Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dead White Guys In The Media (with some Etc.)

The classics are still relevant, in a "life lessons that are still applicable" sort of way (as we all know). But they're also relevant in a "hey, shit's happening in the news re: these books as of last Tuesday" sort of way. So I'mma start rounding up aforementioned classics news/interesting classics goings-on for your perusal, with an added dose of Stuff I Think Is Neat-o. Maybe every weekend? Maybe every other weekend? We'll see. Let's get linky:

Dead White Guys

Someone is creating a Jane Austen MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game), World of Warcraft-style. Gossip and letters and balls instead of swords and wizards and magic (not that there's anything wrong with those). LET'S MAKE THIS HAPPEN, PEOPLE. (Discovered via this Critical Linking post at Book Riot)

Apparently the Bank of England has taken Austen's portrait and tarted it up a bit made it look "prettier" for the new 10 pound note.

You can now read the original (hand-written!) Frankenstein online. NBD.

Meet the real-life inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes.

The perfect rosemary bread pudding (uh, yes please) to accompany Alice Munro's Nobel win.

The newest trend in kid's board books? Adaptations of the classics. My local indie carries these- Anna Karenina is a "fashion primer." I have the Dracula one, it's a "counting primer." Three WOLVES. Seven RATS, etc.

Hemingway's advice to a young writer is perfection: "Christ don't be an ass..."

Lou Reed reading Poe's "The Raven" because of course.

My friend Brandi does this really great fashion stylings of books, and this one for A Tale of Two Cities is maayybbe my favorite so far?

They're writing another Little Women movie, but no Marmie will ever top Susan's Marmie.

Etc. (other interesting stuff I've stumbled upon that I think you'll like)

Doctors in Transylvania have invented artificial blood no I am not kidding run far far away.

I have a Milky Way-sized crush on Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut best known for his quirky videos about living life in the International Space Station. Listen to this interview on NPR just for the poetry of how he explains his space walks: " are inexplicably in between what is just a pouring glory of the world roaring by, silently next to you — just the kaleidoscope of it, it takes up your whole mind. It's like the most beautiful thing you've ever seen just screaming at you on the right side, and when you look left, it's the whole bottomless black of the universe and it goes in all directions."

How To Order Off a Secret Menu Without Being an Asshole (from a former barista).

In today's episode of About Fuckin' Time, you can now use your ereader/tablet during takeoff and landing.

This definition of what a real feminist would do is amazing, and if you're not reading everything The Toast is writing, you're doing life wrong. WRONG.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Let's Talk About Racism in the Classics

This post first appeared on Book Riot and generated some...heated discussion. Thought ya'll might be interested:

I love Gone With the Wind. Like, named-my-son-Rhett, dressed-up-as-Scarlett-for-Halloween-once, read-it-over-and-over LOVE the thing. But ya know what? It’s racist.
Kit wrote a post recently about how she couldn’t finish her re-read of it because the racism caught her in the jaw, and I was surprised at the response. While there was plenty of “you’re right, but I love it,” (fine, awesome, you do you), there was also a lot of “how dare you” and “this is a call for censorship” and some Paula Deen apologetics (what?) and “if you try to change [the book] I’ll smack you,” to boot. The vitriol and name-calling that came out of a request that we examine an aspect of a book in the canon made me wonder why it’s so hard to have this conversation.
I’ve been blogging about the classics for several years now, and it seems to me that we’re pretty capable of talking about sexism in the genre. Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, Henry James- they’ve all come under the microscope for their portrayal of women (rightly so), and while there’s always trolls in those conversations, the idea that someone would find their sexism problematic is accepted.
So what’s the deal with racism? Why can’t we talk about this? Gone With the Wind has major race issues, and it isn’t just because it has slavery in it. It’s about the South in the Civil War, of course it’s going to have slavery in it. But it’s a paternalistic, romantic view of slavery wrapped up in a gold-tinged view of the South that totally denies the reality of the institution. The KKK? An honorable knighthood out to defend the South (and her women, by golly) from the evils of carpet-baggery and newly-freed slaves! Black people who don’t “know their place” in the book are characterized in an awful light. This is the reality of the book. I’m of the opinion that Mitchell was using the romantic portrayal of slavery to make a point about the death of the Old South, much as she was with the character of Ashley himself, but that drawing of slavery without any real negatives for the slaves? It’s as problematic as Rhett is dashing.
Discussions of racism, even more than those of sexism, bring out the “yeah, but that’s how things were back then” stuff. It’s a valid point, and one that I make myself about various works. We wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. But that doesn’t place these books outside the realm of applied critical thought. We can recognize that the book existed in a more racist period in history (or, as Jeff pointed out, 70 years after the fact) and then still go on to talk about how its portrayal of slavery influences modern readers, or how it still is or isn’t applicable to the South today. Readers are allowed to be both bothered by the blackface portrayal of African Americans in the book and cognizant of the historical context.
We can still hang out together with buckets of popcorn and marathon the four-hour movie. We can dress up like Scarlett for Halloween because she’s bad-ass and think Rhett Butler is aces and re-read the book while simultaneously recognizing that the book has problems and that those problems demand discussion. We can love the book’s epic scope, its drama; we can appreciate Melanie’s goodness and Mammy’s wit, we can hold our breath as the South falls apart and the characters do what they can with what they have- but none of that means we have to turn a blind eye to the fact that Mitchell wrote a book that glosses over slavery in ways that need to be criticized.
The book isn’t about the reality of the South, it’s about the backwards-looking, dreamy, fictitious, mythical version of the South that Margaret Mitchell saw being worshipped around her in the 1930s. And the fact that criticism (by which I mean critical thinking applied to its place in the canon) of the racist implications of the book elicits name-calling and ridiculous cries of censorship means that that fictitious myth is still alive in the minds of people who don’t want this conversation to happen. Any book that is taught in schools and loved by so many (including myself), is worthy of our critical eye. If it doesn’t stand up to it, it’s not worth its place in our canon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Orange Is The New Black (The Book, Mkay?)

UP FRONT CONFESSION: I didn't finish the last chapter of this one because the library audiobook expired before I got a chance to (and damned if I'm getting BACK on the two month waiting list to listen to that last 45 minutes). But I almostalmostwasthisclose to finishing it, and I'm counting it, and you can't stop me. This will teach me to borrow digital audiobooks from the library.

Like many of you out there, I picked this up after mainlining the Orange Is The New Black T.V. show on Netflix in about two days. It is some amazing television, and if you're looking for something completely addictive, I suggest you gets ta steppin' and watch that shiz. For those of you who have already watched it, I'll go ahead and answer a few questions I know I had going into the book:

No, the Alex character is not actually in prison with Piper.
No, Larry is not as much of a douche as he is on the show.
Yes, there is a Crazy Eyes, and a Yoga Janet, and a porn-stache CO.
No, Pensatucky is not Piper's arch nemesis (though she is a black-teethed-and-lovable crack addict).
Yes, Big Boo does have a puppy.
No, Piper is not as insufferable in the book as she tends to be in the show.

The last one was the one that really surprised me- Middle Class Blonde Smith Grad Goes to Prison is bound to be 300 pages of EHMEHGERD I CAN'T EVEN GET A LATTE UP IN THIS NOISE, but (the real/the real Piper's version of) Piper isn't anything like that. She's both understanding of the ridiculousness of her situation and 100% aware of her privilege. The book isn't a woe-is-me story, it's a woe-is-the-fucked-up-justice-system and a woe-are-mandatory-minimum-sentences and a woe-is-the-way-we-prepare-inmates-for-the-outside-world. It's got a solid undercover investigative journalist feel to it.

The show takes the skeleton of the book, sexes it up, adds some new conflict, and changes a few names. Both versions of the story are smart, critical, and eye-opening. But while the show's soap-operatic romantic plot lines can distract from the unmitigated and infuriating bullshit that is the American prison system, there's nothing in the book to shield you from the unfairness of it all. Larry is faithfully waiting and there is no Alex doing time with her, so the book is just Piper- the eyes and ears of typical middle-class America, prying where she seemingly doesn't belong.

