Read ALL the Things Plays Catch-up

Every time I start writing one of these posts, two things happen: I wonder why I thought this was a good idea in the first place, and I fight the temptation to write in a slightly twee sort of third person voice: “As Read ALL the Things is now working at a bookshop, she feels she may have even less time to devote to the admirable yet fruitless quest to read all the unread books in the house. Attention must be paid to the new books, after all.”

I am, in fact, now working in a bookshop, though I still have two weeks until I’m full-time there, and I feel, somewhat dramatically, that I ought to spend those two weeks reading books published before last month. But that sounds like a negative thing, and really I’m ridiculously excited and also sort of terrified – not of the bookshop job, but of all the things I think I’ve been avoiding doing. Working part time felt, a lot of the time, like not really settling into my life, and so it was easier than usual to put off things like looking for freelance work, or writing this half-assed blog, or starting the other blog I’m super excited about, or any number of other things. This is backwards. I realize that. I should have been using the time left over around my part-time hours to do all the things that needed doing.

The idea and the actuality are not always even funhouse reflections of each other.

But books. I’ve been ducking my head and hiding from some of the books in my teetering stuff-I-read-and-meant-to-write-about pile.

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Read ALL the Things and the Accidental Hiatus

Hi, internet! It’s kind of been a while. In fact, it’s been so long that I have this urge to refer to Read ALL the Things as a neglected character: Read ALL the Things has been busy. Read ALL the Things decided to do things besides reading all the things. The things have simply been piling up around Read ALL the Things.

Back in August, I applied for a job. Actually, I applied for quite a few jobs, but this one is particularly relevant. In September, I went to Oregon for a week; when I got back, I started the job. The job involved reading some – perhaps several – books.

I got behind on the things. And when I did read the things, I got more behind on writing about them. I’m not one for resolutions, exactly – the timeframe is so nebulous! For how long must I keep my resolve? – but I did decide, in my fashion, to try to write about everything I read or see this year.

(Then I decided that TV didn’t necessarily count because no one wants to read a blog about last year’s Glee episodes, which I watch while sick. This is in present tense because I am a) still stick and b) planning to watch more Glee after I stop typing this.)

First, the plate needs clearing. This is part one of two posts about SOME of the things I read last fall.

The Magicians and The Magician King, Lev Grossman
I almost didn’t go into these books with the most open mind. My introduction to Grossman had been via that Wall Street Journal essay about plot being a dirty word, which struck me as one of the more prominently placed strawman arguments I’d seen in a while. It made me cranky. And then Grossman appeared to be The Guy Who Explains Fandom to the Masses, and frankly I kind of wished I’d thought of that job.

But then I went to a reading at Word, as I am wont to do, and Grossman read and was charming, as he, apparently, is wont to do, because he did it again next time I saw him read at Word (he also read the same piece of The Magician King, but it’s a good piece, so I’ll forgive that. This time). Enough friends had asked if I’d read The Magicians that I could no longer resist.

I loved it, and I didn’t. It’s too close and yet so far – so close to the story that I, as one of those bookish children who grew up in Narnia and Middle-Earth and read Harry Potter as an adult, feeling no shame,  could have really fallen into. I get why people love it and I’m still not one of them, and that, it turns out, is exactly where my fascination sits: Every person who loves all of the things that go into these books has a different ideal, a different perfect vision, conscious or no, of how they could be combined. Grossman’s is just a few doors down from mine. The second book gets closer because there’s more Julia, but her story’s resolution (for now?) was so unsatisfying, it put a damper on my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I’m still struggling with what doesn’t work for me: Is it that I don’t find the idea of a dangerous magical land all that unusual? Is it that the smug, brilliant kids felt like smug, brilliant kids that would never have welcomed my younger self? (Is it that something about them reminded me of the kids in Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which I adored?) Is it that Quentin was just kind of a dick?

Whatever it is, it isn’t going to keep me away from the next book. I have issues, and then I want to see what happens. It’s kind of fun.

