Friday, February 19, 2010

Open Blog Post #1 - Quality vs. Demand: A Library Debate

When I was in high school, I was a big-time reader. I spent all my money on books (I wasn't the library hound I am now, but then again, I didn't have bills at 16) and developed quite the collection. I'm not a fast reader, but I've always been a devoted and persistent one, so when I got involved in a story, I brought the book to school with me. I'd pick it up when I finished whatever in-class activity we were working on.

One day I was reading a Christian-fiction romance novel, completely tame (particularly by today's YA standards - no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll) and very entertaining. It was the third and last book in the series, and I was involved. A friend asked me what I was reading, and having never been embarrassed about my books, I handed it over - and got laughed at. Fine, the book was called The Pirate and His Lady and had the pirate in question leaning rakishly on the rail of his ship while the lady in question stood against the mast with her ebony hair flowing in the wind. It was perfectly mockable, and yet, since that day I've hidden my books from people. I didn't want to be laughed at because of my book choices and my book choices have never leaned toward what the critics consider "quality." So I still carried books around with me, but when reading I kept the cover covered. When I wasn't reading, I kept the book face-down on my desk or in a drawer. When someone asked me what I was reading, I wouldn't give them a title or author - I would give them a vague synopsis in the most general of terms. I only put the least "embarrassing" of my book choices on my Facebook booklist and I cheered the day that the library got check-out terminals where you can serve yourself - no one had to know.

That being said, I've been trying to "read shamelessly" (as I've noted on my blog title), though it's hard to erase over 10 years of reading shamefully. So I have issues with people making decisions on what books are or are not "quality." For me, reading has always been a pleasurable experience - when I've picked out the books. I watch the news, surf the web, and so forth, and I don't consider myself uniformed or uneducated, but I do prefer fun and entertaining books. Stuff I had to read for school, however, rarely made my favorites list. I didn't care for distopian futures or men who turn into giant insects (whether or not it's all metaphorical) or children who turn into savages when trapped on an island. I loved Shakespeare, but we never read a comedy. Nor did we read any Austen or Tolkien or Leroux or Byron. I also preferred my talking animals in Narnia rather than that farm. And don't get me started on Hawthorne. (I've had these feelings even before I found out how he felt about my kind of "trash" in Pierpont's New Yorker article this week. I have one word for you, Mr. Hawthorne: "Pfttt!") (That would be the phoenitic spelling of a raspberry, in case you weren't sure.)

I've been learning about the work of librarians this year, but I haven't experienced the role personally yet, so I only understand the Quality verses Demand debate in theory, not in practice. I'm sure it's very difficult, and I'll have a hard time making these choices in the future. But in a perfect world we'd promote the "quality" books that aren't circulating and never resort to making a decision on whether to ignore mass market "trash" in order to make room for non-moving "quality." And no one would be made fun of for carrying a book with a pirate on the cover. I've always considered quality as a book with good grammar (or at least not unpurposeful bad grammar, if that makes sense) and no mad ravings (though that'd knock out some of those "quality" books - I kid, I kid). I'm aware that there are more extremes, though, in this debate, but in general, I'd hate to say anything negative about a book that someone loves. Fortunately I only hid my books, but others may quit reading altogether, and that's what would be truly shameful.

Looking back at my pirate book, I'm well aware that it's never going to be a classic. The heroine is "too stupid to live," as the Smart Bitches would call Emerald. And I probably wouldn't enjoy it as much today as I did back then. But as I've run out of room in my own collection, and I've had to weed out my books several times over the years, this book still has a place on my shelf.

And I still love pirates, especially the one's that look like Johnny Depp. Reowr!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Betty White!

Ok, this has nothing to do with anything, particularly class related stuff. But I had this dream the other morning, and it was cool enough that I wanted to document it in cyberspace.

I was at a strip mall and Betty White was leaving a store at the same time I was getting ready to get in my car. Though she had a car, she seemed tired, so I offered to give her a ride. She accepted.

As we were driving down this hilly road to her apartment (it was fall, all the leaves were orange and red, and it looked like it had just rained - very pretty), we passed by this house or compound or...something...and we heard gunfire. I looked and saw Pierce Brosnan (a la The Thomas Crown Affair, not Bond) running away from the area (in a gray suit). Apparently the Feds were closing in.

