Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic (by David J. Schwartz)

I talked this book up on Twitter a few weeks ago, but since it was released in serial format, I didn’t get to finish it until yesterday. It’s now out in its entirety, which is absolutely how I would recommend reading it. The complex plot and large cast of characters does not lend itself well to waiting two weeks between installments. (One week, maybe. Two weeks, no.) I felt like I lost track of some important plot points along the way, and I need to re-read it as a whole to get the full effect (and the answers).

First, the good, and there is so much good. The characters are awesome. Schwartz’s main character is a disabled woman of color, there are gay and trans characters, there is a plus-sized woman who is a major object of romantic desire (despite being kind of a B), a badass female bodyguard, the list goes on. And their inclusion doesn’t feel like pandering or tokenism; they feel like real, fully fleshed-out characters who happen to be X, Y, or Z. It is unbelievably refreshing.

The plot doesn’t focus too much on the school of magic itself (I kind of was rooting for more school stuff since I teach at a community college and all) but instead there is kind of an undercover agent / detective / mystery plot involving magic. I loved the world and would happily read ten more books set there. I loved the inventiveness of the plotlines, especially Zelda’s and Ingrid’s.

Speaking of those two, the biggest negative is the somewhat abrupt ending (both of their plotlines are left hanging). It’s setting up for a sequel, clearly (which I wil be first in line to buy when it’s complete) but I was left with a whole lot of questions and not a ton of answers. I think it needed a few more answers to be emotionally satisfying. I wouldn’t want everything to be resolved, but I didn’t get enough of a feeling of closure after all these weeks of waiting and waiting and waiting between installments.

(This is weirdly the same issue people seemed to have with Scalzi’s The Human Division, which I haven’t read yet.  I decided based on the reviews to wait until it came out as a whole and to consider it part one of two. I wish I’d known that Gooseberry Bluff had a similar structure.)

Anyway, all that being said, and with those caveats, this is absolutely worth the read. I loved it.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Entertainment Weekly's "Best 100 Novels" List, 51-75

51. The Corrections. A reminder to add this to my re-read list, because I loved this book. I remember it was very love-it-or-hate-it and there was a big divide and fights and stuff, but I loved it. Loved it.

52. Song of Solomon. I remember enjoying the jazzy language of this, but not being as emotionally moved as I was by Beloved or The Bluest Eye. It was a while ago, though, and I feel like this is probably a good spot for it on this list.

53. Gone with the Wind. An interesting choice. Obviously the romanticizing of slavery is a major problem, but it’s a window into the Confederate South that’s fascinating  both on a textual and meta-textual level. Plus, Scarlett O’Hara is just a wonderful anti-hero. Not a lot of “anti-heroines” that I can think of. (This list on Wikipedia is fairly interesting. I’d forgotten about Becky Sharp and Lisbeth Salander. But notice how overwhelmingly male this list is.)

54. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. This is a pretty recent book to be this high up on the list! I guess I’m gonna have to read it, huh?

55. A Fine Balance. Have not read it.

56. Sophie’s Choice. There is no way I could read this book now that I’m a parent; it was gutting enough before I was. I really enjoyed the “modern-day” framing device of this book,  and the psychological realism, and it’s impossible to get Meryl Streep’s performance out of my head even though, you know, the book is not the movie. Deserves its spot.

57. The Children of Men. Have not read it.

58. Midnight’s Children. I’m surprised this isn’t higher up. I mean I totally hated it, but I accept that this was a personal taste issue and not the fault of the book. Sorry, India. I will go watch Bend It Like Beckham again so you know it’s nothing personal.

59. Dracula. I should re-read this one purely based on the fact that my daughter is named Mina. In the meantime, I’m happy with it here, and glad that the “horror” label doesn’t disqualify it. (Same with Stephen King, actually. Nice to see some genre stuff on here.)

60. Their Eyes Were Watching God. I would probably put this a little higher. I think of it as one of the Great American Novels and taught it alongside The Sun Also Rises, and found a lot of interesting parallels that way. Higher!

61. Love in the Time of Cholera. I am very sorry, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I haven’t read this one yet either. I will bring back the tiny letters of shame.

62. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I feel like many people enjoy this novel more than I do. I’m okay with it at 62, but I wouldn’t move it higher.

63. Portnoy’s Complaint. I preferred American Pastoral by a wide margin, but obviously in the annals of Jewish-American literature, this is one of the most important! I’m okay with it.

64. Infinite Jest. A wonderful book. I would probably swap it with The Corrections, especially since David Foster Wallace > Jonathan Franzen, in my opinion.

65. Herzog. Herzzzzzzzog. There are lots of books I respect and just don’t enjoy, like Midnight’s Children. This one I neither respected nor enjoyed.  You bore me, Saul Bellow. To sobs.

66. Howards End. My favorite Forster!  For sure belongs here.

67. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  I really like this choice.  It’s interesting to me to see which books hold up enough over time to be deemed modern classics.

68. Middlemarch. Yeah, this should be higher.  By like, 50 spots at least. One of the great novels of all time.  (I know that this is already a list of the great novels of all time, so that’s a given, but you know what I mean.)

69. Money. This is one of the books I read last year that I totally loved discovering. I love seeing it on this list. Read this book, Ian, you will like it!

70. Neuromancer. I haven’t read this one, and am kind of surprised it hasn’t been on either of my booklists. This seems to be on here primarily because of its importance in the development of sci-fi as a genre. Is it worth reading on its own?

71. The Hobbit. Sure. But where is Little Women? (I realize the parallels between those books might not be immediately apparent, but it makes sense in my head. They’re both big books beloved by kids with characters overwhelmingly of one gender who have lots of adventures.)

72. The Remains of the Day. Absolutely. I really go back and forth between this and Never Let Me Go as to which one is my favorite, but I have re-read each of those books half a dozen times and I love them both. I would move it a little higher on my personal list, but I’m okay with its placement here.

73. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Sure, a classic.  I personally liked but did not love it, but its reputation is very high.

74. Cold Mountain. I didn’t read it. All I see is Renee Zelwegger’s Oscar clip in my head when I think about this book. Yelling something about raining in a terrible accent. Is the novel any good?

75. Madame Bovary. Oh yes. I’d nearly forgotten about Madame Bovary, and it’s wonderful and worthy. Except that Entertainment Weekly calls this book “an exquisite portrait of a lady” and that reminds me, do you know what else is an exquisite portrait of a lady? THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY.  WHERE IS IT, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY!?

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Entertainment Weekly's "Best 100 Novels" List, 26-50

26. Invisible Man. This is a great, great book. And it only gets more relevant as time goes by. If I were teaching a comp class, I might have students read this and then write about its relevance to current events. And then I would have to drink heavily in order to cope with reading the essays. In sum: great. Important. I would bump it slightly higher, but this is acceptable.

27. A Wrinkle in Time. Entertainment Weekly’s interesting tidbit about this book is that it was rejected by numerous publishers for having a female protagonist. Way to stick to your guts, Madeleine L’Engle! Also, I have not read this. Shame.

28. War and Peace. Yes, this book is great. Way better than I expected it to be. Probably because I am Team Tolstoy! (Ducks and hides from Ian.) I feel like this is a must-read for sure. Despite its reputation, it's not difficult, just long.

29. The Handmaid’s Tale. More shame that I have not read this one. I feel like it will just piss me off, so I have been avoiding it. This is also why I don’t watch The Daily Show most of the time. I am filled with impotent rage and anxiety and wonder why I brought a girl-child into this world, and then I have to drink a lot.

30. Native Son. I remember preferring Invisible Man to Native Son, but I can’t remember why, or why I connected them together in my mind, so don't mind me, we'll just move along.

31. Blindness. I totally have not even heard of this one. It must be good though, to make it to 31!

32. The Catcher in the Rye. I should read it and see how it holds up, since I’ve already had the adolencent infatuation with the book and then the adult backlack against the book. Is there a re-appreciation phase?

33. Maus. Glad this is here, even though the basic cartoony premise has never quite worked for me as well as it should. It’s probably my anti-cartoon bias, even though that was not a problem for me with Watchmen or Persepolis. But this is on Ian’s bookshelf and I flip through it a lot. 

