Is it still déjà vu if you really have seen this before?

Been there. Read that.
Series writers have a tough choice to make when it comes to the beginnings the rest of the entries in the series. I've seen three different approaches:
  1. Include a short synopsis at the beginning of each entry to remind readers what the previous books were about and to catch up new readers who had the misfortune of picking up anything except the first volume. 
  2. Pick up exactly where the last volume left off and charge ahead, catching up and reminders be damned.
  3. Pick up exactly where the last volume left off and drop of reminders in the dialog or exposition.
All of these options have their pluses and minuses. If you go with options one or three, you'll bore readers that do remember what happened before. But if it's been a long time since the last entry in the series or if you have a reader who didn't read the previous entries, option two won't work because they'll be totally lost.

What I hadn't seen before today was an author including text from a previous entry almost word for word in a sequel. I have no idea if this was an editor error or what, but as I started to read Joseph Nassise's King of the Dead, I experienced something a little stronger than déjà vu. Here's what I read:
If it was important to someone for some reason, an object would soak up whatever emotions the living attached to it. A child's teddy bear might glow with the pure white light of unconditional love, while the hairbrush used to brush a woman's long glossy hair might reflect the scarlet eroticism felt by her husband as he wielded it night after night over twenty years of marriage. The more important the object to its owner, the brighter the glow. (40-41*)
Here's a nearly identical passage from the first book in the series, Eyes to See:
Objects can gather and hold emotional residue. A child's teddy bear might glow with the pure white light of unconditional love, while the hairbrush used to brush a woman's long, glossy hair might reflect the scarlet eroticism felt by her husband as he wielded it night after night over twenty years of marriage. Each and every object gives off an aura of some kind and the more important the object is to its owner, the brighter the glow. (49*)
There were other bits and pieces that twigged at my memory. I don't know for sure I would have caught them if I hadn't read Eyes to See about a month ago. But then, these are word for word repetitions. Wow.

A student or professor might call this self plagiarism. I don't know if it was accident or oversight or, shockingly, laziness. It was certainly surprising to me. I really thought I was experiencing déjà vu until I went back and searched through Eyes to See and found that I wasn't going nuts.

At any rate, this is why we need copy editors. They're not just there to make sure that everything's spelled right or that there aren't any glaring grammatical errors. It's so that shit like this doesn't happen. Not to completely go off on another topic, but as the publishing industry has scaled back on editing over the last five years or so, I've seen more and more errors.


* Page numbers from the Kindle edition of the book. These may not match up with the print page numbers.


Quarantine, by John Smolens

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, to review on behalf of the publisher.

Oh, how I love to read good historical fiction! I love good dialog in which the characters don't drop anachronism. I love it when authors put in the time to do the research to find out how people actually lived and thought during the time they chose for their setting. And I got all of those things from John Smolens' Quarantine. In the afterword, Smolens writes about the summer he spent in Newburyport, gutting a house for renovations. The house had been built during the 1790s and some of the wood was original, down to the carpenters' notes on the backside. He wrote that he felt a connection to the past by pulling out original square-headed nails and reading those notes. I think Smolens brought some of that connection to Quarantine.

The novel opens with a ship arriving from the West Indies in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1796. The town doctor, Giles Wiggins--actually a sawbones who got all his training during the American Revolution--is called out to the ship because some of the crew men are deathly ill with something that I think might be Typhoid fever*. Before the doctor and the harbormaster can put the ship under quarantine, boats are spotted heading landward. Predictably, disease breaks out, starting with the taverns and brothels in the harbor. Dr. Wiggins and the other doctors in the area (who are frighteningly trained in the latest medical science of their day**) set up a pest-house to deal with the epidemic. 

Unfortunately for the doctors and their volunteers, someone has organized a highly successful robbery of all three apothecaries' supplies at the same time. A few days after the robberies, Dr. Wiggins receives a note that lets him know that the supplies can be had back--for a price. So along with trying to save as many people as he can, Wiggins has to figure out how to get the medicine back.

Along with Dr. Wiggins' story, we get the story of young Leander Hatch. Leander and Wiggins are among the few decent people in this town. After losing his family to fever and fire, Leander takes a job as stable hand at the failing mansion owned by Enoch Sumner and his mother. Enoch is like something out of a Hogarth series. Even as Leander starts to rebuild his life and helps Dr. Wiggins to find out what happened to the medicine, he provides sweet notes to the story as he falls in love with Cedella the housemaid.

I really enjoyed Quarantine, even though there's a lot of hardship in this book, because it was so well written and well researched. This is a very good book.


* I was afraid to use WebMD in case men in spacesuits from the CDC swoop down on me. I used Wikipedia.

** One of the doctors subscribes to the theory that volcanic eruptions cause disease, as posited by Noah Webster. His articles on the subject went into the 1800 book A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases With the Principal Phenomena of the Physical World Which Precede and Accompany Them, and Observations Deduced from the Facts Stated.

A rose by any other name would be called something else

"I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose would be as nice if it were called a thistle or a skunk cabbage."--Anne Shirley, from L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables
Not an illustration of a skunk cabbage
I have the posts from this blog reposted to my tumblr blog. Normally, I just let them go without comment, but yesterday I had to hurry over, log in, and add a note to the book review that went out yesterday for M.J. Rose's (coincidence) Seduction. The title, without the book's cover, looks like a romance title. And I don't read romance novels. And I don't want people to think I read romance novels. Yeah, it's childish, but there it is.

