Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7, 2010: I read things sometimes

Last year, I told myself I'd read fifty books, as part of a friendly competition with some others. It didn't work out quite that way; I fell short. Embarrassingly short. So short I'm not going to tell you how short it was. It was double digits, at least.

This year I didn't even try. You could make an argument about what I'm replacing books with, except it isn't, say, CDs; I've only bought three this year. No, the truth is more mundane. No, more frightening. The reason I don't break down how I spend my time is because it terrifies me.

And yet I do still read sometimes. Here's some of it.

Susannah Clarke - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I'm pretty sure that at some subconscious level, I seek out really long books like this to prove I can read them on my own accord, that my brain isn't pureed from the Internet and doled out into tweet-sized portions. Or maybe it's showoffery, the ability to tote a brick around in public -- why, yes, I do this all the time! Kindle? Pah.

If fairy literature is a genre -- and if you believe the trend articles, it's well on its way -- then this is its Paradise Lost. It is truly a brick (it's even brick red), stuffed full of history and conspiracy and meandering footnotes, many of which could constitute a chapter of their own. I love this, and not just to show off. Every bit of this is needed. It's the first lesson you learn when you start reading long books: there are few better ways to truly paint a character in detail. And then paint her again periodically, like one of those "watch this guy's face change day-by-day for fifteen years!" sites but in writing, and with themes. The story of Lady Pole alone is enough to constitute an entire booklet, not to mention Strange's or Arabella's. There are dozens of these stories, and by the end of the book, you get the sense that Clarke has produced not just a novel, but a whole history. It made all the best-of lists for a reason.

(Incidentally, the Textfyre writer in me appreciated Claire Clairmont showing up. Even if she didn't come off so well. I wonder if I can write Anna Chronicle into Clarke's history.)

Emma Bull - War for the Oaks

Another book that sat around on my (still ballooning) Amazon wishlist until I spotted it at the new bookstore that opened up a block or so by my apartment in Chapel Hill. It's a miracle, in retrospect, that I'm not constantly broke. Anyway, overlap between my wish list and bookstore shelves is so rare that I snapped it up immediately, April be damned. Great decision.

This is more straightforward a book than Clarke's. Instead of meandering diversions about the scholarship of magic in the early 1200s (mind you, I loved those) and 200 pages for the plot to really get started (mind you, I didn't hate those as much as a lot of people did; plot WAS happening in these pages; it was just spoiled on the cover), it's a forward-moving fantasy yarn. Local rocker girl meets phouka, is drawn into fairy war, deploys The Power of Rock and saves Goodness. It sounds pretty silly, but it works.

The thing just about everyone notes here is the sense of place. It's set near Minneapolis and all the locations are real. From what I hear, they're as described. This makes the book so much more immediate than, say, your average made-up Troxlerville. I don't live near Minneapolis, and I just know there's a dimension that I'm missing by not traipsing around these places myself. I'll have to wait until someone writes the urban fantasy book about Chapel Hill, although it'd probably involve Carolina blue pom-poms and you'd defeat the evil people (in navy, no doubt) through football and I'd lose all interest.

The other thing that sets this apart is the commitment to the narrative. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe authors routinely pour all their resources into their worlds until they're truly worlds, and I just haven't found them yet. Even if that's the case, though, Emma Bull's gone above and beyond. There's the book, of course, and now that it's re-released, there's a foreword. (We're not in "above and beyond" territory yet, I should clarify.) But then she's recorded an album of these songs with her band Cats Laughing, and even though it doesn't match how I imagine the songs -- I suppose it supports the book even more that I even did imagine them -- it's more than competent.

There's even a trailer. Very low-budget, out of necessity, but it still captures the book perfectly. Oh. And. I must, er, really applaud the casting of the guy who plays the Phouka, as well as the aesthetics, or maybe mostly the aesthetics. Willy Silver, eh, not so much. I'll now assess it and not act like a 12-year-old: the amount of dedication Bull brings to her world is truly laudable. If only more people did this; we need more worlds to travel to, not fewer.

Kate Atkinson - Behind the Scenes at the Museum

See, not everything I read is about fairies.

If I picked favorites, this would be a contender. (See? I can't even decide upon a favorite when I'm doing hypotheticals.) It's a family book, yes, but not in the rote flap-copy "family togetherness and reunitingness" sense. It's more about how Alice's life is intertwined with Ada's, who lived centuries ago, as well as Ada's mother Lily, and the ways tragedy and triumph both sprout from these histories. This is catnip to me. There are family secrets, of course, some apparent and some less so (although I was spoiled on some of them, so take that with a grain of salt.) It comes together beautifully.

(Speaking of Alice and Ada and catnip, the names! They are, as far as I can remember, all beautiful.)

I'd be remiss not to mention the gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous writing. This is what a really strong narrative voice does for you. Like the baby-to-be in Jesca Hoop's "Intelligentactile 101," Ruby is egotistical as any id-infant, but utterly lovable. It's almost a shame when she grows up and her voice mellows a bit.

Jedediah Berry - The Manual of Detection

This was an ifMUD suggestion, and a good one. It's not in my normal genre. The last mysteries I read were written by Carolyn Keene and his army of ghostwriters. This is where I'd probably want to make a sweeping statement along the lines of "But ah, even those have taught me the ways of the mystery, given me a taste for intrigue...." except that I'm not actually qualified to do this. Your gain.

Instead, let's talk about how I really liked this. It's another book where a local man gets promoted way beyond his means -- escapism, sure. Berry throws around his noir tropes like confetti, but the plot's twisted enough that I don't mind a bit. Especially the last few chapters. I still don't quite get all the nuances. But that's reread fodder. Gives the book a longer life.