The Apothecary, Maile Meloy
I loved Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, but didn’t expect – or know what to expect from – a YA novel from her. The Apothecary is closer to middle grade, though, and strangely overlooked in this kids’ books award season, though its sweet, old-fashioned tone probably isn’t to everyone’s taste. The story of a girl who finds herself uprooted and moved to England after her screenwriter parents wind up on the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ watch list, Meloy’s book has a nostalgic tint and is written with a gentle hand. Janie Scott hates England, but finds her way into adventure and romance, intrigue and danger, all with an innocence that’s miles away from the knowing tone of so many young narrators. I like those precocious little brats, but I like Janie, too. The Apothecary feels like something from a different era, and at times the nostalgia, the reminiscence by the older Janie who seems to be narrating the story, is a little too much, too adult, too out of place. But so much in this book is graceful and lovely; it’s the kind of thing you want to hug to your chest when you’re finished.

I wrote about a few books in last year’s Winter Reading for Eugene Weekly – Neal Stephenson’s Reamde and Cherie Priest’s Ganymede – and one, Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, for the Procrastinator’s Gift Guide, so I won’t revisit those here, despite the fact that I spent so much time on Reamde, I almost feel like it deserves several hundred more words.

To come in part two: Brian Wood’s Local, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, and more…

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On ‘Shame’

My feelings are best expressed by Crash and the Boys:

Also, Michael Fassbender and Jon Hamm: separated at birth, or what?

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Read ALL the Things: What I read when I’m not reading what I’m reading

I want to post about both Torchwood and A Dance with Dragons, but I find myself not having a lot to say about either — yet. I’m still stewing. I probably just need to clean the house, and that’ll shake the thoughts free.

In the meantime, I’ve read a few things while not carrying around Dance (which I took with me into the city last night, only to sorely regret doing so while holding my bag for three hours at the Tim Kasher show. Oops). In brief, and in order:

This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record, Susannah Felts
Felts’ novel straddles the YA/coming-of-age-book-for-grownups divide nicely, never quite specifying its time setting but giving plenty of identifying detail, like mix tapes and a distinct lack of cell phones. It’s a story about the kind of kids I think of as “us,” the outsiders who looked for ways to express ourselves while struggling with playing the game of high school, where you’re only supposed to express previously approved feelings and thoughts lest you be a weirdo. A sense of place is central to the book, which takes place in Nashville in the summer, and Felts’ gentle exploration of the clash of art and affection, and the way friendship can feel indestructible and tenuous at once, feels lived-in and tactile. I picked up and put down this book, which was a gift from Toby, several times, and I’m not sure why it stuck this time, but it did, and it felt like it was taking place inside my head, a collage of memories from a teenhood that wasn’t mine.

You Must Go and Win, Alina Simone
Oh, this book. I heard about it here and there, and then I went to Simone’s book-release event at Word in large part because word was out that her “secret” special guest was Amanda Palmer. I went for AFP, sure, but I’m glad I did, because Simone was charming and funny and all the things I want but don’t always get in authors-as-readers of any kind. And her book! This goddamn book! I’ve been struggling to understand how Simone pulls off this deceptively breezy style wherein she’s completely self-deprecating and honest, but her stories never turn into pity parties, and her voice never veers into Eeyore territory. All the honesty and self-awareness dances on a broad stripe of pragmatism, even when Simone is going to be baptized by a punk monk or driving across country with a younger Palmer, who knows and says that she wants to be a certain kind of famous (goal: met). Peculiar living situations, the foibles of the recording industry, the struggle between what and who we are and what and who we think we ought to be — Simone’s stories made me want to copy down sentences and flag pages and send her postcards full of effusive admiration. I did write down one quote, posting it on Tumblr, where I store such things: “Failure only means that you haven’t thrown yourself, face-first, against the brick wall of probability enough times.”

