a psalm for the wild-built

Thursday, December 30, 2021 | | 1 comments
One of the most soothing reads I picked up in recent months? Becky Chambers’ novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the first in the Monk and Robot series. I almost didn’t read it myself (I bought it to gift to my Dad for Christmas, as he liked the first Murderbot book, is a big gardener), but the siren song of knowing what a book is about before I gift it was too strong to resist. Plus Tor novellas are notoriously readable, and Psalm was no exception. It’s an affirming, emotional cup of tea, and may be just the balm you need in these chaotic times. 

a psalm for the wild-built by becky chambers book cover
It's been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.


One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of "what do people need?" is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They're going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the story of Dex, a non-binary devotee of the god of small comforts, who retrains as a tea monk (doesn’t that sound like a lovely vocation?). In doing so, they learn a lot about themselves (and humanity) – but still have a deep yearning to leave behind the expectations and responsibilities of society. They live in a post-apocalyptic utopia on Panga, where humans have mostly figured themselves out and live in harmony with the natural world. However, the echoes of a different era – a machine- and robot-centric era, where humans were NOT kind to the planet or each other, linger on in the margins. When Dex meets the first robot anyone has had contact with in hundreds of years, a different kind of communion begins. 

I hadn’t read Becky Chambers’ work before picking up this novella, but in truth, you don’t need to. It’s the start of a new series and an excellent introduction to her character-driven sci-fi sensibility and subtle emotion-filled writing style. I loved this novella quite a lot (for reasons I’ll get into in just a bit), and afterward I picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, her sci-fi debut from several years ago, and finished it almost in one gulp. Chambers has a talent for writing heart-truths, and this novella is no exception. In Psalm Chambers also plays with and muses on ideas of climate collapse and climate justice, robot/AI intelligence, and the value and definitions of vocation and personhood. 

I don’t want to share too much of what happens in this book, because it IS so short, but just to give you a sense of the vibes: I was reading it, thinking to myself, “this is soothing, I feel like planning a camping trip and preparing a big thermos of tea.” I was enjoying a novel, optimistic world and an interesting new pantheon of gods. Then all of a sudden I was sobbing and I had to put the book DOWN immediately, and even now, writing this at a remove, thinking of the little bits of wonder and raw feeling it evoked, my eyes are wet and my heart is clenching and I’m thinking: “My god, yes, I needed that. I am undone.” 

PHEW. Yeah so it’s an unassuming emotion-bomb ready to go off (and I mean that in the best possible way). Beware, good luck, I think you’ll adore it. 

“It is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.” 

Recommended for: fans of quiet sci-fi and fantasy (think: All Systems Red and The House in the Cerulean Sea), anyone who likes their reading with a dose of empathy, and for gardeners, tinkerers, and tea drinkers.

dune

Monday, December 27, 2021 | | 2 comments

I have, for the last twelve years or so, been talking about reading Frank Herbert’s famous sci-fi epic Dune. I even mentioned it in a blog post in 2013 as one of my top 10 most intimidating books. I’ve had friends try to convince me to read it, and I meant to read it… I bought myself a paperback copy about four years ago that’s been collecting dust on my bookshelves ever since. What finally made me pick it up? Watching this year’s film adaptation. As someone who hadn’t consumed ANY Dune-related media, the story was new and fresh, and I wanted to see if the book measured up. In many ways it did, but I still have my quibbles. I’m sure the world doesn’t need another Dune book review, but I tapped out my thoughts in the Notes app while reading, and after all this is why I have a book blog – for me!


dune by frank herbert book cover
Set on the desert planet Arrakis,
Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for... 

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.


Dune is at its core the story of a family under siege – of the members of House Atreides, those who betray them, and the way those betrayals shape the universe as a result. The stage and setting for those betrayals? The desert world of Arrakis, which is a character in its own right. Author Herbert blends mysticism, the hero’s journey, myth and legend, and a deep understanding of ecology and science to create a science fiction masterpiece. It is a story that largely holds up a half century later, and marks it not only as relevant, but interesting, all these years later.

 

That said, I found that there were several things that the movie edited out or altered to match modern sensibilities, that were a bit of a shock to me as I read the book (as a modern sci-fi reader, and modern reader in general). These included: 1960s and 70s surface-level exoticism of Islam, a white savior narrative, eugenics as a way to create a superior kind of human (white supremacy!!), drug use to transcend consciousness and gain access to a higher plain of awareness and knowledge, a typical and misogynistic sci-fi/fantasy story trope of men with multiple wives while women are held to a different standard, and homosexuality as a stand-in or marker of depravity in a person or leader. There were also words and phrases like terrible purpose, race consciousness, and jihad, all repeated without disambiguation. All of this can be laid at the feet of a narrative “of its time,” but they also may take today’s reader right out of the narrative. Fair warning and all that.

