Friday, November 25, 2011

Victory!, or, A Story of Remembrance

My memory isn't perfect. There are many books I read as a kid that I don't fully remember, and then there are those I remember vividly but can't quite recall their names. I often find myself browsing book sites and bookstores and libraries and stumbling upon a kids book that will raise a red flag: "Yeah, I read that one!" This is particularly common when I browse Goodreads, as I attempt to map out my history of reading.

But for the past few years, there has been one book I've been unable to recall (or rather two - book plus sequel). I've tried in vain to remember the book's name, but there was nothing there. I remembered only a few small pieces: boy named Will, a girl escapes from a castle (in winter), something with a rabbit, the girl becomes the focus of the sequel, widowed with a dead baby, the sequel is a crusade, and that these were good medieval books. I've tried a couple of times in the past to locate these books, but always unsuccessfully. Book lists typically called up the same results again and again. I gradually gave up, even as my desire to find (and re-read) the books grew and grew.

And then... this morning.

I was hanging out on Goodreads, finding all sorts of old historical fiction books from my childhood and it struck me - internet search engines are much better these days. Why not run another search? "medieval historical fiction kids" - let;s try. But though I found other lost treasures, the so-desired set remained elusive. So I tossed in two other keywords - "widowed" and "crusades". Option number two: Medieval YA. Search for widow, and...


The Winter Hare and Peregrine, without a doubt. And now I can't wait to get my hands on these books to find out how they'll hold next to my memories of them...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The story of the bookseller who knew nothing

I spent the other evening browsing for books at the bookstore. This being a standard chain bookstore, the selection was limited (to say the least). I browsed through the books on sale, looking for one or two that seemed slightly more interesting than the standard. After about half an hour of indecisiveness, I decided to ask a bookseller for help. The young woman who came to my assistance seemed like she sincerely wanted to help the various customers in need, myself included.

I posed her a tough question: in a stack of predictable, popular choices, I asked for something a bit different. Something original. And I guess she tried. I mean, she spent some time trying to figure it out. The only problem was... she had no idea what she was doing.

Book after book was offered while she hurriedly glanced at the back, getting an impression of the subject matter before handing it off to me. When I asked her if she'd read the offered book, the answer was consistently, "No, not yet..." She had no idea if books were translated (and even less what language they were translated from...) and wasn't really clear on anything beyond the general, "Well, this one's a bestseller..."

Which got me thinking. How much should we expect our booksellers to know what they're selling us? Books aren't like TVs - you can't memorize a bunch of statistics and product details to spout off in front of a potential customer. To understand a book, you have to read it. You have to experience it. And this bookseller... she had no understanding of what she was selling, nor of what kind of reader she was selling to. In the end, I left the store without a single book, only deciding later (at home, with the aid of the internet and some reviews) which books I would get.

It's pretty disappointing, actually. I'm not saying I didn't stump her a bit (which is typically what happens when I ask for a bookseller's assistance...), but a passionate reader will know how to help. A passionate reader will understand and appreciate a specific customer's desire for something a little original, a little different and will do everything possible to find the right match. It won't always be easy, and it might even be impossible, but at least they'll try. They won't just rely on publisher blurbs and apparent popularity.

No, I don't expect every bookseller to have read every book in the store. It's impossible, I know. But I guess I'd like my booksellers to have a little more of an understanding of what books they're trying to push, and also of their customers. I'd like my booksellers to at least know as much about the newly published books as I do, and certainly not to simply recommend them to me based on the back-cover blurb. But sadly, it seems like more and more booksellers these days don't actually read the books and recommend only based on general information. A shame, really. Conversations with booksellers who know what they're talking about can be so much fun.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolf Hall - now a trilogy

Mantel is now planning a Tudor trilogy: a new novel, Bring up the Bodies to be published by 4th Estate in May 2012, will focus on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. A third book will keep the title the author had already announced for the sequel, The Mirror & the Light, and will continue Cromwell's story until his execution in 1540.
I don't think I've wanted a book this badly since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And even then... I'm not certain it's on the same level. I mean, Wolf Hall was that amazing.

