20 December 2011

YA break!

So I'm in the midst of my first December working retail at Grand Central Terminal--this week, leading up to Christmas and Chanukah, is proving to be a doozy. Luckily, there's young adult literature to smooth over the rough spots.

Withering Tights, Louise Rennison: By the hilarious author of the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, which I really must read the rest of, WT starts off a new series with a bang! This one centers of Tallulah Casey's misadventures at a quirky-to-say-the-least performing arts school on the Yorkshire moors. Plenty of adolescent romance, humiliation, and sarcasm for all! And I loved that Tallulah realizes her true talent lies in comedy--since some still contend that women can't be funny (hello, the late Christopher Hitchens!), it's nice to see a different attitude pitched to young'uns.

Everybody Sees the Ants, A.S. King: Purchased on the strength of King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz, one of my favorite books of last year. Wasn't disappointed--Ants is a mix of raw and witty, with an otherworldly undercurrent. Its narrator, Lucky Linderman, has been mercilessly bullied by Nader McMillan since he was seven. Eight years later, he's lost faith entirely in the world of adults to protect him: not his distant father, not his obsessive mother, certainly not the school administrators and therapists concerned more with his joke-y proposal to do a social studies project surveying students with the question, "If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose?" His sole trusted authority figure is that of his grandfather and namesake--and that only happens in dreams, where he tries time and time again to rescue him from a Vietnamese prison camp. This mission, given to him by his beloved grandmother on her deathbed, blurs the line between fantasy and reality, as Lucky brings back objects from the dreamworld into his real, miserable life. The book is funny and haunting by turns, at a level rarely reached in soi disant adult literary fiction.

Darker Still, Leanna Renee Hieber: Finished off my streak with a good old-fashioned YAP break. Hieber's debut is a Dorian Gray-ish teen paranormal romance, wherein mute New Yorker Natalie Stewart falls in love with Lord Denbury, imprisoned by sinister forces inside a portrait, against the backdrop of 1880 Manhattan and the still-new Metropolitan Museum of Art. I liked but didn't love it--I wish that everything hadn't been just as it seemed, the bewitched lord righteous, his bewitcher so blandly evil. I need a little ambiguity in my heroes and villains.

19 December 2011

The Possessed (Elif Batuman) . . . and a wee Christmas-y Gogol!

Missed the last meeting of the Russian year of the WORD Classics Book Group due to dumb ol' stupid ol' fun-ruining illness, but I did read the book, and it was indeed a fitting cap to the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky-Gogol experience. Elif Batuman's The Possessed is a joyous journey through the lives and peculiarities of people of all nations who find devote themselves to Russian literature. Batuman is an unapologetic member of their ranks, having almost accidentally found herself a Stanford graduate student in comparative literature.

But though she's got a wonderful analytical mind, her prose evades even a whiff of academic density. The long essay that (in three parts) forms the backbone of the collection, "Summer in Samarkand," details her experiences ostensibly learning Uzbek in that still-exotic city--it's a laugh-out-loud funny culture-shock story, a historical introduction to the complexities of Central Asia (as she learned later, "Uzbek" was not even a defined ethnicity or language until the Soviets decided it was in the early twentieth century), and a guide to a literary tradition largely unknown (and honestly somewhat nebulous) outside of the region. Her writing's lovely, witty, smart--even if you've never read a word of those daunting Russians, I highly recommend the book.

I also read, in the spirit of the season, a wee New Directions paperback edition of Gogol's novella, "The Night Before Christmas," a decidedly un-Moore-ish romp featuring the devil, guilty husbands hiding in sacks, and caroling for sausages. It's a fun, frisky folktale, and just cemented my opinion: Gogol is totes my favorite Russian writer!

18 December 2011

Broken Glass Park (Alina Bronsky)

(Ugh, so many apologies for the involuntary hiatus. Was laid low for nearly two weeks by an illness whose main symptom was constant, debilitating fatigue. GUESS HOW FUN THIS MADE DECEMBER RETAIL. Am now almost recovered, whether from a persistent virus or anemia, I'm not sure.)

Broken Glass Park was Russian-born German author Alina Bronsky's first novel, and while it's not the black-comic masterpiece that is The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, it shares with that book an unforgettable, fully realized, fully habitable voice. Here, it's teenage Sascha Naimann, a Russian immigrant to Germany struggling to deal with her mother's violent death at the hands of her stepfather. She's filled with helpless rage and guilt--but she's also smart as a whip and fiercely protective of those she loves, notably her half-brother and -sister, who've lost not only their mother but the father who shot her. A confrontation with the editor of a newspaper that published a supportive interview the killer leads to a relationship with him and his son that shifts unsettlingly between familial and romantic. Bronsky writes Sascha's raw, conflicting emotion, her simultaneously jaded and naive view of the world, and her understandably dark sense of humor with the ease that only comes with great talent--the kind that makes me want to learn German so I can see how much more amazing it is in the original. But since that continues not to happen? Much thanks to Tim Mohr and Europa Editions for bringing Ms. Bronsky into my world! (And thanks to the Europa Challenge blog for giving me still more incentive to keep reading this terrific publisher.)

30 November 2011

Treasure Island!!! (Sara Levine)

I would never have believed that this year I'd read a book with a despicable, oblivious first-person narrator somehow more hilarious than The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. But Treasure Island!!! is that book.

Said narrator (huh, I didn't even notice she's never named) is a spectacularly aimless 25-year-old who happens to pick up a copy of Stevenson's classic pirate tale when her teacher sister leaves it behind in disgust ("I hate a book with no girls in it") and is blown away by the contrast she finds with her own life:
When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of my getting a hunk of gold? I, a person unable to decide what to do with my broken mini-blinds, let alone with the rest of my life, lay on my bed, while in the book's open air, people chased assholes out of pubs and trampled blind beggars with their horses. You needn't have a violent nature to be impressed with animal energy. If life were a sea adventure, I knew: I wouldn't be sailor, pirate, or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the boat. Why not rise, I though. Why not spring up that very moment, in the spirit of Jim, and create my own adventure?
Awash with the power of nineteenth-century children's literature, she derives what she believes to be the Core Values of boy-hero Jim Hawkins' character--BOLDNESS, RESOLUTENESS, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING--and resolves to put them into practice immediately.

The problem, though, is that she's a terrible person: narcissistic, backbiting, capable of truly great feats of self-justification. Thus her exercise in BOLDNESS begins at her part-time job at the Pet Library (exactly what it says on the tin: an animal rescue that allows its inhabitants to be borrowed and returned by patrons) as she asserts her selfhood by just not doing the nasty duties she doesn't want to do. She then uses what she assumes to be petty cash her boss has hidden in the back room to purchase a parrot--a Yellow-Naped Amazon named Little Richard--and while she's shopping for the bird, vandals wreak havoc at the Library. Summarily fired, she proceeds methodically to destroy the lives of everyone around her, remaining blissfully, hilariously oblivious to the carnage in her wake.

You know I'm a sucker for voice, and oh such a glorious voice has Treasure Island!!!: pointlessly smart, Waugh-ly arch, articulate and funny and mean and instantly compelling. Definitely my favorite new novel of the year.

P.S. Whilst idly researching whether Europa Editions has a subscription service (alas, no), I discovered and joined the Europa Challenge Blog--a group of folks dedicated to the publisher's amazing, quirky, international catalog. This year I'm participating at the "Ami" level--only one book to go! (I'm planning on You Deserve Nothing.)

