Category Archives: science fiction

More Than This

 I read (and wept through) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness this summer, about a boy processing that his mother isn’t going to survive her cancer.  When I saw he had a new title out, I was quick to pick it up and I can confidently say I’ve never read a book like More Than This: it straddles science fiction and mystery while having 3 beautifully written, realistic characters.  Interestingly, it also deals with death: the first chapter starts with the narrator, Seth, drowning in the ocean near his home.  From there, he wakes up in some kind of afterlife, which he spends the length of the book trying to figure out while simultaneously facing some of the hardest, most difficult, as well as the most poignant moments of his prior life, covering namely loss, parent/child relationships, teenage friendship, identity, and first love.

To write too much about the plot and this afterlife of Ness’s creation would be to ruin the experience of reading the book (which I highly recommend), so I’m going to focus on a few of the life philosophies of some of the characters.  Ness weaves these philosophies not so much for the reader to choose one, but for the reader to become aware of some of the many complex ways people use to make their way through life, as Seth faces both his current life and what he finds as both of his former lives and attempts to cull meaning from each of them.

The hopeful. Seth’s friend and first love Gudman says multiple times throughout the book in Seth’s memory: “There’s always beauty if you know where to look.”  This phrase haunts Seth in his deepest moments of pain.

The seeker of meaning and the cynic.  Seth spends much of his time in the afterlife trying to figure out a greater narrative for what is happening to him.  Regine, one of the two people he meets there says: “People see stories everywhere…That’s what my father used to say.  We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.  We have to lie to ourselves to live.  Otherwise we’d go crazy.”

The escapists. When his parents are considering a scientific, virtual escape from their lives after a tragedy Seth father shares: “You mean Lethe. The river of forgetfulness in Hades.  So the dead don’t remember their former lives and spend eternity mourning them.”

This brings us back to the title–there must be More Than This.  There are parts of life that seem to make no sense and we must seek to find answers.  We must know the present reality isn’t always the only truth. Ness seems to be saying the answer doesn’t lie within a singular philosophy, but in a complex matrix.  The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate openness to mystery and the more I’ve started accepting living in uncertainty.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have some anchors set down in a few key places, just that this life is so much bigger than I ever imagined.

Reflections on my first month of E-Reading

If you were to walk into my apartment, you would find three industrial sized shelves filled with books that we were certain would be ample space for a growing library, but were filled to the brim by the time we were done unpacking.  My piles of books have grown to the coffee table, living room floor, and of course my nightstand.  I’m old fashioned in that not only do I love the smell of paper books, old and new, I also think that stacks of beloved books are one of the best ways to decorate a home.  My old studio apartment didn’t have room for shelves, so they were stacked into piles all around the periphery and somehow that worked, too.

So you’d understand how strange it was as I got more involved in education conversations about technology in the classroom and the tug I began to feel that I needed to (gah!) give the whole e-reading thing a shot.  I knew I’d be traveling for most of August, ten days of which internationally.  The last time I traveled for more than a week my books took up more space in my carry-on than my clothes, so I decided that summer travel would be the best time to start AND be excited about e-books.  (My chiropractor is also excited because he would shake his head every time he saw me reading a crazy heavy book that I’d lugged all over the city.)  I bought a kindle.  I downloaded the kindle app on my iphone.  I also got an ipad mini somewhere in the mix. Off I went.  Here’s what I learned:

  • It was difficult to get used to the buttons on the kindle.  I kept thinking the one on the right should be forward and on the left should be backward.  That is not the case, which took me the length of my entire first book to master.  I’m getting old.
  • The kind of book I’m reading seems to matter.  While in a more “literary” book, I am much more apt to want to go back and reread certain parts or backtrack a bit to draw connections, etc.  While reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, I repeatedly wanted to go back to earlier parts due to the structure and nature of the story, but it was really cumbersome so I mostly gave up.  (Maybe this will help my memory? Rewire some parts of my brain as I try to hold onto more details?)  However, this wasn’t an issue at all while reading Camilla Lackburg’s thriller The Stonecutter.
  • Taking notes is now both easier and harder.  By nature I don’t like clutter, so I’ve been happy to embrace the “notebook” app on my iphone for shopping lists and using pinterest instead of pulling out sheets from magazines.  It was hard for me to not be able to actually underline.  I’m working on digital underlining and note taking.  I think I’ll get there.  My kindle isn’t a touch screen, so that was another interesting aspect of the kind of technology I’ve grown accustomed to using.
  • While traveling, my carry on bag and suitcase were so much lighter.  I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself at the airport.   However, I needed a backup to occupy my mind until all electronic devices were cleared! My husband made fun of me that I couldn’t just sit–but I’m sure there are other crazies who don’t want to lose a half an hour of solid reading time! Luckily I had my most recent New York Magazine in my purse as well.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to just sit and think on a plane. Or the subway. Or in line.
  • I love the ipad app for one of my favorite cookbooks:  Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.  LOVE.  Also, I am into the magazine apps for ones I subscribe to like Bon Appetit and New York Magazine.  That was a surprise.
  • E-reading gave me a lot of insight into my job: I was aware of my own “moves” as a reader and I began to see how some traditional teaching methods–like annotating and using post its–might not be applicable to all of my students anymore.  Trying out note taking strategies on my devices was definitely helpful as my students become increasingly more digital and less analog.  I’m dreaming about loading up kindles with series books for students and having them available for checkout.  I found out that the Brooklyn Public library has a huge selection of ebooks of all kinds using the Overdrive app for devices.  These are game changing developments for classrooms like mine where I’m dying to get more books in front of my students.  (Next up: getting out of the dark ages in NYC schools and starting a “Bring Your Own Device” policy!) The implications of knowing your “stats” automatically without an annoying (thought educationally helpful) reading log seems genius!
  • It’s really easy to get a book, which is good and bad.  One of my friends said that she reads so much more because it’s so easy to get books to read from home–and studies back up that notion: convenience makes more avid readers.  One of my favorite things to do is to browse in a bookstore and that is generally how my (digital-ha) list of books to read grows.  As convenient as e-readers are, I passionately support independent booksellers and this is a palpable tension because I try to go out of my way to purchase books from them and only go to the megastores if I’m in a pink or can’t find what I’m looking for. But, to close this post, I’ll share my recent find on my e-reading journey:

This posting from Galleycat helped me find ways I can still support independent stores and enjoy the convenience of not having a 15 pound purse.  I’ll let you peruse at your leisure, but the bottom line is that there are a lot of independent stores now selling ebooks on their websites.  Not all, but I can still support some of my local favorites like Greenlight Bookstore.

I’ll be sure to share more on my e-reading experience, but I’m most enjoying it due to my lightened load and the way it’s making me think about my students’ experiences and engagements.  I still love curling up with an actual book and I still have science fiction nightmares a la the paperless world Super Sad True Love Story, and percentages will never be as satisfying as holding 3/4 of a book in my left hand, but I’m going to keep at it for now.

Super Sad True Love Story and Science Fiction Nightmares

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is written in the near-ish future–it has a bit of a 1984 feel, in that while reading, it is easy to become convinced that this could very well be the future.  Set in a New York City on the verge of political and military chaos, the smart phone has been replaced with an apparat–a device that people wear and use to scan one another and instantly not only receive data about each other, but to be ranked among whoever they are surrounded by.  The society is so driven by this technology that people no longer read, they scan.  Books are completely obsolete.  Some of the setting details are overly satiric, like the fact that people and children love porn stars instead of movie stars and that “onion skin” (or see through) jeans are the pants of choice; but other aspects completely jolted me as they seemed a bit too real.

