Andrea Blythe (blythe025) wrote,
Andrea Blythe

Books Completed in November

1. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. Nebula Awards Showcase 2012, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly
3. The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
4. Leaves of Grass: The "Death-Bed" Edition, by Walt Whitman
5. Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, by various authors
6. Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente
7. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
8. Buffy and the Heroine's Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One, by Valerie Estelle Frankel
9. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
10. Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
11. Scott Pilgrim VS. the Universe, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
12. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
13. The Valley of the Horses, by Jean M. Auel


1. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
In part because the first of the movies is coming out and in part because I had to buy the gorgeous 70th Anniversary Pocket Edition, I found myself rereading The Hobbit. I'm a delighted to conclude that I love it just as much as I did the first time around. Dragons and goblins and trolls and wizards and elves and dwarves and more importantly hobbits — all the delights combined with rich descriptions of a fantastical world. There are problematic aspects of this work (entire peoples are either good or evil based on their race and kings are favored over elected officials), which I certainly recognize now, but I love it despite that because there are many other things worth delighting in. I'll just leave you with my favorite quote:
“I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.
I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.
I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.
I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”
~ Bilbo Baggins

Now that I've read this book I find myself itching to read The Lord of the Rings over again.

2. Nebula Awards Showcase 2012, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly
The Nebula Awards Showcase 2012 presents a selection of winners and nominees for the Nebulas awards, including novel excerpts, novellas, novlettes, short stories, and poetry. Overall I enjoyed every story in this collect, from the straight scifi stories to the realms of fantasy.

There are many stories to love in this collection. Kij Johnson's "Ponies" is a disturbing portrayal of popularity and exclusion in young girls. "Map of Seventeen" by Christopher Barzak is a moving story about a young girl, frustrated with the world around her.

Shweta Narayan's "Pishaach" is about a girl who chooses to go mute when she learns about the mystical origins of her grandmother. She is taunted and treated as a witch, which in a way she is, as she holds sway over the local snakes with the power of her flute.

"Arvies" by Adam-Troy Castro is a delightfully disturbing tale about a future in which humanity doesn't look much like it does now (it may be for, against, or neutral on the subject of abortion, depending on your point of view, though I think it is more about the status of power in society).

Rachel Swirsky's "The Woman Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window" is a stunning, epic story from the point of view of a summoned spirit, spanning epochs. The woman/spirit is an all too human character, who would rather allow harm to come to others rather than sacrifice her beliefs.

And there were many others. All around a really wonderful collection.

3. The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
"But doesn't every previous era feel like fiction once it's gone?"

A young girl comes to age in the face of worldwide disaster -- the earth's rotation is slowing down. Despite the the wonders and fears while scientist and government try to seek solutions, a level of mundaneity prevails. Kids go to school, parents go to work, life goes on -- though relationships are more fragile than before.
"I had become a worrier, a girl on constant guard for catastrophes large and small, for the disappointments I now sensed were hidden all around us in plain sight."

The Age of Miracles took me by delightful surprise, because I had no idea that it had apocalyptic and science fiction elements until I started reading it. Not only is it set in a genre that I love but from page one, I was immediately struck with the beauty of the language, the simple and eloquent turns of phrase that bring this tale to life.
“How much sweeter life would be if it all happened in reverse, if, after decades of disappointments, you finally arrived at an age when you had conceded nothing, when everything was possible.”

Apocalypse is perfect paired with young adult hood, an age that the author describes as the age of miracles, "the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove." Middle School is a time when it seems anything can happen, that you can live forever, and every day disappointments can seem very much like the end of the world.

I kept wondering how it could possibly end on any sort of a high note, and yet -- omg, those last few words, OMG -- it did just that. Such a beautiful and wonderful book.

4. Leaves of Grass: The "Death-Bed" Edition, by Walt Whitman
The "Deathbed Edition" is an 800+ page volume containing all of Whitman's last changes and additions to Leaves of Grass. It contains some of his most famous poems, including "Song of Myself."

