Friday, May 25, 2012

Someone Else's Blog

Cultural Literacy Rant over at Excavating the Relic.

I thought she made some very interesting points.  I've always thought that there's a powerful history component to high school English, but it's definitely focused  passing The Canon on to the next generation.  You get critical tools along the way, but it really leads you to believe that those tools are only for use on The Canon.  It wasn't till college that I really learned a lot about how to approach any kind of art/performance/media with an eye toward how it's constructed, and I still wish I was better at it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Getting This Out There

I'm in the middle of writing a post about the dark side of Advance Reader Copies and my first struggles with the moral and ethical complexities of them.  But I had to get this out there, because it's so awful that I can't seem to turn the page till I share it.

Remember Mennonite In a Little Black Dress?  It's a memoir by Rhoda Janzen, about leaving her liberal academic secular lifestyle behind to live with her Mennonite parents for a while after being injured in a car accident in the same week her husband leaves her.  I read it a while ago, and it was pretty good, particularly as a going-back-to-the-family memoir.

So I was thrilled to get an advance copy of Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?, the author's next memoir.  It threw me off a little at the beginning, because she starts with some blanket statements about her own faith that seem to pretty directly contradict the impressions given (if not outright statements made) in the first book.  But I'm willing to give it a try--I enjoy spiritual memoirs, and if that's the direction she's heading in, I'm willing to follow her.

But right up front, when she accompanies her boyfriend to a Pentecostal church service, there is this scene:

One Indian dude--pardon me, one representative of the First Nations--wandered up to the altar and did a spirit-led interpretive dance.  I later learned that his name was Allen, but I preferred to think of him as Dances on Shrooms.
Now, I'm looking past her metaphorically raised eyebrow at the behavior of these folks in church--this is part of a passage about people running around, shouting, and dancing in the service.  But does anyone else think this passage is just a TEENY bit racist?  From her ironic "politically correct" reference to First Nations to the cheap joke about Native American names--I mean, I'm not that easily offended, but I am really much less willing to follow this author wherever she's going at this point. 

I mean, I know I read a lot of Yo, Is This Racist (hint: the answer is usually yes), but I'm not wrong, right?  This is not cool. 

Which brings me back to the ethical conundrum of review copies, which I'll get to in an upcoming post.  Assuming I can ever get my thoughts in order.  Any readers with opinions on this, or who have written or read posts on the subject, feel free to comment with advice or links.  I'm floundering a bit.

ps. I think I mentioned this, but to be clear: I got an advanced review copy of Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? from the publisher.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Pudding and the Terrier

That's right, kids--let's talk about Yorkshire!

The other day I was reading All Creatures Great and Small, and I realized the author was talking about a mountain range whose existence I had only recently learned of, the Pennines.  They appear to stretch almost half the length of the country--how had I never heard of them until I read Code Name Verity? 

Especially because this is not all the time I've spent in Yorkshire.  I remember walking around the house doing my best imitation of the Yorkshire dialect when I was about ten years old, after my fifth or sixth reading of The Secret GardenIn fact, when I even think about that book, I have a hard time not calling people thee and tha, and it is never impossible that I'm going to walk up to my husband and say, "Canna tha dress thysen?" like Martha does to Mary when she learns that Mary's nursemaid dressed her.  You know, just because.

So: The Secret Garden.  Here is where I learned about moors, and Yorkshire accents.  And for a long time that was it, until, like everyone else (including Mr. Bates), I fell in love with Anna, the head housemaid at Downton Abbey.  Downton, of course, is in the North Riding of Yorkshire (because Yorkshire is divided into ridings, don't you know).  And Downton is, of course, graceful and beautiful and English, and etc. 

But Anglophilia is not a particularly unusual or special obsession--I'm not even close to the most passionate practitioner of my own acquaintance.  But then, as so often happens, things began to pile up.

First, of course, Code Name Verity, with its loving detail of Maggie's childhood, of the airfields and the war effort, of flying over the Pennines during the blackout and the Blitz.  And somehow, at the same time, James Herriot's veterinary career began in the fictional town of Darrowby, which, according to Wikipedia, is based on a place called Thirsk.  I can only imagine that, if I took a vacation to Thirsk, I would be able to take a pint at a pub with James Herriot's picture on the wall, in much the same way that you can have a drink at Cheers in Boston.

It seems like I already love the north of England, and I know almost nothing about it.  I know that it's close to Scotland, which is somewhere I'd like to go.  I know that a lot of my favorite British actors have northern accents.  I know that Daughters of the North is a fascinating novel that I've just started reading.  I like to imagine I know what it would be like to go there; I imagine that Yorkshire is what I picture when I picture England.  Look at that photo; look at Downton Abbey.  Listen to Dickon tell Mary, "tha munnot lose no time." 

I love Yorkshire, and someday I'll go there.  Let's call that a resolution.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dear Bloggary

I've missed you in the days since I've been gone!  So much to tell, and yet so little.  I've had all these little thoughts that I've meant to post, but no time at all--and now is no exception, since my power cord is on my desk at work and I'm a ticking time bomb here.

