May's Book Club Discussion: Cordelia's Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

Culhwch

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A little late, so apologies, but here is a thread for discussing this month's book club read, Cordelia's Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold.
 
I'm only a few chapters into Cordelia I see the same ability to create almost instantly sympathetic characters that I've admired in Bujold's fantasy novels. Not sure yet whether this is going to be basically an action-adventure yarn, or whether it's going to deal with deeper issues. At this point, the deeper issues just seem to be peering over the characters' shoulders every now and again.

I do sense a romance brewing, but don't mind that at all, if the characters don't start acting stupidly because of it.
 
It's the fifteenth... Are we writing this month's discussion off? I could chat about the first handful of pages (I think there was a spaceship, from memory) but that's not going be a lot of help, I don't think.

Someone nominated this, and at least two others voted for it... Anyone gonna 'fess up and join in?
 
Ooh, a Bujold, (tecnically, for me, two Bujolds; "Shards of Honour" and "Barrayar" wasn't it?) I've not been much in this forum due to difficulties in obtaining the same books as everybody else but I know I've got "Barrayar" - now, who did I lend "Shardsof Honour" to?
 
From memory: For me the very best thing about this is the under play of the modern total war verses the medieval war of honor. How exactly a star traveling culture has medieval mind set is a certain weakness in this story.

(By the way "Shards of Honor" is in my opinion the very best novel Bujold ever wrote, a close second is "Falling Free." Barrayar an obvious sequel, whose real weakness is the start of those interminable Miles V... books.)

P.S. I've sort of tuned out of this because it seems that the only conversations we have are about character development or writing finesse without ever dealing with what the book is actually about. Not my idea of a "book club."
 
Speaking only for myself, I seldom feel qualified to speculate what a book is "about" immediately after I've read it. As a writer (and by that I don't mean as a writer who happens to have been published, but in the same sense that everyone else here who is in the regular habit of writing stories might speak of themselves as a writer) I am well aware that in many cases years may pass before the author finally realizes what a story is about. So as a reader I tend to be cautious. Oh, it's easy enough for me to skim apparent meanings off of the surface, but I find that the deeper meanings tend to evolve in my mind over time. Perhaps other readers have a talent in this regard that I lack; maybe they can condense and distill a story as soon as they've read it, but I need more time than that.

Of course there are books where the messages are so overt and calculated that even I can spot them at once. But I generally avoid such books, or if I start them I seldom finish them, finding most of them manipulative and dishonest. Yes, there are books where the meaning is immediately apparent yet the writing is honest, and these books are to be treasured -- but I wouldn't say that we've turned up any such gems here in the book club so far.

What I would say is that as far as I can see at this point, most of the books we've been reading don't really seem to be about anything, except in the most superficial sense. We've been choosing books more for their entertainment value than for their depth.

Which brings us to Cordelia's Honor, or more specifically the first novel in the omnibus,Shards of Honor, which is far as I've read so far.

Certainly questions of honor, loyalty, duty, and patriotism do come up in the course of the story, but to me it looks like Bujold is using them simply as plot devices, to move the action, to put obstacles in the way of Cordelia and Aral. Yes, Aral does face what must be a gut-wrenching decision in regard to the part he is asked to play in the invasion of Escobar. But the decision and the agony of making it all take place "off camera" between scenes. If Bujold was going to explore the issues of honor, duty, etc. surely she would not have handled things in that particular way. Instead, we would have gone through the entire decision-making process with him, and then experienced his mental agonies as he helps to put the plan into action.

Even his reactions later -- his supposed spiral into self-destruction -- are described in the most obvious and superficial manner: he drinks to forget. Besides that, after one brief scene of him sloppy drunk when Cordelia first turns up on Barrayar, he perks up very quickly -- which led me to believe that he was not so much grieving for his lost honor as pining for her.

