Friday, December 31, 2010

An End Of the Year Love Letter

obligatory lolcat

To say au revoir to 2010, I decided some authors who made my year worthwhile deserved a shout-out. 

Jim Northrup--You had me at "Microsoft blue sky" and "Wisconsin nice."  You rock!

Simone Elkeles--I love your style of romance and how you bring what could be stock characters and situations to life.

Konstantinos Staikos--The Great Libraries may be the greatest book ever. OMG, I love you for writing this.

Leanna Renee Hieber--How could I not love someone who puts Snape, ghosts, and Persephone into her novels?  I couldn't. Not, that is.

Kelly McNees--Please keep writing books!  The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott brightened my entire April.

Paula Marantz Cohen--Combining art, literature, and Jack the Ripper into a totally atmospheric and readable book?  I didn't think it could be done but you did it and gave me a whole new perspective on Henry James.

Kelly Creagh--Thanks for writing an atmospheric, Gothic romance perfect for reading on crisp fall days.

Dick Francis--You're the greatest!

Karen Marie Moning--What would life be like without Barrons?  I don't even want to imagine.

Chloe Neill--Still haven't gotten over the whole Ethan thing, but I'm sure I'll forgive you eventually.  Maybe.

And to all my readers, thank you for helping to make this blog what it is today, for all your book recommendations, for reading with me and chatting with me.  Have a great 2011!

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kelly Creagh Interview

kelly creagh

Today I'm very pleased to have Kelly Creagh, author of Nevermore, stop by for an interview.  Nevermore was one of my favorite books of 2010, so I was happy when Kelly took some time out of her super-busy schedule to answer a few questions I had about the book.

1.      Varen is such a great character! Did you base him off anyone (Severus Snape, for example ;)?
Varen was and is a blast to write. He’s so complicated and conflicted. I didn’t base him off of Snape, per se. Since Snape is one of my all time favorite characters, he may very well have had an influence on my writing but I didn’t set out to create a character like Snape. Actually, Varen was loosely inspired by a real person I knew who always wrote in purple ink.

2.      Nevermore is an incredibly visual book.  Were you inspired by anime or comic books when you were creating the "look" of the novel?
I was mostly inspired by my own memories of high school as well as my current surroundings. Nevermore is based in a semi-fictional Louisville, though the city is never mentioned by name. Trenton is based off of my own high school and Varen’s neighborhood is based directly on Old Louisville, which is one of the nation’s largest preservation districts. Another huge influence was the imagery in Poe’s works, especially in The Masque of the Red Death and his poems Dream-Land and Ulalume. I took as much as I could from Poe’s works when constructing the dream-world aspects of the novel. This includes the characters found in this realm, like the Nocs and even Reynolds.

3.      It's pretty unusual to have a heroine who isn't bookish in YA novels.  Were you worried about readers being able to connect with a character who didn't read?
I didn’t worry about that at all, really. I was just writing about the person who was in my head. In many ways, Isobel led the way in the story and Varen too. I always know I’m doing something right when the characters take over and it begins to feel as though I’m taking dictation rather than composing. I think that even though Isobel isn’t the biggest fan of literature, she is still relatable to avid readers and reluctant readers alike. It was actually very fun to create a main character who was popular, coordinated, spunky and a little different than your normal YA heroine. When I began writing Nevermore, I didn’t know much about cheerleading at all but I knew that Isobel loved to cheer and I knew that it was one of the most important things in the world to her. So that meant I had to go out and learn everything I could about cheering. This included sitting in on a practice session. I also watched documentaries on cheering and read coaching manuals. I was never the athletic type in school but it has gotten to the point where I’m such a cheerleading fan. It’s such an intense sport and it takes so much energy, resilience and bravery—which are all of the qualities I could hope for in any heroine!
creagh quote

4.      Why do you think Edgar Allen Poe and his work is so appealing, even after more than a hundred years?
I think Edgar Allan Poe remains so popular because of the nature of his work. So much of what Poe wrote about focuses on what happens after we die. This is unknown territory that will never ever cease to be intriguing. Poe’s brand of horror is more about the mind and less about gore and shock. That’s not to say that he hasn’t mixed in his own fair share of slashing axe-through-the-brain terror. But bloodshed in Poe’s works is never gratuitous. And really, what turns out to be so unsettling about his stories is the psychology behind the mayhem.

5.      Where are we likely to see Cemetery Sighs on tour? ;)
Right now the band is enjoying the success of their hit single, Emily Not, Not Gone, which you can download from my “Extras” page. Stay tuned to my website and blog for any updates about their music, appearances and future albums.

6.      What would you say the theme of Nevermore is?  Are the other books in the series going to have the same theme?
I never set out to write a novel with a specific theme in mind. If I had to pinpoint the theme of Nevermore, I would say that it has a lot to do with acceptance of differences and also not judging things on face value alone.  The theme of the sequel will be different. The story gets much darker.
creagh quote 2

7.      Reynolds is supposed to visit Poe's grave one day every year.  Have you tried to catch him in the act?
The Poe Toaster is a real person who visits Poe’s grave every year on Poe’s birthday. “Reynolds” is the name Poe was calling out just before he died. As far as I know, I am the first author to connect the two into one character. And I have seen the person known as the Poe Toaster! In January 2009, I went to Baltimore with a few of my friends to witness the rite and I was lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse of the toaster. In January 2010, the toaster did not appear at Poe’s grave. It has been the only time he has failed to show in the 60 years the ritual has been documented. I can only hope that he will return in 2011! Be sure to google him on January 19th to see if he came!

8.      Will there be any new characters in the next book?
Yes. But that’s all I’m willing to say!

9.      Will Varen ever graduate from high school?
;) I can’t answer that one without giving too much away.
creagh quote 3

10.     Are there any plans to adapt Nevermore into another medium--graphic novels, TV, movies?
Wouldn’t that be awesome? I have to admit, I would LOVE to see Nevermore adapted to film. Whenever I write, the stories in my head play out like movies in my mind's-eye. So I think it’s only natural to want to see how it would really appear on the big screen. Not only that, but how cool would it be to watch the Nocs come to life?
Right now, there is no movie or graphic novel adaptation planned. Perhaps sometime soon, though!

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

flutterby swords cover

Tang dynasty.  Princess Ai Li runs away from her soon-to-be husband after learning he's a traitor.  But how will she get back to her family when her fiance, Li Tao, controls the entire province with his huge army?  That's where Ryam the Barbarian comes in.

The setting for this book is extremely unusual for a romance novel.  Most are set in nineteenth-century London; this is set in eighth-century China.  Eighth-century freaking CHINA!!!  I should have been geeking out with the awesomeness of it all, but it felt disappointingly un-exotic, and that was really my biggest problem with the book.  In every respect other than the setting, this is your typical romance novel.  And honestly, if you switched the setting around to, say, medieval Europe, it would be almost exactly the same book.

Ryam and Ai Li meet at a lonesome inn.  He's starving and alone, and trying to make it back to his comrades who may or may not be hanging out in "the desert region."  Ai Li shows the scary ghost barbarian a kindness by sharing her rice with him; a few paragraphs later, Ryam rescues Ai Li from some of Li Tao's troops.  Trust!  Love!  Solidarity!  Ai Li convinces Ryam to help her trek across empire to Changan, the capital, where her family lives.  Throw in a stint of sword practicing and suddenly they're crawling all over each other.  But Ryam worries that Ai Li's powerful father will ever accept a poor soldier such as himself for a son-in-law.

The story itself was okay.  Ryam is some sort of Goth, I'm guessing, although his origins are never spelled out.  Nor are we ever given a good explanation as to how and why Ai Li can speak his language.  What language exactly are they speaking?  Latin?  And why in the world would a Tang princess educate herself on how to speak a barbarian language?  I'm sure she'll need that for her future as dutiful wife number one.

I think my enjoyment of this novel was colored by the fact that I'm a huge Jade Lee fan.  She's the only other author I know of who writes romances set in China, and her books make me feel like I'm actually in China.  Her Chinese and European characters have a whole cultural history working through their backgrounds that they have to reconcile, and it makes their relationships feel very authentic.  With Butterfly Swords, I wasn't even sure where Ryam was from, let alone got a sense of his cultural background and how that differed from Ai Li's.  The two characters did have chemistry, but I found myself wondering why Lin made Ryam "European" when a Chinese character would have done just as well and probably would have made more sense.