I'm hip-deep in State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, which is quite interesting.  I thought about "wonderful" or "entertaining," but neither of those words really describes it (and besides, isn't "wonderful" a little punny?).  It's meticulous and dreamy and all about being poised and not quite knowing what to do.  Things are happening half a world away, in a place where you don't speak the language, up the river in the jungle.  The world is not quite as sensible as it seems.

Being a book whose plot revolves entirely around the idea of a cult of personality and a character whose sheer magnetism leaves those around her inadequate and confused in her wake, it's interesting that I wouldn't call the book a character study at all.  The characters are realistically drawn and very well-portrayed, but in the artless way of true talent.  This is not a book about observing one individual person as she exists distinct from the rest of humanity.  It's more about the states (ha! title again!) that people experience.  It's not about Karen, it's about grief.  It's not about Marina, it's about inertia.  It's not about Dr. Swenson, it's about ambition and focus and all that that excludes.

I want to be more detailed, but Mike's keyboard is tiny and some of his keys feel like they're in the wrong place.  (Fun fact: my typing was timed at about 86 words per minute today.)  I'll have more to say as I get deeper into the book--as soon as we get into the actual jungle I'm sure the humidity alone will cause me to have strong opinions that I need to shout from the rooftops.  Books with intense weather patterns always confuse my internal thermostat.  And it's raining!  So Brazilian!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

For My Review

So I have this copy of Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity that I got for review.  It's being read by all the bloggers right now, so I'm not ahead of the curve or anything, but it's also really, really wonderful, so I'm excited to get to be part of the chorus.

I'm afraid I'm intimidated by others' reviews, but I've been putting off writing this post because I really just want to keep reading the book all the time.  I sat down to write about it right around the halfway point, at which point I was enthralled.  I actually wrote the sentence, "But everyone says that something mind-blowing is about to happen."  And then I kept reading and my mind was blown, and I haven't put it down.

You know, mind-blowing isn't really the right description--it's misleading you into thinking that no, you're not really in World War II France, you're in a mental hospital on the moon and dude, it's all imaginary!  But no, the story is very much grounded in its time and place, and it's frantic and dreamy with the energy and strangeness of a world at war.

In this world, a shopkeeper's daughter whose grandfather taught her to love engines might become best friends with a sophisticated daughter of a noble Scottish house, whose name is shared by royalty.  These women might train together and find their completely opposing natures to be complementary, and be able to bolster each other up when the war is hard on each of them.  A girl might become a pilot, an aristocrat a spy, and those language classes you took in college might actually come in handy.

Our narrator has been captured by the Nazis, and she has been tortured into writing a confession.  She writes the story of a young woman named Maggie and her piloting career with the British Air Force, relating all the details she can remember of her childhood, training, and meeting her unlikely aristocratic best friend.  The fear and horror of a Nazi prison are fenced out by happy memories of the two of them becoming friends during wartime.

And then, as everyone says, there is a shift in the middle of the book.  Instead of the prisoner's first person account, we have a different viewpoint, and a whole new set of information that changes, elaborates on, and even rewrites the first part.  It's a completely separate story, and yet the same story, and yet a complementary story that weaves together a better picture of the truth than either of the narratives could have given.

And that's all I'll say about that.  What's amazing, though, is that no matter how thrilling the spy story is--and let me tell you, it's pretty thrilling--what's just knocking me over is the friendship between these two women.  Again, I'm not the first to make this observation, but the emotional detail that shines through in this book is just astounding.  There's no elaborate telling, no gushing rhapsodies about how much the two love each other.  They just DO--they're each in their role, playing their part, but they support each other and need each other and love each other in a million small ways that add up so quickly.

The "opposites attract" friendship is pretty common in literature--and in real life, I suppose.  The plain one and the pretty one, the smart one and the funny one, the serious one and the loud one.  But there are no stereotypes like this for Maddie and her friend.  They complement each other in absolutely essential ways--experts at people and machines, composure and sincerity, simplicity and complexity, thought and emotion.  But they trade off--is Maddie the emotional one, or the clear thinker?  Is she deceptively simple, or elusively complex?  Like real people, they can't be pinned down, but they play off each other in the most interesting, thoughtful ways.

I'm over-intellectualizing this experience, though.  Really, this is about reading the book and oh my god, what happens next?!  I do caution you, one of my pet peeves makes a minor appearance, which is a novel that is written in the form of a letter or someone's actual writing, but reads very much like a literary novel.  That bothered me for about five pages, before I came to understand the character who was doing the writing.  After that, it was a breezy pleasure to follow her on her elliptical story through wartime England.

I suppose the Nazi commandant felt the same way. And how often do you say that about your reaction to something?  I'm loving this book--you really should read it.

(Note: I was provided with a complementary copy of the book for review.)

Friday, May 04, 2012

On Fire

I mentioned that I'm reading The Shape of Desire, by Sharon Shinn.  I'm almost done, and I'd say this is probably a B-list Shinn book, but that's not an anti-recommendation.  I think her real-world-based books tend to be a little less rich, a little less encompassing than her books set in other worlds, like Samaria or the world of The Safe-Keeper's Secret.

