Wednesday, April 25, 2012

World Book Night 2012

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It was (is) a noble endeavor: provide givers with 20 copies of a book they love to give away to light or non-readers. This was the second World Book Night, and the first in the US. I chose The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri as my giveaway. Printed some WBN bookmarks to stick in the books. I had decided that my introverted tendencies NOT to engage anyone in conversation if I didn't have to could be overcome by my reading enthusiasm. I had chosen a corner near an ice cream parlor, used book store, giant park, cafes and restaurants that I thought would get a diverse array of passers-by. 

But after hearing of others' less-than-glowing renditions of their experiences (a coworker even had trouble giving out her book at the homeless shelter where she volunteers!), I scrapped my idea of trying to give out the books to perfect strangers on a street with lots of diverse foot traffic and went to a local pub where I used to work. I managed to give away about 1/2 of my copies, to staff and regulars, and tried to push the idea of a pub book club - hey here's your first book! The chef had even read and adored the book already! Most don't read much at all, so most easily fell into the non/light readers category. I plan to give the rest to staff that wasn't there Monday, and maybe to neighbors (I should really talk to the neighbors shouldn't I?) and coworkers and other light/non readers I know. I feel terribly that I didn't manage to give them all away on Monday, but I'm secretly - well now not so secretly - optimistic that a least a few people will discover and enjoy a book they would not otherwise have read, and might become more avid readers because of it. (And maybe they really will start a pub book club... isn't that a good idea?)

I think some of the experiences of other givers highlight where we are as a society. Even people I knew were suspicious. Why are you giving me a book? Do I eventually have to do something? Wait I don't even have to pay you? Ohh okay I'll take a book! It's almost as if everyone thought you were either selling something or giving them homework & would be coming to collect their book reports later! Are we that naturally suspicious of generosity? What's the catch, everyone seemed to wonder? Are you going to ask me to sign a petition? Give you some personal information? Sign up for a mailing list?

Honestly, I avoid people on the street trying to engage me all the time -- because they pretty much always have an agenda. Sign this or that petition, register to vote, then vote for this person or that person, donate to this cause, sign up for this service, have a credit card, take this book and convert to that religion, etc etc. Some worthy goals, others less worthy. We are never approached by people that are just giving things away for the sheer joy of giving and spreading an activity love. Well, possibly until now, that is. 

How did other givers (both successful and less than) approach it? Did they just happen to work/volunteer at the perfect locations? Did they set them in a box with a giant FREE BOOK sign? Did they actually engage random pedestrians in conversation to give away their books?  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Battles in Psychic Regression: The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits


I must admit, the bright pinkish, floral cover of this novel, as well as the description about mother-daughter psychic damage, gave me pause, as I generally don't like touch-feely fiction unless I'm in a particular mood, but Knopf often publishes books I like, and I decided to give this strange sounding plot a whirl. While this will not go down on my list of all-time favorites, I may have to start list for best books with improbable plots just to put this one at the top. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits turned out to not be in any way touchy-feely, and is in fact a rather dark and humorous tale wrought with anxiety and unwitting revenge. What? Exactly. 

The Vanishers tells the sporadic, sardonic tale of Julia Severn, a young psychic prodigy who unexpectedly meets her match in her mentor at an elite university for parapsychology.  Or rather, unexpectedly discovers she is her mentor's match. She then begins to suffer from a myriad of mysterious ailments, presumably somewhat psychosomatic at their root, or psychically afflicted by her mentor, and is accosted by some odd characters (one is described later as emitting a "carcinogenic unhappiness") that claim they can help "cure" her. They describe the process of disappearing oneself from one's life when it becomes to much -"vanishing"- as an alternative to suicide. Not that Julie's necessarily suicidal, but they had heard of her psychic prowess and needed her help to track down some long lost film. In order to recover, they tell her, she will have to "vanish" herself. 

The plot has many twists and turns and unlikely connections, and is anything but conventional. Julavits uses many vivid descriptors, which at times subtly imply the novel's themes, such as "With her doll eyes blinking from her scavenged face, she resembled a person buried inside another person." Julie's own mother had committed suicide when she was a baby, and elements of how it affected her relationship with her father, who would only wax philosophical when asked to describe what sort of mother she would have been: 
My response would not be a truthful attempt to answer your question, it would be an attempt to compensate for your loss by creating an ideal person whose absence you can mourn unreservedly. However, this puts me in the position of making her into someone she was possibly not; it forces me to falsely represent her to you, and in doing so I become, not the keeper of her memory, but the re-creator of her past, and that role makes me uncomfortable; also I believe it is, in the long run, a disservice to her, because you will grow up missing a mother that you would never have experienced, had she not died. And this strikes me as a second kind of death, a more complete and horrible death, to be annihilated and replaced by a hypothetical person who is not remotely you, thus I think it is better that she remain a quasi-mystery, a pleasant unknown, than an absence filled with compensatory narratives supplied by your guilty father.
Elements of suicide, the past intersecting the present, revenge, and the precarious relationships forged between women are woven throughout the story. 
Because I’d decided—this kind of hating, this kind of fault-finding, this kind of symbolic matricide, it had to stop. If I’d formed an allegiance to Irenke, it was because I’d decided that to befriend Irenke was to ensure that my mother’s death did not perpetuate more pointless, self-defeating rivalries among women who, in the end, were only killing themselves.
I cannot do the plot much justice here, and it's complications almost run away with themselves, but the uniqueness of the storyline won me over in the end. 

