Thursday, March 31, 2011

Carried Away with Coloring

The title of this post pretty much says it all. It’s a bad habit of mine. I get excited about something, and I throw myself in, totally and irrevocably in.

Let’s back up. I am a pretty active Twitizen (Twitter citizen, natch) because the place is a treasure trove of interesting people/links. Yesterday, I followed one such link to a blog post by first-time author and talented artist Heather Dixon. I immediately fell in coverlust with her YA novel Entwined, which is a retelling of (one of my favorite fairy tales) The Twelve Dancing Princesses. To celebrate the release of her book, Dixon created three adorable images of her characters and announced a coloring contest to win a copy. How could I say no to the chance to color and win a retold fairy tale?

I’m fairly artsy, so I had a lot of fun with this. As xkcd says, “We’re grownups now, and it’s our turn to decide what it means.” I say it means taking a few hours of your life to de-stress and make pretty pictures:

The Princess Bramble was my muse because 1) she looked so sassy 2) I loved the copy that accompanied her image 3) the windows were taunting me. The inspiration for my windows came from my favorite fairy-tale-turned-Disney-movie, more specifically the Beauty and the Beast stained glass at Epcot's France Pavilion. I also tackled a floral brocade on that little topskirt (image inspiration here), as I clearly like to torture myself by putting in teeny tiny details.

Since the contest winner is going to be announced on Easter, I colored the egg balusters in pastel Easter green, blue, yellow, and purple. (The colors are a little less vibrant onscreen than in real life. Bramble’s definitely a redhead on paper. Still, freckles!) I stuck to this same color family for Bramble’s dress. Speaking of Easter, I hid some Easter Eggs around that tied into the original tale: a pair of crowns, a Roman numeral 12, and some musical notes/keys.

Sure, there will probably be a ton of gorgeous digitally-colored submissions, but it’s neat to see what you can do with just the basic 12 Crayola box. All in a day’s work/play. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find someone to take away my colored pencils before I do any more damage to my sleep schedule.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Poem, Two Translations

I read Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces in my junior year of college and have returned to it several times since. The novel is so lyrical, it blurs the line between prose and poetry. It’s such a pleasure to lose myself in her words again and again, immersing myself completely before I come up for air.

My copy was used when I purchased it, so it was already marked up in a lovely shade of green ink. I did some dog-earing of my own when the book came into my possession, and it’s funny to see where I overlap with the mysterious first reader. There’s this beautiful quote we both picked out: “Reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil.” 

I was reminded of this line when a friend posted a poem he had translated. Now, I’m a French speaker (with a tiny smattering of Italian/Hebrew), so the Spanish poem was all Greek to me. (Funny joke alert: Fugitive Pieces is set in Greece.) That is, until my friend removed the veil. 

Inspired, I did a little digging into the poet and found a second translation. Fascinating! The general direction was the same, but the difference was keen. It all came down to diction. (I have such respect for people who translate novels…What a Herculean task!) See for yourself:

by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Translation by my friend Sean:
Traveler, the path is made
by your passage, nothing more;
Traveler, there is no roadway,
for it is made as you journey.
By walking you make the way,
and turning, you look back to see
a path which you will never tread again.
Traveler, there is no roadway,
save the wild sea's wake.

Translation from Wikipedia:
Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.

So, how did they stack up? Which one did you prefer? Why? Any Spanish speakers/studiers in the house that could do better? I’ll weigh in with my thoughts when some comments get going. :)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: Andrea Cremer's Nightshade

Where I had an emotional reaction to Anna and the French Kiss, I had an intensely physical reaction to Nightshade. I found my heart pounding and my pulse racing more than once during my must-read-it-now sprint. It makes a lot of sense. Andrea Cremer wrote very active, physical characters. They’re always dancing, hunting, running, and fighting. Being inside of Calla’s head, my senses were heightened with hers. She noticed details, scents, postures, sounds. I was, indeed, along for the ride. Or rather, run.

Nightshade is a damn good wolf story. I hesitate to call it a werewolf story, as the people who shift control the change. Still, they are not wholly human either. They wear their animal selves close under the skin, bristling and bonding like actual wolves. Cremer definitely did her research because the pack hierarchy and mannerisms felt authentic. (Note that I’m basing my opinion on Call of the Wild, Julie of the Wolves, and some nature shows.)