Apart from reflecting on this less than admirable part of my psyche, this incident got me to thinking about the importance of choosing a book's title. Along with an attention grabbing cover, the title is probably the most important attention-grabbing thing about a book. Other than making it short*, I can't think of any rules that govern book titles. Most of the time, titles need to have something to do with the content of the book. Maybe it contains a clue to the central mystery of the plot (which Seduction did) or it restates the story in a clever way. Or, in the case of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, it's a running joke over the course of the series. I think, most of the time though, I think titles are just meant to be eye-catching.

The thing about a title like Seduction is that the word has connotations. It's a romance word. English is a slippery language. Even though we have more words than any other language in the world, a lot of our words do double (or triple, or quadruple) duty. As the Tea Party learned after the nation spent two seconds on the Urban Dictionary, there are some words that just make people think about sex instead of the lesser used meanings of the word. It must be incredible hard for publishers to find titles that don't give potential readers the wrong idea about the book.


* Even this rule can be broken. For example, the full title of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders is The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.


Seduction, by M.J. Rose

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, to review on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 7 May 2013.

M.J. Rose's Seduction is the fifth book in the Reincarnationist series--a fact that I would have liked to know before I asked for a copy. As I read a tangled web of interlocking plots involving Victor Hugo, a modern day mythologist, a tortured art gallery owner and the brother who hates him, and the ancient Celtic inhabitants of the island of Jersey, I also had to play catch up to learn about the world that Rose has been creating over the course of five books. So, not the easiest book to sink into. But Seduction was highly original and I enjoyed the challenge of connecting the puzzle pieces Rose laid out for me.

The story (one of them) begins in 1855. Another begins in the present day. A third begins in 55 BCE. All of them take place on Jersey. As you can probably guess from the name of the series, the idea of reincarnation connects them all. Most of the reviews make Seduction sound like it's about Victor Hugo, but it's really about Jacinthe l'Etoile. Jac has a TV show called Mythfinders and she travels the world looking for the "kernel of truth" that flowers into a legend, myth, or religion. Against the advise of her Jungian psychologist, Jac travels to Jersey when an old friend asks her to help him investigate the old Celtic ruins on his property.

Jac's friend, Theo, is searching for the lost journals of Victor Hugo as well as investigating the menhirs and dolmens and other Celtic stones. (A lot of Theo's motivations are dismissed as crazy obsession, so he's a hard character to get a grip on.) While Jac and Theo search the island, Rose gives us glimpses into Hugo's life on Jersey. After the death of his oldest daughter, Victor Hugo started to hold seances. At  these seances, Hugo and his family claimed that they spoke with the ghosts of famous men like Dante, Jesus, and Shakespeare. Rose inserts her own story into this odd chapter in Hugo's life by having a sinister spirit show up during one of those seances and promise Hugo that he can bring his daughter's spirit back.

Rose is terrific about dropping clues here and there, giving you the pieces you need to put together a very interesting tale that spans centuries. Even though parts of it are on the edge of my ability to find plausible (because I think reincarnation is bunk), I really enjoyed how Rose used it in Seduction. It's not a plot device you often see, because it would take a lot of skill to get a reader to suspend their disbelief enough to roll with it.

If the other books in this series are this well done, this series is woefully underrated and deserves more attention.


Cobweb Bride, by Vera Nazarian

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, to review on the behalf of the publisher. This book will be published 15 July 2013.

Cobweb Bride
I asked to review Vera Nazarian's Cobweb Bride because the brief description provided by the publisher did it's job and intrigued me. In the world Nazarian created, something has gone wrong with Death and no one can die. This might sound like a good thing, except that nothing else can die--not pigs or cows, not even plants. The only people enjoying the situation are the men and women who would have been dead, but find themselves moving around and talking anyway.

Cobweb Bride has three openings. One has a family gathered around the deathbed of their matriarch, but her death rattle never ends. Another has a similar scene playing out, but at a higher social rank. Then Nazarian takes us to a battlefield where men just keep getting back up, even after sustaining fatal head injuries and mortal wounds. Death appears to issue an ultimatum. Unless his Cobweb Bride appears, no one (and nothing) will die. The Emperor offers a reward to the women of his Realm if they will venture north to Death's Keep.

The book is written in a style I've started to call fractured fairy tale. There are the trappings of fairy tales: knights and princesses (even if the princess in this case is one of the undead), quests and intrigue, psychopomps and witches. But there's a sense of humor to the thing and the author plays around with the conventions of the story. Nothing happens quite the way you think it will. And that's what makes it fun.

The only problem I had with the book was the dialog. At the beginning, the characters speak in a faux Medieval speak. But this is abandoned within a few chapters and becomes much more contemporary sounding. It bothered me until I let the story entertain me out of my annoyance. Also, I suspect that this book was the next thing to self-published. It needs an editor. I half wanted to take a red pen to my iPad and fix the typos myself. But Nazarian's Cobweb Bride, the opening novel of a trilogy, shows that it's possible to love a flawed book. I had a great time reading it (even if the dialog needs work) and I'm looking forward to seeing where Nazarian goes in the next entries.

