Monday, January 30, 2012

The Book Doldrums

As Newton theorized, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  For as wonderful as it is to read a book that really gets you excited, it's just as depressing to read one that never quite gets there.  Have you ever had that -- the book which isn't really that great but it's not awful enough to quit in the middle of it?  And when you're finished, it's ultra unsatisfying?

I had one of those this week.  I read Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James.  I should've known better with a book like that.  Not that I would love everything in it, but that it would ultimately not satisfy me.  James isn't Austen, she's 92.  Okay, props right there for still writing novels when you're ancient, but still.  It may be thinly disguised through the veil of a critically acclaimed writer, but it is, at its most basic level: FANFICTION.  Yes, that's right.  I said it.  It's fanfiction.  It's a story written using somebody else's set of characters.  They may be Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but they're still not your characters.

Like always with books of this sort, I had high hopes.  As I mentioned before, P.D. James is a critically acclaimed author.  She was extending the life of my favorite group of Austen characters.  And, it was a 7-day only book, so I had no excuse not to get cracking.  With practically all my other books, I have no limit to how many times I can check them out because I read such weird things nobody else wants them and I can renew them forever.  I had a Dickens' novel for a year.  Did I read it?  Noooo.

I read this one, though.  It started out pretty well.  I was laughing out loud during the prologue.  And somehow it just all went downhill from there.  The mystery had no punch, Elizabeth was not actually the central character (indeed it was difficult to determine who was), and the ending was too neatly stitched up for me.  Now, granted, it was very Austen-esque.  The revelation of the answer to the mystery came about by the main characters sitting together chatting.  Something that could have been quite exciting, therefore, was told like a non-consequential piece of tea-time gossip.  I mean, without giving away too many details, it was downright scandalous.  It would still be scandalous today, unlike Lydia and Wickham's P&P elopement, which today is commonplace and accepted by most people.  It just didn't have the spark and pizazz it deserved.  The Jane Austen style is perfect for humorous, laid-back romances heavy on the proper deportment -- not murder mysteries.

Finish it I did, but recommend it?  Not likely.  Instead, if you want a good, interesting read that stays with you after the last page is turned, try Th1rteen R3asons Why, by Jay Asher, another book I read this week.  A high school girl commits suicide, and she makes tapes of all her reasons and send it to the 13 people who most influenced her decision.  The book is one of the people listening to the tapes and reacting to it.  Sounds depressing right?  Well, yes.  But trust me, as guilty as you will feel for enjoying it, much like a craftily hidden obsession with Teen Mom or Toddlers and Tiaras, you. . .will. . .enjoy. . .it.  And hey, it's thought-provoking.

Now, it's time to get back to my current book: Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston.  Bloated, anthrax-filled bodies and break-outs of deadly diseases. . .too bad I just ate.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Good Ol' Fashioned Creeper

As promised, the next classic book I read was indeed The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (not Victor Hugo -- don't ask me why I thought it was).  To me, this book was clearly written by a Frenchman.  The hero is a whining pansy.  The heroine can't look beyond the Phantom's hideousness.  The Phantom is the uber stalker.  And the author himself if always interrupting with pointless tangents about accuracy of minute plot points.  Seriously, no one cares what kind of hat he's wearing.  Oh, and the food sounds both divine and odd.  I mean, at one point they eat violets.  Now, I know eating flowers happens, but still.  Gross.  I've eaten rose petals before, and they do not go down pleasantly.  But, my grandmother does say a dandelion salad is delicious.

For those who are living under a rock, the story revolves around tragic and pretty singer Christine Daae, her lovestruck suitor, and a twisted stalker musician pseudo-boyfriend.  Christine wants to love puppy-dog M. le Viscomte Raoul, but is forced to be a submissive music slave (and possibly romantic slave) to Erik.  The Phantom.

As per usual, things end badly.  No surprise there.  But the worst thing in this novel is Raoul himself.  He's insane!  And a blithering idiot.  Aren't they all?  Anyhow, he kind of fancies Christine (an old childhood friend he loved when they were awkward teenagers), so he follows her around the backstage of the Opera.  So that's weird.  Then, when she has her miraculous triumph, Raoul falls head over heels in love with her and decides to go down and declare his love for her.  She ignores him and he's completely depressed.  This starts a trend for the next hundred and fifty pages where he whirlwinds through every emotion in the book.  ANGER ANGST TERROR LOVE HATRED HURT.  He just won't shut up.  I don't know how Christine puts up with him.  Oh wait, her alternative is a creeper with a death's head who kidnapped her and held her prisoner underground.  Sucks to be her.

