Wasteland, Aristotle + Dante, Splendors and Glooms

These are quick reviews; they have to be done now so that we can return these library books and leave for an international spring break adventure!  Very exciting.  So here are some books I read during the last few weeks:

Wasteland by Francesca Lia Block

I heard about this at the ALISE conference, when my fellow professors were talking about the kind of YA fiction that would really push some buttons and provoke conversation.  In Block's signature poetic style, she dances over and around the complexities of incest between a sister and a brother.  The scene itself is never shown, and the lead-up to this one sexual encounter is intertwined with tales of its aftermath.  Specifically (BIG spoiler) the aftermath of the sister's experience is overwhelming grief and loss, because now her brother is dead.  In the end, the two "siblings" turn out not to have been related, and, while it's easier to stomach their attraction that way, the revelation comes so late in the book that is feels somewhat apologetic compared to what came before.  Still,when Block can pack a punch, writing some of the simultaneously grittiest and most lyrical fiction out there for teens.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sanez
When Ari meets Dante at the pool, they are laughing like old friends within minutes.  Their friendship seems perfect, until Dante is saving a bird and is nearly run over by a car.  Without thinking, Ari pushes him out of the way, and when he wakes up in the hospital, things are, well, awkward.  Sanez does a beautifully rich job of detailing the development of this relationship, interweaving questions they each have about their Mexican heritage--whether they are really Mexican, compared to their cousins who live in Mexico or the neighborhood guys, some of whom are getting into gangs and drugs.  There are layers of family secrets, though Ari's deepest secrets are buried inside of himself, and he needs family help to understand himself, ultimately.  Sanez has crafted an amazing realistic contemporary novel that will become a classic of (spoiler) LGBTQ YA lit for years to come.  Teens of all sexual orientations, but especially LGBTQetc.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are apprentices of the creepy puppeteer Grisini.  But there's a witch after Grisini, and also Grisini has kidnapped and enchanted one of their recent patrons, a rich young girl named Clara, turning her into a doll for the marionette puppet stage.  The creepiness here is richly atmospheric, and, while there is some violence (real and remembered), the audience here could easily go down to the 6th grade set, possibly lower for relatively jaded young readers.  All does end well, but it looks like it will not several times.  Fans of Coraline (the book, not the graphic novel or movie) will adore this Dickensian story of orphans who, eventually, find a home.

once upon the natural world

I've mentioned it before, but it's worth saying again:  this blog is not about promoting books or authors or attempting to break into the blogosphere in some public way.  It's not particularly about my academic life, although what I read certainly fuels my academic life.  It's also not about my life or sharing news, except those friends who are devoted readers themselves and understand that what we read often is the news of our lives.*

This blog is about what I read.  That's all.  I'm not fishing for merchandise or debates.  It's a record that I keep for mostly personal reasons, but I'm always glad when my reviews of particular books lead someone to a reading discovery, for themselves or for their libraries.  Who I am is so tied up with libraries and the ideals of librarianship, from intellectual freedom to public service, that it is inevitably relevant to almost any aspect of my way of reading that I'm thinking about to whom a book might appeal and for whom a book might be collected.  For today's post, however, I'm thinking about what has appealed to me lately.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

This is a terrific adult book, albeit raw and difficult beyond what most young adults (but not all) will be ready to handle.  Be forewarned, it will sound totally bleak, but its saving graces are the natural setting of the river and the fact that this is a story of survival.

Our heroine is no heroine, just a very confused teenaged whose mother is gone.  She is coming of age when her uncle takes advantage of her teenage curiosity to lure her into a shed and rape her.  Whether her acceptance of this situation is strategic compliance or just being completely emotionally shut down, the reader can't know, and yet there's a glimmer in Campbell's writing that she is not simply a victim.  What we do know is that she shoots him in an especially private place, which sparks her cousin shooting her own father.  And, once her father is dead, she has no way to survive but to run away and live off of the bounty of the river.

She attaches herself to men who will have her, partly out of survival and partly out of this same sense of utter disconnection that accompanied her uncle's attack.  Written out in stark description, the book sounds like a horrific story, and yet there's something about the unflappable stamina of the main character that makes it hard to stop reading this book.  The river itself is both setting and character, as the protagonist repeatedly draws her strength to survive from the water and the bounty that the river brings.

Winter Hours by Mary Oliver
American Primitive by Mary Oliver

I'm blogging these two together because I read them together, as my companions on a month of six (!) plane rides.  They are slender volumes and full of heart.  Reading them all at once made my brain feel over sated, like my stomach feels after the richest chocolate cake.  Winter Hours is more of a semi-public, semi-private epistolary book for her readers.  Oliver is still and always Oliver, but there are slivers of opening up as she mentions her domestic partner and her thoughts on various writers (Poe, Hopkins).  Mostly, this book is prose, essays about life.  I've turned down the corners in my copy so that I can always get back to my favorites of her reflections, and I won't try to recapitulate them all here, so these favorite quotes are just excerpts of excerpts:

"I was playing.  I was whimsical, absorbed, happy.  Let me always be who I am, and then some." (p. 10)

"All things are meltable, and replaceable.  Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself." (p. 23)

"In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose." (p. 102)

