Sunday Salon: Loving a good series (and some bad ones)

The Sunday

It has been, to my great regret, over a year since I last Sunday Salon-ed.  I fell away from blogging for a time (although not from reading, thank goodness), but now that I have taken up a new job, a new home, and a new country, I am plunging back in.

In the last immensely stressful year and a half, there have been some major changes to my reading habits.  I teach English literature and drama, so a fair amount of my reading time has always been devoted to work reading, as well as pleasure reading of canonical works.  In the last year, when my workload (reading and grading) was so much heavier than it had ever been before, I suddenly wanted my reading to be much, much lighter.  To cure stress insomnia I began watching soporifically formulaic television, and to distract myself during my waking hours I craved literature that did something a little different. I wanted books to take a hold of me from the first page and refuse to release me from their (sometimes trashy) grip until the very last page.  And sometimes not even then.  The result, ironically, was many an insomniac night of fevered reading.

Thus, this was the year I rediscovered both young adult literature (which had never really been off my reading radar) and the romance (which really had been).  I became addicted to the Twilight series and then spent several months ranting about its politics to anyone who would listen, and a number who wished they hadn't.  I watched a couple of episodes of True Blood on an airplane and promptly read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series in a matter of two weeks.  I came to love a good series (or even a bad one) because it would immerse me in a fantasy world for a longer period of time.  I have always been a sucker for dramas of character, which is why I am also addicted to television dramas and nineteenth century serial novels.  Towards the end of the summer, my partner and I devoured HBO's The Wire in about a month of constant watching.  (The only time we slowed down was during the season about the school system.  I told D that I couldn't watch episodes of that season in the evening because teacher's nightmares would keep me awake for hours.)  By the end, our whole way of speaking had changed to resemble the characters', and we found every discussion returning to the moral questions raised by the show.  I love a good series.

At any rate, my reading this week certainly reflects these trends.  My new house has room to fulfill a long held wish of mine: I now I have a "library," a room utterly dedicated to books and reading.  Luxury.  This isn't to say that the other rooms are bookless. In fact, I can't think of a single room in the house that lacks a bookshelf (maybe the laundry room - I'll have to correct that), but the library still feels decadently exciting.  I spent the afternoon there today, reading, blogging, and gazing out the window at the desultory autumnal activity on my green street.

So, what have I been reading this week?

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 Last weekend I was at a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico (a delightful change of pace from my beloved but distinctly cool Halifax, Nova Scotia).  On the flight there, I read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, which had been gazing at me insistently from my shelf for some time.  The Hunger Games begins as a hybrid of several well-worn premises: in a dystopian future, people live in carefully fenced-in, intensely state-controlled colonies (The Giver, City of Ember) trying to eke out a living as unobtrusively as possible.  Once a year, a lottery (Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery") is held to choose participants in the annual "Hunger Games," in which teenagers - one male and one female from each colony - are forced to slaughter each other in an elaborate and extended gladiatorial contest. This is the Capital's way of ritually reasserting its hegemonic power over the bodies and minds of the colonists (oh, you know, a combination of the legend of the Minotaur and Lord of the Flies).

There are one or two kinks in the writing here - few enough that I suspect it is a problem of editing rather than of Collins's prose style, especially since she puts a great deal of thought into how to construct this narrative and these characters in a way that seems fresh as well as mythic.  Her main innovation is to conceive of the Hunger Games as reality television, a sinister colonial tool that hypnotically captures the attention of the entire empire even as it oppresses them by stealing the lives and free will of their youth.  Every time our heroine makes a move, no matter how vicious or tender, in the Hunger Games, she considers how it will look to the viewers.  PR is a matter of life and death.

This sort of self-consciousness is delightfully postmodern, and just my cup of tea.  But I also enjoyed how Collins goes out of her way in the opening moments of the book to make us slightly uncomfortable with our heroine and the harshness her life of poverty has instilled in her: a few pages in we already know that she tried to drown her sister's beloved cat when it was just a kitten.  After a few more pages we learn that a wild cat (a cougar? I can't quite remember.) took to following her around as she hunted, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit.  She likes the animal, but it scares away the game, so she kills it.  This is a throwaway moment - done in a single sentence, never to appear again - but it is canny and complex characterization, and it paves the way for what is to come.