Cremer painstakingly created an original mythology and counter-mythology for the Guardians (wolves) and their Keepers (witches/wizards). Having two sides of the story grounds the alternate universe in reality, accurately reflecting the trope “History is written by the victors.” There’s a lot of dark stuff embedded in this story—slavery and murder and abuse—but it’s not heavy-handed. We catch glimpses along with Calla, who experiences the slow realizations of a teenager learning to see beyond what she’s been taught.

I loved the very feminist heroine Cremer wrote. Calla Tor kicks serious tail—a strong female leader, the alpha of her pack. She can fight and track and kill if she has to. (No hothouse flower, this Calla.) She doesn’t diminish herself in deference of men simply because they are male, nor does she take kindly to those who would mistreat her. Still, Calla is not a pure warrior woman. She wrestles complex feelings, weighing loyalties and struggling to do right by her loved ones. Providing for her packmates is a duty she takes seriously, even when it pits her against her feelings.

Speaking of feelings, the romantic subplot is also captivating. (Hello? YA? Kissing? Duh!) In a very near echo of our world, the onus of sexual gatekeeping is placed on Calla. Pack tradition dictates she must remain chaste until she’s bonded with her predetermined mate, though he has no such restrictions. The rakish rival alpha Ren Larouche (great name) leads her into temptation and yet cannot fully tempt her. Enter Shay Doran, a boy who’s new and refreshingly normal. Calla’s clearly drawn to him, but she has a lot to lose in the pursuit.

Caught in one of the ever-popular YA love triangles, Calla doesn’t lose herself. She can be unsure and excited about two different guys without doubting that she is worth their attention. Here, I’d like to mention how incredibly sexy this book is without any sex. NO SEX HAPPENED, and yet it was sexy. This is hard to do right. Not to say there isn’t a lot of physicality. The Nightshade and Bane packs are full of horny teenagers after all, people who flirt and play and fall in love. (I say people because Cremer goes to bat for same-sex love, which rocks.) However, Calla chooses (and does not have a guy choose for her) what to do with her body. Sure, there’s going to be some sex by the end of this trilogy, but it’s going to be on her terms. For that and everything else, I’m excited to stick around and see how it plays out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss walloped me on an emotional level. Reading it was like being thrown head-first into every crush I’ve ever had (and one in particular). Stephanie Perkins really tapped into something with the romance between Etienne and Anna. The dawning realization, the pining, the cycles of up and down so fast that they make you sick…It’s such a powerful, painful feeling! Six years after my own high school roller coaster, the primal dizziness came rushing back to me intact. I’ve long since made peace with my failed Etienne, but the feeling never goes away completely. At least Perkins erred on the side of kissing!

As a narrator, Anna’s fierce and funny, a winning poisson out of water. She’s easy to root for as she’s finding herself in a new place (um, Paris!) and figuring out a new group of people. I cheered when she socked the bitchy girl in the face, and my heart dropped when she stormed sobbing from a club. Her mix of bold and vulnerable was authentically teenaged.

Though Anna spends her senior year in high school abroad, the feeling of displacement was immediately recognizable to me as the college experience—the first time living independently, that state of being unsettled away from home and being unable to truly come home again. Anna also delves into the full spectrum of female friendship, showing off its starts, squalls, dissolutions, and mends. Its ferocious strength is visible not only with Anna and her best friend Bridgette but also with the girls Anna befriends in Paris.

While I really liked the peripheral people, I fell hard for the two lovers, who were both awkward and sweet with each other. I was attracted to how Perkins raised the question of perception and perspective. Depending on how you look at the story, each character is equal parts hero and villain, wronged and blameless. It was plain to see how people who try so hard to do the right thing often end up hurting each other. So, though I loved touring Paris, I enjoyed exploring the characters’ emotional landscapes more.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Giveaway Winner!

The random number generator has spoken...Congratulations to lucky number 7: Read the Book! (RTB, I'll email you later with the details.)

Thanks to everyone who entered my second giveaway! I hope to do some more of these in the future, so keep an eye out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Foreshadowing + An Extremely Thin Metaphor

As I previously mentioned, I have a 30-minute walk to and from my office. I know this route by rote, having walked it twice every weekday since September. I’ve seen the sights, braved the elements, and made friends with all of the cats in their respective windows. (The ginger one in the art gallery is my favorite.) It’s rare that something surprises me on my commute. I take everything in stride.

