{prep work}

Tomorrow afternoon, I will make my inaugural Google+ outing as part of a book chat with fellow English major college alums concerning Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife. I’m pretty excited for this—one of the things I miss most about college is nerding out in English classes, and it’ll be great to share that with some old classmates (if I can manage to get over the crippling anxiety/flashbacks/sheer fact that they are all much better at this than I am).

In preparation for this event, I’m taking this opportunity to jot down some thoughts/potential talking points. Going into this, one of my English major friends who started the book before I did said, “I don’t think you’re going to like this… It’s really weird.” Me: “OH NO NOT LITERARY THEORY THAT IS MY LEAST FAVORITE THING IN THE UNIVERSE.” Him: “Umm. No. But it is really science-fiction-y. I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

Fair, old friend, fair. While science fiction is far behind theory on my list of things I hate, it’s true that it is also nowhere near the top. I was pleasantly surprised by BotA, however: While not something I probably would’ve picked up independently, it was a good read and definitely left a lot to think about.

First, the nuts and bolts: BotA takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States, about 100-200 years from now. Apparently, soon after present day, the U.S. entered the era of F.U.S. (eFfed-Up Sheesh, or something kind of like that), when the country was attacked by robotic newmans and everyone from Boeing to Coca-Cola started forming troops and building weapons. (Also there might have been an evil and sentient iceberg. I’m unclear on this point.) The East Coast of the country is basically destroyed, but New York is being recreated on the grounds of what was once Seattle.

All of the main characters operated under various levels of belief/understanding of what happened during the F.U.S., and what life is meant to be like post-F.U.S. The only thing they seem to have in common is Dirk Bickle, a mysterious man who pops in and out of their lives and the story, leaving instructions from “Mr. Kirkpatrick” and basically just confusing everyone.

Having read very little science fiction and retained even less, I’m not entirely sure how well my comments here can be applied to the genre as a whole. In any case, I found BotA both more interesting and more frightening than the other dystopic books I’ve read, which have been primarily of the fantasy (or, let’s Beyoncé, YA) genre. With those, as awful as things might be, there’s a definite detachment allowed, since obviously none of it is real. (Probably. Hunger Games!) Reading BotA left me with a fair amount of thoughts running along the lines of “omg what THIS COULD PROBABLY HAPPEN.” (Less of a comment on Boudinot’s book/the sci-fi genre, perhaps, and more on my own ignorance. I’m okay with it.)

P.S. Imma be back to post actual real thoughts on this after the discussion tomorrow. If you absolutely can’t wait, here’s an NYT review of BotA that I will likely be drawing from heavily in an attempt to sound intelligent.

{survivor}

The only thing I knew about Chris Cleave’s Little Bee before reading it was the following quote:

…I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.

Besides my obvious fascination with scars after years of softball, surgery, and just plain life, I thought these sentences were just so beautiful. It’s just so incredibly powerful: the bond with the reader, the resilience, the spirit of survival just jumps off the page at you.

I’m not really going to tell you anything more about Little Bee. As I said, I knew absolutely nothing about this book before reading it, and even the Amazon reviews I skimmed of it said things along the lines of “we’re not going to tell you anything that happens, but you should read this anyways.” Maybe that’s just how it has to be with this book.

The strength of the writing that initially attracted me did not disappoint in the book as a whole. I read it over the course of two reading stints separated by about two days; during those two days, the book kept constantly popping up in my head. I didn’t want to do anything else but finish it.

Aaahhhhh. I have so many more things I want to say, but they are all just huge spoilers and I can’t do that. Please—just read this book.

 

{calle country}

One of my college friends suggested Girlchild, Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, to me with the added note: “THIS BOOK IS EXTREMELY EMOTIONALLY POWERFUL.” Clearly, I went out and got it immediately. (Also, this is one of three book recommendations I have received recently with a similar warning. What does this say about me? Do I require emotional instability? Or do my friends just think I do? Things to ponder.)

(Much like what my friend also said, “I’m not going to get all English major up in here,” namely because I think I’ve forgotten how. Two years after grad is quite long enough to forget anything I ever knew about sounding smart.)

Rory Dawn Hendrix is a third-generation resident of the Calle, a trailer park in 1970s Reno, Nevada. She keeps her head down at school, receives toilet paper roses from the regulars at the local bar where her mom works, and has a tattered copy of the Girl Scout Handbook that she regularly consults. Most of her life is no different from those of other Calle girls or her female relatives before her: She spends her nights waiting for her mom to come home (and then usually has to put her to bed). She writes letters to her grandmother, rarely sees her four grown brothers, and barely remembers her father. She’s terrified of the Hardware Man who babysits her—but is more terrified to tell anyone why.

Despite these similarities, her mother and grandmother have identified Rory as having the possibility to move beyond her ancestry, to escape becoming a “third-generation bastard surely on the road to whoredom.” If she follows their advice, if she wins the school spelling bee, if she stays away from the bar regulars, she’ll have a chance to be different, even though that means leaving her family behind.

I may not have been born the captain of this boat, but I was born to rock it.