I haven’t done it justice, really, because I finished it a month ago. But the whole thing is really about not giving up, and about finding the things that matter and experiencing and moving on from the things that don’t — and dealing with the soul-crushing doubt that comes with being uncertain about what you’re doing, what you’re supposed to be doing, and whether it matters at all. Stories like these come from a life — and forgive me, because I’m going to get a little corny — that’s well-lived. You have to pay attention, and sometimes you have to go to Siberia. But the point is, you have to go. And maybe win.

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
OK, so, I might’ve been putting off posting because of this book. Which is an excellent, fascinating book — a fact underlined by the random kid on the subway who liked the page I was reading so much that he asked if he could photograph the cover — but also a difficult book for me. My super-verbal brain struggles, sometimes, with visual art concepts, and so when McCloud’s little bespectacled avatar is explaining, from panel to panel, the place where comics sits in the art continuum, and the way the iconized characters work, and how simplifying an idea might get it into my head faster and make it more relatable … on the one hand, I get it. I totally get it. But I get it in this place in my head that refuses translation into words (which probably proves about half of McCloud’s theories, which are really more like descriptions of the way things are than “theories”). I spent the book in a state of disconcerting recognition: Yes, that! But how does it work? Abstractions, icons, subtraction and elimination, visual language and what happens in between panels — it all makes sense to me in an intuitive way, but my mind wants to translate it into words I can speak or write down.

Clearly, this isn’t working so well. McCloud takes apart the intuitive process of reading comics’ specific combination of words and pictures by using that exact combination of elements. Understanding Comics makes you understand it in order to understand the medium in which it’s working. Beautiful, really. I think this is the kind of book that’s going to turn itself into words, for me, when I next read comics. All the things I take for granted in the act of reading/experiencing comics are explained in these little squares (mostly) of black ink and white paper (mostly). You can just do it, or you can try to understand it. I always like to try both.

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Intermission, with READY PLAYER ONE

I’m smothering myself in things I love, right now, and I’ve got this crushed-out, almost-butterflies feeling in my stomach — a feeling that’s like sparkling possibility and nervousness and I know this one; I know it really well. It eludes me, from time to time, where things and falling in love with them is concerned. I get gray and dull and faded around the edges and I like things a lot, but nothing gets past whatever it is that’s blunting the edges on things. But not right now.

(Things are not the same as people, and really, maybe I just got overwhelmed on the people side of love and slipped on the things. To have both! — the breathlessness of discovering a story or a song, and the perpetual grin of constantly discovering a person — is a wealth of riches.)

From time to time in my life, I’ve found myself comfort-playing videogames. It’s like comfort eating, but instead of food that’s sweet in its familiarity, it’s stories through which I guide a small pixelated person or elf or, um, bear with a bird in his backpack. I’ve never even beaten most of the games I comfort-play, with the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I still think is the best game ever. I don’t like boss battles and I really dislike final boss battles; I play these games for fun, for the adventure and the puzzles, and when they get too hard — when the eerie sky city in Twilight Princess gets too frustrating — I set them aside again.

But for that stretch of time, which often involves five-hour windows in which I lose track of time, I’m immersed. It’s Zelda, or it’s Mario, or it’s Banjo-Kazooie (but mostly it’s Zelda). I know, every time, what I’m doing: avoiding something. The further I wander into one of those labyrinthine caverns that may or may not have a heart piece at the end, or the longer I spend trying to collect every spider or golden bug, the more I’m avoiding something. Maybe it’s a task, or a truth, or an obligation. There’s no better place to hide from it than in the glow of the TV screen.

I did this earlier this year, putting off beginning the job application process while playing through a few levels of Banjo-Kazooie, which I hadn’t been able to play for years because I didn’t have an old TV, and N64 games look terrible on high-definition screens. Was it a waste of time? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are things I do better when I’m multitasking, but it’s a specific task; I need something to take up one part of my mind so the rest of me can relax. I drive better and I play pinball better when I’m singing along to familiar songs under my breath. (This is probably true of a lot of things, actually.) I think better when I’m in the shower. And I process semi-subconscious issues better when I’m immersed in the particular engaged/unengaged worldplay that videogames, especially a certain kind of platformer, offer.