This novel was okay, but took way more time to read than the story warranted.  Maybe Jeannie Lin will improve as she writes more, but for right now I'd rather just re-read something by Jade Lee.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inception Movie Review

ZOMG you guys, did you know labyrinths are like one of my personal symbols?  And that the first paper I got published was about labyrinths???  Well, it's true.  I love labyrinths.  Also, I know way too much about them.  So imagine my unholy delight when I watched Inception, which is really all about labyrinths.

Leonardo di Caprio, aka Cobb, is a freelance thief who steals secrets from people's dreams.  One day he and his partner, the rockin Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are hired by a Japanese businessman named Saito--not to steal an idea out of someone's head, but to implant it.  This is much more complicated than what they usually do, so they have to take their subject into a dream within a dream within a dream, and eventually even beyond dreams.

Sound confusing?  It is.  Let's focus on something that makes sense:  the dream worlds are based on labyrinths.  The first clue that this is the case is the name of Ellen Page's character, Ariadne.  In the labyrinth myth, Ariadne is the daughter of King Midas, and one of the few people who know the secret of the labyrinth Midas created as a prison for her half-brother, the Minotaur.  Theseus was sent to Crete to be food for the Minotaur; but fortunately, Ariadne fell in love with him and taught him the dance of life and death that would carry him to the center of the labyrinth.  She also gave him a gold ball of thread and a ball of pitch.  The pitch Theseus threw into the Minotaur's mouth to keep the monster from chomping bits out of him; the twine he used to guide himself out of the labyrinth, like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs.  Theseus then grabbed Ariadne and sailed for home, but abandoned her on a deserted island for reasons unknown.  Once he reached his home port, Theseus immediately started partying, drinking, and teaching all his friends the labyrinth dance; meanwhile, his father was committing suicide, in despair because he believed Theseus dead.  You see, Theseus forgot to switch his ship's sails from black to white to signal his success before he ported on Delos.

At first, it seems obvious that Ariadne the character is Ariadne, the mythical figure, and Cobb is Theseus.  But is this really the case?  It's interesting that Ellen Page's character is the architect of the dream worlds, the one who designs them.  In the myth and creation of labyrinths, the architect is unique and celebrated--the Cretan labyrinth, for example, was designed by Daedalus (the same inventor who created the wax wings), and was heralded as a work of artistic genius.  Of the four ancient labyrinths written about by Pliny the Elder, three of them have known, celebrated architects.  Even though Ariadne can navigate the labyrinth, she can't see it in its entirety--that privilege is reserved for the architect and one other--the king who orders its construction.

I think the answer in regards to whether Ellen Page is that Ariadne or not is that she is, but she also isn't.  And Cobb is Theseus, but also not.  That's because there are two labyrinths, two architects, and two Theseuses.  The first Theseus is Fischer, Jr., the person whom Cobb is supposed to be implanting with an idea.  His Minotaur is his father, and the king in this case is Saito (the golden room at the heart of his dream world suggests an association with King Midas, and the dream worlds are built at his order).  But there's another labyrinth within Fischer, Jr.'s labyrinth, this one created by Cobb.  His Minotaur and Ariadne are both his wife, Mal (considering that in French mal means evil, it's interesting Cobb's French wife allows this nickname).  The first time Cobb traveled into the heart of his labyrinth, called Limbo in the movie, Mal was his Adriadne, holding a spinning top representing the spinning dance of the labyrinth.  The second time, Ellen Page his Cobb's Ariadne, and Mal is the scary Minotaur he has to face; but just as Theseus abandons Ariadne before he returns home, Cobb abandons Mal before he wakes from the dream world.

Finally, Cobb is Theseus because he travels into Limbo to rescue Saito and Fischer.  In the French Gothic cathedral labyrinths like the one at Chartres, the cannons of the church would reenact a dance every Easter of Christ's Harrowing of Hell, in which He traveled to the center of the labyrinth to rescue the souls of the Old Testament prophets from Limbo, and led them out of the labyrinth and into heaven. 

What does this all mean for the cliff-hanger ending of the film, where the top continues to spin, leaving us uncertain about whether or not Cobb has escaped Limbo?  Significant to the scene is the presence of Professor Miles, played by Michael Caine, because just as there are two Theseuses and two Ariadnes, there are two kings.  Saito is the first and the Professor, Mal's father, is obviously the second.  In an interview Caine stated, "If I'm there it's real, because I'm never in the dream. I'm the guy who invented the dream," just as King Midas invented the labyrinth. 

But if Cobb is out of Limbo, why does the top keep spinning?  If the spinning top represents the spinning labyrinth dance that Ariadne taught to Theseus, then one can imagine that the dance is continuing to be performed, even once Cobb is out of Limbo.  Like Theseus' father, the viewer waits for a definite sign that Cobb has made it out of the labyrinth alive; and, deprived of that signal, we fear he is forever lost.  But the dance of the labyrinth is the dance of life and death; and now that Cobb has conquered his Minotaur and abandoned Mal, he is not either/or, but both.

Obviously you don't need to know all this useful (read sarcastically) information to enjoy the movie--it tells an excellent, suspenseful story all on its own.  But the filmmakers also have clearly done a lot of research into labyrinths and layered their meanings, symbols, and myths into the film in a very interesting way.  If you haven't seen Inception yet, I highly recommend it!

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Favorite Not-Holiday Movies

la confidential still

Like most people, I enjoy watching particular movies during the holidays.  Unlike most people, however, I've never watched holiday movies during the holidays.  I didn't even realize this until one year when my friend and I were talking about holiday movies (my friend was a film major so movies were our main topic of conversation).  She asked me what my favorite holiday film was and I replied, "Probably LA Confidential." 

My friend: "What?  LA Confidential isn't a holiday movie."

Me: "Part of it takes place during Christmas and it was released at Christmas.  Isn't that enough?"

APPARENTLY NOT.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, there are actually films whose whole plots center around the holidays.  Considering I didn't even know what A Christmas Story was until my 20's, and still have yet to see It's a Wonderful Life in its entirety, it's probably not much of a surprise that I was clueless about that. 

Huh.  Well, whatever.  I do have my "holiday" movies--even if some people might not consider them holiday movies per se--that I like to watch to cheer me up.

The Movies:
  1. LA Confidential--Nothing like a little murder, prostitution, and shoot-outs to put a person in the holiday spirit!  Seriously, I think this might be the best holiday movie ever.  Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are enough to put anyone in a cheery mood.
  2. Kate & Leopold--This is a very charming movie that gives me the warm fuzzies.  Why can't men like Leopold actually exist?  Why?!?  Also, I'm a huge Liev Schreiber fan just because of this film, and Hugh Jackman is arguably the sexiest man alive right now.
  3. Harry Potter--I kind of go into Harry Potter glomania during the holidays.  I read the books, I watch the movies... I seriously consider buying a DA t-shirt or a snitch necklace.  And again, there are Christmas scenes in the movies, so why aren't these considered "holiday" movies??  Honestly, these rules make no sense.
  4. Little Women--The only scenes I ever remember from this film involve snow, food, and singing, so CLEARLY it must be a holiday movie, amirite?
  5. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All--Okay, that thing about me not liking any holiday movies was a lie.  I actually do like A Colbert Christmas.  I like it so much I watch it even when it's not Christmas.
I guess the point of all this is *ensue heart-warming wrap-up* that what really matters when it comes to Christmas movies is how they make you feel.  If a movie makes you feel cheerier, kinder, and better about the world in general, then it can legitimately be called a holiday movie!

Do you have any non-holiday movies you like to watch during Christmas and New Year's, or are you a straight-up holiday movie person?

And before I forget...

Merry Christmas!

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Perfect Novel

woman reading by kuniyoshi

Does aesthetic perfection exist in the modern world?  Does it matter?

