Monday, August 31, 2009
These and many other authors use "literary initials" in their bylines. You may not have given such names much thought at all, yet you may make fast assumptions when you see them printed on the cover or spine of a book.
The author and/or publisher may choose to use initials or pseudonyms for any number of reasons: to protect the identity of the author, to create mystery and intrigue (and thus boost sales and readership), to make it sound as if the author's gender matches that of the protagnonist when it's really the opposite, etcetera, etcetera.
As a kid, I really enjoyed the film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, so I tracked down the novel written by R.A. Dick and discovered the name was a pseudonym of Josephine Leslie. (Note: If you like classic ghost-and-human romance stories but you haven't heard of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, do yourself a favor and read the book, then see the classic 1947 film starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, with a young Natalie Wood. Also watch the TV series if you have the chance.) The book was published in 1945. I'm not certain why the byline is what it is, but I find it somewhat amusing, because the story has true ghostwriting: a living female writing the memoirs of a ghostly sea captain as he dictates them to her.
However, since this is a pseudonym, it's not the same thing as an author who simply hides his or her first and/or middle names behind initials, like the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald or the delightful E. Lockhart.
What do you think about literary initials? Here are some things to consider:
Do you regard pseudonyms and pen names differently than initials which just shorten real names?
If you do not know the real name or gender of the author, do you research it before or after you read the book?
If an author's byline has initials for the first name, do you assume the author is male?
Does the gender of the author influence whether or not you pick up the book, or whether or not you trust the protagonist, if the protagonist is the opposite gender of the author? Does it matter to you at all?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
When I posed these questions to my writer pals, well-read friends, co-workers, customers, and the general public, I received a great range of responses. Check them out:
I am not particularly interested in any of the issues that you have raised here - they don't influence my choice of author or book, nor do they affect my enjoyment (or otherwise) of the work. I don't assume that an author is male just because they use their initials; the sex of the author is immaterial, anyway.
- Gail, aged 52
I either assume it's a woman asked by her publishers or agent to use initials in an attempt to make sure that the book doesn't get categorised as 'a book for girls', or that it's a man asked to do so in order to make sure that it's seen as 'chick lit' (and that he is writing this because he thinks it will make him money). Terribly cynical of me, maybe, but I do find initials used in modern publications slightly irritating.
With 'classic' writers, those writing in the 19th or 20th century, I tend to assume that they're male unless I know otherwise - an approach which has always given me the right answer, somewhat depressingly!
The gender of the author is something I'm aware of when reading if their gender is the opposite gender to that of the main protagonist. I tend to pay close attention to how they're portraying ideas about the opposite sex, about friendships, and about anything that's 'traditionally' associated with their sex - to see if the writer has felt the need to either depend too much on gender stereotypes or to use the story as a space for arguing against them. I suppose these things would detract from the text no matter what, though. I'm still aware of gender stereotypes when it's writers writing about their own sex.
I wrote a few chapters from male POVs in my last book, and it was a slightly scary experience - it seems to have worked but I found it a tricky balance, trying to make sure they sounded 'like guys' without becoming complete caricatures of 'teenage guyness'. Interesting though.
- Claire Hennessy, writer
I generally don't make assumptions about or care what an author's gender is. I am, however, so familiar with/jaded by the phenomenon of female authors - especially in fantasy and science fiction - using their initials that I now almost always assume that an author using initials is female. I certainly don't trust the protagonist more or less based on whether or not s/he shares gender with the author.
- Kimberly, library science student
I think that literary initials add more mystery to the book and makes me want to pick it up more than a book that has the author's full name printed upon it.
- Doyin, student
I associate initials with many of my favorite authors, which is why I plan to use them if/when I ever get anything published! I like the sound of "A.M.Weir" and think it just sounds more authorial than Amy, which, since there were like two adults with that name when I was a kid, will always sound like a kid's name to me even though most of us are adults now.
There I go, ousting my secret identity on the Internet.
But I never realized that there WAS a gender-based reason for using initials until years after I decided I would. Many times I knew the author's gender from something else ahead of time anyway-- pictures or bios. If I don't, I tend to assume the author is the gender of the main character in the book, I think! Hmm... the main character in my most-close-to-publication-worthy book is a boy....
- A. M. Weir, bookworm, librarian, and unpublished writer
I'll give the classic lawyer's answer: It depends.
Some names, like mine, are a mouthful. I think tough names can be a turnoff for some readers.
I honestly don't care if a book is written by a man or by a woman. It stinks that women women feel they have to hide behind initials to reach a broader audience, but I don't blame them for it.
I do often wonder why men seem to win more awards. It's too bad there's no way of judging them anonymously. When women started auditioning for orchestras behind curtains, they got more chairs. I bet women would get more writing awards if people didn't know the sex of the author.
- Martha, 39, author
When I was growing up, I always assumed it was a man who used initials because it looked so literary. A throw-back to the 19th century I suppose, although I've never lived during the 19th century, unless I had a previous life.
In the last ten years, I personally think it's because BOTH men and women are attempting to hide their real names because they are writing books that appeal more to the opposite sex and don't want their name - and those assumptions - to hurt potential sales.
It's sort of silly though because it's so easy now to find out an author's actual name, although it's too bad we make assumptions about a book's value or authenticity based on the sex of the author. Authors using initials don't stop me from reading a book, but I DO want to know what gender they are! Pure curiosity. And I usually find out before I read the book, but if the book is getting a lot of buzz and good reviews I will read it no matter who wrote it.