29 November 2011

CALDECOTT BONUS ROUND!!! The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)

Unless you're a book nerd like me, you probably don't remember it being controversial that The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, but believe you me, it was--usually the illustration award goes to a picture book, leaving the Newbery for middle-grade reading*. Hugo is a hybrid of both, 158 pictures and 26,159 words, not quite a novel and not quite a graphic novel. It is, really--and this is wholly intentional on Selznick's part--closest to a silent film, with extra-loquacious intertitles. The art is all black-and-white, pencil on watercolor paper, with the same otherworldly, dim-yet-glowing quality of those first movies. And it's also pretty darn fantastic. I'm embarrassed I didn't read it until the month the movie came out (directed by Martin Scorsese, in 3D. Seems an odd choice to me, but the boy points out it's the 21st-century equivalent of the experimental techniques the pioneers of cinema used.).

Hugo Cabret lives alone in the recesses of the Montparnasse train station in the early 1930s. His loving father, a clockmaker who taught him the intricacies of cogs and gears, died in a fire, leaving Hugo with his alcoholic uncle, guardian of the Montparnasse clocks. But his uncle has disappeared, and so Hugo keeps the time himself, surviving by pilfering from the station's cafe. His only companion now is an automaton--a magician's prop in the from of a mechanical man seated at a desk with a pen in his hand. Discovered and repaired by Hugo's father, then damaged in the same fire that killed him, the construct is Hugo's last connection to his previous existence, and he's determined to fix it. To do so, he periodically steals parts from a toy shop in the station. When the toymaker catches him, though, it starts a chain of events that ends up with the amazing early fantasy films of Georges Méliès. Which Netflix doesn't have, even A Trip to the Moon. Argh! Time to hit up Photoplay, the actual brick-and-mortar video store in Greenpoint.

*FUN FACT: the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, though American, are both named for Englishmen (John, an 18th-century publisher; Randolph, a 19th-century illustrator).

FURTHER FUN FACT THAT I JUST LEARNED: the U.K. equivalents are the Carnegie Medal (lit) and the Kate Greenaway Medal (illustration).

28 November 2011

I liked these books.

'Tis time once again for all things yearly-wrap-up-ish! Here're my favorite books of the 139 I've read since the last time I did a list like this. Books are in arbitrary (alphabetical) order; links go back to original mention on this blog, in an omphaloskeptical sort of way.




Small reads.

A trio of books read recently, briefly and approvingly noted:

I Am Maru: Internet cat celebrity (there is probably a portmanteau encompassing all three of those titles, but I refuse to look it up) Maru, in book form. Exactly what it says on the tin. LOOKIT THIS BIG FURRY GUY! Sometimes when I'm feeling hectic/irritable at work, I'll just go take off the cover, which features a poster on the inside, and stare at it until I feel better. Ahhhhhh. P.S. His name means "round." Of course it does!

How 2 Be Awsum: Speaking of Internet cats . . . . This is another book of LOLcats. You'll love it or you'll hate it--ain't no middle ground on these fluffy feline misspellers. GUESS WHICH SIDE I FALL ON GUYS

Runaways, Volume 2: Teenage Wasteland
(Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona): Next installment (issues #7-12), in a so-far great comic book series about a bunch of kids who discover their parents are supervillains. This book was even better than the last one--exposition over, straight to action!

27 November 2011

Kira-Kira (Cynthia Kadohata)

Finished up my newer-Newbery run with the lovely Kira-Kira, a book which encompasses, in no particular order: the Japanese-American experience in the 1950s, the horror of chicken-processing plants (for both the animals and the humans who work there without benefit of union), the love (and friction) between sisters, and the havoc wreaked on a family when one of its members falls seriously ill. That's a lot for any novel to cover, and complex for a middle-grade book, yet Kadohata handles it fluidly.

I feel like I don't have much more specific to say, though? I guess I'll take it general: Kira-Kira's very much in keeping with the tradition of quality young people's historical fiction--like all my rereads and others I didn't get to (Jacob Have I Loved, Dicey's Song, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and so forth). So what's the appeal of this to kids? Speaking from my own experience, I loved reading about other children in places, times, and situations far different from my own, whether realistic or sfnal* (i.e., The Girl with the Silver Eyes, The Boy Who Reversed Himself). It is, I think, a form of empathy--inhabiting the lives of others, comparing reactions and emotions, finding commonalities. I don't think this is as easy to do with movies or television; you can identify with characters, sure, but you're necessarily seeing an actor who's not you. Narration, particularly in the first person, can eliminate this distance. (Of course, first-person narration can also create distance, but that's an essay for another day. OK, an essay I wrote on Poe in college specifically. Dude knew from unreliable narrators.)

Reading these books as an adult is a similar experience--with the added bonus that you can also recapture the feeling of being a child (and if you're rereading, the feeling of being a child reading the same book for the first time). Which is a roundabout way of saying that I've had a fantastic time with this project, and may return to it every November!

Stay tuned for a SPECIAL BONUS ROUND. Probably Wednesday.

*I learned a new word this week! Short for "science fictional." Pretty cool, eh? Also, Anne McCaffrey died. Sad face.

24 November 2011

Strawberry Girl (Lois Lenski)

OK, so this one wasn't as good as I remembered. But I can tell why I liked it as a kid: I had a Little House on the Prairie-bred fascination with the everyday activities of pioneer life. Planting crops and tending animals and churning butter and goin' to town for penny candy!  The house I lived in between the ages of five and eight had a vacant lot next door; when the grass got really long, my little sister and I would run through it pretending to be Wilder children. (There are now I think three houses on that lot? With, like, NYC amounts of space between them.)

Anyway, Strawberry Girl is all about daily life on ten-year-old Birdie Boyer's family's farm in backwoods Florida, around the turn of the twentieth century. The book's long on logistics and kinda slim on story, though conflict with the Boyers' even poorer neighbors, the Slaters, propels what narrative there is. The Slaters don't feed their livestock (cows and hogs), just let them roam--and don't take kindly to Birdie's father fencing in his land to keep his crops from ruin. Mostly, though, Lenski seems concerned with simply recording this slice of rural history, the struggles, frolics, and vernacular of the Florida Crackers. (Yep. It's what they called themselves--apparently it comes from the crack of the whip used by the local cowboys.)

I hadn't known before that this is just one in a long series of books Lenski wrote about children's lives in various regions of the United States--some contemporary, others historical. It's an impressive, wide-ranging project, and deserves credit for often focusing on poor communities: coal miners, sharecroppers, migrant workers. She also gets ups for writing about African- and Chinese-American children. Unfortunately, I think the didactic purpose of the books, lost on its intended audience, makes it not an especially exciting read as an adult. Sometimes you can't go back.

Sunday finishes up Newbery November with Cynthia Kadohata's Kira-Kira.

23 November 2011

Heart of Steel (Meljean Brook)

See, here's a prime example of why "romance" is less a genre than an attitude: one could easily classify Heart of Steel and the preceding novel Brook set in this world, The Iron Duke, as sci-fi/fantasy, specifically steampunk/alternate history. (This is a universe where the Mongols had nanotech, and used it to stomp the heck out of their enemies (soon, subjects) for five hundred years.) They'd be marketed differently, of course, and there would be fewer abs on the covers (to stay with tired old stereotypes, you could just stick the heroines in leather on the front instead)--but I don't think the content would need to change a bit. Romantic plots and subplots abound in SF/F! Hell, even Perdido Street Station has a love story in it. Not that it ends well. (Boo, now I'm sad.) Wherein would lie the difference, I suppose--that all-important Happily Ever After.

