Saturday, February 27, 2010

Giving "genre fiction" a fair shake

"I really wish people would give the individual stories a chance without having to quantify them as a certain thing or another. They’re missing out on a lot of really awesome books I think."

An artist I admire said this about graphic novels here, but I thought about it when I finished reading When You Reach Me, the book that won the Newberry Award (best middle grade/children's book) this year.  It's an amazing book; really well-done and gripping, and it stars a protagonist who loves A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  It's a short, sweet, suspenseful, action-packed coming-of-age/school/family/friendship/mystery story that has a genre-rific twist.  It also has some fun physics. And it's short, somehow, despite having all that packed into it.

This year has shown that awards committees for kids' and teen's fiction like physics.

Anyway, if someone asked me what genre this book is, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't try to tell them.  I'd just tell them to read it, and they'd probably love it.  Who cares what "genre" it is?  It's a great book!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Them's fightin' words: plot

 So, what do you think of this statement (I am pulling out of context) that I read in a review recently?

"I know that plots are simply arenas,  places for the characters to play and oftentimes they can be silly or completely unrealistic to accommodate a much larger story."

Do you agree?  Any good examples of this idea in action?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A new technique-related literary crush: not simple

I recently finished a quietly devastating work of literary fiction by Natsume Ono called not simple.

Things that impressed me included the following:
  • Reverse chronology as necessity
  • Tightly polished artistry
  • Distancing techniques to prevent brutality from becoming melodrama
  • Beautiful intersection of form and content
  • Trust in readers to follow story and understand
  • Title and its relationship to form and content

Knowing how a story ends chronologically does not have to kill the narrative tension.  not simple tells bits of the story mostly going backwards as the book advances toward the end (and not quite the beginning).

Every conversation accomplishes multiple purposes.  The story you thought you knew because you knew the ending keeps needing revision in the reader's mind.  I had to stop reading to ponder each new, horrific revelation and how it affected the future I had previously read about and what I had seen of the past, etc.  The reread value for this one will be quite high with all the revelations, nuance, subtext, and other well-done stuff.

This story could so easily be a melodrama.  One way the author avoided this slide was the use of emotionally stunted characters under-responding (not just to keep things from being hysterical but because that's who they are and how they would respond).  No histrionics here, folks, just tragic people trapped in fractured relationships (reflected in the short, choppy, fragmented scenes and non-linear progression of the story) dealing with blow after blow until they reach an end you already know from the beginning.  Scenes that could have been shown but would have pushed things over the edge were related as conversations, often relayed second-hand.  We learn about characters by what is unsaid and by their actions.  The balance between show and tell feels organic and pitch-perfect.

This story has to be told as a graphic novel.  There is not enough inner monologue for it to work as a prose story.  As a story made of text alone, it would be too bleak and too talky while also being too image-driven.  Pictures make this story work (you know the cliche about how much a picture is worth).  At the same time, I don't think this would make a good film.  The chronological jumping around and all the fragmented, short scenes would make my head hurt, and the emotional deadness would be hard for living actors to portray, I think, without trending towards the outrageous melodrama.

There are a lot of times where Ono doesn't spell things out, but careful readers will feel the craters left by the implications of specific lines.  No way, so that's why . . .   Yes, that's why, dear reader, but the author doesn't bludgeon you with it and never intrudes as a narrator.  It's up to you to find the heartbeats of the story.

The phrase not simple is used by people to describe the protagonist's life and life story.  It could be used of just about every piece of the work itself.  The characters are complex, and you could sum up their situations in a trivial way, sometimes, but it's more complicated than it seems.  Not artificially complicated, just organically complex.  Could the story have been told just as engaginly in straight chronological order?  Yeah, probably.  But it wasn't told with the mixed chronology as a gimmick.  I get the sense that the author told it that way, so she could end it with the heartbreaking hopeful tone she does.  Does it have a happy ending?  Well, yes and no and more no but also kind of a bafflingly uplifting yes.  It's just not that simple to explain. 

You should probably read it to find out.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just say no to book piracy!

I've been really worried about libraries in this time of economic blech because I feel that libraries are one of the things democracies (even representative ones) need if they really want to have a chance of working.  I've watched local libraries cut hours and services with great trepidation.  I've observed and seen people using bookstores in place of libraries, as a place for free book access. 

Just because you have free access to read books at bookstores doesn't really mean you should use them to replace libraries.  If there's one thing the economic blech has reminded us, it's that the (book)stores might not always be around, and if they go under at a time when libraries have had their funding so severely reduced, you're going to find yourself with no access to the books you love and want to support.  You'll be too poor to buy books, and the authors will be too poor to be able to write them, and the world as we know it will end.  The book pirates will probably "win," but what a sad victory it will be.

Use your library!  The more people use it, the easier it is for the government to justify giving libraries more increasingly limited government funds.  Everyone can use libraries, no matter how poor or homeless they are.  I want to support the kind of situation where people have something akin to free access to information regardless of socioeconomic status. 

Here's a fun endorsement for libraries and against evil book pirates from author Sara Zarr.  Definitely check out Laurie's post and the comments it engendered.

