Furiya grew up as part of the only Japanese family in small town Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s.  Her parents loved traditional Japanese food and went out of their way to create it, growing their own vegetables and often driving long ways get ingredients.  In addition, Furiya had to deal with being clearly different form her classmates.  She was often teased and worried about fitting in.

Read if: You want to know more about growing up a minority in small town.

Don’t read if: The injustice of the casual racism Furiya faced will upset you.

talkingwithmymouthfullTalking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories by Bonny Wolf

What is it about? Bonny Wolf grew up Jewish in the Midwest, and then later lived in New England, Texas and Washington, D.C.  Here she talks about food experiences from her life cooking for her family. She also talks to friends and family about what they cook. The book includes recipes for bundt cake made with pudding mix, real Texas barbecue, chopped liver, zucchini bread, and much more.

Read if: You love learning about other people’s everyday cooking

Don’t read if: You don’t want to know about Jell-o salads and recipes made with cake mix and pudding mix.

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Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planing. She also spends too much time reading, and loves science fiction and fantasy.

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Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Starter Kit

I have always loved reading Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF); I loved exploring what it might be like to live in a completely different world.  At some point I began to realize that the genres I loved didn’t always love me back. The most respected stories were by men and about men, and women were often not portrayed at all, as in early Asimov, or portrayed in problematic ways, e.g. Heinlein’s women who are incredibly othered.  Newer books may be a bit less blatant, but their portrayal of women can still be really problematic. Female characters often seem like afterthoughts and women’s stories are rarely given center stage.  SFF offers a lot of ways to explore gender, yet a few months ago, when Alex Dally MacFarlane posted on Tor.com suggesting the gender binary should not be the default for SFF, she was attacked.

As a teen I read lots of books that I would now avoid. I read quite a few problematic books. I read what I could find in bookstores and libraries and on my parents’ shelves.  Some of what I read was lovely, but most of my teen reading was really sexist. Books by women and books with feminist themes were not always easy to find. Over time, I’ve figured out new ways of finding books to read so I can avoid these issues. I joined online communities (like Sheroes!) where people talked about feminist books, and I started reading SFF blogs with a feminist focus. But I know it can still be hard to find feminist books that aren’t pushed through the main channels, especially older books.

This post is for people who like the idea of feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy but aren’t quite sure where to start. I attempted to include a mix of older classics along with some newer favorites of mine. These books consider feminism and gender in a variety of ways. There are books that foreground female characters or explore gender and society.

200px-woman_on_the_edge_of_time_book_coverWoman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: Simultaneously dystopic and utopic, this book is about a woman in a mental institution who visit a utopic future. The mental institution is as grim as any dystopia; however, the future she visits is very feminist with roles such as “mother” being detached from the gender of the person performing the role.  The book also explores how women are disempowered and how even people who feel powerless can shape the future.

A-door-into-oceanJPGA Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski: This book uses and subverts the planet of women trope.  The planet is called Shora and the women are purple and have the most awesome eco-tech. The women have a managed ecosystem that provides for all their needs. As someone who studies ecology, I especially loved this aspect of the book. Slonczewski’s Quaker values are very much in evidence, as the main characters attempt to resolve their problems with nonviolence.

41A2XSAMWHLSlow River by Nicola Griffith: All of Griffith’s work is amazing and worth checking out, but this one happens to be my personal favorite. It’s about troubled families and finding one’s place in the world, and also using bio engineering microbes to treat sewage. I love it when the science in science fiction is biology! The main character is a queer woman, who was kidnapped and is now estranged from her family, and must work to find herself again. (Trigger warning: Child abuse)

4b98224128a0b3494b677010The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: All of Le Guin’s work touches on feminist themes, but this one deals with gender most directly. The book features a planet were the people are physically sexless most of the time, except for a few days a month, when they become either male or female bodied in order to procreate. It is beautifully written.

 

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The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott: This series engages with feminism in a much more political sense than the works I’ve discussed so far, and features more direct discussion of the legal rights of women. This book offers a complex alternative earth, were the ice age didn’t end, the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs are still with us, Rome didn’t defeat Carthage, and, oh, there is magic. I loved Cat, the main character, who is fierce and unapologetic, and has an important relationship with her cousin, Bee.

12974372A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan: This book is secondary world fantasy about a young woman in a restricted society who wants to be a scientist. The book addresses the obstacles she faces in a very feminist manner. Brennan has a background in anthropology and folklore, which really shows in her world building.