I always know I’m avoiding something. I also know I’ll face it when I’m ready.

All of this was on my mind when I read Tom Bissell’s excellent but poorly subtitled Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Someone gave that book that subtitle with the greatest of intentions, but the truth is, Bissell’s personal, vibrant book isn’t about why video games matter in general; it’s about why they matter to him, and that’s exactly why I like it: It’s an engrossing and honest look at the way these particular kinds of stories work, and matter, in Bissell’s life. I have a lot of thoughts about that book, but that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a book that lands, with incredible timing, in the middle of what feels like a steady stream of articles about nostalgia. Ready Player One is fueled by that nostalgia, that peculiar love people of my generation have for the TV shows and lunchboxes and Matthew Broderick movies and game systems we grew up with. (Do other generations have the same thing? Probably, but I’d bet it’s different for each one, and I wouldn’t presume to speak for them.) But Cline’s book doesn’t just feed, parasite-like, off a shared affection for the cartoon characters and music videos and concept albums that provide their fans with a set of shared experienced and a specialized language (if I say I ordered a pan-galactic gargle blaster, you instantly know, if you’re One of Us, what the hell I’m talking about, right?). Cline does something much better, and something I’m having a hard time explaining.

He makes it about the love. There are competitive nerds and reclusive nerds and social nerds, and all the nerd types overlap — and not everyone with a nostalgic streak is a nerd. But part of being a nerd, or being nerdy, is loving things unabashedly and passionately. Love like that is the opposite of the irony that seeps into a different kind of nostalgia/nerd experience, where you have to laugh at yourself, not with yourself, to display your distance from whatever you’re sort of appreciating. Love is what gets scarred out of your public face when you’re a young nerd, when your enthusiasm bubbles too hot and someone sees it for the vulnerable space it is.

Ready Player One is built on one socially inept genius’s love for the stories and experiences of his childhood. Movies, video games, records, TV series — you can love them all you want, quietly and privately, and they don’t bite back. Sharing that love can be trickier. That, one character theorizes, is what led James Halliday, the inventor of the book’s immersive virtual world called the OASIS, to create an elaborate quest game that began upon his death. The winner will find an Easter egg hidden within the Oasis (and inherit Halliday’s computer-genius wealth).

Because Cline is clever, more is at stake than one man’s wealth and virtual power, though virtual power is nothing to scoff at, in this world. To be too detailed about the book would be to spoil the fun that is trying to puzzle through Halliday’s riddles, all of which involve the late-twentieth-century pop culture he loved, and most of which are downright devilish. The real world is a mess, and there’s a corporation trying to win the contest in order to privatize and monetize the Oasis, and our heroes and heroines are a bunch of nerds who go to virtual schools and hang out in virtual chat rooms and know each other through blogs and v-chats and everything else in the OASIS, which has taken over what the internet started.

Some people will hate this book. It’s quick and clever and runs at a speed that screams Make me into a screenplay!, and a couple of plot wrinkles tested even my very willing suspension of disbelief. And it’s nostalgic, kinda-sorta, but also not. All that pop culture detritus that looks like nostalgia to us is, in 2044 when the story takes place, useful knowledge. History. Cline gives a reason for knowing all the words to ’70s songs and recognizing scenes from ’80s movies. Idealistic? Indulgent? It could be, but it isn’t; it’s inventive and fun, and Cline never dwells too long in a game or a movie scene, moving right along, alternating our hero’s solo jaunts through the quest with his interactions with a handful of other “gunters” (short for egg hunters).

Ready Player One never quite reaches the emotional levels I wanted it to, but I still devoured it in two sittings, trying and failing to tear myself away. It’s as compulsively readable as those games I love are compulsively playable — the next level, the next chapter, the wanting to see what happens when you find that next dungeon, or Cline’s hero finds the next clue — and it plays on all the things that let me lose myself in a story: a quest setting; rich, relevant-to-my-interests detail; the triumph of the nerd class; a tendency to slip away from the real world into the virtual (or fictional) one and then have to tear yourself back out again. Online friendships get their due, but so does reality; knowing what was and seeing what is are both important.

