Monday, March 28, 2011

Maker of Plans

Because I apparently can't resist making grand and elaborate plans and resolutions, let me share my new goal with you.  I'm in the midst of a successful downscaling of my library list.  I'm working my way through things, and I've successfully gone to return several books without checking out anything more.  So my new Grand Scheme is to start incorporating books that I've borrowed from friends into my reading cycle as the library books phase out.

In the spirit of this new resolution, I've started reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.  It's kind of a pop psychology/business book, about just what the title claims, and it's very straightforward and interesting.  One of the things that's kind of intriguing is that a lot of the research and theoretical underpinnings put forth in the book come from other pop psychology books I've read--The Paradox of Choice, Mindless Eating, Stumbling on Happiness.  It's very satisfying to see all these sets of theories translated into a very results-driven sphere of thought.

I'm hoping to finish this by Saturday so I can return it to Elizabeth.  This is especially helpful because I'm planning to snag Little Bee from her at the same time; I started reading the library's copy of that, but I cut it too close to the due date and can't wait to come back around on a waitlist of 80.  If Elizabeth is going to bail me out of that one, the least I can do is get Switch back to her.

I'm also scrambling to wrap up Twin Study, a book of short stories by Stacey Richter that I borrowed from Katie lo these many moons ago.  I'm actually enjoying it a lot more than I usually enjoy stories, although they really are such small capsules of storytelling that I feel like I shouldn't be satisfied, even when I am.  It's like eating sushi--those six bites don't look like enough, but if you slow down and savor them, it's surprising how full you find yourself at the end.

I also owe some attention to Kris's pile, which has a whole dedicated spot of its own on my shelf.  I think I'll start with the Rex Stout that's waiting--which one was it?  The Mother Hunt, I think.  Anyway, The Golden Spiders was great, solidly satisfying and exactly what it ought to be--classic mysteries.  After that, I'll move on to Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, which I'm really looking forward to but a little intimidated by.

Of course, this is all after I finish everything I'm reading now.  Which is a long, long, long list.  Which I'll go into another time.  The goal here is to outline the Grand Plan so that I'm held accountable if and when it falls apart, and/or I'm unable to resist more library books.

I must be strong!  I must stand firm!  Even though Switch tells me that the human capacity for self control is finite, and so the path to success involves strategically arranging circumstances to minimize the need for self-control on a day to day basis.  Yes, in spite of this, I must persevere.  Wish me luck.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

And Auel That Jazz

Ugh, I have to apologize immediately for that pun.  It does help you remember how to pronounce it, though, doesn't it?

I have so much history with The Clan of the Cave Bear that I really don't even know where to begin.  I think I'll start with the personal anecdotes so that I can concentrate on the books themselves later.

When my brother was about ten, we bonded over his love of the movie.  I think he saw it on TV, and he really liked it.  I got him the videotape for his birthday one year.  I don't think I realized till years later that the TV version probably had the rape scene edited out.  Not that the scene in the film was very graphic but, you know, he was ten.

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I was reading--oh, which book?  It must have been The Valley of Horses, the second book.  My aunt saw me reading it and mentioned to my father that maybe it had "mature themes."  I protested, reading him a passage from the page I was on, which was about earth mother iconography in primitive art.  When, in the middle of the passage, I turned the page, he glimpsed over my shoulder the diagram of the stylized female genitalia that dominated the page.  My point was not really proven.

In college, though, I bonded with my freshman roommate (hi, Linden!) over our mutual love of the books.  We used to have speculative discussions of what Ayla would invent or discover in the next book.  I was waiting for the wheel or agriculture; I've learned more about history since then and it doesn't seem likely that agriculture was invented in Ice Age France.  I still hold out hope that she'll plant a little garden, though.  After all, she intuited that sex makes babies.  Girl knows her stuff.

As the years and the books wore on, our opinions diverged a bit, though.  When Linden and I met, there were three books, all of which were good.  I read a review somewhere that talked about the sad transition from Neanderthal dignity to Cro-Magnon singles bar, and yes, there was a lot of Pleasure-with-a-capital-P (no, that's not a euphemism I'm using, it's what the characters call it). 