No, at this point, it seems to me that the book is about two people who meet and form an almost instant connection. As a love story, I think it's a good one. Instead of the conflict arising from stupid misunderstandings and willful misinterpretations between the so-called lovers, here the conflict comes from without, and Cordelia and Aral struggle to overcome those outside circumstances in order to be together. I suppose one could say that it's a story about how love can transcend all obstacles, about how two people from different cultures, who live by different philosophies and moral codes can still find each other and fall in love. But honestly, it didn't seem to me that Cordelia and Aral were that far apart to begin with; their differences were largely a matter of semantics. And in the end Cordelia's escape from Beta Colony and arrival on Barrayar are accomplished with surprising ease. Her reception on Barrayar, too, is a surprisingly warm and uncomplicated one, considering that the war is barely over.

Perhaps, as I've said, further meanings will evolve in my mind over time, or perhaps, Parson, since you've had more time to think about the book you will be able to point out things that I've missed. As of now, my impression is that Shards of Honor is a pleasant romance with elements of space opera.

(As for what you said about character development and writing finesse, as a writer I have a hard time separating them from the deeper implications of a story, since this is how the more subtle nuances tend to be revealed -- or fail to be revealed, as the case may be.)
 
Perhaps, as I've said, further meanings will evolve in my mind over time, or perhaps, Parson, since you've had more time to think about the book you will be able to point out things that I've missed. As of now, my impression is that Shards of Honor is a pleasant romance with elements of space opera.

(As for what you said about character development and writing finesse, as a writer I have a hard time separating them from the deeper implications of a story, since this is how the more subtle nuances tend to be revealed -- or fail to be revealed, as the case may be.)

Okay, More time to think about it is hardly the word here. I read them YEARS AGO! It is a testament to the book that I can remember anything at all about the book. So I doubt I can add much to what I've already said, unless I go to the closet under the stairs and invest hours? of time looking through stacks and stacks of SF books. (Oh, for a library to keep my books --- My wife threatens to throw them away!:( )

But I disagree about what you said about deeper meanings. I can recall vividly a English literature class where we would dig into one short story after another and mine away one gem after another. It might well be that the author did not intend to put them there. This I think is a plus, because it shows something of what s/he is really thinking on the inside and not what seemed expedient for the plot. This is especially effective when dealing with historical writings Browning, Samuel Johnson, et. al. This can help the reader develop a feel for the age. Now part of this might be a residual from my profession. I am always looking for the word behind the WORD. So maybe what we look for in a book club is representative of the way we approach reading in the first place.

I really like what you said about Shards being "a pleasant romance with a bit of space opera." I guess that is what I liked about the book. I LOVE space opera! and I like romances where the conflict is on the outside. But I don't care nearly so much for books where the end is apparent from the beginning. Shards was definitely not that way for me, but the 2-4 Miles V. books I read by Bujold definitely were. Why did she win so many awards for them?!
 
But Parson, in your English literature class you were being guided by a teacher who was undoubtedly using materials put together by people who had devoted a great deal of time, as well as repeated readings, to considering and analyzing the meanings behind the meanings in the text. As much as it might have felt like you were making spontaneous discoveries, the very questions you were being asked to answer in your course work would have suggested certain ideas and eliminated others. Not to mention any study guides you had, any comments by the teacher.

To do the same kind of critical analysis without those same resources takes a lot more time and thought. A lot more.

As for what you do professionally -- I assume you mean as a minister of the church -- you've had the opportunity to read and study the thoughts of some of the greatest minds of the last two thousand years, and to bring their insights to the texts you are studying. That's a lot different from reading a new work of fiction.

I don't know why Bujold has won so many awards for her books about Miles, because I've never read any of her science fiction. I can make a pretty good guess as to why her recent fantasies have been up for so many awards, though.
 
No, at this point, it seems to me that the book is about two people who meet and form an almost instant connection. As a love story, I think it's a good one. Instead of the conflict arising from stupid misunderstandings and willful misinterpretations between the so-called lovers, here the conflict comes from without, and Cordelia and Aral struggle to overcome those outside circumstances in order to be together.

