Twilight Redux

June 22, 2010

Last night I was watching the REAL Twilight movie, not that dumb one they showed in theaters, and I thought, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this!  I’ve got to write a blog post and tell everyone, so they can watch it!”  So that’s what I am doing.

Only I was asleep.  I was dreaming.  You can’t.

I’m so, so, sorry for you!  See, it had That Same Guy in it, only he was a third better looking and a better actor times two.  And it had more emotional depth, but was also camp in just the right places, which is the only way to make a movie of a book that takes itself so seriously.  Bella had a sense of humor and a female friend, not just the airheads.  This movie wasn’t trying to be exactly like the book, and so wasn’t doomed to dissatisfy fans and scoffers alike.

You will be pleased to know Edward didn’t sparkle.  He could be burnt by the sun like a proper vampire–not spontaneous CGI combustion, which is just stupid.  Hyperspeed sunburn.  Painful but not instantly fatal.  There is this one scene?  Where he falls asleep on a plank bench in the shade by the Forks High ball field when he’s just fallen in love with Bella, and wakes up all happy and disoriented.  He springs from his bench and bursts into song.  Only the sun has come out while he was sleeping.  In the grip of his ecstatic ballad and leftover wooziness from his nap, Edward ends up staggering into the sun and and burning his arm while he sings, then struggling between the conflicting impulses to keep belting out his love for Bella, nurse his blistered arm, and run for cover.  It’s hilarious.

Twilight! The Musical: it was only a matter of time.

Sometimes the Forks High football team is the chorus, in a delightfully ever-so-understated queer way.  Their uniform colors are green and white.  I didn’t get to see any scenes with Joseph–but to make up for it, Bella goes to this church potluck with her sidekick friend who wears clunky eighties costume jewelry, and the church ladies sing over the casseroles and folding tables and the coffee that get served in styrofoam cups that fit into yellow and orange plastic holders with handles.  The vampires have to show up at the potluck too and be polite, which causes some social awkwardness.

Singing church potluck with vampires.

The thing is, Edward and Bella are determined to be married in twenty-four hours–I forget why–possibly in the church.  There are impediments.  Bella’s nice friend is the voice of reason against hasty marriage and tries to introduce her to the fun of wearing big white faceted plastic jewelry, in song.  The Forks football team chimes in.  And Bella has to read all her library books before she can get married.  There is a huge stack of them, which gets sung about.  She also needs to change into a new pair of blue jeans for the wedding.

This part takes place in the church social hall.  In the conflict over the bridal preparations there is a musical number where the church ladies playfully bundle Edward into his varnished plywood sleeping coffin, which is the traditional coffin shape of a stretched-out pentagon, but wide and roomy like a bed, with hinged doors and a porthole window on top.  They dance and sing and push him around a little on the shiny vinyl-tiled floor of the church social hall until gradually a note of menace enters the confusion.  Edward begins to look a little alarmed through the coffin’s porthole as if he has realized he can’t get out.  Suddenly, we understand that Greater Forces are out to thwart Edward’s and Bella’s marital bliss–not just library books.

I’ve been ill with a cold/flu thing for the past couple days.  It’s made my dreams terribly vivid.  (No, I’m not on drugs.) I almost never remember my dreams, and yet night-before-last I had one so intense it sent me to the internet’s equivalent of sleazy waterfront bars: dream symbol dictionaries.  I know they’re useless, but what can you do? (They have flashing ads for psychics, which I picture leaving trails of slug slime in my browser, and they never include the particular symbolic dream object you’re looking for.)  I’m feeling even rottener today.  Do you think that means I’ll get to dream the end of of the movie tonight?  Oh please oh please oh please…

I don’t think so either. Twilight! was the product of reading too many book blogs and watching an awful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie right before I went to bed.  I don’t even like musicals; I just had a yen to see the famous scene where they dance on a fake Venetian verandah and Ginger’s wearing her marabou feather-scattering dress.  And the night before that I watched an episode of Fraggle Rock where you finally get to see where the Doozers live, and they show this wedding-like ceremony where young Doozers get their first work helmets and are essentially wedded to their construction work.  They sing a little call-and-response song, with a mad Doozer preacher in a tool belt and druid robe:  “Yes we do! Yes we do! Yes we really, really do!  Yes we really do!”

Which sounds cool, but was lame.  It wasn’t one of the good episodes.

My subconscious must have thought it had untapped potential.

Have you ever dreamed the movie of a book?

Doubleday, 1961

Finished: May 20, 2010

Source: fate

Genre: existential romance

On the Scales: middleweight

Vita Sackville-West probably wasn’t as smart as her Famous Friend, but she would have been more fun to meet on an ocean liner.

Here is a novel is about love, facing death, and journies by ship.  It is dated.  It is melodramatic.  It is short.  It is the kind of book that smokes Gauloises, affects a beret, and talks constantly about a manuscript with a portentious title which his friends all suspect is the only part he’s actually written down.  Something like . . . No Signposts in the Sea.

The plot device is a big wince, but unfolds into something touching.  No Signposts in the Sea ends a better book than it began.  When I say “ends,” I really do mean ends.  It didn’t like it much until the last 25 pages, but those 25 pages had such great stuff, I was able to look back more kindly on the rest.

The story progresses at an odd, jerky pace.  We’re thirty-some pages into the story before we learn that the narrator is a man.  It’s even longer before we know anything about him–his profession, the nature of his obssession with a fellow passenger named Laura, or even what he is doing on the ship.  At that point we discover that cagey David is a middle aged journalist suffering from a Nameless Malady.  Authors who burden their protagonists with this universally fatal condition never seem to realize how silly it is, or how thoroughly it undermines tragedy.  I suspect Sackville-West knew very well but waved it off with lordly indifference.  “Yes, yes.  I can’t be bothered.  Would you rather I spent my time writing books, or looking up diseases in the encyclopedia?  Come to that, it doesn’t matter which you’d rather!  I’ve a castle and gardens to look after.”

Here’s a slice of synchronicity:  In February I started the seeds of a lovely Mediterranean plant called Pride of Gibraltar (Cerinthe major atropupurrea).  The seed catalog mentioned that this flower was first introduced to many English gardens from Sissinghurst castle.  Before it was given over to the National Trust, Sissinghurst was owned and the famous gardens were made and kept by Vita Sackville-West.  I thought of her every time I watered my starts.  Then one day I was looking up something entirely unrelated on the library catalog, and a typing error brought up this book, which is how I came to read it.

David spends most of the book pulling a Hamlet–a role anyone who isn’t a prince of Denmark ought to leave alone.  “Ooh, I’m dying so it’s all about me, me, me!”  Well okay, diaries are supposed to be about me, me, me; and he is dying–but it was Laura who carried the book.

Projected on the screen of David’s ridiculously exaggerated insecurities, Laura enters as an ice queen.  The more time they spend together, the more human she gets–though it’s David who changes, not Laura.  By the end of the she has stepped down from the screen and become a woman I would have loved to have the chance to know better.  As would David.  That’s what made me choke up in the last scene (if it wasn’t that Turkish tobaco).

There were staggers.  Unconscious colonialism kept popping up and startling me like a bug-eyed whack-a-mole, as did a quaintly stormy let-us-throw-off-our-Victorian-shackles attitude toward sex that made it hard to remember the book was supposed to be taking place in the 1950’s.

There had been the young steward who brings the coffee after dinner; had I noticed him, she asked?
“I can’t say I have,” I said.  “Unlike some of your friends at home, I don’t take any particular notice of young men.  What about him?”

“Well, look how graceful he is; he might be a dancer.  From Bali.  So sinuous.  Look how he weaves between the tables.  And he has a crooked smile, which is very attractive, and one pointed ear like a faun.  A dangerous person to have about.”

At the time I thought she had spoken flippantly, and paid little heed, but now I am not so sure.  What lies under her cool exterior?  Was her appreciation of this boy’s wry beauty indicative of her own sensuality?  One has often been surprised by the discovery of hidden things going on for years in lives of the highest repute–why not in hers?  She is still young, she is attractive God knows, she is free–what is to prevent her from indulging in the most fleeting caprice?  She is deep and secreteive; one would never know.

From here is but a step to remember her comment on Dalrymple’s good looks, and he a man of her own class.  Yes, shis moved by the handsome male, no doubt about it.  She can become eloquent over black dock-hands, naked to the waist.

“Look, Edmund, what a magnificent torso, what shoulders, what muscles!  polished like metal, pure sculpture.  How a black skin enhances color–see how his red loincloth shows up redder than it would on a white man.  Look at their natural carriage, so straight and erect, and their springing walk–like atheletes.”

I wish I could believe her observation to be wholly aesthetic, but the touch of sex is in it.  Or so my disordered mind persuades me to surmise.  And why not, I say to myself, ashamed of my unworthy fancies?  She is very much a woman, and her affinity is man.  Her very frankness should perhaps be disarming: people are careful not to betray that which they have reason to conceal.  It is not exactly that I suspect her of promiscuity; only that I record her susceptibility, and, knowing her distaste for convention and hypocrisy, deduce that a sufficiently powerful inclination would lead her to seek its natural term.  Not the little steward, not a darkie–unless she is more of an experimentalist than I give her credit for–but Dalrymple . . . ah, that’s another matter.

David’s oggles and envies and twitches like a man from the age of psychoanalysis and Josephine Baker, not the atom bomb and Gypsy Lee Rose.  Of course, the problem is that Sackville-West’s war was the first world war, but her characters’ war was WWII, which resulted in the wrong kind of philosophizing and mopes.  Subtly wrong, but still…

It gave the book an artificial timelessness.  War loomed in the past, but which war?  Does it matter?  I don’t think Sackville-West believed it did.  The background was incidental.  No Signposts in the Sea was her last novel; at the end of a life of spectacular loves, she wanted to write about love and mortality.  She takes them on with a mezmerizing confidence.  My complaints dissolve.

“Tell me your recipe for a workable marriage.”

She held up her hand and began ticking off the points.

“Mutual respect.  Independence, as I have said, both as regards friends and movement.  Separate bedrooms–no bedroom squalor.  You know how a chance remark may stick and influence one’s whole outlook?  Once, when I was a girl, I heard someone define it as hair-combings floating in a basin of soapy water and I have never forgotten.  Separate sititng-rooms–if the house is large enough.  Separate finances.  I’ve come to the end of my fingers.”

“What about community of interests?”

Nice, but not essential.  What is essential is the same sense of values.”

“Meaning that one must be shocked, or otherwise, by the same things?”

“Exactly.  And amused by the same things too.”

“And what about fidelity?  Is theh liberty of the spirit to extend to the liberty of the body?”

She hesitated.

“I can’t prescribe.  I would say it must depend on the other person.  I feel sure that one should avoid giving pain; it is an elementary part of the bargain of marriage.  After all, I did live up to that principle in a minor way; I never offended Tommy’s conventional ideas because I knew it would hurt him, and short of breaking away altogether I knew that no compromise was possible.”

“How long could you have kept it up?”

She shrugged.

“I have often wondered.  As one grows older and becomes more aware, one also becomes less inclined for self-immolation.  Unless one has a saintly character, which I haven’t.  But in my case Fate intervened.”


(from Goops and How to Be Them, Gelett Burgess, 1900)

I have a notion
the books on the shelves
Are just as much persons
As we are ourselves.
When you are older,
You’ll find this is true;
You’d better be careful
To make books like you!

Teresa at Shelf Love wrote a great post about books as physical objects. I am always curious what people have to say about book-in-the-hand, because so far I haven’t encountered anyone who shares my views on the subject.  Teresa mentioned two extremes: people who see books as disposable containers for ideas–which makes me think of a dirty yoghurt container–and people who believe that all books should be handled with the same reverence as sacred vessels.  I’m extreme all right.  And yet neither of these attitudes rings a bell.