That said, I liked Heart but didn't love it like I did Iron, not through any fall-off in writing quality, but just cause I wasn't as into the central couple, both of whom appeared in the previous book. Yasmeen is an airship captain--though she loses her Lady Corsair, and its crew, to assassins unknown early on here--with badass, acrobatic fighting skillz and slightly tufted ears, plus a murky past. I don't think she's any less of a Type than flinty policewoman Mina Wentworth was in the first installment, but I just didn't like her as much. Archimedes Fox is a treasure hunter and star of a series of pulp novels by his sister, Zenobia, last seen when Yasmeen abandoned him in zombie-infested Venice. (Oh yeah, did I mention mainland Europe is pretty much overrun with a zombie plague? That's pretty important.) Maybe I just can't forgive her for this? Though he certainly does, and I do love his soft, squishy romantic's heart, a great contrast with his swashbucklin' exterior. Together, they set off on an expedition searching for Leonardo da Vinci's clockwork army, dodging Horde soldiers and mysterious enemies all the while; along the way, trying deuced hard not to fall in love.

There's a lot going on here, and Brook does a swell job keeping all these balls in the air. She's clearly got this world more fleshed out in her mind than she will ever need to commit to print, and goodness, she knows her way around escalating sexual tension. More telling than all this verbiage? I will totes pick up the next in the Iron Seas series. Her website says late 2012.

22 November 2011

Comics history.

So even though I've nine self-assigned books this month (Newberys + Russian classics book club), I've found myself with spare reading time in between (mostly wonderful) obligations. Over the past couple of weeks, I diverted myself with a pair of books on the gory, over-the-top crime and horror comics of the Fifties and the outcry against them that led to the prudish Comics Code--far stricter than the Hays Code ever was. Unfortunately, both had pet-peeve flaws that kept 'em from really floating my boat.

David Hadju's The Ten-Cent Plague is a narrative history of the comic-book genre, from its origins in the newspaper comic strip to its newsstand-grabbing sensationalism to the Congressional hearing that led to its (temporary) decimation. He interviewed dozens of writers and artists who worked on the sometimes-controversial comic books, and quotes them ad infinitum (to his credit, he does note when their testimony seems more self-serving than truthful). It's an interesting story, a tale of populist culture vilified and ultimately censored by the quasi-scientific and law enforcement establishments. But I do feel that Hadju falls too easily and too often into the Those Repressed Fifties Folk trope, wherein it goes without saying that any objections on the part of parents or government at the time was witch-hunting or quashing dissident (and, it's implied, correct) viewpoints. It's true that paranoia and fear cause overreactions, and blaming comics for juvenile delinquency was objectively untrue. I think, though, that were (and are) points to be made about the appropriateness of the images churned out by EC and its multitude of imitators: they were shocking, gory, grotesque. They were meant to be, and they were not on the whole meant to subvert the dominant paradigm and to expand the minds of children, to save them from the unbearable conformity of the times. They were designed to make money; anything else was a side effect.

One of the other problems with the book is its near-total lack of images, which is why I read it in tandem with The Horror! The Horror!, a collection that includes many of the crime and horror comics referenced by Hadju. And boy, there are some doozies! Melting faces, ax murders, lots and lots of pointy breasts--fun to look at for low-culture-appropriating adults like me, but honestly? I can see what worried parents. It also can't be denied that, with a few exceptions, these comics were badly drawn, poorly plotted, and cheaply printed. Well, strike that--both Hadju and Jim Trombetta, who contributes overly academic, sneering, insufferable essays* in between the comics collected here, would deny that. I think that damages their case, honestly. Rather than arguing for the preservation of these comics on artistic grounds, couldn't they simply point out that censorship is wrong even when what's being censored is no great loss?

*If I had stopped reading these in-between bits after rolling my eyes at the first few, I would have enjoyed the book, like, 75% more. That's what I recommend for anyone not looking to relive their days in grad school lit.

20 November 2011

The Tale of Despereaux (plus BONUS DICAMILLO)

Guys, I'm pretty sure Kate DiCamillo is a time traveler. Or a vampire.

How else to explain the way her books read like dispatches from the past? I wrote of The Magician's Elephant that "it feels like it was recently discovered in an attic in London, written in spidery brown ink on yellowed parchment," and the same could be said of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or 2003's Newbery Medal winner The Tale of Despereaux. All are fairy tales in a very old sense: before they were morality plays, before they were comforts for children, when they were thought experiments for human emotion and imagination. There's always a great deal of darkness in her stories, and qualified, quiet happy endings--but everything, everything is suffused with love.

Despereaux Tilling is a misfit mouse: born with his eyes open, with overlarge ears and a tiny body prone to fainting. Where a proper rodent forages for crumbs, he's transfixed by the beauty of stained glass and music the others don't hear. Where they nibble books, he finds himself reading them, learning by heart the story of a brave knight and the beautiful princess he loves. One day he seeks out the source of the song and ends up meeting--and speaking to--the Princess Pea, an act forbidden by the Mouse Council that gets him exiled to the dangerous, rat-infested dungeons of the castle. The book is also the tale of a broken-hearted rat named Chiaroscuro, a lonesome, battered servant girl called Miggery Sow, and their plot to kidnap Pea. Despereaux bravely sets out to free her.

Not only is the story exciting, scary, and sweet (with beautiful, inky illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering), DiCamillo's authorial asides frame the whole thing as a story about stories, saying in the end
I would like it very much if you thought of me as a mouse telling you a story, this story, with the whole of my heart, whispering it in your ear in order to save myself from the darkness, and to save you from the darkness, too.
"Stories are light," Gregory the jailer told Despereaux.
Reader, I hope you have found some light here.
I loved this book so much I wished it was three times longer. When I found myself too close to the end yesterday, I had to buy another DiCamillo for the subway ride home: so I acquired The Tiger Rising.

Tiger is as uncompromising and spare as a Flannery O'Connor short story. It's about Rob Horton, a twelve-year-old boy with a dead mother, a persistent rash on his legs, and no friends, who comes across an amazing thing in the Florida woods: a real tiger, pacing and pacing in a cage. A strange, defiant new girl at school, Sistine Bailey, quickly becomes the only person he trusts with his discovery. She is determined to let the tiger go--but at what cost? It's a bleak and heartbreaking little book, with nothing easy or gentle about it. But somehow DiCamillo's prose (which I am trying not to call "luminous") imbues the tale with beauty and joy. Seriously: I think she's my favorite modern children's author. Friends with kids, take note.

17 November 2011

The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)

I was surprised by how much I'd forgotten about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. First of all, the "witch" is only a small part of the tale of sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler, who's left her grandfather's plantation in Barbados after his death to live with an aunt she's never met in the far-off colony of Connecticut. Leaving her pampered tropical existence for Puritan New England proves even more of a shock than she'd thought: the climate is chilly, the work backbreaking, and the religion staid. But there are bright spots here and there--perhaps the brightest is her forbidden friendship with an old Quaker woman named Hannah Tupper, who lives along by Blackbird Pond, and is suspected and feared by the townspeople.

The narrow world of 1687 Wethersfield opens up to a remarkably broad slice of history, much of it to do with freedom: religious (for the Puritans and Quakers), political (Connecticut's struggle to preserve its charter rather than be ruled by Massachusetts--and by extension, the king of England, of whom the Puritans were hardly fans), even simply personal (both Kit and her grandfather owned slaves in Barbados, who were sold to pay for the journey. Her cousins are as shocked by this as she is by their two Sunday services). And, of course, Kit yearns for the lost freedom of her wild childhood, running and reading and paying no mind to the world. Gradually, she learns what we all learn growing up: that pleasing yourself is important, but not all. (Put another, less back-of-the-book way: when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, and when to just walk away.)

Another great, great read, that I think could easily be an adult novel. Kit is impetuous and opinionated, like all the best romance novel heroines--but everyone else is interesting, too, and full of nuance. Even the townsfolk who persecute Hannah and eventually accuse Kit herself of witchcraft aren't evil, but afraid. The message is more complex than "be yourself!" or "different is good!" Because, of course, both those platitudes don't always apply. More books for kids should acknowledge this, darn it.