Betty and I get to her apartment, which is a tiny little place with knick-knacks and kitchy stuff, with a green putt-putt grass-type carpet (which I understood that she'd had for years - the apartment, not the carpet, but I guess that, too - but didn't care to move, even though she could afford a nicer place). It seemed like an old-lady apartment and, though not seen, that there must be a cat in residence, too. I realize that Pierce has somehow followed us, and in a moment of consciousness I realized this was a dream and I would prefer that Pierce change to Gerard Butler - which he does for a time. So now the authorities are at Betty's place, asking questions in their full SWAT gear, and Betty's making tea. Gerard is now Rock Hudson and is skulking around in the parking lot and in the neighboring apartment, but I don't snitch, because I think he might be ok.

Then I hear a noise (in real life) and realize it's past time to get up, so there ends the dream. Then last night I dreamt of zombies. Apparently that Benadryl is doing more than helping my congestion!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Help! In need of a recommendation!

Can anyone suggest a good sci-fi book? I need one for an annotation, but I'm having trouble finding something.

Any ideas???

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Sugar Queen - Don't read this book on an empty stomach!

The Sugar Queen is a lovely story that takes place in the mountains of North Carolina. It primarily follows the story of four women, Josey Cirrini, her mother Margaret, Della Lee Baker, and Chloe Finley.

Josey has lived most of her life making up for her childhood tantrums. She doesn't know why she was so terrible, but her reputation was set early and the town can't seem to forget it; neither will her mother. Her mother, always a beautiful women (just as lovely now, even in her 70s), treats her like a servant and belittles her at every chance. So Josey finds sanctuary in a little secret hideaway; in a hidden section of her closet she has created a haven filled with books, travel magazines, and most importantly, sweets. Cookies, candies, sodas - food to make her feel better.

So imagine her surprise when she enters her closet and finds a woman inside.

This story focuses on the issues these women are facing and how they are able to move past them. Della Lee, the woman in the closet, tries to break Josey out of her shell. She encourages her to meet Chloe and pursue her mailman (whom Josey has loved since they first met). Chloe has problems of her own. Her boyfriend, a man she was deeply in love with, cheated on her. Their relationship was so passionate and intense that it always left her feeling off-centered, but she never thought he'd cheat and it breaks her heart. Margaret was forced into marriage with Marco Cirrini (dead long before our story begins), the man who reinvigorated the town and made it prosper. She'd felt love only once, and not with her husband, and the years have made her bitter. Della Lee had a tough life - her mother was certifiable, and Della Lee lived wildly. Now she's trying to help Josey and, through Josey, Chloe live their lives to the fullest.

There is magic, both in the story and in Allen's prose. The touches of magic in the story don't seem out of place; they seem to oddly fit, as though it's right that good things happen to Josey when she wears her red sweater, that the men in a certain family in this town always keep their promises, and my personal favorite, that books appear when Chloe needs them. In fact, throughout this story Chloe is stalked by several self-help books, trying to help her forgive. They appear at her diner, next to her at a bar, and follow her throughout her apartment (but they won't go into the bathroom except in emergencies - they don't like the water).

I found Allen's prose to be lovely. This is where my warning from the blog title comes into play; as this book is titled The Sugar Queen, much of what Allen writes has a connection to sweets. Each chapter is titled with a type of candy, and generally connects to the chapter somehow (examples include "Everlasting Gobstoppers" and "Sugar Daddy"). This is also found in the prose itself. Beware her descriptions, they will make you hungry: "If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm," and "Josey shook her head, thinking, if Della Lee were a candy, she would be a SweeTart. Not the hard kind that broke your teeth, the chewy kind, the kind you had to work on and mull over, your eyes watering and your lips turning up into a smile you didn't want to give." Instead of describing someone's dark hair in terms of the night like you may find in other stories (particularly the romances), here it's described as "warm chocolate-cake brown."

While this story does include a bit of romance, the main focus is on these four women. The focus changes between them, so you get a first-hand account of how each are feeling and the circumstances that have led them to this point. The story wraps things up well, though things aren't all perfect; like real life, some things can't be fixed in the course of a few months (the timeframe of this novel), but there's hope that someday they will.

This is the second of Allen's books, a follow up to Garden Spells. They both have a similar feel and the same touch of magic, and both are centered in a small (but different) North Carolina town, but they are otherwise unconnected. Allen's books fits in the Women's Lives and Relationships genre, though it skims both Fantasy and Romance, and sits on the outskirts of Gentle Reads. She has a third book coming out this March, The Girl Who Chased the Moon. As I adored both Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen, I will definitely be picking up Moon from my local library.

Title: The Sugar Queen
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
Hardcover: 288 pages
Price: $22.00
Publisher: Bantam (May 20, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0553805495
ISBN-13: 978-0553805499

Friday, February 5, 2010

Romantical Fantastical - two romance reviews for the price of one!

