"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Thursday, February 20, 2014

REVIEW: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

You may remember that this book was one of my Christmas presents to myself. However, it took two months and a very nasty cold to actually get me to read it. So first of all, if you are currently suffering from a cold or otherwise ill, bedridden, or just feeling lousy, this is the perfect book for you! When I'm sick, I always feel like regressing a little: staying tucked up in bed, eating comfort food, having other people take care of me. And truthfully, as I've discovered this week, the adult world has no room for sick people. Going to work with a stuffy nose sucks and is completely unprofessional, but go to work you must if you want to hang onto your Working Adult card. After work, though, you can quickly slip into your pjs, make a hot cocoa, and pick up this book. Because what better way to regress than reading a fairy tale?

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (that's the last time I'm typing out the full title, by the way) is an especially delightful fairy tale. The author, whose excellent name is Catherynne Valente (perfect for writing fairy stories), seems to have been inspired by Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and other favorites from my childhood. Her omniscient narrator is cheeky and droll and enjoys puns. Like Lewis Carroll and Lemony Snicket, she skews her writing to please children and adults simultaneously, without ever making her younger audience feel left out or talked over. Acutally, I imagine that children who read this book get to feel very grown-up and knowledgeable, because all of Valente's references and riffs are based on other children's stories. She picks out the tales in which we are all experts since childhood. In the same vein, I appreciated her use of multiple folktale traditions, not just the well-known European ones.

While paying homage to and riffing on various traditions, Valente brings her own particularly lovely voice to the telling of September's adventures in Fairyland - a blend of humor and wisdom. And the story itself takes plenty of unique turns. Each character that September encounters is fully realized and individualized. They fulfill the roles of the traditional folktale as they help or hinder the heroine along her journey, but they never feel like stock characters.

Valente also excels at making the world these characters live in feel real and tangible. Here's a bit from her description of a magical bath that September must take before entering the capital of Fairyland:

"Lye lifted September up suddenly and put her down in the first tub, which was really more like an oak barrel, the kind you store wine in, if you need to store rather a lot of wine, for it was enormous. September's head ducked immediately under the thick, bright gold water. When she bobbed up, the smell of it wrapped her up like a warm scarf: the scent of fireplaces crackling and warm cinnamon and autumn leaves crunching underfoot. She smelled cider and a rainstorm coming. The gold water clung to her in streaks and clumps, and she laughed. It tasted like butterscotch."

Descriptions like that make you want to dive right through the pages into that bath and explore September's magical world. Which is appropriate, since that is exactly what the book is about: a little girl who loves fairy tales and finds her way into Fairyland to have her own adventure.

Or, I should say, adventures, since this is part of an ongoing series. Two more books are out already, with very long names as well. I might not be able to wait until my next cold to read them, though.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

TAG: Top 5 Unread Authors

Yesterday I was cleaning my room, and I realized something crazy: I've reached book saturation.

Temporarily, of course. It's not like I actually own all the books I'd like to own (I think that'd be impossible). But my bookshelves are overflowing, and I don't want to mar my beautiful organization-by-color any more by building unsightly piles of books all over the place.

There are two solutions:

a) Audiobooks. They don't take up space! And are also brilliant for the long bus rides I take to and from my new internship in the city. I'm currently listening to The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty. Before that, I listened to A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. They take a bit longer to finish than normal books, but that's outweighed by the pleasure of being read to and the convenience of multitasking - I listen when I'm riding public transit, cooking, knitting, or anything where I need to use my hands but not think too hard.

b) Actually read the books that are already on my shelves. Because most of them have been languishing there for years, falling further and further down my to-read list.

So, in the spirit of reading the books I've been meaning to read for ages, here's a tag I got from kayleyreads's excellent book channel YouTube. A list of the first five authors that came to mind top five authors I haven't read. In no particular order:

1. China Miéville.
I heard him speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival two years ago when his book Railsea came out. He was entertaining and interesting and honest about the somewhat trivial inspiration (wanting to rewrite Moby Dick with moles instead of whales)  for what sounded like a rich and not at all trivial book. More importantly, perhaps, his fans in the audience asked very intelligent questions - a good sign, right? As far as I can tell, Miéville write something in the realm of sci-fi/dystopia/speculative fiction, and I'm on the hunt for authors who do that sort of thing without letting style and sophistication slide (see the rant about clunky YA fiction in my previous post).