I put the book down, grinned, turned on the computer, clicked play on The Joy Formidable’s The Big Roar, and realized Tim Kasher is playing tonight. I have a second job interview on Friday and I’m going to Oregon in a little over a week. I want to listen to all my favorite records, I want to see all my favorite people, and I want to write.

Don’t just read all the things. Love all the things. Sometimes I just need a reminder.

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Still in Westeros: ‘A Dance with Dragons’ (1/4)

The lesson: Never decide that a book is too heavy to carry around, for lo, you will find yourself reading many other books, as public transit is a wonderful place to read.

The result: I’m making very slow headway throne A Dance With Dragons. But enough of that! Enough of the three other books I’ve finished (or nearly finished!)! Enough half-assed, spoiler-ducking conversations with friends who’ve finished the thing and insist on just saying, “Oh, kittens. Kittens, kittens, kittens,” whenever I bring up unresolved plot points.

I’m on page 252. I’m whelmed. Not over, not under (cue Sloan); just whelmed.

Here there be spoilers.

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Remembering William Sleator

When I got my first job, in the marketing department at Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, the prospect of working with kids’ and teen books was exciting enough to have me giddy and nervous and delighted on a regular basis.

Then they handed me the key to the bookroom.

This bookroom, before the office moved a few months later, was a long, hallway-like space filled with tall industrial shelves. I could’ve spent days in there. It wasn’t ALL the books, but it was a wide selection of things we had on hand in case someone wanted or needed them. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, Katherine Paterson books I’d never even heard of before, books from authors I’d yet to encounter —

And a book I’d been looking for for years. I’d read it in elementary school. I loved it. It was like Nancy Bond’s A String in the Harp, a book that stuck with me though I forgot the title and the author’s name for years on end. I found the Bond novel doing searches for Welsh mythology and young adult novels; I found William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig because it was sitting on a shelf staring at me. The cover was different, but I knew it was that book, the one about the kid at the beach house who starts playing a game with his neighbors, only maybe it’s not really a game, and maybe they’re not really his neighbors. Ominous, fun, totally engrossing, Interstellar Pig loomed large in the mythology of my young self’s reading life. I’d never had any idea the author had so many other books, or was so popular. You don’t come out of the Elmira Elementary School library with a grand sense of scale; you come out wondering if anyone else ever read that copy of Watership Down, or wondering why, of all the books in all the libraries, it was that one about Ben Franklin and the mouse that was assigned reading.

I never read any other William Sleator books. The Boxes came out while I worked at Penguin, and it sat on my at-work to-read-someday shelf forever. I knew I should read The House of Stairs. People always talked about it. There were other books, too. I kind of thought there would always be other books.

Publishers Weekly has reported that William Sleator died yesterday in Thailand. He was only 66, which is too young.

Go and read his books, if you haven’t already. You might also read this Nick Antosca interview with Sleator. Just read, and remember those stories — scary, thoughtful, sharply intelligent and wickedly fun — that you might’ve forgotten you knew.

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What’s Wrong with Torchwood?

The first episode of the second season of Torchwood opens with a blowfish driving a sports car. It doesn’t really look that much like a blowfish, but I’ll take Gwen Cooper’s word for it.

This sequence — go on; it’s only a minute — sums up a lot of the initial charm of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spinoff which once freely mixed camp with its saving-the-world-from-aliens premise. It was a twisted version of The X-Files with a sense of humor and a lot more sex. If you didn’t laugh at the absurdity of the blowfish scene, you’re very possibly not its audience.