Today though, I was stopped short outside of the corner pizza place. There, on the sidewalk in front of me, was the lonely top of an Oreo. “How odd!” I thought. (I have not yet resorted to talking to myself, despite my lack of an iPod.) It was definitely out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t unimaginable. Shrugging it off, I continued on. Not 10 feet later, I found the Oreo’s other half, lying cream side up. I laughed out of sheer delight. How neatly that little arc resolved!

The rest of the walk, I mulled over the split Oreo. That “aha!” moment of discovery was the exact same thing I experience whenever an author is particularly skilled at using foreshadowing. I’ll come across something out of place in a story, something that gives me pause but doesn’t stop me completely. Sometimes, I puzzle it out and other times I blow past it. Maybe I’ll figure out what’s coming or maybe I’ll be completely surprised at what turns up later. Always though, there’s that satisfying resolution that stares me cream-side up in the face. I’m such a sucker for them both — Oreos and tasty plot devices.

Speaking of foreshadowing, I’ve got several reviews up my sleeve. (This is not really foreshadowing, as I’m just going to tell you what’s coming.) Stay tuned for my thoughts on Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss, Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade, and Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love

My experience with memoirs is not as extensive as my experience with fiction. Sure, I’d read and loved Life with Sudden Death by my professor Michael Downing. I’d dabbled in some autobiographical graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Craig Thompson’s Blankets come to mind), but they were the exception rather than the rule. Somewhere along the line though, I found myself becoming open to stories of people and not just stories of characters. Now I have a whole new genre to explore, and my to-read list is teeming with reality.

The memoirs I’ve seen seem to fall into three categories: memoirs of extraordinary people, memoirs of people with extraordinary experiences, or memoirs of people who write extraordinarily about the ordinary. I think Eat, Pray, Love is a little bit of all three. It got under my skin, which I’ll blame in equal parts on Elizabeth Gilbert’s language and neuroses. 

It didn’t hurt that I was totally enamored of Gilbert before I began, but she won me over anyway. Her authorial presence is charming and self-deprecating, a warmth that bursts out of the pages. She plays and paints with words, turning real people into characters who are truly funny and larger than life. I loved her descriptions of food in Italy and the anthropological observations of Balinese culture. These parts of her journey seemed accessible, something I could one day experience. (I took Italian in college with the hope of going abroad to Bologna, but life had other plans.) India, though. I’m still not sure how I feel about India. India seemed both out of reach and immediately attainable. 

Faith is an intensely personal thing. Some aspects of it—both my own faith and other people’s—make me uncomfortable. Still, I had an urge to try meditation as I read. I owe this impulse completely to Gilbert’s ease in writing about her spirituality and, more importantly, her reasons behind it. She named some of my crazy as her own: “My hypersensitive awareness of time’s speed led me to push myself to experience life at a maximum pace.” and “Born with the itch, the mad and relentless urge to understand the workings of existence.” Alongside her, I envied Sean’s Da, the Irish dairy farmer, who tells his pro-meditation progeny: “I have a quiet mind already, son.”

I know Eat, Pray, Love has a lot of detractors. It’s to be expected with anything wildly successful. Maybe I’m so far behind that I’m past the trend and the backlash, but nothing bothered me overly much. I didn’t care how perfect the people she encountered were or how neatly her adventures wrapped into stories. I didn’t mind when she sometimes veered into too-cute territory. I wasn’t jealous that she had the means to write this book in the first place. To all of those objections, I say this: she’s a writer and she’d been writing for years before she undertook this book. There are ways to place yourself into situations that will turn into good stories. Of course, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes and around the edges, but a person’s experiences live firmly in the middle, through a hazy lens of perception.

I’m glad I finally got around to Eat, Pray, Love. It was exhausting in some places, but it was ultimately illuminating. I think that’s why memoir is such a popular genre. We’re curious about other people and how they deal with the cards life has dealt them, but mostly, we read their stories to learn about ourselves. I, for one, am all about that. So bring on those true stories! Open the floodgates! Après Eat, Pray, Love, the deluge.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Giveaway the Second!!!

I have exciting news. Though I wanted to share it after I posted my Eat, Pray, Love review, the weekend had other plans for me. Now I can’t hold it in any longer! My impatience is your gain.

It’s time for the second SLB Giveaway! Whoo! CSN Stores has provided me a $25 gift code to bestow upon one lucky reader. This gift code is valid at all of their 200+ online retailers, so you can find pretty much whatever your heart desires.