But really, it was all about the arts and crafts.  I've used the phrase 'competence porn' elsewhere, and I want to find a better one, because 'porn' makes it into a joke, when really, the point is that people who are good at what they do are attractive, and watching them or reading about them is fascinating.  This is how to live when you have to do everything yourself, and it's great that there's a novel built around it and all, but I'm in it to know how she's going to hunt a deer and whether she'll have enough time to tan the hide before the snow storm comes.

Then the fourth book, The Plains of Passage, came out in 2002.  I would call it patchy; there are big chunks that I've read again and again, but there are also big chunks that I skimmed the first time through.  Because they walked all the way across Europe, and the title says it all--they are passing through the plains.  There were pages and pages and pages--literally, successively--on the nature and appearance of the grass, and how they changed over time.  Crossing rivers is exciting, but there are a lot of rivers between Russia and France, and they spent a year walking.  It reminded me of why I never finished The Fellowship of the Ring.

But the parts where they met people, those were fun.  Ayla and her mate-to-be Jondalar (oh, did I give something away there?  Sorry!) and her animals walk back the way Jondalar came in book two, meeting a lot of the same people he'd met a few years before, and having more adventures.  She heals people and makes friends with the Sharamudoi, they rescue a community from a tyrant, try to end Clan-Others conflict, and meet Jondalar's father.  All great scenes, but interspersed among a not-so-great travelogue.

And then came the fifth book, The Shelters of Stone.  This is really where it fell apart for me.  I remember almost nothing about this book, and I barely care enough to go back and remind myself.  It's a bunch of people living in caves together.  It's less of a village and more of a city, and somehow the Zelandonii customs are not nearly as interesting as those of any of the people we've met before on this adventure.  I don't remember any of the new characters.  It makes me kind of sad just to think about it.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I don't have a ton of hope for this new book.  I hope that a good editor has been over it, and that my one pet peeve (wherein characters are surprised by the same information repeatedly so that it can be explained to you in successive books--YES, Jondalar, they TALK with their HANDS) is cleaned up a bit.  I want to know what happens--I want to see Ayla again and spend time with her--but I'm not getting my hopes up.

You'll notice that I give you some detail in this post about the last two books, which I didn't care for, but not the first three, which I love.  I'm saving that for a few weeks from now when the library lets me know that The Land of Painted Caves is waiting for me at the reserve desk.  I'm going to write that post to get myself excited to read it.  Stay tuned, Earth's Children!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bad Boys

Alex Finn's Beastly is one of those YA books that isn't really anything more than that.  I would definitely recommend it to a fourteen year old girl who loved Twilight.  That's who it was written for--a teenage girl's dream of a troubled, sexy beast. As a story of the human condition goes, though, it's got less character depth than your average Babysitter's Club book.

Kyle is a hot, rich, snobby jerk.  He thinks he's better than anybody else because he's rich and gorgeous.  Then, in the famous fashion of fairy tales (how do you write a book about a world where nobody has seen Disney's Beauty and the Beast?), he angers a witch and is turned into a monster.  One loophole, true love's kiss, deadline, yada yada yada.

I'm in the last 50 pages of the book now, and I'll say that the last third is the best part, because it's got an authentic pang of adolescent love and longing, which is like a little hit of a cheap drug, like the smell of a Sharpie. 

Most of the book, though, is about Kyle being a jerk and, through his experience as a beast, becoming somewhat introspective and nice.  The picture painted here of a jerk--what he thinks of himself and of other people, his motivations, the feeling of why you'd be mean to people--it's all two dimensional.  Nobody wants to be the bad guy--most people think they're doing their best, or they don't think at all.  If you want some insight into an Evil/Popular High Schooler, read Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver.  That was a fabulous book.  This is an after school special.

I won't un-recommend it.  Like I said, it's meant for fans of Twilight, which I am most staunchly not.  Those fans will love it, and they should.  I wish the romance part started earlier, because it's the strongest part--the most convincingly written, the most poignant.  He aches for her.  The movie's going to be insufferable, I can tell you already.  At least in the book he has fangs, claws, and fur.

