Thursday, June 30, 2011

50 Best Contemporary Novelists

I stole this one from Litlove. It was a bit harder than I'd thought it might be, mainly because I discovered when browsing our shelves, my "books read" list on Goodreads, and my book journals that most of the contemporary works I read are either nonfiction or genre fiction. Apparently, I just don't read many contemporary novels, which probably makes me a very poor judge.

I had a hard time defining some of these when it came to "genre." Much of what others would call genre fiction, I happen to think is quite literary or more "general fiction," so feel free to disagree with my categories. I think I sort of relied on Litlove's definition of literary, which is that these are authors whose novels I'd prefer to read when not tired or distracted.

Many of my choices are based on only having read one novel and/or some short stories by the author. When that's the case, I note which novel, or that I've only read short stories. The short stories are ones that have made me put the authors' novels in my TBR tome or that have led me to buy novels by the author that I have yet to read. I could be wrong about one-novel-only authors, because I know of authors (Audrey Niffennegger and Alice Sebold spring to mind) who would be here if I'd loved the second novels of theirs I read as much as I loved the first.

Litlove's criteria were that an author has to be alive and has to still be writing (I defined the latter very loosely. Basically, if the person has published something fictional in the past 30 years, he/she counts). That means no Harper Lee, sadly, since she doesn't fit that "still writing" category, and no David Markson, who would surely be here if he hadn't died last year.

Literary Fiction
1. Richard Adams
2. Margaret Atwood
3. Russell Banks
4. Kevin Baker (only read Dreamland)
5. Julian Barnes
6. Ray Bradbury
7. Anita Brookner (only read The Rules of Engagement)
8. Susanna Clarke (only read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell)
9. Michael Cunningham (only read The Hours)
10. E.L. Doctorow
11. Jennifer Egan (only read short stories)
12. Jane Hamilton
13. John Irving
14. Kazuo Ishiguro
15. Jeffrey Lent (only read In the Fall)
16. Yann Martel (only read Life of Pi)
17. Marilynne Robinson (only read Gilead)
18. Philip Roth (only read American Pastoral)
19. Jeanette Winterson

General Fiction
20. Sarah Blake
21. Pat Conroy
22. Kaye Gibbons
23. Alice Hoffman
24. Nick Hornby
25. Armistead Maupin
26. Richard Russo
27. Helen Simonson (only read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand)
28. Lee Smith
29. Kathryn Stockett (only read The Help)
30. Amy Tan
31. Anne Tyler
32. Connie Willis (hemmed and hawed about sticking her in "genre." What do others think?)

33. John Connolly (mystery/horror)
34. Jasper Fforde (mystery)
35. Tana French (mystery)
36. Neil Gaiman (sci fi/fantasy)
37. Jane Green (chick lit)
38. P.D. James (mystery)
39. Lisa Jewell (chick lit)
40. Marian Keyes (chick lit)
41. Stephen King (horror)
42. Ursula K. LeGuin (sci fi/fantasy. Some of her stuff is probably more literary fiction)
43. Philip Pullman (sci fi/fantasy)
44. Terry Pratchett (sci fi/fantasy, but as you may know, I argue he's much more than that)
45. Ian Rankin (mystery)
46. John Sandford (mystery/thriller)

Fiction in Translation
47. Gabriel García Márquez
48. Muriel Barbury (only read The Elegance of the Hedgehog)
49. Mario Vargas Llosa
50. Isabel Allende (only read House of the Spirits)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Preacher's Wife Preaches

I'm not particularly comfortable with the word "sin." Bob likes to use the term "broken" to indicate what imperfect creatures we humans are -- given to selfishness and greed, and I like that better. However, there's no getting around the fact that many Christians believe fervently in the notion of sin and that we need to repent and to be forgiven. They also seem to believe that they're the arbiters of who needs to be forgiven for what, as well as which sins are worse than others. I don't have that personal pipeline to God's brain, so I interpret sin as any act that takes us away from God and God's love. Dividing ourselves from others divides us from God, because God is in everybody.

This year, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has been in the throes of the issue that has been dividing many mainline Christian denominations in recent years. The national body (based on regional body votes) has recently opted to get rid of the language in our bylaws that prohibited ordination of LGBTs. In the Presbyterian church, all our leaders are ordained (not just ministers). This means that deacons and elders in the churches (lay people), as well as ministers, are, theoretically, no longer going to be judged by their sexual orientation. This is a huge, huge step for the denomination, and believe me, there are many who are very unhappy, many churches who've chosen to leave the PCUSA.

If you interpret sin the way I do, we are to do our best not to hurt any of God's creation (a difficult task, because, basically, almost all life has to kill something in order to survive, but we can try to lessen the damage we do, and we can certainly focus on trying to keep suffering at a minimum, even when we have to kill to eat). Most of us can't live up to that tall order, which is why we've been given grace (but that's a topic for a different sermon from the preacher's wife). It's basically impossible to make it through even one day without hurting someone, but we should try.