On my first giveaway post, I provided some price-point purchase suggestions with an interior design theme. This time around, I think I’ll keep in the spirit of the original post by combining EAT and LOVE again:

---If you want some bang for your buck, try this 4 piece Pyrex bakeware set. Glass is great for cooking/baking, and I love going from the oven to the table with these pans.

---I have a thing for tea, so it follows that I have a thing for mugs. You can get two of these pretties—one for you and one for your friend, roommate, sweetheart, or spouse.

---If you’re into heart-shaped cooking tools, you’re in luck! You can have heart-shaped cakes and ice cubes  and cookies and muffinseven heart-shaped waffles.

(In case you’re wondering how I found these suggestions, all of the CSN sites have a handy price range selector on their sidebars. I know, I know...Stop your talking, lady, and deliver the goods!)

To enter, leave a comment here telling me about your favorite thing to cook. Or just leave a comment about anything. (This is a great way for any lurkers to introduce themselves!) Since Eat, Pray, Love was written into 3 parts, the giveaway will stay open for three days. At 11:00PM EST on Wednesday, March 23, the giveaway will close, and I'll use a random number generator to select the winning post. Good luck!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Whatever Is Fickle, Freckled

I had planned to get my review of Eat, Pray, Love up today, but I think the surprise sunshine has fried my brain. I’m antsy just sitting in front of a screen. Since it’s too beautiful to do anything other than be outside, I’ll write fast and be on my way.

I’m sharing this poem in honor of spring and my soon-to-appear summer freckles. The diction is delicious, as crisp and sweet as biting into a ripe apple. (Now that I think about it, my selection fits comfortably in the “Pray” section of this week’s theme.) This one is best read aloud, preferably outdoors. Speaking of which, I'm off to bask in the fading daylight. Enjoy!

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things--
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                     Praise Him.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Elizabeth Gilbert and Her Genius

I didn’t plan on this, but I think SLB is turning into Eat, Pray, Blog for the week. You see, I posted about food and words on Saturday because Elizabeth Gilbert made me hungry. Today, I’m moving on to a more spiritual, loose-goosy topic, again thanks to Ms. Gilbert. (The review—LOVE—will be coming soon.)

Let me backtrack a bit. I completely missed the whole Eat, Pray, Love wave when it came out in 2006. I was in the middle of my own journey, too busy with preparing for college and interning in Israel and saying goodbye to my friends to pick up a nonfiction book. Memoirs weren’t really my thing then. (How the 12 I currently have queued up at the BPL mock me now!) Even though I kept hearing about this book over the years, I never found time or incentive enough to read it myself.

It took me all of college to return to Elizabeth Gilbert. The summer after I graduated (which started me on my current journey), I caught her TED talk online and was completely enthralled by this magnetic, self-deprecating woman. Her talk was the push I needed to read Eat, Pray, Love. Do yourself a favor and spend some time with her. She has a point AND she did her homework. (The Harry Potter reference cemented my state of smitten.)

To recap for the non-watchers (shame on you!), Gilbert details the historical shift from “having a genius” to “being a genius,” particularly how it has impacted artists. The modern notion that “creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and artistry in the end will ultimately lead to anguish” has caused a lot of pain. “Being a genius” puts the onus solely on one soul. If that genius artist fails, they can become self-destructive because they believe they are no longer a genius. However, classical societies understood that there was an intermediary, a daemon, a muse, a literal genius that lived with an artist. That creature spirit helped an artist create, so it was not completely the fault of the artist if they did not succeed. There was a partner to shoulder their blame and share in their triumph. This “psychological construct” made allowances for the magic and the large amount of failure essential to the creative process. The artist was the receptacle, the conduit, for the mysterious spark of the divine.

The idea of “having a genius” resonated with me because that is such a part of my process. There are times when I can stumble across an idea and say “Wow, that’d be really nice to put into a story! Someone should write that.” So, I squirrel that thought away in a Word document to wait for the right write moment that may never come. However, some stories sneak up on me and tap me on the shoulder. These ideas don’t let me put them away, the urgent whispers that flow into me from “a distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons.” I get a voice, a feeling, an opening sentence. If I’m lucky, I get a character. I don’t know where these things come from or why they come to me. They just show up and demand to be written.