34. The World According to Garp. I remember really liking this! Much better than the saccharin Owen Meany, sorry Meany fans. Irving is not always my bag, but Garo is definitely his best.

35. A Personal Matter. Another one I’ve never even heard of.

36. Atlas Shrugged. You all know how I feel about Atlas Shrugged. For fuck’s sake, what is it doing here? I mean fine, put The Fountainhead on if you must, but Atlas Shrugged? What is wrong with you, Entertainment Weekly? Here are some books that should be on this list instead of Atlas Shrugged: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Master and Margarita. Brideshead Revisited. Rebecca. Cloud Atlas. American Pastoral. Little Women. A Portrait of a Lady. Appointment in Samarra. Wings of the Dove.  I COULD GO ON.

37. The Sun Also Rises. My favorite Hemingway! And it’s the highest Hemingway! That’s actually super exciting to me for some reason! Maybe it’s because I feel like A Farewell to Arms gets all the glory.  (I was going to be indignant that it is lower that Atlas Shrugged, but then I realized I would have to cut-and-paste my indignance for the next 63 entries as well, so we'll just take it as read.)

38. The Regeneration Trilogy. Nope, have not read this. Apparently about WWI?

39. Middlesex. On my “to read” pile consdering how much I loved The Marriage Plot. But have not gotten to it yet.

40. A Suitable Boy. All these books from the ‘90s are like, “what?” I was clearly not reading literary fiction in the ‘90s.

41. Go Tell It on the Mountain. This is on my “re-read” list, I don’t remember it well, but I remember loving the hell out of it. 

42. The Stand. I don’t think I’ve made it all the way through The Stand, even though I have loved a lot of King’s books. My big re-reads were always It and Insomnia for some reason. I feel like one day I should make it all the way through The Stand. For some reason what springs to mind is the opening of the Stand miniseries, with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” playing over a shot of corpses. It was a hell of an opening.

43. A Confederacy of Dunces. I have this in my Kindle. I’ve started it. I’m going to read it. Please don’t look at me like that. I know.

44. His Dark Materials. I’m sorry, these were just not my jam. I know how much people love them, and it’s great that the hero is a girl, and that it’s all complex and satirical and stuff, and in theory yay, but I just did not enjoy the world and felt icky reading them.

45. The Color Purple. I’ve read this so many times. A long-time favorite. I might switch this with Native Son purely on principle.

46. The Age of Innocence. And my favorite Wharton! Again, I would have expected House of Mirth. I slightly forgive this list for the Atlas Shrugged thing. (Only not really.) This book is fucking amazing.

47. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I don’t think I made it all the way through this one, but I respect its position on this list. I will try it again someday.

48. The Talented Mr. Ripley. And the list continues to do well by women, I think, because this novel tends to be underrated. I said that very confidently considering I haven’t ever read it, huh? It’s on my list.

49. Ender’s Game. I’ve always meant to read this, but now that I know Card is a homophobic fuckhead, it has moved down my priority list somewhat.

50. Snow. This is a strange choice for this list. I can see why it was selected since Pamuk is an important Turkish author and this is probably his most well-known work. But we read this for book group and my feelings towards it were more along the liens of “it was fine” rather than “MODERN MASTERPIECE.” But I am sure it deserves to be here. (I can’t help but think of Sir Winston Shakespeare every time I see his name now, though.)

That's it for part two! Tell me what you think in the comments, and let me know if you've read any of these '90s things and if any of them are really better than all of Henry James.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Spoiled (by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan)

I finished my own Hollywood-themed YA, so I finally allowed myself to read Spoiled, by the wonderful  Jessica and Heather who write maybe the best, most consistently funny site on the internet. gofugyourself.com. I admire them for somehow managing to keep their writing so fresh and funny when they've basically been writing variations on the same theme for years and years. And they produce a lot of content, too. It's pretty amazing.