So yeah, go into it for Crazy Eyes and Delicious (the book's version of Taystee), but stay in it for the smart critique of the prison system.

Four stars out of your mom.

Friday, September 27, 2013

I Re-Read The First Five Nancy Drews and Lived To Talk About It

You guys. These books are THE WORST.

"What?!" I hear you interrobanging, your gleeful childhood memories protesting with aplomb. "These books were the AMAZING AND PERFECT AND I WILL CUT YOU!"

Well, your childhood memories are double wrong with knobs. The characters have the depth of a puddle drying in the Texas sun. The mysteries have plot holes the size of a black hole, one that sucks up all logic and realism. The dialogue is ridiculous, the decisions of the characters, bizarre. Then there's the thinly-veiled snobbish classism-most of the villains are from the lower classes, as evidenced by their over-the-top rudeness to Nancy when they're first introduced.

 Not to mention their goofy dialects, and their lack of servants.

Now, I don't have ridiculously high expectations of middle-grade books. Works for children should be understandable- age-appropriate, free of bad words and too much violence. But there are too many excellent children's books out there that manage deep and well-drawn characters, dialogue that isn't clunky, and tight plots. These books, cobbled together by God-only-knows-which ghost writers all posing as Carolyn Keene, are laughably bad. I didn't stop after the first one or two because at that point I was hate-reading. Unstoppable momentum. I carried on.

You're still not believing me, I can tell. So let's take a look-see at some horribleness taken straight out of book four, The Secret of Shadow Ranch, from literally the first and second page. I'll bracket in my hate-reading-thoughts as we go:

"'Are we glad to see you!' remarked [an exclamation isn't a remark, dumb ass] George Fayne, an attractive tomboyish girl with short dark hair. She glanced anxiously around the crowded waiting room in the Phoenix air terminal. 'Let's go where we can talk.' [you're talking right now, dammit]

Nancy looked at the cousins with keen blue eyes. 'What's the matter? Is something wrong?' [no, people just demand to speak with you in private in an airport as soon as you land because they want to talk about the weather UGH WHY ARE YOU SUCH A DIPSHIT]

Bess bit her lip [of course she did], then burst out, 'Oh, Nancy, we can't stay! We all have to go home tomorrow!'

'But why?' asked Nancy, astonished. 

'Because there's a mystery at the ranch,' [Just right there on page one, huh? No foreplay whatsoever] George said bluntly, 'and Uncle Ed thinks it's not safe for us to be here [and no one thought to call you and let you know shit was falling apart BEFORE you got on the fucking plane].'

Bess put in, 'But, Nancy, if you could convince Uncle Ed you can solve the case, maybe he'd let us stay [YES THE OPINION OF AN 18 YEAR OLD GIRL WHO JUST ARRIVED AND HAS NO CLUE WHAT IS GOING ON WILL TOTALLY INFLUENCE THE DECISION MAKING OF A RANCHER WHOSE SHIT IS BEING DESTROYED]. However [of FFS], I'm not so sure I want to. It's-it's really pretty frightening.'

'I can't wait to hear what the mystery is,' Nancy said excitedly [because these characters have no common sense]."

I think I've nailed the formula. Here we go:

1. Nancy combs her titian hair and eats a fruit salad.
2. Nancy's friend/cousin/neighbor calls her because she's lost a jewel/person/someone is vandalizing her property.
3. Nancy tells her Dad she's going to investigate a situation that will probably involve hardened criminals, asks him not to call the cops, hugs her housekeeper, locks her room and her car.
4. Nancy's room and car are broken into. Nancy investigates her mystery, in between sunbathing/swimming/dancing/eating/shopping.
5. Someone is rude to Nancy. This is the bad guy. 
6. Nancy gets too close. The bad guy tries to kill her. No one thinks to call professionals to catch this person. All the adults involved give Nancy permission to continue tracking down violent criminals who want her dead after little to no persuasion.
7. Nancy gets too close (more, again). The bad guy ties her up and confesses all in order to impress Nancy.
8. Nancy is saved by her father/housekeeper/friend. Cops arrive (who called the cops, no one here is ever calling the cops, WTF is going on), arrest rude criminal. 
9. Nancy combs her titian hair, eats another fruit salad. 