I dislike owning books.  Whazzat?  Yes, I said owning books gives me no satisfaction (which isn’t to say I don’t own an entire wall of them, many of which I am grudgingly fond).  My books are a burden, not a joy.  This would place me at the “ideas only” end of the spectrum, if not that I take what can only be described as a maniacal interest in books as physical objects–spatial, historical, tactile, and artistic.  The codex is the invention of the last couple of millenia, as far as I’m concerned.  Books are efficient.  They are modular.  They are dense.  They are made of my favorite thing.*

Hear, hear, you say.  But now I will probably part company with most of you when I say I find these rare, adorable objects communal.  The private part of a book is the idea part, the act of reading.  Book-as-idea is also transitory, and it is different for every reader.  Book-the-thing-in-your-hand is the same for everyone.  We can all see it, touch it: the same book.  It can be bought and sold.  It lasts.  Physical books are more permanent than the ideas within them.

But ideas live forever, right?  Not really.  How many moldy, swolen copies of A Tale of Two Cites or The Hunchback of Notre Dame have you seen jammed into the shelves of a sad provincial bookstore between 1970’s paperbacks, waiting to be thrown in a dumpster when the store finally folds?  A hundred twenty years ago, someone in that very same town (their signature is on the flyleaf) was reading Dickens with the same excitement their great-great-grandchildren will bring to the next season of their favorite TV show.

Call it an antiquarian bias.  For me, a physical book is like one of the toys in the Velveteen Rabbit.  It only fully exists when enough people have read it to make it Real.  Unless it is an art or reference book, owning a book myself always feels trying to make something beautifully ephemeral into something permanent.  It feels weird.  It goes against my gut instinct, a bit like it would go against my gut instinct to murder a great Shakespearian actor, stuff him with sawdust, and stick him in a museum case.  Or maybe a better analogy would be taking a little kid who might grow up to be a great Shakespearian actor and locking him in the cupboard.

“Can I come out now?”

“Shh.  Not now.  My library holds just came in.  I’m reading the new Suzanne Collins.”

“You like Suzanne Collins better than me?”

“No.  Your characterizations are deeper and your vocabulary is more colorful, but I’ve already read you.  I’ll probably never read you again.  I might give you to my sister someday, though.  Here.  Have a fruit roll-up.”  [Slides fruit roll-up under door.]

People will always stop understanding the ideas in a book long before the last copy has rotted away.**  That’s how it’s meant to be.  Ideas die in old stories and are reincarnated in new ones.  Dickens is dead as a doornail back at that shop in Podunkville.  The town’s potential Dickens readers aren’t really typical podunkers.  They aren’t going to discover him in the Book Shoppe; that only happens in big city bookstores.  Or in movies.  If they find him at all, they will find him at school or at their public library.

There is a picture of Andrew Carnegie in my household shrine.  I burn candles for him.***  Is it any surprise I’m a library book idolator?  It’s not a comfortable religion.  Hasty library purges are extremely painful for me.  So is the drop in “library edition” quality that came when they stopped stitching the signatures together on most hardcovers (some time in the mid-eighties), and there were no more full-cloth bindings.  Since then it’s been a slippery slope of cheaper, harsher, thinner paper and flimsier binding materials.  Libraries now invest in as many disposable trade paperbacks of a new, popular book as they can (which take up shelf space and instigate the purges), instead of buying hardcovers–which are at any rate no longer much sturdier than the paperbacks.

I suppose privately-owned books could have the same gravitas as library hardcovers.  Most of them don’t.  I suppose I should be glad no librarian can take away my “dirty old” copy of Pride and Prejudice and replace it with paperback edition that will fall apart in 3 years and a shelf full of duplicate best-sellers that will be jettisoned for the next author of the month.  But I’m not.  Somehow, my friendly old copy of Pride and Prejudice just doesn’t make my heart soar,**** and I can’t walk into a Barnes and Noble without feeling queasy.

The kind of book I love most to read–a fat, indestructible oilcloth or clothbound hardcover with furred corners and a limber binding that has been through countless hands and will go through countless more–is disappearing from the world, booksale by booksale.  A few of them disappeared into my cupboard.  Barnes and Noble doesn’t sell them.

Is that a part of why so many of you take pleasure in buying and collecting books?  They don’t disappear on you?  As much as I hate it when good books disappear from my library, mediocre books that disappear from my house are one of my favorite things!  Even more than bringing them home, I love loading them into my library bookbag and hauling them off to the bookdrop.  It’s like magic.  Poof!  Gone, and yet infinitely available.  Like the books-as-ideas in my head.

This isn’t responsible.  I’m a foolish, carefree grasshopper in an age of library luxury.  “Free books for everyone” is way too good for this world.  How can a concept so beautiful and sensible and totally unlikely exist on the same planet that gave us tackweed, bubonic plague and diet pop?  It’s not even moral.  I am painfully aware that if libraries were the only book-buyers, hardly any books would get published, and a lot of authors would stop writing them.  Keep up the good work, you book lovers of discerning taste and ready pocketbook.  Oh.  And thanks for having my 2.3 kids while you’re at it!

*Trees.  I also take a maniacal interest in old furniture and houses.

**The current shelf life of ideas has kept pace nicely with the quality of books.  Common referents expire as quickly as the cheapest paper, now.

***Not really.  But if I did have a household shrine, I can’t think of anything else I would rather put in it.

**** The fact that Der Mann and I have had eight addresses in eleven years***** may well have something to do with this.

*****Not counting stints as pickup-camper nomads and in my parents’ parked travel trailer.  Did you know they won’t give you a library card if you live in a campground?  Even if you really live there?  Even if you have a land-line phone?  It’s not a residence if it’s got wheels.  Some of those people had been living in that campground for years.

Disclaimer: I’ve seen reviews of this book on several blogs I enjoy.  I haven’t read them.  At first I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to risk a spoiler.  Later I didn’t read them because I knew I was going to do some nit picking here. I expect some of the nits I pick will be things other readers particularly liked about this book.  I wanted to be sure you know: I’m not responding to your reviews contrary-wise.  Just being my nit picky self.

Turner neophytes: No spoilers.  Read with confidence.

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished: late April

Genre: YA fantasy that reads like historical fiction

On the Scales: middleweight

Inside the room, opposite the glass doors, were carved wooden ones that remained closed in all my visits.  I had no idea what might be beyond them, probably because I had no interest.  Everything I desired was in the room with me.  Between these doors, and on  every other space of wall, were shelves for books and scrolls and packets of papers and every kind of writing you can imagine, even tablets impressed with minute scratches that I not only knew were writing but could read, by the magic of dreams.

You may be shocked to learn how badly things have gone for Sophos since we saw him in The Thief.  A quest for a magic talisman is just the thing to set a boy on track, isn’t it?  And he’s still got the Magus, hasn’t he?  But as so often happens after adventures, Sophos’ home is still what it was when he left it.  Life remains a series of humiliations for the worst-case-scenario back-up heir of a petty king.  Now in his late teens, with the Magus’ excellent education under his belt, is it any surprise that Sophos’ coldly reasoned self-knowledge has hobbled his spirit?  Failure is so inevitable he hardly bothers about it anymore.  Sophos is a poet and thinker rather than a bully.  In Sounis, bullies make good rulers.  Sophos father and uncle are bullies.  Their noblemen are bullies who have to be bullied to be kept in check.  Sophos’ sword master is a bully, too.  He is surrounded by them.  He suffers them in shamed silence.

Ah ha!  But in Megan Whalen Turner’s world, rulers must rule whether they are suited to the job or not!  This is what creates the dramatic tension in her books.  For the kings and queens who maintain the delicate balance of power between the Classical Greek-themed kingdoms of Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis–with the Medes looming on one side and the occidental kingdoms on the other–the personal and the political are always intertwined.

As soon A Conspiracy of Kings began, I could it was going to take a big jolt to shake Sophos out of his rut.  In fact, it took slavery and a third of the book.

This was the third of the book I enjoyed.

Now, in the eyes of Ochto, sitting on a stool by the door, slurping his own soup, I was no different than any of the men around me.  My freedom was like my missing tooth, a hole where something had been that was now gone.  I worried at the idea of it, just as I slid my tongue back and forth across the already healing hole in my gum.  I tasted the last bloody spot and tried to remember the feel of the tooth that had been there.  I had been a free man.  Now I was not.

To explain why this novel disappointed me so, I will have to explain why I think Megan Whalen Turner’s skills and sensibilities as a writer are on a par with Ursula Le Guin or Katherine Paterson–far exceeding (with the exception of Elizabeth Wein) any other American author of her generation whose books are marketed for children and young adults.

So here goes.

Imagine a mystery in which no crime was committed and no detective solves it.  There are no red herrings.  In fact, the author leaves no clues.  The characters leave them instead.  I say the characters rather than the author because–unlike a mystery novelist–there is no catching them out, no learning their game. They aren’t playing one.  They’re living their lives as they find them.

Until you learn to track these characters’ emotions and motivations like wild animals in a forest, you will feel like you are just reading a “normal” fantasy adventure–a children’s story.  The scenes and pacing will be familiar.  You will recognize the cast at a glance: impatient scholar, bluff soldier, haughty noble son, weakling.  Amazon.  Trickster.

I was lying when I said the characters aren’t playing a game.  They are playing Turner’s game!  By submerging her construction so completely in her characters and setting, Turner plays the deepest game of all.  Chances are you won’t even see it until the story is over and the book is shut.  If you are lucky, you’ll be left with a strange, rubbing-your-eyes feeling that you missed something because . . . you did.  Everything was a clue to a deeper emotional reality.  Every choice of words, every gesture, every odd detail you just put down to atmosphere was part of the overall construction.  Then, as though a ruined temple had just risen out of the sea, you will begin to see Turner’s genius.  You will marvel that she was able to build this huge thing, and at the same deploy her characters so confidently and compassionately to do all the work of hiding it: secret agents in stock-character disguise.

Your discovery will be all the more delightful if you realize that she has chosen to build her temple inside a young person’s novel not for the shock value of the contrast between big ideas and little heads, but because she truly respects the form.  She didn’t see its conventions as a handicap; they were a natural set of tools for her as a writer.  It didn’t seem at all strange to her to build her temple on Atlantis where it would sink beneath most grownups’ notice.

The problem with builder-architect type authors is that their work takes an enormous amount of energy and focus.  Contrast this with yarn-spinning authors, with the literary equivalent of amateur carpenters (there are a lot of these), or even authors who just sit around playing Sim City.  If an author sets out to hammer up a tool shed of a book and things go badly, chances are they’ll still end up with a tool shed.  It may be leaning sideways and there may be gaps between the boards, but it will keep the rain off their tools.  If an author runs short of focus or energy when she is trying to raise a temple out of quarried stone. . .

Four books take place in Turner’s world of The Thief.  The first two, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia were completed buildings, the second two, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings were construction sites.  Right now I’m trying to figure out how a writer for whom I have such profound respect could have written two books that never came together, when her first two books were all about things coming together.

In The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, quite apart from the hidden structure of the story and hidden depths of the characters, Turner handles the interplay between love, friendship and statecraft with a conjuror’s lightness.  Because this kind of close interplay is peculiar to the “time” she’s writing about in her fantasy world, pulling it off requires a firm–even academic–sense of history most fantasists lack.  In the both The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings the political situation is more settled.  The stories concentrate on the personal burden of rule and the social forces that determine the success or failure of a head of state.  I don’t think Turner’s history failed her in these recent books.  Rather, I think her careful creation of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis as realistic ancient kingdoms forced her kings and queens into such tight corners of royal responsibility, they had no more room to maneuver the plot.  Now the derring-do is done, how can they break out?  How can they surprise us?  How can they turn on a dime and change the whole story?

I see Turner trying to solve this problem with her naïve first-person narrators.  The young palace guard Costis watches events unfold in The King of Attolia, providing a sense of dramatic irony (we know something is up that he doesn’t; we just don’t know what it is), and in Conspiracy of Kings, there is Sophos.  It isn’t enough.  Sophos may be at the center of political events, but because of his deliberate intellect and morals, there is really never any question of what he’ll do, only what will happen to him–and by the second part of the book, we are no longer in much doubt about that.

