If you haven’t read Ender’s Game by now, and you’re someone who reads blogs from strangers for book recommendations, I’m going to assume that you’ll never read Ender’s Game. Maybe you’ve already bought it, and it’s sat on your to-be-read pile of books, gathering dust. I get that. Sometimes, a to-be-read pile of books is a frightening mountain, and I understand that choosing a modern classic anti-war novel about an 11-year-old battle expert set in a nebulous future over, say, John Irving’s new book, seems like the equivalent of choosing a Tiger Beat over the Economist. Which one will make you smarter?
Well, both. Knowledge is knowledge. Charting a pop star’s trends is a lot like following the stock market, and from what I hear, it’s good to be in the Justin Bieber business these days.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, I’m not recommending Ender’s Game.
I’m recommending the parallel novel to Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow.
Parallel novels are an amazing thing, as well as books that are set in the same universe as other books, yet still keeping that universe separate from our own. Stephen King is a master at this – his Dark Tower series is basically one long stick of tape that connects all of his universes together. With a book as popular as Ender’s Game, and the rest of the books in the series not as popular as the first, Orson Scott Card’s choice to write another novel set at Battle School makes tons of sense (money).
And yet, Ender’s Shadow isn’t a cash grab. The character of Bean is, to my mind, the most interesting character in the Ender Universe. Bean is incredibly intelligent, ruthless, and completely Machiavellian. If Card wasn’t set on making Bean a hero, he could have easily become the most superb of supervillains. And Ender’s Shadow is an excellent stand-alone novel, a meditation on heroism and what it means to be human. Card makes the reader feel for Bean as he watches coolly while Ender becomes lavished with glory and praise for things that Bean could have done just as easily.
I don’t know many other parallel novels off the top of my head, but I dearly, dearly wish for a parallel novel in the Harry Potter universe from Hermione’s point of view. Or Ron’s. Or both, switching chapters, watching Harry as he becomes the Chosen One, while Hermione and Ron are left to pick up the pieces of their lives when Harry isn’t around, mucking it up with ol’ Voldemort. I’m sure there’s fan fiction to this effect – but still. How busy can a billionaire be? Churn it out, Rowling.
Anyway, until that parallel novel comes out, read this one. It doesn’t have that moral, damning heft of being a modern (banned) classic. It’s just a good book.
Why the Hunger Games?
It’s no secret that dystopian/chosen-one fiction is the bread and butter of the young adult section of your local Borders. Or Barnes and Noble, I mean.
What is a secret is the recipe that Suzanne Collins used to make the Hunger Games irresistible. There are the obvious main ingredients – dystopia, self-sacrificing/chosen one heroine, life/death stakes, love triangle, teenage angst, action… but then again that’s like saying I know what’s in my grandmother’s potato souffle and only citing cheese and potatoes. There is something more in the mix, something that gets in between the joints of those ingredients. Butter, in the case of my grandmother’s potato souffle. But what’s the butter in the Hunger Games?
I only ask because the Scorpio Races doesn’t have it. It’s well-written and interesting, with the switching first person present tense perspectives that seems to be de rigeur for YA these days. It is, ultimately, the Hunger Games with horses. The stakes are nearly as high – anyone could die. The main heroes are going voluntarily, but their reasoning makes it seem like their only choice.
To go back to my butter metaphor, at the end of the book, it seems like the book is missing it. The joints aren’t oiled. There is no risk of high cholesterol. It’s more like a machine, and it adds up to exactly the sum of its parts. Maybe I’m tired of parent-less teens betting their lives on games, but I’d think that the transcendant version of Scorpio Races would make that trope unmissable.
Finding the “next big thing” in YA is like predicting where the next car crash could be. It might be at the intersection of teenage hormones and high stakes death games, since that’s where other crashes have been at the past, but that doesn’t mean that there might be a can’t-miss crash over at the intersection of sleepy small town and unwilling teenage detective. And I use a car crash metaphor because the best YA fiction has that quality of being so vital and high impact and human, but ultimately sad and without any true sense that car crashes have. At the end of a good (or even bad) YA book, you just hope everyone survives.
The Scorpio Races is neither good nor bad. But it isn’t destined to make headlines. Move along. Nothing to see here.
My childhood was filled with books.
We had family reading time even before I could read – my parents and my sister would sit quietly with books, and I would open up Calvin and Hobbes and look at the pictures. When I finally could read, I never stopped – I gobbled up whole worlds. Redwall, Hogwarts, The Boxcar (you know, the one those crime-solving children lived in.)
When I was in elementary school, I’d wake up at dawn and sit in my Mom’s lap and tell her what happened in the book I read. I think it started with Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad: A Dog, and continued on. She called it “the Lad Report.” She listened to my meandering re-tellings of the dog and his adventures, and acted like she was rapt with attention. Maybe she was.