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On the way home from my conference, I started in on another long-anticipated YA novel: Kristen Cashore's Fire.  My friend RP, a brilliant middle and high school librarian, recommended Cashore's first novel, Graceling, to me, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books of last year.  Certainly it was the one book I gave and recommended to the most friends.  It is the rare perfect fusion of YA and romance that not only has interesting politics (which many books in both genres do) but actually admirable ones.  If I had a daughter, I would be eager for her to read Graceling, both for its feminism and for the complexity of the moral issues it represents.

Cashore's first novel was about a Graceling, a woman who is gifted with a supernatural ability (a grace) that makes her a social outcast and a tremendous tool for her morally shady monarch (Political delight #1: monarchy is not uncomplicatedly romantic in this novel.  In other words, people aren't in positions of power because they are genetically superior and noble of body and mind.).  Her gift is for killing, and there is no one in the world better at it.  But does this gift deprive her of power, or suffuse her with it?
Fire is a "companion novel" to Graceling, set in a neighboring world, with an almost utterly different set of characters.  This was a bit of a disappointment to me, since I was terribly attached to the first book's characters, and longing for news of them. (This reminds me of the time, when I was a child, that my mother happened upon me shortly after I finished Lloyd Alexander's "Black Cauldron" series, and I was weeping hysterically.  What was the matter?, she asked, concerned for the sanity of her only child.  I think I love the hero of this series, I gulped out, and now it is over and I will never see him again!  She must have found this to be the most delightful parenting dilemma she ever encountered with me.)

At any rate, the opening of Fire was so lyrically beautiful that I soon forgot (faithlessly) my longing for the friends of Graceling.  An example of this lyricism: in the prologue to the book, a strangely precocious baby takes to making up nonsense verses and singing them to his adoring father:
"Birdies love treetops to whirl themselves through, for inside of their heads they are birds," the boy sang absentmindedly, patting his hand on his father's arm. Then, a minute later: "Father?"
"Yes, son?"
"You love the things that I love you to do, for inside of your head are my words."
Larch was utterly happy.  He couldn't remember why his wife's death had saddened him so.  He saw now that it was better this way, he and the boy alone in the world. (3)
These lines have the babbling rhythm of nursery rhymes, but like nursery rhymes, unknotting their sense reveals a sinister, vital irony.

Fire, the heroine of her eponymous novel, is not as sympathetic a heroine as Katsa from Graceling. This is because, well, Katsa was the strongest person in her world, and (although I am hardly a woman warrior myself) my heartiest sympathies in novels are always reserved for that kind of character, the kick-ass kind.  Fire is a similarly isolated heroine, however.  In this novel, Fire's gift is her beauty: she is a "monster" - something perilously, magnetically other - and this otherness exudes from her like pheromones, driving everyone around her mad with lust, jealousy, and rage.

The impediment to romance for Fire is her beauty, which is alien to her.  Fire rarely looks in the mirror, for when she does, even she is seduced by her beauty, nauseatingly so.  No Narcissus, she.  She doesn't feel like her appearance represents her real self, her inner life, which is pockmarked by pain, fear, and sadness.  Can this real self ever be truly loved by someone who is attracted - dazzled, really - by her monstrously lovely surface?  This is not an unprecedented turn - clever romance novelists have been playing with the problematics of beauty for some time, but Cashore does it well.  From time to time, missing the characters of Graceling, I thought, "Well, this is good, but it isn't nearly as good as the first novel."  But, as I wrote to RP, no sooner had I thought this, then the book would wreak its revenge by punching me in the emotional gut.  And at the end, I was left thinking "I am not sure there is much that could make me love Cashore's books more."