When we were first married, I once said to Bob, "Hate the act, not the person committing it." (I'm very good at giving him advice that's difficult for me to follow.) He quotes me all the time, even though that quote was not original to me. You've probably also heard, "Hate the sin, not the sinner." Today, we seem to live in a world in which we do nothing but hate the person instead of the act. Not only do we "hate the sinner," but we decide who is sinning the most, and we punish, through exclusion, those we think are doing so.

The day that I can stand up and say that LGBTs are sinners, purely because they happen to be LGBTs will be the day I can stand up and say that all those over six feet tall are sinners, or all those who have fair skin. We're not sinners because we're born with certain God-given traits. We're sinners because we act in ways that hurt others.

Because we are all broken, we have absolutely no right to decide someone can't be a church leader just because he or she is a "sinner." That would automatically disqualify all of us. I need much better reasoning than that. When I was first chosen to be a deacon at the church we used to attend in Connecticut, I went through an orientation process in which we were taught what holding this position in our church meant. At the time, one of our leaders was stressing how important it is to carefully choose the leaders of the church and how she'd once belonged to a church in which they'd had a very difficult decision to make about someone who'd expressed an interest in becoming a deacon. Finally, she said, they'd had to turn to the Scriptures, and based on what they'd found, had decided this person wasn't fit for the position (of course, she had completely ignored the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Church turned to Scripture to keep women from being leaders).

I remember thinking at the time, "Well, boy, if you're going to turn to Scripture to make such decisions, then I don't know of a single middle class American who could be a church leader." For instance, not one person sitting around that table had sold everything they had in order to follow Christ, which is exactly what Jesus told us to do. Judging by most of our physiques, we're obviously all eating way more than our share of the food on this planet, rather than taking only what we need and sharing with those who have none, something else Scripture teaches us to do. Just by nature of being middle class Americans, we're all far more privileged than the majority of other humans on the planet. We're part of the world hunger problem, because we all go on living our comfortable lives, choosing to eat whatever we want whenever we want, very concerned about how it looks and tastes. We don't have a clue what it's like to eat whatever comes our way, regardless of taste, because who knows when we might get the chance to eat again. Nonetheless, there are those who will tell you that our "sins" aren't as bad as others' "sins."

One of the most disturbing aspects of our society's judging the sinner is that the judgers, for all intents and purposes, are basically saying, "Okay, if you're open and honest and tell us you're living in a loving, homosexual relationship, then you can't be one of us." (Not much has changed, really, since the days when lepers, who might contaminate the healthy, were sent off to live outside the community. We just have different ways of doing the same thing.) Yet, with the exception of the ways all couples hurt each other when they live together day after day, who are these people hurting? If we're going to go around judging sinners, I'd far prefer to judge the man who serially cheats on his spouse, breaking hearts left and right, over the one who is loving and kind to his life partner.

Those judgers also seem to be saying, "We don't want you if we can tell you're a sinner. However, if you sin, and we don't know about it, well, that's okay." Therefore, a heterosexual leader of the church who beats his wife, or one who beats her children, is okay. A man who discreetly sells drugs to teenagers or who cheats his employees, so he can take home a bigger bonus this year (especially if he's giving plenty of money to the church) is fine. But the woman who lives down the street with her partner and the two crack-addicted babies they adopted, the same one who volunteers at the soup kitchen, isn't.

I (because I don't have that aforementioned pipeline) can't say for a fact, but I'm pretty sure that if Jesus were to come back today, he'd be quite appalled. My guess is that this time his question would be, "Did you not listen to anything I taught you about love and acceptance?"

Friday, June 24, 2011

Two for the Price of One

Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. New York: Scribner, 1995.
(The book was originally published in 1951.)

Bob: What's that you're reading?
Emily: The Daughter of Time. It's this month's book for the Connecticut mystery book club.
Bob: Have you ever read it?
Emily: No.
Bob: Oh, it's a great book! It's one of the best mysteries ever written. Such a wonderful premise, a convalescent solving a hundreds-year-old mystery.

Bob's not the first person I know to feel thus. I can't tell you how many people have recommended this book to me over the past 20+ or so years. He may not be right about its being one of the best mysteries ever written. He and I are not the fairest judges of that, since "mystery" is a very small piece of each of our "genres most read" pies. But he's absolutely right about the premise being a wonderful one.

If "mystery" takes up a small piece of my pie, then "historical fiction" takes up a tiny sliver. That's probably why I've been meaning to read this one for so long but have never gotten around to it until now. I mistakenly thought it was set in 15th-century England. Blink, and the fluttering of your lashes might accidentally blow away the "mystery cum historical fiction" thread resting on top of my pie. Despite recommendations from those who've never failed me, I wasn't keen on reading something from that genre. My readers' advisors know better than I, and I should've locked my noisy biases in a soundproof closet and listened to said advisors instead.

