30 September 2009

Werewolves, weddings, and Williamsburg.

Picked up one last YA-paranormal read: The Dark Divine, by Bree Despain. Notable mostly for the author's ability to create actual suspense, in that nothing even vaguely supernatural occurs for 100 pages, just offhand details and rumors, and the full picture doesn't come out for many chapters after that. While the revelations themselves weren't brilliant (werewolves!), and I did see the twist coming: still. There was a twist. There was some plotting going on! Good on you, Bree!

Then, the marvelous Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, which galley I garnered with my mad bookseller skillz on behalf on my little sister, who is tying the knot in March. It's a wonderful, straightforward, sardonic how-to on having a nice wedding with niceness instead of buying into the wedding-industrial complex (my sister's phrase) that turns women into money-grubbing high-maintenance monsters on the grounds of a misguided confusion of femininity with selfishness, solely to enrich their own coffers /end rant/. My favorite quote, on the list of why everyone's miserable at the now-traditional production-number wedding: "The groomsmen [are crying] because they've had too much beer all week. (The bridesmaids have had just as much, but they hold it better.)"

And in celebration of my fast-approaching half-cross-country move, I'm finally reading the 40s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

20 September 2009

YA weekend!

Good Lord, I love these.

Up til 1:30 last night reading Melissa de la Cruz's Blue Bloods, the first in the series of the same name. It's set in the ranks of old-money Manhattan: the twist, though, is that the spoiled rich kids that populate this glitzy milieu aren't descendants of folks who came over on the Mayflower--no, they came over on the Mayflower, because they're all vampires. The writing's not great--the story relies heavily on info-dumpish "now you can know the truth" conversation--but the re-mythologizing is top-notch. De la Cruz blends in the fall of Lucifer, Caligula, and the lost colony of Roanoke with the vampires' history, and locates their immortality not in their bodies as a whole, but in the blood itself. It's the blood that lives forever, and passes from host to host along with their memories, so that they experience many lives, but not always as the same people. No mere "hey-they-sparkle!" varnish: this is real imagination, and it shines through the slipshod plotting.

Today I've started The Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, about the youngest and only female member of the Templars, half-Pakistani Billi SanGreal, plunged at fifteen into the Order's never-ending battle against the forces of darkness. The opening scene is straight-up Buffy-style, with the hate-and-black-ichor-filled spirit of a murdered little boy on a creaky swing in the middle of a deserted playground. Awesome sauce!

Why don't they write books for grown-ups like this? Or rather--because they certainly do (Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series springs to mind)--why are such books relegated to the Genre Fiction ghetto, and not allowed to coexist with (often dour, self-righteous, or o'er-consciously-literary) Serious Literature?

16 September 2009

Children's books.

Three recent reads that dovetail together nicely:

The Book of Dragons, E. Nesbit: Nesbit wrote some of the greatest children's fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I say this boldly, but I must confess I had only read Five Children & It, long ago, my curiosity piqued by references in Edward Eager's wonderful, wonderful Half Magic (or maybe Seven Day Magic? One of Edward Eager's wonderful, wonderful, mid-century reads, which I wore to shreds as a little one). This collection of dragon-centered tales sums up her style, though: ordinary children matter-of-factedly experiencing the incredible.

The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt: While I was reading this, I didn't want to be doing anything else. Not working, not eating, not sleeping. I just wanted to read my book. It's a family saga, essentially, but also a brief history of England from 1895 to the end of the Great War, with special emphasis on radical politics (Fabians, Russian anarchists, brick-throwing suffragettes) and art. A main character, Olive Wellwood, is clearly a fictionalization of E. Nesbit herself, down to the socialism and the open marriage. It's probably the best book I've read this year, and Byatt makes it look effortless. Towards the end, she even tries her hand at some Great War poetry, and darned if she doesn't have Sassoon and Owens and Graves nailed.