I just hope she gets an editor.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

The Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse
It's Kahn's fault that I read this book, but I'm glad I did. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez' The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse isn't the easiest read. And the translation by Charlotte Brewster Jordan didn't help. (I've learned that translation around the turn of the twentieth century was heavily into the literal, word for word translation--not always the best thing.) Originally written in 1916, during World War I, Blasco Ibáñez' novel is the kind of cathartic book that that war generated.

The first half of the novel takes place before the war breaks out. Blasco Ibáñez begins with Julio Desnoyers, a young man about town who has no greater ambitions than to have a good time--to the despair of his parents. Then Blasco Ibáñez goes further back, showing us how Julio's father, Marcelo, ran away from France during the Franco-Prussian War to Argentina. The author then goes even further back in time to show us Julio's grandfather's life. We get to learn all about the Desnoyers clan. The serious older generations made a lot of money, then despair of their children when the children turn out to be, honestly, jerks.

When the war does break out, Blasco Ibáñez gives such a vivid description of the run up to the war. It reads as though everyone is spoiling for a fight. The diplomats are shown as giving lip service to trying to preventing a war that I was reminded of the line from Blackadder Goes Forth, where Blackadder says that they're having a war because "it was too much effort not to have a war" (Episode Six, "Goodbyeee"). I was also reminded of this scene from Joyeux Noël:

Only the older generation have any idea what war is like, although Marcelo fells guilty for his flight back in 1870.  Julio, because he's not a French citizen, initially doesn't go to war. He's guilted into it after his divorced girlfriend goes back to her dreadfully wounded war hero husband.

From the descriptions I'd read, I would have thought that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was about Julio Desnoyers. It's an easy mistake to make, since the book starts opens on him. But as I read on, Marcelo Desnoyers became the main character. Blasco Ibáñez devotes a lot of time to this character. We watch Paris empty of men along with him. We watch his castle (an actual castle) get looted by soldiers and then blown to bits by artillery along with Marcelo. And then the worst happens, and we visit Julio's grave with Marcelo and his surviving family.

I think this book might still be with us if a better translation were more widely available. Seriously, Brewster Jordan's work turns this story into a chore to slog through. There are parts where you can see Blasco Ibáñez' original language shining though, especially when the Desnoyers' chateau is destroyed or when the Russian exile describes the coming of the Four Horsemen. But by translating word for word, Brewster Jordan trades the spirit of the language for dead accuracy. As Richard Pevear, half of the Pevear/Volokhonsky team that's been creating such amazing translations of Russian literature, said in this feature from Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities, when you try for a literal translation you can end up with something "worthless and dull." But when you try to capture the spirit of the work, you can end up with something that "sings the wrong song, but it sings." It's "the ironies of translation."

I wonder what might have happened if Blasco Ibáñez had written this book a few years later, after the war ended. There is a lot of dialogue in which the characters repeat their belief (read hope) that the war will be over soon. But it would go on until 1918 after hundred of men had died. There's little sense of resolution in this book because you know that the war will continue for two more years after this story ends.


I'm bringing back sexy...classics

I'm sure when people are reading my posts about classic books most of them are looking for something to help them with an assignment, but I like to think that my reviews of these books are encouraging people to give them another chance. Or, they're learning which ones are going to stay stuck in the past.

From The Prisoner of Zenda
Within the last two weeks, I've read examples of both. I read Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) because I'd heard so much about it and because I was in the mood to have some swashes buckled. I read Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1916) because I read an interesting review of it over at Kahn's Corner. (My review is forthcoming.) Both of these books have been forgotten. In the case of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I fear that the conflict that inspired it is becoming forgotten, too.

I can understand why The Prisoner of Zenda was left behind. It's a tale of adventure, not very deep, and shows its age when it comes to Hope's portrayal of women. But it's still a ripping yarn, and I think it ought to be mentioned among A List adventure tales like Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers.

From The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921 film)
I'm not sure why The Four Horsemen isn't more talked about and written about. But then, very little literature from World War I seems to be discussed anymore. It's not the easiest book to read, but it's an amazing portrayal of the cultural and psychological shock people experienced when World War I broke out and turned into the brutal, soul-killing conflict that it became. But I suspect that because this is such a tough read, I don't think very many people are going to jump at the chance to read this.

Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey. In the case of this book (and Brontë's other book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), I think there were two things working against them. First, I think they were so brutally honest that people at the time couldn't handle them. They uncovered very unpleasant truths about Regency life. And, second, I think she's been overshadowed by her sisters' work. How does one compete with Jane Eyre, after all?

When I was an English major (and yes, you can make the argument that once a person is an English major, they'll always been an English major), I never liked critical methods that asked the scholar to look at the text without its context. I never believed that writers could create anything in a vacuum. To my way of thinking, these books tells us as much about the author's time and setting as much as they do about the characters and the story of the novel. Reading what people liked (Zenda) and reading commentary about a generation (Horsemen) and the books that people couldn't handle at the time (Agnes Grey) creates links to the past--even if it's via fiction.

Amity & Sorrow, by Peggy Riley

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley to review, on behalf of the publisher. 