The Phantom is pitied by Christine.  He's sad and lonely and demented and she feels bad for him.  Dude.  Every girl knows that you cannot give them any hope.  You cannot go on pity dates, you cannot say "I can't be with you. . .right now."  You have to pull a How I Met Your Mother, practice with a teacup pig oozing with cuteness, and stare into their eyes and tell them it won't happen.  She cannot do that.  And what happens?  Death and destruction.  Dumb ho.

Personally, I feel bad for Erik.  Born deformed (a la Voldemort, i.e., lacking a nose), he lived as a sideshow freak, then a king's conspirator, then a ghost.  Even though he's probably middle-aged, he's like a child.  It's no wonder -- living as an outsider he's completely emotionally stunted.  So when he proposes love and marriage to Christine and she keeps coming back to him because she's terrified of him, he sees instead that she loves him back.  Really, then, he's just in this lovesick delusion that they're going to be happy together and he won't have to be alone anymore.  How sad.  I mean, he sleeps in a coffin because he considers himself less than alive and less than human.  Christine is most likely the first person who ever treated him nicely.  And what does he get?  Death and destruction.

All in all, it was an exciting, despairing story.  I won't give away the particulars of the ending, which are very different from the movie, but I will say that this was a fun read.  It had all the things that make for great tales: love, heroes, heroines, a villain, tricks, and tortures.  I would definitely recommend this one.

Now I put the question to you: what piece of classic literature should I read next?  The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas?  Some more Sherlock Holmes?  Finally finish Jane Austen and read Mansfield Park?  Please suggest something awesome!

Thursday, January 12, 2012


I am a sentimental person.  I get sappy over just about everything under the sun.  I'm the person who cries in the movie theater.  I'm the one who sends the mushy birthday and anniversary cards.  I listen to songs and read books and my bleeding heart aches for all those fictional people.  And so, I also get very attached to things.  It's not just a picture frame, it's the Belle princess sparkly picture frame my best friend got me for Christmas (or maybe my birthday) after she spent a semester in Disneyland.  It's not just a plastic dinosaur, it was the dinosaur hero of all my prehistoric epics played out when I was little.

It's particularly bad with books.  As I have mentioned before, my house is full of books, and it has driven me, as an adult, to utilize the library more and try to keep my owned book intake to a minimum.  Having said that, I bought a lot of books when I was a kid and a teenager.  I received a lot of books as gifts (and still do).  And somehow, each one has a special meaning, and it makes it very difficult for me to get rid of them ever.  Even if I don't read them much anymore, I remember how much I enjoyed reading them at one point and think, "Well, I might like to do that in the future."

Then there's the good ol' argument, "I should keep this for when I have kids because I know I'll want it then."  That's all well and good, but what do you do in the meantime?  What if it takes me ten years to have kids and in between I'm up to my ears in picture books?  Having said that, that sounds TOTALLY AWESOME because I LOVE picture books, but still.  I am moving soon, and I may try to leave the majority of my "for my kids" picture book collection at home until we move somewhere bigger and I can come back and get them.  Angelina Ballerina is totally coming with me.

Then, excuse number three -- I will read it in the near future.  No I won't.  But I tell myself I will.  I have had a copy of The Brothers Karamazov tucked away in a box under my bed for almost five years because I read excerpts of it my senior year in high school, thought it was awesome, resolved to read it, bought it, then never opened it.  Maybe the Russians are just too intimidating right now (I don't know why, I read Dickens all the time), but I just can't bring myself to sit down and read that book.  And it's hardly doing me any good collecting dust.

Fourthly, there's the academic books.  I have recently come to the almost frightening realization that I really don't much want to be a teacher.  Yes, shocking, I know.  I'd rather be a professor or a librarian.  But even though I am not bent on being a teacher, I find it very difficult to let go of my educational psychology book, for example.  Or even my ELL textbook.  You know.  Just in case.  What if I need it for something?  Then there's the books that actually pertain to my favorite historical topic which I plan on pursuing at some point in my life.  I have it in my head that I need to build up my library, so I have three very full shelves of books like Genealogies of Religion and A History of Islamic Societies and The Bhagavad Gita (in Sanskrit AND English, my friend -- boooooyahhhh).  Then Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Wizard of Oz all basically get their own shelf.  By the end of the day, everything is super crowded, I still read a bunch of library books, and I am flat out of space.