The book, which is not set in Medieval England, is superb. It's actually set in mid-20th-century England, where our "hero" Inspector Alan Grant is in the hospital, recuperating from a bad fall. Not only is the premise a good one, but Tey had a great sense of humor, and it's very funny in places. You can see what I mean from this description of how Grant landed in a hospital bed:

Grant was bed-borne, and a charge on The Midget [one of the nurses who attends him and who, despite her diminutive size, has no problem, apparently, tossing about mattresses and maneuvering the injured bodies of men who are, like Grant, 6'+ tall] and The Amazon [his other nurse, taken to heavy breathing at the slightest exertion] because he had fallen through a trap door. This, of course, was the absolute in humiliation; compared with which the heavings of The Amazon and the light slingings of The Midget were a mere corollary. To fall through a trap-door was the ultimate in absurdity; pantomimic, bathetic, grotesque. (12)

Grant lies in his hospital bed, his sharp mind used to being put to work solving crimes, with nothing better to do than to stare at the ceiling and to try to forget his humiliation. He's disdainful of the books kind souls have brought him to read and is the sort of patient you can easily imagine is driving the poor nurses nuts. That is, until his friend Marta decides to give him something to do.

Marta determines that he needs to spend his time solving some sort of old, unsolved mystery, some classic event that has always posed a puzzle. The next time she visits, she brings an envelope stuffed with copies of portraits. Grant becomes fixated on Richard III, England's notorious murderer, long assumed to have killed his two young nephews in order to grab the throne.

Grant can't see a murderer in the portrait he's given, and so he begins his intellectual quest to discover what he can about the man and the murders of the young Princes Richard and Edward (interestingly enough, bearing the names of their uncle and his brother who fathered them). He starts with standard history texts -- not the least bit enlightening -- and moves on to other works. Eventually, he pairs up with a young American friend of Marta's, and, together, they dig deeper and deeper to see what they can find.

Tey's novel is fascinating on so many levels. First of all, I (like most of the book's characters) only had vague recollections of the story of the two princes, although I do know that by the time I was learning about them, they were more of a mystery than they seem to have been to the characters in Tey's book. It seems to have been a commonly accepted notion in her day that the hunch-backed Richard III (so popularized by Shakespeare) smothered the boys, who were imprisoned in The Tower. I seem to recall being presented with an unsolved disappearance that may or may not have been a murder instigated by their uncle. Reading the book, I wondered how much of an influence Tey had had on the story. She was certainly no Shakespeare, but still, Shakespeare proves how easily history can be influenced by popular culture.

That leads me to the whole subject of history and fiction. What Grant discovers, of course, is that "history" can be written by those who would prefer the masses to believe a fiction. Tey points out, for comparison to the history of Richard III, other "historic events" people have taken as gospel that have proven themselves to be grossly exaggerated and false. She also points out how reluctant people are to accept challenges to these inaccuracies when they are raised, noting that they're more likely to blame the contemporary messenger digging up evidence rather than the messenger who may have had something to gain by garbling the account in the first place back when the event occurred.

I also couldn't help thinking about the whole weird concept of royalty and family. I know it's been addressed since the beginning of time, but imagine having the power to execute your brother or sister. You get mad; you kill your brother. Anyone else in your kingdom would be hanged or beheaded for murder, but you can get away with that old, proverbial murder. Despite my life-long fascination with family dynamics and psychology, I'd never really considered all the implications of that (another whole blog post in and of itself) until reading this book.

I do have one, very minor, complaint to launch against this excellent read and its writer. As is so often the case when English writers try to portray Americans (especially back in pre-television/Internet, etc. days), Grant's American partner in crime-solving's dialogue is a little off kilter. For instance, at one point, he (Carradine) says,

"Goldarn it, what did I do with it? Here we are." (p. 118)

Okay, maybe I know nothing about 1951. Maybe Americans really did say "goldarn it" all the time back then. I find it hard to believe, however. I happen to have read plenty of American novels written around that time, and I don't think I've ever come across a character who said, "Goldarn it." Perhaps, I've heard it uttered in some play or movie from that era, written by someone trying to portray an ignorant and/or naïve Southerner or Kansan in some sort of exaggerated fashion that's completely inaccurate, but certainly no "blue blood" Northeasterner, which Carradine was, would use such language. He also (again, unless times have changed dramatically since 1951, and maybe they have) wouldn't quickly have gone from "goldarn it" to,

"The sainted More makes me sick at the stomach but I'll listen." (p. 119)

He surely would have told us,

"The sainted More makes me sick to my stomach but I'll listen." (He also would've stuck a comma in before the conjunction, being properly American bred and educated, but he's being polite and adhering to the consistency of British rules of grammar in this British publication, so we'll leave him alone.)

But you've heard me complain before about Americans trying to write England and the English trying to write America. I'm very hard to please when it comes to that, and it's truly a minor irritation in this otherwise flawless story. I'm so very glad I finally read this one (thank you, John, for choosing it). If you've been meaning to get around to it yourself, I promise you won't be disappointed when you do.

I missed posting on last month's mystery book choice, so here it is as well:

Grafton, Sue. T is for Trespass. New York: G.P. Putnam, 2007.

