31 July 2010


So Anne "The One Who Didn't Glorify Byronic Douchebags" Brontë's Agnes Grey really started out strong: the eponymous heroine (O how I love this phrase. Also when it employs the word "titular," although it always makes me giggle) becomes a governess to help support her family after her clergyman father loses a ton of money in a dodgy investment. The first family she's placed with--the Bloomfields--are masterfully demonic, the parents simultaneously indulgent and distant, the three children (as is to be expected with such an upbringing) gleefully obdurate little sociopaths, led by an heir who enjoys torturing baby birds. It's a great portrait of the plight of the hired caretaker: all the responsibility for the children's progress, no authority to enforce it.

This theme carries through the beginnings of her second position, with the rich and vulgar Murrays; Agnes describes her job as being "to render [the girls] as superficially attractive, and showily accomplished, as they could possibly be made without present trouble or discomfort to themselves . .. to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine." Again, frustrations familiar to any teacher. But then, the parish gets a new curate, full of informed abilities--we are told many times of his marvelous, simple, humble sermons, but never hear a word. Miss Grey gets all gushy, and the book turns into Mansfield Park, the only boring Austen novel.

I know that in the long run, the broody, tortured male leads of Jane Eyre and especially Wuthering Heights (which can more or less be blamed for the more disgusting in-the-name-of-love excesses of Twilight) are worse romantic ideals for ladies than the sedate, nice-to-poor-old-ladies-and-kittens Mr. Weston of Agnes Grey--and Agnes is no flashy dame herself, so I'm sure she is as happy as Austen's Fanny Price is with Mr. Snoozeville Edmund. But good and kind do not equate to dull; it's still hard to find books that recognize this fact.

28 July 2010

Backlist ahoy!

I love being a bookseller, don't get me wrong. But there's always a downside to making a passion your job (even though it's worth it): for me, that's the necessity of keeping up with new books. While some of the summer-release books I've written about here are among the best I've read in years, and I have two oddly-similarly-named galleys I'm super excited about (Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, December & Sarah Bakewell's life of Montaigne, How to Live, December), lately I've just been yearning for backlist. After all, there are still so many gaps on my shelves, books I've been meaning to read for years, further novels by some of my favorite authors, co-worker raves I missed. So over the past few weeks, with the exception of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, I've been indulging myself with catchup. And you know what? I don't feel guilty.

Re SSTLS, first: Perhaps it's not fair that subsequent criticism can retcon one's enjoyment of something, but my liking for this book has paled a bit since a couple of the Twitliterati (to coin a phrase) (@jchristie & @bookavore, specifically) were less than enthusiastic. I agree that as satire it's predictable, and a bit toothless--social networking TMI, Chinese domination of the world economy, an increasingly paranoid right-wing U.S.--but the vein running through the novel, the love story, is notable for how old-fashioned it feels. The unattractive older male lover, the young woman of limited prospects, the themes of fierce family loyalty and heartbreaking social climbing: all are very nineteenth-century, at the latest, and I think it's well done. Maybe some of why it's unsatisfying is the combination of near-future and recent-past? Like a stunt-casting version of Hamlet where Ophelia's a dude or something.

Ooh, segue! Matt Haig's The Dead Fathers Club is, in fact, a semi-retelling of Hamlet, with a much younger protagonist (11), which serves to highlight the extremity of the ghost's request: to kill without proof. And from the beginning, it's unclear whether the child's father's shade is even trustworthy; he seems to get details wrong, and he bullies his son into some shocking actions. The occasional direct Shakespeare-analogues are fun to come across (I especially loved the idea of a movie version of The Murder of Gonzago with Mel Gibson and Tobey Maguire), but they don't overwhelm the story. Haig, like Wes Anderson, has made a career out of a fixation on the failures of family, especially fathers; both gentlemen's oeuvres have become favorites of mine. (I hasten to add that I actually have the best father EVER.)

Other reads: Haven Kimmel's The Used World--not up to the brilliance of Iodine, but then what is?--Donald Spoto's wonderful biography of Marlene Dietrich, Blue Angel--a great mix of real-life detail and artistic analysis. I'm currently working on Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World, which is gorgeously written and TERRIBLY sad: makes Laura Rider's Masterpiece's hilarity even more of an achievement. And, because I left that one at the boyfriend's Friday night, I've also started the serious-backlist Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (the sister nobody reads). Not very far in, but it seems a bit House of Mirth in its depiction of the bleak choices for a skill-less, poor, unmarried woman.

