#FridayReads: The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

cover for The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

Today I’ve a got a book review of Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover up at the Ploughshares blog! I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this delightfully weird short story collection, which comes out this Tuesday (but I wasn’t paid or given anything else by the author or publisher to write this review). Check it out!

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is the debut short story collection from Michael Andreasen. Through a mix of absurdism, hyperbole, science fiction, history, and fantasy, the author draws a map of washed-up American dreams and fears. His stories chart the plains of abandonment, the futility of love, and vague hopes that never solidify. From the titular lonely sea monster to the King of Retired Amusements to time-traveling third graders, Andreasen’s characters explore this map of disappointment and hardship, learning again and again what we already know but are too afraid to speak aloud: Everything comes to an end. Everything.

Keep reading at Ploughshares!

#FridayReads: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

cover for Annihilation, showing an alien-looking flowerWhen Annihilation came out in 2014, the cover caught my eye. It’s pretty and creepy! The trailer for the movie (starring Natalie Portman) ran before The Last Jedi, so I thought what the hell and put the audiobook on hold at the library.

The book is short (only six hours long), but I’m not sure that’s an asset in this case. I didn’t hate Annihilation, but I certainly didn’t love it, either.

The concept is interesting enough. A small team of female scientists is heading into Area X to do research on a supposed “environmental disaster.” Of course weird shit happens almost immediately and the expedition falls apart within days of arriving in Area X. Personally, I’d have preferred a little more buildup and actual discovery before things fall apart.

For most of the novel, I did want to know what was going to happen next, but I never felt satisfied with the answers–when answers were provided at all. Normally I love ambiguity in literature, but this time I was frustrated. The ambiguity didn’t feel like mystery to me. It felt more like the author was purposefully hiding things to get me to keep reading. That gets on my nerves, but I guess it worked, because I kept reading.

The point of view character (who is unnamed and referred to only as “The Biologist”) is a scientist, and yet does almost no science during the expedition. She relies on what she sees and feels to draw her conclusions, which is very un-scientist-like.

(But, you could argue that the weird, apparently sentient fungi in Area X make science hard, if not impossible, and you might be right, so that’s not a total deal breaker.)

The writing itself is functional and leans to the sparse side, but VanderMeer has a tendency to overuse certain words. I think “brackish” appeared 20 times in the first hour (that’s an exaggeration, but it was a lot!).

This is part one in a trilogy, so it’s possible some of my frustrations will be addressed in future volumes. And ultimately, the concept is probably strong enough to carry most people through the trilogy. Despite my lukewarm reaction to the book as a whole, I’ve already put the second volume on hold, because I really do want to know what happens.

#FridayReads: My favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novels

Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I’m going to call the greatest writer of all time, passed away on Monday. I don’t usually cry when people I’ve never met died, but I cried when I read that sad news. Le Guin’s work touched me in so many ways—too many to share them all here. But there are three that stand out, and I’ll share those. Share yours in the comments!

1. Catwings

cover for CatwingsMy family wasn’t rich, but one thing I never lacked was reading material. Weekly trips to the library and a plethora of magazine subscriptions kept me in books and stories. We got lots of great magazines: Highlights for Kids, American Girl, some sort of crafty activity magazine, Zoobooks, a few comics. But my absolute favorites were Spider and Cricket, because they published actual short stories.

In one of these two (I can’t remember which one), I read a story called Catwings. I couldn’t get enough of it. Every issue I’d check first to see if there was a new Catwings story. At the time, I had no conception that the author was a famous sci-fi writer named Ursula K. Le Guin. I just knew it was a good story and I cared about the characters. Those little stories about cats who could fly stuck with me. Of course that’s not the only story from my childhood that stuck with me (there’s Narnia, and The BFG, and Leo Lionni’s picture books about mice, and Dr. Seuss, and Big Red, and Nancy Drew, and too many more to name them all), but it’s one that stuck out even among all the others. I remember reading the story “Jane on Her Own” and being scared for Jane, but also exhilarated that she could go have her own adventures, away from her family. If Jane could, then so could I! Years and years later, I stumbled on a Catwings book in a Barnes & Noble and was delighted—though not surprised—to discover Le Guin was the author.

2. The Left Hand of Darkness

cover for The Left Hand of DarknessIn high school I went to every used book sale within a 25-mile radius of my home. At one of these, I picked up a paperback copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for 50 cents. It was an edition from the ’70s, with yellowed pages and a faded cover. I’d heard Le Guin’s name mentioned over and over in sci-fi circles, so I took it upon myself to read it. The summer between high school and college, I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and it changed how I viewed not just the world, but the very concepts of “truth” and storytelling.

As a conservative Christian kid, I had some pretty messed up views on gender. But even then, patriarchal norms chaffed against my sense of independence (thanks, books!) and solid knowledge that I was just as good as any man (thanks, Mom and Dad!). The Left Hand of Darkness confirmed what I already felt: it was all a construct. It didn’t have to be that way. And it was, then, I think, that I began to decide it wouldn’t be that way, not for me. No one was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t accomplish. No one was going to tell me what I was worth. And people have tried—oh, they’ve tried—but fuck them. I’m living the life I want to live, not the life society tells me I should want.

And something else. In the introduction to that edition of the novel, Le Guin wrote a beautiful essay about truth. In it, she writes, “But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” When I read those words, I understood what it means to tell stories. I understood why stories are so important to me, why I want to read them and write them. I understood that “truth,” too, is its own construct (not to be confused with facts). And that—that’s when I really became a writer.

3. Always Coming Home

cover for Always Coming HomeBy the time I read Always Coming Home I already counted Le Guin as one of my favorite authors. After I read Always Coming Home, she moved right up the list to number one, and I seriously doubt anyone could replace her. I wrote an essay about why this is her greatest book, and you can read it on Monday when it comes out (I’ll try to remember to post a link here when it does). But that essay leaves out the personal impact this book had on me.

Always Coming Home is a fictional anthropological study of an animistic society living in a futurist California that’s been destroyed and reclaimed. This isn’t just a novel—it’s a guidebook for how to live without capitalism, without patriarchy, without hate, without fear. It’s utopia, but utopia that could actually exist if only we weren’t so hell-bent on profits, greed, and destruction.

Reading this book caused me to make real changes in my way of life. It got me thinking about the intersections of the urban world and the natural world. It got me thinking about healing. It got me thinking about spirituality, and what that even meant. It got me thinking about being a whole person. I consider Always Coming Home to be my bible—my guide for living a meaningful, connected, creative life. I don’t follow it slavishly (Le Guin would hate that), but it’s my inspiration. My North Star. It reminds me that all these things—life, creativity, nature, everything—is an ongoing process. The world will keep turning long after I’m gone. I am only a single part in this great ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean I am unimportant. I have something to offer, and so do you. I’ll be happy if my gifts to the world equal half of what Le Guin’s were to me.

Rest in peace, Grandmother.