2. Muriel Barbery
Several people have highly recommended Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me. It's actually apparently the favorite book of one of my friends. So I have a sort of obligation to read it, right? But really, it's not an obligation, because it sounds like a lovely book. Moreover, I recently found out she's written another book with a food theme - the way to my heart. And the two books have complementary covers! I love that. The main thing that's been keeping me from reading Barbery is that I want to read the original French versions, so I just have to track those down. And sadly, the French versions don't have the charming matchy covers. Le sigh.

3. Jorge Luis Borges
Obviously a classic author. I was in a theater class where we used short excerpts from his writing, and I loved the philosphical/magical tone. My interest was only further piqued when I was researching David Mitchell for my dissertation and found out Borges was an influence. On top of that, I haven't really read any South American authors, so that's a gap I'd like to fill. I read a piece of Roberto Bolano's gigantic novel, 2666, but Borges somehow seems a lot more approachable than Bolano, so I'm putting off finishing 2666 and thinking about tackling Borges instead.

4. Rainbow Rowell
EVERYBODY on the internet seems to be talking about Rainbow Rowell. Unsuprising, since she published two extremely popular YA novels last year and now has a new book, which I think it for adults. I've been graciously lent Eleanor & Park and Fangirl and can't wait to read them and see what all the fuss is about. But I believe I'll start with Eleanor & Park, because I've been warned that it's a bit sad. That way, I can cheer myself up afterwards with Fangirl!

5. The Brontës (collectively)
Well, there's the gorgeous covers, of course. One of the best things about reading the classics is getting to choose from the many beautiful editions. But appealing covers aside, I really need to read these ladies. I love old-fashioned writing. I love great sweeping stories. I saw the Jane Eyre movie. There's really no reason not to have read at least one Brontë book by now. Plus, as a literature student (I know I'm not a student anymore, but old habits die hard), I want to read the old stuff that so many people refer to and riff off of, and I feel like these books have a relatively large influence over modern literature as well as certain feminist discussions. So this is one of those obvious, can't believe you've never read so-and-so situations. I'd better get on that.

Acutally, only two of those authors currently reside on my bookshelf. So I seem to have chosen a third solution to my problem:

c) Continue to ignore the books I actually own and, instead, dream about books I want to buy but won't, because my shelves are too full.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: The Book Thief

I've got quite a long backup of books I've finished but haven't reviewed yet, but let's start with one of the winners. The Book Thief has been much talked about and lauded, and the movie just came out this year (I haven't seen it). But the hype did nothing to diminish the impact this little book had on me. It really is one of the best books I've read in any of the genres it falls into: WWII stories, YA literature, books with experimental narrative voices. In particular, it was such a refreshing read after wading through some extremely clunky YA writing. [Side note/rant: My YA reading habit started as a welcome break from the heavy experimental fiction I read last year on my master's course. It morphed into an effort to familiarize myself with the YA section of the bookstore where I work. It has ended with annoyance at how the publishing industry ghettoizes and panders to teenage readers. But I digress....]

In case, by some chance, you haven't heard of this book, some orientation: The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, from the year she is adopted by the Hubermanns, a kind couple in a small town outside Munich, to the year that allied bombs start falling on that town. During that time, Liesel learns to read and grows from a child to a young woman. It's quite a modest scope of action, but set against the backdrop of WWII, it obviously takes on a larger meaning.

The book's seemingly small scope distinguishes it from the immense number of books published about WWII (I didn't realize quite how many there are until I lived in England, where that particular portion of history is still extremely vivid for many people). It doesn't set out to tell the whole story of the war or to encompass the entire (and unencompassable) tragedy of it. It doesn't even try to tell the whole story of Liesel's life. Her early childhood, before the Hubermanns adopt her, and her life after the war would probably be just as book-worthy, but Zusak chooses to focus on just the slice of her life that intersects with the war.