(It's also pretty fun to needle my Stamford-born boyfriend in re: New Englanders always being frosty and confrontation-averse. Unless, you know, it's burnin' witches. Everyone enjoys a good witch-burnin'. And Kit's uncle insults someone by calling him a "whited sepulcher," which I must use from now on.)

Sunday: Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux! I wish this one were three times longer, because I already don't want it to end.

13 November 2011

Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Avi)

So here's the problem: the two medal winners from the oughts I've read this month? Nowhere near as good as the older ones I'm rereading. It is impossible to tell how much of this is due to childhood memory and the gut-level good associations of Roll of Thunder and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I do think the prose in Single Shard and this week's newer read, Avi's Crispin: The Cross of Lead, is objectively less sophisticated--and this is a complaint I didn't have with this year's winner (the stellar & evocative Moon Over Manifest) and 2010's (the brilliant, brilliant, OMGBRILLIANT When You Reach Me). But when all is said and done, I just didn't think Cross of Lead was a good book.

There are good things about it, of course--Avi deftly conjures his medieval milieu, especially the omnipresence of Christianity in everyday life. But rather than stay with his protagonist as he believes himself to be at the outset--the poorest of the peasantry, who's only eaten meat a few times in his life--Crispin ends up being [SPOILER] the bastard son of the local lord, whose mother was gently born and literate. Which moves the narrative from that of a completely neglected class to that of a clichéd Secret Royal tale. Very disappointing.

The death of his previously-unknown father causes him to be pursued by a broadly-evil steward, kin to the lord's wife, who wants to make sure Crispin doesn't claim any part of the estate. Chases ensue. Then Crispin hooks up with a juggler/spy with fabulously anachronistic ideas about the Equality of Man and the Unnecessity of Organized Religion (seriously, in 1300s England? Maybe there was one guy. But not several, and not a secret brotherhood of rebels). More chases ensue. Then nothing is resolved, and there's a sequel I'm not interested in reading.

(Another COMPLETELY UNFAIR thing that bugged me? The old-fashioned-y words and locutions in the prose are three hundred years too late for the time the book is set--vaguely Shakespearean. I know PERFECTLY WELL that they would have been speaking Middle English at the time, and OBVIOUSLY you're not going to write a kids' book in Middle English . . . but if you're going to use anachronistic vocab, why not make it modern-modern? Yes, this is a stupid quibble. But it's one I had, and this is my blog to air my stupid quibbles--really, it should be on the masthead.)

Next Thursday, back to childhood faves! This time it's Elizabeth George Speare's 1959 Newbery winner The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

12 November 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

WORD's classics book club, aka Talking to Stephanie and Toby About Stuff, strikes again! Really, one of my favorite events every month. This time around it was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's slender but powerful account of life in a Stalin-era work camp.

I first read this book for junior-year English class in high school--I remember some of my friends mashing it up with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ("Go go go Ivan, you know what they say!") for a weird-ass little video. (This is something we did a lot: we were a very special type of nerd.) I've read it a few times since, notably a few years ago when I graded essays on it for a teacher at my old high school--I managed to blank on the due date and had to grade 90 papers in, like, two days. Teachers of America, I salute you!

It is, I think, a perfect book. In many ways it's a stark contrast to much of the nineteenth-century Russian literature the club has read this year; whereas in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky there is much melodrama over trivialities, in One Day the everyday injustices faced by Soviet political prisoners is barely reacted to by the zeks. The lack of one catastrophic incident for a plot to turn upon is an ambitious and ultimately effective way to structure the novel--this one day is nothing special. Its importance lies in the succession of thousands of days just like it.

It's also a very habitable novel, by which I mean it's easy to see yourself in it. Despite obvious disparities, both Ivan and I wake up, head to work, solve problems, eat dinner. We both have routines, minor deviations from same--we both divide our life into what is ours and what belongs to others. This ease of correlation is both comforting and terrifying, and inspiring in a non-hokey way. Human beings approach survival in the same way, whatever obstacles--major or minor--they have to overcome. And as a species, we're damn good at surviving. One Day is one tiny example.

10 November 2011

Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O'Dell)

I was obsessed with this book for a while in third grade. I remember writing an extremely derivative story about a girl living on an island by herself. This must be the book where I first came across the words/concepts "abalone" and "cormorant"; while I still have only vague notions of both, they carry with them such an allure of exoticism and self-reliance such that--despite my land-locked distrust of shellfish--I would totes eat an abalone given the opportunity. (I mean, I'm sure it would be gross. But I would eat it.)

Yet I only learned quite recently that Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on a true story. The eponymous island is called San Nicolas, and it's 75 miles off southern California coast--in 1853, a woman was discovered who'd lived there alone for eighteen years, since the rest of her tribe (decimated by Russian-led Aleut otter hunters) departed for the mainland and she was somehow left behind. By the time she was found, her people had all died of European diseases, and she succumbed to the same a mere seven weeks later. No one spoke her language, so no one ever knew her name.

Knowing this gave an undercurrent of melancholy to the reread, but it didn't come close to masking the excitement I remembered from the first several times through--it all came flooding back. O'Dell imagines her isolated life in rich detail: what she eats, wears; where she lives; how she passes her time and assuages her loneliness (mostly by making friends with animals. She's got the best dog). For a little girl without an ounce of self-sufficiency to her credit (I was def. an Indoor Kid, even though I went to a magnet elementary where camping was part of the curriculum), it was hopelessly romantic to think of making my own spears and building my own canoe. Too, while boy adventure stories were (and are) common, this was a book about a girl surviving on her own, by her wits and with her strength--the dudes could have Hatchet. Me, I was gonna be like Karana.

After talking to a customer a few weeks ago about the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, I wondered what on earth had won the Newbery instead in 1961. It was Island of the Blue Dolphins--and you know what? Even with Tollbooth being one of my favoritest favorites, I'm okay with that.

Sunday: Avi's medieval mystery/thriller (at least that's how it's reading so far) Crispin: The Cross of Lead, which won the Newbery in 2003.

07 November 2011

Hark! A Vagrant (Kate Beaton)

The temptation is just to go KATE BEATON HAS A BOOK YOU GUYS EEEE and be done with it . . . but maybe I should try to explain why that’s so exciting? OK: Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of (mostly) comics from Beaton’s website of the same name—with value-added new stuff, of course. Even the repeats, though, are thrilling on the page—on paper! With a hardcover! And an ISBN!

Beaton’s brilliant comics—drawn in lines I can only describe as “loping,” simple and expressive—hit this sweet spot of nerdy literary and historical references with pop culture and absurdity that, to me, is some of the funniest writing happening: dude watchin’ with the Brontes (“Anne, why are you writing books about how alcoholic losers ruin people’s lives? Don’t you see that romanticizing douchey behavior is the proper literary convention in this family!”), the depressing lot of the pre-modern lady scientist (“Is it a scientific breakthrough in feelings?”), fifteenth-century peasant romance (“I’ve like, never ever brushed my teeth”). Oh yeah, and the WWII hipster battalion, and the crankiest Wonder Woman around, and the wise-ass slacker Mystery Solving Teens. And everything I know about Canadian history. All this stuff you can see for free: takes on Macbeth and Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment are twenty bucks away. But really, the chance to enable a hilarious, smart-as-a-whip lady artist to live off her creativity? Effing priceless.

[P.S. Here endeth my Internetless backlog of posts: ten days in a row! We now return to twice-a-week-ish.]