Gen and Attolia were capable of anything.  Sophos is another breed.  That doesn’t make me like him any less, but it does make it necessary to write him as the hero a different kind of book, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen with A Conspiracy of Kings.  Turner’s trademarks are her reversal and her reveal.  Whole interpersonal crises turn out to be edifices of deceit.  Whole characters.  Whole strategies.  Whole relationships.  The two reveals in A Conspiracy of Kings–the contents of a heart, and the contents of a box–were quite small and forced.

The prologue in A Conspiracy of Kings hinted at the possibility a much greater reversal, like the ones in The Thief or The Queen of Attolia (think Judas kiss).  It would have booted Sophos off center stage, which seemed unfair after all he’d suffered, but halfway through the book, I was still trusting her to have something so amazing up her sleeve that it would make the odd switch from Sophos’ first-person narrative to an authorial third-person narrative worthwhile.  The third-person section takes place entirely in Attolia’s palace, and features cool, uninformative descriptions of political negotiations with a couple of cryptic forays into the Queen of Eddis’ head.  It was not compelling reading.  I couldn’t believe that Turner would mark time so awkwardly unless it was for a good reason.

The reversal never materialized.  Changing the narrator was a big mistake.  It had the same effect as ripping a microphone out of Sophos’ hands when he had just started telling his story.  It was an even bigger mistake to suddenly give it back to him for the last part of the book.  At that point we are shown how it was all part of the plan, but in my opinion the plan was too unformed to be worth the stylistic bumps.

Perhaps if Turner had taken this book through more drafts it would have turned out quite differently.  I can think of several versions encompassing the same characters and events.  For example, Sophos could have been a truly naive narrator–an imperiled pawn as he pleads his case in Attolia and the threat of the Mede slowly materializes on every side.  Or she could have focussed on the military campaign.  Instead of a book standing still it could have been a book in motion, with the rulers frantically massing their troops and acting out their personal dramas on the fly.

My vote would have been to trust Sophos’ voice, trust him to carry the book, and let him spend most of it as a slave.  There’s no reason he couldn’t have stepped up to his responsibilities while he was still in captivity (or later pretending to be, as at the Baron’s banquet).  A slave moved to another household, perhaps?  Taken along on a trip?  This would have been a good way to put Sophos’ inner transformation at the center of the story and add a little much-needed intrigue.  I believe the other characters could have fallen in line with the slightly altered plot, and perhaps grown in some surprising ways themselves as a result.

The strongest conventional fantasy element in Turner’s books are her gods.  They are subtle: just a whisper of the supernatural that raise the moral stakes and clarify the inner lives of her characters.  Sophos dreams of the library in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review.  With his past life buried in days of mind-numbing labor, Sophos’ intelligence bursts out in vivid dreams where he argues with his new “tutor” amid the books of the library.

She was amused by my interest in the system of natural categorization that the magus had taught me.  I explained the importance of understanding how things are connected.

She only smiled at my earnestness and said, “Everything is connected, Bunny, to everything else.  If a man tries to transcribe each connection, thread by thread, he will only make a copy of the world and be no closer to understanding it.”

I am afraid Turner got a little lost in her own connecting threads.  The dream-tutor is a beautiful concept she used only briefly, for a specific purpose, before racing on to other things.  Sophos could have learned more from his tutor.  Their talks could have been the mortar that stuck the story together and let it stand whole.

In Lieu of Review

April 30, 2010

Sorry.  I had my review of  Graham Joyce’s The Exchange all planned out in my head this morning, but somehow the distance from head to blog was greater than usual.  Now it’s too late.  I have to pack sandwiches for supper, pick up Der Mann, and head for the city, because it is the first night of the big weaving and potters’ guild expositions.  Last year we missed them.  Ceramics and textiles are my chief vices.  Far more than books, which–oddly enough–do not inspire me to acquisitiveness.  Wish me discount used weaving tools, and a beautiful tea bowl!

Der Mann, a graphic designer who doesn’t get to have much fun at work, sometimes makes pretend projects on his breaks.

This is what he e-mailed me today.

It is a greeting card for difficult relatives but, as you can see, the message is versatile.



After my recent rapid fire reviews a couple of people (Hi Jenny!  Hi Jodie!) commented they were sorry I hadn’t enoyed a book I’d heard about on their blog as much as they did.  I have been noticing “sorrys” in the comments section of a lot of other blogs.  My own attitude when this happens is along the lines of a cheerful, “That’s the breaks, toots!  Better luck next time!”

Which–unless it is by an author whose other work has raised my expectations–is pretty much what I tell myself when I don’t like a book.

I know the “sorry” is a conveys mild regret, and not a feels culpability.  It still makes me a little nervous.  Did you really want me to like that book?  If so, I’m sorry!  I didn’t know.  Maybe I should have tried harder?

It’s gratifying when someone likes the same books I do, but I don’t hope for it.  The reasons not to like a book are personal and myriad; the reasons to like it are more limited and categorical.  With a few peculiar books, the set of reasons one might have la Grande Passion for it is pretty small, so people who LOVE that book THE MOST will almost certainly have some things in common, but because that set is so small, the odds are against it–unless you are a hard-core Middle Earther.

Yes, I’d be disappointed if you read Fudoki because I’d reviewed it, then wrote a scathing, irritable review showing you’d ignored all the subtleties I’d pointed out, and hated it for reasons I felt were trumped-up and capricious.  But I wouldn’t feel regret on your behalf.  A seed of doubt would be planted as to whether I ought to trust your judgement on other books, as you are clearly such a different kind of reader from me, but I wouldn’t be sorry in any sense of the word.

Short of that, if you don’t like a book I reviewed, I’ll just be flattered my review was enough to get you to read it and interested to hear what you think.

Or, when you write a positive review, does it feel like a personal recommendation?

Personal recommendations are different.  I still wouldn’t call it regret, but there is a feeling of going out on a limb which, naturally, if that limb gets sawn off, could smart a bit.  I would say it is a good pain.  It’s an aspect of learning what other people see in books, or don’t, which is a back-door way of learning about people-who-read in general.  And . . . guess what?  You fascinate me.  (Hi everybody!  Half of you don’t know who you are, because I’ve never commented on your blogs!)

I can only think of one kind of pain associated with personal book recommendations that isn’t worthwhile.

When I was in college, there was a boy.  (Yes, yes.  Not that story.  It’s about a book.)  Actually, there were a lot of boys, but this boy was the first who seemed capable of the kind of intellectual/artistic friendship I’d expected to find laid out on a smorgasbord when I got to school.  (These friendships simply don’t exist outside Iris Murdoch novels, certainly not at Christian liberal arts colleges, even when said Christian liberal arts college is the kind that attracts Earnest Baby Intellectuals).  The boy was an acolyte of Wordsworth, the New England transcendentalists, and Dostoyevsky.  We had idea talks.  He interrupted me a lot.

Actually, he interrupted me constantly.  Once I got so frustrated I raised my voice at him to stop it.  Something I never do.  It didn’t help.

In the course of our talks, based on my growing understanding of his taste in ideas, I realized that a novel I had recently enjoyed would be the kind of thing he would really, really like–even more than I had liked it.  I suspected it would be La Grande Passion for him.  So I happily told him about it.

A month or two later when we talked again (it was the kind of friendship where you have three-hour talks, weeks apart), he started telling me about this really, really great book he’d read.  Yes, it was the same book I’d recommended, and I’d been absolutely right about how much he would love it, but he had completely forgotten I had recommended it to him.

At that point I could have stopped him and and said, “Hey, I’ve read that.  In fact, I’m the one who told YOU to read it!”–but I didn’t.  I was nineteen.  I smiled and listened to his rapturous (Self-absorbed?  Or is that hindsight?) description, and tried not to feel like dirt.  I had introduced him to the Book That Changed His Life, and now he was telling me to read it.  It wouldn’t have been such a stinging slap in the face if he had just liked it.  But he had love, love, loved it.

Let’s just step back for a minute.  If I had never read Jane Eyre, and you told me about it, and I read it; I would remember you years later, not just months.  I would remember you fondly when I could no longer remember what day of the week it was or my own birthday.  This is why, although I don’t post links (I would never get anything posted at all, if I tried to post comprehensive links), I do try to marshal my scribbly paper scraps and the contents of my fleece-stuffed brain-pan and mention the blog reviews that led me to a given book–and my sincere apologies when I fail in this.

As for the boy–let’s call him the Head-Messer–it was the beginning of the end.  I didn’t officially end the friendship until a year later, when a large amorphous betrayal was revealed on the heels of all the little amorphous betrayals, but the Book That Changed His Life was what first opened my eyes to him.  He was a people-collector; I was an unusual specimen.  Or, to be more charitable: he was complicated, he liked to have a lot of friends, and I just wasn’t the kind of friend that required his close attention.

You know how people tend to get crushes on heartless jerks who are just a little bit more physically attractive than they are?  The same is true of Murdochian friendships.  People seek them with confident intellectuals who are just a little bit smarter than everyone else.  The Head-Messer never had any trouble surrounding himself in a swarm.

I wasn’t the only bug to struggle free of the specimen box.  One day, when I was studying in the empty dining hall, a girl plunked herself down at my table, said, “You’re friends with X, aren’t you?” and proceeded to tell me my own story of the Head-Messer.  It was her story as well.  The only thing missing was the book.  I didn’t know this girl except as a friendly acquaintance–she was a year behind me–and until that day I had no idea she had been one of the Head-Messer’s friends.  A lot of us former specimens were like that, girls and boys both.  We weren’t quite sure what had happened.  None of us liked to talk about it.

At the time I was on my way out of the country for a year.  I was embarrassed enough by the girl’s confidences that I failed to recognize them as an overture of friendship.  I never really talked to her again.  I wish I had.  We probably would have liked a lot of the same books.  This is one of my regrets.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

Dispatch From the Front

April 21, 2010

And they shall be immortal, in a Really Bad Poem

I was going to start out by saying, “well I haven’t been reading much because I’ve been frantic to deploy my botanical troops before the weeds win the war,” but looking back, I see I’ve finished quite a few books.  I’m not sure how.  I don’t devote hours at a time to a book unless I am completely in its thrall.  (I once spent a whole morning darning socks just as an excuse to keep listening to the audio version of The Likeness.)  So, when did I read all these books, exactly?  All I can remember is a 20 minute sit-down with a cup of tea here (though I’ll admit I don’t look at a clock), a lunch there (I have a book stand; I do not dribble), and a few bedtime sessions.  That can’t be right.  I guess there is another way to take the expression that someone “inhales” books: not that each books is consumed in a single breath, but that she breathes them like the air.

Maybe it’s magic.

My list of books not-yet-blogged also made me think about the changes in my reading habits since I first swept out Villa Negativa and opened its doors.  I keep more books going at once, because when I finish them I’ll have to write about them.  I’ll set down Dorothy Sayer’s essays with the uncomfortable thought that I’ll have to address her rah-rah wartime Britishness, and pick up Vita Sackville-West.  Once I’ve figured out what’s going to happen to her main character, I’ll put down Vita and spend a Sunday morning inhaling (in the traditional sense) Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave.  Meanwhile, Dead Souls is (are?) taunting me in fulsome sentences, waving little tridents, trying to goad me past the third chapter, and Coronation Summer is looking all-too-demure on the bedside table now that I know (courtesy Wikipedia) Thirkell was a snob about her own books, which blows my mind.  Today I’m putting off the last quarter of The Crystal Cave, both because I don’t want it to end, and because I have already planned some stuff I could say about it in a blog entry, and I wonder if it would be cheating to start writing a review before I finished the story?

