Wednesday, February 29, 2012

420 Characters by Lou Beach

   Lou Beach's 420 Characters is a collision of art and fiction.  Before these tiny little stories were compiled into a book, they were published on Facebook as status updates - "limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces, and punctuation."  It might sound easy, but imagine trying to tell an entire story (plot, characters, setting, etc.) in 420 characters or less.  It takes a great deal of discernment and tremendous editing skills.

   The book is similar in concept to "flash fiction,"where authors are limited to a specific word count (usually 1000 or less) but characters and punctuation are not counted.  Flash fiction is challenging for both the author and the reader.  Because the author must write within very specific technical limitations, there is often a great deal of ambiguity in the stories, leaving more room for interpretation for the reader.  It becomes an extremely heightened state of both reading and writing.

   But Beach's stories are not quite as self-contained as flash fiction stories.  Some of the vignettes in 420 Charatcter are revisited throughout the book.  Sometimes a character reappears, or a new character enters an old setting, and sometimes you just get that "I've been here before" feeling.  Several of the stories compelled me to count the characters, because a variation of a word or an addition of a punctuation mark would have completely changed the tone and meaning of the story.  But I resisted and did no such counting, because that is the point of this genre - to compel readers to consider how quickly our words can shift and undulate in meaning just by the addition of (or omission of) a single word, comma, or letter.

   420 Characters also includes original illustrations by Lou Beach, which sometimes resemble the surrealist style of Dali.  Because the stories are so quick to read, you might be compelled to turn the page before you even have time to process them.  But the illustrations provide nice little opportunities to take a break and reflect.  A few of them are subtly bizarre and may require more contemplation than the stories.

   This book really makes you appreciate the craft involved in writing.  From the selection of a character's name to the choosing of vocabulary, writing is under-appreciated as a physical art form. I would not be surprised to walk into a museum and find all 169 pages of Beach's book framed and on display.  But until then, they are proudly displayed on a Facebook wall, which is updated regularly with new stories that you won't find in the book.  However, I would recommend reading the print feels much more meaningful and permanent on individual pages.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

   The heroine of Nnedi Okorafor's new YA novel is in the midst of a major identity crisis.  She is American by birth, but has moved with her family back to her parents' birthplace of Nigeria.  Being an American in Nigeria is socially challenging enough, but on top of that, Sunny is albino, which makes her the target of much ridicule and teasing from the kids at school.

   But Sunny is different in other ways as well - she sees strange visions and has dreams that feel like premonitions.  Luckily, her friends Orlu and Chichi enlighten Sunny as to why she feels like an outsider.  Sunny soon learns that she is a descendant of a long line of "Leopard People" who are both blessed and burdened by magical abilities.  Sunny is beginning to understand who she really is when she and her friends are called on by a higher council to track down a dangerous serial killer - Black Hat Otokota - a man who uses his Leopard abilities to perform sinister and evil rituals.  Sunny must quickly learn the magical skills of her people so that she and her friends can challenge Black Hat before it is too late for everyone.

   Lately, it seems like there is a lot of white noise in the YA genre, but Sunny and her friends are unique and refreshing additions to the collection.  They are not bogged down by romance and typical teen angst (and they don't encounter a single vampire!)- they are shouldered with serious responsibilities and must be wise beyond their years in order to handle them.  Not only is Leopard magic (or juju as they call it) difficult to learn, but it can also be incredibly dangerous if not properly executed.  Sunny is swiftly thrust into this world of magic and sorcery, but she handles it like a lifelong professional - and that's because she sort of is.  Orlu explains to Sunny that Leopard people are born with their powers and abilities, they just need to be "activated" on a spiritual level before they can be controlled on a physical plane.