But hey, it only took about two hours to read.  Even I can't argue with that.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Southern Mystique

I was way too young when I read my first Pat Conroy books.  Not too young for the sex or violence or disturbing images or messed up families with which his books abound, but too young to get the dialog.

When I read The Prince of Tides in high school, and later Beach Music in college, I remember not quite getting the tone.   I remember being confused about whether certain parts were lighthearted, being surprised by the emotional transitions--I would think two people were flirting, and then they'd suddenly start screaming and I realized they had been arguing.  Someone would say something funny and someone else would start crying.  What was I missing?

The truth was, I was just too young to realize that it wasn't me missing anything; it's the dialog.  Conroy's characters are always saying witty and charming things, no matter who they're talking to or what they're talking about.  The difference between affectionate teasing and cruel, cutting remarks is entirely nonexistent.  Conversations are often fast back-and-forth events with little description between the exchanges, giving you inadequate context to draw your own conclusions.

I'm complaining again, and I'm sorry about that because I really loved those books, and I'm really enjoying South of Broad, which I'm reading now.  But it's almost a relief to realize that the problem I've always had here is a flaw in the writing.  I think I'm as mature as I'm ever going to get (God help us all), and I understand a little bit more about the bitterly polite conversation, the affectionate ribbing that contains cruel truth, the frank discussion of painful topics that somehow doesn't offend.  And I think I can say with some conviction that it's not me, it's him.

Except.  Except that he's got this trump card that I can never be fully sure he's not playing.  He can always tell me that it's the Southern way, that the old-fashioned deep South of the '60s that he's describing is a place where conversations with strangers go from polite to cruel to laughter in seconds.  He can convince me that well-bred people say "I know you are but what am I?" at the top of their lungs at polite luncheons and no one blinks at them, because that's How It Is Here.  I can't counter that argument, and maybe he's right. 

I still find it confusing though, because I honestly can't tell when his characters are flirting and when they're fighting.  It's a little exhausting.

But I am really enjoying the book.  I like the main character a great deal--Leo King, whose mother named him after a character from Joyce's Ulysses, whose brother killed himself, whose adolescence was spent in mental hospitals, whose high school career was marred by a criminal record, who is unpopular and unsuccessful at high school, and yet who has more poise and self-command and self-awareness than anyone else in his world. 

Clearly this is a Summer Where Things Are Happening to Leo, who's introduced to three sets of brother and sister siblings in the same day, and whose paper route is lovingly, lavishly described in baroque detail in the first 25 pages of the book.  And while I'm not sure what's going on emotionally with any of these characters yet, I'm willing to stick around and find out.

Conroy writes over and over again about the same themes, motifs, images.  He writes about football, desegregation, psychiatry, twins, food, rivers.  If there isn't an albino animal in this book, I'll be really surprised.  Mostly he writes about characters who passionately love and violently hate the same people at the same time, often their parents.  I think this is why I can never tell from moment to moment whether Leo is trying to hurt his mother with his cutting remarks or cheer her up with his jokes.  I think the answer is always both.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Servant Problem

In one of those lovely bits of synchronicity that I'm so often running into, I'm listening to the chapter on servants in Bill Bryson's At Home at the same time that we were finishing up the really wonderful TV show Downton Abbey. First, it was a great show, and I highly recommend it.  Secondly, the servant problem is a fascinating one.

I actually had one of those moments where you get your stories confused.  Bryson was talking about how much work servants had to do, their hours, their usual length of tenure in a job.  Downton had a scene about hiring a new maid, going into and out of service.  I can't remember where they were talking what happens when servants fall in love, or whether a footman can marry.

The idea of servants is fascinating, though.  It fits in with the strange way of imagining the world of the past, when it would be almost impossible to keep yourself alive and comfortable on your own, because of the amount of work involved in cooking, cleaning, repairing.  Food was from scratch, pots were cast iron, water had to be hauled.  I can barely keep up with getting the clothes washed in the washing machine; if I had to scrub them by hand, it would be another life entirely around here. 

