April 30, 2014

Poem in Your Pocket Day

That's today, so here is my poem in my virtual pocket. It's by George Meredith, one of my all-time favorite poets:

A wind sways the pines,
         And below
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
         And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
         Even we,
         Even so.

April 23, 2014

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park is a great addition to the YA canon. In a field recently dominated by the supernatural, it's a welcome dose of realism, much like The Fault in Our Stars.

Park is a high school student of middling social status. He feels vulnerable because of his half-Korean ancestry, but he has friends in every clique and maintains a respectable dignity and social life. Eleanor, on the other hand, is new to the school and a mess. She dresses in odd, patched-up clothing, her big red hair is wild, and she radiates weirdness, and not in the coolly eccentric way—in the wounded gazelle way that makes her a target for every mean-spirited teenage predator.

There's much to love about this novel. Park and Eleanor begin a friendship that grows into romance in small, believable steps. Behind Eleanor's odd appearance is just the kind of neglect, poverty, and violence that is so often invisible to the outside world. Most of all, I loved how Park struggled with embarrassment over Eleanor's appearance and fear that associating with her would lower his social status.

Park's embarrassment is fleeting, which is, I suspect, a bit of forgivable idealization. As much as we may make distinctions between realistic novels and escapist novels, so-called realism can be just as romanticized as fantasy. Park is as perfect a boyfriend as Peeta or Four. He finds her excess weight sensual and her weirdo clothes endearing. And when she is targeted for bullying, his response is pure concern for Eleanor, impervious to shame or self-regard.

This is not a bad thing for a YA novel, or any novel. The sense of body shame in women and girls is out of control in our society. We need to be reminded that being normal is in fact normal and you don't need to be pretty to be happy. I suspect, though, when the book is turned into a movie, that the producers will pull a Hermione and cast a red-haired beauty, letting the unruly hair and worn clothes stand in for plainness. As an antidote, Google "Eleanor and Park" images and enjoy the fan art, which is gorgeous in its true realism.

April 17, 2014

RIP García Márquez

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.

Many years later, standing in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that long-ago afternoon when his father took him to see ice for the first time.

April 13, 2014

Cult Novels

I'm trying to catch up on the experimental novelists that are cult favorites. In such pursuit, I've recently read:

Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

And have put these novels on my list:

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
Neuromancer, by William Gibson

What else do I need to add to my to-read list?

April 5, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor

On Tuesday, April 8, the final installment in the Daughter of Smoke and Bones trilogy will be released. It's been a long time since I've been this excited about a release date!

April 2, 2014

Why We Read Fiction, by Lisa Zunshine


Strictly for book nerds, Zunshine's book expounds on the application of Theory of Mind to literature. Theory of Mind is the activity of assigning a kind of reliability rating to information based on how that information was delivered to us. This involves "source tagging," in which we keep track of who said what, also called "metarepresentation."

Zunshine talks about the evolutionary importance of source tagging and how literature allows us to exercise our metarepresentative muscles. This is, for her, one of the chief pleasures of literature because it allows us the joy of using abilities that we have and gives us the reassurance that we are good at using them.  Metarepresentation is so constant in our thinking that we are barely aware of its existence, but certain types of literature—like rich psychological novels and detection fiction—really take it out to the jungle gym for a workout.

My favorite part of the book was the section on Lolita. Zunshine explains that our minds can't deal with excessive unreliability, a situation in which almost everything is untrue. We aren't made to function in that type of environment. We are made to pick out individual statements of an obviously dubious nature. This explains why we are more likely to be skeptical of a friend who tells us our outfit is bad than of a stranger who tells us an astounding story about his identity with a straight face. And it explains why so many readers, past and present, continue to view Lolita as the story of a tempting nymphet rather than of a brutal pedophile. Every reader knows that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, but that doesn't keep many from still, still, absorbing his version of events. This is because Nabokov is such a damn good writer and uses every trick at his disposal to subtly encourage us to identify with Humbert's point of view.  Zunshine takes us on a little history tour of the novel's marketing past as well, quoting editions and reviewers that claimed it was literature's "most authentic" love story.

Zunshine also tells of the reception of Richardson's Clarissa back in the day. Clarissa ended up as a kind of 18th-century Lolita in that readers failed to see through the author's all-too-clever narrative techniques. Richardson was so upset by readers' celebration of his loathsome protagonist, Robert Lovelace—an aristocratic lothario who spends the entire novel orchestrating Clarissa's ruin—that he actually rewrote the novel to make Lovelace more obviously villainous.

I should mention that the book is occasionally on the dry side. For those concerned about this, you may instead want to watch the video I ran into during an online search. Also a treatise on Theory of Mind and literature, it has the more promising title "Why Does Fiction Work? Hint: Boobs."