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Joyful Girl

Andrea Blythe's blog about writing, reading, and everything else

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Books Completed in February
andrea reading
1. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
2. The Fairy Ring: or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, by Mary Losure
3. Light in August (audio book), by William Faulkner
4. The Replacement, by Brenna Yovanoff
5. On the Night You Were Born, by Nancy Tillman
6. The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Volume 2: 2000–2010, by Peter Dendle


1. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Solaris is a planet that orbits two suns, able only to maintain it's orbit by the fluctuations maintained by the living ocean that inhabits the entire surface of the world. This strange ocean, alien in every sense of the word, defies every theory or definition scientists attempt to use to explain it. Every answer springs forth more questions, more debate, more theories, building into a flurry of activity on and about the world. As time goes on, scientists remain so confounded by this world and its living ocean that the fire of investigation has died down and only three scientist remain on the station.

Enter Kelvin, who upon his arrival discovers that the scientist who hired him is dead under apparently mysterious circumstances. He finds the station disheveled and the two remaining scientist in varying states of paranoia to the extent that they won't even explain what's happened. At first he thinks they may have gone insane, until he has a strange visitor and discovers the truth for himself.

Solaris grabs the reader's attention fairly quickly with the mystery of what's happening at the station, which is a good thing. The intrigue and psychological threat of the visitor is interspersed with the massive amounts of techno/bio babble, which comes up as Kelvin looks into past theories and explorations on the ocean. All of which is vital to the story, because it contributes to the incomprehensibility of an alien that has no comparison to earth or human standards.

This book was deeply fascinating on many levels, from the truly alien alien to the philosophical and psychological concerns brought up by the visitors to they mystery and discovery of what happened and how these three men try to resolve the situation, each perceiving the problem through their unique human lens.

Solaris is not casual reading, but it's a wonderful book and one I highly recommend.

2. The Fairy Ring: or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, by Mary Losure
The Cottingley Fairies is a well known bit of weird history, in which a series of photographs taken in 1917 by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths seem to present proof of fairies. The photographs came to international interest after the Theosophical society got a hold of the images, prompting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write an article about them in an issue of The Strand.

The story here is told from Frances and Elsie's point of view in a narrative format, and begins with Frances' arrive and Cottingley, where she she begins to see little green men down by the beck (creek). Only after teasing from adults do the cousins come up with the idea of of taking the photographs, just to stop their parents from teasing them.

I've been fascinated by the story of the Cottingley Fairies for a long time, especially since even after the girls confessed to their trickery in the '80s, Frances still claimed the fairies were real and that the fifth photograph was not a fake.

This presentation of the story is fine for what it is, though the first few chapters are a bit rough and the style of writing has that tone of talking down ("I'm simplifying this so you young reader can understand") that appears often in young adult books, but that I rather dislike. The events are a good basic overview, and the author does quote directly from letters and original sources, but I wouldn't recommend it for adult readers. Good for mid-grade readers, maybe.

I will say, though, that this has reignited my interest in the fairies and now I'm wanting to read a more detailed historical account of events and/or Doyle's book, The Coming of the Fairies.

(I was going to put this in my nonfiction category, but the style and narrative format shows that it was geared toward young readers, so into the young adult category it goes.)

3. Light in August (audio book), by William Faulkner
I am not a fan of Faulkner. I hated The Sound and the Fury and thought As I Lay Dying was just okay, and apparently my records show I've also read The Unvanquished, though I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was about. His writing style is often so obtuse that it obscures the story, and his characters are generally unlikeable.

Light in August is more accessible, to the point that I was actually able to enjoy the wordplay and flow of language (and which came off as lyrical, especially when read by Will Patton). The story begins with Lena, a pregnant women from Alabama, on the road to track down her wayward lover. She's calm and faithful that she will find the man who abandoned her. The roads lead her to Jackson, Mississippi, where the story weaves through a multitude of characters and lives, and culminating in sex and murder.

This book is infused with racism, saturated with it, which can be hard to read. Generally, I'm not fond of the argument, "consider the time and place," in these matters, because it's often used to shut down the conversation of racism in regards to classic books. In this case, however, the story grows up so much out of it's time and place that it can't be separated from it. Also, I don't get the sense that Faulkner is championing the racism or attempting to demonize his black characters, rather he seems to be telling a story about people that cannot be separated from the racism of the time period. But likewise, he doesn't seem to be damning the racists, either. Instead, he seems to stand outside the scenarios, more as and observer, merely recording actions of his characters (some of which even he doesn't seem to understand), without judging them one way or another.

It's also interesting that one of the main characters, Christmas, who may or may not be part black, is given some of the most significant exploration. He's one of the few characters we see as a child and come of age. Though he looks, if not white, at least like a foreigner, the idea that he might be part black haunts him from childhood, with even the other children in the orphanage calling him the n-word. He absorbs all this as a kind of self hatred, though nothing can be proved one way or another. And it's this idea of what he might be and (white) society's judgment of the black race that shapes much of his life.