A near-eternity ago, when Sue Grafton had only written something like six books, I read the first two. I liked them well enough, but I wasn't as in to the mystery genre back then, feeling it was enough that I'd already committed myself to reading every Linda Barnes mystery as she published it (she was less prolific. Even so, I eventually abandoned her as well), and so I didn't continue with the series. I've been meaning to pick her back up for years, so I was very happy when this one was chosen for the CT mystery book club.

What made it even better was that I started reading this one while I was in California. Grafton's Kinsey Millhone lives and works in Santa Teresa, which is a very thinly disguised Santa Barbara. Since I happened to be in Santa Barbara, I was easily able to imagine much of what Kinsey describes in her telling of the story.

This is the tale of a true sociopath who happens to move into Kinsey's neighborhood to provide nursing care for its resident grouchy old man. Kinsey suspects something isn't quite right from the get-go, and, of course, her instincts prove her to be correct. By the time she figures out what's happening, the reader is already well aware of the psychotic qualities of the home care nurse, because interspersed with Kinsey's first-person accounts are third-person accounts that give us this creepy sociopath's story. This could have been an awkward technique, could have made the book seem disjointed, but Grafton did it well, and it worked for me.

This was a good, solid mystery/thriller (although not of the whodunit sort, since we know who the "bad guy" is from the get-go). Typically, I prefer mysteries in which I'm trying to figure out the puzzle of who killed The Body, but I really liked this one. That's a credit to Grafton's writing and the endearing character she's created in Kinsey (I like my private investigators to be endearing. I also like female p.i.'s, because they tend to be so outnumbered by males in the genre).

One thing I found interesting is that Grafton chose to set the book in 1987. That's around the same time I read those first two books, and it's a clever ploy on her part (I'm assuming here that all her books are set back in time), because she doesn't have to worry about aging Kinsey as the years go by, or keeping her forever young, even though she's been around since the 1980s, the way so many other mystery writers do. However, doing so can lead to problems. Grafton is good (an excellent writer, really), but I'm pretty sure there were a few mistakes in which Kinsey makes references to things that didn't exist in 1987. It wasn't enough to distract me, though. In fact, I can't even remember exactly what they were.

I know I say this about almost every author we read for the book club, but I must read more in the series. I really might this time, though, as I have an ARC for S is for Silence, and I just picked up at a book swap party O is for Outlaw and P is for Peril. I'm planning on doing something really weird: reading them backwards. Anyone have copies of Q and R they'd like to give me?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Final Once Upon a Challenge Post

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. London: Bigelow, Smith, & Co., 1909.

Well, would you look at that? I actually managed to complete a challenge on time. This is the final book I read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I went on Quest the Third to be completed by June 22 (five books plus this play). Onto my review:

As far as fairy tales go? Perfection. I have nothing more to say.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Once Upon A Time Challenge Post V

Carroll, Lewis. Notes by Martin Gardner. The Annotated Alice: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Signet, 1963.

In his Introduction to this, now classic in its own right, edition of Carroll's two classic children's stories, Gardner quotes G.K. Chesterton (writing in 1932, Carroll's 100th birthday year):

'Poor, poor, little Alice!' bemoaned G.K. 'She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others. Alice is now not only a schoolgirl but a schoolmistress. The holiday is over, and [Charles] Dodgson [a.k.a. Lewis Carroll] is again a don. There will be lots and lots of examination papers with questions like, (1) What do you know of the following: mimsy, gimble, haddocks' eyes, treacle-wells, beautiful soup? (2) Record all the moves in the chess game in Through the Looking Glass and give diagram. (3) Outline the practical policy of the White Knight for dealing with the social problem of green whiskers. (4) Distinguish between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.' (i.)

(One more reason to admire) Chesterton, I'm sure, back when he wrote that, thought he was being facetious -- although not completely so. He was right about the Alice books becoming part of the canon of children's literature, and, as such, being turned into something completely disagreeable, instead of the great fun that they are. Thank God I was never forced to study Carroll's masterpieces when I was in school, never had to endure their ruination in that way. Sad to say, Chesterton probably got it absolutely right with his facetious questions (I can see unimaginative teachers of today reading that Introduction and jotting them down for their own exams), judging from the types of textbook and quiz questions I remember destroying the likes of Saki, Mark Twain, and Charlotte Brontë when I was in school. I'm almost tempted to do an online search for "Lewis Carroll's Alice and study questions," but I'm afraid the results would be too depressing.

Now, having said all that, I will say that reading this annotated edition with all its wonderful notes and explanations, which some might argue add a prosaic element that puts a damper on the poetic whimsy (and I wouldn't necessarily disagree), actually made the works even more fun for me. True, it might be more enjoyable just to read "Jabberwocky" without all the definitions and explanations, to puzzle out one's own meaning. True, also, that some of the notes on the logic actually confused me (someone whose only success ever, as far as standardized testing is concerned, was on the old logic section of the GRE) more than Lewis's characters did. And, of course, to read so often in the notes about all of Carroll's "child-friends" can't help but add a certain sort of creepiness to the tales for 21st-century readers. No matter how innocent Gardner (and many more recent scholars) would have us believe Charles Dodgson was, that he was a product of his era, fascinated with little girls and their beauty, not lusting after them in Humbert-Humbert fashion, I'm sorry, but befriending only young girls (not boys) and wanting to sketch and photograph them nude just doesn't sit well with this reader.

