Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt, Part I

I'm sure you've all heard the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," right? Well, I'll be the first to admit that I do judge books by their covers. Bright colors, interesting fonts and pictures in a bookstore will catch my eye. That being said, when you're reading a book called Possession: A Romance, people will get the wrong idea. Since I picked up Possession, I've been answering a lot of questions with, "Yes, it is a love story, but with English literature scholars."

So far, I'm having a good time. It took me a couple of chapters to adjust to Byatt's wandering prose, but I'm definitely hooked now.

Because I was a literature major in school, I am really enjoying the descriptions of the study of literature in this novel. Because this novel takes place in the 1980s, the literary scholarship going on is highly Postmodernist. I don't know if Byatt meant to write it this way, but a lot of the article titles and conference topics discussed are starting to sound satirical. When a list of deconstructive/Postmodernist articles titles is listed, it's hard not to see them as slightly absurd. Do you remember the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin writes a paper on Dick and Jane? A lot of these titles are like that.

Plus, the way that scholarship is conducted in this novel brings up a question that really started to bother me in my last years as an undergrad. Often, when writing a paper, I would wonder how much of what I was saying about an author's intentions was really accurate and how much was just my reading of the text. A great example of what I mean comes from Possession itself. A lot of the feminist scholars in this novel are concerned with, to paraphrase, exposing the hidden rage in Victorian women's writing. As one of the characters comments, they would try to find it in even the dullest and most domestic diaries.


Why don't they read anymore?

This article from The Washington Post has been making the rounds on some of the book news blogs I read, and when I read it, it annoyed me enough that I had to comment on it. In it, a high school librarian bemoans the fact that reading rates are in serious decline at his school. I disagree with a few things that he writes about library and science and information literacy, but what really bothers me is his approach to trying to get students to read.

Nowhere in this article did I get the sense that he was trying to show his students that reading was fun. I did note that he was trying to show kids that reading would improve their minds, improve their concentrate, etc. But, honesty, my primary motivation for reading is--as you can probably tell by the kinds of things I read--is to have fun. I want to read a good story that I can escape into for a while.

Yes, I'll agree that reading can improve your concentration, your imagination, and so on. But I really think that what will hook new readers and keep them reading is their finding out that reading is another form of entertainment.

Link found via Bookninja.


Mistral's Kiss, by Laurel K. Hamilton

What can I say? I'm a Laurel Hamilton addict. Though I might not buy a copy of every new book she puts out, I do read every new book. I got a copy of Mistral's Kiss from my local public library.

Overall, it is a bit of an improvement over her last Merry Gentry novel in that I felt like things were actually moving forward, plot-wise, rather than being a complete shagfest with little development of characters and/or plot. Contrary to what Hamilton might think about why former readers dislike her books, it's not because we're unsophisticated and can't handle all the sex. It's that the books don't seem to be going anywhere. Have you read Book-A-Minute's summary of Robert Jordan's New Spring? Well, it's really starting to seem like that, though on a smaller scale. To be perfectly honest, I read the book in about three hours--which seemed about the total period of time covered by the novel's plot.

I am curious about the characters in these novels. And I am genuinely interested in what happens next. But what I really want is something new to happen, something that moves the plot forward in more than one night increments.

I think there are two things that are bogging down the plot. The first is that a lot of time is devoted to the characters negotiating things. In the first books of the Merry Gentry and Anita Blake series, the lead characters seemed like take-charge characters who would cut through all the bullshit and get things done. Not so much anymore. The second thing that I think is the problem is the characters. First, there are a lot of them, many of whom are getting bigger and bigger parts in each book. It's causing the books to lose their focus I think. While I know that Hamilton is probably interested in broadening her books and exploring the complete lives of her characters, it just means that the plot gets extremely diffuse. It's not to say that it's hard to follow, it's just that it gets harder and harder to see what the story is supposed to be. I've felt like most of Hamilton's most recent books could be summarized with the same short sentence: "Small mystery, shag, magic, discuss magic and shagging, shag again, more magic, glimmer of plot, tune in for next installment." Frankly it's getting frustrating.

I will read the next Gentry and Blake novels because I am completely fascinated by the worlds Hamilton's created. But I just wish that she could learn to condense the negotiating and, to a certain extent, the sex. The Blake novels in particular started out as great plot-driven books. And I knew that the Gentry books were going to be character driven, but I think that without a good, meaty in-book plot (as opposed to a multiple book arc), the book is rudderless.


Who do you write for?

Recently, contemporary fantasy writer Laurell K. Hamilton lost her temper with some of her readers on her message board when these readers wrote that they didn't like/hated her latest books. My question was, if they didn't like the books, why did they buy them in the first place? If you don't like a book, but you're still curious about what happens in it, check it out from the library. Then, if you hate it, you're not out $25 and you can get rid of the book.

John Scalzi, a science fiction writer who blogs, commented a little more on the Hamilton situation.

All of this brings up a question I've thought about for a long time. I've read a lot of books by authors that I like and have been disappointed with the direction they've gone. Because of this, I no longer read Patricia Cornwell or James Patterson. But the question is, who do writers ultimately write for? Do they write for the fans? Or do they write for themselves? Personally, I'm in the later camp. I think that if a writer just becomes concerned with churning out books to be sold (Patterson), rather than write the books they want to write or the ones that they think need to be written, they'll eventually lose their charm, their spark, whatever it is that makes the book a good book. That may be a flimsy argument, but it makes sense to me.

Still, I think that authors need to be aware of their audience and keep us in mind when they write. But I would rather read a book by someone who enjoyed the writing of it, who really cares about the book.

You Suck, by Christopher Moore

This week, Christopher Moore's sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story came out. Finally! I've enjoyed Christopher Moore for a long, because he has a knack for inventing totally absurd and hilarious characters and situations. He's one of the few authors that can make me laugh out loud as I read. (The others are Jasper Fforde and Terry Pratchett.)

And the good news is that he's getting successful enough that not only did The New York Times review his book, but they liked it! (This link will expire in a few days, so read it soon.)

Even though Bloodsucking Fiends came out in the mid-1990s, You Suck picks up right where the first book started. In a way, it was kind of like reading an extended epilogue. It's got almost all of the original characters--with the addition of a blue-dyed prostitute. And the plot almost defies description.

Like the Times review points out, Moore's humor always has a sweetness to it. Lamb, for example, is one of the rare books that manages to be absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. You Suck, though, is missing some of that sweetness. Okay, it's missing a lot of that sweetness. In some places, it's downright mean and, as I read the book, I know there are several places that were supposed to be funny that I just didn't find amusing. So, while I enjoyed the book, it's not one of my favorites.