le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

the dead are very popular

I seem to be encountering a lot of (mostly ya) books about the dead. I just finished Charlie Price's Dead Connection, which I liked quite a lot, and which features a teenaged boy who can talk to the dead people in the cemetery he visits. After reading Sabriel earlier this summer (and being disappointed by it, unfortunately), I made a short list of books about the dead and/or necromancers, ones I've read fairly recently.

  • Daughter of Smoke & Bone
  • Sabriel
  • Hold me closer necromancer
  • Dead School
  • Adoration of Jenna Fox
  • Graveyard Book
  • Eva Ibbotson
  • If I stay (gayle forman)
  • Dead Connection
  • Lark - Tracey Porter
  • This is Not a Test - Courtney Summers
I was thinking about all these death-related stories, then realized - in one of those a-ha, oh DUH moments - that vampires and zombies are also dead. The undead count, in my reckoning of books about dead folks; to become a vampire or zombie, you have to die first, and you surely aren't alive in any normal sense once you've become zombified/vampire'd.
So what's with this? Why this massive surge of popularity in the dead/undead? Vampires have always been popular, it's true; Twilight is just the latest mode. But zombies have gotten very popular in the last few years, as well - and they have not always been popular. There have been a number of books concerned with necromancers, or their equivalents (people who can raise/interact with/alter the dead, even if they aren't explicitly named necromancer).
Can this be attributed to anything? Is there something about the current cultural moment that draws us more to the dead/undead than usual?
I'm not sure. It's perplexing, and vaguely disturbing (but not really that disturbing, because I am okay with stories about the dead and undead and necromancers). but it does seem to be a kind of trend, and thus worth thinking about.
What does having the dead/undead in your story get you? what do these kinds of characters and plots force us to think about? can we understand these kinds of beings - zombies, etc - as metaphors, or symbols? 
I wonder. I don't have any hypotheses at the moment; it's just that my attention has snagged on all these dead/undead themed books. Or maybe I'm seeing a pattern that doesn't exist - maybe I've been drawn to them because i encountered a few, and now I'm looking for a trend? Though it does seem worth noting the fairly recent publication dates of many of these books....

why the focus on the dead, the undead, and the necromancer?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

necromancing the swag

I love book-related swag. LOVE. IT.  And so I was really excited to see Lish McBride kicking around the idea of swag for the upcoming  Necromancing the Stone.

the hour of swag is almost upon us, and if you want in, there's a kickstarter.

I have contributed. Yes. Despite my deep suspicion of kickstarter projects, this is one I feel great supporting. I also happen to know, because she tweets about it, that Lish McBride has a day job in addition to writing, so this isn't just about making money for her to roll around on while she lights candles with hundred-dollar bills.

BOOK SWAG IS THE BEST.  If you have a few dollars and like Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (and you should, because it's amazing), pop over to kickstarter and drop some change in the piggybank. There are neato swag prizes for donating, in addition to generating product.

If only ALL my best-beloved books/writers would kickstart swag!! Just think - Philip Pullman swag? designs from those gorgeous 2002 Knopf editions of his Dark Materials?  Or awesome stuff based on Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books? Diana Wynne Jones swag?

oh, the possibilities!
But the Necromancer swag is on the verge of becoming reality, and YOU can make it happen! go kickstart!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Open letter to the Universe, especially feiwel & friends and henry holt & co

Dear Universe (and especially the fine people at Feiwel&Friends and Henry Holt&Co publishing):

In a year that has been exceptionally filled with disappointment and not getting what I want, I make this plea, a true cri de coeur:

I want, I cryingly want, ARCs of The girl who fell beneath fairyland & led the revels there by Catherynne M. Valente and/or Necromancing the Stone by Lish McBride.

I loved the first book in each series, by each of these women who are fantastic storytellers, clever and witty word-players, and wonderful writers. I taught the first Fairyland book to my Introduction to literature classes, and they really liked it. I have every intention of teaching Hold Me Closer, Necromancer when I next get an opportunity. On my recommendation, a friend of mine read it and included it in her syllabus for The Gothic Imagination.

I do not have a megaphone or a large, well-attended platform from which to speak, but I do what I can to introduce as many people as possible to the books I really love - which include Valente's and McBride's.