When I’m writing, really writing, I feel like I’m channeling. Words spring to life from my fingertips, words that are mine and not mine at the same time. Nothing’s laborious when I’m doing it right. (The intense work of editing is always the same though!) When writing is difficult? Oh, boy! That’s when the fear can set in: “This is so great. I love writing. What a brilliant idea! I’m awesome. Hey…This is getting hard. I can’t find the right…thing. It stopped. I don’t know how to…WHAT IF IT NEVER COMES BACK!?!”

If I believed that this mystical source could dry up and go away, I would be seriously depressed. Over the years though, my genius and I have come to an understanding. I’ve learned that mine has a sense of humor. All I have to do is shower or do dishes or go for a run or try to sleep (read: put myself into a state that doesn’t allow me to write things down) to get it to whisper to me again.

I think we’re friends, my genius and me. I love that between my brain and this little spirit of inspiration, I can accomplish all I need to. So if you happen to see me talking to something that you can’t see, like Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye or Elizabeth Gilbert, just know that I’m either talking to G-d or to my genius.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Eat, Love

So, I’m in the middle of Eat, Pray, Love and I am so…hungry. Goodness gracious, how Elizabeth Gilbert can describe food! Yes, I know I’m a little late to the party (like 5 years and a movie late), but now that I’m here, I’m wondering what I can bring. After all, one of my favorite kinds of get-together is a potluck.

I’ve always loved to cook, and my friends have been feeding my obsession since junior year of college. As soon as we moved out of the dorms and into houses with real working kitchens, we started making dinners for each other. Over the years, there’s been tons of theme meals, forays into all kinds of cuisine, and, of course, plenty of potlucks. Our dinner rotation has added and lost members for various reasons—going abroad, writing a thesis, moving for a job—but we always have room at the table when someone wants to come back. Case in point: last November marked our second Friendsgiving potluck, and my scattered friends drove, flew, and bussed to Boston to participate. It was a gut-busting success, and I’m looking forward to the third annual celebration this November.

Because I love the social aspect and the actual act, to me, cooking is the perfect combination of beauty and utility. (Oh, how I covet the same from my cookware! A Le Creuset set and Kitchenaid mixer are my dream “when-I-grow-up” purchases.) Both process and product can be enjoyed in equal measure. I can think of no more pleasant way to say “I care” than gathering ingredients, turning up some music, making the kitchen smell like heaven, and having my friends come over to enjoy the fruits of my labors.

Now that I think about it, I’m drawn to cooking the same way I’m drawn to books. Both are labors of love, created for the audience and for the self. There’s an instinct, a knack that the masters have in either profession that’s just a little ineffable. A great meal or a great book can change the course of a life, but a good, steady diet of both is essential. Speaking of which, I’ve got a memoir to savor. As they say in Italy, buon appetito!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: John M. Cusick's Girl Parts

I finished this book over a month ago. The only other review that took this long to get out of my head and onto the blog was Rebecca Stead’s superb When You Reach Me. I praised Stead’s characterization, voice, attention, empathy, and concept, but it still wasn’t enough. I fear I will also fall short reviewing Girl Parts, but I’m going to have to try. It would be a crime not to tell people about this book.

I’ve never done this before in this space, but I can’t think of any other way to explain the brilliance of the writing. Get thee to and check out the “Search inside this book” feature. (The excerpt is only 9 pages long, and it’s great.) You have to read it! Be engulfed! I’ll wait.

…Oh, you’re back? Good. As you read in his bravura opening chapter, Cusick carves out his characters with a scalpel. He pins down Charlie and David in a few paragraphs, and he captures Charlie’s dad Thaddeus in two sentences:

“Like Charlie, Thaddeus was tall. He had a long beard and bushy eyebrows that reminded people of the kitschy wax candles carved to look like tree spirits.”

I understood these people as types immediately, but they didn’t feel flat. Quite the opposite, actually. Each person was built up layer by layer from a recognizable baseline, which is the crucial difference between an archetype and a character. Charlie may seem like a typical oblivious loser-loner, but the scene in which he realizes the depth of his unhappiness by making a list is heartbreaking. (Here, I want to make special notice of May, a feminist pot-smoking lesbian renegade scientist who is more than the sum of her parts and absolutely delightful.)

Cusick has a deep affection for his characters even as he’s eviscerating them. They are foolish and make fools of themselves, but it’s very human and equal-opportunity. In a similar vein, he treats his male and female characters with the same respect. They are all worthy of having interior lives, and they do. I had the breath knocked out of me by this paragraph from chapter two:

“There was a lot Charlie didn’t know about Rebecca. Her confidence was showy. She felt fat and repulsive because boys her age never talked to her. Only grown man seemed to like her. They shouted at her from their cars, which made her feel like a freak. Last year her history teacher grabbed her chest while driving home from Model UN, a secret that constricted like a noose around her throat whenever she thought about it.”