It took me over two years, reading a poem here and there, to finish this massive tome of poetry. Much of it delighted me, particularly those poems in which Whitman celebrates life and beauty from every man, woman, and child to the smallest blade of grass.

His works about soldiering and war were of less appeal to me, because those subjects interest me less. However, a sense of "Americanness" resonates throughout the entire book and these poems of war is a vital part of that. Even Whitman himself explains that he tried to make the poetry in the book reflect that Americanness.

In any collection this big, there are bound to be poems I love and poems I don't. This was certainly true, but Leaves of Grass is worth reading for any lover of poetry.

5. Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, by various authors
From the back cover: "Something is amiss at the Hotel Angeline, a rickety former mortuary perched atop Capitol Hill in rain-soaked Seattle. Fourteen-year-old Alexis Austin is fixing the plumbing, the tea, and all the problems of the world, it seems, in her landlady mother’s absence.

The quirky tenants—a hilarious mix of misfits and rabble-rousers from days gone by—rely on Alexis all the more when they discover a plot to sell the Hotel. Can Alexis save their home? Find her real father? Deal with her surrogate dad’s dicey past? Find true love? Perhaps only their feisty pet crow, Habib, truly knows."

My initial interest in this book came about through my love of Karen Finneyfrock's poetry, but it grew once I learned that this book was created as a part of The Novel: Live. The project was an attempt to have 36 writers take part in a week-long writing marathon live on stage, in which the story would be passed from writer to writer and result in a complete novel. Hotel Angeline is the result of those efforts.

Due to the nature of its creation, there are some holes in the plot here and there and some slight disjointedness, and you definitely get a taste of each writer's style (one author presented their chapter in comic book format), which was most recognizable in the dialog. But I was surprised by just how coherent the story is. Each chapter is by a different author and most are written from Alexis' point of view, but her character remained consistent. She's a girl caught up in the madness of her situation, who becomes very lost very quickly.

There are a slew of interesting characters, including a woman who lives as a pirate, Habib the raven, LJ the not-all-there hippy, and many more. If you ignore the unique process of creation, you still have a good story that twists into surprising and unexpected directions with an ultimately satisfying conclusion. A good read.

6. Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente
"Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations," reads the back cover of Deathless. In Valente's modern version, she interweaves the magic of the Russian fairy tale with the history of the country, revealing Stalinist house elves, woven soldiers who fight battles between Life and Death, bureaucratic dragons, and many other beautiful oddities.

The story centers on Marya Morevna, a child of the revolution who longs to belong, but has seen the world unmasked and thus doesn't fit. Though human, she goes through many transformations in the book, first by becoming Koschei's wife. I love Marya. She's complex, sometimes innocent and naive, sometimes kind and cunning, and sometimes vicious. She changes, whether for good or for ill, and each change is a natural extension of who she was and how the necessities of the situation molded her.

I was captivated by the book immediately, though I definitely had to be in the right head space to get started. I picked it up several times and then put it down again, because I was too mentally distracted to be able to focus on Valente's beautiful prose, which is poetic and luminous and vivid and requires a certain amount of focus. Once I was absorbed in the story and grew accustomed to her style, however, I read through the book rather quickly.

You get a sense of the historical combined with the magical right at the start. The Prologue gives a scene which reveals the cruelty of the revolution and of war in stark clarity, and without, it seems any magic. The Chapter that immediately follows flip-flops from the realism of the Prologue and launches into Marya's youth lit up with birds that become husbands and uses clear fairy tale tropes -- everything comes in threes, for example. By the second chapter the historical and magical are woven together, and I thought separating out those elements in the first few chapters was a clever set up into the story.

I love how this book unfolds. Fairy tale tropes are used skillfully throughout the book, as well as a clear sense of history and of Russian culture. What at first is horrifying appears beautiful from another angle. That which was once beautiful decays and fades away. Sometimes the line between beautiful and ugly, love and power, life and death, are blurred.