I expect to have rather a grind of it this autumn, for a number of reasons, many having to do with the year filled with disappointment and not getting what I want. i understand these things happen to everyone, but they have been happening to me at a rather rapid rate in the last few years.

I am looking forward to the publication of both Valente's and McBride's books this fall (along with Lemony Snicket's newest!). Reading these books will be a very bright sunny spot in an overcast semester. And yet - I am seriously broke. I will be earning half of what I made last year, and that was below the poverty line. I make use of the library like a fiend, but these books I anticipate having to fight for - or rather, wait for. And being left out of the conversations, the blog posts, the interviews and articles (to protect myself from even the tiniest of spoilers) - well, that makes me deeply sad. It makes it harder for me to do my job of being informed, well-read, and engaged in my field (children's and YA literature).

I am trying to finish my dissertation this fall. It will be a slog. I am teaching more students for less money. I am having to take out more student loans than I have had to in quite a few years. None of this makes me special, of course; it just makes me unhappy (and broke). But books! oh books! Book people know how comforting and joyous new books are, especially ones by beloved authors or in beloved series. Reading a great new book is a relief of the spirit, the heart, and the mind.  Reading is not just what I do for pleasure or fun; it is also my job. My vocation, so to speak.

Thus the desire for ARCs.
Thus this pleading, probably desperate and pitiful, open letter.

I am willing to cast aside my pride and dignity in the cause of these books.

most sincerely,


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Context is key

A really interesting and smart post from David Haberstich, cataloguing editor/coordinator at the Smithsonian, about how to handle sensitive subjects, particularly focusing on race: "Confrontational Curator, Cowardly Cataloguer."

Haberstich's post seems particularly interesting and relevant to me when placed alongside Stephen Marche's essay in the NYTimes about reading racist materials to kids, which I discuss (at great length; I had a lot to say) in this post.

It seems clearer and clearer to me that - while outrage, disgust, anger about certain kinds of images and representations are totally legitimate - the solution is never to hide or conceal or deny those representations. Museums have the responsibility of providing context, which makes the jobs of curators, exhibit planners, etc, difficult, but it isn't too often that I've come across instances of recent exhibits in reputable institutions (creationist museums are not reputable, in my book) that seek to glorify, valorize, excuse, or justify racist representations on display. It's important to see some of this crap - the appalling racist cartoons and caricatures, the books, the scripts, the short films, whatever - because those things really happened, they really exist, and pretending racist history didn't happen is not going to make racism go away. Pretending slavery didn't occur, wasn't predicated on racism, pseudoscience, greed, a dozen other things - none of that is going to mean that slavery didn't happen.

Maybe there's a parallel with representations of the Holocaust. I'm not totally sure, but it does seem to me that a great many people work very hard to make sure the horrors of Nazism and genocidal anti-Semitism and the "Final Solution" stay in front of people's eyes. Yeah, it's awful to see rabbis scrubbing anti-Semitic graffiti from their own synagogues, using toothbrushes, while kicked and spit on by Nazis. The grotesque propaganda churned out by Hitler and his minions is ugly as anything - but it really happened. It's really real, and we need to know, all the time, that these things did happen, and can happen, and do happen. Hiding history behind complaints of insensitivity doesn't serve anyone's interests except deniers, racists, and fools. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

Owl Services

 The first time I read Alan Garner's The Owl Service, it was in this edition, to the left (and I quite love the design of the cover, as well as what I understand of the book, which frankly isn't all that much).

The Owl Service was inspired by this piece of dinnerware, below, which someone gave to Alan Garner, who saw Owls in it, and got obsessed/fascinated, and evidently learned Welsh along the way to writing his novel, which is - among other things - a kind of retelling of the Mabinogi story about Blodeuwedd and Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Today, while poking around a Marshall's store, I spotted these bowls, and immediately had to have them. My bowl needs are not pressing at the moment, though I can always use another cereal bowl, but my need to have my very own Owl Service bowls was very strong indeed. 
Owls or flowers? Flowers or owls?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

O Canada

Since my fairly recent revelation that Australian YA is amazing (Margo Lanagan, Markus Zusak, Melina Marchetta, Simmone Howell, Gabrielle Williams, etc), I have been thinking about other non-British, non-American Anglophone literatures. I finally got it together and started creating a list of Canadian children's/YA books to read, primarily culled from Canadian literary awards sites like the Canadian Children's Book Centre.