I've read the two books (published as one in Cordelia's Honor) twice--most recently, around five years ago. If what a book is about is what a reader remembers most about the book after five years (a big If, but what the heck), I'd say you've identified the Main Thing that the book is about, Teresa.

I loved it.
 
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But Parson, in your English literature class you were being guided by a teacher who was undoubtedly using materials put together by people who had devoted a great deal of time, as well as repeated readings, to considering and analyzing the meanings behind the meanings in the text. As much as it might have felt like you were making spontaneous discoveries, the very questions you were being asked to answer in your course work would have suggested certain ideas and eliminated others. Not to mention any study guides you had, any comments by the teacher.

To do the same kind of critical analysis without those same resources takes a lot more time and thought. A lot more.

You are possibly right; although I doubt it. The class was very free flowing and went whatever direction the discussion went with only a modicum of input by the instructor. Who at that time was just out of college and says to this day, nearly 40 years latter, he never had another class like it in his career.
This same kind of discussion often happened in seminary classes where I am absolutely convinced that the professors’ role was to pick the material (not Bible at this point) and stimulate the discussion, but at least from where I sat, his/her input was only one among many.
I am absolutely convinced that we could read a book and dig at it. I was so excited to do that with Scar Night, but not one person would engage me at looking at the extremely religious underpinnings of the work. At some level, whether the author knew it or not, he was speaking about a world shaped around a significantly flawed religious system. [It boggles the imagination to believe that he might have done this unknowing!]

As for what you do professionally -- I assume you mean as a minister of the church -- you've had the opportunity to read and study the thoughts of some of the greatest minds of the last two thousand years, and to bring their insights to the texts you are studying. That's a lot different from reading a new work of fiction.

You are right on all accounts on this. But when I preach I have to dissect not only the Bible, but also my congregation. If the Scripture for the morning would be the feeding of the 5000, what should be emphasized? Should the miracle be emphasized? Should the desire of the people to crown Jesus an earthly king? Should the sharing of the lad with 5 loaves and 2 fish? Should the unbelief of the disciples while still willing to carry out the orders of Jesus? It could go well on from there, but you get the idea. What of the story needs to be heard especially clearly today? Also I need to ask myself if I feel that the interrperters of the past were right in considering that the boy was sharing his lunch with the crowd, or perchance was his intention to share it with Jesus?

So... I would say that reading a new account of fiction is something of the same. What do I hear the author saying? Why do I believe she is saying it? What is there in me that is reacting in this way? Is there something here that I/we could learn about the way I live and the way I look at reality? All of these lines of questioning could lead to some very fruitful and highly interesting (at least to me) discussion.

Thanks for responding!!!:)

[As far as Bujold goes my only hope is that her Fantasy far outshines her most decorated SF work which I only felt was mediocre at best. Certainly not in the league of CJ Cherryh or David Weber.)
 
But Parson, I never said that you can't extract that kind of meaning from a book -- I believe you can -- just that the off-the-cuff analysis that a book club like this one would generate is not going to accomplish something that requires far more time and thought.

I also think that in any critical analysis of a work, one has to be very careful not to read in "unconscious" meanings that are entirely foreign to the authors actual thought processes.

As I've said, I can go back and look at something I wrote years ago and say "Oh ... that's what that was all about," but that's only because I didn't realize how what I was thinking and experiencing at the time spilled over on the page. On the other hand, I can read a review where someone says something like "the author obviously has such and such intention" and the only thing that is obvious is the reviewer's own agenda going in.

In the case of the Bujold, by the way, I do have the advantage of the afterword she wrote for Cordelia's Honor, in which she reveals quite explicitly that the Escobar invasion was something she decided on part way through the writing process simply as a way of making life difficult for her characters.

But I think you and I and Brown Rat all agree that as a romantic space opera the book succeeds very well. And there is nothing wrong with that. If I wanted to find deeper meanings, I think I would want to explore a larger sample of Bujold's work.
 