Without revealing any details, the ending took a little mental maneuvering to understand and work through, and I'm not sure I'm entirely clear on it. I'm still sitting here thinking about the ending, playing with the various possibilities of what it might mean. I'm sure some will find this very annoying. But Valente is a writer who trusts her readers to be smart enough to connect the dots and come to their own conclusions, which I respect. And rather than bothering me, it makes me want to read the book over again, so I can discover new connections and see how my perspective on this fantastic book will have transformed.

7. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
This is one of those in which not much happens. The main character is a man works and goes to the movies and wanders around trying to fight off malaise and everydayness. He is "Seeking" he says, but it's never really clear what he's looking for (perhaps the opposite of everydayness?) or how he plans to find it. His main fear is turning into "a Nobody from Nowhere".

Reading the first few pages, I enjoyed the writing style, but as the story went on, I quickly found myself less and less interested. I even grew to dislike the main character as he continued to view the world from a distance. There's a subtle racism throughout, which can be explained, if not excused by the face that it's story centered around a Southern white man in the '50s, and incorporated with that is a general sense of people not as people, but the ideas of people, as symbols and metaphors for existence. The narrator proposes selfishness as the best course of action and follows through.

One might think he is redeemed by his relationship with Kate, a depressed cousin by marriage prone to flights of fancy and despair, to whom he speaks to at the behest of his Aunt. He never really tries to help her, just follows her along on the rolling waves of her thought process. And though, their relationship "grows", I am not convinced that he cares for her, because his affections always seem to be based on his ideas.

It's one of those stories that I feel I probably should like, because it's well written and serious and supposed to be "meaningful" and stuff, but the truth is all I can muster is a meh in response. I could try to think about more, to see if I'm missing something, to try to determine what I feel about it in any real sense, but the problem is, I just don't care.

8. Buffy and the Heroine's Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One, by Valerie Estelle Frankel
Note: This book was an ARC given to me through LibraryThing's Early Review program.

I love reading books on cultural criticism that present different perspectives on the books and shows that I read. So, as a long time fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was drawn to this book that looks at a variation of the mythical structure in the Heroine's Journey (basically the female version of the Hero's Journey presented by Joseph Campbell).

The Heroine's Journey, while similar to the Hero's Journey, differs in many ways. One example is the concept of long sleep or decent into darkness (familiar in Sleeping Beauty, Persephone, Snow White, and others) in which the heroine gathers strength and wisdom before the final battle. Other tropes include battling the Dark Mother and seeking wisdom from female sources.

The concept of the Heroine's Journey was fascinating to me in and of itself (and now I'm interested in reading From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine's Journey Through Myth and Legend, which discusses this in more general terms), but seeing it applied along with along with mythical tropes to Buffy was fascinating. The book walks through all the seasons of Buffy, including not only the TV series, but also the disconnected movie and the ensuing eighth season comic books. Frankel's work did exactly what I hoped it would, presented new ways of looking at the show I loved, allowing me to appreciate it from a new perspective, while also presenting new mythological concepts for me to apply to other books and shows that I enjoy (as well as giving me an opportunity to apply them in my own writing.

9. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
When a young man learns that his family ranch is being sold, he sets out on horseback with a companion on a journey down to Mexico. There they not only find work as ranchers, but they meet a fellow traveler who brings them trouble and the boy finds love with the daughter of a hacienda owner. Both of which bring the two men insurmountable trouble.

The novel modernizes the Western by setting it in the '50s and using literary language. Along with horseback riding through open countryside, gun fights, and outrunning posses, the most notable Western trope is the main character himself, who though young and born outside the age of the Wild West takes on the persona of the stoic, no nonsense cowboy, one who ultimately rides off into the sunset.

Mixed with this Western sensibility is a nostalgia for the Wild West and the imagined romance and freedom of a frontier, which is long gone, both for the boy of the story and for us as readers. Though the boy seeks this frontier in Mexico, a place where there are less fences around things, what he finds it a place both more and less free than he hoped it would be.

Despite the rich beautiful language in which it is written and my overall enjoyment of the storyline, I found myself emotionally detached from the characters and events. So, I find that while I like this book, I don't quite love it.

10. Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
11. Scott Pilgrim VS. the Universe, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
12. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

I delightfully finished up this pop culture infused series, which has all the love for the fun and humor contained within its pages. One of the things I love about the series is how many characters are awesome because they are fabulously flawed. Scott himself, for example, is both a nice guy and an idiot jerkwad. As one who grew up with Nintendo and Sega games, the psuedo-reality in these books that incorporates game culture and manga culture is all the love. So I'm quite happy with how it all ended, and I'm looking for some more fun from Brian Lee O'Malley.

13. The Valley of the Horses, by Jean M. Auel
Despite there being many problems with The Clan of the Cave Bear, the book ended on something of a cliff hanger and was interesting enough that I had to go ahead and pick up the sequel. The Valley of the Horses begins right after Clan of the Cave Bear ends, so I'll try not to get into too many details but keep in mind that there will be spoilers ahead.

The first half of the book is split between Ayla's and Jondalar's point of views. Ayla finds her own cave and is surviving alone, finding comfort only by taking in stray infant animals and caring for them. Jondalar meanwhile leaves his tribe by going on a journey with his brother, meeting up with several other tribe and having various encounters. The result is that the first half of the book dragged for me (it wasn't until Ayla and Jondalar FINALLY met each other that the pace picked up), and because Ayla is alone and Jondalar spends only short periods of time with any group of people, you don't get an in-depth look at any one culture as you did in Clan of the Cave Bear.

What you do get though is a brief looks at a variety of the Others (as Jondalar's people are described by the Cave Bear Clan), seeing how there is a mixture of perspectives and societies with different survival innovations — something you never saw among the Cave Bear Clan because of the problematic concept of racial memory. Auel also presents how the Others view the Clan as nothing more than animals. It's interesting, because for all that the Jondalar's peoples are good hearted with complex cultures, they are seen and stupidly and profoundly ignorant when it comes to the Cave Bear Clan. Their hatred is revealed to be illogical, especially when Ayla begins to reveal their humanity as she describes the Clan culture to Jondalar. It's an interesting complexity in terms of racial discussions, because for all that you want to like Jondalar's peoples, their clear racism against the Clan is disturbing, especially if you have read the first book first and grown attached to the Clan characters. So, the discussion of race in the sequel is still problematic, but at least it's an interesting problematic that opens potential for discussion.

And again this book, like the first, has some head scratching geographical and biological anomalies to it. Did buffaloes and antelopes and hyenas and wooly rhinos and horses and cave lions and mammoths all ever mix in the same location? I don't know, but I don't think so.

Another thing that had me wondering was the whole free love approach to sex that the author presents. Sex is a gift of Pleasures from the Mother and should be delighted in to honor her? Um. I'm not opposed to the idea per se, but I'm not convinced that the peoples were quite so free wheeling about that sort of thing back then. Maybe, but... Anyway, I guess despite the author's supposed research she can have her "historical" society be anyway she wants.

The character Jondalar is amusing, too, because he brings a Romance Novel aspects into the storyline that wasn't present in the first book. I remember a discussion with my college friends, when one said something like, "I know the book is totally ridiculous, but I still kind of want my own Jondalar." I can understand why. He's meant to be the perfect man, handsome, strong, tall, kind-hearted, giving in life and in love, and the perfect lover (remember what I said about the Pleasures), and of course the only person perfect enough for him to fall in love with is.... guess.

Oh! And there's the Shamud, a holy person of one of the tribes that Jondalar meets. The Shamud was interesting because the Shamud was presented as a male with the desires of a woman or a woman with the desires of a male. Jondalar keeps trying to guess which gender the Shamud is, but finally gives up under the assumption that it doesn't matter. The Shamud is powerful because of the lack of assigned gender, and is respected. Though I'm sure the portrayal isn't entirely without problems, I liked the Shamud character and how the author managed to skillfully avoid assigning gender pronouns, so that the character can remain both human and gender neutral.

Anyway, despite a lingering curiosity about what happens to Jondalar and Ayla now, I think I'm pretty much done with this series, especially if the next book is going to be as slow going as the beginning of this one was.
Tags: books, reviews
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