Saturday, December 27, 2014

Books I DIDN'T read this year

In 2014, I read a ton of books.

Perhaps even a literal ton, although probably not. Maybe a couple hundred pounds. Anyways.

Blogging for has upped my reading game, but working at a bookstore has upped my reading awareness. There are so many good books coming out, all. the time. I'm still not reading as much as most book bloggers or many of my co-workers. Instead of posting a list of what I did read, I thought I'd post a list of books I missed out on reading in 2014 ... and hope to catch up on in 2015.

The Wilds
, by Julia Elliot: a collection of short stories that fall roughly into the categories of magical realism or the New Weird. Karen Russell and Kate Bernheimer both blurbed it, and the cover is gorgeous.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: I have never read any Murakami (I know!) and thought I might start this year. But time steamrolled over me and I still haven't read any Murakami.

The World of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin: This encyclopedia of Westeros, written by Martin and Elio M. Garcia, Jr., and Linda Antonsson, the founders of, is a nerd's dream. I can't wait to read it.

The Tudors, by Peter Ackroyd: This book came out in hardback before 2014, but the paperback (the version I can afford) was released in September of this year. Ackroyd is an amazing biographer whose specialty is London. 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi is another author I haven't read, but who I need to explore. This book, a loose retelling of Snow White, explores issues of racial identity and aesthetic beauty. 

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson: This is the second book in Sanderson's epic fantasy series, THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. The first one, The Way of Kings, was really interesting; I want to see what happens next.

Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I read about a third of this book, but someone at work wanted the advanced reader's copy and I was taking too long, so I didn't get to finish it. I haven't read Cloud Atlas, either. 

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Really, I need to read Ancillary Justice, which came out last year, first. Leckie is the first author to win the triple crown of science fiction writing: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke award. And Ancillary Justice was her first novel! I have heard that Ancillary Sword, the second book in the series and published this year, is just as good. These probably need to be moved to the top of the list.

Pacific Fire by Greg Eekhout: I read Eekhout's short story, "California Bones," several years ago. It stuck with me. This book is set in the same world as that story. I made our bookstore stock it, but still haven't read it myself. 

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer: This book, the last in the SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, is bound to be incredible, creepy, and mind-bending; the first two were. Plus, VanderMeer, one of the foremost New Weird writers, is a genuinely nice, funny guy. He lives in Tallahassee and agreed to come speak for my sci-fi/fantasy class one year; how cool is that?

Making Make Believe Real by Garry Wills: When this book came out, I drooled over it. It's about how Elizabethan political and religious structures used theatrical methods to establish their "truths"--how they turned the tools of the stage to their benefit. At the same time, Wills looks at how Elizabethan theater staged politics. Next time I teach Shakespeare, I will use this book.

The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan: This book follows Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons, and promises to be funny, exciting, and atmospheric. Lady Trent is the world's preeminent dragon naturalist and she is a character. Brennan's writing in general is great and she often writes about topics that I love; just the list of short stories she has published makes my mouth water.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville: Another modern story hearkening back to a dark fairy-tale world, this book explores Nazi Germany and 1899 Vienna through the intertwined stories of two different women.

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce: This book was published in 2013, but I only found out about it in 2014, so I'm cheating and including it.  We featured this at the bookstore because Luce was coming to read, but I didn't get a chance to pick it up before her visit. However, it looks like the kind of weird magical realism that I expect from Karen Russell and Kelly Link, and I want it.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson: This book seems like an interesting way to learn some history, grotesque though it may be. I guess I'm a little macabre in my interests. 

Lock In, by John Scalzi: A police procedural sci-fi novel that seems poised to win some awards in 2015. It has also been picked up for a TV series. 

All in all, I have a lot of reading to do in 2015!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Faith and Family in Once Upon a Time

This fall I re-watched all of OUAT to get ready for the new, Frozen-themed season that just finished on Sunday, which confirmed my love-hate of the show*.

I love the intertwined fairy-tale mythology. But I hate the dialogue, which borders on inane. Example: in one of the initial showdowns between the Evil Queen and the Charmings, the Queen interrupts the wedding of the Charmings to basically say "I'll ruin your happiness." Promises promises, Regina. It's your basic ho-hum Evil Queen platitudes made barely passable by Lana Parilla's scathing looks and deranged smile. As she walks away, Prince Charming hurls a blade at her back and yells . . . wait for it . . . "Hey!"

That's the line the actor was assigned. "Hey!" And it's not a funny awkward, "Hey! I have a really great comeback but I haven't thought of it yet!" moment. That's literally all Charming has to say to the woman who has threatened his life and the life of his beloved countless times, and who just ruined their special day* . . . "Hey!" It's like, instead of cursing him to a lifetime of loss and danger, she just ran off with someone's purse.

