Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Club Revisited: August 2012

Book Revisited Pick #4: Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

Amy chose our Book Club Revisited read for August, and she picked a children's "classic": Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle.  It was an interesting choice, in that all of us seemed to drag our feet a bit when it came to actually picking up the book and reading it (or didn't read it at all, i.e. Corey).  Amy herself said the book wasn't at all what she was expecting, although Mike and I were a bit more enthusiastic about the story. 

Despite the book's genuine weirdness, Jones does some really interesting things with this narrative.  At the beginning, 17-year-old Sophie is cursed to be an old woman by the Witch of the Waste.  Hoping to beat the curse, Sophie journeys away from her family hat shop and encounters the titular moving castle, owned by the simultaneously charming and cold wizard Howl Jenkins.  Howl has struck an agreement with a fire demon named Calcifer, and they live in the castle with Howl's apprentice, the kind-hearted Michael.  A lot of weird and convoluted adventures happen, lives are imperiled, and hearts are won.  I had a little trouble following the plot at times, but the strength of the characters - Sophie and Howl in particular - made up for the structural shortcomings.

Our club found the book a little hard to discuss.  I'm not sure why we had so much trouble finding interesting things to say about Howl's Moving Castle, but alas so it was. (Admittedly, our giddiness - a book club trait that is always getting us into trouble - did not help matters).  We all agreed that there is something kind of fascinating about this material, and we all had trouble believing that this book could actually be considered a children's book rather than a YA novel. 

Personally, I am obsessed with some of the romance novel tropes Jones is playing with here, although I don't think she meant to do such a thing.  Howl is a very typical romance novel hero, just a few years younger.  He's a little cold-hearted but also charms the pants off women.  He loves his family but is also unsure of his place in their lives.  He has a love/hate relationship with the heroine (Sophie).  He is "reformed" (kind of) by the end.  Sophie defies the romance heroine type because of her old-age curse and prickly personality, but by the end, she's fulfilled the dutiful heroine role of reformer-of-man.  To see this all happen in a kid's book kind of blew my mind, to be honest.  I will definitely be giving it more thought throughout the future.

Up next for Book Club Revisited:  It's Corey's turn again, and he chose Karen Thompson Walker's new book, The Age of Miracles.  I'm excited, as I was planning to read it anyway.  We also added an additional goal of discussing the film Melancholia, as it shares some end-of-the-world themes with Walker's book.  Should be a good time.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Could Have Used More Changlings

Book Reviewed: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

When I was a kid, I hated fantasy.  I had absolutely no tolerance for magic or mysticism or anything that wasn't completely tactile.  Sure, I could watch a Disney movie and be perfectly happy.  But when it came to playing or reading, it was reality or nothing.  I realize now just how weird that is.  Most people enjoy fantasy as children and then grow out of it.  Instead, I grew into an appreciation for the fantastical after college.  After discovering a love for urban fantasy and mash-ups (in particular, Neil Gaiman's novels for both adults and children), I began to open up to the genre a bit more. 

That being said, there are some fantasy tropes I will never love.  One of those is the idea of fairies.  They bore me, and the whole concept always creeps up on the border of being cutesy.  So when I read a good review for Graham Joyce's new book, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I assumed it wouldn't be for me.  After all, this book is deep in the fairy stuff.  But the fact that the book was about the aftermath of a tragic disappearance got to me, and I went ahead and read it in a couple days.  And while I actually did like the book, I had this weird feeling that my worst beliefs in the silliness of fairy-fantasies might just still hold true. 

Here's the problem.  In blending the almost-boring realm of domesticity with the out-there fantasy world of woodland sprites, Joyce is attempting to say all sorts of semi-profound things about humaniy.  But in the long run, I am always going to be more interested in the domestic.  As a kid who used to re-enact the most boring scenes from film and television (the part of Mister Rogers where he changes his sweater, the opening of The Little Mermaid where Sebastian lays out his music score on a rock), I am still more interested in the emotional significance of the day-to-day drama of human life than I am in the strange things we can't actually see.  It's not that I don't like a touch of supernatural in my life (I am all for ghosts and Harry Potter and whatnot), but the fantasy has to be interesting to me.  And again, fairies just aren't interesting in Bethland.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale begins with the return of Tara, who disappeared as a teenager twenty years earlier.  She comes back to her parents and now middle-aged brother, Peter, looking almost exactly the same as she did two decades ago.  She was kidnapped by fairies, she claims.  And now she's back.  The book deals with this dramatic return in a fairly realistic way - Tara's parents are glad she's back and are trying to avoid the drama of knowing where she really was, Peter is concerned about the truth and takes his sister to a psychiatrist.  The relationships between people really count here, especially Tara and Peter's relationship with Richie, a down-and-out musician who once dated Tara and was Peter's best friend before her disappearance.  Richie is the book's most interesting character (although I quite liked Peter as well), although Joyce doesn't flesh him out as much as I would have liked. 