That’s the other big change.  I’ve been reading for themes and context.  Whole book-describing sentences pop into my head.  I’ve started doing sticky note tabs like I did in school.  I’ll think, “How would I describe what she’s doing with that character?  What other author does she remind me of?”  or  “Oh!  Megan Whalen Turner has totally read this!  I wonder if anyone else has noticed.  I could tie this in with something about The Thief.”

This is different from the way I generally read.  Not that I don’t read critically, but it stays inside, automatic and not at all distracting.  A background murmur.  Long thoughts play out in the shower about how Mary Stewart’s sort of landscape descriptions are a lost art, and how most modern descriptions of place are boring–why is that?  Good descriptions of place don’t have to be long, to be complete and evocative, so maybe that is the problem: most contemporary writers never learned to sketch.  They are more like pointillists, etc, etc.

The shower-thoughts are not formulations.  I may reach conclusions, but they are fluid, and half of the time I forget them afterward.  I will very, very rarely talk to Der Mann about something I’m reading, because my least favorite activity in the world is explaining things–and you can’t tell someone who hasn’t read it what you’re thinking about a book without telling them what’s in it.  We have enjoyable conversations about the books we read aloud together, but until now my private reading has been essentially private.  I mean, its essence was private.  The way I experienced books was as internal as a sore foot or the feeling of a laugh before you let it out.  You can say, “My foot hurts,” or “That was really funny,” but the other person doesn’t feel the ache you do, or the delighted squeeziness in the chest.  It’s just you and the author.  Or you and the characters.

That’s why I dropped my English major like a hot potato after my first year-and-a-half of college.  I didn’t want reading to be spoiled.  It was too important to me.  I didn’t want to meet novels with the knowledge that there was a paper to write at the end.  It was like getting a massage on a highway meridian, or never getting to see your lover except in the crowded break room on a factory floor.  It made me feel as icky as a tabloid journalist pretending to be someone’s friend for the scoop.

So, in place of English I studied Philosophy, a subject where you get to read literary texts created for the purpose of being analyzed.  (I also liked the idea of a completely useless degree, and I am a math paralytic with a fondness for the abstract.  Foolish, perverse child.)

fat philosophers have more fun

I haven’t read a smidge of philosophy since college, and remember very little of what I read there.  I only realized what sort of an education I’d received (for a long time I was under the impression, none) when I began noticing how much reading and writing philosophy had affected the way I think.  It had taken all my little analytical quirks and turned them into big analytical quirks.  In fact, it had done to me that very thing past persons feared education would do to their parishoners, serfs, and marriageable daughters.  It had taught me to think.  About everything.  In the round.

All the time.

If my experience as a reader has been private, then being a former student of philosophy has been downright isolating.  When I’m listening to the sorts of stuff people talk about when they talk about stuff, my inner commentary is a string of potential faux pas (people are deeply insulted when you notice shaky logic on both sides of a polarizing issue, they’d rather you just took a side and shouted), irrelevancies, and unfunny-to-anyone-but-me jokes.  Mostly, since I don’t enjoy revealing myself as a pedantic pariah, I keep my mouth shut.  And there is that whole thing about hating explaining myself.  Everybody else hates it too.  Conversation is not about conveying or receiving information, so explanations are beside the point.  Especially when your brain works at writing speed rather than speaking speed.

A year ago, if you told me that I would voluntarily sit down and write an essay about a book, I would have told you, no, that would be a waste of time, I’d hate it.  What I didn’t know was that writing about books could be like writing letters.  And even more amazing, getting letters back.

I utterly hatedloatheddespised writing research papers, but I used to be a big letter writer.  I stopped in my early twenties because I realized that writing letters to non-letter-writers is a burden to them.  So embarrassing!–I simply hadn’t conceived of someone not loving to get mail, because I loved it so much.  After that, I had a couple of good email correspondences that slowly dried up.  In the last several years: nada.

Letter-writing is a unique pleasure.  When you write a letter, you are making something with a definite structure, but that thing can be whatever it turns into.  If there’s a thesis it sort of just, emerges.  It reminds me of the way theses emerge in fiction.  Letters would be a perfect place to talk about fiction, if there weren’t the whole problem of explaining books to people who haven’t read them and probably won’t.  Blogging solves that problem, and also the problem of burdening non-writers with communications they can’t return.  My inner commentary, so unsuitable for conversation, is actually suitable here.

Fantastic!  But also not.  I seem to be hard wired for a certain length of literary musing.  Der Mann asked if I had ever thought about writing short interim posts and I said I had.  It makes sense to write both short and long ones, depending on how much you want to say about a book.  The problem is that once I start writing I always want to say roughly the same amount of stuff.  My letters were all the same length too.

Because I am a slow writer, this makes it impossible to do what I set out to do here: write a little something about every book.  I’m a completeist.  It niggles.  Once I’ve gone to the trouble of thinking all those distracting blog-post preparation thoughts, I feel like I’ve wasted something unless I go ahead and write the review.  I’ve missed out on a “pure” reading.  My shower thoughts have lost their comfortable idleness.

I don’t hate writing reviews, but I kind of hate what it’s done to my reading life.  If you’ve got this far you’re probably someone who has thought about how blogging has affected your reading, too–or hasn’t.  Do you like the change, or not?  What is it like for you to read a book when you are intending to blog about it?

I used to be a night person.  Now that I’m no longer a night person or a morning person, it takes a special kind of book to end up on my bedside table.  I drop off to sleep instantaneously; that’s not the issue.  My bedside book has to be something good enough that I can put it down without feeling I’ve devoted the last few minutes of my day to something pointless or cheesy, but not so good I’m tempted to keep the light on because I can’t find a stopping place, while Der Mann (who gets up early to catch a bus) flops in increasing half-asleep irritation. Plus, when I read too long after Der Mann’s sleepy-time my hands and forearms get cold from holding up the book, and sometimes I can’t warm them up again.  Fifteen minutes to a half hour is usually about right.  If I’ve got a book I literally can’t put down I just get up and read in a chair.  Social satire is good, but not too cringey.  Period drama, but not too weighty.

Well, last night I made a terrible terrible mistake when I selected my reading options.  I took one of these.  I don’t even want to write its title, because that could turn into an unintentional advertisement.  From now on I have sworn off Rick Geary.

Geary wrote a non-fiction comics in a series known as A Treasury of Victorian Murder, and now he is writing about early 20th century crimes as well.  About twelve years ago I found The Borden Tragedy in general nonfiction at a public library.  It was probably the first edition; crude printing, small publisher–I assumed it was somebody’s little moneymaking scheme, the kind of thing you might find for sale at a tourist bureau in Fall River.  Back then the only graphic novel I’d seen was Maus.  Epic and serious.  So I barely knew what to make of this.

But I read it, and it stuck with me.  Geary was reporterly–even humane–in his treatment of a gristly crime of passion.  The distance in time from the events, combined with the objectifying effect of comics in general and of Geary’s reductive-yet-detailed drawing style in particular, was compelling.  I avoid horror and true crime books, so this was the closest my reading would get to any kind of real-life-type murderers; coming this far was kind of interesting.  Hopeful, even.  Geary presents his disasters with the accompaniment of a careful diagram, defused of their explosive craziness, so that you can examine them.  He doesn’t obtrude his own personality or emotions on his narratives; both in his pictures and in the tone of his text he steers clear of spatter in favor of the slightly smarmy tone of contemporary newspaper accounts (perhaps directly quoting from them) and traditionally composed panels that owe a lot to old photographs and postcards.  It sounds weird to say so, but I felt like I was learning and being diverted at the same time–the same feeling I get at a really good museum exhibit.

I didn’t know the Borden tragedy was part of a series until just a few weeks ago.  Then I read Famous Players (the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood) and The Fatal Bullet (the assassination of James Garfield).

By the time I realized how much more disturbing last night’s little book was going to be than the other three, it would have been worse NOT to finish it than to find out what happened.

Another thing I’d liked about Geary’s comics was the intentional variety.  Although his drawing style and pacing is very consistent, each comic had a little unique device in the telling, an emphasis, that made you feel like you were entering a separate miniature world from the last.  The emphasis in the one I read last night wasn’t the murderer’s character, because he was a cipher, but the the repetitive, frenetic, a-logical series of events he generated.  His constant scurrying, like an insect.  The fact that, like an insect, he was able to perpetrate so much disgusting awfulness completely disregarded and completely unchecked.

I like to think about times when everything was messier and on a more human scale.  It comforts me to remember how recent they were.  In The Fatal Bullet I enjoyed the atmosphere of late 19th century Washington D.C., with the president strolling out of the White House by himself after dinner and walking a few blocks to visit a friend!  In Famous Players, I was impressed that just 90 years ago a Hollywood director like William Desmond Taylor was living in a normal courtyard bungalow, where an actress in a neighboring unit usually spent her evenings knitting.  The book I read last night offered no little socio-historical compensations for the murderer’s mess.  The events took place in a time modern enough that a clearly screwy fellow couldn’t be kept in line by the watchful eyes of his community–this one had no community, just business associates and incurious suburban neighbors–but not modern enough that there were official structures to take the community’s place as watchdog.

Seeing all the ways he might have been caught if anyone was paying attention gave the whole thing a fatalistic  feeling which only got worse, and worse, and worse.  You know a book’s not doing you good when the only bright spot is an incident of arson.

When I had finished it–and it didn’t take long–I put it down with a feeling that it was physically tainted.  I’m not generally subject to the horrors, or even persistent unwanted thoughts, but last night took me back to early childhood.  My sense of hearing was heightened, and the caterwauling cats, distant coyotes, squirrels working to get into the eaves, and animals going thump as they jumped onto the porch gave me plenty to listen to.  There was also the dread of opening the door on the dark bathroom–the shadowy no man’s land behind the tub.  It occurred to me for the very first time in the year we’ve lived here that Something Bad might easily have happened in a 97-year-old house.  Even in a 97-year-old house with a crappy down-to-the-studs remodel, that wasn’t even built as a house. “The Creamery Murders of 1918” perhaps?  Eh.  Better not go there.

In the process of not going there, I lay perfectly still on my back and my side and my other side like a slow rotisserie.  My shoulder muscle went into spasm.  Every thought went foggily back to something from the book.  It seemed to last all night.  No bad dreams, thankfully, because I never dropped off that far.  I didn’t feel personally threatened, just nauseated that there was such evil in the world.  It seemed that it would have spilled over into everything it came near.

Now I’m angry.  Not at Geary: Geary’s just doing what he always does.  It’s a lot better than what true crime writers are doing.  I suppose I’m angry at the murderer, who used his creative energies for destruction.  The fact that he was caught and punished means nothing because it undid nothing he’d done.  I wanted him never to have existed.

That made me think of eugenics.  The whole notion of eugenics is repellent, but I am wondering if its popularity in the early 20th century may have something to do with that crack between pre-modern and modern social structures–when the moral cockroaches first started venturing out of the woodwork without fear, before we stood around with our cans of Raid, expecting them.  Resigned to them.

The best I can do is not read about them.  I need my sleep.

Is there a book you wish you could unread?

Off Topic: Art Request

April 6, 2010

Weird question: do you have a favorite painting of the ascension or the transfiguration of Christ?  I am looking for a print to buy for a lady in her 80’s.  A month ago I gave her a photocopy of a copy of Pietro Annigoni’s Deposizione (Christ being lowered from the cross), because she knew the person who had drawn the copy, and she was curious about it.  But the lady is a Methodist, has (early stages) dementia, and I just didn’t like the idea of that droopy dead Jesus (in a momentary lapse she referred to it as “that picture of the puppet”) hanging on her fridge for months thanks to me, and nothing to balance it out!

So, I want to buy her a non-dead Jesus picture.  The problem is, my own choice would be icon-type ones, like this:

Andrei Rublev, medieval Russian painter. Also a film you should watch because it is awesome.

Or early Renaissance, like this:

Giotto. Charity begins at home, and heaven begins at the ceiling.