American Primitive is the book for which Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is such a perfectly balanced book of poetry about the sublime fecundity of the natural world.  These are poems that detail flight, chance encounters, death as part of life and how it can be honored... it starts with a poem called August, and so brings to mind Natalie Babbitt's opening of Tuck Everlasting, "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning."  She moves through seasons and nature, seemingly erratically, but will all the pleasures of the best possible mixed tape, with peaks of delight and troughs of despair throughout.  It's hard to pick favorites, they flow so well together, but "The Bobcat" stands out as especially appealing, to me, being palpably philosophical.  At the end, there is a crescendo of joy, starting with "The Honey Tree," and the final poems of the book are almost too real and too glad to absorb.  If I were ever to get tattoos, these are the kinds of words I would be thinking about:

"What should we say
    is the truth of the world?
         The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
     or the push of the promise?
          or the wound of delight?"

from "The Bobcat" 

When I read this next set of lines, I found myself wondering why oh why these words aren't distributed to every young person, as a poet's guide to life?  They are sacred, that's why, and we shy from sharing or promulgating truly sacred things.  But still.  If there's one thing a grown up could have told me when I was a teenager that might have made some sense of this crazy existence, it might have been something like this:

To live in this world

you must be able 
to do three things:
to love what is mortal; 
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."

from "In Blackwater Woods"

And it almost seems like a crime to even quote these lines out of context, because the entire poem is so wonderful.  You can read the whole thing here:  http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/05/03
Oliver's work has gained wide acclaim, of course, and perhaps the Oprah-based quoting of her work would turn some readers off.  But I'd urge those readers to reconsider, because the power of Oliver's work lies in its simplicity, accessibility, and rootedness is minute observations of the natural world.  As she says in Winter Hours, "All narrative is metaphor." (p. 33)  And most of her poems are miniature narratives, all of them metaphors for the various sweetnesses and bitternesses of life.

*But, really, I use facebook and goodreads to keep up with those I have chosen as friends or friendly acquaintances.  There's no preventing it, occasionally someone will read this whom I would rather not invite into my reflections, but that's the price you pay for sharing in the age of the internets.  

The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima

I learned in late high school that the way for me to survive long, stressful days of testing was to read fantasy novels.  During the two-week period when I and my classmates were subjected to AP and IB exams--oral as well as written--I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and to this day I think having that parallel fantasy world through which I was imagining traveling allowed me to do better on those tests.

Being up for tenure this year is a similar test, only with a much longer period of endurance.  I have passed the test of documenting my accomplishments effectively, with the help of a supportive committee (October).  I have passed through the second gate, the test of school-level approval (December).  I await the final test, approval or denial by the campus-level tenure committee that looks at all tenure cases in the university, results to be announced on May 15.

As I wait, I read fantasy, and over this winter I was looking for a really long and hearty fantasy series to carry me through.  First, I read both books by Patrick Rothfuss:  The Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear, and I may blog about those another time, but the chutzpah, swagger, and yet touching personal tragedy of the main character Kvothe was enough to have me flying through many hundreds of pages.

Then I found The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima:  The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Crimson Crown, and The Gray Wolf Throne.  This series, with its dual narrator perspectives of princess Raisa (aka Rebecca Morley) and ruffian Han (aka Hunts Alone), fit the bill perfectly for a long, engrossing set of reads with captivating plots and likeable characters.

The Demon King was slow to start, in great part because it takes so much of the book to understand that there will be an ongoing connection between our two characters, Raisa and Han.  Raisa, after all, is next in line to be queen of the realm, and she meets Han when a secret excursion from the castle reveals to her the deep suffering of the people (not unlike the tale of the young Buddha).  On this excursion, she is briefly kidnapped by the streetlord of Ragmarket, Han, and while he is clearly clever, the precise attraction between them is a bit difficult to buy, at first.  After all, she is strong and determined, and he is a streetlord who kidnaps her, however kindly.  But, somehow, the connection is forged, and suspending disbelief for this first book is worth is for the second.  And Raisa is a likeable--if not always believable--character who is enjoying the blooming of attractions in her teenage way, sharing passionately distracting kisses with a warrior, a wizard, and the head guard's son who has been her best childhood friend.  Ultimately, Chima is being clever in stringing the reader along, but it takes longer than it might for the core characters to be connected and the allegiances to be clear enough to launch such a complex court-drama plot.

However, by the end I was entirely hooked, and The Exiled Queen was astonishingly satisfying, as each of our characters is revealed to be more layered and nuanced than they were in the previous book.  At this point, I won't go into great plot detail, knowing how frustrating it can be, but the title and first pages are enough to let you know that Raisa is exiled from her beloved queendom and its peoples.  Here, by getting outside of this country, we begin to learn about the different groups:  the Grey Wolf line of queens, the wizards and the Bayar family, the clan people who live in the mountains and their Demonai warriors who are sworn enemies of wizards.

The Gray Wolf Throne is mostly politics, and to give much of this away would be to take from you the opportunity to read it!  I'm nearly through with The Crimson Crown now as well, and, from all I can tell, the excursion into The Seven Realms will have been worth it.  Recommended for patient readers at the high school level and above who want pages and pages of well-crafted fantasy.  Especially recommended on Kindle/Nook/iPad/etc., because these are thick books!

Looks like The Heir Chronicles series would be the next thing to read by Chima.  We'll see if the two-plus remaining months of tenure suspense take me there.