*I received this copy courtesy of Knopf Doubleday via NetGalley. Check out its Spotify playlist, curated by Doubleday.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Literary Blog Hop: autobiographical characters

It's Literary Blog Hop time again, hosted by The Blue Bookcase. This month's question:

How do you feel about fictional characters who are obviously closely based on the author? Is this an example of authorial superego? Or just a natural extension of the "write what you know" advice? 

Literary Blog HopThe shortest answer: If the story is done well, I don't mind at all. Whether it's superego or write-what-you-know depends on how it's done, on the purpose for which the method is used, and on the author her/himself.

The Bell Jar is a good example - I didn't feel that the thinly veiled autobiographical nature of the novel took away from the experience of reading it (granted, it has been many years since I've picked it up and read it all the way through). The novel itself certainly had a few structural shortcomings, and one could argue that this might have been due to its strongly autobiographical nature - our lives don't exactly follow any sort of nice narrative flow, complete with measured character and plot development, climax, and resolution. In a sense, that's where much of the fiction would have to come in. The author should know when to deviate from her/his own autobiographical feed in order to move the plot or allow for character development.

Copping to autobiographical characters or elements in one's own writing might be too close for comfort for some - writers already are baring much of their inner world by writing and sharing fiction; to admit to a specific character or plot line as being close to one's self or history might just be too uncomfortable, which could perhaps be an alternative explanation for Eugenides reluctance to claim Milton in The Marriage Plot as mostly instead of loosely based on himself. Perhaps today's culture would view such work as too egotistical and not fictional enough - I honestly don't know.  Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five clearly contains experiences based on his own time in a POW camp in Dresden, and it's definitely his most well-known work and considered by many to be his best.

As an author of fiction that can seem remotely plausible or realistic, is it even possible to write without writing what you know, or at least, what you believe to be true on some deeper level? If you don't know from your own experience, you'd have to research to fill in the gaps of your own knowledge and experience. Either way, your fictional work would have to contain elements of what's known in order to be taken seriously at all.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

May's bookish endeavor: we the bookish read Alias Grace

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In a casual twitter conversation a couple months ago, Bookworm Beth, Lit Musing Brenna and I determined that we all wanted to read Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (a re-read for me) and thought, hey, why not coordinate and read at roughly the same time? We've set May as the month, and anyone who likes is welcome to join in - just say so in a comment below. This will be an informal read-along, with no set pace and only two posts: 

Wednesday, May 16th: General and early impressions; themes and motifs that you've noticed so far, etc. No spoilers. 

Wednesday, May 30th: Wrap up discussion, overall impressions, etc. Truth vs fiction: likelihood this version is close to the truth. Spoilers are fair game. 

A brief synopsis can be found on Goodreads, and the New York Times opens their review of the novel as follows: 

There's nothing like the spectacle of female villainy brought to justice to revive the ancient, tired, apparently endless debate over whether women are by nature saintly or demonic. Unleashed by ghastly visions of the angel of the house clutching a knife or pistol, a swarm of Furies rises shrieking from our collective unconscious, along with a flock of martyrs. Meanwhile, our vengeful passions or pious sympathies are never so aroused as when the depraved criminal or unjustly slandered innocent happens to be touchingly young and attractive.

One such alleged miscreant -- a double murderess, no less -- is at the heart of Margaret Atwood's ambitious new novel, ''Alias Grace.'' Its protagonist is a historical figure, the notorious Grace Marks, a handsome but hapless Irish immigrant who worked as a scullery maid in Toronto in the 1840's. At the age of 16, she was convicted of abetting the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and paramour, Nancy Montgomery. The question of Grace's innocence or guilt has always been in some doubt -- a matter that Ms. Atwood deftly re-examines through the lens of what we have since learned about the traumatized psyche.

I remember this book as a favorite, but it's been several years since I read it. I hope it's as good the second time around. After all: spontaneous murder, gender bias, questionable psychology, illicit affairs, what more could we as for?
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