- Read Laurie Halse Anderson’s post about book piracy. Even successful authors like Laurie are not rich enough to give away books for free. But, really, it’s not about that. Though it pains me to say it, even authors who are bajillionaires and write slasher pulp with the help of a staff need to be paid for their work. That’s how it works. Piracy is stealing, and stealing is wrong. Borrowing, however, is perfectly legal, and that’s why we have libraries. “But my library doesn’t have your book.” Ask for it! You can request that your library system acquire the book. Get a few friends to do the same and chances are good it will eventually get into the collection. Meanwhile, there are thousands of other books to read while you wait! Hey, I am not nearly rich enough to buy every book that we want to read. I usually have 10-15 books checked out from the library at a time. The free library system is one of the things that makes this country great! No matter how poor you are, if you’ve got a library card and you can read, you are one powerful person.
If you love books, really love them, and you can't buy them, you need to use your library.  It's the only way to act with integrity.

Do you agree or disagree with that?  Your thoughts on book piracy?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An incredible book about a human with Mad Cow Disease and even weirder things

 I think Going Bovine is kind of a genius book.  I'm glad it won the Printz Award.  It had a truly incredible author's note at the beginning, and at the end, I laughed, I cried, I argued with it and myself as a reader and author.  Also, there's a Norse god in disguise as a lawn gnome.  Seriously.

Some spoilers ahead.

I mean, how many books have made me that angry at the end by pulling that It-Was-All-a-Dream trick and then left me to argue three different ways about it.  I was steaming mad that the author would pull that stupid (and I thought outlawed) trope, invalidating all of the lengthy experiences and trials and tribulations and deaths of characters I cried over, etc.

Now, now, the shoulder angel chided, the author made sure you knew there was at least a 50-50 chance the end was going to be the dream schtick.

But, the shoulder devil grumped, how could you waste those crazy awesome things like the Great Tremolo, and those smoothie-and-bowling-loving cult members who make up the standardized tests, the Buddha Burger restaurant, the snow-globe conspiracy, the physics, and the time-warping musicians with their song about all the words for snow?!  Seriously, how can you invalidate all that?! 

But you did know it was a possibility all along, and there were all those ambiguous hints you ignored by sheer force of will, the shoulder angel reminded me.  And its not like Dulcie the sort-of angel was plausible, the shoulder angel sniffed.

I just didn't want the bedside goodbyes his family said to be real.  I wanted there to be a way for him to live and for them to change.  I wanted the hope to be real.

He was doomed from the beginning, and you knew it, the angel says gently.

But it could have been fantasy!  It could have been!

It was in the fiction section, not the fantasy section.

I wanted the fantasty parts to be real!  It was so dreamlike, I thought it was magical realism-related.

Oooh, good try.  Fancy Words.  You knew from the beginning.

Shut up.  I cried when XXX died.  I cried a lot!  I cried because I thought he really died.  In reality.  How could the author make me cry and then make it not real?  And then really kill XXX in reality.

In the reality of the book, you mean?  You remember how this is fiction, right?  Even if the character died in the real world of the book, none of it's real anyway.  What right do you have to get mad?

That is a very good point, and I kind of hate you for making it.  

Smug silence.

Brooding grumbles.

I guess I just wanted my unlikely happy ending.

I'm still not sure if I'm happy that I didn't get it.  But I'm kind of in awe of a book (and author) that makes me fight this hard with myself.  Also, I think I really need to read Don Quixote.

Have you read Going Bovine?  Thoughts?  If you're not sure if you want to read it, I recommend that you read that author's note.  If, by the end of that, you're not interested (and laughing), then it's probably not for you.  But I hope it is, 'cause I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When authors procrastinate

Sometimes great entertainment is born.

What would add to his coolness exponentially would be if he finished the other two books in the trilogy, and they were as good as the first.  Until they're finished and published, I can still have my dream, so I'm fine either way.  :)

Have you read any author procrastinatory posts that made your day?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Looking for a few rational discussions

"Agree that some of the commenters were obnoxious. But I think in general people around the o’sphere who took offense were reacting out of context. (Which is of course what the web is all about, but we are book people, and as people concerned with context and the implications of words, I wish we didn’t do that."
When I read this quote here, it made me stop and think.  I love out of context quotes (usually for sheer entertainment value), but I don't participate in discussions and forums online because I don't function very well in conversation/interaction based on emotion and without context and implication and rationality.  Because I am a book person concerned with meaning and context and all that good stuff, I can't really get too interested in "the web."

Sometimes, I wonder if, by taking myself out of the discussions, I'm just being lazy.  Maybe there is good conversation out there about this stuff that I'll never find because I've given up.

What advice do you have for how to find places on the web to engage with people who react in context and don't rush to take offense and instead try to understand and are also not dull, boring, overly-serious folks with no senses of humor?  :)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Any L'Engle readers out there?

I'm thinking of picking a month to go on a Madeleine L'Engle binge.  She wrote a lot of books I had no interest in as a kid, even if they did share characters with books I did read and love.  I figure I should try to go back and check out the ones I skipped the first, second, and third times around.