12 July 2010

Kids' books that make me cry.

I make no secret of being a total sap. I also don't and (really can't) have kids, so sometimes just straightening up the kids' section makes me teary. The following, though, have threatened to reduce both me and Stephanie into quivering heaps of jelly:

This one's about coming back from terrible loss--I think the death of a parent.

This one's all friendship and frolic until three-quarters through, and then BAM! sucker punch.

This one's more poignant than "sad" per se--it's more or less an introduction to moral ambiguity for children. Petit just can't understand why he is sometimes good (like when he plays with his dog, and takes good care of his toys) and sometimes bad (like when he pulls hair and throws things at pigeons). "Am I some kind of not-yet-discovered type of monster?" he asks himself...mind-blowing stuff for a 5-year-old. Her (I think Isol is a her; ah, yes, says Wikipedia. Also Argentinian!) It's Useful to Have a Duck is also sniffle-inducing sweet.

Ditto with this one, where the eponymous bunny goes to visit his city-gal friend Little Rabbit and gets exhausted being rushed around to cafes and museums and parks. "I just wanted to show you everything!" she finally says; "But I came to the city to see you!" he responds. OMG SO SWEET AND SO TRUE I LOVE IT. Uh, and the illustrations are gorgeous too.

And on the other side of the spectrum, I've personally tested it several times, and I defy you to get all the way through Big Rabbit's Bad Mood without feeling better. It's great stuff!

Something is amiss at the RH paperback design department.

[N.B. The images in this post will likely not be aligned in any sort of pleasing fashion. Sorry in advance.]

I first noticed this back in January but was reminded today with the arrival of Jim Lynch's Border Songs in paperback. Here's the hardcover jacket, followed by the paperback cover:

I know, right? We've got Crazy Seraphim Glob, and...cow. Cow crossing nondescript highway.

Some others, all from Random House, all evocative hardcover above, generic paperback below:

Srsly. What is going on in the Random House paperback design department? These are from two different imprints (Vintage & Anchor), so the problem is spreading. And Vintage puts out some gorgeous classic reprints (cf. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread, or the recent line of Nabokov reissues [link goes to my fave, Pale Fire]). Shouldn't they know better? All of these seem to be repackaging the titles downward, from Literary Fiction to quasi-literary book club territory. I seem to recall Cutting for Stone being a Times bestseller in hardcover, though. It's fascinating to me how this works, or attempts to work; without changing the text of a title, you can change the audience.

Two more, non-Random House examples (they're just the worst offenders), the first from Grove/Atlantic (admittedly, the hardcover is no great shakes either), the second--and definitely the most awful downgrade--from Simon & Schuster:

08 July 2010

Hat trick!

What I've actually been reading, while pondering the problem of imitation and fretting about my bookstore moves:

Hard at work on my boyfriend-bestowed summer assignment (unlike, as I'm proud to point out, his other "students"), I've read The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg (John Baxter) and up-until-the-Dietrich-Sternberg-split in Blue Angel, a Dietrich biography by Donald Spoto. Waiting on reading a tome about the sadomasochistic aesthetic in their films until I've actually seen them all--Dishonored is coming on VHS from the NYPL, but darned if I can find Shanghai Express anywhere (OK, at the two library systems and the independent video store I've tried). I've got the paper structure outlined in my head--will probably subject you to excerpts here. But first, I've got an actually-paying article to write for my alma mater's alumni mag, The College. (Read my article on the philosophical implications of Facebook here!)

And I'm now on Book 3 of the Georgia Nicoloson series, and still finding it a hoot and a half. I once again made the mistake of looking at the Goodreads reviews (NOTE TO SELF: the only comments that don't angry up your blood are those at the Comics Curmudgeon. The rest of the Internet is dead to you). There were a lot of complaints that Georgia was shallow and mean. Uh, yes? That's the point? A. She's a fourteen-year-old girl, and they are the most judgmental and terrifying creatures on the planet. B. We can see her better than she sees herself--we know that her parents aren't horrible, that her constant school shenanigans are beyond childish, that dating the boy you can't talk to is Bad News (but a mistake we all make). The self-revealing narrator, particularly in a humorous context, goes back to, I don't know, Don Quixote? Even though that's not first person. Lighten up, folks.