06 November 2011

A Single Shard (Linda Sue Park)

Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard won the Newbery in 2002, the year I graduated from college. The setting is world-expanding, at least for me: twelfth-century Korea, in a village known for its celadon pottery, celadon being a stoneware glaze producing a unique blue-gray-green color. The main character is an orphan named Tree-Ear, who's lived most of his life under a bridge with his crippled guardian, Crane-Man; Tree-Ear is fascinated by master potter Min, spying on him as he throws pots and fires them into beauty. When he breaks a pot by accident, he offers to work off the debt, secretly hoping Min will teach him his craft. Min, meanwhile, dreams of a potter's highest honor: a royal commission to create pieces for the king.

Beyond the novelty of the mise en scène, it's a pretty straightforward book. It was striking how much simpler the construction of the prose was than Roll of Thunder--twenty-five years certainly affected the complexity of children's literature--though I wouldn't call it simplistic. It is less engaging to an adult reader, however. The cynic in me feels like the real value of the book lies in middle school teachers being able to check off "Asian" in their diversity boxes--but hey, what's wrong with that? I mean, I'm more historically educated than most, and I still know almost nothing about Korean history, except that they were constantly invaded by China and Japan. Also, kimchi. So a book to fill in that gap early--and to provoke thought about the art of pottery, its mix of manual skill, imagination, and chance--is a good thing.

Thursday: Scott O'Dell's 1961 adventure yarn Island of the Blue Dolphins.

05 November 2011

Gold Rush Groom (Jenna Kernan)

I figured, hey, if I'm gonna write a Gold Rush romance, I should know what else is out there, right? Hence: Jenna Kernan's Gold Rush Groom, also my first category romance (Harlequin Historical for September 2011). Somehow, despite having it on hold at work for weeks and then on my to-read shelf for a similar while, I did not notice until the moment I picked it up to read that it's set in the Yukon Gold Rush, not the California: 50 years later, totally different terrain. Oh well.

Still, I enjoyed the book. The heroine, Lily Shanahan, is believably plucky and adventurous (like the Modern Major General): when we meet her, she's been idling on the Alaskan coast for months, having traveled there determined to lead life on her own terms, escaping the States' proscribed, subservient roles for the daughter of an Irish immigrant. But now she needs a partner with whom to make the dangerous trek to the Yukon gold fields, and the men who come through mostly laugh at her. This wild frontier, too, circumscribes its women.

Jack Snow, on the other hand, comes from a once-privileged Connecticut family, ruined by his father's irresponsibility. He's come to Alaska armed with half a degree in mechanical engineering, confident he can use his skills to improve mining efficiency and earn the fortune necessary to buy his mother and younger sister back into society. He realizes quickly that he, too, needs a partner--Princeton has left him utterly unprepared for this frozen, mountainous landscape.

So they join together, BUSINESS PARTNERS ONLY OK, and set out, along with Lily's adorable Newfoundland mix (I know that a loyal pooch is a quick trope to establish a character as caring and trustworthy, but gosh, it's effective. Works much better for me than doting on a kid), braving rapids and hunger and exhaustion. Oh, and falling madly in love, obviously, and agonizing over the difference in their social stations that means they can never be together. OR CAN THEY?

Gold Rush Groom was a perfectly pleasant read (OK, except that Jack says "You're mine" during sex. I guess there are ladies who don't find that disturbing?), with hard-working and resourceful characters, easier to relate to than heiresses and nobility, I have to say. There was some odd stuff with time in the narrative--I'm sure that the trip from the coast to Dawson City really did take six months or more, but I found it harder to believe that nothing advanced in the relationship during the narrative lacunae. I also thought Lily's making money hand over fist as a cook and a singer was a little much. Category romance is, I think, supposed to be more ephemeral than single-title: yep, this fit the bill.

04 November 2011

Fantastic Women (edited by Rob Spillman)

Fantastic Women collects eighteen stories originally printed in Tin House, all by women, and all, well, fantastical. Not in the dragon-and-wizard sense (though you know me, I’d never knock that sense): the stories are all weird like wyrd, like they’re being told to you by some half-human creature you had to go on a quest to even find, and it is very important you understand them, because the fate of the kingdom might be at stake. Here, have some examples: in Samantha Hunt’s “Beast,” a woman turns into a deer every night, and worries about how to tell her husband. In Karen Russell’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach,” a teenage boy living in the shadow of his much cooler brother begins to suspect that the titular birds are stealing pieces of the town’s future. Julia Slavin’s “Drive-Through House”—well, it’s in the title. And Kelly Link! A Kelly Link story I hadn’t read before ZOMFG!!! “Light” concerns a woman whose mother vacationed in a pocket universe when she was in utero (like you do), causing her to be born with two shadows, one of which eventually became her difficult brother.

So why is this a collection by women? Well, there’s the glib answer, “Cause men have all the rest of the anthologies,” but I will further say this: in my experience, women writers are often better than men at what I will term the domesticity of the surreal—the mixing of everyday human concerns with the outlandish and impossible, without losing emotional weight in the process. (Haruki Murakami is an outstanding male practitioner of this.) Almost all of these stories revolve around real relationships—with husbands, with siblings, with children—ordinary relationships that, when examined in depth, become every bit as unbelievable in their continued existence as any dragon, selkie, or alternate dimension.

03 November 2011

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred D. Taylor)

When I read this year's Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest, months ago, I found myself listing off all the other historical-fiction medal winner I loved when I was little, and yearning to reread them . . . then my penchant for alliteration got the better of me, and from this was born Newbery November. This month, I'll be rereading four old favorites--and four modern winners from the mid-oughts. Posts will go up Thursdays and Sundays.

First up: 1977's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Holy cow, this book is great. I am going to make the bold claim that it's in fact a better kids' book about race relations than To Kill a Mockingbird. (Yes, TKaM is a kids' book.) The biggest reason for this? The little girl learning harsh truths about the racial injustice of the 1930s South is black herself. Scout may be troubled by what she learns about her world, but she can escape it as Cassie Logan never can.

Cassie is far luckier than many of her schoolmates, the children of tenant farmers--her grandfather managed to buy 400 acres of his own land, and the Logans farm for themselves, though her father still must spend months working on the railroad in Lousiana to pay taxes and the mortgage. Her mother is a teacher at the local black school, which runs only from October to March, since the students are needed to plant and harvest. The white school in the community, which hands down dilapidated, outdated textbooks when it feels like it, owns a school bus; every day the driver amuses his passengers by running Cassie and her brothers (one older, two younger) off the road, or splashing them with mud from puddles. These everyday humiliations, which they've learned to take in stride, are eventually eclipsed by far larger, darker acts of hatred.

Taylor's writing is just beautiful. I really think prose like hers is rare even in adult literature these days. Here, the first paragraph of Chapter 9:
Spring. It seeped unseen into the waiting red earth in early March, softening the hard ground for the coming plow and awakening life that had lain gently sleeping through the cold winter. But by the end of March it was evident everywhere: in the barn where three new calves bellowed and the chicks the color of soft pale sunlight chirped; in the yard where the wisteria and English dogwood bushes readied themselves for their annual Easter bloom, and the fig tree budded producing the forerunners of juicy, brown fruit for which the boys and I would have to do battle with fig-loving Jack; and in the smell of the earth itself. Rain-drenched, fresh, vital, full of life, spring enveloped all of us.
LOOK at that long sentence: a colon and a semi-coloned list! Remember how The Hunger Games used nothing but commas? Taylor, quite the contrary, trusts ten-year-olds (like, you know, 1989 me) to figure out those little black specks and come away knowing new ways to put words together.

Another wonderful and brave thing about the book? No happy ending. Little is resolved, in fact, following a truly epic climax featuring a storm, an attempted lynching, and a cotton fire. Instead, Cassie cries, unable to unlearn what the year has taught her.