- Kimberley Little, author
I don't mind the use of "literary initials" in bylines. It's a choice authors make for a number of reasons. It can offer a kind of anonymity and can also hide the writer's gender (if he or she wishes to). Woman tended to use initials a lot more in the past to leap beyond sexual stereotypes. I think the literary landscape is freer now. An author's gender does not influence whether I will pick up a book. A good book is a good book. Male authors should be free to write from a female's POV. Female writers need that same freedom. I've enjoyed writing chapters or entire books from a boy's POV and I'd resent being restricted to limit my main characters to a single sex! A good writer needs to get into ANY character's skin. This is particularly true in speculative fiction where an author has to crawl into anothers skin be it alien or animal -- dragons included.
- Janet Lee Carey, author
I don't research initials. I think they prove best for female writers hoping to be read by male readers. I'm not aware of female readers having a bent for female authors.
I am cognizant of an author writing a protag of the opposite sex. I scrutinize the work more and hopefully still find the voice authentic. When I find a male author has failed to portray a female, it seems to show in what's not included. Of course, I can never be sure if the male is true at the same level.
Bottom line, for me, is that full names, initials, and pseudonyms don't matter a bit.
- Lorie Ann Grover, author and cofounder of rgz
I've never thought of it before but a quick browse of my bookshelves reveals no initials other than C.S. Lewis and E.E. "Doc" Smith. If that implies selectivity it's an unconscious one. I don't really think it matters whether the author uses initials or a full name. Nor do I think gender matters as long as the writer can create a believable character and tell a good story.
I do research it. I like to know the author's gender, though I hope that doesn't influence my perception of the story (I'm sure it does). I remember reading my first E. Lockhart book and wondering...I HAD to look her up! I think I'm impressed when someone writes an opposite-gender character well (either way).
- Melissa Walker, author
You know I personally don't really care on pretty much all subjects but I've thought about this a lot in my own writing. The book my agent is shopping around is a memoir about working in Alaska aviation - an incredibly male dominated field (I have never flown commercially - it's about working in ops and the pilots I knew who crashed, etc.) I know from the guys I worked with that a woman writing on aviation is highly suspect just because there are so few women in the industry. So honestly, if/when the book is published I'm not sure I would put my full name on it - I might go with initials just so the book is not dismissed on the shelf. I don't hide my gender in the text, but I figure once they start reading it wouldn't be a problem. While some folks might think this is unnecessary, I do recall the tremendous amount of questions I faced when researching my thesis (on commercial aircraft accidents in AK); a lot of the guys flying up there didn't think I had a clue until I told them where I had worked, that I knew how to fly etc. And in their defense, I only knew a handful of female pilots the entire time I lived in AK - but dozens and dozens of guys.
So yeah, while I don't judge based on author name, I know situations where people would, and I can understand why.
- Colleen Mondor, GLW co-founder and moderator
I'm glad you're bringing this up. I actually hate the mind-set behind "initializing" an author's name. I think it typically comes up when the author is a woman, and the book is not aimed at girls exclusively. It's the idea that Teen boys won't pick up a book if it's written by a woman. Which is just an offshoot of the whole "you can't write outside your own experience," which would have gay authors unable to write straight characters, black authors unable to write white characters, and all other ridiculous myths of who's ALLOWED to write what. Look, ultimately, a good story, compellingly told, is a good story, and I don't care if it's written by a man or a woman - as long as the emotions ring true, and the author's done their homework so the details are correct, I'm there. Now it's interesting, as our culture continues to push the "star-ification" of authors, that when some authors want to write OUTSIDE of their current genre, they feel they need to use a pen-name to do so. They're trying to keep their "brand" and not confuse the audience. I think this is an out-dated way of thinking, and that brands can be broader. The narrow view, I think, is one that our current world of facebook and social networking will replace. Before, it was easy to compartmentalize your efforts in one area with one group of people (i.e., the parents of my daughter's classmates were one social group, the teens who read my blog another, the performance artists I worked with in my 20s a third.) But on facebook, they're ALL mushed together, and they all know me for the multi-dimensional person I am. I think this will become more and more true for other authors as well, and we'll get to a point where we won't have author's identities (and genders) being hidden behind initials. At least, I hope that's where we're going!
- Lee Wind, writer and blogger
For reference: Wikipedia: List of authors who use some form of initials in their names.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Graphic novel fans might be interested in visiting Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast to read about illustrator David Small's new graphic novel memoir for teens and adults, Stitches, to be published by W.W. Norton & Company in early September. I've got the scoop over there, as well as some images from the book. As I wrote over there, I've tried to tell a few folks lately what the experience of reading Stitches was like, and I've found it hard to describe. "Extraordinary. Just....extraordinary" is what I find myself stammering.
Here's an excerpt of that post, which---I should warn readers---includes plot spoilers:
"At the age of eleven, when a growth on David's neck is spotted, it is diagnosed as a cyst by the family doctor, who recommends surgery. Three-and-a-half years after that diagnosis, David goes under, only to awaken with stitches on his neck and no voice. Trying entirely too hard to convince the mute David that everything will be allright, his father informs him there will be a second operation. David eventually goes home with a 'crusted black track of stitches; my smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.' This is one of the book's many visually-arresting moments, David's stitches morphing---in a series of drawings---into the steps up which his belligerent mother is tromping to write a note. Later, David finds this note: 'Dear Mama, David has been home two weeks now. Of course the boy does not know it was cancer.'