I'd call this a domestic fantasy, actually.  It's about the life of a woman named Maria, an accountant in St. Louis.  The book revolves around the fact that her boyfriend of many years--her lover, her life partner--is a shape shifter.  His transformations have a pattern, which he can't control, and he's out of her life more often than she's in it.  There's a plot, a structure, a mystery, and some tension, but really, this is a story about being a strong, independent woman who is so passionately in love with someone that her life is shaped around him, even when that is hard and unsatisfying.

It's also a story about secrets, and how we keep them and why.  And it's about the ugly things we put up with and do for love.  These themes are a bit heavy-handed sometimes--the battered wife coworker, the office gossip about a secret affair--but the characters aren't heavy-handed at all, and I think that's what makes the book.

Maria's responses to the things that happen are familiar and understandable, but they're not cliche.  People who love each other have arguments that don't ominously foreshadow something; people who admire their friends are also annoyed by them; people who are keeping secrets carefully tell them, and then regret their moment of weakness.   The breadth of believable experience here gives a texture to the story that fiction doesn't always get as it moves quickly from one event to another or lingers over lavish descriptions.

I think the most intriguing thing about this book is the extent to which it feels to me like it was written as a response to Twilight.  I have no idea if this is true (and, for the record, I read only the first book in that series and really didn't love it)--maybe it's a whole "In Love With a Monster" genre. It really feels like Shinn sat down to write about what life would really be like if you loved someone who was not fully human.  How would his other life affect you?  How would you live in the world on a day to day basis?  Would you be lonely?  Scared?  What would it be like to have a whole life built on a relationship that is about passion and distance, where you can never have as much of each other as you'd want?  I love the reversal of the Destined Romance and Passion That Knows No Bounds that she brings here, and I'm thrilled with her for thinking to do it.

There will be a sequel, according to her website: Still Life With Shape Shifter, coming out this fall.  It's about the sister of a shape shifter, and I wonder what themes it will address.  I can't quite imagine, but as I've said, the author relationship is about trust, and I trust Sharon Shinn with my precious reading time.

One more exciting bit of Sharon Shinn news: her next book will be a sequel to Troubled Waters.  I'm really excited about that--this one I'll buy on day one.  Sometime next year.  Sigh.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


Okay, first, yesterday was May 1, the day of many releases.  I hopped right in and bought Bitterblue and The Killing Moon, just like I thought I would

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Sometimes you just get an itch, and you end up driving all over town to get all the books you're thinking of at all the different libraries that have them, just so you can hold them in your hands RIGHT NOW.  And sometimes those books are ones that barely registered on your radar months and months ago, and suddenly you HAVE to have them right now for no reason you can quite figure out.  You know what I mean?  This is what a compulsive shopper or gambling addict feels like--it's a craving that almost itches till you scratch it.

Which is how I ended up at Malden last night, because I needed a copy of You Against Me, by Jenny Downham, for some reason.  This was the trigger, the book I needed, for some reason.  It's a teen love story (I wouldn't call it a romance, but still,  not my wheelhouse) about a guy whose sister has reported a rape, and the girl whose brother is accused.  I get the impression there's a strong element of "what really happened, and what does that mean about the people involved?" which seems like a really interesting question.  But at the bottom, it's a high school love story.  I kind of hate high school love stories.

So why, in particular, did I need to get The Catastrophic History of You and Me?  If anything, it's MORE of a goopy romance--narrated by a girl who died of a broken heart after being broken up with, I don't see why I think I'm going to like it, except that all the people I know who've read it have said they cried.  And these are people whose taste I generally trust, so here we are.  The reason I desperately needed it right now, though is--let's not kid ourselves--because the title sounds slightly like the first book I was obsessing over, and I have a very twitchy stream of consciousness.

At the COMPLETE other end of the WTH? spectrum is A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.  I've flipped through this book before, and while the premise sounds cool, it reads like what it is--a nonfiction book about history based around a very dry journal kept by someone with a brusque writing style.  I believe the original journal was part of the inspiration for The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, but the original lacks any juiciness that the novel may imply.  So years ago, I flipped through this, and it didn't really go anywhere.

But then Aarti reviewed it recently.  And she has convinced me that this is just what I'm looking for in good nonfiction--someone has done all the hard work of research, putting together and fleshing out the details of this dusty-dry diarist's life.  She completely convinced me that I want to read this book.

I had to run to a different library to get Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall.  I can't even remember why I wanted to, though I'm glad I did.  It's a literary dystopian novel that has something to do with feminism and maybe Scotland?  Anyway, it's in my head, and now it's in my hands, and it's actually quite good.  I'm having a little fun reading it out loud to myself--the narrator has a very strong voice, and I like to imagine myself as the audio book reader.

Wow, that might have been a little TMI.

This is getting long, so I won't go into the impulse check-outs that I picked up while I was at these many libraries.  I'll only say that there were some, and I'm set for--well, ever.  I have so very many good books that I want to just curl up with them all and sink down into a sweet jumble of stories.  In fact, that's what I'm off to do--ta!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

I Want To Go To There