The Magician's Elephant, Kate DiCamillo: I'm reading this now, and it feels like it was recently discovered in an attic in London, in spidery brown ink on yellowing parchment. Like Nesbit, or at least Olive Wellwood, or, definitely, Kate DiCamillo, who understands the rhythms of fairytale like almost no one--except children--does anymore.


So Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which I read, yeesh, a month ago already, was pitched to me as "Harry Potter goes to college," to which I said, and I quote, "Oooo! Neat!" And it's got a beautiful cover. Don't laugh; the marketers know their shit these days, and similarity in jacket palettes can often reflect similarity in tone and style. But The Magicians let me down on both counts.
It's not a bad book, really--I mean, I read the whole thing--but underwhelming. It's really half Harry Potter, as the hero, Quentin Coldwater, is lifted from his everyday Brooklyn existence to matriculate at the exclusive Brakebills Academy for Magical Pedagogy, and half Narnia: Quentin and his aimless twentysomething fellow graduates discover by chance that Fillory, a fantasy kingdom detailed in a series of English children's books they'd all read and absorbed as children, is real. There are some great scenes in here (I think first of the slightly drunk talking bear they meet in Fillory, who drones on for hours about the relative merits of different bee species), and the central dilemma--what if everything you've ever dreamed of is real, and you're still miserable?--is harrowing, especially to a fellow fantasy-devourer like me. But the writing is sub-par, heavy on exposition and telling-not-showing, especially in the school sections. Instead of, "Wow, what an ambitious adult take on Harry Potter," I kept thinking, "I wish I was reading Harry Potter."
Lesson learned: you can't always judge a book by its cover. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, though? Totally accurate.

Reviews: Stitches, Sense, Sensibility, & Sea Monsters.

Stitches: A Memoir Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In general, I’m not big on unhappy-childhood memoirs. Despite Tolstoy’s dictum, the genre is awfully repetitive, and often of dubious literary merit. Having had alcoholic parents or a drug problem or a Hardscrabble Existence Full of Simple Joys Not Like These Kids Today With Their Texting and Whatnot—it makes you deserving of sympathy, sure, but it doesn’t make you a *writer*. And the market is certainly glutted. It is probably a good thing, then, that I didn’t bother to read the blurbs on the back of David Small’s graphic memoir Stitches (which include the word “redemptive,” ick). Because it’s about an unhappy childhood, and it’s great.
The central trauma of Small’s young life was an operation at fourteen that he thought was simply to remove a cyst on his neck; he awoke missing a vocal cord, with a lurid incision stretching up his throat, “slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” He has to relearn speech. He is not supposed to learn, but does, that he had thyroid cancer, brought on by his radiologist father’s overzealous use of X-rays in an attempt to cure his sinus problems. His mother is cold, his father distant and preoccupied, his grandmother actively insane. It’s a harrowing tale, buoyed up by a formidable artistic talent.
Small is best known as a children’s book illustrator (he’s got a couple of lively sketches up in Watermark’s basement autograph gallery, in fact), a Caldecott winner in 2001 for Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?. His drawing style reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s illustrations in The Phantom Tollbooth, loose-jointed, often suggestive instead of precise, by turns whimsical and haunting. Stitches is entirely black and white, and here my vocabulary falters: I am not sure what to call the shading technique he uses. It looks like watercolor, but all in greys, a paintbox of ashes and thunderheads, punctuated with inky slashes. Just the two pages where we see his basted wound for the first time are a textbook in murk and exactitude, the variegated non-colors of blood and bruise receding from the bleached sutures, an unnatural imprint of disease and deception.
Graphic works require new skills: how do you read pictures? How long do you look at a page with no text before turning it? Memoir, too, provokes questions: is the story better somehow because true? doesn’t provide answers, but it’s excellent practice: a good story, well told.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When Quirk Classics’ first literary mash-up, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, came out earlier this year, we Austen-obsessed Watermarkers kept it displayed close at hand, for the sheer delight of watching customers’ reactions to its cover, which features a well-coiffed Regency lass missing several important parts of her face. As one might gather, comments fell into two camps: the “That is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen!” variety, and, like my own, “That may be the single greatest idea anyone has ever had!” (Take that, penicillin and the wheel!) It seems the general populace leaned towards the latter, because P&P&Z has been hanging out on the New York Times bestseller list for months now. Last I heard, the movie rights were in hot contention. May I suggest, Hollywood, that no one could pull off Mr.-Darcy-as-action-hero better than Clive Owen?
Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters mines the same vein, with gleeful results. You see, some time before the action takes place, a horrible change took place in the oceans of the world; known as the Alteration, this mysterious event turned all the creatures of the sea into vicious monsters, bent on destroying mankind. Needless to say, this left England, being mostly coast, rather susceptible to attack by sea serpents, gargantuan jellyfish, razor-toothed crawfish, and the like. It’s a downright Lovecraftian premise, crossed with a little H. Rider Haggard (in a subplot about young Margaret Dashwood’s glimpses of an alien geyser-worshipping civilization on the secluded island where Barton Cottage stands).
And where is Austen in all this? Well, Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters has, despite appearances, the same basic plot as its more respectable namesake, and in fact, many of the same words. What’s brilliant about these two Austen-horror hybrids is actually their fidelity to the originals—I think most of the humor would be lost on someone who hadn’t read the non-zombified-and-sea-monstered versions. For instance, in the parody, poor Colonel Brandon is not only old (at 35) and less than dashing: he’s been cursed by a sea witch, and the bottom half of his face is covered with tentacles. Thus, in the early conversation between Willoughby and Marianne over their shared dislike of him, Austen’s words get oh-so-subtly spun: “‘Brandon is just the kind of man,’ said Willoughby, ‘whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and everybody is sort of mildly afraid to look at him directly.’”
I can, of course, understand why Austen purists object. Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, and its predecessor, are thoroughly silly exercises in subversion. Me, I think they’re hilarious. As for what Quirk Classics should tackle next, I’m torn: Northanger Abbey is begging for a vampire or two, but giant robots would liven up Mansfield Park considerably, wouldn’t they?