She also wrote down the stories I told her, and encouraged me to write my own. When she read aloud, I listened – she did different voices, her face was elastic with the characters’ emotions. She handed me books that she’d read, recommended books while we were in bookstores, let me go to school on career day dressed as an author – you know, plaid button up shirt, pen in the breast pocket.
My Mom was the one who recommended Harry Potter to me. Same with Lad. And Half Magic, by Edward Eager. I would never have met Bilbo Baggins had it not been for her, or Mattimeo, or Strider, or Fudge, or Charlie or Matilda. Or, even more recently, Katniss. She supported my reading habit with weekly trips to the library, where she would browse with me. She gave me money to buy books out of the Scholastic catalog, even worked the book fair when she could.
When I was sick with a mysterious, stress/anxiety based disease which made it near impossible to eat or drink anything without serious pain, she read Old Yeller out loud. She’d even allow a flashlight in bed. Sometimes.
My Dad encouraged reading, but my Mom fueled it. She tells high school kids what to read now in her role as Canyon High’s librarian, and they better know what a treasure they have in her. She gave me life, and then she filled my life with the most meaningful thing that I do. I don’t know if she meant to create someone who wanted to be an author, but I know that she wanted to make me a reader. And she did.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
A friend of mine told me he paid a rather absurd sum for a very short book. It’s out of print, an instructional manual.
The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland.
I found a copy for myself and compulsively read it when I am tired of all the other things I have to read – it doesn’t lend itself to a cover-to-cover type of treatment. The book is a how-to guide on making yourself into a tarot card reader or psychic – using talking cues and techniques to get someone to tell you about themselves, and to say things that sound like their personalities and lives.
It’s nice to know, actually, that there is a technique. I went to a psychic once because it was “free” that day – I was walking home from the grocery store and had my palm read by a woman in her living room while children made noise in the other room. She told me a couple very vague platitudes, and let know she would get more specific for 15 dollars. I walked out feeling great that I was going to do something “creative” with my life.
Probably the most interesting thing that I have found so far in the book is Rowlands’ insistence that you can tell someone that there were life choices that they made, and they spend some time thinking about what would have happened if they chose another path. This is, of course, profoundly true. Decision making is the curse of mankind – all this damned free will that we don’t know what to do with. We are all thinking about our Robert Frost-ian selves, and wondering if that other path would have made a better kind of difference, rather than “all the difference.”
I’m not going to buy any tarot cards any time soon. Well – maybe I will, actually. But I’m not going to be opening up a psychic booth at a county fair any time soon – partly because I’m only halfway through the book, but also because I don’t know how I’d feel putting on a charlatan act of truth when I don’t know any better than the person whose palm lines I’m pretending to read. It’s nice to pretend, though.
Books are magical. They are also odd, cumbersome things that take up shelf space (but provide excellent insulation) and attract dust and silverfish (which should be prettier, considering the name). As I go down the rabbit hole, listening to podcasts (and my parents) trumpet the coming of the e-book, I clutch to my dusty, silverfished, cumbersome tomes and eye my iPad from the corner of the room, like it’s up to something.
Which it probably is.
The point is, as a book lover, it’s harder to justify buying physical copies of books sometimes. I’m a 20-something that’s constantly moving, and while a 50 cent book from the library bin is tempting, it also means I’ll throw my back out before I can even pretend to hate my 30th birthday, even though I love round numbers. So when a book comes along that you have to own in print, no question, it’s comforting. Print isn’t dead.
And, yet, I still only own this book as a PDF.
It’s because the cheapest copy I’ve found is still 200 dollars.
The Codex Seraphinianus is most likely the most bizarre and disgusting book I’ve ever “read.” I flip the pages on my iPad in mounting awe, all 250+, and I feel – something. I’m bewildered, and touched. Moved, and revolted. I’m amazed – flabbergasted. I spend about half an hour a week with it, sometimes on a certain page, sometimes just flipping back and forth.
It was published in 1981 (those first editions are about a thousand bucks), and its author, Luigi Serafini is reclusive and strange. His website leads to a blank white page. His creative output is small. But the dual volume book speaks (and doesn’t speak) for itself. The greatest description of the Codex is that it is an encyclopedia from an alternate universe – an illustrated guide to a world and life we understand is like our own and yet completely divergent. There is writing, but it is indecipherable. Serafini reportedly said, “The book creates a feeling of illiteracy which, in turn, encourages imagination, like children seeing a book: they cannot yet read it, but they realise that it must make sense.”
Sometimes, when I flip through it, I get this vague sense of purpose. I can’t be the only one who feels this way about the book, or other mysteries of the world; I feel like, sometimes, I was put on the planet for a reason. When I hear a manuscript described as “lost” or a text “indecipherable” or a treasure that’s “possibly imaginary,” I think – maybe – I am meant to be the one to find it, to decipher it, to make the treasure real. It’s a stupid notion – it passes quickly, and I can move on to re-watching another episode of Gilmore Girls.
But it’s amazing a book can make me feel this way. You can find a copy too – google it. It’s somewhere.