After hosting a series of short-term renters and Airbnb guests over the past few years, Katherine, an old friend, has come to be my new housemate. She plans to stay for a long while.
We have many things in common, not least of which is an addiction to books. It has been a comical scene as we pore over each other’s collections, exclaiming that we’d always wanted to read this or that, and, alternatively, shoving a book in the other’s direction saying, “Oh, if you haven’t read this one, you MUST!”
The books I get most excited about, lately, are in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. I loved The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, in which the good and the evil characters are topsy-turvy: the dismal town’s leadership council and an order of nuns turn out to be wicked, and an ogre, a witch, and a dragon turn out to be the ones who save the townspeople.
A short story, “The Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang (which became the movie “Arrival”) deals with physics, with linguistics, with bigotry, and with our receptiveness – or our failure to be open – to what could immensely broaden the scope of our lives.
Helene Wecker’s wonderful novel, The Golem and the Jinni, stretches the reader’s willingness to consider the minds and hearts, the thoughts and motivations, of two totally unexpected main characters: Chava, a Jewish golem and Ahmad, a Syrian jinni, who meet in New York City in 1899. Go ahead, wrap your mind around THAT premise – or, far better, just read the book!
Then there is the late lamented Terry Pratchett, whose books are so witty and wise that the reader soon overlooks how bizarre they are. Filled with trolls and vampires and imps, Pratchett’s books take on truth in journalism (The Truth), the illusion of the gold-standard monetary system (Making Money), war (Monstrous Regiment), misogyny (again, Monstrous Regiment), and organized religion (Small Gods) . . . for starters! They bring the reader face-to-face with these issues, approached from such unexpected angles and so painlessly that she doesn’t realize she’s being drawn into the discussion until she’s already immersed in it.
The most wonderful aspect of fantasy and sci-fi literature, to me, is how, when we are in those worlds created by the authors, we must accept differences. If characters that we care about happen to have fuchsia-colored skin or elephantine noses or more appendages than we do, nevertheless we keep on interacting with them because we want to know their stories. If their culture has different values and mores and rules than ours, but we’re deep into the story and beginning to understand those differences, that’s a bonus, and we keep on reading, keep on being fascinated by the characters and why they behave as they do.
In our contemporary climate of “them” and “us,” of “right” and “wrong,” of black and white with no gray allowed, an excursion into a good book of fantasy or science fiction seems to be just what’s called for to expand our awareness, our tolerance, our acceptance at a time when we need them so desperately.
Katherine has carried an armload of you-gotta-read fantasy and poetry books to her rooms, and I have a new stack of utopian and spirituality books borrowed from her collection. Winter’s coming, the living room couches and rocking chairs have warm lap-robes strewn about, the fireplace will be alight more often now, and we will be happy as pigs in mud, reveling in shared books, new ideas, well-turned phrases, and widening horizons.