The End.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I'm Not Ready For 9/11 Fiction: On Putting Down EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

I meant to start Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close today. You know, use a 9/11 novel to begin processing another year post-9/11. But I'm not ready.

I'm confused by my own reluctance to read 9/11 fiction. It's been 12 years- I didn't lose anyone in the attacks, I wasn't in New York or Pennsylvania. I grew up in Virginia Beach, 2 hours from the Pentagon and 20 minutes from the country's largest naval base. My city, like most military towns in America, went into lockdown. I was a junior in high school in my chemistry class when I heard what happened and, of course, we all spent the rest of the day watching the news in our classes.

But it was the first huge tragedy I had ever experienced. I went into the day a typical smart-ass but generally hopeful-about-humanity teenager, and left my school building coated in a cynicism I haven't shaken since. Some people identify their transition from childhood into being an adult pre-graduation/post-graduation, or pre-first job/post-first job. I divide mine walking-into-school-12-years-ago/walking-out-of-school-12-years-ago, as I'm sure many millennials do, and maybe that's the place I don't want to re-visit. The place where I learned the truth of what the world is, where I became harder and more defiant than I had been the night before.

I missed reading Amy Waldman's buzz-tastic The Submission because I wasn't ready to re-visit the TV screen in my head, all that news coverage we watched on a loop at school that day. When I pulled Safran Foer's novel off my shelf today, thinking that enough time had passed, it only took looking at the cover to know that I was wrong. I feel silly, almost, since I wasn't personally touched by the attack in a tangible way: I had no funerals to attend or rubble to clear. But now I have small children and instead of thinking about my own once-boiling, now-latent anger at the events of 12 years ago, I think about losing them in a situation I can't control, or them losing me. I think about how I've never promised them that I'll always be there, that I'm the type of mother who doesn't make those promises, and why that is. I think about them getting harder and more defiant than they should.

I believe in fiction. I believe all the corny bumper-sticker platitudes that bookish people say about literature: that it is truer than truth, that it is one of the most important lenses through which humanity processes itself, that it shapes and upholds and assesses culture. But in this thing, in just this one thing, I'm not ready for truer than true, I don't want to process the lesson, I don't want to assess.

So I'm putting Extremely Loud back on the shelf for another year, maybe for when my kids are older and we're not a nation contemplating another war. Perhaps it's cowardly of me to shy away from reading a book because I know it will make me face a complicated knot of thoughts about myself and my country and my family. But there is another thing I learned on 9/11: the truth of the world is that it is diamond-hard and diamond-cold, so (to quote Vonnegut) "God damn it, you've got to be kind." Even to yourself.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I'm Not A Book Snob, I Just Play One On the TV

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post for Book Riot called Shit Book Snobs Say: Translations that got the most comments on anything I've ever written about books, ever, in all the years I've been doing it- and that includes the most vitriolic and offensive/defensive silliness that's ever been directed at me. I'm a misandrist! I'm a reverse racist who hates white people! I'm a reverse snob!

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I totally cop to saying almost all the things in that post over my evolution as a reader, and while I can say that I've reached a fairly non-snobby place, I still have a few weak spots. You'll never catch me saying that there's no objective standard to the quality of literature. I still believe, and will probably permanently believe, that there are recognizable markers that differentiate good books (or any form of art) from the bad. Where I draw the line is at saying that people who read bad books are stupid, or lazy, or are destroying civilization, or whatever. People like what they like and that's fine.

