They don’t have to close the libraries after all! Whew, talk about 11th hour saves! I’m thrilled about this, and especially about the outpouring of community support to keep the libraries open. Public libraries are expecially important during rough economic times, and it’s great to see a community who values their library system.
Books: Uglies, by Scott Westerfield September 9, 2009
I’d been hearing good things about this book for quite a while before I got around to reading it, but I hadn’t heard much about the plot, which was kind of nice, for a change. The thing that kicked me into finally reading it was the publisher (Pulse, the teen imprint from Simon & Schuster) doing a promotion allowing a free e-book download of the book, partly as publicity for Westerfeld’s next book, Leviathan, and probably also to keep people interested in this series. A note on e-books: I don’t actually have a Kindle or any of the other cute e-book readers, I read e-books on my computer (as God intended!), and don’t read them very often. I occasionally get into sort of an e-book jag though, because I love reading on my laptop and knitting away. So yes, I was pleased when there was a hand knit sweater in the book, presented as something nearly sacred in the world of easy and disposable things, and yes, the irony was not lost on me that I was reading it as an e-book on a screen.
ANYWAY. Now that I’ve said all that I should maybe fill you in on this book, so you’ll know if maybe you’d like to read it too (oh, and the free e-book download ended September 5, sorry. Thought I’d better say that before people go looking for it.)
In the not-too-distant future of Uglies, beauty has been perfected, and society has been segregated into three sections. Children live with their parents (Crumblies or Middle Pretties) until they turn 12, at which point they are moved into a town of their own. It’s a pretty sweet set-up in some aspects. The kids all live together in big dorms, and they still have to go to school and have electronic minders keeping tabs on them, but they’re afforded a lot of freedom too. Science has fixed a lot of the problems of our current world, with pollution being pretty much a thing of the past, and poverty and hunger are completely eradicated, thanks to some interesting tech, which is glossed over more than a hardcore science fiction fan might appreciate, but I was ok with it. Learning how the maker technology works isn’t really the point of the book, you really just have to understand enough about how this society works to contrast it with our current world, and with an outside world that comes along later in the book.
I said earlier that beauty has been perfected, and it’s a pretty interesting concept. When the kids turn 16, they’re taken away from the Uglyville, given extensive plastic surgery, and turned into a “Pretty,” then sent to live in New Pretty Town until they get a bit older, are given another surgery, and become Middle Pretties. Everyone looks pretty much the same, with giant anime eyes and the most symmetrical features possible, bones are smoothed and shaped, eye color is enhanced, hair is made as glossy and lovely as possible, etc. Creepy as hell, right? But here was where it really got interesting for me. When I started the book and began to understand the system Westerfeld has set up, I was a little bit bored. It feels like territory that’s been covered many times before, and I think even with our intensely appearance-based society most teens would still be pretty freaked out by the idea of looking like everyone else. So instead of hammering home why it’s bad to look like everyone else, Westerfeld gives us some pretty compelling reasons why it might be good to make everyone look the same. The children are taught from a pretty early age that only by having everyone be beautiful in the same way can society have true equality, and the idea is basically that because they’ve perfected these surgeries and now give them to everyone, society has moved forward and can stop worrying about appearance so much. It’s clearly a pretty false system, but through the eyes of our main character, Tally Youngblood, it’s easy to see why it’s such a seductive system as well. One sticking point I have with the book is that race really doesn’t come up. It’s briefly mentioned by Tally that people used to kill each other and go to war over differences in skin color, and her teachers have impressed on her that this is stupid and insane, but it’s not made clear whether those different skin tones still exist or if they’ve been eradicated as part of the surgery as well. There’s a fairly typical science fiction trope that in the future, there will be enough inter-racial marriage and breeding that we’ll all be sort of taupy-beige, and a lot of times that’s presented as an awesome way to get past racial inequality. In this book it’s pretty clear that if that is the case, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
Tally spends most of the part being very much a part of this system. It’s another thing Westerfeld does to make us uncomfortable with our assumptions about the system being bad, because Tally’s pretty likeable, and a good kid with a nice rebellious streak in her. As the book continues and Tally is given more reason to question the current system, and maybe even question whether or not she really wants to be pretty, I almost felt a sigh of relief. Of course the system is secretly evil, thank goodness it is! Even here though, the way the Westerfeld reveals the problems within the set up is done really nicely, and the way that Tally is forced to abandon her comfort zone is pretty believable. I don’t want to say too much beyond that for fear of spoilers.
One other issue I have with the book is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. Like really really, OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT kind of cliffhanger. I know there’s going to be a second book, and I almost can’t imagine any way around the cliffhanger, but if that sort of thing bugs you, be aware of it here. It bugs me, but that’s totally a personal preference, of course.
The bottom line here is that I really enjoyed this book. I like the way Westerfeld has set up his world, and I like the way that the outside comes in, subtly at first and then in a way that our protagonist can’t ignore anymore. I think it’s a pretty fantastic read and great for kids and teens, especially those going through their awkward phase and wishing they could just be pretty.
Books to movies and back again, with Hayao Miyazaki September 7, 2009
I love my Google reader. More specifically, I love how my friends share things that make me think. Honestly, I could do a whole post about how having good people sharing with you on your Google Reader is almost like having a do-it-yourself reference section. Maybe another day.