Or weren’t. Everything changed with Torchwood: Children of Earth, the intense, bleak, impressive miniseries that aired in 2009. I blogged about Children at length for the Eugene Weekly, and I loved the series for its fearless approach to horrible situations. People die without reason; a healthy dose of cynicism regarding the powers that be turns out to be a handy thing; saving the world requires incredible sacrifice for which there is no balm, no salve, no forgiveness. Engrossing, taut, and imperfect — the pacing went a little wonky, and the score butted in a lot — Children of Earth was Torchwood gone sideways.

Torchwood‘s new direction works far less well. Torchwood: Miracle Day is full of change: it’s set in America, for starters, which involves a lot of unfunny “translation” jokes and painting-with-broad-strokes ideas about what America and its people are like. (The jokes also come fairly quickly on the heels of a handful of similarly flat cracks in spring’s season openers of Doctor Who.) Two major and two minor characters return, and the rest of the show is filled out by too many characters I care too little about. Yes to Dr. Vera Juarez, sharp as a tack, efficient, impatient, logical; yes to Jilly Katzinger as she appeared in the first three episodes, though the incompetent/giddy version of Jilly that appears in episode four seems like a different character.

I’m less impressed with Rex Mathison and Esther Drummond, the stand-ins for a new American audience (now that the show is on Starz, not BBC America) who are both CIA agents now on the run as a result of their curiosity about Torchwood. The word appeared online everywhere, then disappeared from the entire internet; at the same time, people stopped dying. Everything is connected, but the show is taking its own sweet time with the how and the why and the things that lured me into the show in the first place: Snappy Gwen Cooper, a police officer turned heart of the Torchwood team; Jack Harkness, the (mostly) immortal leader and sometime pal of the Doctor; and curious, playful, dark, sometimes clever plots that have as much to do with the relationships between the characters as they do with the promise and peril of alien life and technology.

As a friend put it, right now it’s like Torchwood got in a bar fight with NCIS or CSI and lost. The last episode included a lengthy heist that lost most of its power because it was clear from the word go that the nameless man on Torchwood’s trail was going to catch up to them mid-thievery. A lot of time is spent with fancy Torchwood computer software, gizmos we’ve seen in other seasons, and characters who are a lot less fascinating than the show seems to find them. Dialogue clunks and grates and tells us what we already know, and the focus is too rarely on Gwen or Jack. When it is, Jack’s off getting laid (which is realistic enough, given the situation) and Gwen’s on the phone to her tiresome husband, Rhys, asking about their baby.

Like Gwen, Esther has family to fret about, or at least to provide an excuse for her to put the team in danger. Meanwhile, a creepy pedophile, played with disturbing relish by Bill Pullman, becomes an unlikely poster child for the “miracle” — he was the first person to not die — a fake Sarah Palin natters about being a mom and a voter and gosh, just sure her idea is the right one, and a sly pharmaceutical rep with a gorgeous red coat sticks her finger in the pot and stirs wherever possible.

Torchwood‘s not awful. But Miracle Day will test your patience. We’re four episodes in, but the plot is advancing too slowly while simultaneously lacking emotional resonance. What’s at stake, other than Gwen’s admittedly adorable baby? The world is in crisis, the population is soaring, the devil is in the drug companies, but nothing about the show feels big despite the obvious scope. From camp to drama to … procedural?

I’m holding out hope that there is much more than meets the eye to all of this. A quick reference to families that will rise, a throwaway comment about how germs benefit from an undying populace — there’s a foundation for a good story, but it’s shaky. Splicing serious-American-television DNA with Torchwood’s brand of serious campiness, it turns out, is about as awkward as it sounds.

So far.

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Read All the … Other Things

So as it turns out, maybe, when you’ve decided that your summer reading (and beyond) project is to read all the books on your  to-read shelf, the best thing to do is NOT get yourself engrossed in a 5000 page (and counting) fantasy epic.

Translation: What I should’ve posted a month ago: BRB, going to Westeros.

(Also, there will be spoilers below, though not for the newest book.)