Amity & Sorrow
Peggy Riley's Amity & Sorrow is sparely written, but it doesn't need many words to get its point across. The eponymous characters were raised in a homespun cult somewhere in Oregon. The novel opens with their mother, Amaranth, fleeing with her daughters and crashing her car into the only tree in the Oklahoma panhandle. The chapters detailing Amaranth and her daughters life after the cult are interspersed with chapters about their life before Amaranth fled.

In those flashback chapters, we learn that the nameless cult was founded by Zachariah, a lost boy from an FLDS compound. At first, he was just married to Amaranth, but he convinced her to let him take a second wife to secure a farm in Oregon. After that, more and more wives showed up until there were fifty. Zachariah and Amaranth didn't exactly mean to create a cult. But they create rules and rituals between them, to the point where the children don't learn how to read and write, wear "bindings," and worry constantly about the end of times. Even more disturbing, we learn more about life as one of Zachariah's wives. It's strange how often sex and eschatology go together.

Amity and Amaranth are better at living in the outside world than Sorrow is. Sorrow acted as the cult's Oracle, a strange role in which she reported the signs of the apocalypse. She is a very disturbing character and nothing anyone else does can get through to her, not even learning that there are other prophets running around (some of them on TV) doing their own schtick. As I read more about Sorrow, I wondered whether a deprogrammer could even help in this case or whether Sorrow was actually mentally ill. Even Amaranth needs time to shake off the rules of cult life.

Small spoilers ahead.

Amity & Sorrow is a wonderful psychological study. Riley has a deft touch. I would have rated the book higher if it weren't for the ending. All through the book, Amaranth is terrified of what her husband might do if he ever catches up with them. She left because she thought he burned down their temple and tried to kill them. As Amaranth worries and frets, you start to feel like Zachariah really is about swoop down at any minute. When I got to the


Blood's Pride, by Evie Manieri

Blood's Pride
I haven't spent much time in the realm of high fantasy lately, mostly because it's just so hard to find one that's not at least a little cliched. Evie Manieri's Blood's Pride, the first book in a series (of course), is very original. There's no long journeying, no prophesying, and certainly now stew. Instead, Manieri takes us into a whirlwind world with photophobic warriors, telekinetic children, mysterious mercenaries, and fire-wielding desert nomads.

The story is told in turns by almost a half dozen narrators and it takes a while to get your feet in all the plot. And since most of the characters are concealing their motives, it takes a lot of mental effort to work out why the characters behave the way they do--especially that mysterious mercenary, Mieran. In quick succession, we learn that about twenty years before the book opens, those photophobic warriors, the Norlanders, invaded the Shadar in search of a rare metal that can be used to create amazing swords. They enslave the populace and their ruthless practices have lead the Shadari to organize a rebellion.

But instead of being content with a story of a people reclaiming their freedom, Manieri includes two subplots involving star-crossed lovers and a third subplot involving a power mad Norlander with access to too many weapons.

I have to be honest. In spite of all the creative effort that went into this book, it's a muddle, organization-wise. It is really hard to get your feet. I didn't feel like I had a grip on it until after page 100. And by the end, I still had my doubts about whether I really understood what the author was up to in this book. As the start of a series, I knew that the ending would be a bit unsatisfying, because it needed to set things up for the next book.

The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda
I've been hearing about Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda for years now, and last week I finally decided to see if it was all it was cracked up to be. I'm happy to report that I had a great time reading this swashbuckling romp. There's mistaken identity, romance, and a lot swordplay. At barely 150 pages, there's a lot of story crammed into this novella.

We meet our protagonist, Rudolph Rassendyll, as he is being prodded by his sister-in-law to make something of his life. Rudolph doesn't have a profession, isn't in the military, and really just enjoys having a good time. And it drives his sister-in-law up the wall. To get out of the house, Rudolph declares that he's going off to Tyrol--but he actually plans to go to Ruritania to learn more about where one of his ancestors came from. Once there, and after accidentally meeting the king-to-be, Rudolph discovers that he is almost identical to the king. And when the king-to-be is drugged by his jealous and ruthless half-brother, the king's men convince Rudolph to take his place in order to avoid a political crisis.

At this point, the plot twists and turns as Rudolph spars with the king's brother, Michael, and his henchmen. Meanwhile, the king remains a prisoner in Michael's castle at Zenda. To complicate matters even more, Rudolph falls in love with the king's intended--and she with him. After a few chapters, things get even more complicated when one of Michael's henchmen, Rupert of Hentzau, turns out to be following his own plans. Oh, and he's a complete psycho, which makes the ending highly entertaining.

I had a lot of fun reading The Prisoner of Zenda. I don't know if I'll read the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, because I accidentally spoiled it for myself by reading the summary on Wikipedia. The summary makes it sound like it takes the high adventure of Zenda and turns it into a tragedy. And yet, I really want to spend some more time with Rudolph and Rupert and Flavia.


If it's broken, fix it.

Or you could read George Eliot
and have it both ways.
Bella Mackie, at the Guardian Comment is Free blog, asked if it mattered to readers whether the author of a book was a man or a woman. Mackie asked this wrong-footing question because of a long standing accusation of sexism against some of the biggest of the book awards. Every year, when the Booker or the National Book Awards publish their short list, critics ask, "Where are the women?"