I'm not making this up. I couldn't if I tried. Neither could David.
Psychologically traumatized by this revelation, David begins to fall apart. When confronting his parents with the truth, asking if they have anything to say to him, his parents respond, '...you didn't need to know anything then . . . and you don't need to know about it now. That's FINAL.'"
Again, here is the link to the post.
About a month ago I got my little hands on an advanced reader’s copy of Catching Fire, the sequel to Suzanne Collins’ thrilling dystopian novel, The Hunger Games. I gobbled the book up in a few days and decided to wait a while to review it. Why? Because I needed time, man, to think this over. I mean, how do you match The Hunger Games? You don’t. You can’t. It's darn close to an impossible task. Then how do you review a sequel to it? With patience. An open mind. Some objectivity. Then have someone else read it and get their opinion.
Catching Fire will be released on Tuesday, and fans of the first book should grab it, because you will gobble it up like a hungry piranha. I did. It’s a fast read, and the early reviews I’ve read have raved. After finishing The Hunger Games – and being an avid reader of dystopian fiction (it’s way too easy to get addicted to the stuff) – I had a feeling I knew where Collins was going to take her story. I was wrong with this book, but I think I’ll be right with her direction for the entire series. So, it's been a month and what do I think?
I loved reading the book, but did I love the book? Probably not. I enjoyed the book; I loved certain elements, like introducing the president of Panem, President Snow (nice name, sounds so soft and fluffy, but can also be so cold and deadly). Like The Hunger Games it is exceedingly well written, but I had some pangs of disappointment as I made my way through the book. To explain this I’ll have to give up a key plot element. SPOILER ALERT: The next paragraph gives up the plot element.
As I gripped Catching Fire and was about to dive into it, a thought ran through by brain: How is Collins going to keep that same exhilarating action going in this book without having another hunger games? Well, she solves that by having another hunger games. So, on one hand, I am reading and excited and actually a bit fascinated by the games’ concept she slowly serves up, but on another hand I am feeling… well… been there, done that. I’ve already been to the hunger games; do I want to go back? It’s a different setting for the games to be sure, but I felt like this book needed something new. That, I assume (and hope) will be book three. (Which I will also ravenously devour.)
It’s probably the ending that gave me the biggest disappointment. First, I saw a piece of it coming from a long way off. Second, it did not really end, but more like just stopped. The ending was too easy. So, I gave the book to my niece, Melanie, who is 17 and also could not wait to get her paws on it. I was eager to hear her review. Did she agree with me? Yep, she did, especially about the ending. This is a good book, but when the bar is so high – and The Hunger Games is a very high bar indeed – it is a Herculean task to match it the second time. So, what should a rabid fan of The Hunger Games do? There is no doubt what you should do: read this book! Enjoy it. Run with Katniss. But don’t expect to match The Hunger Games. Is that okay? You decide.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Long, long ago when I was but a youngster, I totally dug the Fantastic Four. So I know how the story is supposed to go ... four young astronauts bombarded by cosmic rays return to earth as superheroes. That's how Stan and Jack told the story way back when.
I figured that this graphic novel -- Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol. 1: The Fantastic -- was retelling that story. When I noticed that a few things didn't jive with the "real" history of the group. Then I realized that history was being rewritten...
Turns out that the word "Ultimate" on the cover clued in everybody but the clueless (meaning me). According to Wikipedia, Marvel redid a bunch of it's big name comics this way, in part to dump the "sometimes convoluted back-histories of the original versions." To find out just how convoluted the Fantastic Four had become, try following the story of founding member Sue Storm. (Skip down to "Marriage Problems.)
This new "Ultimate" Fantastic Four origin story is pretty wild stuff -- no astronauts, lots of monsters and some sort of trans-dimensional accident to transform the characters.
The writing is snappy, although the Ultimate FF have the same tendency to talk each others' ears off as the original FF. The art, by Andy Kubert is quite good. He does a great job of showing that all four members are now monsters, not just The Thing.
I have to wonder about this whole "Ultimate" idea, however. Is it like reading both endings of Great Expectations and no longer knowing what the "truth" is? Or is this merely a story from an alternate reality (a concept familiar to FF fans)which can be enjoyed for what it is?
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Cool Thing is everything a gay boy could ask in a book - a bit too sex-crazed, a bit too whiny, and a bit too loud, yet always a treat. Without claiming to be YA, as if that's a bad name, the stories claim to be "defy the common stereotypes." But do they?
Cool Thing has a pretty long subtitle: "the best new gay fiction from young american writers." It's all in lower case letters, which I guess the designer believes indicates hipness. It's rather weird to categorize a book for gay teens as so regional ("American"); I guess British gay boys don't think like Americans (the Brit QAF wasn't that different, right?)
Open Cool Thing and you see the big and easy font of a middle-grade book. Another designer choice, I assume. We also have pictures of the editors, Blair Mastbaum and Will Fabro. Blair is hip because he wears a hat, I assume.
But what matters is on the inside.
