Friday, April 29, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: How Mushy is Too Mushy?

The Literary Blog Hop is hosted by The Blue Bookcase every other week.  This week's topic for discussion is:

Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous? Use examples. 


Well, other than it feels slightly like a test question from some literature class I may have taken in college, this is an interesting question.  First, I feel a need to question a basic premise inherent in the questions-namely, that emotion and sentimentality are synonymous.  

The Free Dictionary defines sentimentality as "The quality or condition of being excessively or affectedly sentimental.".  Apparently it is now OK to define a word using the word...at any rate, they go on to define sentimental as "Affectedly or extravagantly emotional.".  Therefore, while emotion is a component of sentimentality, all emotion is not sentimental.  My understanding of the word is as something rather sappy, perhaps manipulative.

Now, I can't think of any readers of fiction that I know personally who want to read books that do not elicit some emotion in the reader.  Most of us want to be swept away in a the lives of the characters, want to learn something about what it means to be human through experiencing the made-up world the author has created.  It follows then that emotion in literature is not only a good thing, but an expected, integral thing.  If literature is meant to mirror and examine the human experience, then it would be impossible to divorce it from emotion.

To me the most important word in the definition of sentimental is "affectedly".  That one word rather sums up my feelings on sentimentality versus emotion in literature.  By nature an affectation is not entirely sincere, and that is how most sentimentality in literature, or anything else, feels to me-insincere and unauthentic.  Strangely enough I can't think of a literary example for the moment, but I can think of some pop culture examples-Lifetime movies and Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

Now, I should say up front that I am a crier.  I love to cry at books or movies.  It doesn't have to be sad or tragic either-I'm an equal opportunity sobber.  I cry happy tears or sad tears or angry tears just as easily for fictional characters as I do for myself.  So the term tearjerker does not hold any negative connotations for me.  But I want that emotion to come from the strength of the story-not from artificial conditions created by a producer (I'm looking at you Ty Pennington!), or director, or author.  I want the emotion to come from someone speaking their truth, whether real or fictional.  I can just imagine the conversations around the table when a new Lifetime movie is being planned-especially if it happens to be around Christmas time.  It's like they have developed a formula for maximum tear potential.  Take one spunky woman down on her luck, give he a few kids to support, add hunky yet gentle guy who helps her love again, stir, and cry.  There are variations on this theme, but generally none of them feel authentic to me.  Then there is Extreme Makeover, Poor-Down-on-Their-Luck Family Edition.  I believe that everyone on that show probably does feel like they are saving the world one sad, miserable family at a time, but I'd rather they took their fake sentimentality and all of the money that show makes and donated it to Habitat for Humanity.

Maybe the reason that I can't think of a literary example is that I tend to shy away from books that appear to have that Lifetime movie quality.  I can think of plenty of examples of books that I love and admire that have strong emotion-The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few.  But other than On Strike for Christmas, a book I was forced to read by may book club which led to one of my most sarcastic posts ever, I can't think of any real counter-examples.  And that's the way I like it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Summoner, by Layton Green

After the Da Vinci Code, there was quite a market created for historical thrillers.  Layton Green takes this now rather cliche formula and turns it on it's head, giving us a dark, gritty story of blood sacrifice and ancient evil in his book The Summoner.

Dominic Grey is a member of the Diplomatic Security Service.  He is a man with a past-abused by his father as a boy, he ran away from home at 16 and has spent his adult life traveling the world, learning jiu-jitsu and taking a number of dangerous jobs.  He is called in to investigate after a US diplomat disappears during a religious ceremony in the bush.  Along with his minder, Nya Mushumbu, they investigate, only to find that there appear to be magical forces at work.  Viktor Radek, a religious phenomenologist and expert on cults is brought in to help them understand the forces that they are dealing with.  Thwarted at every turn by the political and bureaucratic nightmare that is modern-day Zimbabwe, Grey and Nya soon find themselves working outside of the law-and facing an enemy who seems to have supernatural powers.

When I was approached to review this book, I was very intrigued by the premise.  It seemed to take the historical thriller genre in another direction, focusing on ancient religions and some of their more sensational practices and placing them in the 21st century.  The resulting conflict between modern man's rational thought and ancient "supernatural" occurrences becomes a central feature of the mystery.  The mystery was not just what happened to the diplomat, but whether what appeared to happen could in fact be real.

As I read I could literally see this playing out as a movie in my mind, something that is not always true of the books I read.  I think that this would make an excellent movie.  It is fast-paced, has some truly gruesome scenes of ju-ju blood rituals, and characters that radiate evil rather strongly.  While I enjoyed the story quite a bit, it did have some of the same problems I see with Dan Brown's writing.  Prof. Radek spends paragraphs on exposition, which can start to feel like a history lesson.  But Layton does a better job of placing them in the action.  Radek is not hurriedly explaining the history of ju-ju as they are literally running for their lives, but during moments in between the action.  He also makes them a bit shorter, which helps the flow of the book.  Speaking of the flow, while it was well-paced, I felt that there were areas that could have used more development.  Unless you had pretty good background knowledge about Zimbabwe some of the cultural references would be troubling, and a little bit more information about the Diplomatic Security Service, how it works, etc...might have been useful.  I think all in all this is a good start to what is going to be a series of historical thrillers about Dominic Grey.  I look forward to seeing how the characters develop over time, and how Green's writing grows as he continues the series.