Moving on: I am a big fan of the complicated nonlinear narrative, where watching the show becomes an exercise in puzzle-solving to test even the best memory. I can't even count how many times I've had to google Cora's backstory again, to make all the pieces fit together, but they do! And it's delicious! But I hate the lazy episodic plotting which relies way too heavily on deus ex machina, usually in the form of some previously unmentioned magical artifact which happens to save the day.

The kick-ass female leads are . . . well, kick-ass. You've got Snow, a great tracker, rider, and fighter; Regina, mother of all devastating curses and necklines; oh, and before the show even begins, Emma is a friggin' bounty hunter who don't take no crap offa nobody. But this win for feminism (which, at this point, is still countercultural enough that it needs to be mentioned) is balanced out by the general tenor of the show, which is actually pretty conservative in its values.

Which brings me to this season, which is, despite the obvious commercialist pandering in the use of the characters from Frozen, pretty good. For one thing, I finally have evidence that the writers are capable of good dialogue; the character of Anna from this season gives a pitch-perfect reading of the Frozen character, with all her verbosity, quirky insights, and insatiable curiosity. If they can nail that, surely they can phase out clunkers like "Hey!" and "Never bring your heart to a witch fight," right?

This season of OUAT also has the strongest actress I've seen on the show so far. Don't get me wrong, I love me some steely-eyed Jennifer Morrison. But Elizabeth Mitchell as Ingrid blows me away. She blasts through the terrible dialogue of the show like a giant snow-plow of nuance, sarcasm, and staring-contest earnestness. I love her.

The thing that really struck me as I rewatched the show was its all-American conservatism. And I don't mean that as a political stance, but in the sense of Norman Rockwell traditional American values, specifically its emphasis on family and faith.

That OUAT is all about family should surprise no one who has watched even one episode of the show. Almost every main character on the show is related somehow. And most of the conflicts that guide seasons are familial, as well--mother/son, mother/adopted mother, mother/daughter, daugher/estranged parents, father/estranged son, sister/sister, sister/sister/sister, etc. Despite all the family chaos, one of the recurring messages of the show is that "family never lets each other down." You'd almost think you were watching Arrested Development, except that these characters are all so earnest in their belief in family and I don't know what their stance is on breakfast yet.

There's nothing wrong with a TV show underlining the importance of family, but family isn't all it's cracked up to be, either. In modern-day America, a "family" is not just a collection of people who happen to be related by blood, but on OUAT, family members who have known and distrusted each other for years suddenly develop deep affection for each other once it is revealed that they are related. And family can and does let you down; in fact, being part of a family can really suck sometimes. This truth is easy to find in the show's source material; in the original Grimm fairy tales, it's not Snow White's stepmother who seeks her death, but her actual mother. The AV Club puts it this way:
OUAT’s commitment to family seems almost pathological at this point. Emma is a spiritual, perfect-match sister to Elsa and her aunt. Because everyone in Storybrooke must be related to absolutely everyone? Does this make Snow White Elsa’s aunt? It’s all sorts of confusing, and pointless. Especially when family often has its own downsides: Anna’s dark side rightly points out all of Elsa’s nasty behavior outlined in the “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” song from the Frozen movie; although we know why Elsa abandoned her newly orphaned little sister, a simple explanation for little Anna would have been nice.
This belief in family is so pronounced, so central to the characters' worldviews, that it amounts to a kind of religious faith. Not faith in God, necessarily--God is never mentioned--but the show's version of God, which is Hope and Righteousness. Every "good" character is distinguished by their ability to hope when things look bleak, and by their adherence to good actions. These actions themselves are undefined but often fall within Christian morals and standards.

For instance, there are very few suggestions of pre-marital sex in the present-day action. Both Belle and Snow wait until they are properly married--or, in Snow's case, until she remembers that she is already married to her estranged amnesiac prince-in-another-dimension husband--for there to be a suggestion of a bedroom scene. This also doesn't really jive with the original fairy tales, in which sex features heavily. How does the witch figure out that the Prince has been visiting Rapunzel? Oh, it's when Rapunzel's pregnancy starts to show.

This prudishness isn't the case for the Evil Queen, though; if there's one thing you can say about Evil Queens, it's that they don't wait. In the first season, the Sheriff (RIP Sheriff) is her bang-buddy. In the most recent season, she has some crypt-sex (what's crypt-sex, you ask? Some new Internet phenomenon? Nope. It's just what it sounds like--sex in a crypt.) with her married boyfriend. But even then, she has the decency to be embarrassed about an unbuttoned blouse.