Joyce does do a few interesting things here.  For one, he never tells the reader what to think or believe, which adds genuine tension to the plot.  He also does a good job in using Peter's family life as an entry point for the story.  His son Jack plays an important role as a kind of reader/writer surrogate, and by making Peter a farrier who lives in a cottage, Joyce gets extra mileage in his concept of the modern fairy tale.  Most importantly, he makes a sort of beautiful and unsaid claim at the end about what the passage of time does to the ones we love.  Every body changes, and if you don't see someone for a long period of time, even a lover or child or friend can become a complete stranger.  Strangely enough, I think Joyce could have used the idea of a changling - a creature taking the place of a real person, also related to fairy legend - to a larger degree.  He makes the point quite well, but the book's ending left me feeling a little unsure of what just happened.  I wanted more closure, and I can't decide if Joyce should have given it to us or not. 

This book is so close to being really good and original, but it never quites get there.  Joyce uses too many points-of-view, too many voices to get his story across.  And by making Tara so mysterious, he makes her a bit annoying as a character.  We can't know her because to know her would be to figure her out, and the story won't let that happen.  I think the things Joyce does well - the domestic stuff, the theme of loved ones changing over time, etc - he does really well.  I just wish the book had felt a little more substantial by the end.  I think I've had my fill of fairies for awhile. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #7

Trashy Read 2012 #7: Practice Makes Perfect, by Julie James

I’ve been watching a lot of TV shows about lawyers lately, so it only makes sense that I would choose to read a Julie James book as my next romance.  James was a lawyer before she began writing screenplays and novels, and almost all of her books feature lawyers (and the one book that doesn’t feature a lawyer protagonist, A Lot Like Love, still revolves around a legal case).  James has gotten a lot of love in the contemporary romance world for writing books that feature adults with real jobs and actual common sense.  Also, she’s great at banter.  Her characters always act as if they’ve stepped right off a screen, walking and talking and trading insults and innuendos with one another.

Practice Makes Perfect was James’s second novel, one that I hadn’t previously gotten around to reading.  It features that much-beloved trope of the relationship that begins with hate and ends with true love.  Payton and J.D. both work at a big-deal Chicago law firm, and both of them expect to make partner within the next few weeks.  Despite working together for eight years, they strongly dislike one another, constantly bickering out of ear’s reach of their coworkers.  Then they find out that the firm has decided to only make one of them partner, despite pairing them up together in order to win over a major new client.  Obviously, this means Payton and J.D. become even more competitive, which is inconvenient in light of the fact they are both gaining more respect for each other. 

I liked Practice Makes Perfect quite a bit.  It’s funny and breezy, and the central plot of the partnership is an actual conflict that doesn’t seem designed solely to keep our couple apart for a few more pages.  You can actually imagine that this is the kind of thing that would be detrimental to a burgeoning relationship, one that the characters genuinely care about.  Once again, James has created characters who have a real problem that they try to solve in both a professionally- and emotionally-sound way.  Yes, there is a great deal of reader wish-fulfillment happening here (these characters are smart, attractive, have good jobs, and are absolutely loaded), but the story isn’t designed to be anything more than breezy summer fare anyway.  And that’s exactly what it was for me. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: The Trees The Trees, by Heather Christle; Thin Kimono, by Michael Earl Craig; I [Heart] Your Fate, by Anthony McCann
I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read in the last couple weeks:

The Trees The Trees: After reading and loving Christle's The Difficult Farm a couple weeks ago, I gave another of her books a try.  And of course, I really liked it.  I'm not sure The Trees The Trees is quite as surprising or charming as The Difficult Farm, but the way it teases out an idiosyncratic voice through the pages of prose poems is really cool.  Again, I find Christle to be a warm and available poetic voice, one that I will probably be recommending to those who think contemporary poetry has gotten overly cold in its obsession with being clever.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Anywhere in Particular," "A Handle on It," "Line Up in an Orderly Fashion," "Landscaping," "I Know the Air Should Not Contain Me," and "Trying to Return the Sun."

Thin Kimono: Another book from the pile my friend Drew left for me this summer.  Craig is definitely unlike any other poet out there right now, probably because he lives and works in Montana as a farrier.  He has a very plain, conversant style, one which spins out poems as if they were folk stories.  On the surface, what could look like a prosaic quality is actually quite robust in its ability to do that which makes good poetry - to convey many things, to carry many ideas, in a handful of lines.  Thin Kimono is unlike anything else I've read this summer, which is good.  I need some change in my life.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Bluebirds," "When It's Time," "Bubbles Came from Their Noses," "Games in the Sand," and "City at Night."

I [Heart] Your Fate: Again, another book by an author I read and liked earlier this summer (in this case, the earlier book was McCann's Father of Noise).  I [Heart] Your Fate was particularly hit and miss for me.  I really liked some of the poems, I instantly forgot some of the others; this dynamic is defining my relationship with McCann, I think.  I did gain a new appreciation for McCann's style here, though.  He has a sense of sound, of how a line works with the one before and after it, that is quite masterful.  This is particularly on display in the long poems in the middle of the book, which have a wonderful rhythm to them.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Field Work," "Letters of Claire and Trelawny," "Deseret," "Mammal Island," and "More Dreams of Waking."