Between the Lines Book Club: What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

between the lines book club logoBetween the Lines Book Club is reading Among Others by Jo Walton this month. If you are in the Sacramento, California area meet us at 10:30AM at Arden Dimick Library on Saturday, October 23, 2015 for an in-person chat! Otherwise, leave comments here. Among Others is a coming of age story about a young woman who finds her place in the world through reading. It may or may not also be a fantasy involving faeries, depending on how you look at it.

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If you enjoy Walton’s writing, or if you have an interest in the genre of literary criticism, I urge you to check out another book by Walton. It’s a collection of essays called What Makes This Book So Great. In this collection, Walton talks about a huge range of speculative fiction books, as well as some mainstream fiction. In fact, one of her best essays addresses the difference between SFF and mainstream fiction. When she says, “I tend to read everything as SF” I realized that this is true of me, as well, although I’d say “speculative fiction.”

Walton also talks about the pleasures of re-reading and about the rewards and pitfalls of this practice. I loved her invention of “The Suck Fairy”:

If you read a book for the first time, and it sucks, that’s noting to do with her. It just sucks. Some books do. The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading, well, it sucks. You can say that you have changed, you can hit your forehead dramatically and ask yourself how you could possibly have missed the sukiness the first time-or you can say that The Suck Fairy has been through it while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck…The advantage of this is exactly the advantage of thinking of one’s once-beloved ex as having been eaten by a zombie, who is now shambling around using the name and body of the former person. It lets one keep one’s original love clear of later betrayals.

I recommend this book primarily for fans of SFF but anyone interested in literary criticism should pick it up and read a few of the essays at least. It’s gorgeous writing and Walton always seems like that cool but tough professor who would red ink all your essays but also teach class in a coffee shop and buy everyone snacks.

Between the Lines Book Club: Jo Walton Mini-Bio and links!

between the lines book club logoThis month Between the Lines Book Club is reading Among Others by Jo Walton. Love comments here or join us in person at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM. Sat Oct 24.

Jo Walton was born in Wales and she speaks Welsh fluently. She moved to Canada in 2002. She’s the author of many science fiction and fantasy books, as well as a recent book of non-fiction titled “What Makes This Book So Great.” Her earlier series were relatively light fare (I’m crazy about them, by the way) and included fantasy (The King’s PeaceTooth and Claw) and alternate history (The Small Change Series). Her recent series, The Thessaly Series, kicked off with a critically acclaimed book called The Just City. The series asks what would happen if Plato’s theoretical city was actually built, and populated by real children and adults.

Unlike many authors I write about, Walton seems to have led a relatively calm, or at least private life. Her bios are largely lists of awards – Among Other, for instance, is one of only seven books to be nominated for The Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award (it won the Nebula and Hugo). Luckily for me, she wrote a bio, she uses on her blog (jowaltonbooks.com), and to introduce some of her works. Here’s Jo Walton’s autobiography:

Jo Walton
has run out of eggs and needs to go buy some,
she has no time to write a bio
as she wants to make spanakopita today.
She also wants to write a new chapter
and fix the last one.
Oh yes, she writes stuff,
when people leave her alone to get on with it
and don’t demand bios
and proofreading and interviews
and dinner.
Despite constant interruptions
she has published nine novels
in the last forty-eight years
and started lots of others.
She won the Campbell for Best New Writer in 2002
when she was 38.
She has also written half a ton of poetry
which isn’t surprising as she finds poetry
considerably easier to write
than short bios listing her accomplishments.
She is married, with one (grown up, awesome) son
who lives nearby with his girlfriend and two cats.
She also has lots of friends
who live all over the planet
who she doesn’t see often enough.
She remains confused by punctuation,
“who” and “whom”
and “that” and “which”.
She cannot sing and has trouble with arithmetic
also, despite living ten years in Montreal
her French still sucks.
Nevertheless, her novel Among Others
won a Hugo and a Nebula
so she must be doing something right
at least way back when she wrote it
it’ll probably never work again.
She also won a World Fantasy Award in 2004
for an odd book called Tooth and Claw
in which everyone is dragons.
She comes from South Wales
and identifies ethnically
as a Romano-Briton
but she emigrated to Canada
because it seemed a better place
to stand to build the future.
She blogs about old books on Tor.com
and posts poetry and recipes and wordcount on her LJ
and is trying to find something to bribe herself with
as a reward for writing a bio
that isn’t chocolate.