I know she wouldn’t go for these.  Not anything abstracted or primitive.  Actually, she would probably go for saccharine modern devotional art (she used to have poker-playing dogs on the wall, without irony), but I can’t quite talk myself into that.  Any ideas? High Renaissance, maybe?

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
first published in UK, 2001
Margaret K. McElderry of Simon and Schuster, 2002
Finished: late February 2010
Source:  Nymeth’s blog and Jenny’s Books
Genre: Children’s or Young Adult fiction

Several of you spoke up for a review of Saffy’s Angel when I did my Reader’s Request post, in which I mentioned that I hadn’t enjoyed this deserving book much because “it poked a stick in all my childhood complexes.”

Well, not quite all, as there are far too many of them for one book.  But how I disliked disliking it!  Do I get any points for that?  Such a disappointment to be barred from the Hilary McKay fan club.  Saffy’s Angel is just the kind of story I usually love: a British children’s novel bound to confuse American publishers.  See, American book marketers have a lot of trouble understanding kids as thinking human beings, because they are also a dragon’s hoard of potential cash, to be handled with kid gloves.  Saffy’s Angel is heavy with everyday British cultural references, and (gasp!) the action isn’t centered exclusively around a 8-12 year old protagonist.  There are grownups with grownup concerns as well, and teenagers, but no easily pinned-down “teen issues” that would place it in the YA category.  “ARRGGH!  HOW DO WE MAKE THIS SEEM LIKE HARRY POTTER SO WE CAN SELL IT?”

My impression of Hilary McKay is that she is old school, going back to the conventions (if you can call them that) of Penelope Farmer, Mary Norton, Phillipa Pearce, Barbara Sleigh, K.M. Peyton and others: a particular kind of middle-20th-century slice-of-life British children’s writing.  (The other side of the coin would be outright fantasists like Peter Dickinson and Joan Aiken.) Reading Saffy’s Angel, I felt I could be reading a book written 50 or more years ago, instead of just 10.  At first I assumed McKay was setting her story in the 70’s or early 80’s:  no computers, no saturating pop culture.  No television that I can recall.  I was quite startled when cell phones were used and I realized the book was meant to be contemporary!

What I’m saying, though, is that this didn’t bother me.  The reverse: the atmosphere was familiar and comfortable.  I grew up on British children’s books in yellowed dust-jackets.  I should have been able to settle down right away and enjoy her fine writing and deceptively broad-brush character portraits.  Like an expert painter, McKay has the talent for rendering whole, vivid people in a few strokes.

Maybe that’s the problem.  If the Cassons had felt less real, there would have been less cognitive dissonance when I entered in their world.  My family was to the Cassons what The Simpsons were to The Andy Griffith Show.  What The Addams Family were to The Wonder Years.

Parallels between me and Saffy

Parent died when tot: check

One current parent arty and spacey: check

Lots of half-siblings (Saffy’s siblings are her cousins, which I find interesting): double check

In hopelessly chaotic house: check

I mean, like, you can’t actually do anything in it, unless you perform pile archeology first, and then there’s no room to do it in because you spread out the piles: check

A feeling of not fitting in with the rest of the family: check

These basic similarities contributed to a creepy sense that Saffy’s experiences were a twisted-alternate-universe version of my own.  Or I should say, MINE was the twisted alternate universe, though it’s surprisingly hard to wrap my brain around that.  So many things were shown as loving and jolly for Saffy that were not loving and jolly for me.  And even when things weren’t strictly jolly in the Casson family, they were at least funny.  One sensed that they were just one step away from being able to laugh over it all when it was over, or else cry over it and comfort each other and move on.  Even the jerky father was no big deal.  Everyone knew that he was a jerk (except Eve, maddeningly) and went on from there.  Their interconnected, benign relationships let them present a unified front to their problems.

What’s not to love in an example like that?  Well, for starters, I don’t really believe a family like Saffy’s can work that way because I’ve never seen one that did.  O me of little faith.  I probably wouldn’t even believe in a happy artistic family if I saw it; if I were Doubting Thomas in the Bible and Jesus showed me the spike holes in his hands, I would have scratched at them and said, “What’s this?  Some kind of paint?”

Even the Wyeths had their dark side.  Even the Cheaper by the Dozen family (By glaring omission.  Ask me.).  I have the same reaction as a victim of violence who sees violence glamorized, when I see dysfunction jollified.  It makes me want to tell the world dreary things like:

Eccentrics are exhausting, both to be and to live with.

Sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in to your family because you don’t fit in.

Sometimes no one will support you in what you need, even when you are young.

Not all bossy, manipulative little girls are good-natured dictators; they are not an ideal place for the inexperienced to seek bosom friendship.

Messy/dirty houses where nothing gets thrown out aren’t funny in real life–not even darkly funny.

Hoarding is often a symptom of mental illness.

Spaceyness can be a voluntary offensive and defensive tactic.  It is not a necessary by-product of an artistic nature, to be coddled.

Of course the world already knows all these things, so no need to tell it.  And there are tons of books about miserable childhoods in intellectual / artistic families, so kudos to McKay for writing something different.  I did laugh at the signs in the car.

sequel to The Hunger Games
Read by Carolyn McCormick
Scholastic audiobooks, 2009
Finished: late march 2010
Source: the aether
Genre: dystopic YA novel
On the Scales: welterweight

“Katniss, Katniss!  Just when we thought you’d made up your mind!”

I must have said this twenty times while I was listening to the audio version of Catching Fire.  Well, not actually said it; I was thinking it, groaning and holding my hands over my ears and wagging my head from side to side.

Katniss emotes a lot in Catching Fire, which is different from having emotions.  She emotes more than in the Hunger Games.  Strange, because it seems to me she’s forfeited some of her emoting rights by not facing mortal danger the whole time.  I’m no longer a fan of Carolyn McCormick.  She gives Katniss this throb in her voice, as though every decision puts her into complete bewilderment, and every conflict inspires her to desperate pleading.  It made some sense in the arena, but not anymore.

I can’t write a review of Catching Fire that isn’t a spoiler.  It’s very existence is a spoiler for The Hunger Games: by now you know that Katniss survives the arena in that book.  I wasn’t sure she would.  I didn’t know if she’d show up in the sequel, and I purposely didn’t find out.  I like to come to a book totally raw.  My atrocious memory helps me with this, since I can read a review, and as long as there are no earth-shattering spoilers, the plot details are all gone in a couple of weeks.  How about you?  Do you mind knowing the plot ahead of time, even when it’s a popular novel?

While I enjoyed Catching Fire, I found I couldn’t listen to it while I was eating dinner because I was apt to snort and cringe.  The Hunger Games was a very tightly focussed story, whereas Catching Fire covers a lot of time and space.  This is often a problem for me.  It is hard for an author, unless she is Jean Webster, to write the kind of chapter that begins “It was a chilly spring,” then proceeds to cover several months in several pages, and do it well.  As a reader I usually feel alienated by this device.  I can’t believe nothing much worth mentioning happened in a whole three months.  And if it didn’t, that’s your fault, author lady, for not making every moment count!  You’re the one who decides when character-developing incidents take place, and how!  You could have done a lot more with that spring than just making it chilly, and having a lot of people get whipped half to death!

Oops.  Spoiler.  Sorry.

Well, not so much of a spoiler, because if you read Hunger Games you knew the Districts of Panem were a powder keg.  That’s the way trilogies go:  First book: personal.  Second book: personal and political.  Third book: political with frantic action, then personal at the very end.

Yeah, it’s a trilogy.  At least.  I didn’t know that for sure, coming in.  Not on a conscious level, but I soon realized there wasn’t going to be time to wrap everything up in Catching Fire–beside the fact that publishers don’t believe in duologies when the first book is a smash-hit-sensation.  Then I kept thinking, “How is there going to be a third book, the way things are going?  The pacing is all wrong.”  Then right at the end it became pretty clear how there was going to be a third book, and just what it was going to be about.

Half an hour after we popped out the last CD, Der Mann and I looked at each other.  “It’s just like Star Wars.”  And then I had an uncontrollable urge to go listen to “Fists Up” by the Blow because of the lines:

The vigilantes can’t agree on who’s in charge.
They gave their souls for the cause,
but the love that they were after’s still at large.
See this faith in which they found allegiance
Ripping at the seams as hope is running its course.
The rebels just can’t muster the force…

Really, the whole song is perfect for the Hunger Games series.  I am listening to it now.  I proclaim it the official Katniss anthem.  Or maybe Suzanne Collins’.

I don’t want to come to the point of this song, because the point of this song would have to be so long (long long long long long long long)…

Tor, 2008

Finished: late February 2010

Source: end of year reviews on Nymeth’s blog

Genre: YA near-future dystopic adventure

On the Scales: middleweight

I’ve sat down to review this and I’m having a hard time.  It’s about the kind of privileged teenagers I’ve never met, in a city I’ve never visited, with consuming interests that overlap very little with my own.  Why did I love it so much?

Here’s me trying to explain it to myself:  Even though this book is set in San Francisco, instead of using things you already know about San Francisco or being a teenager or politics to grab your sympathies, reel you in, and get you interested in the story, Doctorow builds everything from scratch like a fantasy world.

It helps that he’s not from the U.S.  As a Canadian currently living in Europe, Doctorow’s own culture runs parallel to the one he’s using for his near-future dystopia.  He’s got that insider knowledge / outsider objectivity I always enjoy so much in an author’s voice.

It works for the narrator, too.  Marcus is a popular, well-adjusted techno-geek with a past weakness for live action role playing games.  He has a keen sense of fairness–something his his loving parents have clearly had a hand in.  He is part of a close knit group of friends.  By the end of the book he is a hunted revolutionary facing prison and worse.

Doctorow is saying, put someone normal like Marcus in the furnace of injustice and he may very well come out red hot.  He’s saying, understanding and caring what the system is doing right now is the first line of defense when people start making it a tool for evil.  I don’t think evil is too strong a word.  Doctorow unfolds all the little ways apathy and paternalism erode freedom.  Most of all: blind trust.  In Marcus’ world, the ones who don’t trouble themselves to understand the ways technology is being used by those in authority, and who rely on the established media for information, are the adults.  They tend to assume everything that’s being done is okay, because isn’t it being done to protect us?  The teenagers in Little Brother get their information from each other.  They are used to questioning authority and thinking about the world not in terms of what’s safe, but what’s right.  They are the ones who see Big Brother taking over.

Yes, this is a politically charged book.  It’s about the teenagers of San Francisco against a DHS gone wild in the aftermath of another terrorist disaster.  But there are silly, fun parts too.  In the midst of a surveillance nightmare there are rock concerts, LARP, Mexican food, and interviews with clockwork pirates.  Little Brother is also a fascinating introduction to privacy ethics and cryptology.

Or, in this case, statistics:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first.  It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-Aids.  Only one in a million people gets Super-Aids.  You develop a test for Super-AIDs that’s 99 percent accurate.  I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result–true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy.  You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people will have Super-AIDS.  One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive”—the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t.  That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000 / 100 =10,000.

One in a million people has Super-AIDS.  If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS.  But your test won’t identify one person as having Super-AIDS.  It will identify ten thousand people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

I knew about the paradox of the false positive–vaguely–but I never heard it explained so well, or it’s implications framed as incisively as Doctorow does in his novel.  Actually, he’s doing a ton of different things at once in Little Brother, and it’s seamless.  That rarely, rarely happens!  The mini-lectures are never misplaced as interruptions.  The humor is perfectly timed.  The romance doesn’t feel sappy or tacked-on.  The violence could easily become a caricature of itself, destroying our empathy for the sufferers, but it doesn’t.  His ideology isn’t heavy handed.

If Little Brother were a preachy book, Marcus’ parents would be the enemy and Marcus would be a bronze statue of a revolutionary hero.  I love how Marcus makes convincingly teenager-y miscalculations.  And when his movement gains its own momentum, we get to see how he responds to that.  Doctorow doesn’t gloss over the stupidities inherent in blind rebellion any more than the ones in blind trust.