So you have these people who all live together, and work together to keep the house running, ostensibly for the benefit of the four or five people in the family.  But of course, there's more to it than that.  Taking care of the family of five requires, say, five servants, but then of course you're actually taking care of ten people, so you need a few more.  And they have their own ranks, and hierarchies, and structures.  And imagine if you had to live with your coworkers, maybe even share a room, and your boss had a bell that rang in your bedroom for when he needed you.

This goes together with the idea of emotional anachronism, I think.  The entire Bryson book ties into that theme, really, because it's about how the most basic things we take for granted now--the fact that we live in houses, say, and relieve ourselves in bathrooms, that only certain animals live indoors with us, and that eating and sleeping happen in separate places--are not given as a part of nature.  Fifteen hundred years ago, there was no such thing as indoor privacy.  It makes you think to hold this up against the feelings of Trella from Inside Out and wonder whether you'd really have any notion at all of privacy if you grew up living in a bunkroom.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Emotional Anachronism

I've been thinking about this because of a couple of books that I'm reading right now.  Historical anachronism is one thing--you don't see it very often, because books have editors, and everybody knows that there were no handguns in medieval times or cellphones in World War II.  Science fiction is iffier, because sometimes you do run across a moment of insufficient imagination, where you want to ask the author: do you really think that people who are neurologically hardwired to the net are going to even know what paper is?  If they're using lasers to cut steel, are they really still using projectile weapons?  That kind of thing slips through sometimes.

But whether you go backward or forward, something that always throws me off is emotional anachronism.  This is actually a pretty common problem, because an author is, almost by definition, writing for his or her contemporaries, and therefore often providing them with characters they can relate to.  Our heroine should be spunky, our hero fiercely independent, our genius thinks outside the box.  The characters we're supposed to hate stand for things we dislike--control, oppression, greed.  Our protagonists yearn, dream big, want more.  I would expect nothing less from my characters than to recognize in them the same ambitions and fears that I have, translated into their own set of circumstances. 

This isn't always realistic, though. Take Inside Out, by Maria V. Snyder (author of the fabulously fun Poison Study and a number of convoluted, jump-cut action-packed sequels).  This new book takes place in a future world where society exists in an enormous complex, Inside, and Outside is a rumor.  The Uppers live comfortable lives; the scrubs are packed into small spaces and do little more than work and sleep.  Trella (our heroine) is skeptical, idiosyncratic, and wants more. 

Now, they have their own system of timekeeping, and a little math makes it clear that we're talking 1500-ish years in the future (give or take a few hundred, but you get the idea).  Education is minimal, propaganda rules all.  There are a lot of details in this story that don't follow from this information.  Things like why Trella is even aware of the fact that there's an old way to count years (okay, maybe that was thrown in for the less mathematically inclined among us, but still, there are other details that she knows from our 'past').  Why are all the scrubs suddenly seething with dissatisfaction, if this is all they've known for generations?  There's no indication of the incremental changes to thought that ended the thousand years of mental torpor that kept serfs out in the cold in Europe.  There's no Renaissance to lead into the Revolutions--just suddenly it's there.  Where do these characters come by their subversion? 

The answer is that we, the readers, respect it, and expect it.  We believe that we would not be cowed, we would not be sheep, even if we had never known anything else.  We picture our current selves put into a new environment, because we cannot imagine who we would be in another world.  I'm having trouble with the authenticity here.

Going the other way--away from familiarity and into realism--has its own problems. The other book I'm in the middle of (have been for a while; now I'm waiting for the library to lend it to me again) is The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland.  This book takes place in the 1300s in England, and woah, Nellie, realism is not a problem.  In fact, everyone is so poor and ignorant and narrowminded that it's hard to like any of them.  The story is told by a series of narrators--women from Bruges, a priest, village children--and each of them is exactly who their world has made them. 

The children are hungry and needy and shameless about doing what they have to to live.  The priest is intolerant, because he doesn't know how to be anything else.  The few characters who are somewhat outside of society--the women in their communal house, the bookish daughter of a local lord--appear to us just as odd as they would to their neighbors--standoffish, selfish, stiff, strange.  This world doesn't honor the same traits we do, and doesn't leave any room to be anyone I can see myself in.  The book is authentic, but a little hard to read for all that.