    ~ ~ ~ ~

    I finished two books this week that weren't such successes.  The first was Meredith Ann Pierce's The Darkangel, which I first picked up for reasons that reveal me to be as narcissistic as Cashore's Fire is not.  You see, my real name (outside of the blog world) is Ariel, and since my own name has an abundance of literary origins, I have an abiding fascinating with reading about characters who share the name.  How could I resist, then, a book with the tag line "Can Aeriel save the Vampyre's soul?"? ("I think we know she can," I thought, upon reading the dustjacket.  It is this sort of conversation with myself that runs on throughout the reading of novels about Ariels.  I find it endlessly amusing.  Revealing, right? Did I mention that I'm an only child?)  Sadly, since Pierce's book is a minor classic of YA, it never really caught fire for me, and it ended up taking me months to finish.  There was something cold and sterile about the literary style, which is oddly formal in the same way Ursula K. Le Guin's can be, but without the intellectual complexity or mythic grandeur than made Earthsea's formal coldness read like Tolkien or Anglo-Saxon epic to me.  And the mythology of the series (filled with portmanteau characters like the equustel - a star horse) seemed strained to me, like someone had created a computer program that would splice Latin words together, and built a story around its printouts.  There was much to admire about the prose and characterization, but the total effect was too wooden to be enjoyable for me. Alas.

    And then there was my long awaited fix of Sookie Stackhouse, A Touch of Dead.  Charlaine Harris's characters are a bit drug-like, as is the Alan Ball series (True Blood) based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels.  True Blood has serious ups and downs of quality - episodes towards the beginning and middle of each season are sometimes sublimely well done, but the season always ends with a flurry of ill-conceived over-the-topness.  Harris's novels are just about always over-the-top.  But the characters - no, let's be honest, mostly Eric the Viking Vampire (who is the heart of True Blood's sublimeness as well) - just won't let you go, curse them.  So on and on I go, devouring these rather appalling novels.  (By the by, I try to be general here to avoid becoming a spoilery spoiler. But just in case I fail, the more spoiler-squeamish among you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

    This year, Harris has kindly (and profitably) released a collection of short stories to tide us over between longer novels and seasons of True Blood.  But sadly these are very slight stories, in which we barely glimpse the characters and issues that are so integral to the novels' appeal.  Oddly, some of these stories do make sense of minor plot points which were utterly baffling in the novels, like when exactly Sookie's vampire cousin became a part of the story, or how a whole family of fairies becomes entwined with Sookie's life.  In the novels, these characters just appear, with the assumption that we are all already acquainted with the events of stories published in relatively obscure volumes.  I kept flipping back to the "Books by Charlaine Harris" list at the front of the novels, thinking I had missed a book.  This raises a key question: Why is it that in each novel in the series, loyal readers have to slog through rehashing of central plot points ("And then I saw my ex-boyfriend, Vampire Bill.  Bill and I had a history, with a capital H.  You see..."), but no one ever bothers to fill us in on the obscure but important events of these short stories??  Grrr. 

    The TV show and the novels are best when they attempt to fuse the world of vampires with the gothic realism of southern culture.  Better NOT to go over the top with a huge cast of characters doing the supernatural cancan and wreaking havoc all over Bon Temps, guys.  Keep it simple, and explore how these normal people's lives are affected by the supernatural in real and detailed ways.  This is the delight of the Hoyt plot line in True Blood and of the Eric-amnesia strand of the novels.

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    And what read I now?  Well, I am 75 pages in to J. Maarten Troost's uncomfortably titled The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, which is often very funny but is distressing me in an English teachery way with its grammar. (I realize, even as I say this, that this post is probably hubristically filled with grammatical errors.)  And I am deeply ensnared in Mary Jo Putney's romance, Silk and Shadows, a novel whose silliness is well summarized by the beginning of its book jacket blurb: "He called himself Peregrine, and like the falcon he was wild and free."  Perhaps more on them next week.

    What next?  Well, I need to finish Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, which I am supposed to tandem-blog with a friend.  (I was supposed to do this over the summer, I should say.  Oh dear.)  And then I think I will embark on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party.

    Until next week!

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    A postscript:
    One minor but (I think) exciting change that I just made to my blog layout, thanks to new possibilities offered by LibraryThing: the widget to the right that lists my recent reading now includes my ratings for the books, so you can instantly see which ones I liked best and least.  Pretty cool, I think.

    And another:
    If you are interested in participating in the Sunday Salon, go here to learn more about it.

    2 Responses so far.

    1. Welcome back to the Salon! I take breaks as needed. Congratulations on all the exciting new changes. Also, I LOVE the Wire. My Partner and I are in the middle of season three and I am so impressed with the writing and character development. The incorporation of Robert's Rules of Order is just genuis!!!

    2. Thanks, beastmomma! The Wire (and Stringer Bell) are absolutely phenomenal. It gets very, VERY grim after season 3 - brace yourself!

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