Still, Gardner's notes add a certain charm and fascination in and of themselves (especially now that they're 50+ years -- the hardcover edition of the book was originally published in 1960 -- old, a bit antiquated in their own right). He definitely helps to clarify some concepts, and he defines many words that would be completely lost on contemporary readers (especially American ones). Also, it's interesting to note how much more has evolved in our culture since Gardner decided to help enlighten us. It's hard, for instance, for someone my age, who doesn't remember an era when Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," the anthem to drug use, didn't exist, to accept the fact that Gardner couldn't have noted it when addressing works influenced by Alice, because it would be seven years before its release, and it would be another eleven years before the release of the anti-drug Y.A. classic based on lyrics from the song, Go Ask Alice.

What I remember about this book from my childhood (for some reason, with the exception of some illustrated Disney versions, the hardcover of this annotated edition is the only one of the original I think we had in the house when I was a child. I can remember just skipping all the "annoying notes" when I read it as a child. When I was in high school -- an "adult" reader now -- I read it notes and all for the first time) was that I preferred Through the Looking Glass to Alice in Wonderland. I hate to say it, but there was a part of me that thought Alice was a bit silly, particularly so when in Wonderland.

Reading the two this go-round, I still prefer Looking Glass. I don't know if it's because Wonderland has become a story that is practically a cliché at this point, with the Queen of Hearts constantly yelling "Off with his/her head!" and the grinning Cheshire Cat, whereas Looking Glass ("Jabberwocky" and all) is still quite fresh or if it's more than that. I suspect the latter. Looking Glass is more complicated and clever. This isn't to say that Wonderland isn't chock full of brilliant wordplay and nonsense (boy, do I love wordplay, and Carroll was certainly a Master, someone to bow down to in his ability to arrange and rearrange words and their meanings to tickle the funny bone. Don't tell me math and English don't mix. This mathematician proved, without a doubt, that the two walk around beautifully, hand-in-hand), but (just like the little girl Alice Liddell, by the time the second book was published), Looking Glass's wordplay and nonsense seems a little more mature, so does the way the story plays with logic. You need look no further than the games featured in each: the characters in Wonderland are playing croquet, a fairly straightforward game. Those inside the looking glass play chess, a far more sophisticated pastime. Then again, my preference, then and now, may have nothing to do with maturity and sophistication. Perhaps I just prefer an imaginary world (a dreamland, if you will) entered through a mirror (and all that that entails) to one entered falling down a rabbit hole.

I didn't find Alice silly this go-round, the way I found her as a child. Actually, I like the brave way she stands up to the crazy characters and the way she defends herself and her understanding of concepts, even when she's completely confused. I also found there are certain characters I'd forgotten whom I just adored this go-round, like the Dormouse (probably envy on my part more than anything else, because there have been many nights in my life when I so wished I could "sleep when I breathe") and the Gryphon (how on earth could I have forgotten the Gryphon?) -- so perfect in being so much like all those annoying people in life who pooh-pooh and disdain our precious obsessions.

I was happy to have read this book so soon after reading the Terry Pratchett I also read for this challenge. Pratchett owes much to Carroll, both writing parody and satire with a healthy dose of nonsense, while playing with math, logic, and science. I couldn't help wondering what "The Annotated Collected Works of Terry Pratchett" might look like (besides, of course, taking up more room on the bookshelf than the old Encyclopaedia Britannica used to do). I am sure there is much when I read Pratchett that goes over my head, just as there would be much in the Alice books that would do so without Gardner's helpful notes. And speaking of influences, I also couldn't help thinking it's about time for another read of The Phantom Tollbooth, a modern classic that certainly owes much to Alice. This year marks its 50th anniversary, definitely a good year to read it.

Another thing I noted while reading this book is how influenced my childhood was not only by the Alice stories, but also by the illustrations. When I was a child, we had an oversized coloring book full of John Tenniel's Alice illustrations. My mother, once my older sisters had colored them (I think I was too young at the time to have colored them well enough, although I do remember coloring), mounted and shellacked some of them and hung them on our bedroom walls and also in the kitchen, if I remember correctly. I especially remember the one of the White Knight (I'm not sure why. Maybe he hung in my bedroom, or maybe, like Alice, he just impressed me most). His style, even if I'd never seen the Alice illustrations, would have been extremely familiar to me nonetheless, as we also had large collections of old Punch cartoons in our house growing up, many of which were his.