Like all anthologies, the stories range from brilliant to so-so. The problem with the writing of many teenagers is that it's so full of angst and tries so hard to be stylish that the plot is lost and the characters so distant you might as well change the dial. Err, I mean, turn the page. This is what happens to tales like "Kyler and Wolf-Boy" or "Black N' Red: The Paper Doll and the Carpenter." The stories aren't bad, but they flee your memory by the time you're half-way into the next piece.
But there are some real gems in the book. Sam J. Miller's surreal "Haunting Your House" is amazing. L. A. Fields' is the new suffrage mouthpiece for gay boys suffering. "New Year's Eve 2000" by Maustbaum shows why the guy's first novel, Clay's Way, was great read.
As far as the marketing copy on the back - the one that claims these stories break "stereotypes" - well, I have to say, the storylines were pretty typical. Coming of age and coming out. First loves and first lays. Broken hearts and shared spit. Are the gay teens of the 21st century so different from their kin who listened to Bowie? Probably not. But the way they express themselves has changed, and the better stories in the book showcase this.
A solid B effort, if I bothered to grade. I expect to see novels from many of these "young" writers any day. I look forward to that future...
Monday, August 24, 2009
High school classes are just a means to an end for Cody. He needs to pass his classes to play football, and said classes aren’t worth the effort of trying to get good grades when he finds it hard to comprehend much of what is being taught. Staying eligible is all that matters, especially now that he is a junior. This season is when Cody can really catch the attention of college football coaches and land some scholarship offers.
After a cheap shot at the end of a game wrecks his knee and ends his football season, Cody drops out of school and starts working full-time. One morning, the local newspaper’s headline catches his attention: “Local Girl Missing.” Taking a closer look at the article, Cody realizes the missing girl is his ex-girlfriend, Clea.
Clea’s rich father sent her to a boarding school in Vermont, and now she has disappeared from her new school. The next morning, Cody receives a letter in the mail. Clea sent it before she disappeared, and there’s something about the letter that bothers Cody. Is he reading too much into the letter, or is it really a clue? In order to learn more, and determined to help find Clea, Cody decides to go to Vermont himself.
The mystery element of Reality Check does take a while to develop, but in the meantime, Abrahams fleshes out Cody, making him sympathetic and giving readers a great deal of insight into his character. I particularly liked how Cody doesn’t think of himself as a smart guy. Unlike many of the sleuths in children’s and YA mysteries, who are obviously bright and/or overachievers, Cody is an average guy—below average, academically—who gets involved in the investigation because of how much he cares for Clea. And where Cody’s poor grades and decision to drop out are concerned, the tone of the narrator is pretty matter-of-fact; they’re not presented as negatives or something to be ashamed of, just as part of who Cody is. (Okay, and the story wouldn’t work if Cody was in school, because then he couldn’t go to Vermont in the middle of a semester.) Once the mystery surrounding Clea’s disappearance emerges, it is suitably suspenseful and the motivations of the main players’ plausible. Although the ending is disappointingly abrupt, considering the relatively long buildup, overall, Reality Check is an enjoyable, easy read.
From the sound of this article by Sarah Weinman, we can expect to see more YA mysteries from Abrahams. I know I'm not the only one who thinks too few YA mysteries are published, and especially after Reality Check, I'm looking forward to Abrahams' next offering for teens.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Micheal (yes it's... Micheal, not Michael), Mixer, Tommy and Bones are the guys everyone at Tattawa High calls losers. Collectively, they've done some stuff to deserve the label, but a lot of things have been done to them, by their families and teachers and peers, that haven't exactly inspired good choices and good behavior. So when Tommy loses it one day in class after their math teacher bullies him, the rest of the guys aren't so surprised when he doesn't go home that night. But when it turns out Tommy is officially missing, and the police get involved, everything gets complicated and confusing, especially when their English teacher, Mr. Haberman, starts acting even weirder than usual, making the boys wonder if he might be in some way linked to Tommy's disappearance. Adding to the creep factor is the fact that they're studying Crime and Punishment in Haberman's class, or at least, Haberman is assigning chapters and lecturing on it, and Haberman is really into it, you might even say he's passionate about it. It isn't long before Micheal, the most academically minded of the crew, actually starts reading the book and wondering if Haberman might have more than a little in common with the murderous main character, Raskolnikov. What happens next proves that one half-thought out idea can turn ugly in a heartbeat and change lives forever.
Northrop's book is gritty, and he's got the messed-up-teenage-guy-with-heart character figured out just right. It's gripping the way you find yourself so quickly seeing Haberman the way Micheal does. You're just as suspicious as he is almost right away, and it makes you think how little it takes for suspicion to grow, even when the circumstance seems crazy and unbelievable when you really think about it. That's one of the most interesting themes Northrop works on in his book. By the time the climax arrives, you'll have plenty to think about: how even the most brutal crime can come practically out of nowhere; how friendship can form almost randomly and still produce powerful loyalty; the dangerous potential of suspicion.
And the cover? Holy impact. There could be some amazing conversation just about the cover design and how it relates to the narrative, I'm sure. I see a lot of covers, so it takes something to make me do a double take, which is exactly what happened when I got my copy in the mail. For a little background on the process of creating the cover, check out this behind-the-scenes feature at Melissa Walker's blog. Warning - once unzipped, you'll find it hard to put this book down.