I am about to attempt the impossible – I’m going to review two very different books by two VERY different authors in two very different time periods. That’s not the hard part. The hard part will be showing a correlation between the two. Mission: Accepted.

Most people are probably familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Even if they’ve never read the books, they (at least the girls) are aware of the scene where Mr. Darcy (aka Colin Firth) takes a dip in the pond (I haven’t read P&P in a while, but I’m pretty darn sure that Jane didn’t write that).

Slightly less-well-known is Jane’s last completed work, Persuasion. This is the story of Anne Elliot, a sensible young woman who was “persuaded” to let the love of her youth go, only to meet him again eight years later. Then she gets to watch as all the young girls flirt with him and all their married acquaintances guess which of the young girls he’s going to end up marrying.

This book, as many that were written in times past, may be a bit difficult to get started; the language and style are very different than what we’re used to today. And it doesn’t help that the first few pages seem dry. But the opening is actually an introduction to Jane’s snarkiness. Poor Anne isn’t just past her prime without the love of her life, she also has to deal with her ridiculous and vain father, a conceited older sister (both of whom think Anne isn’t worth their time or concern), and a hypochondriac younger sister. Jane brilliantly and scathingly writes these characters; they’re deliciously awful.

Snarkiness aside, this story (for me) can be summed up by a few lines toward the end of the story:

I believe you [men] equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as—if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.

In other words, Anne never stopped loving her Captain.

You do have to work more for this book than most fluffy romance novels, but it’s worth the effort. The only problem I had with it, and it’s a minor one, is Jane’s habit of naming multiple characters by the same first name. This may be true to the times, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out which Charles she’s referring to in a given scene.

Next up, a tale as old as time: Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy fears he will eat girl, so boy dumps girl. Girl mourns loss of boy. Girl befriends werewolf. Girl has to rescue boy (who happens to be a vampire). And they lived happily ever after (at least for a few weeks).

Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon, the second book in the Twilight Saga (if it's a "saga," you know it's gonna be angsty) and recent blockbuster hit. The first book in this series has our two main characters, Edward and Bella, meeting and falling in love. In New Moon, Edward is afraid that he or his family will be overcome by Bella’s tasty scent and, alas, kill her. So, for her sake, he leaves (thus making this the least favorite book in the series for thousands of teens). Bella, deep in depression, finds that extreme activities and her good buddy Jacob are the only things that make her feel a little better. And then she finds out that Jacob turns into a giant wolf and is the archenemy of all vampires. Mayhem ensues.

So how in the world can I possibly compare Jane Austen’s sensible heroine and her sea captain with a high school girl and her vampire and werewolf? Why would a grown woman choose to read this Young Adult novel? I have a theory (This is my personal opinion. If you are an adult and you love these books, but not for my reasoning below then I’m sorry, but this is my blog; if you disagree, go write about it on your blog!):

What draws me to Meyer’s books is the all-encompassing angst. Sometimes, maybe when the weather is gloomy or you’ve had a bad day or week, you just want to read something where you can have a good mope. And there is no better book from this series than New Moon for excellent mope-age: the whole world revolves around you and getting dumped means the end of everything. Poor Bella is practically comatose for the first half of the book, all because the love of her (short) life is gone.

Confession: I do love these books. There’s just something about them, despite the stalkery aspects of our hero and all the drama, that draws me in. And I think it may have something to do with what I described above. An adult woman, with all of her job, family, school, and/or general life issues, doesn’t get to wallow in much of anything, and reading about a story so me-focused can give a thrill. It’s that young love that’s all fire and excitement. The rest of us, like Anne Elliot, have to pull on our big-girl panties and get on with things, but a vicarious mope can set you free.

Bella, like Anne, lost her love. They both have their happily ever afters, and in between, they have their angst. In Jane Austen’s world, so much can be said by a single look or gesture. In Stephenie Meyer’s world, the pain and joy is more visceral. But in both you can find a good love story. (Good being entirely subjective, of course.)

So if you’re looking for a good angsty book, I’d recommend both Persuasion and New Moon. Which one just depends on the kind of angst you’re in the mood for.

Title: Persuasion
Paperback: 150 pages
Price: $6.95
Publisher: CreateSpace (November 18, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1440468397
ISBN-13: 978-1440468391

Title: New Moon
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 608 pages
Price: $7.47
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; First Paperback Edition edition (May 31, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0316024961
ISBN-13: 978-0316024969