There, that is the perfect encapsulation of what it feels like to have a large chest in high school. At the same time, look at that adjective! She’s a theater kid, and her confidence is “showy.” It’s all in the details. An analog clock that goes “teck.” A crossword clue that seems trivial but isn’t. Some things are obvious, some things are subtle, but everything has been deliberately placed. Considering I’m pretty vigilant about names in books (Nuvola=Italian for “cloud,” Coleo Foridae=Coleophoridae family, Sakora Solutions=Japanese sakura or “cherry blossom”), I couldn’t help but smile when I realized the botanist’s son was in love with a Rose.

This thoughtfulness permeates the book, but it’s not ostentatious. I’m normally distracted when characters make references to songs that exist in “our” world, but Cusick elegantly provides only a snippet. (“The way you, hmm hmm…” May sang along, quietly, her eyes turning to her magazine. “…buh buh sip your tea…”) It didn’t detract from my reading experience, because it sounded familiar without pressing me to place it. (When I got curious about the lyrics later and looked them up, the inclusion served the story seamlessly.) There’s a real art to making references echo without naming them outright. I mean, if this wasn’t inspired a bit by The Princess Bride, I’ll eat my hat:

“In a lifetime of kisses, some must be better than others, and the odds are low—for any of us—that the first will be the best. But few have had a better first kiss than Charlie Nuvola.”

I also loved how the school musical is My Fair Lady, a production based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. That play, in turn, refers to the Greek myth in which a sculptor falls in love with his statue. What a perfect series of works to set beside an android who is learning to become human. Watching Rose’s burgeoning consciousness, especially looking on as her artificial intelligence learns metaphors and similes, is riveting. I don’t want to reveal all of the other moments that turned my insides to jelly, but Cusick is the king of the meaningful recall. He just slays me with his descriptions:

“Her emotional center was destabilized, joy one moment, despair the next, cut off, no sense of what to do, what anything meant, or even who she was. Her body was desperate for touch, yet repelled. She was hot and cold, exhausted but restless.
In other words, heartbroken.”

He can do lyrical, but Cusick can also do playful. “Charlie stood like a sequoia in a thicket of elms.” That one sentence tells me succinctly how Charlie relates to the world, both as a botanist’s son and a teenage boy, and another few show me how he sees it: “A trio of girls breezed in. (Breeze, Charlie thought. Wasn’t that how beautiful girls got everywhere? On tinkling little zephyrs.)”

Did I mention his wicked sense of humor? Cusick certainly knows how to set up a joke, stringing together more giggle-inducing instances in ten pages than other books have in their full page count. The milk incident, the discussion of “fewer boobs” and “less ass,” and the IM chat about internet dragonback sex had me in stitches. Then, he tops it. The date between Charlie and Rebecca in the second chapter was the best thing I have read this year. I do not say this lightly. It was side-splitting physical comedy in a book! Smaller exchanges also had their charms. I howled when David’s mother couldn’t figure out how to work a conference call, a well-worn situation Cusick elevates with excellent comedic timing.

Though there are scores of notable themes and ideas and turns of phrase in this book (more than I can fit here), I was most attracted to how skillfully Cusick manipulates humor and emotion. They interrupt each other regularly, but the breaks enhance rather than undercut. (That piece of the prologue when a bird flies into a window and dies without the girl inside noticing? I laughed. It was unexpected. Then, it’s made clear the girl is going to kill herself. Cue mood switch.) The lived moments, the chance connections combined with bittersweet brutality, sure felt like high school to me. This is YA at its best.

I’m afraid this was more of a gushing lovefest than a review. Quick, think of something negative! If I had to nitpick, I’d say Cusick has a pigeon problem. I say this because I was so taken with the phrase “boys in pigeon-gray jackets” (48) that I noticed when the color was repeated as “pigeon-gray t-shirts” (195). The same imagery is used a third time, when a “red-tipped flutter” is placed among a flock of pigeons (213), and the metaphor felt a little heavy-handed. But honestly, who the heck cares? This book is fantastic. (I’m going out to purchase a copy for myself so I can use it as a textbook.) Highly recommended.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Horse-Crazy Happenstance

Have you ever run across something someone else has written and just gasp? Oh, I know that feeling! That was me! I wasn't alone. These past few years, I've been calling those remembrances "Yellow Underpants" moments, thanks to this lovely blog post.