Gentlemen by Michael Northrup is published by Scholastic.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Recently I ran a comics camp for boys and girls ages nine to twelve. For one week, these kids dove into comics like you wouldn’t believe. They drew and drew and drew, and drew some more. We talked about character, plot, action, but also visual elements like panels, word balloons, speed or emotive lines, and how to draw eyes and mouths to show what your character is thinking.
Now, I’ve taught comics to kids off and on for fifteen years. Whenever I start, the first thing I ask is “What’s comics?”
At first, I always got “Spiderman!” or “Batman!” or the like. About a decade ago, I also got some “Dragonball!” answers, maybe a “Sailor Moon!” or two. This time, it was only at the very end that I got the superheroes. Their initial answers were newspaper comic strips and Manga.
A big part of comics camp is reading. I pull out dozens and dozens of graphic novels, comics, manga, and collections of comics published over the last seventy-five years. And the kids are voracious readers—I had to bring in extra material midway through the week just to keep ahead of their reading. Which brings us to this review. What follows is a review by one of the campers. Auguste came last year to my comics camp, but I honestly didn’t know he liked it so much. This year, he was eager to draw, eager to read, and eager to talk about the books he read. So I handed him the first volume of Iron Wok Jan. This is what he had to say:
“I read the manga book Iron Wok Jan and it was great. It is about two cooks named Jan and Kiriko. They try and compete to see who is the better cook. In the end Jan makes his first mistake and he’s mad but then he fixes his mistake. I think this book also teaches that if you make a mistake, try to fix it. This book takes place in the best Japanese restaurant called Gobanchi. There are many other characters but they don’t appear as much as Jan and Kiriko. I highly recommend this book and give it 9 stars out of ten. I think this book is better for older kids or adults because it is a little hard to understand but you may prove me wrong. I also advise you that there are a few curse words but other than that it is a good book.”
Later I asked him what the bad words were, I felt bad and was worried what I may have “exposed” him to. They were minor ones, a “crap” and “damn” here and there. Language aside, I completely agree with Auguste. Iron Wok Jan is a riot of fun and action, probably the most “balls-out” cooking manga ever. It’s pretty much an over-the-top rager of a battle manga, using the coolest, grossest, wackiest food ideas ever. I bought the first fifteen volumes when Dr. Master was running a sale several years ago, and I read them back to back to back over a few days. From about volume thirteen, the stories get a little repetitive and the print quality lags a bit (the inks are muddy and the paper is crappier), but in later volumes that’s all fixed. I love this series, it’s got the perfect combination of anti-hero, great characters, crazy action, humor—it’s got it all.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
If we take the time to look, though, rats are actually pretty incredible. Their front teeth are harder than iron and can chew through concrete. They average about 16 inches long from tip to tail, but they can squeeze through a crack three-quarters of an inch wide.They're excellent swimmers, and the stories about them coming up from the sewers through toilets are astonishingly (or horrifyingly) true.
To write his book Rats, Robert Sullivan spent a year speaking with biologists who study rats and working with exterminators who kill them. He traced how rats went from being symbols of Satan's evil during the Black Plague to being, well, symbols of slum lords' evil during the rent strikes of the 1970s. The heft of his book, though, is observations from an cramped alley in Manhattan, where Sullivan watched a rat colony dominated by a huge corkscrew-tailed male he named, "the Rat King."
Sullivan's alley rats live well off the trash from a Chinese restaurant. They fight and breed, struggle and die, forming an ecosystem only a few blocks from Wall Street. The most incredible thing about rat is--unlike wolves and condors--they're city dwellers. Humans drive off predators and provide a steady supply of edible garbage, so rats have adapted to live wherever we live, their colonies spreading out in the shadows and under the floorboards of our own.
Calling rats and humans "brute neighbors," Sullivan writes, "Rats live in man's parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same."
The best nature writers remind us how big the world is, how wonderful and strange it can be. Sullivan manages it in Rats, revealing a hidden wilderness right under our noses.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
There's no simple way to describe any southerner's view of the Civil War, so Horwitz carefully sidesteps the complexities of this problem by focusing on his own connection to the war via his boyhood fascination with the various battles, gods and monsters associated with it. What begins as a wide-eyed boy's dream of the glorious past quickly becomes a murky, muddled journey into the heart of the American South, replete with the requisite gothic characters, racist powermongers and Old South legacies that have ever haunted the region. If the narrative seems a little far-fetched and heavy-handed at times, it is, but don't let that fool you into believing there is no truth in it. It's hard to overexaggerate something as over the top as the modern South.
The centerpiece and the binding force of what could otherwise be a directionless collection of essays is Horwitz's ongoing friendship with and grudging admiration for a Civil War re-enactor named Robert Lee Hodge. Actually, to call Hodge a re-enactor is to do him a grave disservice. He is, in his own parlance, "super hardcore." This means, among other things, that he shuns the traditional re-enactor's (called a "farb" by detractors like Hodge) tendency towards "play acting" and attempts to get at the heart of what (for him) is a genuine Civil War lifestyle and experience. Trudging miles with minimal (if any) footwear, eating molded bread and spoiled sowbelly, and sleeping in mosquito-riddled ditches are just a few of the lengths Hodge will go to in order to capture the essence of Civil War life and suffering. Horwitz joins up with Hodge at various points throughout his narrative, and each journey plumbs the depths of Civil War obsession and hysteria all while testing the limits of a "normal" man's constitution in this modern reconstruction of an antebellum world.