“This is California Live and we’re talking to an anonymous caller at a pay phone in San Francisco.  He has is own information about the slowdowns we’ve been facing around town this week.  Caller, you’re on the air.”

“Yeah, yo, this is just the beginning, you know?  I mean, like, we’re just getting started.  Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner.  We’ll jam them all!  And like, all this crap about terrorists?  We’re not terrorists!  Give me a break, I mean really!  We’re jamming up the system because we hate the Homeland Security, and because we love our city.  Terrorists?  I can’t even spell jihad.  Peace out.”

He sounded like an idiot.  Not just the incoherent words, but also his gloating tone.  He sounded like a kid who was indecently proud of himself.

The Xnet flamed out over this.  Lots of people thought he was an idiot for calling in, while others thought he was a hero.  I worried that there was probably a camera aimed at the pay phone he’d used.  Or an arphid reader that might have sniffed his Fast Pass.  I hoped he’d had the smarts to wipe his fingerprints off the quarter, keep his hood up and leave all his arphids at home.  But I doubted it.  I wondered if he’d get a knock on the door sometime soon.

I even liked the ending: bringing in the adults and discovering they’re good for something after all.  Thank heaven they are, since when the last door gets knocked on, as Marcus would say, “it’s a doozy.”

Penguin Ace, 2008

Finished: Feb 8, 2010

Source: book blog

Genre: magical realist chick lit, with a little more magic and a little less realist than the usual

On the Scales: lightweight, pulls punches

One way or another I get around to reading everything Nina Kiriki Hoffman writes–except the media tie-ins and her early pulps.  The hardcovers with the distinctive garden-wall-brick shape and the drifty photoshop feminist fantasy chick-lit covers which would usually annoy me?  I read them all.  Eventually.  I’m never in a hurry because a novel by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a bittersweet pleasure.  I have to forget what it was like reading the last before I can start the next.

When I was about halfway through Fall of Light I looked at the author biography on the back flap.  All the same information was there–Eugene Oregon, the cats, the mannequin–but now it also says that she has been writing fantasy for 20 years and “Her works have been finalists for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards.”  Suddenly everything made sense.

Let me tell you why they won’t give the lady her Nebula.

A Hoffman novel starts splendidly.  An interesting setting, a sympathetic main character, a great premise.  You know right away that there’s going to be a lot of magic and it’s going to play a big part in the plot.  Passages of economical, vivid description make you confident you’re not going to be wincing at her writing.  You’re in good hands.  Pretty soon something happens, described in the same succinct style, that is mundane and yet strangely sexy.  And you know you’re in really good hands.

In this first stage (which lasts for maybe a third of the book) your heart soars.  Finally, a top-notch piece of light fiction!  The kind you only come across a couple of times each year.  The kind you’ll go to sleep reading, then reach for first thing in the morning with a feeling that it’s going to be a good day JUST BECAUSE you have this book to read.  If you are one of the people who has the power to decide who gets World Fantasy Awards and Nebulas, I imagine you would put it on your mental list: “This is the one.  Wow.  There’s no one like Nina.”

Fall of Light opens with makeup artist Opal LaZelle applying a monster face to a sleepy seven-plus-foot actor named Corvus Weather (the only wince-worthy thing about Hoffman: her names).  You get all the technical details of the process, plus some lively back-and-forth with the other artists and actors in the trailer, as Opal discreetly uses her magic to tweak the work along.  The characters are introduced, the stage is set.

Corvus, typecast for monsters because of his height, is mild and easygoing.  Opal has worked with him before.  She’s in love with him.  This is normal for Opal; part of her transforming makeup magic is to fall in love with her client, no matter how unpleasant.  The non-normal part about Corvus is that Opal doesn’t fall out of love with him between shoots.  But she doesn’t plan on doing anything about it.  Responsible Opal has already tried continuing an on-set relationship and been burnt.  She doesn’t make that kind of mistake twice.

Corvus has modest hopes that playing the “dark god” of the forest will start landing him some roles where he gets to do more talking and use more of his own face.  It turns out that they are filming a supernatural thriller in the backwoods Oregon town where the scriptwriter grew up.  It also just happens that she was using the local legends of her childhood as material.  And they are shooting the scenes where the forest god appears–surprise!–in the very haunted clearing with the stained, alter-like stones that is supposedly connected with the disappearance of some young girls way-back-when.  End of stage one.

If I stopped here, you would read the book, right?  And if the book stopped there, and the rest got written by Graham Joyce while possessed by the spirit of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s imagination and diction, it would win the Nebula.

Unfortunately, stage two of a Hoffman novel is where it starts shooting off in all directions like a defective Roman Candle.  The plot does pretty much what you expect it to, but in a breathless, sketchy, “what just happened?  Nevermind”  way.  Nothing is given its full weight.  The story becomes thready and is lost in a series of magic-use vignettes, bound loosely together by a psychological breakthrough in the main character.

Hoffman’s main-character myopia is the most disappointing thing in her work.  She sets up expectations for a broader outlook (bye-bye, Nebula), but all those people you met in the first scenes, and wanted to watch interacting with each other, and get into the heads of . . . they never quite come into focus.  They exposit magical happenings and produce chatty, “with it” dialog, but they aren’t given souls.  In fact, they pretty much get jerked around: reacting, reacting, reacting to the main character as she explores her power, deepens her understanding of her past, and has magically significant sex.

I won’t say the main characters’ visionary breakthroughs aren’t emotional and interesting, but they are also trite–in fact, a little like something you would read in a self-help section of New Age bookstore in Eugene, or find on the bookshelf of your hippie aunt.  I am embarrassed for Hoffman when I read them, but admiring: that such a competent writer would care enough about adding a deeper dimension to her books as to open herself to charges of schmaltz.

Opal’s breakthrough has to do with her responsible-ness.  She is the oldest in a big family with a crazy mom who “liked being pregnant but didn’t like taking care of babies once they were external to herself.”  Everyone in the family has magic, but so far only Opal has flown from the nest with it.

The logical climax of the novel is, literally, the climax.  But you know something has gone wrong in a book when a mass orgy is boring.  And after that, things happen way too fast.

The arrival of the long awaited Deus ex Machina, Uncle Tobias:

“Niece, you haven’t introduced us yet,” said Tobias.

“What?” She looked at Phrixos.  Tobias had met Corvus on the Dead Loss set.  But now he was speaking to a deeper reality.  “My apologies, Uncle.  This is–I am not sure, exactly.  Some parts of him seem to be Corvus.  A portion is an entity I call Phrixos, an agent for the local power that possessed Corvus.  There’s another part, I think, that is the actual local power speaking for itself through him.  Phrixos is capable of deceit, so I don’t know whether to believe him when he pretends to be Corvus.  All of you inside the body of my boyfriend, this is my great-uncle Tobias, who has come to help me solve the problem you present.

Whew.  Glad we finally got that clear.

Of course, the real climax is inside Opal. Opal’s internal visualizations start in her “inner office,” a room with a fireplace, all her art supplies, and a big wooden desk with a twirly leather chair (I’m jealous).  In the company of her goth alter-ego/spirit guide “Other Opal,” Opal finds some surprising things beyond the door of her inner office.  We spend a lot of time wandering around inside Opal, which would be just fine if the world and people outside Opal were as carefully crafted.

Corvus really gets the short end of the stick during the Opal-fest.  Frankly, I was appalled.  The poor man is trying to make a career for himself, and he isn’t even allowed to get angry when his best role to date is taken over by a creepy supernatural understudy.  Hoffman effectively gags him.  He’s just this perfect, sensitive guy who wakes up blinking and says, “Where was I?”  He can’t help himself, and nobody else is really trying.  They don’t seem to consider the moral ramifications of sitting around while he is being ABSORBED in stages by an ancient, devil-like, pagan GOD.  “Oh, well, at least he can act as well as Corvus.”  Good grief, when someone is possessed, you are supposed TO TRY TO RESCUE HIM.

I suppose the naughty/evil god was meant to be sexy enough that you didn’t worry so much about Corvus being absorbed, but he wasn’t sexy at all, just a collection of smirking cliches.

It was the cutest thing, though, the way the author’s biases showed up in her descriptions of Corvus’ sexiness.  He moonlights recording audiobooks and has a perfect voice for it.  Also, he’s a reader:

“I think that’s why those girls call me.  Guranteed exposure.  The Beauty and the Beast captions write themselves.  It means nothing.”

She laughed.  “Oh, they call you, eh?”

“Most of the time I’d rather stay home and read a book . . .”


When she came out of the bathroom, Corvus was lounging on an overstuffed brown and white gingham couch; it was big enough to support him without parts of him hanging over the edge.  He wore blue pajamas and his reading glasses, and was studying the script.  Love swept through her, startling and inconvenient.  He glanced up at her over the tops of his glasses, and her throat tightened.  He could immobilize her with a look; better not let him know.

Reading glasses.  Sexy.  Definitely.

Finished: January 27, 2010

Source: Fyrefly’s book blog

Genre: Self-proclaimed YA steam-punk

On the Scales: welterweight text, heavyweight pictures

After reading this book I did something I almost never do: looked it up on google and read a media review.  I know I like to read book blogs, and I know they benefit publishers and (one hopes) authors in promoting good books at a grass-roots level, but until I read this review I didn’t have a sense of how they fit into the greater scheme of things . . . capitalized things like Justice, Standards, and the Fate of Fiction.

Writers love to hate publishers’ darlings like Scott Westerfeld–just look at the free-for-all J.K. Rowling inspires among otherwise mature authors of “grownup” books–but this was a critical review, and it was totally snarky!  It was also (a surprise considering the caliber of the publication) not written very well, by someone who showed no particular understanding of the genre!  Naming no names, you can read it in a newspaper that begins with “NY” and ends with “Times.”

Ooh, but the best part was the end.  The reviewer had to publish a correction of a fact he’d got wrong, and retract one of his criticisms with an apology.

I don’t know what Scott Westerfeld himself thought of this sourpuss review, and I don’t much care (though I do like to imagine him being the one who got to call up the editor and inform him of the mistake!).  Scott Westerfeld is a big boy.  Scott Westerfeld is doing okay.  I care about all the people who look to big newspaper reviewers, who must be really smart since they’re working for a big newspaper, to tell them whether a book is worth reading. No, the internet doesn’t need another voice chiming in on such a popular book.  This does make me wonder if it’s worth my time, personally, to add my two cents, but I am glad of the general din.  I’m glad of the easy access to different perspectives.  It warms my heart every time I remember I can get online and read what normal people are thinking about their reading, and that they are thinking such interesting things!  I don’t meet people like that in real life.  They are informed and courteous.  Reading their reviews is a little like getting to travel back in time.  In my mind, they are sitting at writing desks with inkwells, cocking their heads over a phrase in a letter to a friend.

Having said all that, I should probably say something nice about Leviathan, huh?

It’s a good book.  Westerfeld did his research.  Der Mann went through a WWI phase a while back.  I heard enough of his audiobooks and his descriptions of his reading to be able to sniff out lazy WWI history pretty well.

It was really strange to read an illustrated novel.  It must have been years.  No, I take that back: I read George DuMaurier’s Trilby sometime in 2009.  This was like going back to my childhood in the 80’s, when libraries were still hanging on to some of the children’s and young adult novels written at the tail end of the age of black-and-white spot illustrations–the 1960’s say, especially if the books were British.  That would have been before they stopped putting illustrations in chapter books unless they were written for kids so young they couldn’t do without–easy-readers, and so on.  And those were usually just bad ink washes.

All I can say is, wow, fame must be good for something, because Leviathan got the royal treatment!  Thompson’s pictures are every bit as good as William Pene du Bois’, and in fact reminded me of very much of du Bois’ work. They also have a bit of the emaciated Trina Schart Hyman style, which made me enjoy his renderings of people less than I did his war machines and compositions.  I don’t object to the convention of emaciated figures on moral grounds, they just look like marionettes to me, which makes it harder for me to empathize with the characters.  And Daryn and Alec were drawn awfully kiddish-ly, for 15-year-olds.