In fact, it's not really the war Liesel's story intersects with, but rather that of the other main character, a personified Death who narrates the book. It's rare to find a book with a really interesting narrative point of view, now that first person, collective voices, and unreliable narrators have all been tried out and worn out. But Zusak handles his conceptual narration extremely well. He often allows us to forget about it and immerse ourselves in the story but never actually breaks character, so that, when Death reassert itself as the point of view, it's never jarring.

This device also allows him to do justice to the wider historical significance of the events in the book, because Death, as we are constantly reminded, was kept very busy during the war years. To Death, Liesel's story is a distraction, but a welcome one that represents a glimmer of humanity amid the rampant inhumanity of war. That, in essence, is the function of almost every WWII story out there. Through the framing of Death's narration, however, Zusak acknowledges that directly. The taking on of Death as a narrator turns out not to be a presumptive literary trick, but a way toward greater humility in telling a single story, especially that of a German, during WWII.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Tristan & Yseult @ Berkeley Rep

I've been wanting to write about this play for a while, and now that I've gone back to see it a second time, I think it's about time to put my love for it into words. It's a rare treat to see a live theater piece twice, and it usually requires repeating the experience pretty soon, before the show leaves town. But with Tristan & Yseult - or with any show by Kneehigh Theater, for that matter - there's so much richness to the production and so much happening on stage that the second time was as fresh as the first.

Actually, this particular play seems to invite you to return. It's based, after all, on a very old and very often retold story. The mythic, doomed love of the two main characters has been repeated in hundreds of different ways and forms, and Kneehigh's production acknowledges that while putting its own twist on the tale.

First, a little background: Kneehigh is a theater company based in Cornwall. Many of the actors have worked together for many years, and all of them are insanely talented. They sing, dance, play instruments, do acrobatics - oh, and act. During rehearsals, the entire company lives and works in a set of isolated barns in Cornwall, and their total unity and playfulness together onstage shows how important that practice is. Finally, they aim to tell stories from or about Cornwall itself, whether contemporary or ancient.

In the case of Tristan & Yseult, Kneehigh blends the old with the new. One character, King Mark, speaks in rhyming verse - a nod to the old tale - while the others speak normally. The production is suffused with music, including extracts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, original music that hearkens back to medieval ballads, and pop hits about unrequited love from only a few decades ago.

Most of the songs are (flawlessly) delivered by a live band called the Club of the Unloved. The Unloved also become the chorus of the show, commenting on the action, and sometimes even stepping into the raised, circular platform in the middle of the stage to inform or encourage the central characters at crucial moments. The chorus could be a reference to another tradition of ancient storytelling - Greek drama - except that, over the course of the show, they become as sympathetic and individuated as the protagonists. With this modernist twist, Kneehigh's production turns our attention to the average, unremarkable characters. The Unloved, the show asserts, deserve to tell their story as much as the lovers Tristan and Yseult. Slowly, characters from the central story join the chorus - King Mark, who loves Yseult; the maid, Brangian, who loves King Mark; and others who reveal the tragic ripple effects of the central love story.

The production presents a very complex and sophisticated version of an old tale, but its style is often charmingly simple and transparent. There are no set changes, and the architecture of the set is plain to see: a central circle that draws our attention to the dichotomy between beloved heroes and unloved onlookers, a mast-like pole that evokes Tristan's sea voyage, a platform for the band, and a raised walkway for dramatic entrances and exits. In one scene, the chorus members transform the setting into a forest simply by donning some outrageous fern hats and manning a collection of dove hand puppets that flap around the stage.