But Parson, I never said that you can't extract that kind of meaning from a book -- I believe you can -- just that the off-the-cuff analysis that a book club like this one would generate is not going to accomplish something that requires far more time and thought.

Sorry to be slow to return. My schedule is always complicated on the weekends, and my son is getting married this Saturday so I'll be on site very little.

It seems to me that we have reached a kind of agreement here. I guess the fault would lie in my hopes for a book club. I was looking for in depth anaylsis and insight. The club is only looking to be congenial place where several people read the same book. --- My fault.

It is always instructive to have the author involved in "deeper discussion" about his/her work. I have been on that side of it occaisionally in a "sermon discussion" class following morning worship. I always found the discussion stimulating and helpful. It was especially insightful to see what others were hearing and how it matched with what I was trying to say. When it was different, I didn't feel their understanding was wrong, just that they were coming from a different place and needed to hear different things.
 
I wish there were deeper discussions of books on these boards -- with books that contain meat for that sort of discussion, and where the participants have had time to reread and rethink their first impressions I would happily participate -- but for some reason that sort of discussion doesn't get very far here.

In fact, where the Book Club is concerned, we've often had difficulty getting any sort of discussion going at all. Which is why the previous previous incarnation died. This one doesn't seem too healthy either, just at the moment. Maybe the Naomi Novak fans will come out in force next month.

(At one point there were plans for a book club devoted to classic SF and F -- and I thought there might be the potential for great discussions there -- but somehow it never got past the planning stage.)
 
Cards on the table - I love the Miles books - as a fusion of science fiction, space opera and biography, I don't think they can be beaten. But in answer to your question about the dearth of interest in a reading group, Teresa, I was interested in joining in, but found myself reverting to "Because" as a reason for enjoying books, and found myself unable to make critical pronouncements on books that I really enjoyed.
I also found it difficult to respond to comments like Parson's throwaway one at the end of a slightly off-topic post:
Parson said:
As far as Bujold goes my only hope is that her Fantasy far outshines her most decorated SF work which I only felt was mediocre at best. Certainly not in the league of CJ Cherryh or David Weber.)
because no reasons are given for finding the books "mediocre". I have read Curse of Chalion, and thought it was formulaic fantasy at best - certainly not up to the place I hold Miles to be in SF. I also love Cherryh's books (hence the username!), but they are different to Bujold's - not better, not worse - different.

Rambling a bit, here - What I mean to say, is that I find it very difficult to apply critical appraisal to a book I really like - and if others feel like this, then possibly this is why the Reading Group-type threads falter.
 
Well, pyan, you've pretty much summed up why the last Book Club failed (and why I predicted that this one wouldn't last long).

I wish I had been proven wrong (part of me is still hoping, perhaps irrationally, that I'll be proven wrong) because I really would have liked to see it succeed this time.
 
because no reasons are given for finding the books "mediocre". I have read Curse of Chalion, and thought it was formulaic fantasy at best - certainly not up to the place I hold Miles to be in SF. I also love Cherryh's books (hence the username!), but they are different to Bujold's - not better, not worse - different

Pyan,

Much to my surprise I have carved out a few more minutes this week to be on Chronicles. My phrase clearly was a throwaway. I have read none of Bujold's fantasy, but I would use your word "formulaic" to describe what aggravated me about the Miles saga (saga only in length, not in depth of quality). After reading a couple, which I do not remember their names, I found that I could almost tell exactly what the plot and tension was going to be. Secondly, I found Miles to be completely unbelievable as a character. Thirdly, and not unimportantly, my great love in SF is space opera and while "Shards of Honor" was a great book, IMO because of the space opera, and only secondarily, but importantly, the romance. I felt that the subsequent titles in the saga especially those which dealt with Miles were too "light hearted" to be believable.

Nothing I have read by Cherryh would come close to "light hearted," they all take life and its inherrent struggles seriously and honorably. They are never "easy reads" but immenently worth the effort.
 

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