   Needless to say, Nnedi Okorafor is an excellent storyteller.  With Akata Witch she has artfully crafted a story of magic, friendship, and self-discovery in the midst of great peril.  I wish the book were a bit longer and that some of the characters were more fully developed - especially the interesting people we meet at Leopard Headquarters.  The book is arranged in a way that suggests the possibility of a sequel, but I don't have a definitive answer on that yet.  Akata Witch is the classic Good vs Evil tale, but with a fresh and exciting twist, and I think that both teens and adults would find Sunny's story to be imaginative and fascinating.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

   The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest picks up exactly where the previous book ended, and I don't want to spoil anything for those who may not have read the first two Millennium books, so let's just say that Lisbeth Salander is in all kinds of trouble and her resources are very limited.  To avoid spoilers, I won't say much else about the plot other than the fact that it didn't follow the same pattern as the first two (50-100 pages of background/setup then BOOM! BOOM! Non -stop action!).  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest felt much slower to me, but still engaging and entertaining nonetheless.  In this book, we are introduced to quite a few new characters as well, which, as I mentioned in my post for The Girl Who Played With Fire, can be difficult to keep track of if you don't speak Swedish.

   I personally did not enjoy this book as much as the first two.  It wasn't nearly as creative or well-written, and the story felt very choppy at times.  But still, it is the final piece of the Millennium Trilogy, and I find the Lisbeth Salander story to be incredibly entertaining.  Unfortunately, Stieg Larsson passed away before he could complete any more novels, and though I've heard rumors of a fourth manuscript, thus far none have been confirmed.  Either way, through the character of Lisbeth Salander and her loyal friend, Mikael Blomkvist, Stieg Larsson has left an unforgettable literary legacy for the world.  He was brave enough to breach the controversial and often taboo subject of sexual violence, bringing international awareness to the issue of brutal and sadistic crimes against women.  And for this fortitude, I will forever applaud him.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds

    If you've ever read anything by Sharon Olds, then you know that she writes highly provocative poetry.  If humanity has an exposed nerve anywhere, she will find it.  Her writing may be uncomfortable to read at times, but the raw truth of it and self-exposure is brave and bold.  In "Self Portrait, Rear View," she views her own aging body and wonders if anyone has ever died, / looking in a mirror, of horror.  Olds is not afraid to reveal herself as she reveals others.  In "Pansy Coda" she writes: I am tired of hating myself, tired / of loathing. I want to be carried in a petal / sling, sling of satin and cream, / I want to be dazed, I want the waking sleep. One Secret Thing is a constant bombardment of images of war, decay, death, and abuse, juxtaposed with the purity and nature of birth, life, and love.  It is emotionally challenging, but also greatly rewarding.

   The most common thread throughout this 5 part collection comes in the form of conflicting images of motherhood, specifically the narrator's relationship with her own mother.  In "Cassiopeia" we see a struggling relationship with a mother who was not meant to be a mother coupled with the tragedy of the feeling that some barrier between us is dissolving only as the mother reaches her deathbed in "The Last Evening."  And then there is the stark portrayal of death, from its first rattle to the disposal of the flesh.

   These poems seem to assert that, even if our bodies will never stop betraying us in their constant decay, our memories and souls can extend beyond the rubble of skin and bones through our relationships and impressions.  If you are squeamish, Sharon Olds is probably not the poet for you.  With explicit images of birth, sexuality, violence, and death, Olds makes Sylvia Plath look like Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  But if you brave the wholeness and completeness of her poetry, you may get the inspiration to sharpen your senses and daringly view the world as Olds does - even if only for a brief, stinging moment - it will leave a mark.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

   Eowyn Ivey's debut novel tells the story of Mabel and Jack, a middle-aged couple who always wanted children, but were never able to raise any of their own.  In 1920, they decide to embark upon a journey of new beginnings, so they move to rural Alaska to live a farming/subsistence lifestyle on their new homestead.  Despite their efforts to seek fulfillment, Mabel and Jack are still plagued by loneliness, and they seem to be growing farther apart from one another.  One day, during a brief occasion of intimacy, they decide to build a snowman together, which bears a resemblance to a little girl.  But the next morning, the snowman is gone, and Jack and Mabel are bewildered, even more so when a mysterious child appears on their property.  A closer look reveals that the child is a little girl, and for Jack and Mabel, there is something strangely familiar about her.   