(P.S. The copy I picked up at Housing Works, another 50-cent rack score, is a tie-in edition from a 1978 TV movie--with Morgan Freeman as dapper Uncle Hammer. Awesome.)

Sunday: 2002's A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, set in a potters' village in 12th-century Korea.

02 November 2011

Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov)

Pale Fire had been on my to-reread list for ages, and then a few months ago I found the very edition I’d previously read—my father’s, a 1975 Berkley Medallion mass market paperback—on the 50-cent rack at Housing Works. SCORESVILLE USA!!!

Gosh, golly, goodness, this may be—certainly in terms of structure—the most amazing novel ever written. It begins with a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets, written from the point of view of an aging American poet, John Shade, reflecting on his life: his childhood; his love for his wife; the sad, short life of his daughter. The remainder of the book is commentary on the poem by Shade’s crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote, who may or may not be the exiled king of the vaguely Slavic country of Zembla, and who uses the slightest pretext to spin his own story from the unrelated words of Shade’s magnum opus.

Pale Fire is ambitious, funny, weird, heartbreaking, and—to use a diluted word in its original strength—unique. I suppose there might be people out there who find Nabokov’s hyperliterate, wordy, playful prose difficult or annoying, but I just want to cram it into my mouth while saying OM NOM NOM. His writing just tastes good, like a cherry tomato just off the vine, warm from the sun—or like a curry with two dozen ingredients. Just pure joy.

01 November 2011

The Tiger's Wife (Tea Obreht)

The Tiger's Wife (out in paperback today) took me a bit to get into--mostly because I couldn't help but compare it to How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, the gold standard by which I shall measure all future novels touching even tangentially on the 1990s Serbian-Bosnian conflict. The books have more in common than just setting: both begin with the deaths of the narrator's grandfather, both contain elements of (though I hate the term) magical realism; thematically, both deal with communal memory, how the events of our childhood are colored and created by how we remember and retell them.

At some point I didn't notice, though, The Tiger's Wife grabbed me and held on, and I would look up surprised that time had passed, because it felt like everything else should have frozen as the story rolled out. While there are many stories crossing in and out of the narrative--the travails of being a med student in post-war Serbia, with such a lack of intact cadavers; the narrator's attempts to vaccinate a group of orphans living in a monastery across the border--the two most crucial are the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man, "the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other . . . how he became a child again."

The tiger here isn't metaphorical: he escapes from the Belgrade zoo during the WWII bombing of the city, and makes his way into the forest outside her grandfather's tiny hometown of Galina, where the half-tame beast is befriended by a deaf-mute girl married to (and brutally beaten by) the town's butcher. The deathless man? A wandering-Jew sort, unable to die but able to tell others when their death is imminent. The narrator becomes convinced her grandfather was trying to find him before his own death, and sets out to seek him herself.

I will say I found the narrator's journey the least interesting part of the book; for me, it was slowly learning the stories of the tiger and his human wife, and the lonely immortal. Obreht's writing is lyrical and smooth, and she's hilariously young for being so talented (born in 1985! She's also blonde and pretty, which the cynic in me suspects is a contributing factor to her critical darlingness). All in all, The Tiger's Wife won me over, and I'll definitely back the general recommendation; in fact, it's now my go-to handsell for book club ladies. (You should also read How the Soldier, though. Tell Saša I sent ya.)

31 October 2011

Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (Sarah Wendell)

Man, I feel guilty about not loving EIKAL. Esp. cause I went in on my day off to meet Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell at Posman’s, and she is every morsel as funny and gracious as in person as she is online. Let me hasten to add: I liked it, quite a lot. It’s a cogent defense of how romance novels—rather than giving women unrealistic expectations that doom them to unhappy relationships forever—give them an arsenal of tools to recognize and create happy alliances. Her argument is bolstered by quotes & weigh-ins from romance authors and readers, and she is absolutely right—since when could you say that about an opinionated book? Too, I kept getting all mushy-smirky about what a perfect Romance Hero my own boyfriend is: smart and charming and caring and supportive and all that good stuff. (MWAH, sweetie!)

A few things keep me from being All About This Book, though. First, the layout sucks. Pull quotes in a book make me think I’m reading a book For Dummies, and this is not a dumb or simplistic book! Second, I kinda got tired of reading quotes from folks who weren’t Sarah; the book often felt more like a comment thread, which is fine, but an entirely different style of reading for me, and I had trouble making the transition from screen to page. Finally, the very cogency and seriousness of EIKAL made it less enjoyable for me than the freewheeling snark of her previous book (with Smart Bitches co-founder Candy Tan), Beyond Heaving Bosoms, which made me laugh hard enough to disturb the cat, like, every other page. Obviously Sarah wasn’t intending this to be a humorous book (at least, not an entirely humorous book: lady can’t write 200 pages without being funny) —fighting the demonization/dismissal of romance novels is very important to her, and to me. So it’s not really a fair criticism—let’s just call it a preference.

30 October 2011

The Hunger Games Trilogy (Suzanne Collins)

Yeah, late to this party, but after chats with new (awesome) co-workers at Posman’s, I finally checked out this mega-bestselling trilogy—i.e. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I really have trouble expressing my thoughts without sounding glib or dismissive (see apologia in previous post), but here goes: I think they’re beginner’s dystopia, solid young-adult novels. In this sense, they’re fantastic—goodness knows I want post-apocalyptic awesome and revolutionary sentiment inculcated into kids ASAP. Totes in favor of QUESTION AUTHORITY onesies.

But I don’t quite get the crossover appeal. There’s a lack of sophistication to the story (and the writing—the constant comma splices in the first book made me twitch), and I don’t think the structure of the dystopia holds up to scrutiny. The country founded on the ashes of North America consists of a tyrannical central Capitol—decadent and cruel—that relies on half-starved, oppressed districts for raw materials and consumer goods. The Capitol doesn’t produce anything, and yet it has technology like genetic engineering that the districts can’t match. This isn’t how economies work.  And its inhabitants are uniformly wealthy and comfortable, simultaneously frivolous and totally down for watching teenagers from the districts slaughter each other in televised blood sport (the titular Hunger Games, held yearly as punishment for a previous rebellion). This is an arguable point, but I just don’t believe that the silly party people we encounter, happily chattering about their hip new hairstyles, don’t feel any remorse over the on-camera deaths of children.

I also think the books would have been far better served by being written in third person rather than first. Our tomboyish heroine, Katniss Everdeen, has the unfortunate habit of being wounded and out of commission for weeks; she’ll regain consciousness and have to be told about everything that happened when she was out. It’s not a particularly skillful way to construct a narrative, and it got worse as the series wore on. The first book, concentrated mostly on the 74th Hunger Games, where Katniss and love interest Peeta are contestants, is definitely the best, especially in the arena. Maybe I’m contradicting my last paragraph, but it really picked up for me once the killing started. The second and third books deal with the districts’ rebellion against the Capitol—Katniss’s behavior during the Games makes her a powerful symbol of defiance. There’s some good ambiguity as she realizes the rebels are also using her for propaganda purposes. But then there’s also a pointless love triangle. And the resolution was both mystifying and unsatisfying.

Again: they’re not bad books. They’re books for kids. Adults who loved them should try out The Gone-Away World, Perdido Street Station, A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Battle Royale (the latter a Japanese novel about teenagers battling to the death for entertainment which must have inspired Collins. When I read it, I kept a spreadsheet!).

29 October 2011

Heiress in Love (Christina Brooke)

All right, there are going to be a couple of reviews here where I’m kind of “ehn” about a book BUT have to stress that this is wholly subjective and not really critical of the book qua book. Sometimes things don’t strike my fancy, you know?