It's a hard call to say where I come down on this issue.  Emotional resonance, and the truth that carries with it?  Or historical truth, and the new ways of thinking that opens up, hopefully followed by new emotional resonances of their own?  Or maybe (isn't this always the answer?) something in between.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Library Week!

I have had such an exciting library week.  Inside Out, by Maria V. Snyder, showed up for me through the Minuteman network, and Beastly, by Alex Flinn, (which I was planning to read WAY before they made it a movie, thank you very much) is in transit.  (As Adam would say, "Here comes the bo-ok!  Here it comes!  Hi Mr. Book!  How you doin' Mr. Book?"  Then the book would say, in a growly voice, "Hi Adam I'm doin' good."  He's really unbearably cute.)

Plus, Matched, by Ally Condie, is waiting for me at my BPL pickup site, and Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is en route.  Not that I need a bunch more stuff to read, but yay books!

Oh, oh, and my preorder of The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, showed up on release day. I bought it, like with money (well, a gift certificate) and now I own it.  This is because it's 1,000 pages long and I'll never finish it if I can't renew it, which I can't because it's brand new and has a huge waiting list.

So I'm all a-tingle, library-wise.  This is also a little reminder to myself to follow up with in-progress reviews of Inside Out and The Owl Killers, which I'm still reading and on which I have more thoughts.  More to come!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

More On Trust

Ha!  Moron Trust.  Like a bank for dolts.

Anyway, dorky jokes aside, I've been thinking about a reader's trust lately.  I finished Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn, recently.  I love Sharon Shinn--if there was a writer I could be, it would be her.  The title is really pretty lame, and I was a little worried, but I started reading, and I just bobbed along in the book.  It was like one of those inner tube rivers around the edge of a water park--such a slow, lovely experience.

And it was slow.  It's not an action-oriented book; it's about a girl slowly learning more about herself, her heritage, the world she lives in. Zoe finds out personal secrets, family secrets, national secrets, but mostly she figures out where to live, how to manage sudden poverty, sudden wealth, friends, family, and enemies. 

I kept reading through long stretches of nothing happening, not only because I enjoyed the experience, but because I trust Sharon Shinn, not just to end the story well, but to tell it well.  I have faith in her digressions, not just that they're relevant, but that they'll be satisfying.  I can ignore the writing in favor of the story.  I like to think of this as something to aspire to--not that the writing isn't good, but that it's not invasive, either in a  positive or a negative way.  Good acting is also like this; if you can't ignore an actor acting, it's probably a bad thing.  If it's great acting, you probably won't notice it unless you purposefully turn your attention to it.

This really came to the front of my mind when I started Brom's The Child Thief the other day.  This is a re-interpretation of Peter Pan--think about it, pirates, monsters, children living in the woods without adult protection.  Sounds more like Lord of the Flies than Walt Disney, doesn't it?  It is also a meandering book, though it's going for a very different vibe--more creepy, Tim Burton.  But there's an element of atmosphere, and a certain amount of description, and a lot of emotions as characters struggle with discoveries that change their understanding of the world.

It was much harder for me to read.  Now that I'm into it, it's working out all right, but I definitely noticed myself feeling hesitant at the beginning.  I would notice a phrase and thing, "Isn't that kind of a cliche?"  I would read a description of something and think, "Is that really how this would go?"  A city street, a scene of abuse, a monster attack--I find myself noticing the question of whether the story is authentic and well-written.

Now, part of the problem is that sometimes the answer is no.  There are definitely spots where I'm seeing inconsistencies that look like sloppy characterization rather than human contradiction.  But not a lot of them--Peter and Nick and the other characters are dirty and frightened and real.  Enough, though, that I can't lay aside my own judgment completely and let the story carry me away.

Trust is the basis of any relationship.  Sharon Shinn and I are like that.  But I'm just getting to know this Brom fellow--we'll see how it turns up.