(Thanks to Mr. Green for providing me a review copy of the book!)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Mean Girls

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by the lovely ladies at The Broke and the Bookish for all of us that love lists.  This week's topic is Top Ten Mean Girls.  I had to really give it some thought, since I would probably choose a slightly more, ummm, colorful word to describe most of these women (rhymes with "stitch, if you know what I mean).  I only got up to eight before I ran out of time, but they are pretty representative of the type, I think!

1. Miss Hilly from The Help-I don't know if it was her shocking-by-today's-standards racism, or just her general mean-spiritedness, but she was a character I loved to hate.



2.  Cruella Deville from 101 Dalmations-A fur coat from puppies, do I really need to explain more than that?



3. The Trunchbull, from Matilda-She was the headmistress from Hell, until Matilda gave her her comeuppance!



4.  Lady MacBeth, from, well, you know where-I don't care how bad she felt about it later (out, damned spot!), she started that whole miserable mess.



5. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest-What a horrible, nasty, cruel person she was!



6.  Mrs. John Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility-Her greed and general snootiness make her a perfect Vistorian mean girl!



7.  Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter-Again with the racism!  Muggles unite!



8.  The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe-The movie version of her was exactly as I envisioned her when I read the books back in the early 1980s.  Haughty and cruel.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The 19th Wife, or Why Conjugal Subjugation is Bad

OK, I'll admit it-I have a morbid fascination with the idea of Mormon polygamy.  It's not quite risen to the point that I am watching Sister Wives on TLC, but it's close.  I've decided it's similar to the reason rubberneckers slow down at an accident scene, or people rush out to see the results of some natural disaster.  Somehow you just get sucked into the horror and drama of it all.  I also have a strange fascination with Mormonism in general.  As an atheist most religious belief stretches the bounds of my reason, but Mormonism in particular (along with Scientology) surprise me.  Most faith traditions at least have thousands of years of cultural weight behind them.  I have a hard time seeing how Mormonism started, however, given that it was only founded in the mid-1800s.  I mean, if Joseph Smith were a "prophet" today, and claimed that he spoke with the angel Moroni and that he found golden plates with the words of God on them, but then lost them again, the psychiatric community would call him schizophrenic.  I don't mean to sound disrespectful-I feel strongly that everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs.  I'm just making an observation. 

At any rate, after reading a book about the founding of Mormonism, I've wanted to read more about the early history of the church.  In his novel, The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff uses the real-life story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's many wives, as the frame for his modern day tale of polygamous cults and murder.  The books goes back and forth between "historical" documents written by Ann Eliza and her father, and the story of Jordan Scott, a young man excommunicated from a Mormon offshoot, the Firsts.  The Firsts are a polygamous cult, headed by a man called the Prophet.  The Firsts believe that the Mormon church was wrong to abolish the practice of "celestial marraige", as polygamy was called.  They have dedicated themselves to continuing what they see as God's true wish in their desert town of Mesadale.  Jordan's mother, the 19th wife of one of the elders, is accused of killing him in a fit of jealousy.  After swearing he would never return to Mesadale, he agrees to visit his mother in jail, and becomes convinced she did not commit the crime.  Working with his mother's lawyer and some other ex-Firsts, he investigates what really happened.

Ebershoff obviously did a lot of research in preparation of writing The 19th Wife.  Ann Eliza Young was a real person, and she did write a memoir of her time as a Mormon.  While Ebershoff is clear that the book is a fictional account, there is a lot of factual information.  I read several parts of the books with my laptop close by, so that I could check the factual nature of the story.  The Firsts are surely modeled after the Fundamentalist Church of Later-Day Saints, the polygamist cult headed by the notorious Warren Jeffs. Jordan's character and the other former Firsters in the book describe many of the conditions that The FLDS has been accused of.  Aside from the many wives of the men, there were accusations of welfare fraud, child abuse, child sexual abuse, rape, and the forcible marriage of underage girls to much older men.  While there are those that argue that plural marriage is a religious practice that should be respected when entered into by consenting adults, I think that we've seen enough evidence in a variety of cultures that in reality plural marriage mostly serves to concentrate power in the males of the group, and leave the women very little control over their lives.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Blogger Hop-The Hunt

In the spirit of the Twitter Friday Follow, the Book Blogger Hop is a place just for book bloggers and readers to connect and share our love of the written word!  This weekly BOOK PARTY is an awesome opportunity for book bloggers to connect with other book lovers, make new friends, support each other, and generally just share our love of books!  It will also give blog readers a chance to find other book blogs to read!  Hosted by Crazy for Books.

This week's question:

 "If you find a book you love, do you hunt down other books by the same author?"

