Monday, July 28, 2014

The Dog Year by Ann Garvin

I had the pleasure of reviewing this for Isthmus. The article is here. Enjoy!


(Book 13, 2014)


Friday, July 11, 2014

Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison

I read this book because I'm interested in fanfiction as a literary trend. I was hoping for a coherent discussion of why fanfiction is so derided while at the same time it is increasing in popularity. I wanted to read about the gender issues surrounding fanfiction – the fact that it is mostly written by and read by women. And I wanted to read about the porous boundaries between fanfiction and mainstream fiction like Longbourn, which is a new original novel that uses characters and settings from Pride and Prejudice (but which no reviewer described as fanfiction, despite its obvious connections).

But I didn’t get any of that in this book. Instead, I got a scholarly history of fanfiction and a snapshot of the current state of the art, especially the role of fanfiction within the larger world of fandom. An English professor at the University of Utah, author Anne Jamison has read and written fanfiction for years, as have most of the book’s other contributors (of which there are several). Her enthusiasm for her topic, however, in some ways prevents her from delivering me the answers I wanted; Jamison and the other authors are too close to the subject to give it an objective analysis and they consider the appeal (and the legitimacy) of fanfiction to be self-evident. Jamison does not address the gender issues, and swiftly dismisses the idea that writing fanfiction is “playing in someone else’s sandbox.” She says that writing is writing. I tend to agree.

But nevertheless, I enjoyed this book, albeit slowly. I’d love to recommend it to other fanfiction readers but unfortunately I can barely find anyone I know who will admit to reading it. Part of me wants to write a spirited defense of fanfiction here, and address those issues that Jamison didn’t. Another part of me thinks it’s not worth my time. Either you are open-minded about it or you aren’t. I have read fanfiction written by anonymous amateurs that moved me to tears, and award winning literary novels that bored me to tears. Remember, there are no reading police. If you think reading new stories about Harry and Ron sounds like it could be fun, well so do hundreds of thousands of other people. Why not join them?

(Book 12, 2014)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Outlander and American Gods: Books to TV

I was really thrilled to read the news that Starz (the U.S. premium cable network) is developing a show based on the Neil Gaiman book American Gods. I loved that book and think it will make a great series. It melds mythology, fantasy, and social criticism to great effect--here’s my blog post about it.

Apparently the project has been kicking around for a while, with HBO working on it at one point before handing it off to Starz. I admit to being pretty vague on how these deals transpire, and I don’t really care how they get done, as long as someone good is in charge and we eventually get to see a show. As of yet I could find no dates for when it might air.

Starz is also developing a miniseries based on Outlander, the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. These genre-bending books are set (mostly) in the 18th century, first in Scotland and later in the U.S., and they combine an epic romance and time travel with traditional historical fiction. Back before I had this blog I read the first four books in the series (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn) but then lost steam. The eighth book just came out and the show premiers in August, 2014. Here's a link to the Starz website where you can watch a couple of trailers and see photos of the actors and locations.

Author Gabaldon is closely involved in the show’s production, and the showrunner is Ron Moore, who produced the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. I have really high hopes for this series. Moore knows how to make immersive television and he’s a feminist, which I find reassuring, given that these books (especially the earlier ones) can be troublesome in the way they deal with domestic violence and rape. Let’s hope he can steer clear of some of the issues that have plagued the Game of Thrones TV adaptation.

Both Outlander and American Gods have huge installed fan bases, so the pressure is on to do these well. I know some Outlander fans who are very nervous and not sure if they will even watch. Interestingly, a trailer on the Starz website addresses this concern head on, with both Moore and Catriona Balfe (Claire) promising not to screw it up.

As for myself, I have been really satisfied with recent book-to-TV adaptations (Game of Thrones and Case Histories come to mind as successful adaptions of books that I loved), and I really enjoyed the Starz version of The White Queen that I watched last year. I love good stories no matter how they are delivered: via books, television, plays, or movies, so I’m just happy to get more of them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is a down-at-the-heels understaffed house in 19th century England, where you are more likely to get pigshit on your shoes than to meet a nobleman. The fact that Longbourn is the home of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice is hardly mentioned, and the few Bennet family members who do appear in the book do so peripherally and mostly unsympathetically. Instead, this book focuses on the Longbourn servants, especially Sarah the housemaid, and James, the footman.

Usually I avoid the Jane Austen extended universe: the sequels and prequels, the mashups, the secret diaries, the mysteries, and the modern-day retelllings. But I was interested in Longbourn because it focused on the servants, and not on the traditional cast of P&P. It also was clearly NOT a romance. I like my historical fiction with some grit and it sounded like this book had it.

An orphan taken in by the Bennet family housekeeper, Sarah works grueling hours in harsh circumstances. Baker makes sure we know about Sarah’s painful chilblains, her ill-fitting boots, and what time she gets up to lay the fires every day. Baker also introduces the rest of the servants, who, like all good literary characters, have secrets and agendas of their own. Both Sarah and James dream of better lives but the societal and economic restrictions they face limit their choices. James has also spent time in the army and Baker revisits his years fighting in Spain, a section of the book I read with increasing horror but which ultimately adds to the novel’s depth.