When I read a book--or watch a movie or TV show, for that matter--I'm looking for perfection.  I've always looked for it, ever since I was a kid, in both my work and others'.  Obviously perfection is very rarely achieved, which is why I give out so few 5-star reviews, even when I like a book.  But what does it mean to be perfect?

To most people, perfection in the arts is an abstract concept, something unattainable and unquantifiable.  But some cultures have very definitive ideas of what perfection is, and do nothing but try to achieve it.  The Greeks, for example, literally formulated perfection in music and made it illegal to play anything but "perfect" musical harmonies in public.  They also applied perfect proportions to the human body and architecture that became so endemic in Western art that they're used constantly without anyone thinking about them or guessing at their source.

According to Aristotle, who gave the oldest known definition, perfection means either total completeness, being the best of its kind, or something that has achieved its purpose.  For example, a circle is the perfect form because it's complete within itself--that's why heaven is often depicted as a circular form in medieval and Renaissance art.  Or a steampunk novel could be perfect if it's the best of its genre. 

Perfection is also a paradox, because it doesn't only mean perfection as such, but is often confused with excellence and carries connotations of beauty and grace.  Since the Renaissance, philosophers like Vanini have argued that the greatest perfection is imperfection.  If something is complete, it can't be improved upon; but if a work of art is incomplete, it invites the viewer or reader to fill in the blanks by using their imagination, making the viewer a part of the piece.  It is also invites progress, which is imperative for the development of technology.  Personally, I agree with Vanini--some of the best books I've ever read are ones that didn't give me all the answers.  And I enjoy it when a good author takes ambitious chances with a story, even if the results are imperfect.

Considering their interest in Classical art and philosophy, it's no surprise that Renaissance artists like Vasari and Alberti, and humanist philosophers like Petrarch, developed an interest in achieving aesthetic perfection.  They set forth values with which to judge perfection in the arts and distinguish it from mere excellence.  A perfect work is judged as a whole work, not a just a part, and is a conjunction of many elements.  It requires not only talent but skill to create, and shouldn't be the sole value by which the piece is evaluated.

For myself, I would also add balance.  I don't necessarily agree with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away, but that the more elements are in a work, the more balance they require.  It's easier to achieve perfection with simpler forms because there's less to harmonize.

What is your definition of perfection?  Do you believe perfection is something writers and artists should strive for?

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles

return to paradise cover

When last we saw Caleb Becker, he had just gotten out of a year in juvenile detention for hitting his sister's best friend with a car while driving drunk.  Returning to Paradise, Illinoise, he discovered his mom was addicted to prescription meds, his sister was emo (the horror), and the girl he'd run over--well, he was kinda into her.  But then Caleb decided he'd had it with his hometown and--extended metaphor alert!!!--exiled himself from Paradise.

Now the boy with the black fire tattoo is back.  Only, wait--no he's not.  He just has to go through a summer program to scare teens into not drinking and driving, which doesn't take place in Paradise.  But lo! The girl he hit with his car, Maggie, is in the program, too!  What an amazing coincidence.  God must really want these two people to be together.

This book is the follow-up to Leaving Paradise, which I liked but had some problems with.  Take those problems and magnify them times what-the-heck-is-going-on-here, and you have this novel.  It was all just a little too convenient--Caleb just happens to run into Maggie in the program, he just happens to return to juvie, where he just happens to talk to his old cell mate, who just HAPPENS to have valuable words of wisdom, and on and on.  Furthermore, the story doesn't really have any sort of narrative arc--it feels like it hits the restart button several times, and doesn't have a climax at all.  Instead, it meanders episodically and little repetitively.

The main characters, Caleb and Maggie, were difficult for me to connect with and their voices weren't very distinct.  Elkeles' style is to have one chapter told from the heroine's perspective and one from the hero's, alternating through the whole book.  Usually the characters are each very unique and it's easy to tell them apart, but here I had to remind myself who was "talking" a few times.  The motivation behind their actions was never very clear, but it got worse in the second half.  For example, they are both super-understanding with their parents, who act insane; but when it comes to being tolerant and communicative with each other, Caleb and Maggie do a major fail whale.  But hey, if they actually talked, the book would be, what, fifty pages?

I did like the supporting characters in the novel, such as Lenny, Trish, and Julio; and in fact I wish that the book had been about them instead of Caleb and Maggie.  Even though it's called Return to Paradise, Caleb doesn't actually return to Paradise until the novel is over half-over!  By then I reeeeeally felt like the book should be wrapping up, not just starting to get to the point.

I also feel like Elkeles' novels are becoming a little formulaic (you're shocked by this development, I'm sure).  Caleb is essentially the same, doesn't-feel-like-he-can-do-any-good bad boy that we saw with Alex in Perfect Chemistry and Carlos in Rules of Attraction.  And the wet kissing scenes are getting to eye-roll level now--honestly, what if Spiderman kissed Mary Jane upside down in every. single. movie?  It would be ridiculous!

I'm not saying I'm giving up on Elkeles, but this book did not work for me.  It felt very manufactured and thrown together.  Hopefully that won't be the case with wet kissing scene number three--I mean, Chain Reaction.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Disgust & Desire, Pride & Prejudice

Lizzie and Darcy
A few days ago, Jessica from Read React Review had a great post on the philosophy of sexual desire.  In one part of the post, she talks about how sexual desire is dependent upon revulsion and disgust.  To share a quote Jessica had in her post:
[S]exual desire depends on the idea of a prohibited domain of the disgusting. A person’s tongue in your mouth could be experienced as a pleasure or as a most repulsive and nauseating intrusion depending on the state of relations that exist or are being negotiated between you and the person. But someone else’s tongue in your mouth can be a sign of intimacy because it can also be a disgusting assault.1
As Jessica pointed out, you see this played out metaphorically a lot in romance novels.  But I would say it's really exemplified best in Pride & Prejudice, which is arguably the source for at least half of the romantic fiction plots ever written.  I'm not referring only to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy--their initial dislike for one another that eventually turns into admiration and (spoiler alert! Seriously, will you read the book already?) love has become a trope of literary romances--that's obvious.  But take, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett.  Mr. Bennett supposedly can't stand his wife, yet he somehow managed to father five children with her?  HMM.  Or Charlotte and Mr. Collins, who seem to develop a relationship of mutual disgust fairly quickly.  Or do they?  Certainly Charlotte is attracted to Collins for the freedom from her parents he represents, if nothing else.  Happiness in marriage may be entirely a matter of chance, as Charlotte proclaimed, but the major sexual relationships in the book appear to rely on a balance of attraction and repulsion, both on the part of the characters and the reader's impression of them.

Interestingly, I don't believe this dichotomy is present in Austen's other novels, definitely not to the degree of Pride & Prejudice.  Marianne may eventually become disgusted with Willoughby, but they don't wind up together.  Neither Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, or Anne from Persuasion, or Emma Woodhouse ever seem to work up more than annoyance for their various romantic other halfs.

Is the push-and-pull of revulsion and attraction what makes Pride & Prejudice Austen's most famous novel?  I do think that it helps make the relationships seem more "real" to the reader.  It's really surprising to me (though I don't know why) that Austen was able to intuit that dynamic and integrate it so seamlessly into the plot of her novel.

Can you think of any other Austen relationships that have a digust/desire component?  Are there any writers who can beat Austen at her own game?

1William Ian Miller, An Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p.137.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ass Hat Says Popular Authors Are Terrible Writers

ass hole

Scibbles McPenname, whose work of stunning literary genius was publised eight years ago and bought by four people--not including his mother--says that the work of uber-popular authors like Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown is utter crap.  Scribbles sites an excessive use of commas and genre tropes in the calling out of these paperback superstars.  When asked which authors he does admire, he brought up several dead people and his old college professor.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

Richard Hannay is in London and BORED.  As we all know, that's a sign the shit's about to go down, and it does:  a spy breaks into his flat and tells him some far-fetched story about a plot to kill a major political figure and start a world war.  At first Hannay's like, "Crazy dude is crazy!  But I'll keep him around because he amuses me."  After a while, however, he starts to think maybe there's something to what the spy says.  One afternoon he comes back to his flat and finds the spy dead, and then he's sure the spy was right.  Thanks to some clues, Hannay heads to Scotland with the evol Germans and the police both on his trail.