Allowing us to see the mechanics of theatrical storytelling is one of Kneehigh's trademarks. Although the stage is constantly busy and the choreography complex, no element is extraneous. They never dumb things down or smooth things over for the audience. Instead, they present us with a delightful jumble of song, dance, and poetry, and of tragedy and comedy - just enough to spark our own imaginations - and allow us to fill in the rest. In this play in particular, which celebrates the average and the unloved, it is easy to slip completely into the world of the production, supplying emotions from our own experiences of love, or its lack. So, in substance and style, Tristan & Yseult is a remarkably accessible production for any kind of modern audience, though, at the same time, it recalls the particular history and heritage of Cornwall through an ancient tale.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Presents for myself: holiday book haul

Since graduating from my MA in September, I've applied for quite a few jobs and landed one. It's part-time and not highly lucrative. But it also happens to be one of my dream jobs, and the one thing it does subsidize is my serious book-buying habit. You guessed it: I'm working in a bookstore! And at the staff holiday shopping night last week, in addition to getting gifts for some bookish friends and family, I made myself an early present and bought these four beauties.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is obviously a good bet because it's author's name is unpronounceable. Just kidding. (Although have you noticed how many highly regarded authors cause people embarrassments at dinner parties when they try to pronounce them out loud? J.M. Coetzee is my personal favorite in this category. Oh, and let's not forget the publishing house that's joined the trend: Knopf. I had to say their name out loud at work this week and had a split second of sheer panic after it came out of my mouth, wondering whether I'd said it wrong.)

Actually, this is a book that's been recommended to me by all my just-out-of-college friends - apparently it's very relatable for us new grads. I also really appreciated Eugenides' writing in his more famous novel, The Virgin Suicides, although I don't love that book the way thousands of young women on the internet seem to...
But I have higher hopes for this one, and the first few sentences seem to confirm what my friends promised: a book about people reading books. Which is definitely right up my alley.

Next up is something I'm REALLY looking forward to. This book sat next to my desk for a month while I was writing my dissertation. It belonged to my housemate, and at that point I was dedicating all my time to my work, so I was doubly incapable of giving into temptation and flipping open the gorgeous little cover.

Now, though, I'm ready to sink into The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. A year before this book appeared next to me, tantalizingly out of reach, I was writing my undergraduate thesis on film adaptations of fairy tales, and I've been really interested in reading more written adaptations ever since. This book, as far as I know, isn't a direct reworking of any specific tale, but an entirely new tale written in a fable-like style. I can't wait.

And it just looks so luscious, with these gorgeous chapter head illustrations. It reminds me a bit of the illustrations in Harry Potter, but more outrageous and fanciful.

The best part is, this is a series, so I have at least two more books to look forward to. I haven't really researched yet whether there are more to come. Another thing I've noticed during my first month at work is that children's books are usually less expensive than adult books - but they can be as or more beautiful as objects.

In that vein, I finally now own a copy of The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. I've been Tan's books - and this one in particular - since last summer, when I almost saw him speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I believe he's a filmmaker as well as an artist, and this book certainly has a filmic sensibility. There are no words, even within the illustrations. Instead, where there would be words on signs or pieces of paper in the story, there are strange symbols, a bit like a new set of hieroglyphics. This aligns perfectly with the story since, as far as I can tell from flipping through it, it's a story of a man immigrating to a foreign country where he doesn't speak the language.

I absolutely cannot wait to find a quiet moment and sit down with this book. It's just so damn gorgeous.

Finally, to fill out my eclectic little bundle, I got myself a copy of Melymbrosia, by one of my all-time favorites, Virginia Woolf. I'd never heard of this particular novel before I spotted it on the sale table. As I learned from a bit of googling, this is because it's an original version of a novel that Woolf later published as The Voyage Out after her friends urged her to tone down the politics and edginess of her first version. I haven't read The Voyage Out, but I suppose it's only right to start with the original.

In any case, it's always a pleasure to read Woolf. I forget how brilliant she was until I sink back into her writing and find myself wowed and humbled and inspired all over again. I guess to call myself a real devotee I should have already read all her work, but I'm a person who likes savoring things, and it's lovely to think I have many more of her books to discover for the first time.