I admire Horwitz for his commitment to his task, even if at times he seems particularly preoccupied with the oddities, incongruities and outright hypocrisies of the modern South. There are moments when he seems to be mocking more than anything else, and that's problematic for me. Yes, it's true that the south has more than its share of Civil War throwbacks. Heck, just a few weeks ago some dunderheads a few miles south of my home threw their annual "Redneck Games" replete with more rebel battle flags than I ever care to see assembled in one place, but events like the "Games" are more the exception than the rule, and it would have been nice to read a bit more balance in Horwitz's approach.
Still, Confederates in the Attic, taken as a whole, does manage to balance the eccentricities of the post-bellum South with the serious implications of a society that cannot reconcile its own past. Whether you're just a "farb" or a "super hardcore," you're sure to come away from the book thinking differently about the past, present and the future. And you might convince me to finally sit down and watch Gone with the Wind. Might.
Monday, August 17, 2009
They are incredibly lonely and Spencer is mostly left on his own to entertain himself. The only person that returns to Paisley is Spencer's imaginary friend Chief Leopard Frog. Spencer has a complex relationship with his imaginary friend, who gives out sage wisdom, carves evil totems and writes bad poetry. Eventually, Spencer finds an old camera and begins documenting Paisley. The device, however, is a ghost camera which can photograph Paisley's former residents. Spencer breaks some promises to his friend along the way, and tries to make it better through his relationship with the publisher of Uncle Milton's Thousand Things You Thought You'd Never Find, which sells things like vegetables that resemble celebrities.
There is a large cast of great characters, which is impressive considering that this novel is about loneliness and discovery. Jennings pens a coming-of-age story, but it is much more than that. Spencer's imaginary friend seemingly has all of the answers and in some ways embodies what Spencer wants to be. Ghost Town is about dealing with the past and the importance of new relationships. Some of the conclusions seemed slightly out of character with the rest of the book, but this is a super fun and quirky novel with some brilliant moments. It reminded me a bit of Tom Drury's novels and would appeal to anyone who enjoyed Daniel Manus Pinkwater's The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Being that this is GUYS Lit Wire, I’m now going to offer, for your consideration, the most guy-centric book I’ve read in a long time. Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (by Cooke) is a guy’s book, right down the line: stone-cold criminal Parker comes walking back into town with a razor gleam in his eye and the urge to strangle someone in his powerful hands. He’s supposed to be dead, or so thinks his wife and her partner Mal, who pulled a double cross and left Parker to burn to death. It’s that simple, but what follows is a hunt through an underworld filled with seedy dives, rough women, two bit flunkies and corporate killers in neck ties and fancy suits. It’s right out of the first Parker Novel (there were a whole series of them) by famous crime writer Donald Westlake (using the Stark pseudonym) that began in the early 60’s when they really new how to tell a crime story just right. Cooke, who captured the look and feel of an era gone by in DC: the New Frontier, keeps the action set in 1962 and evokes a different time period like never before with a washed out, sepia-toned art that will bleed grit right onto your fingers. Even though it’s not quite in keeping with all the macho, I should say that this could also be the most gorgeous graphic novel of the year.
Well, that’s a lot of testosterone, so let’s balance things out just a tad with a fine Wonder Woman yarn. Sorry to say, there haven’t been an awful lot of those in the history of comics. Of the Holy Trinity of super-heroes (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, of course), she’s always had a more difficult time defining her archetype, being that the genre is very much about guys doing guy stuff (beating up criminals, natch). But, with Wonder Woman: the Circle (by Simone and Dodson), that situation is at an end. As Wonder Woman races to stop a Neo-Nazi invasion of Paradise Island and confronts a deadly conspiracy of Amazonian Warriors, we get a tale not only filled with action and character and burnished with a nifty shine of mythology, but also and finally a clear understanding of what Wonder Woman is and what she represents. The balance she strikes between fierce warrior and thoughtful diplomat has a fantastic potential, which you can follow into the next volume, if you like. And the art is so beautiful it practically glows, as only befits an Amazonian princess, after all. Even the backup tale, featuring WW’s battle, both physical and philosophical, with a renegade Green Lantern, offers a level of moral consideration you seldom see in mainstream comics. That maybe more depth than you’re used to in your summer action extravaganzas, but I reckon you can handle it.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Well, originally I was going to write about how effective a nonfiction writer can be. Then I looked around the web for impressions other readers gave of Never Cry Wolf.
It seems it is not totally nonfiction. But Farley Mowat's book did spur readers to rally around the cause of conservation. Wolves were being exterminated rapidly until he showed how much of "common knowledge" about them was just wrong.
Mowat told his story with a bit of "poetic license," you might say. He writes about being posted in the Canadian wilderness alone to study the wolf. Actually, he was part of an expedition of three biologists and was never alone, according to his supervisor, Frank Banfield (of the Canadian Wildlife Federation).
In Mowat's latest book, Otherwise, he backs off. He doesn't claim that he saw wolves surviving primarily on rodents, or that he tried such a diet to determine if they supplied him enough protein to survive the winter.
But I still recommend the book. Readers learn about wolves (Understanding wild dogs helps us understand our pets, for one thing.), and Mr. Mowat is a good writer. He will make you laugh. His descriptions of interactions with the government bureaucracy are hilarious. A little exaggerating for comic effect? We can only hope.