I don't think it's the readers fault. Speaking for myself, I'm after a good story. The gender of the author doesn't matter to me as long as they can spin a good tale. And I don't think it's the award judges or even the literary agents. I think it's the publishing industry as a whole because they, like Hollywood, are afraid to take risks. They want bankable writers in their stable. If you look at the bestseller lists, a lot of those books were written by women. If you pay attention, a lot of the literary fiction is also written by women. The critics slinging accusations of sexism around are missing the point. Where I see sexism is in the Western canon.

There's an old saw among English majors about having to read dead white men and damn if it isn't true to a large extent. A female writer has to be very damn good to get into that pantheon. But looking at the last twenty years of Letters, I think women and men are equally well represented. What needs to change, I think, is that the publishing industry needs to take more risks. When I see news about another merger, especially among the Big Five* (formerly Six), I groan. And when I see an announcement of a new imprint or publishing house, I cheer. The bigger problem is that we need to support those new publishing efforts. We need to encourage readers to read and buy books.

Besides, to my way of thinking, creating a book award for women isn't about feminism. Political feminism is supposed to be about equality. Men and women should be competing as equals. Sure, judging books for an award is purely subjective and always will be. I don't think that the long and short lists are made up the way they are because of sexism. What annoys me about the lists is how they ignore genre fiction.

But that's another post.


* Macmillan, Hachette, Random House-Penguin, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster


The metaphor is a lie.

I'm finally getting to some of the things I've been keeping in my pocket queue. Yes, I am a digital hoarder.

But what does it all mean?
Last week, Sam Jordison over at the Guardian Reading Group site wrote about his experience reading one of William Golding's lesser known books, The Spire. Jordison wrote that, without access to the Internet, he was reading "unaided." Without other criticism to read, Jordison didn't know what Golding meant the spire of the title to represent. He easily comes up with five completely different things the spire could have been a metaphor for.

Jordison's short article got me to thinking about my own use of the Internet while reading, and had be reminiscing about my days as a young English major. Nowadays, I usually only use the Internet to look up things that are referred to in the text like works of art or architecture, historical events and people, or other books. I've also looked up author biographies to see if there are events in the author's life that are being played out on the page. I'm a vocal advocate of biographical criticism. But I only rarely look up criticism because I only rarely encounter books that I can't get a lock on, the books that just completely puzzle me. I'm also an advocate of reader response criticism.

As a young English major, classes often consisted of my fellow neophytes and I discussing what we thought whatever we had just read meant. And there were always as many answers as there were people in the room. (More than that if the professor was around, because English majors sneer at conventional mathematics.) Then we would spend time arguing with each other about who was right. There never was just one right answer. (Also, there is no spoon.) It was all a matter of making a convincing argument. I'd say everyone was right, but there was always one person in class that I thought was full of crap. They might not have been full of crap in all actuality; I just didn't buy their argument.

Seriously, what does it mean?
There was a follow up article to Jordison's piece, in which other readers responded with what they thought the spire represented. As you'd expect, there as many different answers as there are readers. That's why I'm such a firm believer in reader response criticism. I've always thought that books don't really come alive until a reader picks them up. Words don't have meaning until they're filtered through a human mind.

The spire could be whatever you think it is. Because as long as you can back it up with a solid argument, you're right. You don't need the Internet to find other people to tell you what it means. As long as the metaphor has some meaning for you, then the metaphor is not just a fancy way of playing around with words.


A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces 
I have now read two of the "funniest books ever written." Last year I read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, and last night (late last night) I finished reading A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. That's a lot to live up to. Not that they weren't funny, but funniest ever? My quest continues.

It was hard for me to forget this book's backstory. A Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published during Kennedy Toole's lifetime, though he tried repeatedly to get it published. It was finally published--and won a Pulitzer--eleven years after Kennedy Toole died. Reading, I can understand why publishers of the time passed on it. It's a very odd book. The main character is a grotesque and overly fond of Boethius. The rest of the cast of characters are bizarre. The dialogue is written in Yat and there are parts that are horribly racist. So, yeah, probably not a bestseller for the 1960s.

The main character (who is a protagonist, but also his own antagonist) is Ignatius J. Reilly, an over-educated, bellicose hypochondriac who lives with his long suffering mother in a small, rundown house near the French Quarter of New Orleans. The book opens with a new patrolman trying to arrest Reilly as a "suspicious character," an incident that rapidly turns into a bit of street theater when a bystander accuses the cop of being a "communiss." From there, Kennedy Toole takes us deeper into the strange world of 1960s New Orleans. We meet the struggling employees of Levy Pants, the "Nazi proprietress" of a bar no one goes to except on accident, all while Reilly tries to find a job that lets him pursue his own weird hobbies and be paid for it rather than actually working.

Reilly really is his own worst enemy, but it's hard to sympathize with him because he's just such an awful human being. But it is easy to laugh at him, because he is also ridiculous. He adores medieval thought, but clearly enjoys the vices of the modern world (especially food and Dr. Nut) and movies with nubile young starlets. He spends a lot of time writing (or trying to write) long screeds or meandering jeremiads, but these just show how nuts Reilly really is.