I just put down A Feast for Crows and will be picking up the “human-head-sized” A Dance with Dragons from the estimable Tobias Carroll tonight, or maybe tomorrow. A day or so without a Martin tome in my hand wouldn’t hurt. Right? There are, in fact, other books in the world, three or four of which are scattered around my apartment in various states of unfinishedness, and 140 or more of which are still on the bookcase that is one of the first things I see in the morning. Hey, the books say. Hey. Remember us? You said you were going to love us and read us and put words about us on the internet. Dirty liar.

The deeper I get into George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world, the more absorbed I get — and the more frustrated. A Feast for Crows expands his world massively, building on the way each previous book broadened the perspective, and then stretching it even more. There are tricks with names, cliffhangers for beloved characters, other beloved characters entirely missing from the story — and new characters about whom I just don’t care at all (I’m looking at you, all the Greyjoys who aren’t named Asha). A character who once seemed deviously adept at steering court machinations either becomes an idiot, is ill-served by the men surrounding her, or gives way entirely to fear for her children; I’m still not sure which it is, or how I feel about Cersei’s story, or how I feel about Martin’s female characters overall. Something I can’t quite pin down isn’t sitting quite right with me, even as I love stubborn Brienne, can’t wait to get back to Dany, and admire the different ways Sansa and Arya are learning to adapt.

I think part of it comes down to this: Though Martin is clearly aware of, and often playing with, the limited possibilities for women in the sort of world he’s built, those limitations sometimes feel as if they still might overpower even the most dominant women’s narrative arcs. Cersei loses her grasp on the kingdom because she puts her children before all; Dany sees all her subjects as her children, and finds power in them calling her “Mother.” Catelyn Stark makes terrible, foolish choices for her family — she’s hardly the only person to do so, but she and Cersei are the only characters whose love for and dedication to their children leads them to horrible places. Ned Stark lost his head to a noble and flawed notion of honor. I’ve yet to see a man make an error in judgement, or rattle a kingdom to the edge of war, because he was worried about his kids. *

But therein lies the rub: It’s often the women whose decisions and actions set things in motion. (Women, and children, as the nasty King Joff’s decision at the end of Game of Thrones is one of the acts on which all other things pivot.) No one fears the Queen of Thorns, and to the south, there’s an entire desert full of equally prickly, sly women. When I get fed up with one aspect of the story, something else twists, things settle into place, and it works. I can barely track all the characters, let alone how I think and feel about each of their arcs, and the power given to or taken from them, and the fascinating and horrible reasons for which they make all their decisions.

I also can’t seem to get anything done but reading. So for this last (thus far) book, I’m going to do the obvious thing: Combine my distraction with my project, and blog my reading of A Dance with Dragons. It’s 1040 pages (though doubtless at least 50 of those are the endless lists of Houses and courts at the end of the book), so I’m thinking a post roughly every 200 pages.

Starting tomorrow. After I catch up on Torchwood. Which the internet seems to be barely discussing at all. What gives, nerdpals?

* Though there’s a case to be made that all Littlefinger does – and Jaime, at first – is for love, or lust, whichever you want to call it.

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Read ALL the Things: Valente, Murakami, Martin

Books added to the Shelf of Doom since last post: Embassytown, China Mieville; Pretty Hate Machine, Daphne Carr. To give myself more credit than necessary, I did order PHM before beginning this quest.

Currently reading: Didion, Didion, Didion

Summer does something to ambition. Or maybe that’s just me; I’ve spent my working life on either a publishing schedule (summers slow) or an alt-weekly schedule (summers slow, in theory), and I’m still adapting to the OMG humidity of Brooklyn in July. But I have been reading. And with every book I’ve picked up, I’ve wanted to just keep reading books by the same author. I resisted the urge to read more Ellen Gilchrist and read Haruki Murakami. I resisted the urge to read more Murakami and read George R. R. Martin. I resisted the urge to read more Martin … no, actually, I didn’t. But I did make a deal that I won’t get my hands on A Clash of Kings until I’ve read three more books — not these three — for this project.