   The Snow Child is inspired by the Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, in which a girl made of snow is raised by a childless couple.  There are many versions of the story, but Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) endures a terrible fate in nearly every one.  In Eowyn Ivey's novel, Mabel is of Russian heritage and is very familiar with the story, and she begins to believe that perhaps their little snow child, whose name is Faina, is a magical manifestation and an answer to their prayers.  Mabel is constantly asking herself whether or not Faina is real, or if the loneliness of the Alaskan wilderness is finally getting to her.

  The Snow Child was recently added to Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers shortlist, and the award is very well-deserved for Eowyn Ivey.  I was so impressed by the writing in this novel that I could not put it down.  It is reminiscent of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book in the descriptions of the isolated landscape and quiet, domestic scenes, but the fairy tale characteristics add a whole new dimension to the story.  Even for the reader, Faina is almost like a mirage - floating in and out of the realm of reality and never staying in either place long enough to be sure where she belongs.

   I really enjoyed reading this novel, especially the juxtaposition of the harsh, solitary landscape of Alaska peppered with the whimsical and peculiar characteristics of the Snegurochka story.  This is a book that I will be recommending for a long time.  Eowyn Ivey writes with such grace, intuition, and delicate precision, and I hope she continues to write and publish her work.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

House of Dolls by Francesca Lia Block, Illustrated by Barbara McClintock

   After years of contributing masterpieces to the YA genre, Francesca Lia Block published a children's book in 2010 entitled House of Dolls, which was illustrated by Barbara McClintock.  House of Dolls tells the story of Madison Blackberry and her beautiful doll collection that has been passed down to her by her grandmother.  For the dolls, life is "small but good," but for Madison, life is empty (p.15).  Her mother and father are constantly busy with their jobs and social engagements, so they've barely even noticed their daughter's loneliness.  She doesn't get along with her brother, and her grandmother is more concerned about the dolls than she is about Madison.  When Madison notices that the dolls are living happier, more fulfilled lives than her own, she makes a few devastating changes in the doll house.

   But all Madison needs is a little love in her life to undo the terrible pain that she has caused amongst the dolls, and luckily for Madison, her grandmother has been paying more attention than she realized and knows exactly what her neglected granddaughter needs to make things right again.

   House of Dolls is a "small but good" story about love and redemption that is perfectly paired with Barbara McClintock's stunning illustrations of the dolls, their majestic house, and their magnificent clothing.  This book is a children's book, but I think it would be appropriate for anyone who needs to be reminded that love, compassion, and forgiveness have the power to correct our mistakes.  Don't we all need to be reminded of that from time to time?

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

   Have you thanked a librarian today?  There's a reason why that bumper sticker exists - to highlight the importance of a service that is underutilized and under-appreciated.  The library is a staple of the community that is too often taken for granted, but Matthew Battles has provided us with an addition to the collection - a book about the history of the library, chronicling the centuries old struggle to provide the public with access to information.  In the age of Google and Wikipedia this might not seem so exciting, but a lot of blood has been shed (literally) in the fight for intellectual freedom.  You probably never considered a librarian to be a warrior, did you?  Being a librarian is basically like being assigned to a special ops task.  Just remember that next time you see one of those bumper stickers!  Anyway, from the ancient world of Alexandria to today's small community library, the story of how the library has evolved "from there to here" is quite extraordinary.

   As a librarian in training, I found this book to be very fascinating, but if you're not a library enthusiast, this book might be a little on the boring side.  It's definitely not a light read, but to be fair, the history of the library could potentially fill volumes and volumes, so Battles did his best to highlight the major turning points and events. It's still pretty dense at times, but even so, many people use the library fairly consistently but are unaware of its history - of the struggles to overcome censorship, inaccessibility, book-burning, and prejudice.  For a place with a mantra of "Shhhhhh," Battles has truly provided readers with an "unquiet" account of the institution.  Now, wouldn't you feel better if you thanked a librarian today?