I will in all likelihood be posting reviews of these books here as I read them. Meanwhile, I'm working my way (very slowly but with great pleasure) through The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Seriously, it's an amazing read, but I feel like it deserves and demands my full attention, so I've been trying to find nice quiet hours to read it, and that's quite difficult now that I actually have a job! I truly realize now how blessed I was this past year to have my full-time job be to read, study, discuss, and write about books.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sweater Weather Tag!

I saw this tag on Kayley's Closet and thought I'd do it myself to get into the fall/winter/holiday spirit!

Favorite candle scent?
I'm not a big candle person because I'm afraid of fire :/
BUT I do love the way candles smell, and if I had to pick a favorite scent, it would probably be something spicy and autumnal. I especially love things that smell like cinnamon.

Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?
I somehow got through college and grad school without being converted to coffee, so not the first. Black tea (along with bread) is one of my basic life's essentials, but I truly am a hot chocolate fanatic. I judge cafes and restaurants based on how good their hot chocolate is - and the best way to get in my good graces is to serve spiced hot chocolate. Yummmmm.

What's the best fall memory you have?
Hm, hard to pick a favorite. One favorite memory from last fall in England was going to see the fireworks in the park on Guy Fawkes night. It wasn't just fireworks (although they were spectacular) - there were also food stands and games and rides and a giant bonfire. I'd never really been to a 'country fair' kind of thing, so it was really fun to wander around, try and fail at the games, and soak up some much needed warmth from the fire (despite above-mentioned fear of flames).

Which make-up trend do you prefer: dark lips or winged eyeliner?
I'm not sure why winged eyeliner is specific to fall.... But in any case, I'd say, for myself, dark lips. I've always been more of a smoky eye girl.

Best fragrance for fall?
Not a perfume person. Maybe cinnamon?

Favorite Thanksgiving food?
Stuffing. Stuffing, stuffing, stuffing.

What is autumn weather like where you live?
Much warmer than where I lived last year! Now that I'm back in the bay area, I'm enjoying clear, sunny days, most of which have been really warm as well. It's only this week that the temperature dropped about ten degrees. Now it really feels like fall, and I'm eagerly pulling out my scarves and my knitting needles.

Most worn sweater?
A pale grey pull-over that goes with basically everything. Then I like to dress it up with colorful scarves.

Must-have nail polish this fall?
My favorites for fall and winter are dark reds and greens. I have one stupendously deep and sparkly green from Butter London that's just perfect for holiday parties.

Football games or jumping in leaf piles?
Leaf piles. Obviously.

Skinny jeans or leggings?
I just got my first pair of leggings/jeggings. They are super comfortable, it must be admitted. But I also love jeans, because you can depend on them for almost everything you do.

Combat boots or Uggs?
Er, neither? Tall brown leather boots are more my thing.

Is pumpkin spice worth the hype?
Probably, yes.

Favorite fall TV show?
Hm, haven't really been watching much TV because I've been trying to read more.

What song really gets you into the fall spirit?
Timshel by Mumford and Sons, I think. It captures something calm and quiet that I love about cold months - something far from the busy-busy of holiday shopping or parties, but which is so lovely to find in between the busier moments.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Catching Fire

I'd forgotten how good this story is. And I think it's the mark of a good adaptation when the movie reminds you of how much you love a story and makes you want to go back and read the book over again. Catching Fire was pretty much everything I wanted it to be - although, that said, it's been a nice long year-and-a-half since I read the book, so I was in a perfect place to enjoy the movie without noticing any glaring omissions or glosses. I'll reserve judgement on those details until I re-read and re-watch. But this was a truly enjoyable film, well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, well-designed.

Middle movies are the best - this time around, we didn't need to be introduced to the characters or the world. There's no awkward exposition in this movie. A few elegant shots remind us of what's come before. One of the best is when, at the very beginning, Katniss aims to shoot a wild turkey in the woods back in District 12 and at the last moment sees herself shooting Marvel, the tribute she killed in the first games, instead. That one image was such a good reminder, early in the film, that there's no way Katniss (or we) can forget what happened in the previous movie. She and Peeta and all the other victors we meet later in the movie are seriously damaged and changed by what they did in the arena.