I was interested to see where this latent faith-emphasis would go when this season introduced the idea of the Book with a capital B. Apparently, this is the master text of the stories that everyone has been living out, and it has an author who holds everyone's fate in thrall--who, essentially, makes decisions about who is right and wrong and who gets to enjoy their lives. But the show surprised and pleased me when it subverted this clunky, obvious reference to the Bible and to God in Episode 9, "Smash the Mirror, Pt. 2." Instead, Regina and Mary Margaret have what amounts to a theological discussion. Complaining about the unfair nature of their world, Regina pokes holes in Mary Margaret's relentless faith and hope, and instead of getting defensive, Mary Margaret acknowledges that nothing is black and white:

Regina: Whenever you need help, it magically shows up like Henry's book.

Mary Margaret: I believe that when you do good, help shows up.

R: Your wishes are rewarded; mine are crushed.

MM: I refuse to believe that happiness is impossible for you, and yes, you may be sleeping with a married man, but so have I.

R: I've done far worse.

MM: Which doesn't mean you can't earn forgiveness, a chance at grace. I have to believe that.

R: If you do good hoping to be redeemed, is that really good?

MM: You know how selfish and shallow I could be as a child; you know what I've done since. You've literally seen my heart; you know it's not untouched. You are not all evil and I am not all good. Things are not that simple.

R: Well, whoever's guiding this seems to think it is. You're the hero, and I'm the villain. Free will be damned; it's all in the book and we both know how that plays out.

MM: Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't matter what I believe. What matters is that you do.

What I love about this exchange is manifold. First, let's give props to the writers for finally referencing the spot on Mary Margaret's heart, a thread that has been largely left unexplored up to now. I also love the use of the religious language, like grace, redemption, and free will. The quote "You are not all evil, and I am not all good, things are not that simple" is what this show should have been doing a long time ago: challenging and flipping these archetypes, leading these characters to seek autonomy from their own roles*. I'll admit, we've seen it to some extent already with Regina and with Gold, but the characters themselves keep throwing around lazy labels like "hero," "savior," and "villain" like they're candy. This exchange finally shows us the characters themselves unpacking these terms and a hint of what this show could be if they would rely a little more strongly on the darker messages of original fairy-tales: that life isn't fair, that human relationships are dangerous and messy, that "happy endings" are complicated, and yes, Virginia, that "magic always comes with a price."

*What's with my love/hate thing? I think it turns on so strongly when something has the potential to be so good and yet it is mediocre. Robert Jordan is probably the best example of this, but I feel it pretty strongly for OUAT.

*Snow does have a "my special day!" meltdown later, which is great and proves that weddings turn everyone, even people blessed with preternatural kindness and good nature, into monsters.

*It's soooo metaaaaa.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

In which November ends before I finish 50,000 words

Near the end of The Tempest, the magician Prospero has a fantastic speech in which he anticipates what giving up his magic will feel like:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

That's how I feel right now about my NaNoWriMo project. Like Prospero, I've created a little world, with its own "cloud-capp'd tow'rs" and "solemn temples," except I've done it with words. But it's time to let it "dissolve"--at least for a bit. I think it needs to lie fallow for a while as I finish up some short stories and other writing projects. And I hope that when I come back to it again, I have a clearer idea of where it is going. 

I would hang my head in shame, except that I don't feel ashamed. Yeah, I didn't make my 50,000 word mark, but I did come up with some good material, some material that surprised me. I even unearthed the magician Samiah, an entirely unforeseen character who turns out to be fun, smart, and essential.

The thing that really got me stuck is that I don't know Harvanna's motivation for her quest. There's no reason for her to drop everything she's doing, and there's no time-frame for her to accomplish this quest. Her life doesn't depend on it, nor does anyone else's; there's no material reward at the end. So why should she go haring off after a magical kraken into the deep North? That's what I have to figure out before I move forward with this.

I am glad I tried it. And I'm ready to do it again next November, with some new information and skills in my quiver. I learned that I can write through some uncertainty. I also learned that I can write without attachment to a scene or an outcome. Early on, I wrote a scene and, at the end of it, realized, "Nope, that conversation went entirely wrong; that's not what happens at all." I worried about it for a minute, wondering if I needed to go back, delete the 2,000 words I'd just written and rewrite them. Would it trip me up if I didn't get it right, right now? Then I decided to chill out, that I would change it later, to keep moving forward. That decision allowed me to approach other scenes from a more playful mindset, not so anxious about "getting it right," but just concentrating on getting it down.

The thing I need to do more of next year (probably starting in the summer) is research and note-taking. If I keep on with Harvanna's story next year, I get to read Moby Dick again and do a ton of whaling,  squid, and deep sea life research. I also will put more thought into the world I'm creating, and know more about its various cultures, politics, religions, languages, etc. Finally, I need to spend more time with characters other than Harvanna, to get to know them from the inside so I can write about them more easily.

If I work on the Big Project, though--the one I've been going on about for years--I get to spend time researching genetics, Disney parks, medieval monasteries, and manuscript making.

Either way, lucky me. :)