TODAY, what I want to talk about, on this lovely holiday, is this post from the io9 blog about Hayao Miyazaki’s films and the genres they inhabit, sort of. If you don’t recognize Miyazaki’s name right away, you’ve almost certainly heard of his films, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and the latest, Ponyo, are some of his better known titles here in the States. Let me just say, I love most of the movies Miyazaki makes (I say most because there’s a couple I still haven’t seen). He does seem to inhabit a genre all his own though, which is what the io9 post is getting at.
I really enjoy the way they try to fit the movies into specific genres, noting at the same time the places the movie breaks out of the genre norms and expectations.
Now, though, the real reason this post piqued my interest so quickly: most of Miyazaki’s movies are also books. I love being able to tie popular movies into the books that inspired them. I also love the quick synopses of the stories in the movies given by the blog post. I’m not saying copy them for book/movie talks, but I am saying they’d be a great place to start writing a talk about Miyazaki movies and books. Not all of the movies started as books, but many of them are published as manga after the movie is released. Thing is though, they’re usually really, really good. In the case of Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki actually did an entire manga series himself, then based the movie off the first few books in the series. Howl’s Moving Castle, on the other hand, was based on the Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name. Both book and movie are excellent, but must be enjoyed on their own terms, as they are quite different. Still, I think a booktalk that begins with a movie and then moves into the book the movie is based on could be a lot of fun. Double bonus if they’ve already seen the movie, because then you don’t have to worry about spoilers, and can still let them be surprised by some of the turns the book takes.
And obviously, this is not a new idea to me, but more of a reminder that displays of books that correspond to popular movies are always a good idea, as well as book/movie clubs. Watch the movie, read the book, have discussion, ??? profit? Ok maybe not that last part, but the book and movie discussion club seems like it could be a lot of fun.
After all, as XKCD reminds us, Hollywood will never stop making movies from books, so we’ll have plenty to choose from for the displays and discussion groups. But some people still think books are dead. Oh well!
Desideria, by Nicole Kornher-Stace September 1, 2009
**Disclaimer**: The author of the work being discussed today is a personal friend of mine. I like reading things my friends write, but can’t possibly pretend to be objective about the work. I do think, however, that I can give enough of an idea of the book that a reader should be able to make a decision as to whether or not they would like to read the book.
I met Nicole Kornher-Stace at Readercon this year, and almost immediately fell in love with her words. I say this because she is the featured poet in the Summer issue of the online poetry magazine Goblin Fruit, and I got to hear her read one of the poems from the feature, The Changeling Always Wins. I love poetry that has a sense of humor, and this piece in particular is dark and twisted and a little creepy, but also very, very funny. To cross-promote my own stuff for a second, if you’re interested in finding out more about Nicole’s poetry and Goblin Fruit, I just did an interview with the editors of the publication on my podcast, We Have Thumbs.
The upshot of all of this was that I liked Miss Kornher-Stace, I liked her work, and she had a new novel, her first, being sold in the dealer’s room at the con. So I grabbed a copy of Desideria (Amazon links for illustration, please support your local retailers when possible) and tossed it on one of the book stacks. I recently got around to reading it, and finished it last night, so I’m trying to get a review written before I lose any of the dreaminess of this book.
Dreaminess isn’t the right word. That implies something sort of soft and pretty, and this book is gorgeous, but not pretty. I’ve mentioned that Kornher-Stace is a poet, and that definitely comes across in her prose. The opening line of the prologue is such a well-turned, brain-snagging phrase that I literally read the line several times, savoring the imagery, before I could move on to the rest. “At first she does not know just how or why the lamp is in her hand, its glass and brass and fern-curled fire;” the sentence continues, but it takes a bit more time for the dream-like images to begin to resolve into a character and story. That story is about Ange St. Loup, the woman holding the lamp, who is an actress in a theatre. Ange is known as a brilliant actress, but what only her fellow actors know is that she’s prone to getting a little *too* into character. Think method acting taken to a dangerous extreme. (Note: the story-bits I’m about to divulge are found out fairly early on and thus I do not consider them to be spoilery) Somehow, Ange has fallen down into one of her characters, and accidentally starts a fire in the theatre, and is taken to an insane asylum after jumping out the window. The story that follows cuts between Ange’s surfacing memories of her time in the theatre and her present reality of the asylum of Amaranth. It’s often difficult to decide what is real, and that only gets harder as the book continues and the machinations of some of the supporting characters are made clear. On the subject of those characters, one of my very minor complaints about the book is that I felt like it took a really long time to get a good handle on the rather large cast. I admit however, that this is partially a personal failure, and possibly the result of reading when tired. After finished the book though, I thought about it some more and actually think it suits the structure of the book. After all, we’re meeting these characters through Ange’s memories, and the memories start out vague and become more focused as she regains her sense of self, so allowing the characters to sharpen in focus as the book progresses feels right to me.
Be warned, this is not a happy book, and has elements of abuse and other possibly triggering elements. The ending is good and solid, although disappointing in a very personal way that I’m not sure I can talk about without spoilers, but it all makes sense and does give resolution. I loved this book, but don’t go into it expecting anything light or sweet, or an ending that reinstates the status quo.
If you’re interested in trying out some of Kornher-Stace’s other works before committing to a novel, she has a short story up at Fantasy Magazine, as well as the poetry already mentioned at Goblin Fruit.
Spoilers and more discussion behind the jump. (more…)