All right, the countdown to May 2012 begins. Who's with me?

Friday, November 18, 2011

This thing I do

Yesterday, I mentioned to a colleague that I'm a book reviewer and that I keep a book blog. She responded with surprise. I'm not sure why. People know of my affinity for reading and are also typically aware of my ability to ramble to no end. But particularly where I live, book reviewing is seen as a somewhat exotic hobby, and I find myself having to explain it at length. And it's not that easy to explain. What is it I do?

I write anonymous reviews on random book sites across the internet (in more than one language), I write about random bookish thoughts on my blog (forsaking the standard book-review blog format for a weird approach that's neither here nor there...), I'm a somewhat disloyal Amazon Vine member (rarely requesting books, often only reviewing the books months after publication), I don't get books for review via my blog, and I make a point to read, and write, and discuss.

That's what we're all doing here. We're building the literary discourse by comparing notes and comparing notes about important literary issues (like how to fix the increasingly stumbling publishing industry). Not everyone has the same calling and I wouldn't compare an English professor's blog about George Eliot to a blog geared to getting kids and young adults to read good books, calling one truly "literary" and the other not, but on the whole we do the same thing. We all read. We all write. We all discuss. And we all do it by choice, which I find to be incredible.

True, I write online reviews that get swallowed up in the mass of other online reviews, and true, my blog isn't particularly influential or prolific, and true, I can't actually make a living off this quiet hobby. That's not the point of this thing I do. The point is to learn and broaden my horizons, encounter new approaches to literature, guide the occasional reader to a good book (or warn them away from a bad one), and enjoy literature.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hilariously bad Dumas? Impossible!

I first "met" Alexandre Dumas pere when I was ten years old. My older brother was reading The Count of Monte Cristo for school and he told me, flat-out, "You have to read this book. It's awesome."

And so I ordered a Scholastic classics abridged version from then-still-awesome Scholastic catalogs* and promptly read it. I was amazed to discover that it was, in fact, completely and totally awesome. My brother had not lied. Two years later, I bought the unabridged Penguin edition and spent three weeks out of my summer vacation working my way through it. My conclusion at the time was that overall there was too much stuff going on, but that it was still completely awesome. Just that the awesome got a little buried underneath the slightly less awesome parts. And so, basing myself on this wonderful experience, I decided to read The Three Musketeers that year. Once more, I was impressed by how much fun and adventure Dumas managed to pack into his obviously old-fashioned books. It was refreshing and was the original spark to my classics obsession.

But since then, other than writing a paper on Dumas and reading two additional abridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, I've taken no steps in reading Dumas' other books (though he has... lots). So a couple weeks ago I finally clicked on one of many Dumas eBooks I once got during a Gutenberg downloading blitz and went with it.

The book in question is The Black Tulip and quality-wise, it's one of the worst books I've read in a really long time (since the atrociously and disgustingly bad Across the Universe). I'm talking awkward writing, terrible characterization and one of the worst cases of wish-fulfillment storytelling that I've encountered. It's completely over-the-top, dramatized to a level unequaled in even the most dramatic of 19th century literature. It's a bit difficult to bear, at times, but it's also a great deal of fun. It's like trashy thrillers or a romantic comedy - you know the inevitable ending, but the way the author brings you there is what makes the show worth it.

Ultimately, I don't think Dumas as a writer is what makes The Black Tulip laugh-out-loud ridiculous, but rather the period it's from. This is historical fiction made even more archaic by the hundreds of years that have passed since its publication. So it's kind of... uh... outdated. And unlike the swashbuckling awesomeness that is The Count of Monte Cristo, The Black Tulip doesn't have any timeless adventure themes that can survive generations. It's a historical romance.