I loved the way Baker was able to use some of the plot elements from Pride and Prejudice to her own different effect. P&P readers will remember that Longbourn is entailed; it can only be inherited by a male relative, Mr. Collins, a distant cousin of the Bennet girls. This uncertainty, far from being confined to the Bennet family, drives action in the servants’ hall as well, as the housekeeper worries that the new heir will want to replace the existing staff with all new people, as would be his right. Her very real fears that she and her elderly husband could be cast adrift, just as they are too old to find new positions, keep her awake at night and scrambling to impress Mr. Collins when he visits Longbourn. I enjoyed revisiting these familiar situations from a different angle, but readers who don’t remember every detail of P&P will have no trouble getting the point.

Let’s talk about repurposing these characters and plot elements some more, shall we? Is Longbourn fanfiction? If not, why not? Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, by Ann Jamison. Next week I’ll write a blog post about that, and how it relates to Longbourn.

I’m also moderately interested in a batch of new additions to the Austen extended universe—The Austen Project. HarperCollins has commissioned six bestselling contemporary authors to write modern retellings of Austen’s six full-length novels. What attracts me to this project is the authors themselves. I skipped the first release, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, but I’m planning to read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, whose crime writing is just so fierce, and I’m also interested in Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice, which comes out this fall. The literary press has been lukewarm about The Austen Project. I especially can’t figure out this review from the Guardian,  where Robert McCrum seems to be saying that McDermid did a good job with Northanger Abbey, despite the thanklessness of the task. McCrum says that publishers should focus on finding the next Jane Austen or Val McDermid instead of selling re-treads (his words). On one hand I agree with him, but as a fan of (some) fanfiction, I am starting to see the other side—that the reading public’s desire to continue to engage with these characters and stories challenges publishers to meet this need.

(Book 11, 2014)

Friday, June 13, 2014

How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not to be Wrong is a collection of essays about math and popular culture by Jordan Ellenberg, author of the popular Slate column Do the Math. I wrote a profile of Ellenberg for Isthmus, and here's a bit of what I said about the book:

How Not to Be Wrong isn't just for math geeks. Ellenberg's writing is accessible and friendly. In one chapter, he deconstructs the methods several MIT students used to scam the Massachusetts State Lottery. In another, called "Dead Fish Don't Read Minds," he examines the ways scientific data are analyzed, vetted and reported. This essay made me doubt everything I thought I knew about the reliability of scientific reporting.

That is exactly Ellenberg's goal. Armed with an understanding of the math behind things like new obesity studies and unemployment reports, you can draw your own conclusions. You will no longer be constrained by others' interpretations. If you do your own math, you won't be misled.

Here's a link to the full profile on The Daily Page, the online edition of Isthmus.

(Book 10, 2014)




Thursday, June 05, 2014

For Books' Sake

I've recently started contributing to For Books' Sake, a popular website dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by women. I've been reading this site avidly for a while, and am thrilled to be able to join this talented group of writers.

For Books' Sake was founded in 2010, in part to address the imbalance in coverage of books by women in the mainstream media. It publishes book reviews, feature articles, and news coverage of women authors, and sponsors literary events in the UK, where the site's founders are based.

My first post for them went up today. It's a celebration of Margaret Drabble, one of my favorite writers, on the occasion of her 75th birthday. You can read it here.

Monday, June 02, 2014

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s hard to write about this book without revealing spoilers. If you are considering reading it, I recommend you stop reading this post and go get the book right away, before you accidentally discover the secret. Diving into it without knowing the central conceit will be a good adventure and I envy you the pleasure. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Okay, off you go… bye!

Everyone else—In We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, Rosemary and Fern are adopted sisters, raised together from infancy through age 5, when they are suddenly irrevocably separated. Rosemary spends the rest of her childhood mourning Fern’s loss and her young adult years tracking Fern down. She struggles to adapt to life without Fern and rails against her parents whose involvement in Fern’s disappearance baffles, then haunts Rosemary.

Here’s the thing: Rosemary is a girl but Fern is a chimpanzee, a fact that Fowler doesn’t reveal until about a third of the way through the book. Both Rosemary and Fern are test subjects in an experiment run by Rosemary’s father, a behavioral scientist. For their first five years, Rosemary and Fern are happily cared for by their parents and a slew of graduate students, their every move documented, their development celebrated and recorded at every turn. However, for reasons that unfold in the story, the experiment goes awry and Fern must be sent away, leaving the research project in shambles, and the entire family far more damaged than anyone thought possible. Rosemary’s mother retreats into serious depression, her father into alcohol, her brother becomes a fugitive animal rights activist, and Rosemary herself must navigate through life never sure whether her instincts are human or chimpanzee.

The novel’s complex structure of present-day narration combined with flashbacks adds suspense and makes the big reveal very satisfying, even if you already know it in advance, which I did. It was hard to avoid--this book got a lot of press when it came out last year and recently won the 2014 Pen/Faulkner award.

While it has a political subtext, the book is, at heart, a very personal story about relationships, loss, love, and what it means to be human. Fowler was inspired by several well-known cases of chimps raised in human families but has added her own spin. Politically, she walks a fine line, managing to avoid vilifying Rosemary’s father while still coming down firmly on the side of the animal rights folks. She has clearly done her research. It’s tricky subject matter and Fowler never puts a foot wrong. I was really delighted by this book, even when it was sad and heartbreaking.

(Book 9, 2014)