But no matter how democratic I become, and no matter how much time passes, there are still times when I will reflexively and harshly judge a person's reading taste. And those times mostly have to do with The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina

This is where my remaining snobbishness kicks into high gear: if you tell me that you just haatteee certain books because they're soooo boorrrinnnggg, and we don't have an established relationship with enough depth to counteract that, we're probably not going to be friends.

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Jokes. Mostly. Mostly jokes.

See, for reasons I don't understand, I take it personally when people say they hated those books because those books represent themes or values or general LIFE STUFF that are deeply important to me- the silliness of the American Dream, the value of an epic story about the weakness of people, the inability to repeat the past, etc., etc., blah blah blah. I've internalized certain books. I've written them on my skin. So when strangers proclaim dismissive disdain for them, I take it to mean that they value/prioritize different things than I do and that the relationship probably isn't worth pursuing. Sort of like how I'm probably not going to be best friends with someone new if I find out their favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. (This isn't to say I'm going to be rude or in any way express these mostly-irrational judgements to people- I'm just not investing in being your bestie, ya dig?)

I meet and befriend people all the time who aren't readers, or who love to read books I have no interest in, or who love books I've read that I thought were offensively bad. I've overcome making value judgements about those people. You read (or don't) what you want. You do you.

Just don't tell me how that you think Lolita is just pornography.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Your Mom Has a Discoverability Problem: A Reading Life

If you're on the bookternet, chances are you've heard the term "discoverability." On Twitter, it more often presents as the "discoverability problem," with publishers lamenting about how hard it is to get readers to "discover" (re: buy) certain books. This is, of course, ridiculous, and if it is a real problem, it's the publishers' and not the readers'. All you have to do is look at the world's top earning authors for 2013  to see that people are still buying books by the truckload- just maybe not the books publishers want us to.

Fact is, no reader that I know has a problem discovering what book to read next. There are thousands of years of classics to catch up on, not to mention last year's best seller or whoever-you're-obsessed-with-right-now's-backlist. I might not get around to paying $25 (or whatever) for the new Dave Eggers  while it's in hardback, but that doesn't mean I have a discoverability problem. It means publishers should stop pushing the same old shiz and expecting the reading world to suddenly develop more publisher-guided reading taste. We're fine over here, reading our reads like gangstas.

But with books.

I thought back over my adult reading life (defined as the period starting when I began buying my own books) to see if, at any point, I had an issue with discoverability.

High School: I bought books by the boxful at used book sales and library book sales, mostly Penguin Classics/Bantam because I knew those would be good or were in some way important. I read a few modern books (Speak, Perks of Being a Wallflower) and looked out for books by the same authors and publishers. Discoverability problem: nope.

College: Book buying habits pretty much the same, book tastes evolved to more obscure classics, the lesser-known works of my favorite authors, and recommendations from friends and professors. Discoverability problem: I'm sorry, what? I can't hear you over the sound of all my friends telling me what to read.

Early-to-mid-20s: Still frequenting used book stores and library book sales, with the occasional spree at Barnes and Noble when they were selling their classics at buy one get one free. Discovered book blogs, found a few I trusted, started visiting indie bookstores for modern new releases. Discoverability problem: Sorry, still can't hear you over the sound of all these book blogs typing and shit. So. 

Mid-20s-to-now: Library book sales are still my jam, mixed in with indie bookstores and the occasional B&N download to my Nook. Getting recs almost exclusively from book blogs and Twitter, along with picking upcoming releases that sound interesting from Edelweiss. Since my stable of modern authors I love is expanding, I'm always on the lookout for their backlist. Sometimes I just go to the library and walk around, grabbing whatever looks interesting (this is a new habit since I had kids and started frequenting library story time). Discoverability problem: EVERYONE JUST BE QUIET I CANNOT HANDLE MORE AWESOME SOUNDING BOOKS.

So, is the reader's discoverability problem real? Hold on, lemme think on it:

Nerp. And I don't have solutions for publishers about how to get x book into everyone's little hands, but this I know: it ain't our problem.