I'll end by saying I had fantastic dreams on the nights when I read this book right before falling asleep. Carroll certainly seemed to have a direct connection to the Land of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (despite the fact it didn't yet exist when he was writing). Of course, a good Jungian would tell you that he just knew exactly how to tap into the collective unconscious. I prefer to think of it as another land, a Wonderland, full of disappearing cats, disagreeable queens, and Humpty Dumpty himself. I wouldn't want to live there, but it's a great place to visit.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Post IV

Turgeon, Carolyn. Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

This one had so much imaginative promise, and I'd read some positive blog posts at some point. I should have at least liked it, if not loved it. But no. I was to experience no happily ever after, no infatuation even. I flat out just didn't like it.

It probably didn't help matters much that I read the Grimm brothers' "Cinderella" just before I read this. Did you know there is no fairy godmother in that version? There is no pumpkin coach. There are no footmen. Nothing happens at midnight. In fact, the slipper isn't even glass. It's golden.

Okay, this wouldn't really be a problem in and of itself. After all, the Walt Disney retelling of the Cinderella story is probably as much of a legend (if not more so) to us 21st-century Americans as the Grimms' version was to 19th-century Europeans. A novel that's the story of a fairy godmother who only showed up in the old tale recently (relatively speaking) could still have been brilliant -- especially a beautiful fairy who made the mistake of falling in love with the prince herself and who's been banished to New York City, where she is now an elderly woman working in a second-hand bookstore.

The problem, uneven writing notwithstanding (and I should be the last to complain about uneven writing, since my writing often resembles a dirt road just after the winter thaw. Nonetheless, I complain, blaming the editor, of course, not Turgeon. Turgeon is capable of writing beautiful prose. She just needed someone to come along and smooth some of the bumps that crept in from time to time), was that, throughout most of the book, I didn't find Lil, our fairy godmother, the least bit sympathetic. She becomes much more so at the end, but by then, it's way too late. Again, that could've been fine. I've read plenty of books I've enjoyed whose characters were unsympathetic. The problem is that I suspected Lil wasn't meant to be unsympathetic. If I'd suspected that, I could have gone with it, but I'm pretty sure the author wanted us to sympathize with her, and I just couldn't.

I did sympathize with other characters, like Veronica, the young woman Lil meets and believes has been sent for her redemption. In fact, I loved Veronica. I'd like to read a whole book about Veronica, who could've stepped right out of the pages of a Francesca Lia Block novel. The book was too much Lil and not enough Veronica.

Having said all this, I will note that I'm really glad I didn't abandon the book. I was sorely tempted to do so, and if I hadn't chosen to read it for the Once Upon a Time challenge, I'm sure I would have. Had I not read it to the end, you'd be reading here about how so much of the book didn't make sense, how I thought Turgeon was being purposefully elusive to give the book a dreamy quality and how she'd failed, filling her story with too many question marks that kept the rational mind hopping and that drowned out the dreamy, magical-thinking mind. The ending -- a shocker that I didn't see coming at all -- definitely explained everything and verified that Turgeon does, indeed, have a wonderful imagination. She's also extremely clever. She just didn't meld the two well enough in this book.

Really, the book should have worked for me. I'm sad that it didn't. I'd love to know what others think of it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Post III

Pratchett, Terry. Mort. New York: HarperTorch, 2008. (The book was originally published in 1987)

(Just in case you didn't catch this from the title of my post, this is another one that I read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, which is quickly drawing to a close, and I've got two more books to finish.)

People generally define what Terry Pratchett writes as fantasy, and, really, that makes sense. After all, his books take place in an imaginary world, a planet known as Discworld. It's a flat planet that balances atop four elephants who travel through space, balanced themselves atop a giant turtle. What could be more fantastic than that? The planet is inhabited by wizards, witches, dragons, etc. Such characters living in such a place certainly sounds like fantasy. Perhaps fantasy in the hands of Bugs Bunny, but fantasy nonetheless.

I'm going to argue, though, that saying Pratchett writes fantasy is like saying Jonathan Swift wrote fantasy. Let's face it: Gulliver certainly traveled to places that don't exist, dealing with such fantastic elements as tiny people, but critics don't tend to describe Swift as one of fantasy's founding fathers. No, he's known for being a great satirist and father of one of English language's best parodies. I'm inclined to say that Pratchett is England's greatest living satirist, writing fabulous parodies. He's also bucket loads of fun.

Pratchett is a relatively recent discovery for me, so I haven't made too many trips to Discworld yet, but I'm eager to explore all it has to offer. Happily, I have lots to look forward to, as he's been a prolific writer. (I say "been" because, sadly, he is suffering from early-onset Alzheimers, so who knows how much he'll be able to produce in the coming years?). I'm sure he's not everyone's cup of tea, because a reader has to be willing to trust him when he does things like provide scientific explanations that are too difficult to follow. He also likes to litter his novels with footnotes, which I know some people hate (and I understand that, having read a novel or two that embraced this technique, taking it way too seriously), but he's the master of the appropriately placed (and often hilarious) footnote. Also, they're footnotes, not endnotes: no having to flip to the back of the book.