I laughed enough that I know I will read more of his books. Otherwise sounds like one I might want to review. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
It might be too late to plan a geek-themed vacation this summer, but it's never to early to start thinking ahead.
Not an atlas in the traditional sense, The Geek Atlas does manage to span the globe with the locations of museums, cemeteries, and assorted locales of interest to the geek-minded traveler. Sort of like a travel guide to tourist sites of interest for the scientific, technological and mathematically inclined. Also works for the generally curious who enjoy leaving the beaten path while abroad.
Now, gathered in one place, you can read up on the Mendel Museum of Genetics in the Czech Republic, learn about the world’s longest suspension bridge in Kobe, Japan, or make plans to visit The Taipei 101 in Taiwan, the tallest building in the world with a 600 tonne pendulum near the top to prevent the building from swaying and vibrating. Each of the entries not only explains the importance of each place but also follows up with a brief explanation of the science or math involved.
For example, the listing for the Tempio Voltiano not only honors the accomplishments of Allesandro Volta along the shores of Lake Como, Italy, but also explains Volta's invention of the first battery and includes the science behind the making of a modern version of what is known as the Voltaic Pile.
I knew none of this before reading the book. Reading this book made me smarter.
Listed alphabetically by country, each entry in The Geek Atlas lists its geo-positioning coordinates, a couple of icons indicating whether it is free of charge, availability of refreshments, suitability for children, and if it's whether-dependant, followed by a description of what the site has to offer. Magnetic North, for example, is listed as being free – suitability for children and weather is the sort of thing best left at the discretion of the geek parents involved. It also contains a nice explanation of the Earth's magnetic field and how magnetic north keeps shifting.
While intended as a guide for travelers, the book has a broader appeal as a geeky almanac, the type that teen boys are often drawn to. It has lots of facts, can be read out of sequence, is full of places both practical and absurd, and is informative without being pedantic. Armchair geek travelers will enjoy the virtual world tour, and for some the book could provide the sort of inspiration to get out of the house and explore the world. Or at least plant the seed.
The book is available in stores, but also directly from the publisher in a variety of down-loadable formats. Normally I wouldn't note such things but I think that for a title like this it could come in handy both as travel reading or as a reference on a mobile device while on the road.
The Geek Atlas
by John Graham-Cumming
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The story is set in Dust Bowl Kansas. Our main character is the aptly named Jack Clark, age 11, a young boy who is worried about his sister Dorothy, who is suffering from dust-related pneumonia, and who is relegated to chasing after his baby sister Mabel, who sometimes goes where she ought not to go.
Why did I say that Jack Clark was aptly named? Well . . . let's just say it has something to do with the nature of this particular story, which is party tall tale/fairy tale (a la "Jack and the Beanstalk" or "Jack the Giant-Killer", or, well, any of the so-called "Jack tales", American tall tales based in the Southern Appalachians). It's so common for boys in those sorts of tales to be named "Jack", in fact, that in Ian Beck's book, The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, the main character (Tom) has six older brothers, all of whom are heroes, and all of whom are named "Jack." But I digress. And "Clark" has its root in the same word as "Clerk", which originally comes from the idea of a religious scholar once known as a cleric. A cleric is generally a good guy; a clerk is generally someone we think of who serves a useful purpose. Jack Clark is all of these things – plain and simple, a hero, a good guy, and a boy who serves an extremely useful purpose, as it turns out. And he does it by employing the sort of bravery and cleverness that his namesake in the Giant-Killer and Beanstalk stories did.
In this story, Jack Clark discovers a mysterious being hiding out in the barn abandoned by neighbors who could no longer stand to live in the dust and the drought. Over time, he manages to figure out exactly who that being is. Jack, used to being bullied and overlooked, makes a decision to act in hopes that he will help not only his sister, but his town, to recover from the effects of the drought.
The artwork in the book is stunning. You can get a sense of some of it from this book trailer, created by Matt Phelan and available on YouTube:
The book's most memorable spread is – for me – found at the bottom right corner of page 128, and is at the center of a particularly gripping (and violent) episode in the book, when Jack observes his father and other men (plus older boys) engaged in a jackrabbit drive. The author's note at the end of the book makes clear that the particular event depicted actually occurred during the Dust Bowl, and is one of the events that most haunted survivors of that time on the plains.
The written portion of this graphic novel is actually quite small, percentage-wise, with words only as needed to convey the story and fill out the context for the pictures. The menacing form in the barn is well-done indeed, conveying secrets and power more than creepiness, although there's decidedly several frissons to be had when in the presence (visual or implied) of the being in question. Dorothy Clark, Jack's sister, is a compelling character; you can tell that she and Jack are quite fond of one another, and Dorothy spends her time reading (when she's not sleeping or coughing, that is) about another Dorothy in a different Kansas, who travels not only to Oz but also to the desert near the Land of Ev.
Another character of whom I'm particularly fond is Ernie, the kindhearted man who runs the general store. Not only does he try to protect Jack from the older boys who bully him, but he also tells Jack tall tales, all of them involving a hero named Jack. And he's not just kind to Jack's face; he also harbors great expectations for Jack, believing that one day Jack will do something truly heroic.
I had the chance to interview Matt Phelan at my own blog, and I can say for certain that his background as a theatre and film major contributes to the way he conveys the story in The Storm in the Barn, which has a cinematic feel to it. His pacing is spot-on as well.