Keith Thompson read the whole book and absorbed all the details.  It didn’t feel as if he’d used Scott Westerfeld’s verbal world as a springboard for creating his own, separate visual one.  It felt as if he’d entered the text and and chronicled it.  In a picture of a street scene where Alec was described as slipping on dropped onions and potatoes, sure enough, there was a little bitty onion lying among the realistically rendered piles of horse dung.  The figured endpaper maps of Westerfeld’s Europe at war blew me away.  What a labor of love!  Look for the John Bauer tribute in Scandinavia.

Honestly, I don’t know how well I’d have been able to picture Westerfeld’s living and nonliving war machines without the artist’s help.  I read it at breakneck speed because I had to get it back to the library for the next person in the queue.  (Der Mann and I were going to read it aloud together, but kept putting it off, because it had turned out not to be a very good read-aloud book).  It was peppered with Westerfeld’s usual witicisms, natural dialog, and clear descriptions of action.  Daryn’s pluck may be conventional, but not in a stale way.  I liked her thoughts on the the relentless power-jockeying involved in masquerading as a boy.  Her voice was convincing.  I could hear her talking with a real Glaswegian accent.  I’m hoping there’ll be more space to develop her character in the following books.

This first installment was really just about setting the stage, and helping you get your bearings in the world, and some cool fights and escapes.  I can tell the fights and the escapes were supposed to be the best part.  For me, they weren’t, but I’m reserving judgement.  So far this promises to be one the really good Westerfelds, and not one of the lazy-ass ones that had put me a wee bit off him of late.

Fourth Estate of Harper Collins, 2004, published in UK as The Ring Road

Finished: January 22, 2010

Source: library browsing

Genre: Northern Irish poke in the ribs

On the Scales:  bar fight

The book is Irish, but the author isn’t.  He’s an import.  Also, now, an export.  It’s a chatty, cheery collection of disconnected shaggy-dog gossip that turns out to be about how everything turns out like it always has and nothing turns out like it should.  Dramatic irony in every direction.  Same old story: the bullies keep winning and aren’t any happier for it.  The cowardly keep running, but they don’t escape.  The hurt hurt themselves.  The Panzerkorps of the late 20th century consumer economy just keep on rolling, destroying towns, communities, in fact everything good and beautiful in their path–even in ol’ Ireland–and there’s a Frank Gibley in every tank.

That’s making the book sound deep and as if it had a plot.  It was compulsively readable, though, as advertised.  If I were an Irish provincial, the deftly drawn stereotypes and weather jokes might have made me laugh (and I really needed to laugh the day I read it).  With a few notable exceptions, they just reminded me of British TV.  I think I did laugh in a couple of places–Jesus jokes both times, which made me feel kind of lame.  I ate yoghurt covered raisins I didn’t really want while I read it.  It was that kind of book.  The lengthy postmodern footnotes were a nice touch.

I don’t feel so bad about not knowing what the book was about, or how seriously I was supposed to take it, or how seriously I was supposed to be fooled into taking it seriously because the media reviews that were blurbed on the back cover seemed similarly confused.  I wish I still had the book beside me, because one of them said, completely without irony, something like “a genial elbow in the ribs.”  Ow.  No, thank you.  I can imagine the author cackling madly over his clippings then going to the Armada bar to get drunk.

Harry N. Abrams, 2000

Finished: January 21, 2010

Source: magazine article

Genre: nonfiction

“The Red Rose Girls” was the name the given by Howard Pyle to artists Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley, and Elizebeth Shippen Green, students in his famous illustration classes at the Drexel Institute.  The three women shared a Philadelphia studio and later several houses together with various aged parents and their friend Henrietta Cozens.  The Red Rose Inn was where they molded their artistic family into what the author argues was an enriching creative partnership.

A lot of readers are going to be disappointed when they come to this book hoping for evidence that the household’s two implied Boston marriages were sexual as well as emotional and practical in nature.  “Boston marriage” is a term the author explains at length and uses often, then fails to mention whether the artists or their friends ever applied it to them.  She wavers between interest in their relationships and reticence, just as she never seems to take a straight line–any line–about their art or the day-to-day mechanics of their posited partnership.  I wondered if this oversight was for lack of a researcher’s knack for detective work, lack of material to research, or simply lack of direction in the whole project, combined with a biographer’s complimentary prejudices.

If this sounds harsh, it reflects my high expectations.  My husband brought home a stack of 1990’s issues of  graphic designers’ and illustrators’ trade magazine from work, one of which had the short article by Carter that was the germ of this book.  I was really, really looking forward to reading it!

I should say first that I’m grateful anyone at all has written at length on this wonderful subject, much less an illustrator with roots in Philadelphia and a keen interest in the history of her profession–particularly of the women who filled the high demand for commercial artists in the late 19th and early 20th century.  I’m also very glad it was published in an oversized format with plenty of space given to color reproductions of the artists’ work.  The writing was engaging, and despite the fact that it could and should have been twice as long, I read it in one sitting with complete absorption.  The sections devoted to the early life of each woman who later joined the group were a very good thought, as were the background on women’s access to art education and nude figure drawing classes in the 19th century, as well as the scandal that got Thomas Eakins booted from the Pennsylvania Academy.

I was made a little impatient, however, by the careful explanations of the sociological climate of the era.  It assumed an elementary-school level ignorance of cultural history on the part of the reader, which might have been necessary for her publisher’s intended audience, but I still think the information could have been imparted with a little more finesse.  Anyone who reads historical novels or watches period-setting films will already know most of what Carter explains about the artificially limited role of women in the arts, their ghettoized and underpaid place in the work force, and the domestic expectations placed on both married and unmarried ladies.  Perhaps fewer will have an understanding of the tolerant attitude toward “romantic friendships” in the Victorian and Edwardian era, or the fact that the workings of such friendships (which need not–but might have been–sexual, a distinction the author does not seem to like) were seldom examined very anxiously either by observers or participants, until the 20th century spread of Freudian thought and modern psychology.

In a book determined to assert the artistic significance of the Red Rose Girls’ partnership, Carter misses a surprising number of opportunities to talk about their art in its own right.  This undermines her thesis.  If she had wanted to make the point that the women’s individual painting and drawing styles ossified because their household broke up and they were no longer working in an atmosphere of liberated creative collaboration, she should have taken care to uncover each woman’s professional attitude toward the others’ work and her own, not just their domestic harmonies and dissonances.  From the picture she paints, it would be just as easy to believe that the women’s art failed to progress for a number of reasons:  They were no longer young artists in the innovative stage of their development.  They had achieved the limits of their talents.  They  were worn down by the heavy load of work they accepted to keep themselves in comfort.  They were satisfied to hit on something the public and the publishers liked, and stick with it.  They were products of the popular romanticism of the time.

Carter did manage to convince me the women lost something important when they parted.  The descriptions of Violet Oakley’s attachment to the Red Rose Inn alone go a long way to showing what an important place it must have been for them all, and what an important time in their lives.

Life at the Red Rose Inn sounds enchanting, but one of the most interesting parts of the book was the account of Jessie Wilcox Smith’s undistinguished later work as a children’s portraitist–commissions she received due to the popularity of her monthly Good Housekeeping covers.  All the Red Rose Girls relied on photographs of staged models for their work–Jessie Smith even more than others, perhaps, as her paintings were the more candidly lifelike.  This practice would have been unacceptable to a wealthy parent paying for a “real” painting by a “real” artist–one who works only from life–so that Jessie was forced to abandon photographs and produce paintings of a lower quality than her cover illustrations.  (Presumably the parents couldn’t tell the difference, as the commissions continued to pour in!)  How galling this forced incompetence must have been to the dignified and supremely competent professional illustrator.

Like the wealthy parents who commissioned Smith’s portraits, I feel Alice Carter does these fascinating women a disservice by holding them up–probably unconsciously–to the 20th century ideal of the “important” artist.  With the exception of the unhinged Violet (a muralist and social crusader who seems to have had an elevated view of her work’s moral significance), they were primarily illustrators.  They were proud to support themselves with their art.  To call themselves working artists in an age in which illustration was a more highly appreciated craft than it is now, as well as a more lucrative one–a situation the author explains particularly nicely–was a compliment, not a compromise.

It’s a worthy book.  On the balance the poor thesis can’t do it much harm.  The drama that brings the Red Rose Girls story to life is the drama of the Belle Epoque itself.  The high hopes, the ideals, the bonhomie–so promising, and so soon ended as the page turned on the age of the novel and the illustrated magazine to a century of world wars and new media.

Scholastic, 2009

Finished: January 14, 2010

Source: library browsing

Genre:  YA or J alternate history frontier fantasy

On the Scales: welterweight

Wrede’s strength is her mechanics.  She doesn’t write the kind of fantasy you immerse yourself in.  She writes books like intricately constructed models with working parts.  You admire them from above.  Like the itsy-bitsy tin people inhabiting a model castle, her characters–though painted with a miniaturist’s care–are not the point.  The point is the magic.  Wrede’s adeptness in describing her out-of-thin-air concepts of magic-working with absolute conviction and consistency has found a happy home in this slice of alternate 19th century American history.  I don’t like it, but I think it’s pretty good.

Usually I would say that if young adult or children’s book is good, and written on themes that aren’t exclusively of interest to children, a reader of any age should have as much chance of enjoying it.  It’s true some grown people are handicapped with a poverty of imagination that makes them unable to identify with young characters–but those unfortunates aside: if a book has universal themes and yet bores adults, that means it’s not a well-crafted novel.

Children have a higher tolerance for bad novels.  Not because they’re less critical than adults; they’ve simply read less and experienced less.  That is why there is so much crap children’s/YA literature, and so many kids liking it just fine.  Their imaginations are in top condition at exactly the time in life when every tired convention is still new to them, and their sense of language is still mostly that of a vehicle to take them quickly as possible where they want to go!

Wrede is an exception.  She writes well, her themes are interesting enough, but I can’t enjoy her books as an adult.  I didn’t discover her Dealing With Dragons trilogy until I was well into my teens, and even then I found them absolutely hilarious.  When I tried to read them in my twenties, they were dull.  The characters didn’t engage me at all.  Not able to believe what had happened to me (I still couldn’t blame the books), I dipped into one of her Regency-ladies-with-magic things.  My impression was of a skim-milk sugarless smoothie made by putting Georgette Heyer, Joan Aiken, and Phillip Pullman in a blender.  I didn’t try her again until The Thirteen Child jumped off the shelf.

Now I think I get it.  Wrede taps into one of the few forms of literature that really is just for kids.  They have a longer attention span for it, and their critical faculties are more responsive to it: the clockwork toy.  The dollhouse.  The exquisite model.  You still remember, don’t you, your delight in the miniature?  The satisfaction when something was worked out to the tiniest detail?  It didn’t matter if the detail was symbolic.  It didn’t matter that the little people were frozen in one position, feet welded to a little metal surfboard that kept them from falling over–they looked just right.

Wrede’s books look just right.  And bully for her for that.  You can’t escape the knowledge of her presence in them as a craftswoman any more than you can forget someone glued together the foam core models in a museum.  Most kids won’t mind at all.  In the Dealing with Dragons books, the world she crafted was a fractured fairy tale-esque satire of traditional quest fantasy.  Here, it features the thirteenth child of a magic professor at a new land grant university, telling the story of her coming of age on the edge of the frontier, in a town like Kansas City.

The execution of the empowerment theme (also somewhat feminist) is blatant and unsurprising.  With a magical prodigy of a seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son for a twin brother, Eff the narrator takes her own unlucky status as a thirteenth child to heart after being made the family scapegoat by her nasty cousins and uncle.  Moving to a frontier town by the great magical barrier (something like the boundary of the Pale, with destructive magical creatures like dragons on the other side) ought to be a fresh start for her–especially with the help of her multiculturally aware schoolmarm–but she’s internalized too much of her childhood guilt.  She has to break free of her low self-esteem before she comes to her power.  Eff describes the whole process (17 years in one short book) in a firm, didactic voice that never draws me into her struggle.