The multiple plots and perspectives diverge until Kennedy brings them back together in the last third of the book in an amazing display of entirely believable coincidences. All the chickens, so to speak, come home to roost. It's this third, I think, that makes this book's reputation. It was hard to see, at the beginning, why this book has such a following. But I get it now.

I still think that calling a book the funniest ever is a kind of curse. That's a lot to live up to. And finding something funny is entirely dependent on someone's sense of humor. If you like absurdity and uncomfortable humor, A Confederacy of Dunces is the book for you. This book does deserve to be in the top then, though.

Eyes to See, by Joseph Nassise

Eyes to See
I dipped my feet back into the contemporary fantasy waters by reading Joseph Nassise's Eyes to See, the first book in the Jeremiah Hunt series. After reading so many classics and so much literary fiction, Eyes to See was pure fun to read.

Hunt works as a reluctant exorcist to fund his search for his missing daughter. We meet him five years after she disappeared, after he sacrificed his normal sight to try and get her back, and the years have not been kind. Since the disappearance has stalled, Hunt makes some money consulting for the police. They call him in to help them with a gruesome, but puzzling murder--which turns into a series of murders that goes back a lot farther than anyone could have seen.

Nassise does have a problem with over-explaining, but I enjoyed learning about the world that he created. There are all kinds of creatures roaming around: vampires and berserkers and witches and angels and more. In a crowded genre, I really appreciate it when an author is original. There are no sparkly vampires and the leads don't immediately jump into bed with each other. And the plot twists and turns, making it hard to predict the ending before the author gets there.

I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on the next book in the series.   


Can a Story be Inherited?

Cat, the assistant editor over at The Book Case, recently reported that Tony Hillerman's daughter would be picking up the story of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, with a new protagonist on center stage. I know several readers who will be happy to hear this. But I can't help but wonder what the new books will be like. Will Anne Hillerman be up to the task?

But that's not what I wanted to write about in this post, in spite of the picture. I just figured you (if there are any readers out there) were getting tired of all the black and white. What I want to write about is inheriting stories and characters.

Earlier today, I gave a lecture to my library research students about plagiarism and copyright, in which I mentioned a number of examples of people writing sequels or retellings using characters or plots that were originally created by someone else:
Based on the reviews I've seen, of these books and others, these continuations just don't seem to have the spark of the original. And yet, there are exceptions. A good continuation can be done. Wide Sargasso Sea proves that.

Authors have willed the rights to their stories, including the rights to writing sequels, to their children or surviving significant others. It's my understanding that this is mostly to make sure their survivors are set up, money-wise. But is it really possible to will a character and a story to some one? Those characters and stories live inside their creators head and I don't think that anyone else can understand them quite the same way. Anyone taking up the pen later on will have a different understanding, a different interpretation. In the case of Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, this means that incredible things can be accomplished.

Still, it's an interesting question.

Money Matters

Earlier this week, Scott Turow--author, lawyer, and president of the Authors' Guild--posted another one of his end times articles. It seems that I've seen articles by Turow every time there's a major court decision about copyright or whenever we've gone too long without someone lamenting the decline of reading. The next day, the rebuttals started to appear. A few days after Turow's article, I saw a follow up article to a story I've been following about the Night Shade Books buy-out reporting that the Night Shade authors would have their percentages increased.

All these articles got me to thinking about author compensation. The io9.com article about Night Shade Books lays out the new percentages, and they look woefully small. I realize full well that publishers need money for printing, editing, advertising, etc. But with ebooks starting to outpace print book sales, I wonder why the percentages haven't shifted in the authors' favor. I've actually wondered why ebooks haven't brought costs down for readers and librarians more. (With reference books, I've noticed that ebooks are often more expensive than their print counterparts. But that's for another blog entirely.)

I know a lot of the authors I read have day jobs. I really wish that they made enough to quit those jobs and write full time, but a writer needs to be wildly successful to be able to do that. It's a shame that our creative people aren't rewarded more, because they give us--as a society--what we need. Authors hold up a mirror to society to show us the things we're not seeing. They entertain us, but also teach us. As a species, we've been telling stories since we could speak coherently because stories help us make sense of the world. Turow needs to calm down because we will always need stories.

I still buy books, even though I use the library to get my reading fix, because I want to support the authors I love. If you're a reader, use the library, but don't forget to buy a book or two. 


Take A Haik(u)!

The sheep might not be very
good at poetry, but the border
collie is going to be the next
William Wordsworth.
I read David Whetstone's article on The Journal about artist Valerie Laws and the sheep poetry/haiku projects over a week ago and I am still bothered by it. I think it's because I never thought I would have to add to my definition of poetry "Must be created by a sentient being." In my lexicon, this is not poetry; it's performance art. And possibly animal abuse. The idea of using animals as canvases is more than a little offensive to me. Although, I wonder what Banksy would do if he worked on a sheep instead of a building wall. And there's this sentence, a quote by Laws: "It appears she has been commissioned to do a project which is almost identical to mine, although not as skilled."


Granted that poetry is a highly fluid and experimental form of literature, leaving the content of the "poem" up to wandering ungulates is not writing. Instead, getting anything coherent from this would probably be like waiting for those monkeys to bang out Shakespeare on their typewriters.


Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White
I just finished reading Catherynne Valente's Six-Gun Snow White, and the thought I'm left with is, "What an odd story." Valente took the Snow White story and transplanted it, lock, stock and (gun) barrel, to the Old West. This version is darker than the story most people are used to. The stepmother is a witch and serious psychological issues. The father is an absent mining baron. The huntsman is a Pinkerton who will do anything for money. The prince is a mutant. But the biggest change is to Snow White. Instead of a virginal girl who relies on the kindness of strangers, Valente's Snow White is a gun-slinging, hard-drinking, tough-living woman.

I love how Valente has reconstructed the old story here. It's told in a twisted version of fairy tale language, with hints of Joss Whedon's Firefly to give it an authentic Western flavor. The chapters are short, titled as though they were other stories. Valente's narrator hints, over and over, that Snow White's adventures got turned into myths and legends and that Snow White herself became an archetype*.

I love reconstructed fairy tales. They prove my theory that these stories touch on something important in our cultures. The reason they keep getting told and retold is that there's something true about them. They point out age old fears and values. They're like concentrated psychology and sociology rolled up with fantastical creatures and magic. Valente does a great job of preserving all that, while turning Snow White into a story for the twenty-first century.


* Which she is, just not this version of her.

Doughnut, by Tom Holt

Oh how I love Tom Holt's demented stories! I've been a fan for years, having started with his retellings of Norse myths and fairy tales. In Doughnut, Holt has moved on to the world of physics. Not that it means his stories have become any less fantastical. If anything, Doughnut plays around on a bigger scale than deities and punk Snow Whites or Flying Dutchmen with ennui.

Doughnut is the story of Theo Bernstein, a physicist who finds himself divorced, poor, and out of a job after blowing up the Very Very Large Hadron Collider. Theo is so far out on the cutting edge of physics that most of this book reads like science fiction. After spending a year working at a meat packing plant, an old mentor, Pieter, gets Theo a job at a hotel that's clearly not a hotel and wills him probably the weirdest bequest on record: an old bottle, an apple, a pink compact, and a letter that introduces him to YouSpace.

YouSpace is not just a pocket universe, it's a pocket all-the-universes. If Theo can access it, he can go to any multiverse he chooses. Holt takes the multiverse theory to the point of absurdity:
"Multiverse theory states that in an infinite multiverse there's a universe for every possibility. Thus, if I formulate the possibility of a universe where Max is hiding out in YouSpace, it'll exist and I can go there. Question is, would it have existed if I hadn't conceived of it, or am I calling it into existence just by thinking about it?" [Theo explained.]
"Oh, for crying out loud." (196)*
Since his mentor convinced some of the richest people on the planet (in our reality) to invest billions in YouSpace, his partners force Theo to take up Pieter's work. At the derelict hotel they own, Theo works on the equations for hours, days, before determining that of course YouSpace is impossible--in this reality. If this wasn't weird enough, Doughnut gets even weirder. If I tried to use a flowchart to explain the plot, it would probably end up looking like a Klein bottle and then my laptop would explode.

Theo does managed to get into YouSpace and then goes on a quest to track down Pieter. When it turns out his brother, Max is involved, Theo goes after him as well. As he pursues them, the story gets even increasingly surreal and hilarious. As Holt puts it, things get as "troublesome as a Klingon battle cruiser at a garden party" (96)*. This would be an interesting enough story as is, but Holt goes even farther and turns Doughnut into a remarkable tale of science fiction. I highly recommend it!

* Kindle version.


Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

I received a free copy of the ebook from NetGalley to review, on behalf of the publisher. 

Carmilla: A Critical Edition
It's Jim Hines's fault that I picked this book up. His delightful Libriomancer referenced Le Fanu's vampire. So when I saw that Syracuse University Press was coming out with a critical edition and that I could get a copy from NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to take a look at another variety of Gothic vampire. I'm glad I got to read this edition of Carmilla, edited by Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, because it came bundled with a great introduction and four critical essays that helped to put Sheridan Le Fanu's work in it's historical, social, and cultural contexts. Without those, I would have written a complete pan of the book here.

Originally published as a serial between 1871-1872, Carmilla is a novella (almost a long short story) of a young English expat named Laura and her encounters with the Styrian vampire Carmilla. The story is told through the offices of a narrator, who has collected the testimony of Laura and the vampire-hunting peer that helped rid the area of the predatory menace. The bulk of the story is told from Laura's perspective, as she meets Carmilla and falls victim to her before switching over the vampire hunter for the abrupt conclusion. That's really about all there is to the plot.

Carmilla and her victim. Nothing sexy about this, right?
What thrills in this book (in the older sense of the word, not in the sense of entertainment) is the relationship that Carmilla builds with Laura. To modern eyes, it's highly homoerotic. To the point where I felt like I was being slapped in the arse by a rolled up rainbow flag. Any modern reader would pick up on it. I daresay that there were a lot of raised eyebrows over those sections of this story by its original readers. With the original illustrations, only the most profound denialists would have missed it. Even Laura feels unnerved by Carmilla's professions of love for her and wants some emotional distance from her unexpected house guest.