I'm just not sure what Faulkner is trying to say with this, if he's trying to say anything at all. His portrayals of other black characters are also problematic by today's standards. What he has done is write a story that's open to multiple interpretations, one that warrants discussion and of which one could argue both for and against the racism of Faulkner.

This is a beautifully written book about the ugliness of people. In fact, by the end the only two characters that were at all sympathetic were Lena and possibly Bunch. Otherwise, there's not much of anyone to like, let alone to champion.

I'm rather torn on to how exactly I feel about it. I love the writing, but am disturbed by the story and despise most of the characters. So, I guess it's a toss up as far as recommendations go.

As an interesting footnote, the audio book ends with an interview with a crime writer, who is a fan of Faulkner. In the discussion, both interviewer and interviewee try to dispel the theory that Faulkner was racist, claiming the argument has no basis in reality, because it took bravery for Faulkner to speak out against racism during his own time period and place. However, what they fail to see is that the fight against racism has changed over the years, and his actions and words may be seen as racist by today's standards. Though he may have been fighting for the rights of black people in his own time period, he may not have been able to envision any kind of true equality. He may have still seen black people as lesser (as his portrayals and discussions of his in his books seem to show), and thus it seems that his support would be based on his idea of how the fight should go without taking much into account the actual realities of the black people in his time period.

4. The Replacement, by Brenna Yovanoff
Discussed elsewhere.

5. On the Night You Were Born, by Nancy Tillman
My Review: This is a sweet, adorable book that relates the events that occurred on the day the reader/child/niece was born, including smiling moons, watching stars, and dancing bears, as each is amazed at the wonder of a new and unique being being brought onto the earth. Accompanied by lovely artwork, the book just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, because I honestly believe my niece is a wonder, as I'm sure all aunties do and all parents, too (look, I'm rhyming!).

My Niece's Review: Captivating. She quieted down and tamed her wiggles for the duration of the reading. She's fond of music, so I think she liked the sing-song quality of the rhymes.

6. The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Volume 2: 2000–2010, by Peter Dendle
As Peter Dendle notes in his introduction, when he published the first [Zombie Movie Encyclopedia], the zombie movie phenomenon had gone into a slump in the 1990s, one he never thought it would rise out of. And yet movies like 28 Days Later and Resident Evil in the early part of the following decade, revitalized the genre and opened the door to a new plethora of zombie movies.

Dendle apparently spent three years scouring the internet and tracking down every zombie movie he could find produced and distributed in 2000-2010, from home movies to blockbusters, in an attempt to make Volume 2 of the encyclopedia as comprehensive as possible. Considering his claim to have seen every movie listed, it was clearly a monumental and impressive task, especially if he wanted to have a life beyond watching zombie movies, the majority of which were clearly derivative and awful.

His introduction gives an overview of the new zombie era and presents the changing landscape of the genre. This is followed by the encyclopedia, where each movie is given at the least a short description and a brief analysis. More interesting, compelling, or popular movies are given a more in depth review that presents a critical analysis, noting metaphoric intent and why the movie was important for the genre. These are highlighted with the inclusion of still images from the movie or their movie poster.

I thoroughly enjoyed looking through the book for the movies I have already seen in order to see Dendle's thoughts on them. In some cases he offered new perspectives on a loved movie, while in other cases, I disagreed entirely with his analysis. I also skimmed through every other movie in the encyclopedia, stopping to read more thoroughly if it interested me. His wit, as to be expected, shines when he didn't like a movie, and it's entertaining to see him come up with new ways to say a movie is creatively bereft. Dendle was particularly interested in tracking down international works that present a unique setting.

Some reviews I stopped reading specifically because most of them contain spoilers and I knew I needed to watch the movie first. For example, Pontypool is a psychological thriller about a group trapped in a radio station during the zombie apocalypse, which Dendle describes as a movie that should not have worked, but turns out to be the most compelling and creative from the decade.

The other must see movie is Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated, in which various artists and animators from around the world take the original 1969 Romero classic and animate it frame by frame into a mixed media feature that uses the original sound and music. This one is even more compelling because it's non-profit. Non of the artists were paid for their work, but are allowed to sell DVDs for the project on their own sites, provided any proceeds go to charity.

On the whole, I'd say Dendle has done an excellent job of compiling this list of zombie movies (he also includes a list of short films as an Appendix). Already it's out of date, of course, as zombie movies are coming out as I write this. The way things are going in the genre, it looks like he'll have a reason to publish a new zombie movie encyclopedia at the end of the next decade. I, for one, am looking forward to reading it.