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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Reality of Romance

If you've ever been in a relationship for more than 6 months then you know that love and romance don't always feel like prancing through a field of rainbows with your "lover" (why does that gross word even exist?).  The reality of romance is that once the initial fairy tale magic wears off and the hustle and bustle of daily life sets in, maintaining a relationship is NOT like Nicholas Sparks says it is.  It's hard.  And sometimes it's not pretty or attractive at all.  You may think that your relationship will look like Buttercup and Westley's for the rest of your life - all lusty and moony-eyed - but it won't. You'll probably gain weight and develop an embarrassing skin rash at some point.  And your idea of sexy lingerie will become the underwear that don't have any holes in them yet.  But that's ok.  It just means you're normal.

   So this year, instead of suggesting mushy-gushy love stories or sexy, steamy lust stories for Valetine's Day reading, I thought I'd put together a list of books that I think more accurately depict the reality of romance.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

   "To be cherished was the dearest wish of the heart of Maud Martha Brown" writes Gwendolyn Brooks in the opening pages of her one and only published novel (p. 2).  We meet Maud Martha when she is just seven years old and follow her story through childhood, school years, dating, marriage, and motherhood.  Maud Martha believes that "to most people, nothing at all 'happens,'" but Gwendolyn Brooks pursues the tiny sparks and daily miracles and tragedies that most people overlook in an ordinary life (p. 149).  Simple, daily occurrences are described so intimately and sharply that you'll wonder why your own everyday experiences seem so uneventful and dull.  Gwendolyn Brooks could write the biography of a dust mite and make it intense, riveting, and empathetic, which perhaps explains why she won the Pulitzer Prize and was named Poet Laureate of Illinois.

   Maud Martha was chosen as this month's selection for Laurie Notaro's Idiot Girls Book Club, which is an online Book Club that meets once a month through Facebook.  This is my first month joining the IGBC, but after reading Maud Martha, I am definitely coming back in March!  Just as I was blown away by the poetic strength in Lionel Shriver's novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was equally impressed by the writing in Maud Martha.  It did take me a few chapters to get used to the staccato flashes that comprise her story, but it is a powerful way of writing, and for a novel that is only 180 pages, Maud Martha is succinctly well-defined.  Written with the poignancy and grace of Brooks's own poetry and the raw intuition of a Toni Morrison novel, Maud Martha provides a brief glimpse into the life of an "ordinary" mid 20th century Black woman.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pink Smog by Francesca Lia Block

   Pink Smog tells the story of Louise Bat, better known today as Weetzie Bat, who is one of my favorite literary characters of all time.  But when she was 13, Louise hadn't fully blossomed into Weetzie yet.  In school, she is picked on and bullied (as are her very few friends), and at home, her father has moved away unexpectedly and her mother is usually passed out drunk in front of the TV.  But when she meets Winter, everything begins to change.  Weetzie sometimes cannot decide if Winter is real, or if he is her guardian angel.  He is mysterious, elusive, and always seems to be around when she's in trouble.  But things get even more strange when Weetzie begins to receive mysterious envelopes with cryptic poems inside - poems that seem to be leading her on a scavenger hunt to some of the most magical and exciting places in L.A.  Through these strange journeys and the ongoing search for her father, Weetzie embarks on a journey of self-discovery that eventually leads her into the world of Dangerous Angels.

   Even though this novel has been marketed as a stand-alone prequel to the other Weetzie Bat books, I would still recommend reading Weetzie Bat first.  Weetzie is magical, whimsical, and glamorous, and after all, where you end up is much more important than where you begin, right?  When I started reading this novel, I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it.  I have such strong emotional ties to Weetzie Bat, and Louise didn't really feel like the Weetzie I know, and L.A. didn't seem as magical as Weetzie's L.A.  But that's because Louise hadn't yet experienced all the things that would make her Weetzie.  By the end of the novel, it felt like a much more natural segue into the rest of the series.

   However, I do wish that Francesca Lia Block had stuck to the third person narrative of Weetzie Bat rather than the first person voice of Pink Smog.  The third person voice somehow made her seem more infinite and less vulnerable as a literary character.  But it does make more sense from a character-development standpoint...if Weetzie seems more vulnerable and less-developed than she does in Weetzie Bat it's because she is.  She doesn't yet have Dirk and Duck and Cherokee and Witch Baby, but Pink Smog puts her on the right track.

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