Max Barry - Syrup

(Note: The author published this book under the name Maxx, an act he's since repudiated for being really stupid. I will do the same.)

One of my journalism professors used to cover Coca-Cola for several years. He probably knows more about Coke than many people who work there. (He'll also probably read this, but knowing a lot about Coke is hardly slanderous. At least not when it's capitalized.)

So would he, or anyone else, say this book is realistic? Doubtful. The premise is ridiculous, the characterization is as thin as soda-can aluminum, and the protagonist is the sort of guy Bill Hicks ranted about. Nevertheless, it's a pretty fun, fast-paced read, and I enjoyed it while it lasted. You can't read 900-page epics all the time -- well, OK, you could, but it'd result in less reading altogether. Or the comprehension equivalent of brain puree.

Just one thing, though: way too many stock characters! Sneaky Pete's character is an ugly stereotype, and making him into a ladies' man doesn't negate this. And all tabletop gamers aren't sub-Big Bang Theory troglodytes. Ah well.


Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory reviewed

(Suggested music for this post: The KT Bush Band - Come Together. Thanks to woj for the link.)

I'm on all counts the target audience for Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory by Deborah Withers. I've been a Kate Bush fan for years ever since I was shanghaied in. Not directly, but back in the days when my musical tastes were Sarah Brightman and not much else, I was reading a few comparisons, and it turns out that, in a happening that should shock absolutely no one, Sarah Brightman was compared to Kate Bush at one point. At the time it was sort of a valid comparison. They had similar voices -- this was before Brightman's anodyne-classical-crossover phase that won't end already -- and she covered Kate's part on "Don't Give Up," after all. But the music didn't seem to fit as much. More than anything, Bush's voice just didn't sit right with me. I only soldiered on because the post mentioned that there needed to be more Kate Bush fans.

As it turns out, there's more to her voice than I thought at first. The keening, high-pitched voice put me off at first because it was supposed to: it's unabashedly feminine and a stark contrast to the male voices that dominated (and still dominate) rock music back in the '70s.

That's part of Withers' thesis. The book, which was her graduate thesis and expanded for print, explores how Kate Bush creates a particular archetype through her albums: the Bushian Feminine Subject, or BFS. The BFS is born, lives, grows, dies and is reborn through the course of her albums, and drawing upon the work of several gender theorists, Withers explains just how this happens and just what it lends to Bush's music.

For the most part, the book was pretty brilliant. Going by name-drops alone, Kate Bush gets plenty of discussion in the music press, but it's mainly to insert Female Artist A into Framework B. What gets less discussion, though, is What It All Means: the storyline, so to speak, of Kate Bush and her persona throughout her body of work. I'm sure it exists. I've read some of it. And, of course, there are a few biographies floating out there, although most of them have received their share of criticism. (Often a lion's share.) Nothing, however, exists that's quite like this. It wouldn't; gender theorists are enough to send the press either screaming or rounding up the fratirists.

I particularly appreciated the focus on The Line, the Cross and the Curve and its accompanying album The Red Shoes -- because that's how you really need to look at it. The album's an offshoot of the film, not the other way around -- i.e. it shortchanges Line to see it as just a long-form music video. The songs were written expressly for the film and cannot be understood otherwise. The title track comes alive, "Lily" actually makes sense and "Moments of Pleasure" gets the backing it deserves. And I'm glad she noticed the racial implications of "Eat the Music" and its particular brand of frolicking (if you've seen the video, you know what I mean.) It either isn't talked about or is absolutely tone-deaf; check out the Amazon reviews to see what I'm talking about.

The book fell flat on a few points, though. First of all, it needed a copy editor. I'm not just talking simple grammatical errors, although there are some of those. I'm talking getting multiple album and song names wrong. It's Aerial, not Arial, that's a font; "Sat in your in your Lap" is a breakdown of something, all right, but not the kind the author was talking about. This is the kind of thing you really shouldn't be getting wrong, especially when the book is at least in part aimed toward fans. It hurts one's credibility. I realize the book is self-published, but there are undoubtedly scores of Kate Bush devotees who'd be more than willing to do this.

(I also realize I am invoking Muphry's Law here. Sigh. E-mail me with whatever I screwed up.)

It's curious that The Sensual World, which Bush explicitly described as her "feminine" album, is almost entirely absent. It gets a brief mention in the overview, but little more. It isn't as if there's nothing to work with. The title track could probably get a section all to itself in its reappropriation of Ulysses, a manly-man text if ever there was one in reputation. (No, I haven't read the whole thing.) This is where, to my knowledge, the Trio Bulgarka first appears; that has some implications. I suspect the album was left out because it doesn't fit as neatly into the narrative here -- it'd fit more neatly by Lionheart, if only chronology allowed. Its absence, though, is nevertheless puzzling.

Lastly, the difference between the BFS and Bush herself isn't always presented as clearly as the author intended. I'm going here by the author's words: "The BFS is found within Bush's music but she is not the same as Bush herself" (1). And because the BFS is "born" with The Kick Inside, about 16 years or so after Bush was, it's safe to say it is not her. This distinction, however, isn't always held to in the text; for instance, in discussing The Dreaming, Withers says, of reviewers: "Many thought the BFS had lost it or gone too far" (81). Considering that the idea of the BFS didn't exist until Withers wrote her thesis years later, I highly doubt reviewers thought in those terms. They undoubtedly thought Bush had gone too far, but the BFS isn't Kate Bush. In the same chapter, the BFS evidently self-produces the album, but that too is Bush's role. Her name is in the credits. It's a small point, but it still gets a bit confusing.

But these don't change the fact that Withers has written an absolutely fascinating book and one that's undoubtedly the only of its kind. Go read it; you won't regret the time.