This is a great, very quick (if you're not writing a gazillion papers *cough*), entertaining read.  The political machinations and assassination plot are utterly nonsensical, but it doesn't matter in the least because that's the MacGuffin.  All one really cares about is following Hannay on his adventures through Scotland and watching as he outwits everyone.  It's easy to see why Hitchcock adapted this book to film twice--it's suspenseful, fast-paced, full of great landscape, and thoroughly enjoyable.

And Hannay is really the linchpin of the story--appropriately, since he is the narrator as well as the hero.  He's an outsider in the UK, coming from south Africa, but so incredibly smart and quick-thinking that one would probably never even notice.  Yet I think his status as an outsider is a major element of his character: it makes him a liminal figure, able to travel between poor cottages to wealthy drawing rooms with ease.  More than ease, actually--he doesn't seem in any way constrained by a sense of class or self-identity pertinent to the surroundings that would make him hesitate to take on a role or depend on someone's good grace. 

If you watched the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of this and enjoyed it, you have to read the book--it is soooo much better.  And to sweeten the deal, it's free from Project Gutenberg.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas Carroll by Leanna Renee Hieber

midwinter fantasy cover

In which the author Leanna Renee Hieber endeavors, in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put her readers out of humour....

When we last left The Guard--a group of seven people who keep the "Whisper-world" and "real world" separated--in The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, everyone had lost their powers but was happily paired up--even Michael and Rebecca.  But how?  Why?  A Christmas Carroll explains exactly that.

I have to admit I came into this story with two major biases:  one, I never liked Rebecca that much.  I was totally okay with her being pathetically in love with Professor Alexi forever.  And two, even if she did fall in love with someone else, I couldn't see it being with Michael.  Alexi is the leader of The Guard; Elijah is the class clown; and Michael is just... the nice guy.  Nice. Safe. Boring.  Could someone who had carried a hopeless torch for Alexi for nearly her entire life really ever be attracted to someone like Michael?  I was doubtful.

Hieber, however, managed it.  She convinced me Michael was romantic hero material and that he and Rebecca belonged together in one hundred pages, and she did it in a way I never would have expected.  Á la Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Rebecca and Michael are taken on journeys into their respective pasts by their recently deceased friend and colleague, Jane.  Along the way they have a chance to repair the past and start anew in the present.

This isn't a perfect book--for about the first half I felt like I kept waiting for the story to start, and the conclusion was so sweet I thought I might have gotten a cavity--but it succeeds in its central purpose.  And I continue to be impressed by Hieber's writing.  Michael and Rebecca spend very little time together in the course of the narrative, which seems antithetical to a romance; but Hieber uses it as a creative way to bring them together. 

She's also writing much more lyrical prose than I recall from her earlier workTake the first sentence from the prologue, for example:  "Three spirits murmured to each other, standing in the luminous Liminal that separated the waiting Whisper-world from the dazzling, drawing light of the Great Beyond."  That's a lot of alliteration!  The entire story isn't that heavily poetical, but it does set the tone for the rest of the narrative.  Hieber is clearly expanding her repertoire on how to tell a story, not just what to tell, and overall I found it very effective.

I would definitely recommend this novella to anyone who likes the Percy Parker books, and am looking forward to seeing what the author does with her next novel!  Thank you so much to Hieber for sending me a galley copy of this anthology to read.

And if this review has confused the heck out of you, I suggest you pick up The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy ParkerImmediately.

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Fragment Friday: A Christmas Carroll

Fragment Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Book Chic, where you read an excerpt from either your current read or one of your favorite books and post it on your blog to share with others! It's a fun way to learn about new books or to hear a sample from a book you're dying to read.  Go to Book Chic to post your own fragment!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Movie Review

Girl with the dragon tattoo poster

After watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think I'm beginning see the appeal of the novel (which I haven't read).  It has everything you could possibly want in a thriller--a down-on-his-luck reporter.  Femme fatales.  Nazis!  Reclusive millionaires!  Serial killers!  Creepy portraits of beautiful women á la Laura!  Deviant sexual behavior!  And a happy ending.

Mikael Blomkvist is the last true investigative reporter in the world, but tangles with a corrupt corporation that's too big for him and winds up losing all journalistic creditability, not to mention receiving a prison sentence for libel.  Depressed and unemployed, he accepts a sketchy job on a remote island, searching for the killer of a girl who disappeared over 40 years ago.  Meanwhile, a Goth with amazing research skillz, Lisbeth Salander, is obsessed with Blomkvist and winds up helping him catch the killer.  Did I say help?  This guy couldn't find a tree in a forest.

There's a lot of rape and abuse in the movie, and it is very disturbing, but weirdly the film doesn't wind up being depressing.  I think this is because of how the story is resolved--both of the women involved can and do fight against their attackers, and all the characters get their just reward in the dénouement.  It leaves one with the sense that no matter what terrible experiences one suffers in life, there's the possibility of moving forward and starting anew.  In that sense, the story is very cathartic.

The actor who plays Blomkvist, Michael Nyqvist, has a strange sort of Mulder-eque appeal.  Despite his pockmarked face and hairy beer gut, I could believe Lisbeth might sleep with him.  Maybe.  Although I never understood her obsession with him--perhaps she's intrigued by the fact that he's a completely honorable person.  When he wore metallic pants in the Australian Outback, though, it kind of threw me.  Honestly, dude, you sleep with a twenty-four-year-old and suddenly you think you're a rock star?  Reality check: no way.  Further reality check: metallic pants in the Outback are totally impractical.

Lisbeth, meanwhile, is totally kick-ass.  She literally does everything in this movie--if it wasn't for her, Blomkvist wouldn't have even gotten the job on the island, let alone everything that came afterward.  She's also the only original element of this story.  Without Lisbeth, the reporter, reclusive millionaire, and serial killer would seem pretty cheesy and predictable.  It's Lisbeth's character that mixes it up and makes it seem more authentic than it is.  I'm definitely interested in finding out what happens next with her character.

This is unequivocally a movie for adults only, but I don't think there's any reason not to watch it.  There are very graphic scenes, but I didn't feel as if they were gratuitous or glamorized what was happening.  And besides that, the film told a good story with excellent visuals from start to finish.  I definitely recommend watching it if you're at all interested.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Eat Pray Love Movie Review

eat pray love poster

Over Thanksgiving, I watched Eat Pray Love with my mom.  I'm not a huge fan of memoirs, so I never had any desire to read the book; but the movie has several cute guys in it, and who doesn't love Julia Roberts?

If you've been living under a rock for the past few years and have no idea what the book's about, it's the true story of Elizabeth Gilbert, who was in her early thirties and lived in New York with an awesome baker husband and a sweet writing career.  At the start of the movie, she meets a wrinkled medicine man who tells her she'll lose her husband and all her money, but come back to visit him in Bali, and regain her money.

After Gilbert returns to New York City, girlfriend starts freaking out.  I'm pretty sure she starts having a mid-life crisis, because all of a sudden she HATES her husband, who seems adorably devoted to her, and really her entire life.  So, she files for divorce.

But this doesn't help Gilbert feel better.  Before you can say, "Holy crap that play is awful and I really hope she's not the one who wrote it," Gilbert is hooking up with a rebound boy toy, an actor who stars in one of her plays.  If there's a better cure for the post-divorce blues than James Franco, he wasn't in this movie.  Yet STILL, Gilbert continues an emotional tailspin.  After much emoting to her best friend, she runs away to Italy, India, and Bali for a year.

Who hasn't wanted to run away from all the crap in their life?  God knows I have.  This difference between Gilbert and the rest of us, however, is that Gilbert actually did it.  With a generous advance from her publisher.

Before that, I thought the movie was a little pretentious.  After Gilbert headed off to Italy, it definitely improved, even though I still found it difficult to connect to Gilbert's character.  She seemed a little, how shall I say... self-involved?  Emotionally needy?  Honestly, if you want to find out what it's like to live without a boyfriend, that's a relatively easy problem to solve.  Trust me on this one.  I've never had a problem with eating food, either, so the whole thing in Italy with, "Let's congratulate ourselves for eating without counting calories!" kind of made me want to scratch her eyes out. 