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Book Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

5110avaFj9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How on earth did Jo Walton manage to make a riveting page-turner out of a book which consists almost entirely of philosophical discussions?  I could not stop reading The Just City, which since I was in the middle of packing for a trip and meeting a ton of deadlines was very inconvenient.

In The Just City, Athena and Apollo decide to set up a real version of Plato’s Republic, tucked away in a timeless city that is destined to be destroyed by a volcano.  This city is founded by Athena, who forms the first generation out of people who pray to her to live in The Republic.  The second generation is made of children who are brought to the city our of their own timelines, in which the children are slaves.  The next is children who are born in the city during randomized fertility rites and raised communally.

Apollo chooses to experience the city as a mortal.  He is baffled, because he pursed a mortal, Daphne, for sex, and she choose to transform herself into a tree rather than sleep with him.  Apollo is not deliberately cruel, just totally obtuse.  How could Daphne not want to sleep with him?  Wasn’t she just playing?  Athena explains the concept of choice to him, and he decided to become mortal to learn about “Volition. Our equal significance”.

The Just City is at once a utopia and a dystopia, depending on the speaker’s point of view.  Two slave children are brought to the city together – one lives his life blaming the masters of the city for taking him away from his life, while the other sees the city as a refuge.  The realities of childcare, sex, birth, and work overwhelm the city’s founders.  There are cruelties and injustices, but most involve good intentions.  The cracks in the system are what give the book so much tension, and the tension is more interesting because there’s no one right or simplistic way to look at the city.

When Sokrates shows up, he shakes up everything, of course.  Above all, he questions Athena’s intentions.  Can a city be just if no one can leave?  Can a city be just if children were brought to the city against their will, even if they like it here?  As the book progresses, people experience conflict primarily over relationships.  No one is supposed to have a special attachment to one child or one lover, yet these attachments occur.  Everything is supposed to be fair, yet the city’s founders cheat in order to make things work.  It’s not as simple as a horrible dystopian nightmare.  Many people love the city and thrive there.  But others suffer because of the absence of volition and equal significance.

I’ve admired everything Jo Walton has written, but nothing has been as amazing to me as Among Others, a book that was so luminous I expected it to give off a physical glow.  The Just City was a different experience – it’s not designed to make you glow but to make you thing.  Among Others was a celebration of reading.  The Just City is a celebration of talking and thinking. Walton’s earlier books were celebrations of history and fantasy.  The common thread in her books is that our shared humanity is the most important thing – our volition, our equal significance.  This book is the first in a planned trilogy and it ends on a dramatic cliffhanger that has me ripping out my hair, so be warned.

Even if you don’t read the book, read this passage by Apollo, and just tell me if it doesn’t make you want to be “your best self”:

On my temple in Delphi there are two words written: Know Thyself.  It’s good advice.  Know yourself.  You are worth knowing.  Examine your life.  The unexamined life is not worth living.  Be aware that other people have equal significance.  Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count.  Remember that excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it.  Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say.  Live the best life you can, and become the best self you can.  You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds.  Not even Necessity knows all ends.  Know yourself.

Library Quotes from Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s library week here at Geek Girl In Love, and here’s ten quotes about libraries in science fiction and fantasy.  I meant to make this a list of quotes by fictional characters, but the authors had such great things to say in their own voices that I let them have a say, too.

1. “She sounds like someone who spends a lot of time in libraries, which are the best sorts of people.”

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

2. “I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a

Ray Bradbury and cat

Ray Bradbury

six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.”

– Ray Bradbury

3. “Rule number one: Don’t fuck with librarians.”

Neil Gaiman

4. “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.”

book cover

Among Others

Jo Walton, Among Others

5. “I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.”

Patrick Ness

6. “…bookstores, libraries… they’re the closest thing I have to a church.”

Jim C. Hines, Libriomancer

7. “We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of this memory is called the library”

Carl Sagan

8. “Once again I’m banished to the demon section of the card catalog.”

Willow and giles

“If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um… smelly.”

– Willow, Buffy The Vampire Slayer

9. “The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned by no later than the date shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality.”

– Terry Pratchett, Guards, Guards

10.  And the most Badassas of them all:

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner,

Let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him.

Let him be struck with palsy and all his members blasted.

Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy,

Let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink in dissolution.

Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the worm that dieth not.

When at last he goeth to his final punishment,

Let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

Soooo…okay then.  I guess I better go turn in that overdue book that I just found under the couch.  Thanks to Good Reads for the quotes!