One of the essays in the book, "An Irish Carmilla?" by Jar Lath Killeen, attempts to create a political and ethnic context for Carmilla. Killeen tries to show that Carmilla is a symbol of the Irish and that Laura represents the Anglo-Irish gentry. But, it's a stretch in my reading of the book. No fault to Killeen, who makes the case with many citations to the historical context of Sheridan Le Fanu's world. I didn't see any of it in the text itself. The essay that made the most sense to me in my interpretation of the book was Renée Fox's essay, "Carmilla and the Politics of Indistinguishability," which paints Carmilla in terms of gender transgressions. This essay was much more persuasive to me, even without all the references to other critical interpretations of Carmilla and Sheridan Le Fanu. Fox writes: 
In other words, if Carmilla seems to take on both feminine and masculine roles, then...the Irish Catholicism she is meant to represent appears that much more perilous: imbued with all the domestically destabilizing power of the dominant female, all the socially transgressive power of the homosexual, and all the emasculating power of the sexual usurper.*
But if this reading is right, it suggests to me that the strangely anti-climactic ending is Sheridan Le Fanu chickening out over what he created and just letting the menfolk sort Carmilla out with a stake and an axe. After chapters and chapters of building suspense and dread, Carmilla just...ends.

Even though there are some references to the reaction to the book in 1872, I suspect there were a lot of male readers forbidding their female relatives and servants from reading this book because of its potentially corrupting influence. I don't think many modern readers will pick this book up for its own sake; it's sort of the book only a critic could love these days. 


* Kindle unpaginated version. Quote begins at location 1567.


Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. And Try Not to Roll Them While You Do It.

Stuart Kelly posted an interesting piece on the Guardian book blogs that got me to thinking about book awards. A lot of the major book awards--the Man Booker, the National Book Awards, and the big cahuna, the Nobel Prize for Literature--are dominated by literary fiction*. The last time I recognized the winner of the Nobel was in 2010, when Mario Vargas Llosa won.

There's still an unfair stigma against genre fiction, but I think a lot of the most interesting and important fiction of the last few decades has been in science fiction. Is it because, as Kelly quotes Margaret Atwood, because of all the "talking squids from outer space"**? Even if there is an overabundance of weirdness and silliness in genre fiction, that doesn't mean that only literary fiction writers should be the only writers under consideration.

I suspect that judges for the "serious" awards aren't just trying to award the best book of the year. I suspect they're looking for books to add to the canon, book that will be read in a century or so. But the problem is that readers' tastes change, sometimes radically. I like how Jonathan Kelly over at Wired.com puts it:
There’s a lesson here: Literary heroes of an age are often neglected by future times and tastes. If you’d asked most Italians in the 1930s to pick the greatest poet since Dante, they’d have named Gabriele d’Annunzio. (It helped that he was a Fascist.) In the ’40s and ’50s, many Americans deemed Pearl Buck the finest living novelist.
It's nearly impossible to predict which books people will still be reading even in a few decades***. And sometimes not even other members of the literary community agree on the winners. Last year's winner of the Nobel, Mo Yan, was incredibly controversial. Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy of the regime" for Mo's support of censoring artists and writers.

I wish that judges of the literary prizes would expand their horizons. It would make the long and short lists so much more interesting. And I wouldn't have to spend so much time on Wikipedia or digging through old book reviews to catch up on obscure writers and novels that I've never heard of before.

* This genre has a bad reputation among some. Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, said on Twitter that, "Too many folk are using the term 'literary' to mean 'wholly unencumbered by plot'."

** Honestly, how has Margaret Atwood not won the Nobel?

*** The blogger over at Kahn's Corner has been working their way through the bestsellers of the twentieth century and reviewing them. It's fascinating.


Judgy McJudgypants

Mostly true.
I've always thought that you could psychoanalyze people (at least a little), by looking at what they like. And I've always thought that this went double for books, because reading is so personal. I do this to myself, too. When I find myself reading books about zombies or murders or existentialism, I start to wonder what it says about me. My book shelves at home are arranged to show the books I'm proud to own in the front rooms, and the guilty pleasures are all in the bedroom where casual guests won't run across them. Ah well, books have always been a status thing.

When I see people reading, the first reaction I have is a little spark of joy that someone is reading. The bigger the book, the bigger the spark. Then I try to catch a look at the spine, to see what they're reading. It's like catching a glimpse into the person that they really are. And yes, I am a person who secretly (not so secretly anymore) enjoys reading the Kitty the Werewolf novels. I can't help judging the people who read the books I don't like, though. I'm impressed by the people that tackle James Joyce, but when I see someone reading Twilight, I want to rip the book out of their hands and give them something better to read.

Beyond my personal judging about this, it also gives me kind of an ethical quandary. This doesn't come up that often, but when the money at the library starts to run low I have to decide what to by. It often comes down to a battle between the good books and the fun books. Should I buy the books that "should" be in the collection? The literary award winners? What if I'm pretty sure that they'll just sit on the shelf for months, or years, without being checked out? Or should I buy the fun books that I know won't just gather dust? In the end, I usually buy a mix of both. I know that when visitors come to my library, they're judging us a little by what's on our shelves. So I want them to see that we have the Booker Award winners and The Walking Dead graphic novel series.