Furthermore, Gilbert keeps meeting people with real problems--a man whose wife left him because of alcoholism, a teenage girl who is being forced to marry someone she doesn't like, a woman who is an outcast in society because she dared to divorce her husband who beat her--yet never seems to think to herself, "Hey, compared to these people I kind of seem like a childish crazy person who doesn't have any perspective or knows how to deal with a modern existential crisis and appreciate what she's got."  Which is weird, because that's what I kept thinking the entire time.

I also kept expecting her to hop into bed with every single man who crossed her path, but she didn't.  This was more confusing than anything else, because I thought that was her major problem to begin with?  But fear not, eventually Javier Bardem saves her with his excellent Brazilian accent.

This movie isn't terrible, although it is definitely a hard-core chick flick.  Travel stories are always fun.  I don't want to make too much fun of Gilbert (too late) because you never know, someday I might have a complete breakdown and go haring off to some foreign country, myself.  But I can't help feeling, because of the way the movie was framed, that none of this would have happened if the medicine man would have kept his mouth shut.  That, combined with the fact that there's not much explanation for Gilbert's mood once she returns to New York, made the whole thing feel like a phase. 

I didn't want to read the book before I saw the movie, and now I definitely don't.  But I can see the appeal of such a story to women of a certain age and class whose lives are filled with ennui.  No matter what motivated her to do it, Gilbert's travels are an adventure not just of place but of the heart, and no one can resist that.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Soundtrack for Our Dystopian Future

Arcade Fire is a band known for their complex production and thematic albums. 2007's Neon Bible was seen as a biting indictment of the Bush administration. Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire, said their latest album, The Suburbs, is a love letter from the 'burbs. But I see it more as dystopian YA literature gone musical.

Take, for example, the video for the title track, directed by Spike Jonze (above). The video features teenagers bumming around what seems like your typical, middle-class suburb (it was actually filmed in Austin, Texas), until empty houses and the puzzlingly strong presence of law enforcement hint that this isn't contemporary reality, and all is not well in this world. The lyrics support Jonze's interpretation, too: "When the bombs dropped we were already bored... Sometimes I can't believe it."

Track five, the catchy "Rococo," is almost universally thought to be about hipsters and how they really don't know what the hell is going on despite their painfully laid-back-and-ironic dress code. Yet if one reads it in reference to the art period Rococo--where the wealthy French aristocracy teetering on the brink of revolution commissioned playful paintings about love and sex--the song seems more of a warning against living in luxury while the world is torn apart around you, all because you can't be bothered to educate yourself beyond your own daily existence: "The modern kids... will eat right out of your hand/using great big words that they don't understand.... They seem wild/but they are so tame." Rococo (the word, not the song) is often interpreted to mean something along the lines of a decorative shell in French, and indeed the kids in Arcade Fire's "Rococo" are the vanguard of a culture that's nothing but a shell, with no life behind it with which to bring meaning or consequences to the kids' actions.

The interactive video for "We Used to Wait" takes the viewer to his or her hometown street and destroys it with a mushroom cloud-like accumulation of hundreds of trees, nature taking back a settled landscape. Both "Half Light II (No Celebration)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Upon Mountains)" talk about the death of wild places, dreams, and the imminent demise of their protagonists. Take this set of lyrics from "Half Light II":

Though we knew this day would come
Still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born
I now see through a dead man's eyes

One day they will see it's long gone...

And, in the band's blog, the latest post contains a link to the Georgia Guidestones, a Stonehenge-esque monument inscribed with instructions, in several languages, on how to recreate civilization after the apocalypse (one quote from the Guidestones I just have share: "Prize Truth-Beauty-Love-" and books!?!).

I'm not a huge reader of dystopian YA, but I can see The Suburbs working as the soundtrack to Stephenie Meyers' The Host or The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Furthermore, Anaraug, who is very knowledgeable about such things, says that two of tracks reference William Gibson's Sprawl Anthology, which is a series of dystopian novels. But Arcade Fire's Suburbs talks about growing up in the suburbs even among its destruction, which gives the album a distinctly YA flavor of dystopia.

Do you know of any other bands or artists who have incorporated dystopian literature into their work?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tourists of History by Marita Sturken

Proposed subtitle: When Teddy Bears Attack

The US sucks.  One of the places we suck hardest is dealing with things in any sort of context.  Bible quotations and celeb interviews just to name a few.  And also horrible incidents of tragedy.

tourists cover

Another thing about Americans is that they like to consume things.  Stuff provides a barrier between the American and the scary, unknown world, or thoughts thereof.  After 9/11, instead of being encouraged to volunteer or reach out to their neighbors, or even join the military, Americans were pushed to buy things by their political leaders.  Buying things will save you; buying things will save us.  Guns, duct tape, bottled water.  Buy cell phones in case of an emergency, buy cars and houses to get out an economic depression.  Combine this mantra of consumption and consumerism with places of tragedy and what do you get?  Kitsch.

Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero is an important book, although so densely packed with ideas that it's difficult to easily grasp.  Instead of trying to summarize it (Sturken herself took over thirty pages to do so), it's probably better to give an example of how Sturken frames her argument--namely through teddy bears.

Teddy bears are symbols of innocence, childhood, and comfort.  At both the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Ground Zero, one can buy teddy bears inscribed with something like FDNY, their arms lifted "as if about to give the visitor a hug."  This fluffy little souvenir may seem harmless, even charming, but in fact it represents everything wrong with the way Americans interact with historic sites.  These little symbols of childhood suggest a healing that can only take place through infantilization of their owner--they are children's toys but they're made for adults, returning their owner to a naive mindset and allowing them to walk away with a child-like understanding of the site just visited and its historical context (which is to say, none).

Sturken also looks at other kitsch items like snow globes, the pink ribbon campaign, and the visual culture surrounding events like the OKC bombing and 9/11, all of which are fairly disgusting from the standpoint of morals and taste.

For the most part I agree with Sturken's argument.  For a long time I've been wondering to myself:  why the sudden obsession with zombies?  They've become a part of our popular culture, but who or what do they represent?  I think in part the answer lies in Sturken's book.  We have this morbid need to consume everything--tragedy, stories, video of the event, reenactments--on tv, on the internet, and in person.  Yet we're also encouraged very strongly not to give any of these things too much thought.  Have we become mindlessly insatiable in our gathering of memories and pursuit of "culture"?  My guess is Sturken would say yes.

Sturken's book is one I would definitely recommend if you have an interest in this sort of thing, but I can't help feeling that artists have been making this point much more elegantly and for a longer time than Sturken has.  "Windowsill" by Arcade Fire is pretty much Sturken's entire argument in a kick-ass four minute song.  You don't need to be an academic to notice what Sturken points out, you just have to be paying attention.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jane by April Lindner

jane cover

What if Mr. Rochester was a rock star?

Indeed.  What if.  What if Jane Eyre was never written?  Where would we go to for our innocent-jeune-fille-makes-rich-grizzled-old-guy-fall-in-love-with-her plots?

Jane is an adaptation of Jane Eyre set in the modern-day, with Mr. Rochester played by been-there-done-that rock star, Nico Rathburn.  Orphan Jane Moore is forced to drop out of Sarah Lawrence after her parents die, and lands a pretty posh job as a nanny to Rathburn's daughter.  I won't summarize the book any further, because if you're at all familiar with Jane Eyre, there's no need.  You already know what happens.

I've read a few adaptations of Jane Eyre that tried to be more original--Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn leaps immediately to mind.  That novel was set in the future, and Rochester's secret in the attic was much more creatively adapted to the setting.  Another adaptation that was pretty good was Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, which was less literal and had the heroine falling in love with the mysterious son of the grizzled estate owner.  But even though Jenna Starborn and Nine Coaches might have been more clever, as a piece of pure romantic escapism I didn't enjoy them a quarter as much as I enjoyed Jane.