Portraying that psychological damage is one of the best, most unique things about Collins' books. Unlike most stories about heroes and heroines who endure incredible physical violence, the Hunger Games trilogy honestly shows how much that violence hurts people, physically and psychologically. When they're back in the arena, the characters also spend more of their time running in terror or lying on the ground, incapacitated by pain, than they do fighting or acting brave. I really appreciated that the movie lets its action heroes and heroines remain human even as they achieve superhuman things.

The actors really stepped up to the task of embodying both human fragility and human strength. I felt I knew what was going through Katniss's head at all times, which is important for an adaptation of a book that was told in the first person. And although there never seems to be enough time in movies for just watching the characters grow, Catching Fire did show a lot of character development. Peeta in particular undergoes a wonderful transformation in this part of the story (which makes part three even more heartbreaking). His strengths come to match Katniss's, although the two don't overlap. As I watched them struggle differently but bravely with the pressures and horrors of the victory tour and the arena, I was totally convinced that, together, they could actually change the society that was oppressing them.

Meanwhile, Gale starts to look worse and worse in comparison, as he consistently ignores everything Katniss is going through and just keeps asking her whether she's in love with him yet. He becomes, in some ways, the same as the spectators who so eagerly lap up Katniss and Peeta's staged romance. Peeta, on the other hand, accepts Katniss's feelings and gets on with the more important stuff, like helping her save her family or comforting her when she has nightmares about the arena. When Gale sees Katniss recoil in shock after her vision of shooting Marvel, by contrast, he has no idea what to do.

All of this points not only to how much better Peeta is than Gale, but also how much better Suzanne Collins is than most authors who focus on their heroines' love lives over everything else. One of these boys understands that Katniss is more than a sex object, and he's obviously the one she should ally herself with if she wants to save the world and wants to have a chance at happiness doing that. Collins also exposes how the society objectifies Katniss. The best way to keep her from starting a rebellion, as Plutarch Heavensbee suggests to President Snow, is to paint her as a classic feminine stereotype, more obsessed with her wedding dress than concerned about politics. That's why Cinna's transformation/destruction of that dress is such a good image. On the one hand, he literally burns up the dress to show that she's more than the barbie doll that the Capitol wants her to be. On the other hand, when she spreads her wings as the Mockingjay, she's still expressing her identity through a dress, a foreshadowing of the fact that she'll become as much a puppet of District 13's rebellion as she was of the Capitol.

This is also why I loved Joanna's undressing-in-the-elevator scene. She recognizes exactly what those fancy clothes mean, and she isn't having any of it. She'd rather go naked than conform to anyone's idea of who she is. It’s also a priceless scene, which the actors play for comedy very successfully. But, as is appropriate for the story, even this comedic moment is overlaid with the themes of the film. The Hunger Games trilogy is a critique of those who thoughtlessly create and consume entertainment, and it forces its own audience to really think about what they’re watching and to decide for themselves whether it’s entertainment or something else.

I loved all the new characters, Joanna included. The casting was right on the nail for everyone, and the movie succeeded in presenting clear, though necessarily brief, portraits of each of them. Haymitch also acquires a lot more depth in this movie simply by being presented alongside his friends, the other victors. One details I did miss from the books was the scene where Katniss watches the video of the games from the year Haymitch won. But I admire the directors for knowing when to cut scenes like that and achieving a coherent and lean movie in the end.

In addition to being well directed and acted, the movie was beautifully designed. The arena looked pretty spectacular, especially in the aerial shots. And once again, the movie fleshed out a more vivid, tangible world than the books presented (thin physical description and world-building is one of the main flaws of the books, in my opinion). I look forward to seeing how the filmmakers show us District 13. Only a year to wait, but the brilliant series of short scenes and spare shots at the end of the movie definitely whetted my appetite and are making that year seem very long indeed.