About flowers.
* Anyone else remember the days before the whole Scholastic fair turned into an outlet to sell games and toys and was still all about books?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Quote of the day

Maybe when people take their eyes off them, inanimate objects become even more inanimate.
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami, p. 65

Let the rest of the world read 1Q84. I've still got Murakami's back-catalog to read, and by god it's about time I read it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Family and fantasy themes in "The Barbarian Nurseries"

When I started reading Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, I felt a twinge in my stomach. Oh no, I thought, another disappointing book. The writing felt choppy at first: a third-person story that enabled multiple points-of-view without any clear indication of the shifts. But once I'd passed the first chapter, suddenly the movement between the POVs was seamless. The writing fell into place. The characters leapt out at me. And instead of getting annoyed about another sub-par book, I realized that for the first time in a while, I was reading a really good book and was able to just enjoy it. 

I can list several reasons why a reader might not like The Barbarian Nurseries. Unlike my favorite books, the flaws in this somewhat poorly-concluded novel jump out at me. Unlike most books, though, the flaws don't trouble me that much. That is, they're there, but for once the phrase "the good outweighs the bad" really does fit. Whatever faults The Barbarian Nurseries may have, they made little difference in the face of some truly wonderful aspects. But I don't want to review the book*, I want to discuss two themes in the book that jumped out at me.

Tobar is no ordinary author. Clearly. In addition to writing the brilliant character of Brandon Torres-Thompson, Tobar manages to play with a few themes in a clean and simple manner. There are the big, overwhelming ones - the obvious immigration theme, for starters, as well as the overarching family theme - but then there are ones that are more subtle and subdued, namely that of fantasy. 

The matter of family (and how to manage one) is an apparent theme in The Barbarian Nurseries. Right from the early pages, Tobar introduces readers to the family unit - mother Maureen, father Scott, the three kids, and housekeeper-now-nanny Araceli. Tobar spends the first hundred or so pages setting up the family dynamic, displaying the emotional strain each adult character is under in their attempt to achieve "perfection". It's a wonderful and fascinating theme, particularly because of its near-universality: few readers, I suspect, will not find some form through which to relate to Tobar's realistic family drama. Tobar raises excellent questions about child-rearing and parenthood, about boundaries and space, about responsibility and personal desires and needs. 

And yet it's the fantasy theme in The Barbarian Nurseries that truly struck home for me. Introduced in an offhand manner in the first chapter - Maureen mentions Scott's obsession with video games - it gradually lets the reader see how every character engages in some form of escapism, whether through reading, art, video games, or just extensive use of the imagination. The most successful outlet for this theme is through Brandon's literary imaginings, particularly in the scene in which he tells other children of the fantasy books he so loves. In conversation with the underprivileged young boy Tomás about various fantasy books, Tomás thinks how he "did not know books could contain dramatic and violent tales rooted in real life." This echoes Brandon's disbelief and innocence regarding the harsh truths of world outside his sheltered existence. 

The more I think about The Barbarian Nurseries, the more I find myself wanting to pull it apart piece by piece, to reread it carefully and savor its words again, to write out all the excellent passages within its pages, and to pass the book along to others. Though the abrupt shift in tone and theme in the last section could have been done a bit more realistically with fewer stereotypical characters, at the end of the day I was completely swept away by the book. The conclusion - though the weakest aspect of the book - nonetheless contains wonderful closure to the family theme. 

And the fantasy theme? One of my favorite scenes in The Barbarian Nurseries takes place in the final pages - Brandon, he of the fantastic imagination, finds himself distracted from his story recollections in the face of a stronger reality. It's a moment in which the real world wins and fantasy takes a backseat. But is Brandon done dreaming? Has he forsaken fantasy worlds? I think not. Tobar leaves this theme open, perhaps recognizing that sometimes things are best left to the imagination.
* My "real" review of The Barbarian Nurseries can be found here