The novel is distilled into highlights of Jane Eyre, like a movie (in fact, I kept thinking it would make a better movie than a book), and moves along pretty quickly.  The estate is still called Thornfield, there's still a nice housekeeper and a suspicious resident of the uppermost floor, and the whole book feels a little anachronistic.  There may be cell phones and the internet, but there are no TVs and the internets is used just a time or two.  Jane herself doesn't feel like a modern teenager, and it's easy to forget that's what she is--especially the teenager part.  She hasn't heard of a major rock star and only listens to classical music?  I don't listen to hip-hop, but I still know who Jay-Z and Timbaland are, you know what I'm saying?  Plus she doesn't believably think or behave like a nineteen-year-old, even a mature one; she's got way too much perspective.

As for Nico Rathburn, he's not a carbon copy of the original Mr. Rochester.  He's much nicer and laid back, and pretty much an all-around good guy.  His "temper" is occasionally mentioned, but I didn't see much evidence of it in the story.  As I wrote in my musical notes for this book, as a musician I imagine he's based off Bruce Springsteen: there's a quote from "Factory" on the dedication page, and Nico's songs, like Springsteen's, have a lot of references to streets and night and the kind of workingman's romanticism you find the Boss' songs.  Personality-wise, however, he's nothing like Springsteen (or any other great musician I've ever heard of), which is probably all for the best--Springsteen's old as dirt, not to mention a pretty weird dude.  Nor could I imagine Nico as a serious drug addict, although that was supposed to be the awful thing in his past that made him all broody.  Again, for the purposes of the book, this was probably for the best: a realistic crazy ex-coke head musician would be a hard sell as a romantic hero (although potentially awesome!).

And don't even get me started on the hit-you-over-the-head nature->sex metaphors.  Lordy lordy.

That being said, I did wildly enjoy this book.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for these types of plots, but I thought Jane and Nico had a lot of chemistry, and the way Nico comes to rely on Jane as not only a girlfriend but a true friend was a little obvious but sweet. 

Jane Eyre is about a woman who becomes independent and socially mobile by remaining true to herself and defying expectations of what a woman should do or be.  Jane is a fairy tale about a girl who marries a prince that just happens to have a crazy woman living in his attic.  It's a quick read--I finished it in a day--that's perfect when you're craving Jane Eyre, but don't have the energy to get mired in the whole 19th-century rigmarole.  And it's way better than any movie adaptation I've seen so far.

So, I definitely recommended this book for Jane Eyre fans.  But if you haven't read Jane Eyre, please don't read Jane first--the original is still soooooo much better.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musical Notes--Rock'n Roll Jane

musical notes

This week I read Jane by April Lindner, which is a twist Jane Eyre.  The twist?  Mr. Rochester is a ROCK STAR!  Well, naturally I have to do a musical notes for this.

(If you don't know, musical notes is a feature on my blog where I talk about music inspired by the book I've read.)

First off, do you have any idea how many songs are about someone named Jane?  A lot.  There's Hurricane Jane:

Lazy Line Painter Jane:

And Sweet Jane (the band in this one is really awesome; love the pornstaches!):

There's also Queen Jane Approximately, but apparently Bob Dylan doesn't allow videos of himself on the intrawebz, so you'll have to look that one up yourself.

To my mind, Mr. Rockstar is obviously inspired by Bruce Springsteen (at least musically), so the Boss worked its way into my playlists a lot this week:

You know Mr. Rockstar just has to write songs this romantic. Enjoy! And if you want to keep up with musical notes (including the ones I never post here), subscribe to me on YouTube.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick

crescendo cover

As you may recall, I liked Hush, Hush--not that I thought it was good, mind.  But it was enjoyable for the pure silliness of the nonsensical actions of the heroine, Nora; the misadventures of her bestie, Vee; and above all the ridiculous hero, Patch, who is kind of like the baby from Who Killed Rodger Rabbit, only with washboard abs and (I presume) no belly button.  In Crescendo, however, I began to believe that Patch was a delusion because Nora is obviously FREAKING CRAZY.

It all starts before the twenty page mark.  Nora's pawing her way all over Patch's totally hot bod, begging him never to leave her.  She presses a ring so hard into their hands it draws blood.  Suddenly he's all, "Babe, I gotta go," and she's like, "WHO ARE YOU SEEING?!?"  The next day, she finds out he was at the house of her arch-nemesis slash school slut, Marcie Millar.  Aha!  Nora knew she couldn't trust that playa playa. 

Patch comes over.  She confronts him.  Patch is like, "Okay, I know you and Marcie have issues, but let me explain to you why I was over there.  I had a very good reason."  Nora is all, "I don't want to hear it!  You never tell me what you're doing!  How can I trust someone who doesn't share things with me?  I think we should break up.  I never want to see you again!!!!!!11!!!!"

HMOKAY.  Patch takes her advice and leaves.  Nora starts sobbing.  Why does every man she's ever loved leave her?  Why won't Patch call and tell her what he was doing at Marcie's?  If only he would tell her!  WHY???

Now, this alone wouldn't have ruined the book for me.  I knew Nora and Patch were going to be separated early in the story, and I knew it would be ridonkulous.  But wash, rinse, and repeat this scene for a hundred and fifty pages and I seriously could not take it anymore.  It's like Nora is the model for The Psycho Girlfriend.  I actually felt sorry for Patch in this book, the little blighter.

Nora's conversations with Patch aren't the only incongruities of logic happening here.  You know that site where the grammar Nazi picks apart Twilight, Reasoning With Vampires?*  The writer of that should read this book.  She would have a freaking field day.  Fitzpatrick's prose is enough to make Stephenie Meyer look like Rousseau--there's tons of stuff that good editing should have caught.  Take this scene, for example:

I tossed the cell into my open purse at my feet and bowed my head into my hands.  My eye throbbed.  I was scared, alone, confused, and on the verge of crying uncontrollably.

"Maybe it's from Patch," Vee said.

Chere Nora: hellooooooo!  Did you catch that?  Vee is with you!  You're not alone, dinglebat!  Unless you were speaking in the existential sense of aloneness, in which case we're all alone and you're not special so STFU.

Anyway, there is a plot in this book.  You see, Nora's dad was murrrrdered before Hush, Hush started, and in Crescendo she searches for his killer.  I'll give you three guesses who the main suspect is.  There are also some new characters introduced, most specifically Scotty the Potty, who also happens to be a Nephilim.  The world is teeming with these Nephilim creatures, I tells ye (don't ask me to explain what Nephilim are or how they fit into this world, because Fitzpatrick never does, nor expounds more on the angel hierarchy or how it works). 

The book isn't completely terrible.  Honestly.  The second half is actually pretty entertaining, since Patch mostly stays out of it and Vee and Nora go off on their own adventures to discover Nora's father's killer.  But Nora is impossible to like or root for.  And even more than that and the nonsensicalness, there's a very disturbing anti-feminist tone in the book.  Nora believes "boys will be boys" (oddly following a strange prayer scene over store-bought lasagna, which kind of made me throw up in my mouth), can't listen to her own instincts (of course, she is a psycho), and essentially falls into every negative stereotype of femininity á la the Victorians you can think of.  If this book was published in 1950, it would fit right in.  As it is, it left me vaguely disgusted.

Crescendo is basically exactly like Hush, Hush--even down to the title that has nothing to do with the story--but it's longer and dumberer. In Hush, Hush, the question of what Patch wanted with Nora kept me reading, but in this book there's no big question to keep my attention, and so all the flaws in the book become glaring.  It's kind of like when you meet someone and at first they seem shallow but fun; then you hang you out with them for a bit longer and you realize they're not only shallow but kind of mean and a sexist to boot.  The chances that you're going to want to keep hanging out with them are pretty minimal, just like the probability that I will read the next book in this series.

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*Thank you for the link, Pam!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview with Thaisa Frank, author of Heidegger's Glasses

heidegger's glasses cover

Thaisa Frank, author of the fascinating Heidegger's Glasses, was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had for her at the end of the novel.  Don't forget you can enter to win a copy of the book at my review post (here)!  I know you will all want this book, especially after reading Thaisa's interview, so don't hesitate to enter.

