what I’ve been reading
December 3, 2014
Looking at the list of things I’ve read this year (I started keeping track a few years ago and really liked doing it), I discovered I’ve not read as much as I’d like. So I’m making an effort to read a bunch off stuff off my “to read” pile before the end of the year. And there’s some really good stuff out there. Not necessarily new books, alas — but isn’t that the great thing about books? They’ll always be there, and the better they are the longer they last.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This got a lot of buzz when it came out a couple of years ago as being really intense and brutal. It’s about World War II, so it went on my list, and if I had realized that one of the main characters is a woman ferry pilot in Britain, I would have read this sooner. Women pilots in WWII being one of my Things and all.
So, this is a massively great WWII spy thriller. Intense and brutal as I mentioned. But I also learned something about technique. **SPOILERS!** One of the narrators is unreliable — she’s writing a confession after torture, so of course she is. But you, the reader, come to believe her anyway in spite of yourself. It’s not until much later in the book that you learn that what she wrote really was mostly lies — because, you’re reminded, you the reader were not the intended audience of her narrative. The reader is merely a bystander, and the intended audience is the Nazi interrogator. The true extent of Julie’s espionage skill is revealed, and it’s astonishing. I’ll say it again: the reader is not the intended audience of her narrative. I mean it is, of course, because it’s part of the book. But the key to sussing out what’s going on there is remembering that Julie isn’t talking to you. This kind of blew my mind. So: unreliable narrator. Remember who the narrator is talking to, the one who the narrator is intending to deceive.
Yeah, this is a great book, but be warned, I sobbed through the entire last third of it.
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
This book has been on my radar since it came out, almost 20 years ago, back when I worked in the bookstore, because its author was one of my smartest, most excellent professors in college. Professor Barber very kindly let me take her Ancient Civilizations class as a freshman, when I really had no business taking it, not knowing a thing about college level coursework. But this was exactly the kind of class I’d come to college for, and I couldn’t bear taking all survey classes my first year. I wanted to delve. I was finally going to really learn new and amazing things.
And I did. It’s because I took that class I’m able to write stories like “The Book of Daniel,” which takes place in the heart of ancient Babylon. It’s why I insisted on figuring out what “For the Fairest” would look like in Linear B for Discord’s Apple. Really, in another life I should have been a historian or an archeologist. But I like telling stories. I walk into a museum and I don’t see the objects, I see the stories around them.
And that’s what Professor Barber’s book, which I have finally now read, is about. It’s about textiles — weaving, spinning, and all the technologies involved in those activities — but it’s also about history, culture, and what each of these things tells us about the other. It’s about how to take the artifacts and suss out the stories around them, and what the lives of the women who used them must have been like.
So why did I read this book now, and not at any other point since it came out? (And it’s wonderful to think that she was writing this when I was her student — I remember her talking about the oldest preserved shirt and the painted ceilings that match weaving patterns.) It’s because of the Neolithic stories I’ve been writing/want to write. I need to know where the technology was at and what the women of the time were doing — and we don’t know. There’s no written record, only the artifacts. But we can look at the artifacts and make inferences. And this book is a really great lesson on how to do that. It’s excellent.
And what all are you reading right now?