Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Faith, Hope, Clarity and Sweetgrass

SweetgrassSome books earn my respect, even affection. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one. The subtitle tells a lot: “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” I am not a gardener nor a farmer, so anything that explains plant life feels fresh to me. Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation . . .” so I was persuaded to trust her knowledge. What I was not prepared for was the stunning prose that kept me reading. Somewhere I’ve heard that writing well requires “faith, hope, and clarity.” She gives us all three in abundance.

In addition to her style and content, Kimmerer is a story teller. She takes on the role in a personal and personable way. Her first-person accounts of her work as mother and scientist, indigenous person and skilled teacher wooed me. I felt that I was standing in the rain with her, noticing the various sizes of rain drops as they fell from the leaves and mosses. I was with her and her daughters as they went out in the dark to escort salamanders across blacktop to keep them from becoming roadkill. I listened like a child to native stories of Skywoman and Windigo. Her voice is clear and sweet as maple sap, but never syrupy, never wheedling. Rather she shows the ways that natural science and writing and daily life are braided together like the wild sweetgrass she uses for ceremonies of thanksgiving.

Here, then, is a lesson on writing about the potentially esoteric skills and knowledge of a scientist and the emotional life of a single mother and the history of people dismissed and under appreciated despite their centuries old knowledge of the world. Read it and learn.

Sweet Reads

I read like the proverbial kid in a candy store, and since Halloween candy has taken over much available freezer space in our house, candy, like good books, calls to me. Hmm, Snickers, Peanut M&Ms, Tootsie Roll? Nah, I’m full up on sugary stuff. But never full up on reading, never. So much to choose from and how to make those choices? Which to buy, which to borrow? My beloved local library and sale books determine this, but still, tasty books abound. What looks good lately?

Sweetest reads are those by authors with definite style, that hard to define quality that sets a writer apart as surely as the brand name on a candy wrapper. If it says dark Belgian chocolate, I’m in, deep. If a book cover says Laura Hillenbrand, same response. Her style grabs me every time. When I read Seabiscuit, I was in the saddle, in the race. And I know horses. I doubt that Ms. Hillenbrand has ridden in a horse race, but she got the details so right that the book is convincing. She’s done it again with Unbroken, the story of an Olympic runner who ended up as a Japanese prisoner of war. The author was not in that camp, not in the plane that went down in the Pacific or in the tiny life raft with sharks circling. But she puts us right there. So her style is to disappear herself and put the reader into the scene, whole hog, every imaginable detail.

Another non-fiction writer whose style is really sweet is Sam Kean. Mr. Kean writes about science, first in The Disappearing Spoon and then The Violinist’s Thumb. Notice first his tricky titles. Who could not pick these off the new book shelf in the library? Subtitles are vital. The first book is about the periodic table of elements and the second about the stories told by DNA. Dull? No! NO! Mr. Kean puts himself, his authorial persona, right in there with us, so this high-level science feels safe and mostly understandable. He educates us like a good friend telling anecdotes and explaining the difficult in everyday prose. I love it. Sweet. So style is a combination of ingredients–authorial presence, details, continuous narrative or anecdote, language and subject matter. There are other spicy bits in the recipe, but it seems to me that these are the main ingredients, like dark chocolate and almonds or coconut. Oops, did someone just open the freezer door? I’d better check. See ya later.

Questions from Other Worlds

Margaret Atwood has a wonderful book out, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. Read it and learn. Wisely, Atwood doesn’t pretend to know everything about fiction, but one question she raises intrigues and frustrates me. Just what is sci-fi? I’ve just finished revising a novel that I’m not comfortable calling science fiction because there’s so little science in it, but it is other worldly, sort of.

Fiction, as she says, is what’s invented. Science is what’s known. Well, I certainly get the invented part, although with the history of myth, fable, romance and novels that she relates, I’m no longer sure what I’ve invented and what I’ve absorbed in reading. The science is sketchy. Much of what appears in sci-fi isn’t known, or not yet. It is invented.

So, there’s the issue of what to call a book that involves invented science: Is it speculative, paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi? Seems there’s no standard definition, just standard deviations. Fantasy might have dragons, ogres, demons and elves. Paranormal might be something, I suppose, like Stephen King’s Carrie, which sure didn’t seem normal to me. (I imagined all of Westbrook, Maine, in flames because I associated King with my home state.) Speculative is an interesting word: the author speculates on a future society and what it might be like. And it might include space travel, time travel, alien creatures and human heroes. Sort of a nice catchall, but have bookstores glommed onto the category? Would such a book get its very own shelf?

Help! I’m drowning in an undefined sea. I welcome any lifeline you want to toss at me.