Question 1:  As the book progresses, the letters from the dead become much more forceful and begin to speak of breaking out and disappearing. Is this because the cracks in the world are getting bigger?

Thaisa's Answer:  That’s a great way to link the metaphor of Hanussen’s globe and the changing letters! And in a sense that’s what was really happening as Germany continued to incur heavy losses in the war. It’s also the case that more and more prisoners began to rebel and find ways to exchange messages at the border between one barrack and another.

Q2:  What is the connection between furniture and bones?

Thaisa:  The Nazis deny making human furniture out of bones, but I’ve seen pictures of them. So the connection is quite literal. Metaphorically, of course, it has a lot of connections and probably brings into bold relief the attitude (prevalent in all holocausts) that the ‘other’ who is the object of murder and hatred isn’t really a person but an object.

Q3:  Who in the Compound has the least amount of guilt over the dead?

Thaisa:  Without question Dieter Stumpf who relishes séances and firmly believes that the Compound is on a serious mission to answer the dead.


  If this novel could be compared to a single painting (or, alternatively, the work of a single artist), which one would you pick?

Thaisa:  This is a great question and although various artists came to mind intellectually (Munch and Kollwitz) a painting immediately occurred to me and I can’t find it. It’s a 20th century surreal painting in either the Whitney or the MOMA called (I think) The Sleepers. It’s a huge room without borders so you think it may extend infinitely and in this room, tucked in identical beds, are people who all look the same. Their eyes are open. The expressions in the eyes are amazing--the expressions of people who have a sense of dread yet hope it’s unfounded. This painting came to mind in a very visceral way. Intellectually it makes sense: All the characters in the book live with dread and have to deny it. And all the characters in the book are variously asleep (not conscious) and awake (very conscious.) Thanks for a great question. I’ll send you the reference if I can find it.

Me:  Are you thinking of The Sleepers III by George Tooker (above)?  Maybe someone has a better suggestion.

Q5: You make a lot of Classical references in the book. Are there any non-Classical allusions--to Nordic myths or folktales, for example?

Thaisa:  There are no references to fairy tales, but when I wrote it I drew on my sense of affinity with fairy tales--a sense of the magic of the imagination I’ve had ever since I was little.

If Kafka wrote the first great fairy tales of the modern age with The Trial, In the Penal Colony, and Metamorphosis, then I feel that World War II provides us with the second set of fairy tales. Because of the impeccable record-keeping by both perpetrators and victims, and because the suspense created by the escalation of the Final Solution was pitted against the invasion of the Russians and the Allies, WW II’s Holocaust has an almost novelistic, even mythic, quality. It also brings into bold relief how people can become absurdly enchanted in the presence of a belief shared by a group mind. This fairy-tale aspect can be used to great disadvantage to romanticize the war. But it can also be used to great advantage because it allows us to see WW II’s holocaust through a broad lens that leads us to the truth of all holocausts. Like all first drafts of fairy tales, this one is raw and unadorned: Take a look at the original Red Riding Hood in French. It’s ghoulish, grisly, and blatantly sexual. And even sanitized fairy tales for children involve abandonment, terror, and evil spells.

For all these reasons, I was drawn to the fairy-tale like environment of the Scribes. By using this as a pervasive backdrop, I was able to show parts of the Holocaust that were raw, ghoulish, and unpalatable, like Mengele’s experiments, a rape, an arrest, and an unanticipated murder.

Q6: What happened to Stumpf?

Thaisa:  Stumpf disappears with his crates of mail. This is something that Elie sees when she goes outside at night alone and smokes under cover of her scarf.

Q7: Would you describe your work as surrealism or magical realism?

Thaisa:  Thanks for asking and for making a distinction! These categories are often used interchangeably but there’s actually a big difference. Magic realism invariably involves a community of people who believe in some magical force that exists in the world (often contact with the dead, the ability to time travel, the appearance of angels, sometimes the belief in the totemic nature of objects.) Surrealism involves one, at the most two, improbable or impossible situations, and puts them into an ordinary world.

The world of magic realism is an extraordinary world where magic penetrates the ordinary. Surrealism, on the other hand, posits one absurd situation in a perfectly ordinary world. (A man wakes up transformed into a huge bug, or is accused of a crime he never committed and isn’t even named). The ordinary world is determined to proceed according to its plodding, often legalistic, ordinary laws. A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez, is a good example of magic realism. People commune with the dead and can see their dreams. In The Trial, by Kafka, a man is accused of a crime he not only hasn’t committed, but which is never spelled out to him. He has nothing magic to resort to, but must appeal to the plodding legal system. This absurd situation shines a lens on the absurdity of the legal system.

Heidegger’s Glasses certainly touches upon a community that believes in the occult. But only a few characters in the book are part of that community, and the two protagonists are definitely not part of it. What becomes surreal is the premise that there are people who answer letters to the dead in an underground mine that has been converted into a romantic 19th-Century world, with a cobblestone street, gas lamps, and a canopy of sky that changes from night to day. This world is an absurd dream in the midst of a Germany’s failing war.

So I would say that I work in the tradition of surrealism.

Q8: There are a lot of codes in the novel--Lodenstein's father writes codes, and the Scribes create a secret language
called Dreamatoria. Was Heidegger's letter a code, or was he really that clueless?

Thaisa: One irony of the book is that we never see Heidegger’s letter to Asher Englehardt. The letter we see is Mikhail Solomon’s answer, which is supposed to be absurd. And we don’t know how clueless Heidegger was about the war. He was a romantic German: He wore lederhosen to class in the summer months and built a hut in the Black Forest. He allied with the Nazis resolve to return to the past, and then got upset with them for not doing it in a way he imagined. He helped some Jewish students escape and ignored others. (He shunned Carnap, a philosopher and colleague whose wife was Jewish, and then was miffed because Carnap wouldn’t talk to him after the war.) Heidegger was probably not so much clueless as totally dissociated.


If Heidegger's Glasses is made into a movie, who do you want to play Lodenstein?

Thaisa: Wow! This is every writer’s private delusion. But since you’ve asked…. I’ve always seen this as a German movie, in which case I would like Matthias Habich, who played the father in “Nowhere in Africa” to play Lodenstein. He has a combination of rigidity and softness that appeals to me. I consider Brad Pitt to be about the best male actor in America now, but I don’t think he quite fits the role. Maybe the newly-incarnated Leonardo Dicaprio---newly-incarnated in that it seemed that he could really act in Revolutionary Road.

Q10: What's your next project?

Thaisa:  I’m finishing a new collection of short stories that I allowed to languish when I wrote Heidegger’s Glasses. But I am--and have been--working on something new. The most I can say is that it doesn’t take place in the past--hence it’s not historical. And I’m experimenting with a somewhat different voice.

Thank you so much for absolutely great interview, Thaisa!  Your answers definitely added to the story for me!  And Leo's cute, but maybe not quite Teutonic enough to play Lodenstein. ;)

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Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank

heidegger's glasses cover

Meet us by the woods
Wait for us by the gate
If you want to know

We wandered 'neath
A sky of stars, now fixed
And you are lonely
Come quickly

Past the shoes, the fence
The trees, the holes,
The fires, the jewelry
We are waiting

The paths in the woods
Made us more lost than before
But we have found the end
And we'll meet you*

In a secret bunker in WWII Germany, a fake sun and fake stars shine on a strange world, where Scribes answer letters from the dead.  Everything seems stable, until the Scribes are called upon to answer a letter from someone who's among the living.  How can they possibly respond to such a request?  What will happen when those who speak to the dead call upon the living?

This is an absolutely fascinating novel.  It's all about death, but is so oddly charming that it's not depressing--perturbing and uncanny at times, certainly; but unlike what one would expect from a book about the last months of WWII, it leaves the reader with a sense of peace rather than desolation.

The novel is also very smart and capable of rewarding both those who want a quick read, and those who want to dig into a story with greater depth.  I was enthralled by the classical symbolism in the text--as Heidegger says, "Nothing like the Greeks."  The letters from people in work camps ring through the narrative like a Greek chorus, or souls floating in the river Acheron.  The compound itself is like a Purgatory or a gateway into the underworld. 