Within the book there is a love story between two people who are able to look past the unlikelihood of their pairing, for a little while, anyway. But to me it is a love story about about a city and a lost time–which was interesting because there are so many things going wrong with our current society, but reading about this future one made me nostalgic for what is outside my window.  A completely data driven society is one of the most frightening things that an author can conjure up, and yet it’s not that far from social networking sites that occupy us today (or, for you educators out there, the constant drive for children to be represented by numbers) or our ability to constantly be connected to the world via the phone we carry in our pockets. Here is an excerpt from one of the main characters, Lenny, who is a bit of an old soul in the age of technology:

“Also, I’ve spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly.  I’m learning to worship my new apparat’s screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

Reading futuristic science fiction scares me: the kind where people have lost their sense of what it means to be human and where the ethical and moral issues are lost in the flurry of moving ahead.  It makes me think about what actually constitutes a good life, though that adjective is the most vague of them all, and would be defined differently by almost everyone.

Lenny works for a man named Joshie at the Post-Human Services office in a large corporation, whose job is to locate HNWI (high net worth individuals) who are interested in living forever and undergoing treatments to ensure that it happens.  While their work seems absurd, it seems like a logical progression for the capitalist’s reaction to our culture’s fear of aging.  Of course in the book, it also feels adolescent in the sense that people aren’t considering the consequences of such steps in anti-aging.

“Joshie had always told Post-Human Services staff to keep a diary, to remember who we were, because every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that each year, each month, each day we transform into a different person, an utterly unfaithful iteration of our original selves.”

This is the part that gives me nightmares–longer life without a sense of self.  It is already hard for me to remember what life was like before cell phones and the internet–and there are days that I want to separate myself from them. But then I have to honestly admit that I’m not sure I know how to.

I feel like I’ve come to learn that life is knowing and understanding the human story.  Last night I was talking with friends and one of them said that our technological growth is exponential.  It makes me fear just how unhuman are we making ourselves? And if that growth is regulated, that is an even scarier political thriller of an existence.  See how I’ve gone and gotten all paranoid on you?

(I also blame watching the movie version of this book on Friday for this current state of mind.)
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Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian, slightly science fiction novel that takes place in England in the late 1990s.  It is narrated in what feels very stream-of-conscious by a 31 year old woman named Kathy H., who is remembering her child and young adulthood at a boarding school called Hailsham.  She narrates the way that I often talk–she has an initial point, but the details of narrative are built into the back story she provides while getting to that point.  Her narration has a deep tone of nostalgia and it is clear from the beginning that she is trying to make sense of what her life has become and the fate she knows she cannot avoid.  It is this tension that drives the book: the hope that the truth somehow didn’t apply to the characters.

What I have been considering since I finished the book is how do we, as people, handle the truths about life that we accumulate along the way, especially the ones we do not wish to believe, not matter how confident we are of their existence?

One of the most poignant moments of the book for me was when another character, Tommy, faces the reality of his situation.  He is in a car with Kathy, and asks her to pull over.  He walks into the woods at the side of the road and screams his lungs out.  The injustice of reality is too much for him to bear, and he can think of no other way to respond.

Later, it appears that Tommy and Kathy have succumbed to the “safety” of knowing what is inevitable.  Perhaps they feel foolish for ever wishing existence to be more.  Kathy repeatedly talks about their knowing when they were children at Hailsham, but they just went right on playing and pretending.

When does it become naive and adolescent to fight what is bound to happen?  Are there certain realities that can be fought?

Is it ok to accept what is?  What do we do with the angst that remains? Live a life with trips to an isolated wood so we can scream our lungs out about it?

(Don’t continue reading if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie.  All conclusions drawn so far are thought provoking without the ending. But I had such a strong opinion of the ending that it is impossible for me not to write about it).  My biggest disappointment in the book is that the characters don’t fight (very hard, anyway).  I wanted to see them rise and buck authority and defy the life that was set for them, but instead they got angry and then settled into sadness and nostalgia. The book is ironically called, then, Never Let Me Go…but they do. And I kind of hate that.