Well, this seems like it should be a no-brainer.  If you love one book by an author, chances are pretty good that you will also love their other books.   I have read authors where the one book I read as a fluke, however.  Anne Rice comes to mind.  I read Interview with a Vampire and thought it was interesting.  Then I read Feast of All Saints, one of her historical fiction books, and LOVED it.  But when I tried to read the rest of the vampire and witch books I was so disappointed.  

The only time that I have actively avoided a book by an author who's other book I loved was Audrey Niffenegger.   The Time Traveler's Wife is one of my favorite books of all time, and when Her Fearful Symmetry came out I was afraid to read it.  Not because it is about ghosts (though it is), but because I was so afraid that it couldn't be as good as TTW.  I finally told myself to put my big girl pants on and give it a try.  And I was right, it wasn't as good.  But it was good, and had I persisted in my avoidance I would have missed out.


 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday Rewind-My Favorite Authors

This week's Top Ten, hosted by the gals at The Broke and the Bookish, is specially designed for those of us that occasionally miss a week of the action.  It's rewind time-a time to go back and create a post on a past topic that you didn't participate in when it was first posted.  After looking at the list of past topics for what felt like an inordinate amount of time, I rejected Favorite Best Fictional Couples and Best Villains, having posted on those for a different meme.  I finally settled on Favorite Authors, since I've mentioned them a lot but I'm not sure if I've ever actually written a post devoted just to them.  After each author I will list their books of theirs I have read and loved.  So, in no particular order, may I present...

1.  Toni Morrison-The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Paradise, Love, A Mercy



2.  Alice Walker-Temple of My Familiar, The Color Purple, Possessing the Secret of Joy, Warrior Marks



3.  Octavia Butler-Fledgling, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed, Patternmaster, Clay's Ark



4.  Barbara Kingslover-Animal Dreams, The Bean Trees, Prodigal Summer, The Poisonwood Bible, Pigs in Heaven, The Lacuna



5.  Chris Bohjalian-Midwives, The Double Bind, Before You Know Kindness, Transister Radio, Buffalo Soldier, The Law of Similars



6.  Margaret Atwood-The Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, Cat's Eye, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Lady Oracle, Surfacing, Life Before Man





7.  Stephen King-Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, Dead Zone, The Stand, Firestarter, Cujo, Roadwork, The Dark Tower series, Christine, Pet Semetary, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Talisman, The Bachman Books, The Eye of the Dragon, Misery, Tommyknockers, The Dark Half, Needful Things, Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Insomnia, Rose Madder, The Green Mile, Desperation, Storm of the Century, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Black House, From a Buick 8, Cell, Lisey's Story, Duma Key, Under the Dome, all of his short stories



8.  Sheri S. Tepper-The Gate to Women's Country, Beauty, Gibbons Decline and Fall, The Visitor



9.  Neil Gaiman-American Gods, Anansi Boys, Good Omens, Interworld (YA), Stardust, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book (YA)



10.  Roald Dahl-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The BFG, The Witches



Friday, April 15, 2011

The Amazing Disappearing Blogger

Imagine my surprise when I checked the date of my last post and discovered it was 15 DAYS AGO!  What?  Really?  How did that happen?  Surely it hasn't taken me two weeks to get through only 127 pages of The 19th Wife?  I mean, I did start The Summoner, but I wasn't feeling it, so I only read about 50 pages then I put it down.  Do you mean to tell me I have only read 200ish pages in TWO WEEKS?!?  Quick, someone call the library for a book infusion-STAT!

Spring is always a fallow reading period for me.  It is when things at work really amp up-I have yearly assessments to give and individualized educational plans to write and annual reviews to schedule.  I have a youth service to plan at my church, and youth conferences to plan for next year.  Then there are my wife's concerts and performances, all of which are in the next few weeks.  Oh, and the term paper on the entire history of teaching and learning due in two weeks.  Darn it-I hate when real life intrudes on my reading time!  How can I escape all of the above stress if I'm too busy to read?

The Wife as Katisha from The Mikado


So, Constant Readers, I promise that as soon as I can untangle my life from all of the aforementioned craziness, I will be back on track for future blogging.  And I will be doing my first ever blog tour and give away, for Karin Slaughter's new audiobook, Fallen.  So while I may seem to have disappeared, I sincerely hope you won't!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Book Blogger Hop-April Fools

The Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Jennifer at Crazy-for-Books, is a change for book bloggers of all stripes to get the word out about their blog.  My hop post this week will be short and sweet...the question of the week is...

 "Since today is April Fool's Day in the USA, what is the best prank you have ever played on someone OR that someone has played on you?"
 
My answer is short and sweet because I have never had an April Fool's joke played on my, nor have I ever played one on someone else.  Well, unless you count the students at school who come in every April 1st and say "There's a bug in your hair!  April fools!" or "Your shoe's untied!  April fools!  Of course, as a teacher I feel obligated to look down and laugh, but really April Fools Day in my world is one long string of "tricks" that are older than me (which, of course, the kids think they made up-adorable).