I’d obviously have to agree with my friend that this book was emotionally powerful. What really compelled me, though, were the chapters that had little to do with Rory’s personal life, but instead covered the Calle culture, such as hierarchy, gender roles, family life, and coming of age. Most books center around a main character, and so their story is individualized and isolated to a certain extent. What gets really interesting, I think, is when these trends are applied to an entire community. The 1970s were not that long ago; Reno, Nevada, is not too far away. And yet the lifestyle in this book was so completely alien from anything I’ve ever experienced that I (a history minor and period-fiction specialist) struggled to remind myself of its relative immediacy. I’ve certainly come across this phenomenon elsewhere, but rarely so extreme. At the moment, the only equivalent work I can think of is The Slaughter Rule, an early Ryan Gosling film about a community football team in contemporary rural Montana. After 112 minutes of bleak Montana winters, it was as hard to snap myself out of it as it was for me to understand that I was watching a current reality.

Does anyone else have any examples of this? (I’ll accept answers with or without emotional caveats.)

{feminist armor}

Yesterday, after two sold-out shut-downs, I finally saw Snow White and the Huntsman. At our pre-screening dinner and drinks, my friend and I discussed what we’d heard about the movie so far: unexpectedly good, Charlize Theron is brilliant, an empowering feminist slant. Though neither of us had read it, we discussed an apparently well-known review of SWatH as the beginning of a new genre of feminist film, led (really??) by Kristen Stewart.

***SPOILER WARNING***

After the movie, our collective response was: That constantly oscillated between expected and surprising! Daring ending! Strong female characters! Entirely unsubtle female Jesus figure!

At home this morning, I attempted to find the review we had discussed through a brief Google search. I was resoundingly unsuccessful—instead, Googling “snow white and the huntsman feminism” results in a barrage of reviews bashing the movie for its misplaced feminist interpretation of the classic fairytale.

In some scruffy, unbathed, unshaven, older-alcoholic way, the huntsman is supposed to make sense as Snow White’s true love. . . [I]t is his lesson about a knife to the heart that ultimately saves her. So, even though Snow White kills the Queen, he gave her the knowledge to do so. Her moment in armor? That was just a brief blip in drag. By film’s end, she is wrapped nicely back in a flouncy blood-red dress and will seemingly soon trip down the aisle with Sir Skirt Ripper. Gag.

Alright, Ms. Magazine blog. While I may devour “No Comment” like there’s no tomorrow (favorite), imma have to disagree with a lot of what you’re putting out there right now. Namely, the huntsman did not make sense to me as Snow White’s true love—rather, I came away from the film with the impression of a conscious effort to point out that they were not going to be tripping down the aisle soon, or at all. And that’s a bold move—flying in the face of the biggest mainstay of both Hollywood and fairytales. Did the huntsman teach Snow White to fight? Yes. Did that make sense, given the gender roles of their society (and the fact that she had been locked in a tower for a decade, and so had had no other opportunity to learn to fight)? Also yes. (Did K-Stew look like a total bad ass leaping through a wall of fire in full sword-wielding armor? Yes.)

To my understanding, a feminist revamping of a fairytale does not (and probably should not) completely ignore the admittedly chauvinist lean of the original. Let’s face it—if I was running for my life through the Dark Forest, I would probably want someone with me. You say that you know a man who can wield a battleaxe, which straight-up physical fact makes a difficulty for me? Fine, male companion it is. Even Katniss—whom this blogger seems to regard as the paragon of feminist hero, an opinion I partially agree with but also find a little questionable—had almost constant male companionship or protection, especially in the second and third Hunger Games books.

In any case. I am likely getting in over my head here. Suffice it to say that sometimes it is just pretty cool to watch a girl leap through a wall of fire in full sword-wielding armor.

{eerie time}

John Hart’s Iron House started out rough, but turned into quite a page turner—finished it late last night. As I think I’ve mentioned before, outside of the Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes I was raised on, I don’t tend to read thrillers/suspense novels/mysteries—too often I feel like they’re done poorly, churned out at mass rates to stock airport bookstores.

IH exceeded my expectations by being just a well-crafted story. Again, the beginning was a little slow, but once I got into it, it clipped along at a good pace. What truly makes or breaks a mystery for me, though, is for sure the ending. A bad thriller ending can undo the author’s entire previous efforts to win my favor, however well they may have been doing thus far. IH‘s ending was neat—in that it made logical sense and left no loose ends—and, without spoiling, satisfactorily coincidental. The plot had a creepy orphanage (à la Jane Eyre on violent, violent steroids), brutal crime bosses, mental illness, and some unforgettable Appalachians. It did not have any of the components that I greatly dislike in books of this genre (namely, any kind of political connection, which never fails to confuse me), leaving it, all in all, quite a good fast-paced read.

{in gear}

Spurned on by a handful of friends showing interest (!! [or, if “interest” is too strong, then at least cognizance]) of this blog, I made the first really productive trip to the library in quite some time. I had a handful of recommendations and a few more books that I had heard so many good things about.

So what do I start with? The one book I checked out that had absolutely nothing to recommend it. What can I say—it was a weekend! I was lazy and tired! My emotions were spent and I didn’t want to read anything that would strain them! I only wanted to read a mass-market thriller!

And so I am. The end.