 

The most interesting bits of Dune were, in no particular order: discussions of “desert power” (a line used to great effect in the film adaptation), Herbert’s commentary on corruption and leadership, and the Missionaria Protectiva (a planned seeding cultures with religious ideas to allow future persons to move freely within the religious frameworks of those worlds). I also appreciated Herbert’s juxtaposition of a practical acceptance of death as part of the life cycle, and common use of spice as a drug that elongates life. Dune had many things to say about beauty and youth, and unfortunately at some points veered into fatphobia.

 

As for characterization, I appreciated seeing the world of Dune through multiple perspectives, including Lady Jessica’s (Paul Atreides’ mother). At its core, this is a story of the flowering of a young man in the nexus of power, and it is not only a coming-of-age but also a coming-of-the-promised-one narrative. Creating an almost omnipotent main character does have some drawbacks. I say this without irony: men will see themselves in Paul — men who always believe they are the smartest in the room and have the most interesting things to say. And I don’t know if that’s what Herbert expected or wanted to happen, but I can see why this book is so timelessly popular. It has forward-thinking themes and a popular setting and incorporates real science, but what it also has is a Mary Sue sort of hero for boys who feel too smart for the life they are living to project themselves onto.

 

While this book and its main character are wise, poetic, epic, and stand the test of time, I found that it lacked (for me) a sense of authentic human empathy. The pacing is good, the twists interesting, the characters fully developed, and the emotion flat. I was engaged, but not at the level of wanting things desperately for the characters. The strongest emotion evoked was one of justice at the plan of revenge. I am happier, I think, with more modern books that ask me to emotionally commit to a character with real faults. And that is that.

 

Non sequitur: I caught myself wondering if Robin McKinley wrote The Blue Sword in part in response to this book? Some similar themes, featuring an imperfect character (a girl doing things!) growing into her own as a leader in a desert landscape.

 

In all, Dune is an interesting and seminal read, and one I’d recommend to those who like science fiction as well as those who don’t usually go for it (but who liked the recent film!).

2021 book gift guide

2021 holiday book gift guide

I know the title of this post and the banner call this is a gift guide, but it's really more of a "books I gifted this year, in case you're still searching for ideas." I didn't have myself together well enough to put anything together early in the season, but there are still a couple of days left for holiday shopping, so... It's organized by age range, as that seemed to make the most sense, and I may have a couple of words about the books, but unless I've done a full review links go back to Goodreads.


Caveat: This isn't a list of the best books of the year, and not all of these books were even published this year! It's just a list of books I thought would make good gifts.


Board books for babies (ages 0-2):


B is for Baby by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank - A board book all about the letter B, featuring a family in an African village.


Into the Forest by Laura Baker, illustrations by Nadia Taylor - A layered board book that grows increasingly more complex, with a forest creature theme.


Jingle Bells / Navidad: Bilingual Nursery Rhymes by Susie Jaramillo - My most-gifted board book this year! I love the accordion style, lift-the-flap interactive elements of Jaramillo's bilingual board books!


Picture books for littles (ages 3-5):


Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen - A sweet and funny fable for modern times. I picked it up because Barnes & Noble was doing a special, and ended up going back for more copies.


In the Garden by Emma Giuliani - An oversized picture book that outlines the growing process in the garden. Gorgeously-designed!


Inside Cat by Brendan Wenzel - A hilarious caper about a cat who lives indoors -- charming, original, and thought-provoking!


Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor - I found this one on a "best of 2021" guide and they were not wrong! An interactive (the book turns! which way is up??) adventure about a bird taking a leap and learning to fly.


Graphic novels early readers (ages 6-7):


Apple of My Pie by Mika Song - The second in a series, this funny, illustration-heavy graphic novel following a pair of manic squirrels has been a hit with everyone I've introduced to it!


Bear by Ben Queen, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton - A seeing-eye dog loses its sight and must regain its purpose in this graphic novel that reads a bit like a movie, complete with danger, twists, and turns!


Mayor Good Boy by Dave Scheidt, illustrated by Miranda Harmon - An excellent bridge book between picture books and graphic novels, with vocabulary suitable for very early readers.


+1 for a slightly older elementary school kid (ages 8-12):


Mel the Chosen by Rachele Aragno - A girl goes on a magical adventure -- and the highlight is the interesting, detailed art style!


Books for the teen crowd (ages 13-18):


I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib - My high school students and I read and enjoyed this graphic novel memoir that tackles big ideas like identity, microaggressions, multi-cultural families, and more.


Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore - A book club pick from this past year, and my choice for a 13-year-old cousin who is having fun with makeup and dances.


For adults:


A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers - My pick for my dad, who liked the first in the Murderbot series and is a big gardener. It's probably a little progressive for him, but I think he'll enjoy this novella's brevity and its ode to the out of doors.


Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky - My adult brother likes to read fantasy and sci-fi, and I think he'll enjoy this one. It's a bit cerebral and plays with ideas of loneliness and connection.


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich - For my 102-year-old grandmother who likes reading books set in the past, and enjoys well-reviewed literary fiction.


The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw - An excellent all-around pick: short, incisive, award-winning collection of short stories. This one is going to my aunt.


Which books did you gift this year?

Newer Posts Older Posts Home