Sunday, February 26, 2017

What I've Been Reading (and Seeing) Lately

I'm still reading so much. It's better for me than Xanax and Vicodin, which if either of those were available, believe me, I'd be gulping them down in pints. Probably both at once.

The kid and I also went to see Lysistrata at the university theater last night. It was a production in modern dress, which made me a little uneasy at first, but turned out to work really well. All student actors, and almost all of them wonderful. Great comic timing, good actors, and did an excellent job bringing the hilarity of the play across the centuries. Walking back to my car, the kid said to me, "Why are the Greeks so modern? That was great!"

(She also loves Euripides, who she's only read.)

What I'm reading:

Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye

I'm extremely fond of Jane Eyre now, though I hated it as a child and an adolescent (I was forced to read it in the 10th grade, just as my child was forced to read it last month, in AP English). And I love books that are written in response or as fan fiction, more or less, about books I love, as long-time readers of this blog might have noticed. So no surprise I gave a small squee of glee when I saw a review for this book on NPR.

Also! My library had a copy. Oh boy! I didn't even have to buy it. I put in a request and had it the next day. Then I stayed up all night reading it. (Luckily it was a Friday night.) It's great. I love it at least as much as Jane Eyre, though Jane Steele is not much like Jane Eyre.

The two Janes do live at about the same time, and the rough outlines of their lives -- their general plot, as it were -- are the same. They both have mean-spirited aunts, they both go off to boarding school at nine, that boarding school is run by a vicious headmaster. They both end up as tutors to a small foreign girl, and they both end up in love with her guardian -- Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre's case, Mr. Thornfield, in Jane Steele's case.

But the path by which Jane Steele reaches reaches Mr. Thornfield is very different from Jane Eyre's path. Not until I read this book did I realize how passive Jane Eyre is -- how very seldom she makes choices that direct her life. This is not to say Jane Eyre never does. She makes crucial decisions at key points, and they are excellent decisions: to leave Lowood school, for instance, and seek employment as a governess; to refuse Mr. Rochester's proposal that they leave England and take up a life together in the South of France; to refuse St. John's proposal to be his missionary-wife. And she also insists on dividing her inheritance among her cousins.

But except for that first decision, all of these decisions are reactive. She doesn't do things; she reacts to thing. Reacts properly, reacts well, reacts admirably -- but still, thing happen to Jane, and Jane deals with them. Jane doesn't make things happen, for the most part.

 In Jane Steele's narrative, Jane makes things happen, almost from the first page. I don't want to be too spoilery, but (just as a for instance) in this narrative it is Jane who demands to be sent to school. And when the school turns out to be dangerously horrific, it is Jane who takes action to deal with the problem. The other girls take action as well -- this part of the book, though brief, is very well done. We get to know the girls at school, and see how they work together to help one another resist the abuse they're being subjected to. And here we first meet Clarke, Jane Steele's Helen, who is everything many of us wished Bronte's Helen would have been.

Anyway! A wonderful book. I'm probably going to end up buying my own copy.

Richard Ben Sapir, The Far Arena.

This is a book I discovered when I was maybe fifteen, which I re-read every few years until I was in my mid-twenties. I held onto the book through every cull, though I didn't read it again until (I think?) somewhere in my early thirties. And then again last week.

It's a science-fictiony story, written in the seventies, about a Roman gladiator from 80 AD who is frozen in glacial ice (some handwavium here about how that happens, involving execution via a poison that keeps his blood from crystalizing, but okay) and then revived by a Russian doctor practicing cutting-edge science (in 1978).

The science isn't very sciency, in other words, but the characters -- our gladiator, Eugeni; our Russian doctor, the Texas geologist who is with the drill crew who finds Eugeni; and the Norwegian nun, Sister Olav, who they bring in as their speaker of Latin -- are all excellent characters. Lew McCardle, the geologist, says some things that changed the way 15 year old me looked at life. And it's about Rome and studying Latin, so, you know, great for that reason alone.

Plus, it's a fish-out-of-water story, and those are always fun.

The Atlas of Love, Laurie Frankel

You'll remember I read Laurie Frankel's latest book, This Is How It Always Is, earlier this month. I liked that one bunches, so I went to see what else Frankel had written. Only two other books, it appears. Woe!

This is one of them. It's her first book, and I like it nearly as much as her latest. In this one, three very different English graduate students, comrades in the struggle to get their PhDs, are *this* close to orals and subsequent dissertation hours when one of them gets pregnant, and decides to have the baby. The father of the child nopes out of there, and the three young women team up to raise the child and finish their degree together.

That's the plot. As with This Is How It Always Is, it's the execution and Frankel's wonderful ability to create and use characters that makes this novel work. The grandmother in this one, like the grandmother in her other book, is one of the best characters, for instance, which I did not see coming. You don't see a lot of fully-developed and interesting in their own right (interesting as people, not as stock figures) grandmothers in American fiction. There's probably a dissertation in that. Or at least a conference paper.