He creates wacky plots in order to skewer everything from science to religion to politics. Mostly, however, he's focused on just plain skewering human nature, sometimes blatantly, sometimes so subtlety, you can't blink or you might miss something brilliant. I have yet to read a book of his that didn't make me laugh out loud at least once.

This one, the fourth Discworld novel he wrote (and the first of those to feature Death as a main character), is no exception. The "Mort" of the title is a young man whose father decides it's about time for him to become an apprentice. Who better for a young man named Mort to apprentice to than Death himself? The trouble is, Mort's just a little too human for the job and can't quite embrace his duties fully. Soon we find he's done something that just might change history -- and not for the better, no matter how it might seem, judging from the characters involved. Luckily, history seems to be a little more flexible than we tend to assume it is (well, when written by the "right" sorts of historians, that is. Pratchett would probably note today that Sarah Palin's "history," for instance, seems to be quite flexible) on our own planet. So, for that matter, is Death, who proves he can sometimes be a bit flexible (and also feel a bit sorry for himself).

But that's all I'm going to tell you, except that this is classic Pratchett. If you've never read him, this would be a great place to start. If you have read him, but haven't read this one, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

It's been ages since I had a Music Monday post. Maybe it's time to bring back the tradition now that it's summer. The summers of my youth have a soundtrack (it's vinyl, not an eight-track tape, because I had a record player) that features these catchy summer tunes that we listened to over and over again on long summer afternoons playing Crazy Eights or Monopoly, or at slumber parties, dancing while trying to stay up all night. They feature such artists in my very young days as Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, Simon and Garfunkel, and Three Dog Night. When I began to get a little older, these were replaced with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, and The Police.

Every so often, a new song comes along right around this time of year that takes me back to those days of riding around in a car with the windows down waiting for the big song of the summer to come on. When it came on, you'd blast the radio (which never shook the streets the way car stereos do today when people blast them), and sing along, and anyone driving by would know how cool you were. You never really had to wait very long for this exciting moment, even where I lived. One of our three favorite pop stations would be playing it at least once an hour. Sometimes, if you got really, really lucky, you'd hear it on one station and then switch to another one in time to catch it again, before going home to listen to it over and over on the record player. You know what kind of song I mean. It's the one that the cutest couple on American Bandstand announced they liked because it "has a good beat, and you can dance to it."

This summer, that song is by Foster the People. I first heard about them on NPR (sixteen-year-old me can't believe that, these days, you can hear about such cool bands on NPR). They played "Pumped Up Kicks," and there I was, tempted to roll down the window, blast the radio, and sing at the top of my lungs. Oh, and sixteen-year-old me, if she'd seen this video, would have thought these guys were so-o-o-o cute! (Actually, 47-year-old me thinks they're cute, too, but in a very different way.)

Forget that the lyrics completely contradict the happy sound of the music. Crank it up, everybody, and let's hit the dance floor.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Post II

Selected tales from: Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob. Stern, James, ed. The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1976, 1944.

Sexton, Anne. Transformations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

I hadn't planned to read Anne Sexton's Transformations for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I was just interested in reading something by her because I never had. When I got this book (the only Anne Sexton on the shelf at the library the day I was there, grabbed by me without really looking at it, because I had not had much change for the parking meter out front and had very little time for browsing), I discovered it was perfect for the challenge. As Kurt Vonnegut tells us in his wonderful Foreword, Sexton, in this collection, was, "...retelling many of the Grimms' fairy tales in poetry." (p. ix)

I had planned, possibly, to read The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, but it's a huge work, and I've discovered it's a bit like reading The Bible: fascinating, but a little goes a long way. It's best to read it slowly, throughout a year, say, than to try to read it all at once. So instead, after reading half a dozen or so in order, I decided, for the purposes of this challenge, just to read the seventeen tales on which Sexton based her poems.

Most of her poems are based on tales with which we're all familiar: Cinderella, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, etc. However, there were some here, like Iron Hans and The White Snake with which I was not so familiar. The poet's retelling of these tales are anything but magical (that is, if you ignore her magical abilities with imagery and choosing and putting together words). Just as many of the original stories are very dark, so are Sexton's. Her updated versions mimic the old in that they do dance around the issues. She doesn't come right out and say, "I'm talking about feminism here," anymore than the brothers Grimm announced, "We're talking about sex here." She doesn't tell you she's talking about the abuse of women, the abuse of children, about how all those on the margins of society are ignored or silenced. She doesn't have to: you know she's talking about all that and more.

She's also talking about pain, anger, confusion, and, sometimes, a lack of redemption. No, you are not always going to be rescued. And, as a matter of fact, sometimes when your knight in shining armor does appear, he is even worse than what you suffered before he came along. These are disturbing poems but powerful ones. Sexton wanted her readers to think, and, I suspect, to understand her pain (she suffered from mental illness herself and could be considered one of those on the margins of her society). She succeeded in making this reader do so.