The historical research feels solid.  The period atmosphere is authentic, but over-crowded.  Eff makes sure to drop details that would be so commonplace to someone living in her world, most people wouldn’t bother to mention them.  The period slang, diction, and western idiom are nicely on target, but would be far more convincing if they were toned down a notch!  The paint on the model is shiny and bright.  The characters run in their tracks.

Wrede must take justified pleasure in the spit-and-polish she’s given her model world, but even more in the schools of magic she describes:  the Avrupan, the Hijero-Cathayan, the Aphrikan.  I enjoyed that part, just as I enjoyed the visual and tactile descriptions of magic as invisible threads in the Dealing With Dragons books.  Here the analogy is philosophy.  The Avrupan is the academic European model, delicate and precise like gear-works–Greek thought and western science.  It is the magic of Eff’s father, her brother.  Eff ends up finding her own power another way, freed from the traditions of the old world, poised on the frontier.

The book begs a sequel.  I probably won’t read it, though I’ve been known to be weak about these things in the past.  I don’t care enough about Eff to want to follow her beyond the Great Barrier with her newfound magic and probable sidekick.  I would rather have gone to college with her brother and learned some Avruptan magic myself, met some shady magicians, or really gone anywhere in her world where the unexpected was not so expected by the time it finally arrived.

Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland

First published in Sweden, 2005

Knopf, 2008

Finished: January 12, 2010

Source: book blog

Reputed genre:  detective mystery / literary novel crossover.

Actual genre: international bestseller cleverly spun out of a decent Swedish detective novel with enough sordid elements to appeal to the masses, helped along by the fact that the author died shortly after submitting it for publication.

On the Scales: welterweight

I’m really wondering: why doesn’t anybody just say this book is about sadism? “International sadist mystery sensation! . . . [The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo] is an engaging literary vehicle for several disturbing sex scenes!”  Personally I’d have liked to know ahead of time.  I was nearly halfway through before I realized what I was going to be subjected to.  The original Swedish title of Men Who Hate Women would have given me a clue.

It’s not as if the presence of sadism is a spoiler.  And it’s not even as if most of the people who seek out this novel aren’t looking for typical modern crime novel gristle.  They are looking for that, plus some cool, engaging characters (suave magazine editor, cyber-punk pixie detective) and literary pretenses, to give them that useful feeling of combining their trash reading with their serious reading.

The book does take a sober, clinical attitude of moral outrage toward the sadism.  That doesn’t make it any less prurient when it appears.  Each chapter begins with a quoted statistic (presumably factual) about violence perpetrated on women.  I am rubbed wrong by this device in a genre traditionally designed to titillate.

A lot rubbed me wrong, and I had not expected it.  Here’s what I got from my osmotic knowledge of the hype (I was number 48 in the queue at the library).  Basically, it’s everything!  It’s a mystery.  It’s biting social commentary.  It’s a sweeping family saga.  It’s sexy.  It plumbs the dark forces of whatever has dark forces.  It’s a masterwork.

It’s also Swedish.  The hype had a common tone of self-satisfied largesse in admitting that such a good book could come from such an odd backwater of a country.  Kind of like giving it an E for effort.  This annoyed me and predisposed me toward the story.  I studied Swedish language for a year and spent two months traveling there.  I’m of Swedish descent.  I know a bit about the culture.

Ah, yes, Swedes.  Just listen:

By the time Berger left Hedeby on Sunday, Blomkvist was still so annoyed with Vanger that he did not want to risk running into either him or any other member of his clan.  Instead, on Monday he took the bus into Hedestad and spent the afternoon walking in the town, visiting the library, and drinking coffee in a bakery.  In the evening he went to the cinema to see The Lord of the Rings, which he had never before had time to see.  He thought that orcs, unlike human beings, were simple and uncomplicated creatures.  He ended his outing at McDonald’s in Hedestad and caught the last bus to Hedeby.  He made coffee, took out a binder, and sat at the kitchen table.  He read until 4:00 in the morning.

Swedish culture is one of the few (Japanese is another) that expects and makes allowances for introversion in human beings.  Visiting there as a 22-year-old was a revelation.  I had never imagined a place where you could count on strangers to be genuinely polite and helpful without being intrusive.  Reserve without surliness!  I grew up stifled by the by manic friendliness and fake-friendliness of the American west.  In other countries I was always having to brace myself for cashiers to be snippy and challenging for no particular reason, to be yelled at by cars of cruising hooligans because I was walking around with a backpack.  In other words, fair game for everyone who amuses themselves by imposing themselves on and attempting to one-up perfect strangers–a pastime of little interest to introverts.

In Sweden I found an aesthetic of graciously granted space, both physical and mental.  It made public places havens, and travel logistics a marvel of low-key ease.  There was also something undeniably sterile about it.  Look around at the shops: nothing old, or worn out, or cheap enough for a really poor person to afford–not even in the towns full cheap cement apartment blocks.  There were no dark leafy places to hide, no grotty Salvation Army stores, no gutted buildings, no piles of butts by the bus stops.  No cracks in the scrubbed facade.  Much as I loved it, after a while it gave me the heebies in a way I found hard to describe.  I felt what is essentially a one-class society with an emphasis on consensus–its dramas all enacted in private–as a kind of pervasive depressing weight.  (Swedes would differ on the “one-class” point, but I think that is because their highly-tuned social consciousnesses force them to nit-pick unfairness out of a situation which, compared to the rest of the world, is pretty good.)  I take what disturbed me about Sweden as a side effect of the homogeneity of the economic and political and educational structure rather than of the underlying national character.  Swedish Mentality by Åke Daun is a good book to read if you are curious about this.  Larsson has a reputation a writer who addressed this feeling of oppressive void.  It was the one thing I heard about him that made me eager to read his books.

How does it come out in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?  Hard to tell.  I didn’t really see it.  Introversion was certainly an anxious theme.  Perhaps he equated extroversion with caring and activism (he had a career as crusading magazine editor).  More times than I could count, he mentioned “introversion” together with a lot of different symptoms of mental illness, as thought it were a pathology.  Maybe the fault is in the translation; the word “antisocial” and “asocial” were also used a couple of times.

This was sometimes, but not always, in connection with the pixie punk detective.  A casualty of the well-meaning social system who fought back in her own way, she wasn’t exactly held up as model.  Like the sadism, her violent method of dealing with the baddies was designed to get your blood up at the same time as it was shown to be the product of an emotional dysfunction that ought to be righted.  Having the cake and eating it.

Another thing you can see from the passage above is that Larsson’s writing is very concrete.  There is an emphasis the physical details of life.  Not in a symbolic way.  Not particularly weighted or freighted or necessary to the plot.  Just telling you what went on people’s sandwiches in case you’re interested.  (I was, dammit.  I craved rye bread and pickles, which I can’t have because of allergies!)  That they bought groceries and showered and peed and had sex.  (Whatever.)  The machinations of evil corporations.  (Yawn.)  The dirt-digging of detectives.  (Ho hum.)  Even several paragraphs on the completely irrelevant specs and capabilities of a new computer! (You can hear the author slavering in the background.)  This concretism is both a quality of detective novels and Swedish writing.  I like it better in other kinds of books.

Perhaps The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a good detective novel. You may have gathered I’m not the best one to assess this book as a straight mystery because I’ve never been able to enjoy straight mysteries.  I’ve tried.  Especially when I worked in a library, because librarians–problem-solving souls that they are–tend to dote on them; there were always boxes of donated mysteries sitting around the break room.  For me to like a mystery crossover, it has to be really cross-overy.  To the point the the standard mystery progression of the plot is obscured, twisted, or even quite lost.  I haven’t found many.  Death of a Red Heroine by Xiaolong Qui is one, for the setting.  Tana French’s  The Likeness is another.  These books didn’t have to make any apologies for their pacing, concept, description or characterization, just because they were mysteries.

Incidentally?  Those introverted Swedes?   Are big readers.  They read books translated from other languages on a regular basis, not just when they’re international bestsellers.  A Swedish reader would be less likely to pluck this novel from its noir mystery roots and put it on a literary pedestal.

Read by Carolyn McCormick

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2008

Finished: January 3, 2010

Source: book blog

Genre: dystopic YA survival novel

On the Scales: middleweight, heavy hitter

I listened to this with Der Mann over the holidays.  We were riveted.  Sometimes a particular reader can make a good book excellent by crystalizing awkward phrases, imbuing cheesy melodrama with sincerity, smoothing a limping pace.  It doesn’t even have to be the greatest reader, just one who has the right feel for the book.  So I’m left not knowing for sure whether The Hunger Games is as great as I think it was, but . . . probably.

If my guess is right, Suzanne Collins first asked herself the very good question, “What did it feel like to be a tribute from a conquered land, arriving in Rome to alleviate the boredom and plump the egos of a bloodthirsty ruling class?”  Then she brilliantly transferred the whole thought experiment to a dystopic future North America, where instead of the late Roman Empire at its corrupt peak, we find the corrupt media / political empire of Panem.

The story isn’t about Panem, which to the desperately poor residents of the 12 districts is only as real as the extravaganza known as the Hunger Games.  (The Games have been going on for several generations–since the last time one of the districts revolted against the capital.)  It is about what daily life has been like for Katniss Everdeen, poacher, and how that affects her stint as a tribute.

The Hunger Games are reality TV taken to its logical extreme.  Every year, 24 teenaged tributes are chosen by lot to compete (and in 23 cases out of 24 die) in an engineered wilderness. As a humiliation a lurking under an honor, and a threat lurking under a reward, the Games are required viewing for the residents of the districts.  They are the raison d’etre for a bevy of stylists, technicians, gamblers, commentators and rabid fans in the capital.  Like everything else in the life of a subject Panemite, they are subtly rigged.

If you want to take it as a social issues novel, you can.  Say it’s about the objectification of suffering by a juggernaut entertainment industry–and the callous sense of entitlement the industry breeds in those it entertains.  It reminds me of M.T Andersen’s Feed that way.  Feed was both funnier (the saving grace of nightmare dystopias–Brave New World, for example), and crueler than this book.  That is because at its honest heart, The Hunger Games is a yarn.

It’s what I love about it.  Katniss makes a great main character.  She’s herself, not a prism for an idea; logical without being cold; strong without being a plucky feminist cliché; aware of the injustice of her society without being a prig or a martyr (well, a little bit of a martyr).  She’s also pretty dim about A GLARING ASPECT of her own emotions, but that’s a tried-and-true quality of main characters in yarns.

The story is like that all over.  It’s not wildly original, and yet it goes right all the places it could go wrong.  Collins gives us intriguing side characters (Cina, the baker, Hamish) when stock characters would suffice.  Her descriptive details are surprising where they could be conventional.  She takes care to give us the right word, the introspective moment, the unexpected image.  Lesser authors would give in to the temptation to linger over the flash-backs to district 12, but she keeps up the pace.

It’s almost a given with a survival novel, but I was a little disappointed by the ending. There were several ways it could go, and Collins took the bittersweet route.  I wanted a bigger bang.  Something less kindly.  I was also just a little skeptical of the hunting descriptions, but maybe I don’t really need to know if Katniss’ performance with the bow was realistic, or how she made her snares.

My only objection to the reading was the accent used for the residents of the capital, who sounded “silly” to the residents of Appalachian district twelve.  By her description, I think Collins was going for a sort of ditzy upspeak.  Ms. McCormick whipped up a strange mixture of chi-chi Manhattanite and Brit.  The American convention of English accents–without even differentiating between kinds of English accents–all being unspeakably uppity and effeminate has always irritated me.  What I really would have loved is to hear Katniss and Peeta with a bit of an Appalachian twang.  It’s a minor gripe.