 

cover_red_stationOn a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard: This book is a study of two women in power. It’s also an awesome story about a complex family that lives on a space station that makes its own fish sauce.  I find the focus on domestic issues, such as running a household and planning dinner parties, traditionally women’s work, to be very feminist.

 

908311The Female Man by Joanna Russ: An under-rated classic, The Female Man mixes together the stories of women from different timelines, including the female-only society of Whileaway. Russ really focuses on feminist issues like presenting oneself as feminine and saying no to men. This book is postmodern and can be a bit hard to follow in places.

 

Bonus Nonfiction:

51aLzdI9XfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier: A great history of feminism and SFF that looks at not only how stories have been used to discuss gender, but also the role of feminist debate within science fiction fandom. The history of women participating in SFF is often erased, so I found it very valuable to have this resource.  This book acknowledges that women have always been part of SFF, both reading and writing.

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Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planing. She also spends too much time reading, and loves science fiction and fantasy.

 

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When authors change the story

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Not too long ago, JK Rowling, beloved author of the even more beloved Harry Potter series, confirmed that hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. In an interview for the February/March 2014 edition of Wonderland magazine conducted by Emma Watson (the acclaimed actress who played Hermione Granger in the eight-part Harry Potter film series), Rowling revealed that, if given her druthers, major supporting characters Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley would not have ended up as a romantic couple. Even worse, she went so far as to suggest that Hermione might have been better off paired with the main man himself, Harry Potter.

Putting aside both the fact that this is straight-up blasphemy to Harry Potter lovers worldwide, and the fact that speaking of a kick-ass female heroine in terms of which one of the boy-heroes she should’ve married undermines her important role in the series, there are other, more philosophical reasons why Rowling’s opinions on the matter are irrelevant.

The furor over this situation in the world of Harry Potter fandom brings up really interesting questions about the nature of literary characters and of literature itself, as well as an author’s authority over his or her own works of literature. Is an author always “right” about his or her characters? Can characters exist outside of their text? They are born in an author’s mind, but are they really brought to “life,” so to speak, until they are published and read?

If the answer to the latter question is “no,” as I think it must be (for example, Hamlet would no more exist in the literary canon if Shakespeare hadn’t been widely read and published than the crush I wrote about in my diary at age 12), then, by the same token, characters are contained, or “live,” wholly within the published works in which they feature. What an author says or thinks outside of those works amounts to nothing whatsoever. For example, imagine John Green saying, twenty years for now, “It’s okay, fandom. Ansel Elgort Augustus Waters actually lives.” Do we reinterpret our understanding of The Fault in Our Stars based on the author’s opinion of his own work?

Of course not. While the above is an extreme example, it demonstrates that if authors hold an incorrect opinion about their own books, they’re not granted any more “rightness” than anyone else just because of their relationship to the material. Once a piece of literature exists, its interpretation is passed into the hands of its readers. An author’s opinions may be considered secondary or tertiary or completely irrelevant when it comes to an interpretation. Like any other reader, an author may correctly or incorrectly analyze a given work, even if that work is his or her own creative property.

So when Rowling says that Hermione and Ron might not have worked out together after all, even though there is an (admittedly poorly written) epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that says that they did, readers are rightfully infuriated. Their vital role in the conversation between text and reader is being ignored, while Rowling is failing to take up her proper place as a reader like anyone else. However, it should soothe readers to realize, even if Rowling doesn’t, that as a reader, she is just as susceptible to wrong or unsupported interpretations of her own text as anyone else.

Harry Potter is finished (as much as it pains me to admit it). Not just finished, but edited, published, and offered for sale in both physical and digital versions. Had Rowling still been drafting the novels at the time of the Wonderland interview, her opinion on the matter would have the utmost importance, and she could have gone home and rewritten the scenes that so clearly demonstrated Hermione and Ron’s growing attraction and affection for one another. However, given that the complete series has been available for public consumption since 2007 (and new paperback editions with gorgeous cover art were just released in August 2013), the content of those books are now outside her control.

Then again, Rowling owns her characters and she can do whatever she wants with them by asserting her absolute authority in published writing that reaches a widespread audience as an obvious continuation of the series. While her interview comments are irrelevant, readers should beware: she could always wave her magic wand and conjure up a new novel in which Hermione and Ron divorce and split their wizarding belongings between them.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

 

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