But before all that, I read Catherynne M. Valente. I’ve been gnawing at my own thoughts about and around The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making for weeks and weeks and weeks, and for a handful of reasons. One, I don’t so much worry about doing the book justice — plenty of others have done that, and this is a reaction blog, not a review blog — as doing my own feelings about and around it justice. And two, many of those feelings are tied up in the internet, and social groups therein, and how you come to have Ideas about things and people you really aren’t sure you have any call to have said Ideas about.

An editor friend said, a few weeks ago, that Fairyland isn’t a book for children; it’s a book for grown-ups who want to feel like they did when they read certain books when they were kids. She said this after I said it was The Phantom Tollbooth. She also said it was Lewis, and Carroll, and we threw some other things into the conversation.

None of this is a bad thing; all of this is true. Fairyland is a lot of things tied up in a bow and then decorated with Valente’s personal flourishes and those of her tribe. Or at least, that’s how it feels when you come to it from a certain (and self-chosen) just-outside-the-window perspective; I don’t know the author, but I read her blog, and some of her friends are my friends, and so I feel like I’m watching their group at lunch across the quad while talking about zines with this girl named Aimee with whom I did such things in high school.

That isn’t a complaint, not in any way, shape or form. It’s an acknowledgment of how the way the internet brings us together — I love reading Valente’s blog, and I admire the respectful, enthusiastic, giving relationship with her readers and friends that is apparent from it — can also give so many more pieces of information that we glue into our mental scrapbooks, those pages that overlay every piece of writing we come to. Every story I’ve read or heard or paged through, every LiveJournal entry by everyone, but especially by the author, is another piece of the story I read when I open a book. My book starts where your book starts, but it also starts in a million other places. Books are like New York City; everyone has their own version. This is mine.

I can’t read Fairyland as if it were written by a stranger, a mysterious woman in a high castle. I don’t want to. But if I were little, if I were 10 or 12 and done with Juster and Lewis and Anderson and Cooper and moving on, I would, and it would be amazing. Because the other person this book is for is that particular kid who wants nothing more to walk further into that world – the one where authors wear red shiny dresses to their readings and know all the secrets of all the Fairylands they can imagine (which is a lot). They will pull you into that world with their personal, glorious, ordinary stories, and resistance is entirely futile.

Fairyland works very smartly to be for those kids. September, its heroine, is not a princess or a sweet blonde thing or a girl easily frightened (I’m suddenly reminded of young Amy Pond, in the Doctor Who episode “The Eleventh Hour”). She does get scared, but she pulls herself together, makes friends with a Wind and a Wyverary and a Marid, and completes the difficult quest the Marquess asks of her, only to find that this world, to borrow from Labyrinth, is not always what it seems, and that the rules of Fairyland are no more set in stone than the rules of our own, though they’re born in the same dark places. Mythology soaks the pages; seasons reach out and grab the unwary; the scope is immense and personal, the geography gloriously imprecise, the darkness as dark as the real fairy tales, the ones Valente knows very, very well; and everything smells just like it should, from a young woman made of soap to the treats of the Autumn Provinces to a salty naked girl on her own raft.

I love this book. It’s coy and honest and smart and sweet and dangerous, and it expects you to keep up.

I should say less about Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, not least because Murakami uses so few words to say so much. Like his Norwegian Wood, this book is slim and deceptively simple. A man grows up, missing the friend he made when he was young; he gets married, opens bars, has kids, is happy and isn’t. And then he finds the girl again. Everything goes just as you expect, which is to say that it goes every which way at once: happiness sits overlaid on deep uncertainty, and life’s plainest details reveal the character’s most hidden hearts. But that sounds slightly grandiose, which Murakami is not. Everything is normal-sized, including pain and regret and bitterness, even when they take over.

And then there’s George R. R. Martin, and here is where I will snap this post neatly off behind the “Continue Reading” button, because even though this book came out 15 years ago, a lot of us are just now discovering it and are not fond of spoilers (which there are plenty of in the next few paragraphs).

Continue reading

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