My most recent trek to the library got me two titles by Catherine Austen, both of which I have now read. Walking Backward, Austen's debut middle-grade (MG) novel, was quite good, much better than its cover copy suggested it might be. The narrator of the book, Josh, is a 12-year-old whose mom has recently died in a car accident (she was distracted by a small snake in the car; she had an intense snake-phobia, and rammed her car into a tree at high speed); Josh has a four-and-a-half year old brother, Sammy, and a seemingly-absent(minded) father who is "coping" with his wife's death by building a time machine in the basement. Josh is a bright kid - his mom was a university professor of medieval literature who read him Beowulf and Grail myths when he was small - and his narrative is peppered with facts and information, often - but not solely - about religious practices surrounding death. Josh is not searching for faith, but he is cycling through the various practices, thinking about applying them to his own grieving process, while trying to take care of the house and all the "mom" things, along with consoling his little brother and himself.
Walking Backward isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but neither is it weepy-sad. Josh's sense of loss comes through loud and clear, but so do all his anger, confusion, irritation, at having lost not just the relationship with his mom, but the person in the family who ran the household. Josh's dad has always been useless, Josh reveals (he mentions, specifically, things like cleaning the cats' litterbox, and doing laundry and cooking, as well as things like scheduling Sammy's kindergarten orientation and buying new back-to-school clothes), and so Josh is picking up the slack.
Because the book is written journal-style (and is meant to be the journal "prescribed" by the psychiatrist the family is seeing), we have to do some reading between the lines to get a sense of how and what Josh really is, and those moments of revelation are particularly effective. For instance, when Josh blurts out to various people "Did you put the snake in my mom's car?" or when he notes that he wrote to the Darwin Awards people, asking (worrying) if his mom's death qualifies her for one.
Walking Backward is a fairly short book, but for all it's seemingly sad subject material, is very charming and enjoyable. Austen handles Josh's voice really well; he's smart, he's knowledgeable, but he's also 12, so he worries about his little brother being pegged as a weirdo, and whether Karen, who kissed him right before going off to summercamp, still likes him. There's a sense of humor, not exactly a lightheartedness, but something akin to it, underlying Josh's voice: he sees the odd and the interesting and the annoying and the sad and considers it all in his assessment of the world around him. There's also a great deal of serious thought about how to honor and remember the dead we love, and Josh's trial and error through the mourning practices of a number of religions until he and his brother and dad ultimately find ways to memorialize and memorize their mom that are entirely their own.

The other Austen book I read was the Canadian Children's Book Centre's 2012 Best YA - All Good Children. It's quite a good dystopic novel that manages to avoid some of the cliches and tropes we're seeing a lot of these days in the boom of YA dystopias. It wasn't until the very end of Austen's book, actually, that I realized that it's thematically (and even situationally) quite similar to Pam Bachorz's very good YA novel Candor. I'll say now that I really liked both All Good Children  and Candor, and thought they share a similar basic premise - controlling children's minds to ensure obedience and a certain kind of behavior - they handle it differently, and more importantly, contextualize it differently.