I ran across a "Yellow Underpants" description that resonated with me this morning. It's not an embarrassing kind of identification, only a fond recollection of the kind of little girl I was. I've fallen in love with this woman just a bit, both for her personal investment in reluctant readers and for these two paragraphs:

"Some books change us and others capture who we were when we read them like photographs in a scrapbook. I will always define third and fourth grades as my horse years--endlessly re-reading every Marguerite Henry book I could find. Living in a Texas suburb, the only horses I ever saw where at Girl Scout camp once a year. Still, I knew everything books could teach me about horses--their ancestral lineage, famous horses like Seabiscuit and the Lipizzaner stallions, and horse anatomy.

I wanted to be a veterinarian for most of my childhood and many of the books I read during that time reflected my interest in animals--James Herriot's memoirs, The Yearling, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Rascal, The Call of the Wild, and The Incredible Journey. I have forgotten that I was that kid until now. The books help me remember."

Change Texas to Virgina, and you have a pretty good picture of young me. The whole article is a gem, and I suggest you go over there and see if you brush up against your own brand of book magic.

Sweetest little bookworm / Hidden underneath

I feel like I’ve been keeping a secret. If you promise not to tell, I’ll whisper it: My name isn’t my own.

No, no…I’m still Amy. It’s my other name that I’m borrowing. “Simple Little Bookworm” is an homage, an allusion to the song “Librarian” by My Morning Jacket. I discovered it around the time the blog started buzzing in my brain, and those three little words caught my imagination. (Not to mention the slightly folksy tune, the shy adoration, the perfect setting, the contemplative phrasing, the evocative lyrics.) I was smitten. I couldn’t think of a better thing to call myself if I tried.

So, for your listening pleasure, I give you the song of myself (if you will). I’m finally letting my hair down. Enjoy:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Robin McKinley's Pegasus

Earlier, I talked about “the Moment” in Rampant, the one detail that makes you say “OK, Author! Take me on a journey!” Well, I was on board with Pegasus from the first page. Some of this openness was goodwill earned from the author’s previous books. The Blue Sword I count in my Top 10 of all time, and I couldn’t wait to revisit that world in The Hero and the Crown. I have a soft spot for both Beauty and Rose Daughter. Mostly though, it was her prose. Opening a Robin McKinley book is like running into a familiar friend: “Ahh, Ms. McKinley, how nice to read you again!” 

The beauty of the writing was greatly appreciated, because truly, Pegasus is a novel of world-building. To tell the story she wants to tell, McKinley first has to establish how pegasi and humans coexist. This means defining personal/interspecies relationships, cultures/ceremonies, traditions/rules, language/communication, shared/separate histories, inventions, commerce, magic, external/internal threats, the topography of two fictional realms, and of course, the physical look of the pegasi themselves. Are you exhausted yet? 

I sympathize with the author. That’s a lot to juggle before a plot can enter into the fray. Still, backstory is only compelling in how it affects the here and now, in particular the characters we come to care about. When these two elements intersect in Pegasus, the novel is interesting and even electrifying. Most of the time though, it feels like the balance is tipped too much toward the set-up.*

This was disappointing to me because I really do like the main characters, their families, and their friends. I even like the minor characters flitting around the edges.  McKinley has a way of creating such lovely distinct personalities. Even though there are a ton of people/pegasi, there is never any confusion of identity, no “who’s that again?” or “I’m not sure where they belong.”

Still, there was one thing I couldn’t get a grasp on, and it was a pretty big thing. I never—and still have not—figured out what the pegasi look like. I mean, I know what a pegasus looks like. Horses with wings seem pretty standard. Apparently, these pegasi are different from horses. They’re smaller, more delicate, with very fine legs, tiny hands on their wings, and a longer neck. (Shimmery, naturally.) As much as they were described, the parts just didn’t come together in my head in any anatomical way. 

Maybe it was my failure as a reader, but I think it could be a matter of incongruity. For instance, an author describes a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Nothing else. The reader then creates a hazy portrait from those attributes. If the author mentions something about the girl’s freckles later, it’s OK. We can just add freckles to our mental picture. On the other hand, if the author mentions later that the girl is six feet tall, it jars the reader. When you ask someone to imagine a girl, it’s not often a six-foot tall girl. It simultaneously disrupts the mental picture and affects how the girl relates to other characters in the story.