Such was Christina Brooke’s Heiress in Love, the beginning of a series which will be guided by the Ministry of Marriage—a group of wealthy and powerful British aristocrats cold-bloodedly planning alliances without regard to the feelings of the parties involved. Jane, Duchess Roxdale, recently rid of one loveless marriage, now forced by her late husband’s cruel will into contemplating another arranged match, with notorious roué Constantine Black. She’s got to overcome her disgust with Constantine’s infamous immorality, and her own repugnance with the matrimonial act. Luckily, he’s got the patience and expertise to help with the latter, and as she gets to know him, she realizes the former doesn’t tell the whole story.

The only reason I didn’t adore it—because it is marvelously written, with a lot of striking metaphors—is that I’m just not into rakes. Lord Horndog is a common hero in romances, and I get it. First of all, he’s got the mad skills born of practice with which to pleasure the heroine beyond distraction. And there’s vicarious satisfaction in the Earl of Sexington’s being seduced into swoony monogamy.

But I don’t like it, particularly in historicals, where so much of the rake’s sexual proficiency stems from encounters with prostitutes, servants, and lower-class mistresses  with elements of both (I should note that this is not the case in Heiress in Love, which I appreciated). There’s an unequal power dynamic that squicks me out. And I sometimes yearn to read about a heroine who has actually had great sex before, so that the HEA is less founded on hot and cold running orgasms. I’m perfectly aware that virgin heroes and experienced heroines exist in romance, and I just need to read more of them. (Also writing one—my heroine is a widow whose marriage was loving and affectionate, and the hero’s . . . well, I need to do more research on the sexual mores of the Chinese merchant class during the Qing Dynasty. But he’s not gonna have much of an amorous history.) Suggestions are welcome.

26 October 2011

The Way Things Are (Lucretius)

Inspired by the success of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve—which describes the rediscovery of Lucretius’s ambitious poem about everything, claiming it helped spark the Renaissance—I pulled out my trusty college copy of The Way Things Are (Latinly De Rerum Natura) and re-had at it. I have to say, I didn’t love it as much as I did when I was nineteen. (I suspect this is the simple result of having read a lot of subsequent philosophy and science in the meantime, so that I’m too aware of what he got hilariously wrong.)

But it’s still an amazing achievement. Lucretius chose poetry as a medium to explain the universe through the lens of Epicurean philosophy, much of which is quite modern: atheistic, materialistic, logical. His oft-repeated refrain is:
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.
Many of his deductions have since been proven empirically: atoms, void, even the conservation of matter. To have figured this out just by thinking about it? Wow.

And then there’s the swerve. In Lucretius’s (pretty accurate, at least to my non-physicist lights) view, the world consists of different kinds of atoms flying about, colliding and recolliding until they hit upon a useful combination. What keeps them from falling into patterns, always mixing the same way, is the swerve—the element of randomness that causes the universe. It’s a charming and mysterious way to characterize the chance and chaos that sometimes coalesces into order. Here, have a helpful illustration from my long-ago title page! I think it really says it all.

13 October 2011

Season for Temptation (Theresa Romain): Interview and CONTEST!

Season for Temptation
Back around the turn of the century, I landed my first summer job, at a Goodwill thrift store. It was great: first pick of all the clothes, 25-cent paperbacks . . . and I worked with my BFF Theresa Romain. One of our favorite pastimes was flipping through what I'm now aware were old-school romances--real bodice rippers--giggling and highlighting the naughty bits (or bits we could make naughty by highlighting selectively).

A decade-ish on, she's just published her first Regency (and thoroughly modern) romance, Season for Temptation. It's a delightful read, the story of Viscount James Matheson’s making a prudent engagement to kind, shy Louisa Oliver…before meeting her headstrong, scatterbrained stepsister, Julia Herington, who find herself as unexpectedly--and inappropriately—taken with him as he with her. The joy of reading a good romance is in knowing who will end up together but being mystified as to how; Season skillfully strings the reader along with moments of genuine anxiety and an impudent wit, largely exemplified by Louisa’s formidable aunt, Lady Oliver—who ranks with Jane Austen’s most redoubtable secondary characters.

I am pleased and proud as punch about her achievement! To celebrate, I had to do something special-er than just a review, something I'd never done before on this blog. Then it turned into TWO things: first, an author interview! I wrote a piece about her for her alumni magazine (Wichita State University), but there was so much great stuff I didn't get to put in, so it's publishing here in its entirety. Second, as part of her blog tour (oh these modern authors!), Theresa's graciously providing a copy of Season to one of you lucky readers. The procedure for entry? Just be a romance writer for a day! Comment below with your very best plot idea. I'll roll a d-something to pick a winner on Saturday at noon.

Without more ado from me, here's that interview. It's a good one.

So you've got this wonderful string of degrees [psychology, English, public history, all three from WSU]. Tell me about why you got each, what fascinates you about each discipline, and how/whether they're useful to your writing.

There was nothing systematic about what I studied, but I do think each field is useful to my writing. I started off studying psychology, because Plan A was to become a therapist. In my last semester before graduation, I suddenly became horrified by the idea (probably because I took a class in which I had to practice therapy and I realized how draining it was). So I studied English instead, just because I’ve always loved reading and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. From there, history was a natural leap since it’s so intertwined with literature—every writer is influenced by the social and political atmosphere in which they live.  And really, all three degrees are just different ways to snoop into peoples’ lives. That’s my ultimate goal: literary snooping and story-telling.

When did you start writing Season? How long did it take? Favorite scenes/characters?
I started writing Season for Temptation soon after finishing a nonfiction book, about 3-1/2 years ago.  The first draft took me nine months, though I didn’t know it was my first draft when I finished because I’d never written fiction before. I’d spent years writing scientific articles and even a biography, and unfortunately that first draft of Season sounded eerily like a scientific article too. I tinkered with it for a while, then after months away from the manuscript due to a house flood (ulp) I saw it with fresh eyes and revised the whole thing.

I like all the main characters, because they have traits I admire but don’t possess. Julia, the heroine, is optimistic and outgoing; James, the hero, has a dry wit. Lady Irving, the aunt and matchmaker, says whatever is on her mind—who wouldn’t love to do that?  And Louisa, the heroine’s sister, is socially insecure and bookish. OK, maybe she’s kind of like me after all.

Tell me about the agent/editing/selling process.
My first sale happened kind of backwards, because I actually had an offer before signing with an agent. I’d been querying agents with Season for a while, but I also entered some first-chapter contests sponsored by state chapters of Romance Writers of America. Not long after we finished the clean-up from the house flood, I got word that I’d made the finals of one of these contests, so I sent in my newly revised book for the final judge—an editor—to read. She loved it and made an offer soon after. I called my dream agents and gave them the scoop, and one agreed to take me on as a client after reading not just Season, but my other works in progress. An agent isn’t in the relationship for one deal, but for an author’s career.

What surprised you about "the writing life?" What would you want other struggling authors to know?
This might sound common sense, but it’s a good starting point: authors should treat a writing career as professionally and systematically as they would any other career.  For example, think of query letters as resumes; think of each agent as someone you’re interviewing for a job, and choose only “candidates” who work in your field (that is, agents who represent the type of work you write). Also, follow query and submission guidelines when sending your work to agents or publishers; this alone will set you apart from the crowd. And when you’re online, be professional—no public bad-mouthing. 