All Good Children has some good futuristic quirks - fuel is so expensive that not many people own cars anymore; cars have been largely converted to "housing" for the thousands of poor people of New Middletown, where Max, his mom, and his little sister Ally live. New Middletown, it turns out, is a company town: Chemrose, a company which - among other things - runs massive geriatric housing units, one of which employs Max's mom. New Middletown is racially interesting; Max's mom is dark-skinned, and his dad (who died a few years earlier) was white. Max and Ally are definitely dark but lighter than their mom, but what's especially interesting is that - narrated by Max - "white" ends up appearing as a kind of pejorative. Sometimes non-white skin colors are described or noted, but white always is; it's a small but nice touch of defamiliarization and rearrangement of contemporary racial/social practice.
Max is a bit of a jerk - he's not quite 16, he's a bit mouthy, he loves to screw around in class - pranks, jokes, making fun of people, tormenting substitutes, graffiti (including stealing art supplies from the school). He's also not above taking advantage of Ally's "slowness" - she's not severely mentally disabled, but she's definitely slow; she's also only six years old - early on there's a scene when Max messes with Ally to steal her bag of chips on a flight home. It's not until quite late in the novel that Max realizes that his actions may be negatively affecting people; Austen's smart and clever enough not to make this some huge life-changing revelation, more a moment of "wow, I never thought of that," accompanied by a sense of some unease and slightly guilt or regret. But that's not some huge Life Lesson Max needs to learn, because basically he's a good kid who does care about his little sister (he walks her to school every day, takes her to the park, humors her quirks) and his friends.
New Middletown has started something called Nesting, an acronym for a program that involves drugging the city's children into submissiveness. All the kids, from the little ones through the oldest high schoolers, receive the shot, which is still in early phases; there are a number of rather grotesque physical and mental reactions to the shot, especially in kids who already take prescriptions. Through sheer luck - being out of town to attend a funeral - Ally has missed the first week of school, when the kids her age received their shots. Max and Ally - through their own trickery and their mom's work as a nurse - are able to avoid getting the shots, remaining "unzombiefied."
All Good Children is quite an interesting setup - New Middletown is one large section in what appears to be a significantly reordered political and geographical world. The city is essentially locked down within itself, and though we don't get much detail, it seems to be owned and run by the Chemrose company. Gradually, shady bits of information about Chemrose make their way into the narrative, along with other things: curtailed civil rights, widespread surveillance, a variety of untruths about the outside world aimed at building up New Middletown's nationalism as well as enabling the surveillance and other restrictions - and ultimately, the drugging of the children.
The novel is a great examination about the early days of a major shift in politics and policing, and control of the populace; we see all the slow-to-catch-on folks, the disbelievers, the conspiracy theorists, the resisters, the collaborators in all their many forms. Max, who has always been a bit out of control, is a perfect candidate for narrator and resister against the ultimate scheme in discipline; he's also an artist, and one of his works becomes hugely important for a variety of reasons in a super-nice touch by Austen.
One of the other aspects of All Good Children that I loved is its relative lack of romance narrative. There's a girl who Max is interested in, but she's a fairly minor character and in fact vanishes from the text by the midpoint. Max's energies are focused around himself, his mom and sister, and his best friend Dallas (who is himself a fascinating character: he's an "ultimate," an expensive genetically engineered kid who by all rights should be a golden boy, but his repulsive father loathes him, and he's on the receiving end of a good deal of emotional, if not physical, abuse. Dallas has occasional episodes of blank red rage that frighten even emotionally-mercurial Max, but then he also has moments of Golden Boy glory. He's a pretty great character in a lot of ways).
Max isn't some perfect guy out to save the day; he's essentially selfish (as is our old pal Katniss Everdeen), protecting the people he cares about the most and not worrying so much about the rest. But he is made deeply uneasy by life in the zombie world of the "Nested" kids, which does give him a bit of a sense of understanding or empathy of the larger stakes at play. Max never loses his edge of jerkishness, either; he gets angry easily, he's pissed at his mom and the world for "allowing" the drugging, he gets snarky with Ally, with Dallas, with his neighbor Xavier. But rather than pitch his story as one of overcoming his juvenile jerkishness, or one where that jerkishness saves the day, Austen wisely allows it to be one component of Max's character, one aspect that is accompanied by many others. We don't like him in spite of, or because of his jerkishness; we like him because he has a whole host of likeable or interesting characteristics, which - as in real, non-ink-based humans - help make up for the jerky moments.

All Good Children makes for a very compelling and thought-provoking read, as well as being one that's simply enjoyable and gripping for all the reasons any good dystopia is enjoyable and gripping: a plot that moves, characters that are well-crafted and engaging, high stakes, a well-developed other world (ie, the world of the dystopia), a good balance of story and philosophizing or politicizing. It was a terrific read, and a book I'd like to own (which is pretty high recommendation from me, since my book-buying budget is miniscule).
Austen definitely ranks highly on my list of Good Contemporary Authors, and I will be looking out more of her books in the future.