Reading the fairy tales was interesting, too. Sexton was right. So many of the tales are about women who had to give up things in order to be deserving of men (or as punishment for daring to flirt with men they shouldn't have): their hands, their voices, their hair, their fun. In fairness to these age-old tales, men often had to sacrifice and are punished in awful ways, too. Typically, though, those are male animals or peasants. Rarely do kings and princes sacrifice, and bad kings and princes are often rewarded in ways that only the most saintly of the female characters are. Also, that "reward" depends on your idea of "happily ever after".

I like Sexton's wry take on the standard fairy tale ending, epitomized here in the final lines of her The White Snake,

So, of course,
they were placed in a box
and painted identically blue
and thus passed their days
living happily ever after --
a kind of coffin,
a kind of blue funk,
Is it not? (p. 15)

Wow, huh? If you like that, you're bound to like this exemplary collection.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (TBR Challenge Book 9)

Wroblewski, David. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. New York: Ecco. 2008.

I wonder if anyone even remembers that I came up with a TBR challenge and then extended it when I found I couldn't keep to it. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't remember, but I'm here to tell you today that I'm slowly, but surely, still reading books from the list. I'm trying to make some sense of this one, so I thought I'd get my post up on it, even though I have plenty of others waiting for posts.

You see, I was ever so disappointed with this book, and I can't quite put my finger on exactly why. It isn't that Wroblewski can't write. Write he most definitely can. It isn't that it was boring or that I lost interest or that the characters just didn't seem believable or real. All those ingredients were there. I hope that the problem isn't that I'm such a stickler when it comes to editorial detail that I couldn't get past the fact that Edgar's birthday couldn't possibly have been in the month and year noted (I won't tell you why, in case you haven't read the book, but suffice it to say that the events leading up to his birth would've made it impossible). I mean, I would hope I'd be able to forgive an author (and his editor) for such an error (especially since I've asked others who've read the book, and none of them noticed that error) or at least embrace the notion of poetic license, miraculously-short-full-term pregnancies and all.

I'm pretty sure I would have if other aspects of the book hadn't bothered me, but once I realized I wasn't loving the book, like all mistaken loves that turn out to be mere infatuations, that small flaw grew all out of proportion. By the time I finished the book and was trying to figure out why I hadn't liked it more than I did, I was all too eager to think, "I should've known from the beginning I wasn't gonna like it. After all, Edgar's birth date was impossible."

Let's pretend, though, that I'm not quite so superficial. That might help us to see that my real problem with the book has nothing to do with birth dates. My real problem is the whole Hamlet connection. That's what just really didn't work for me. I'm realizing that it's not really that I'm such a stickler for detail; it's that I seem to desire extremes. The Hamlet theme here was neither subtle enough (come on, did the names really have to be so obvious?) nor faithful enough to the original (Ophelia was not named Ophelia or anything that sounded like Ophelia. But, then, when I figured out who Ophelia was, my reaction again was, "Oh, come on. Please!" That doesn't mean, however, the lump wasn't in my throat when "Hamlet" discovers she's dead).

I almost felt as if Wroblewski had been writing this great, imaginative story and suddenly found himself thinking, "Uh-oh. This is too much like Hamlet. What am I gonna do about that? Hmmm, well, let's just make it a reworking of Hamlet while throwing in some original twists and turns to make it a little more subtle." I know that's not what he did. It's obvious by the end that he studied Hamlet inside out and backwards, but the connections he chose to make and those he chose not to make just didn't work for me.

Still, I finished the book, and I didn't have to do that. After all, we all know that everyone dies in Hamlet, which means I could pretty much figure out how this book would end. The fact I read it to the bitter end says something. I can't quite dismiss the book or say I didn't like it. All I can do is repeat myself: I was ever so disappointed.

Friday, June 03, 2011

I Promise to Stop This Nonsense and Write a Real Post Soon

I mean, it's ridiculous to be doing nothing but posting pictures of shoes when I've got so much other stuff to post. Still, nothing makes my heart go pitter pat quite as much as a nice pair of shoes, and Jimmy Choo (because, you know, we not-by-choice unemployed gals can skip right off and buy a pair of Jimmy Choos anytime we like) sends me these emails I'm drawn to the way most men are drawn to Victoria Secret catalogues. These emails prove that, well, I spoke too hastily in my last post: some shoe designers out there do have a clue, and I could never compete with them.

Today happened to be a "pre-fall" email (yes, four days after Memorial Day, and it's already time to look at fall shoes. One can never be too prepared, you know), and I thought, "Well, I won't be at all interested in this." I don't know about where you are, but, although it's absolutely beautiful today, we just suffered through a brutal heat wave that left me so miserable and lethargic, I found myself wondering if I'd ever again have the desire to soak in a hot bath.

Oh, how wrong could I be about my interest level? I took one look and could feel the little nip in the air. Is it any wonder when you compare the offerings in my last post to what's below that I so much prefer the cool breezes of fall over the sweltering summer heat? Look at the difference between what I can put on my feet. Actually, that first pair could be worn in the summer, surely?