Are you planning to write more novels? Will they also be Regency? (If so, why this period? What does it have over other "old-timey" eras?)
I’m in this for the long haul, I hope. I’d love to make writing my full-time career, and I do write every day (well, ok, almost every day). Everything I’ve written so far has been set in the Regency. I think a lot of authors and readers get hooked by the Regency because of Jane Austen’s novels. I got intrigued by that world through her work, and the more I researched it, the more it appealed to me.  The Regency era in England is the last gasp of the pastoral, pre-industrial society, so in that way it’s very exotic to a modern reader—and yet the styles and fashions of the time appear very elegant to our eyes today. Playing the manners of the time off the expectations of modern readers is all part of the fun.

I also meant to ask about your social media presence. Can you explain to a non-industry insider why it's so important for an author to do this these days?
A social media presence—blogs, Facebook, Twitter—is an author’s supplement to a publisher’s marketing arm. Strictly from an author’s or publisher’s perspective, the goal of social media is to create awareness about a new book/series/genius-must-buy-writer. But the real purpose of social media is to connect with people, and it’s essential for an author to keep that in mind. Readers will be put off by a presence that’s just about self-promotion.

Most open-ended of all: why romance? Here's where you get to Bust Stereotypes and Defend Awesomeness. Can't wait.
Romance is fun to write and to read because it’s optimistic—yet it’s realistic, too. At its heart, a romance novel is a story about how a couple works together to overcome obstacles to a healthy relationship. It’s rarely easy, and it often involves struggle. I think the popularity of romance shows that this type of plot is something we can all connect with, because we all struggle sometimes with our own relationships (whether romantic, friendly or professional) and want a healthy, hopeful resolution.

The best romances I’ve read are among the best books of any type I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, the romance genre gets a lot of snark, mainly from people who haven’t read a modern romance novel. I’m not sure why that’s the case, because pretty much everyone likes romance, even if they don’t know it. For example, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies had romance subplots. What’s not to like about people working out their problems and supporting each other?


09 October 2011

Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev)

It happened with Anna Karenina, again with Brothers Karamazov, finally with Fathers and Sons: read the book, was worried the other WORD Classic book-clubbers were wholeheartedly into it and I'd be the odd one out. And for the third time, nope--we were all in puzzled agreement. But this wasn't the frustration we felt with AK, or the irritation we found in BK, just a certain gentle bemusement. I'm not sure what to make of Fathers and Sons. It's not a bad book at all; I didn't not like it; I didn't like it either. I have a near-perfect neutrality towards it, in fact.

As the title suggests, it's largely concerned with intergenerational conflict, at a particularly crucial time in Russian history (then again, I can't think of any non-crucial times in Russian history. "Volatile" is putting it mildly)--right before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The sons are self-styled nihilist ("Sounds exhausting") Yevgeny Bazarov and his naive hanger-on Arkady. These kids were hilarious, let me tell you: completely recognizable as early-twenties reject-everything quasi-philosophers. Yet while Turgenev is clearly smirking at their earnestness, he's got a nostalgic affection for them as well, which saves the satire from being mean-spirited.

But while the characters are sharply observed, they're not emotionally compelling. That's more or less the issue we had with the book: it just didn't engage us, for good or ill. Stephanie wonders--brilliantly, I think--if much of our shared trouble with these 19th-century Russian novels is simply having readers' brains attuned to modern English-speaking fiction, which is constructed so differently as to be an entirely different mental experience. It is, essentially, hard for us to read. This is definitely a factor: all three of the novels mentioned above contain unnecessary scenes, operatic melodrama, digressions into philosophical argument, and little concern with character development or kinetic prose. Of course, these are not bad things! Nor, obviously, necessary for The Novel as Form. Still, it goes a long way towards explaining why we didn't have much to say about these books. The mere practice of reading them, though, is flexing literary muscles little used, and can only make us better readers. Thanks, WORD, for giving us this opportunity! Best book club I've ever been in.

05 October 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

What a lovely, fun book this was!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in an alternate Georgian England in which magic--though real--has not been successfully practiced in Britain for a couple of centuries. There are still gentlemen who consider themselves magicians, though only theoretical ones; they gather to read each other long boring papers on the proud history of English magic, including its greatest practitioner, the Raven King, who was raised in a fairy court and ruled northern England for three hundred years. One member of the York society of magicians, curious about why magic no longer works in England, asks the question of the reclusive Mr Norrell--who shocks him by asserting, and later proving, that he is indeed a competent practical magician.

And with that, the magical renaissance on the sceptr'd isle is underway. Soon Mr Norrell has been enlisted by the government for what aid he can offer in the war against France. Later, he acquires a pupil, Jonathan Strange, and as time wears on their magical philosophies begin to diverge on certain points: Norrell wishes magic to be proper, gentlemanly, and above all English. To him, this means turning his back on the wild fairy magic of the Raven King and his followers; but Strange isn't so sure. The decisions each makes in favor of his views drive the narrative.

Such a wonderful narrative it is, too! Clarke writes in the formal-yet-conversational tone of Austen or Trollope, and serves up footnotes to fill in the gaps of our thaumato-historical knowledge. I love the old-schoolness of her fairies--child-stealers and tricksters--and the ease with which she incorporates the Napoleonic wars into her bewitching tale. This is that very rare novel for fans of fantasy and comedies-of-manners alike.

02 October 2011

In which I am a crank about Banned Books Week.

So last week was Banned Books Week. I know as book folk I should be all gung-ho about this; but while of course I support the freedom to read, every year I get curmudgeonly about the way BBW is celebrated. And every year I intend to write about why. This year, I'm doing it.

My objections are twofold. First: Challenging is not banning.
When you read the lists of "banned books" posted in libraries or bookstores or circulated online, what you're mostly seeing is challenged books, meaning (according to the ABA website) someone filed a written complaint about them, asking them to be removed from a library or school. OK, fine. How much, really, does that mean? Anyone can object to a book (that's the other side of free speech), but objecting--even officially airing said objections--does not keep anyone from reading, shelving, or assigning a book. And while the ABA compiles lists and statistics of frequently challenged books, they admit that "most" and "a majority" of these challenges fail--yet they don't provide numbers, which seems disingenuous to me, as there's a difference between, say, 55% of challenges not resulting in bans as opposed to 85% . . . and, honestly, in the absence of such statistics, I'm inclined to believe it's closer to the latter. I can live with that.

Two: Schools and libraries are not governments.
Let's assume, though, that a challenge does go through, and a book is removed from a library's shelves, or a school's reading list. That's a shame, but does this honestly prevent access to the book? Only from that one source--which I strongly doubt is the main source for books for most teenagers. Even I, bookish to a fault, never checked anything out from my high school library--I went to the public library, or the Borders down the street, or just hopped online. Books--in the United States--are not hard to get, and their being challenged does very little to make this harder. Look back at that list of frequently challenged books for 2010, for example: it contains both Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, both of which have sold millions of copies. How on earth can anyone refer to these as "banned books"?
To me, a banned book is an illegal book: a book whose sale or possession results in criminal charges. And in the United States in 2011, I am unaware of this being the case for any book whatsoever. Even The Anarchist's Cookbook is $5 on the Kindle.
However, many countries do outlaw books, even countries we think of as progressive and free. Mein Kampf is illegal to own in Austria, with a possible jail sentence of 5-10 years. Australia won't sell American Psycho to people under 18. And Iris Chang's Rape of Nanking took ten years to be published in Japan. Matters are worse in some parts of the Middle East--a co-worker* from Palestine to whom I complained about the U.S. BBW said that it's definitely a problem there.
I think we should talk about this, here, during Banned Books Week. We should post lists of books that couldn't be published in their author's home countries, that found a home here. We should read from them at BBW events, instead of The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter. We should celebrate how incredibly free we are.

*Oh yeah, did I mention my triumphant return to bookselling September 15? Full-time weekdays at Posman Books in Grand Central Terminal! I cannot express how happy and relieved I am: it would require interpretive dance or several LOLcats.
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