Oh, and Spoiled! I think it's pretty different from my book in tone and plot, but it's just as fun, insidery, and awesome! (Confidence. Bam.) If I were going to steal things for my own book, I would steal two things first: the wonderful sense of place, and one line that approximately goes: "blood is thicker than smartwater." Come on, that's genius.

I loved the characters, two sisters named Molly and Brooke whose points of view alternate throughout the book. (It makes me wonder how H and J collaborated, since I don't think they each took a character, necessarily--I'll have to hunt down some interviews.) The charaters' conflicts feel very organic and it doesn't necessarily feel like Molly is always right and Brooke is always wrong. I also thought Molly's mother's death was handled very well--it's a sad plot point in a comedic novel, but they strike the right tone there, of dwelling on it enough but not too much.

I love how they did the alliterative Hollywood name thing, too. Brooke is named Brooke Berlin. I have a character in my novel who is a former tween star named Harper Hudson. They could totally exist in the same universe!  And that universe is awesome, Hollywood-themed YA. ;)

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Entertainment Weekly's "Best 100 Novels" List, 1-25

1. Anna Karenina. I was weirdly conflicted when I saw this as the number one book on the list, and I couldn't figure out why. I certainly couldn't think of a book that was better or more deserving. Ulysses would be the expected choice, I guess, but I wasn't angry on its behalf. I finally figured it out, though, and I think it's the translation thing. Because what makes a book "the best"? To me: the plot, the characters, the scope, the themes, the motifs... and the language. It seems like a weird oversight to ignore the role of the translator here, since they should get double billing with Tolstoy if indeed the language in English is magnificent. So I don't know, I don't hate this pick, but I also don't love it. (I love the book, mind you. It just doesn't seem quite the right placement for it.)

2. The Great Gatsby. So would I promote this one? Honestly, probably. It doesn't quite have the scope of Anna Karenina, but it has everything else. Certainly if you're talking Great American Novels, this is on your shortlist. Along with Beloved. Which should be higher. But we'll get to that.

3. Pride and Prejudice. No arguments here. A great, great novel. Perhaps the themes are less weighty, but they're universal nevertheless.

4. Great Expectations. My first instinct was that it is too high on this list, but then again, I haven't read it since ninth grade. Ian assures me that it deserves this spot. Perhaps a re-read is in order? I will reserve judgment until then.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude. I haven't read it. I know. Tiny letters of shame.

6. My Antonia. Her? This is a book that I do think belongs on the list, but does not belong this high up. Just looking down the list, Beloved is better, Mrs. Dalloway is better, The Sound and the Fury is better, To Kill a Mockingbird is better. I would move this down by at least 10 places. Still a great book, but not my favorite Cather (which is Death Comes for the Archbishop) and too high.

7. The Harry Potter series. You know what? Yeah, I think this is about right. And bravo to them for putting a "kids" book so high. It is a huge accomplishment and awesome world-building and it's not perfect but yes, it deserves it.

8. The Rabbit quartet. Ugh, fucking Updike, of course they had to put Captain Penis on here this high. This spot should be taken by Revolutionary Road. I understand why this is on here but blech. Lower, please. It should not by any stretch be beating...

9. Beloved. An amazing and important novel. Move it higher.

10. Charlotte's Web. Well this is a charming choice, but it really shouldn't be quite this high. I love this book, but should it be higher than Moby-Dick or Invisible Man or Lolita? No.

11. Mrs. Dalloway. A wonderful and brilliant and original novel. I'm proud of them for putting Woolf higher than Joyce and Faulkner, since usually she gets short shrift because she's all circular and vagina-having. Girl power!

12. The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner's best. No argument with this placement.

13. To Kill a Mockingbird. Another Great American Novel. This is probably about right for this one also. The list is on a roll!

14. Crime and Punishment. I can't remember if I read this one or not. I don't think I did. I know I read Karamazov and was underwhelmed. I fall squarely in Camp Tolstoy in the Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy debate, and my friend Brad will never not be disappointed with me for that one. 

15. Ragtime. This was an incredibly pleasant surprise, since I do think this book has historically been underrated and it is definitely a wonderful novel with important themes, and it's doing a lot of interesting things structurally. Good spot for it on the list.