04 July 2010

On the problem of imitation.

I recently finished the first installment in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, The Lightning Thief, and I liked it. I was a kid who checked out D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths from my elementary school library as often as they'd let me, and I wore out my folks' old copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology further until I got my own copy--both books are important enough to me that I packed them in the two (OK, two and a half) boxes I limited myself to in moving to Brooklyn. So yeah, I loved the creative reimagining of ancient standbys: think my favorite was the "EZ Death" line in Hades. And Mt. Olympus having relocated to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. (Though I found the explanation that "the gods move to the keepers of Western civilization, and that's America!" a bit over-the-top. And I'm pretty "USA! USA!")

But I couldn't give myself over to the book entirely, as I might have when I was ten or so, because my brain kept noting "Lord, what a Harry Potter ripoff." Kid leads a mostly normal life, discovers he's special, discovers secrets about his parentage, goes to special school for specialness, acquires a smart girl sidekick and goofy guy sidekick who's braver than he appears, discovers he's specialer than all the other specials...yes, a lot of this has been kid-lit standards for a long time, from plucky-orphan-makes-good days, but so much of the book is just straight-up HP echo. Even down to the fast-reading, likeable writing style.

And I'm not sure what to do with this. I mean, I honestly liked the book; it was fun despite being derivative. Is derivative always a bad thing? What if the source material is great, and it's well imitated? I remember responding to a friend who thought all early Lemonheads songs sounded the same, "Well, yes, but I like their one song, so I like all their songs." Is originality necessary for a good story? Part of me says no: there are only a few stories, that we've been telling since we harnessed fire; what keeps me in awe of mankind despite our propensity for cruelty and horror is our ability to keep retelling these stories, that are always old and always new. But then part of me reading Lightning Thief couldn't stop inwardly rolling my eyes: "Oh, Chiron the centaur is Dumbledore, obvs."

Is it just a question of time, and marketing? I also think of Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I (apparently alone among booksellers) just couldn't get into (I found the prose hopelessly leaden, the characters ill-sketched. And it's a flippin' vampire apocalypse novel--takes a lot to make me put one of those down!). I feel so much like it's a cynical ploy on the author's part, since vampires are "so hot right now"; his two previous books have been standard Iowa Writers' Workshop grad fare (there needs to be a word for this. IWW-lit?): still suffering from a fear of modifiers and multi-clause sentences. To my taste, there's no playfulness in this work. No realization and expansion of the possibilities of language and narrative. An embarrassment at the necessity of emotion, a maleness consisting of the worst stereotypes. It just sits there on the page and begs you to take it seriously.

Maybe, in fact, marketing is the central tenet of this problem. I don't get as upset about advertising as a lot of folks in my general demographic: sometimes I think, really, it's a form of public art, and fodder for discussion. (I do, however, rail at sexism in TV commercials. Every time I watch TV. I'm glad the boyfriend thinks it's cute.) But there is a bandwagon effect that worries me, because there's a desperation to it. I thought Pride & Prejudice & Zombies was great, a cultural mash-up that was funny and fresh and self-aware. (Aside: Clive Owen is the only choice to play Mr. Darcy in the movie. Only he can pull off the action star and the period piece. If he's not in it, I'm not watchin' it.) And Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters was great too--I actually liked it even better, because it was so damn weird. But, but, but. Now there's a fleet of imitations: Jane Slayre, Android Karenina, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead. I understand the want to get some of that sweet, sweet mash-up money. The publishers need it, and without them, no books for me to read or sell. Still, it's like hearing the one about the Irishman forgetting his wheelchair at the pub (oops, should that have had a spoiler alert?) for the nth time: it's funny, but it's really the memory of hearing it for the first time that's funny.

I know this is a ramble, and I'm not getting anywhere. I'll just end with this question, and hope for your thoughts: is liking a book enough to call it "good"?
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