03 September 2009

The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have an image-destroying confession to make: I enjoy watching pro wrestling. Not enough to seek it out while channel-surfing, really, and my TV companions would never let me dwell on it, anyway—but man, is it ever a fascinating, brutal form of theater, telling Homeric and Shakespearean tales of rivalry, revenge, treachery, and heroism! And there is an epic, animal grace to the competition, like a nature documentary where rutting elk lock antlers, bellowing. Also, people get hit with folding chairs.
There were no folding chairs in the mix, however, when Millie Burke, the greatest female wrestler of the Thirties and Forties, was grappling. That’s right, there were female wrestlers in the Thirties and Forties! Enough of them for there to be “a greatest!” It was a surprise to me, too. But unlike the sport she helped invent and made famous, Millie Burke was quite real: a five-foot-two Kansas girl (born in Coffeyville, like my grandmother), who escaped Depression-era waitressing to “rassle,” and, with the P.R. savvy of her otherwise despicable husband, Diamond Billy Wolfe, built a media empire.
Burke’s tawdry, complicated, brawny story is ably handled by Jeff Leen, a managing editor for the Washington Post. He follows her rise from sideshow attraction, wrestling all comers (mostly men—her agility and lower body strength prevailed), to arena bouts before thousands of cheering fans (60% of them women), clad in her signature white costumes, rhinestone-covered capes, and full makeup, to her final championship match, where she and June Byers (one of Wolfe’s many lovers) set aside the playacting and fought for real. The match was called after an hour, because it turns out real wrestling is pretty boring to watch. The Golden Age of women’s wrestling, which Burke presided over, has faded into obscurity; but Millie’s rediscovered glory is the tale of a woman strong before her time.
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