16. Jane Eyre. You know, almost half of these novels so far are by women (and deservedly so, might I add). Nice job, Entertainment Weekly. I think this should be a little lower down, although it is a great book. I just see some novels lower down the list that deserve to beat it.

17. The Road. No. I do not hate this book, but it is way too high, probably should be bumped entirely. At least swap it with Infinite Jest, which for some ridiculous reason is all the way down in the 60s. And if you want to put something contemporary on here, Cloud Atlas. WHERE IS CLOUD ATLAS. AND WHY IS THIS BEATING LOLITA.  I HAVE FEELINGS.

18. Moby-Dick. Too low by at least five spots. Not perfect, but it's Moby-Dick. Come on. Like it shouldn't be beating Charlotte's Web? Let's get real.

19. Lolita. One of the best books ever written and should be in the top 10. I understand that I am a Nabokov fangirl, and I also understand that the legacy of Lolita the character and how misunderstood she is is problematic, culturally speaking, but that's not the book's fault, and this is a top 10 novel. (As an aside, I just found my old book blog where I called it "a transfixing chiaroscuro." What the hell was wrong with me.)


20. Lonesome Dove. I haven't read it. I don't feel bad about it. Sorry, Larry McMurtry.

21. An American Tragedy. This is the first book on this list that I straight-up hate. I acknowledge that people love it though, for some dumb reason.

22. Wuthering Heights. Yes. I would probably swap it with Jane Eyre but that just might be the teenage girl in me, who thought Heathcliff and Catherine were so OMGROMANTIC and OMGDOOMED. Way sexier than Jane and Rochester, I have to say.

23. The Brothers Karamazov. I don't love it, but I won't argue with it either. I feel like this just comes down to personal taste. (As opposed to my other judgments, which are scientific and empirical.)

24. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Sure, you have to have some Joyce up in here, although I kind of wish they have been ballsy enough to put Finnegans Wake here. Or they could have split the difference and put Ulysses, which shockingly is not on this list at all. Or Dubliners which is wonderful. Oh, I don't know what to do with Joyce. Just have an entry for "all of James Joyce" and put it really high on the list and then go home.

25. Bleak House. Another Dickens so soon? I haven't read it though. I should probably read it. Then maybe this wouldn't be so anticlimactic.

Stick around for my thoughts on 26-50, up next!

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Anna and the French Kiss (by Stephanie Perkins)

I've been so worried that my young adult novel inadvertently ripped off Spoiled, but it turns out it may have inadvertently ripped off Anna and the French Kiss instead! The fish-out-of-water, girl-at-a-new-school beginning has some similarities, and one of the sentences is like basically the same. But maybe that's a good sign, since French Kiss is so awesome. Maybe my book is awesome too!

(I've just decided to be wildly optimistic about my novel. Look for it in bookstores near you! Just as soon as I manage to get an agent and then a publisher.)

Anyway what my book does not have is an Etienne St. Clair, the dreamy love interest who is very dreamy. I think that sexual tension propels this book, and it works wonderfully. Also wonderful is Anna, a terrific character in her own right. Some of the secondary characters are a little underdeveloped (particularly Josh and Meredith, I thought) but still likeable. And the storyline is refreshingly contemporary and complex, while still being extremely teenage girl relatable.

People love Stephanie Perkins, and now I can see why. I will check out some of her other novels!

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Eleanor & Park (by Rainbow Rowell)

A young adult novel that switches perspectives from Eleanor, our chubby (yay) heroine with a  horrifying home life, and Park, our half-Korean (yay) hero who meets Eleanor on the bus to school, and who eventually befriends her over comic books and music.

I think this book fits into the John Green category of YA with true depth and complexity, not just the fluffy stuff. (To be clear, I also enjoy the fluffy stuff. I am finishing up my novel which is pretty much all fluffy stuff.)  I loved the relationship between the two characters, even if it did seem to turn a corner slightly abruptly. I loved Eleanor and truly felt for her as layers of her family story were unearthed, each seemingly more horrible than the last.

I will definitely be saving and re-reading this one. It's super super good. And I cried at the end.

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