My six-foot tall detail was pegasus hands—small with variable fingers (3-5 digits, I think no thumbs) and attached to their wings. The things is, I don’t understand how they moved their wings to allow use of their hands in front of them. I assumed pegasus wings were like bird wings, able to extend out but not rotate/stretch forward. Even if you place the hands on the bends of the wings (the “backwards elbows”), I’m still not sure how they sculpt, manipulate small objects, make paper, or tie knots. 

Maybe I’m being picky, but I think I have a point. If vampires are tied to immortality/sexuality, werewolves are tied to humanity/humanity’s animal side, and unicorns are tied to virginity, pegasi are tied to flight.** How they move their wings is a big deal. Or at least it is to me. Call me a geek, call me invested, but I will be reading the second volume, so you can call me both. 

*Yes, there is a second novel on the way. It should more plotty now that the backstory’s out of the way. What a cliffhanger on the last few pages of this one! Looking forward to it.

**In ancient Greece where the Pegasus myth originated, a horse with wings helped a mortal fly and kill a monster. (The other flight myth didn’t work out so well. Not that this one ended so happily, but at least Bellerophon got some glory before his tragic hubris-induced end.) All other methods of flight were gods-only, but the Pegasus offered freedom that was previously out of reach.

Review: Diana Peterfreund's Rampant

Today, it’s all about the magical equines at Simple Little Bookworm HQ. We’ve got unicorns goring people in Rampant and pegasi prancing around in Pegasus. Both of these books tickled my fancy, but each of them also illustrated something important I’ve noticed in my reading. Let’s get to it.

There was honestly no way Rampant could be bad. It’s about killer unicorns, for goodness sake! Still, I had some trouble getting into it. I was looking for “The Moment,” that one detail I could hang my hopes for the book upon. I toughed it out until 50 pages in, and eureka, I found it. 

Reader, she threw a unicorn off of a balcony. I jest with form, of course, but not with substance. A girl did indeed throw a goat-sized unicorn off of a balcony, dashing it on the cobblestones below. However, that was not The Moment. The actual Moment was when Astrid, our first-person narrator, was appraising Cory, a fellow unicorn-hunting recruit. Astrid notes Cory’s cherubic face and curls, but she also notices something lurking underneath. Yes, I say, yes! That was The Moment. It encapsulates the book—danger hidden beneath beauty—and hints at something damaged. The unicorn getting thrown off a balcony is just the first fulfillment of that Moment’s promise. (There’s a second fulfillment that socks you in the gut later.)

Let’s backtrack a bit. The first fifty pages have to do a lot of work fast. They need to start the story, to get Astrid from Point A to Point B both mentally and physically. The first fifty pages have to move Astrid from her home in the States to a secret cloister in Italy. They have to make killer unicorns seem plausible. They have to take her away from friends, family, and safety. While they do accomplish all of that, they didn’t catch me. The premise was what kept me reading until The Moment.

The thing that Rampant made completely clear to me is that a reader can tell what an author wants to write and what an author doesn’t particularly care about writing. I don’t think Peterfreund wanted to write a girl who doubts unicorns. She wanted to write a heroine that kills and discovers and believes. (Yes, I understand that she had to start from a place of doubt to make the character arc so awesome.)

I say this because when Peterfreund writes what she wants to write, she’s a powerhouse. I love a good mythology and this one has EVERYTHING. Critters and deities and deep thinking, oh my! She weaves together so many disparate threads and does it so seamlessly that it never feels like an exposition slog. I’m also a huge fan of names, and the character naming in this book is impeccable. (A pet unicorn named Bonegrinder? Only the tip of the iceberg.) Best of all, the teenagers are completely authentic across a fairly broad age/culture spectrum.

The synthesis of unicorn mythology is so neat, but where Peterfreund also shines is digging deeper into what traditional unicorns actually mean. You can’t talk about vampires without mentioning sex, and you can’t leave human nature out of discussions of werewolves. These are the underlying issues that make these creatures so alluring in the first place. Similarly, unicorns are tied to maidens, explicitly virginity. Peterfreund handles this discussion beautifully, bringing up the topic of sex and choice with loads of compassion and insight. (I loved the romance and the doubt and the evolution of the main pairing.) As I was reading, I knew this was what she wanted to write about, and her readers are the better for it. (Post-reading note: I was right!)