Saturday, August 27, 2011

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

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I was all kinds of pumped to read this book. (Yes, I had to get over the big brother in me who saw all my little sisters reading this book at one time or another and automatically assumed it would be a girl book.) I've been told it makes grown men cry. So I borrowed a copy and gave it a go.

Little Women is a beautiful, lovely book. I can see how, if I weren't madly taken by a real flesh-and-blood woman, I could fall in love for Jo March. At the very least, I sympathize with her entirely--and when her little sister destroys her book, I get angrier than Jo, and I am less quick to forgive.

The problem is, this book is continuing my recent trend (see Innocents Abroad) of books not giving me the whole story. Of course, none of these books bother to announce that they are incomplete, or one part of a multi-volume set. Maybe everyone else in the world knows that Little Women is multiple books. I didn't. I got to the end and wondered how anyone could cry at that ending. Then I wondered if I was more callous than I had ever imagined.

Nope. I just got shafted. Again. So I don't feel particularly qualified to say more on the topic yet. One of these days, I will find the rest of Alcott's tale, and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain

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Quick post on this one:

In the Venn diagram of "international travel," "American author," and "humor," not many titles fall in the cumulative overlap. Yet because I like to think I might have a claim to all three at times, I wanted to read a book during this build-up to moving to Ireland to which I could relate, or which I could at least appreciate.

So I picked up the old copy of The Innocents Abroad that's been sitting on some shelf or another for over five years now, ever since I bought it at a book market in London, and gave it a go.

Whatever a writer's own inclinations, reading Mark Twain is an educational experience. His prose is an exemplar of intellectual vernacular, of sentences as involved and complex as any Victorian yet which are as easily understood as the speech of a dear friend.

I feel confident having his voice echoing in my mind as I embark on this new adventure abroad. His skills and influence cannot but strengthen my own writing.

(Though reader be warned: apparently, some copies of The Innocents Abroad don't include the full text. They are filled with promises of reaching the Holy Land, only to cut you off somewhere in the Mediterranean without so much as an indication that you've been cruising through Volume 1 of some indeterminate number of volumes. Not that I'm bitter or anything. At least it's not Mark's fault.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving

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As I dig into the craft of writing, certain questions of The Canon continue to puzzle me. The Canon for me was established in high school as this set of writers who had Made It, who had done more than merely create Literature but had indeed shaped it, altered its course, defined what we high school students were destined to read.

Then, for anyone who reads a book after high school, The Canon becomes a much fuzzier reality (though still very, very real). Some rebel against it--if it's Canonical, it ain't cool; many in this crowd will defend Watchmen to the end as if no one has accepted it as Literature. To so many people who think like this, anything with Literary Merit must be boring, self-indulgent, and never intended to sell more than ten copies. Some other people struggle to alter The Canon's definition; an entire branch of Academia is dedicated to finding J.R.R. Tolkien a place in The Canon. (I happen to agree with them.) And some expand The Canon to include anything Literary.

This is where John Irving's writing puzzles me deeply. His work is Literary--probably every single review or endorsement mentions somewhere its Dickensian qualities. Yet he sells incredibly well, has several books adapted to film, and has even won an Oscar. And the content. Literary my arse!

But why not? Why shouldn't a story that includes incestual lust, motorcycle-riding bears, an Austrian brothel-slash-hotel, and a baseball-bat-wielding blind man named Freud be acceptable Literature?

Apparently, it is. (Though try describing this book to anyone, anyone, and they'll think it's all kinds of messed up. Also, if you recommend it to your remarkably picky selective English friend, he will probably be speechless for the first time.) At least, it's not shunned the way genre fiction is.

(Note how genre doesn't get the Winnie-the-Pooh capital letter treatment. Think of your snottiest college professors, and now think about how they would say "genre fiction." It deserves a leering italic font!)

I don't mean to come across like a complete relativist here, but I just wonder why we value some works over others. The Hotel New Hampshire may not be Irving's best-known book, but some lucky kids get to read his writing in high school. Yet this book has moments that make Tom Robbins say "Daaaaaayum!" And I'm pretty sure, no matter how rock-star popular Robbins is, he will never be considered as Literary as Irving.

The Canon will never be fully decided or even understood. But contemplating it cannot but be a healthy activity for the book-minded folks of the world.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

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When I wrote about Bitter Seeds before, I mentioned that it bumped the next book on my list from the top of the genre-novel-of-the-year list.

This is that book.

Already, Leviathan Wakes is garnering incredible feedback and sending massive ripples through the genre waters. (I have it on hearsay that a top bookbuyer at a major bookseller thinks it will resuscitate the science fiction genre.) And it's only the first in a (three-part?) series. It's a damn fine book, co-written by two damn fine writers who also happen to be two damn good and really damn smart guys.

The book receives enough praise elsewhere that I don't need to parrot it all here. But I don't see enough discussion about what this book does to genre expectations (and it may well be that I'm just looking in the wrong places). The words "space opera" get bandied about all the time with this book, which is valid, but it goes so far beyond that.

Leviathan Wakes has two main narratives: Holden, a Serenity-style space captain, and Miller, a noir detective.

Screech the brakes, right? The former half of that equation sounds like warmed-up leftovers, and the latter sounds entirely out of place. That's what I loved about this book, though. Holden might have the swagger of Mal Reynolds, and he might be the captain of a Firefly-esque crew, but the narrative takes him in entirely different directions, sometimes more subtly than others. Holden is optimistic where Mal is realistic. Holden believes in doing right--not relatively, not half-assed, but wholly, repercussions be damned. You start off believing him to be a cookie-cutter moralist space captain,* but he's got... shapes. His sides get cut out and taped back on in different ways, so that by the end of the story, he's got a different form than at the beginning.

*Wait. There's a cookie cutter for that?

And Miller? This book made me wonder why the noir detective ever went out of style. (I'm convinced he never did -- his form simply changed, first into James Bond, and then in a number of fragmented directions.) He's got all the vices and problems you expect, except... he feels soggier, somehow, than Spade or Marlowe. This is a man who's been through the sewers of existence, and didn't come out as clean and shiny as the characters in Buffy do when they emerge from the sewers.

I'm not a genre writer--at least, not in the strict sense that the James S.A. Corey amalgamation is--but this book has affected more than my writing. It's informing the stories I tell. That's why any authors who turns their noses at a particular form deserve to have bookshelves fall onto them. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. And how cool is that?

(Oh, and you want to talk endings that wrap everything up while still delivering a kicker that makes you salivate for the next volume? This book's got it good.)