I was looking at one of her books the other day, and I noticed that she was my my grandmother's contemporary.  This was a strange realization, that this vibrant, smart, thoughtful, creative woman so different from my grandmother lived through the same times she did.  There were certainly socioeconomic differences, but I don't think that's really the main thing that affected the outcome of their lives.

Anyway, it just made me think.

Are there any L'Engle books for adults that you recommend to top my list?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why I'm glad (again) that I am not a critic

I was reading a review of a group whose music I have really enjoyed on the radio.  The review was condescending, and, in my experience, inaccurate when it talked about how unremarkable the album was because the group sounded like everyone else on the radio at the time of the album release. 

I had never heard a group that sounded like them.  Why would a reviewer say that, I wondered, if it was obviously not true?  What I forgot is that most reviewers get paid to listen to a lot more music than I do. 

The radio station I normally listen to (because I have good reception) is more Adult Contemporary, and this group getting airplay was probably more due to the fact that they're local boys than that they fit the station's format. 

When I recently tuned in to the other station, the one that's more rock/alternative oriented, I understood what the reviewer was saying.  Another reason I don't listen to this other station (aside from the poor, are-they-broadcasting-from-a-shoebox reception) is that there is a certain everyone-sounds-vaguely-the-same vibe.  Ah, this is what the reviewer meant.  If I listened to this station more, maybe the songs I loved from this specific band wouldn't have stood out as much, which would have been a shame, since the songs really spoke to me when I needed them.

I felt bad for the reviewer.  It would be awful not to be able to enjoy the huge, sonic hug aimed at those who have been kicked around and stomped on by the world we live in.

I feel the same way about some book reviewers.  It's sad that they don't get to just enjoy books.  It's sad that they demand originality in order to enjoy something, that they've read so much that originality is often the only thing that matters to them.  It makes me glad, once again, that I have chosen not to be a critic. 

Me and all the other rabid fans who love this music (or that book), regardless of what the critics say because this art is what we need now in our lives. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Grumbling, Disagreeable, possibly-Entertaining critics

I was book reading reviews today, and I cracked up after the fourth Booklist review contradicted all the others (Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, even Kirkus Review).  All four of these Booklist reviews said, "Sniff.  Well, I suppose the young, unsophisticated people like that sort of low-brown, pedestrian thing, but we found it frankly tiresome and boring and didn't like it at ALL.  Sniff."

Usually they were more specific and pointed out that they specifically hated the things the other reviews liked.  If Publisher's Weekly loved the outstanding character development, Booklist thought the book suffered because it was populated with undeveloped, stock character types.  If Library Journal loved the sophisticated, twisty plot, Booklist thought the whole thing was terribly predictable and didn't have a moment of REAL suspense.  Sigh.

It's not like I don't understand being contrary as a way to seem smart, and it's not like I don't understand how everyone liking something can make one not like it JUST BECAUSE, but if I were a reviewer, and I knew I was having that kind of petulant, immature, biased reaction, I would hope I had the professionalism to deal with it maturely or else pass the review on to someone who could.  For Pete's sake.

At least I got a laugh out of it.

Have you ever felt that way about a book everyone seemed to praise to the skies?  (What book?)  Did you read it?  Did reading it change your mind?

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Confession

I have a confession to make.  I have not seen an entire season or series or, really, anything by Joss Whedon.  This makes me want to. 

Are you already a fan?  On the fence about whether to take the plunge into his world?  Anti-Whedon?  Why?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sometimes reality is dark

Here's a bit from the blog of an author I like.  She was a finalist for the National Book Award and writes great novels about teens that deal with consequences, family, and grace.  Some people find her works too dark and realistic.  That's why I enjoyed her sharing this quote.  

". . . I love this interview with Mo’Nique in the Sunday Times. There’s a lot there for writers, or anyone in a creative profession, to think about in terms of working hard and letting the work speak for itself. And, this quote (about Precious) is great:

“I keep hearing, ‘It’s so dark, it’s so dark,’ ” she said, placing her hands flat on the table. “This movie is not dark. This movie is honest, and I think we get that confused. I believe dark is when you see the action movies, and they’re killing 25 people in a room for no reason. That’s dark. Some people,” she said, looking up at the reporter, “can’t deal with that type of honesty, and so they just call it dark.”

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but this response applies to some of the criticisms of realism in YA."

I haven't seen the movie, either.  I really want to, but I don't think I'll be able to handle the darkness made visible.  I'll probably be reading the book instead.

Have you read Push by Sapphire or seen the movie Precious (based on the book)?  Any thoughts?

Monday, February 1, 2010

A glorious rant

I love a good rant, and I really love a great rant with information, coherence, and numbered lists.  And rage, lots of rage, used intelligently (and intelligibly). 

Here's my current favorite, brought to you by John Scalzi.

You may have no interest in buying books, the publishing industry, e-books, or corporate politics, but you will probably still find this entertaining, and you will learn a lot.  Well done, Mr. Scalzi!  Well, done indeed.  :)

UPDATE: If you're interested in the nuts and bolts of this whole deal, here's a mostly calm and rational look at the economics of all this from Tobias Buckell.