It's quite a daunting task, at times.  The what-if factor has a strong pull, as does that age-old fear of the unknown.  Not to mention, there are a bunch of doom-and-gloomers who are predicting the end of the printed word as we know it (and am I really helping this cause by blogging?  Probably not).  I believe very firmly in physical books and their ability to transcend fads (i.e. the iPad), but I get scared nonetheless.

In the end, I guess you just have to say to yourself, "This way, someone else will get a chance to enjoy them."  And let them go.  Yes, I am a zen master.  A zen master who is going to put on some ABBA and go through the boxes under her bed.

By the bye, if you or your loved ones are looking to donate books, the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and your local library are always willing to accept them.  :)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wildwood -- Channelling Weird Ideas Into Novels

Channelling weird ideas into novels has always been a favorite outlet of my own.  I have been told I am a zealously imaginative person, and when I was young (or not so young) I would write fantastical stories about superheroes and wild west showdowns and the like.  I now channel my weird ideas into this blog, for one, and the ears of my friends, for another, but Colin Meloy has done one better and actually gotten them published in novel form!

Alright, before I get into the meat of my review, let me just say that even though I love the Decemberists, I will do my best to be fair to the book.  They are great.  I saw them live in August on their "The King is Dead" tour, and they were freaking awesome.  And moreover, Meloy was funny.  Didn't see that one coming, for some reason.  Anyhow, despite my love affair with their music and despite the fact that this book has shades of them in it, Wildwood is strictly a Meloy venture.

In case you are unfamiliar, Wildwood is Meloy's first foray into novels, and is the first of three purported installments.  The basic plotline: Prue McKeel's life in Portland, Oregon, is boring and ordinary, until one day when a murder of crows abducts her baby brother and flies off with him into a giant forest bordering the city known as "The Impassable Wilderness".  Her mission: retrieve her brother.  With the help of a bumbling accidental tag-along in the form of her classmate Curtis Mehlberg, she braves the wildnerness in search of her brother.

First, the positives.  What a great vocabulary.  One thing I love about the Decemberists is their propensity to use college-level words to express themselves.  To me, it's like they're saying, "No, we don't think you're dumb, and to prove it we're going to expect you understand some big words".  Thank you, a thousand times.  I am likewise going to do the same and say that if a child reading this book doesn't understand them, it challenges him or her to look up the definitions and stretch some dendrytes.  Dendryte stretching is always a good idea.  Secondly, though Meloy seems to pay homage (heavily sometimes) to such fantasy predecessors as J. R. R. Tolkien (at one point in my head I was doing my best Billy Boyd "THE EAGLES ARE COMING"), C. S. Lewis (evil queen of the wood), and others, the plot line is varied, interesting, and rich.  I found myself still entertained basically up until the bitter end, which is not something I can say for all children's or fantasy literature or a combination thereof.  Especially creative is his portrait of a particular prison, where cages woven from branches are strung from a giant tree's roots sixty feet above a rock-strewn, stalagmatic floor, and the only access to them comes from a precariously flimsy ladder.

Secondly, the negatives -- or at least, hesitations.  It took me a while to get into this particular book.  I really had to sit down for a big chunk of time and get about 100 pages in before I really got into it.  The climactic scene is not quite as climactic as it could've been, but other nailbiters made up for it.  Additionally, it wasn't much of a problem for me because the reading went quickly, but this baby was 540 pages long.  I've read reviews where people say he could've cut out half the book, but I just don't see how.  Yes, it's super long, but that's part of the enjoyment.  Meloy takes the time to wend his way through the story, making you familiar with the place and the characters.  This story is decidedly old-fashioned, and it takes its time in an old-fashioned way.  I, for one, love a story like that.

All in all, if you've got the love of the Decemberists, some patience, and an enjoyment of children's literature, fantasy, and a hint of the archaic, pick up this book.  Wildwood is a great beginning to what will hopefully be a triumphant trilogy.  Make no bones about it, either.  This may be sorted in the kids' section, but this book is for adults and children alike.  It uses adult language, adult situations, and deals with sordid and realistic issues of life (child abduction, murder, stealing, infertility, etc.) in an adult fashion.  Meloy treats children with respect and a sense of playfulness, and it will tickle the reader, whatever age they may be.