And what would the Underworld be without a Persephone?  Here the role is filled by the character of Elie Schacten, who brings life to the compound by sneaking out to get food and clothes, and helping refugees escape to Holland.  Elie is a mysterious character with two names, many questions about her past, and a compelling personality that makes everyone fall in love with her.

There's also Elie's lover and the Obërst of the compound, Gerhardt Lodenstein.  I love Lodenstein!  He is totally the hero of the story.  He travels into hell (Auschwitz) to rescue two souls and bring them back into the land of the living.  Or at least the Compound, which is close enough.  His character is also the one that seems to go through the largest personal journey during the course of the book.

I remember hearing once that The Reader was about how the generation after WWII dealt with the guilt of the Holocaust.  A similar thing is true of this book:  it's about the ways people deal with the weight of death during war--whether it's survivor's guilt or the guilt of having killed someone.

All of this may make Heidegger's Glasses sound like a very heavy read, but it isn't--it goes by very quickly and feels slightly fanciful.  I don't know if there were actual Scribes who answered letters from the dead for Goebbels, or an actual Compound--but it could have happened, even though it's completely insane.

The plot is fairly thin and doesn't even get going until around page 100, and I thought the wrap-up was a little weak and left a lot of unanswered questions, but this book isn't really about the plot--it's about the world of the Compound and the people who inhabit it.  Overall I thought Heidegger's Glasses was completely recommendable.  I'm so excited for people to read this novel because there's so much in it to discuss and think about and connect with--and at the same time it's so creative and different.  I have the feeling Heidegger's Glasses will have a lot of imitators and even more admirers.

If you like historical fiction and magical realism at all, I highly recommend this novel. And don't forget to come back tomorrow for an interview with the author!

*Please excuse my poor attempt at poetry.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November Library Loot

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Here's my Library Loot for November:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K Wittman

priceless cover

This may be one of my most surprising reads of the year.

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked up Priceless, but I didn't expect to learn things about art from it.  I didn't expect to find it so touching or moving it brought me to tears.  And I didn't expect it to be as gripping and un-put-downable as any fictional thriller.

Robert K. Wittman was the founder of the FBI's art crime team and the only full-time undercover agent on the team from 2005 until his retirement in 2008.  Priceless is basically the memoir of his decision to join the FBI, how he founded the crime team, and the more awesomer cases he investigated (including the Gardner Museum heist, which is actually what the book opens with).  Every chapter focuses on one case, and the variety of stolen objects in the book and their history is really fascinating.  The French have a phrase: lieu de mémoire, which is basically the idea that places are imbued with the memory of the events that happened there.  If places can absorb memory, why not objects?  The items Wittman covers in the course of his career are valuable, but what makes them priceless is the history associated with them.  There is no doubt in my mind that Wittman sees himself as a crusader against people who would rob the world of its history.

What sorts of people steal, buy, and sell stolen art?  Like most Americans, when I hear the term art theft I relate it to movies--like To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant or The Thomas Crown Affair.  But Wittman says those involved in art crime aren't just sophisticated art lovers--although they certainly steal and finance art crime, as well.  In fact, you can come across any type of person in an art crimes investigation--educated, idiotic, rich, poor, art lovers and those who could care less; terrorists, petty crooks, and diplomats.  There is nothing that unifies the world of art crime--nothing except greed.

I mentioned that I learned about art while reading this book, but I didn't necessarily mean its history.  I meant the way I look at it and think of teaching it.  Wittman's perspective was something I was totally unfamiliar with; but it was refreshing and really helped me with prepping for my class.  Even if you're not an art historian, I think Wittman can make you look at art in new ways, too.

Aside from all that, what makes this book truly successful is the honesty with which Wittman shares his story.  He's very up-front about his experiences and feelings, even when it's not complimentary to himself or his career.  To be sure, he comes off smelling like roses--but more because the reader sympathizes with him as a "character" and less because he prevaricates about situations to make himself look good.  This is the type of book that could have been "just the facts," but Wittman (or John Shiffman) adds the emotion, anger, anxiety, and triumphs of his personal story, and it pays off by making the book richer and more engaging than I ever would have expected.

Priceless is definitely worth picking up, especially if you're at all interested in art crime.  How can you go wrong reading a book by someone who's actually been in the trenches fighting art crime first-hand?  Apparently you can't, at least not with this book.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

lost memoirs

The fact that Jane Austen never married apparently bothers a lot of people.  How could a woman who wrote about love so perceptively, who is still making readers fall in love with her characters centuries after the fact, have never loved herself?  But more importantly, if Jane Austen never loved, that means her novels were total fantasy.  We don't want to believe they are fantasy; we want to believe they were based in truth, and our own Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennett (depending on your preferences) really is out there. 

This seems to be the impetus behind several retellings of Austen's life, including the movie Becoming Jane, which I only wish I could forget!  The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is very similar to Becoming Jane, unfortunately--not because it proposes that Tom Lefroy was Austen's true lost love, but in the way it completely white-washes Jane Austen herself and presents a very unconvincing and really rather lame romance.

I had high hopes for this book at the beginning.  The language is very Austen-esque and the author has clearly done her research on Jane Austen's life.  It starts off with Jane having to move from her life-long home in Hertfordshire to Bath with her parents.  Then her father dies, so she and her sister and her mother have to move again and rely on the charity of her family.  Eventually, she meets Mr. Ashford, who is a future baronet and very nice, and who likes to read novels!  And not just any novels, but the same girly novels Jane likes reading.  HOW WEIRD.

This book is very odd, because it seems to assume the reader knows nothing about Jane Austen or her books.  To give it an air of "authenticity," there are scholarly footnotes along the lines of, "Jane's near tumble from these steps... may have inspired Louisa Musgrove's treacherous fall from the Cobb in Jane Austen's Persuasion," or, "Jane Austen included an almost identical speech in Mansfield Park...".  No kidding!  I figured that out all on my own, and I haven't even read Mansfield Park.  Also, being passingly familiar with the Regency era through romance novels, I do know what a reticule and landau are and don't need to be told about it in the footnotes, thanks.

Even when not pointing them out with insipid footnoting, there are numerous other references here to Austen's novels.  In fact, there isn't a single character or scene in this book that doesn't come out of an Austen novel.  At one point Austen writes, "Little did I know that I was to meet Mr. Ashford again, and soon, in the most unexpected of circumstances."  I found myself thinking, "This is a Regency novel, honey; there are only so many ways for you two to meet!" (And in case you were wondering, yes, it was at a dinner party.)

I'm not against either faux scholarly footnotes or borrowing scenes and characters straight out of other books.  I really enjoyed the footnotes in Little Vampire Women, for example, and I loved how characters from Pride & Prejudice were used in Lost In Austen.  In both of those cases, however, the authors were very creative in the way they adapted the original writings to a new storyline.  It's not enough to just mash together the characters and plot--you have to put your own spin on it, or else what's the point of anyone reading it?  With Lost Memoirs, the way James referenced other Austen books was so literal there were absolutely zero surprises in the novel.

As for the character of Jane Austen herself, I have the same criticism of her in this book that I did in Becoming Jane:  she's not snarky enough to be Jane Austen.  Austen wasn't only smart, she was sharp as a knife: she could assess a person's character and then cut them to pieces at ten paces.  The only thing that kept her from doing so was a sympathy for human foibles.  "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" as Mr. Bennett says.  Austen was fascinated by people and what made them tick; she understood their silly eccentricities even as she made fun of them.  I didn't see any of that fascination or wit in this book.  There is one scene where Jane Austen tries to be clever, but it is reheheheally lame.

Finally, the romance is so stupid as to be incidental, and did not help to further the cause of true love, to say the least.  Ashford is very much like Edward from Sense and Sensibility, only more boring (if that is possible).  It's impossible to buy into him as a real character, and the conclusion of their "romance" left me cold.  If that is what we're supposed to believe Austen experienced in the romance department, then she truly did draw on her imagination for her love stories!

As you've probably guessed, I do not recommend this book.  If you don't know a single solitary thing about Jane Austen or her books, you might be surprised by this novel--but then why would you pick this book up?  The cover, however, is very pretty.

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