Anyway -- this one is also recommended.

Octavia Butler, Fledgling

Obviously recommended. I'm reading this one for my Zombies, Vampires, and the Apocalypse class. I've read this one a number of times before, but reading it in concert with Dracula and zombie books, and while watching vampire movies, sheds new light. Most vampire books (and many movies) center around the need to kill the transgressor, that person who used to be one of us but who has now crossed over, had congress with, and become one of the enemy.

It's remarkable how often this person is a young woman. It's almost like these stories are discussing honor killing.

Butler's Fledgling rejects that narrative. In her text, the community is a vampire community. The young woman that community wants to kill is a vampire child (a young woman, but still technically, as vampires reckon things, a child), who has "had congress" of a sorts with the enemy -- with humans. She is genetically part human: a mongrel. She and all her close relatives, according to one branch of the vampire community, must be eradicated, in order to keep vampire kind pure.

Shori (or Renee -- she has both names in the text) fights back against those who want her dead, but she does it (mostly) with the laws of her community, not with violence. (There is some violence.) We have a young woman who has power in her community, in other words -- quite a lot of power -- and a community in which women have most of the power. And in this narrative, instead of the young woman being a victim, or an object, the young woman uses her power to seek and achieve justice, not just for herself, but for everyone who depends on her.

Butler is showing us the correct use of power, and the correct way to fight evil. And she's doing it with vampires -- vampires who work by scientific laws, by the way, not by fantastic or mystical laws. As always with Butler, highly recommended.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Somehow I never got around to reading this when everyone else was reading it, back in the late eighties. Now that's not SF anymore, I thought I'd give it a try.

It's readable. And grim. And seems less unlikely than it might have, six months ago.

I can't say I like it, though. I've never really enjoyed reading anything Atwood writes. They read more like pamphlets than novels.

Robin McKinley, Sunshine

I've read this before, often. But it's a vampire novel, and one I love, so I read it again.

It's an alternative history fantasy novel. Vampires are real. So are werewolves (and were-weasels, and were-skunks, and were-parrots, and were...) and magic and the fey and every other mystical sort of thing you ever thought of.

Sunshine (or Rae, her real name -- but we don't use real names in a world where magic is real) works in a bakery. She makes the best cinnamon rolls ever. The bakery contains her constructed, extended, and real family. That's how we first meet her.

Only later do we learn that she is a scion of the most powerful family of magicians in the world -- and we learn it when she learns it, since her mother left her magic-wielding father when Sunshine was very young, to get her away from this family.

The magic-scion part is essential to the plot, though, because Sunshine, early in the novel, is kidnapped by vampires, not to be eaten, but to be used as a sort of tool of torment, in a struggle between two powerful vampires. Sunshine, because she is more than what she appears -- because she has the ability to fight back -- interrupts this narrative. Here is where the story takes off.

Again, as with Frankel, what makes this plot work is McKinley's execution and her ability to create characters. Sunshine's ancient landlady, for instance, though only peripheral to the plot, is one of the best parts of the book.

Also, although I've seen people complain about all the baking, the bakery. The bakery is great. I'd read it just for the bakery, frankly.

March One, March Two, March Three, John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

These are the famous graphic novels, written by John Lewis and drawn by Andrew Aydin, about the Civil Rights movement. Since I've been reading about, researching about, and watching movies and documentaries about the Civil Rights movement for maybe ten years now, there wasn't a lot here I didn't know, but the books are well done. I also liked the juxtaposition of Obama's inauguration with the horrific events of the 1950s and 1960s.

It was also a little heartbreaking to read about the "happy ending" of Obama's election three weeks after the US elected a vile fascist monster to replace him. So there's that.

These would be a good introduction to the Civil Rights movement -- they'd be great to use in high school, for instance.


Bardiac said...

And I've been reading Book 3 of the Faerie Queene... good in it's own way :)

delagar said...

I had to read The Faerie Queen in one of the classes I took in grad school. I can't remember which one. The guy who taught Shakespeare taught it, though, I remember that. And I remember liking Gawain more. :D

Bardiac said...

I do, too, like Gawain more!

Rosa said...

I love Sunshine so much.

And, the March books ARE a great introduction to the topic. When we went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the kid was kind of checked out halfway through (not bored, maybe overwhelmed, but definitely pretty done) and we perked him up for a minute by pointing out a picture of "that man who wrote March." I've left them laying around the place and had several kids pick them up and be engrossed.

delagar said...

When I was reading the March books, I was wishing they'd been around when my kid was younger!

I haven't been to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Maybe that should be our Spring Break trip!