So, to sum up: Interested in graphic novels? Or history? Or tall tales? This is the book for you. On sale on (or before) September 8, 2009.
Monday, August 10, 2009
There’s never been a road trip quite like this. In Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, Frank, Owen, Audrey, and Jin-Ae are visiting the graves of famous people who have committed suicide, and at the end of their cross-country journey, they plan to kill themselves together in Death Valley. Each has their own reason for wanting to die, reasons you’ve probably heard before in teens that you know of who have attempted or committed suicide—a breakup, not living up to family expectations, not being able to come out as gay to a conservative family. Owen, our narrator, has a slightly different reason. He blames himself for his brother’s drowning death. Owen was playing in the pool, pretended to drown, and his brother jumped in after him, hit his head, and died. Owen was only 7 at the time, and for the past 8 years he’s been trying to kill himself in various ways, been in and out of hospitals and seeing multiple counselors.
What Owen, Audrey, Frank, and Jin-Ae have in common is incredible loneliness. They originally met online, and when they realized that they had all attempted suicide at least once, they decide to meet for this final suicide tour, calling their group Suicide Dogs. Meeting in person may provide the desperately needed connections to the world that could ultimately save them, but the group mentality may also spur them each to ultimately do something some of them have begun to reconsider.
With visits to the graves of Anne Sexton, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and Kurt Cobain (as well as other sites that master researcher Owen finds along the way), and activities from the “things to do before I die” lists that they’ve each created, this book keeps a fast pace, with none of the true drudgery that can come with a long road trip. Interspersed with the narrative of the road trip are some of the original online chats from when the teens first met and started to plan the trip. The author, Albert Borris, has worked extensively as a teen counselor and seems to have a good sense of dialogue—these kids aren’t spouting philosophy at every turn, they’re confused and trying to figure things out, trying to find out if they have a place in the world. I wouldn’t like this book if I felt like it glorified suicide. It doesn’t. Each character is aware of the serious consequences of his/her potential actions, but feels that they are out of options.
Albert Borris’s web site has further information on him (including his most embarrassing moments!), as well as suicide prevention information. Crash Into Me has characters that many people will feel a connection with, and is worth reading to find out how they come out on the other side of their journey.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Keller is a hit man. He's good at what he does. He doesn't do it because he's a vigilante (though he has been known to go against the client's wishes if he disapproves), and he doesn't do it because he enjoys it. No, he kills people for a paycheck. At one point, he was actually planning on retiring, but then he re-started his boyhood philately hobby -- so now he has to keep the money coming in so that he can continue adding to his stamp collection.
In Hit List, Keller meets a girl. She introduces him to an astrologist, who tells him that he has a murderer's thumb. That doesn't sit right with Keller, because, despite his day job, he doesn't think of himself as a murderer. And the idea that his profession could have been preordained bothers him. And after meeting with the astrologist, things feel off. Jobs don't go right, and eventually, Keller realizes that his life is in danger -- someone, for reason or reasons unknown -- wants him out of the picture.
What I love about the Keller books is that they aren't action-packed go-go-go thrill-rides about an assassin. They're books about a smart, slightly odd guy who has likes and dislikes and a job and who goes to jury duty because it's the right thing to do. And I love his conversations with Dot, the lady who sets up his jobs. This excerpt will give you a brief taste of the awesome that is Keller:
"The cop's black," he told Dot, "and the defendant's white. I don't think I mentioned that before."
"You and Justice," she said. "Both color-blind."
"At first," he said, "we didn't know. I mean, we knew about the defendant, because there he was sitting with his lawyers, and middle-aged white guy with an OTB face and a bad rug named Huberman."
"His rug's got a name?"
"What is this, English class? You know what I meant. His name is Huberman."
"I know what a rug is," she said, "whether it's got a name or not, and I never saw a good one. But what's an OTB face? Off the books? On the button?"
"Off-track betting," he said. "There's a look horseplayers get."
"A kind of woulda-coulda-shoulda look."
"That's the one."
While this one wasn't a collection of short stories like the first one, it still reads like a series of connected vignettes -- due to the pacing, I think that not everyone will take to it, but those of you who do will adore it.
1. Hit Man
Other Lawrence Block:
(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)
Book source: My local library.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
David Inside Out by Lee Bantle
"David Dahlgren, a high-school senior, finds solace in running with the track team; he’s a fast runner, and he enjoys the camaraderie. But team events become a source of tension when he develops a crush on one of his teammates, Sean. Scared to admit his feelings, David does everything he can to suppress them: he dates a girl, keeps his distance from his best friend who has become openly gay, and snaps a rubber band on his wrist every time he has “inappropriate” urges. Before long, Sean expresses the thoughts David has been trying to hide, and everything changes for the better. Or so it seems."- Summary from Amazon.com
I really enjoyed this novel. Bantle's debut YA is a refreshing look at a coming-out story and is realistic as well as honest in its portrayals of the struggles teens face with sexuality, coming out, and being themselves. The book is a quick read, and the characters are well-written and three-dimensional even in the short length of this novel. The prose is compelling and will leave readers thinking about friendship, sexuality, and acceptance. David's experiences about dealing with his sexuality differ vastly from my own, but I know his thoughts and concerns will resonate with those struggling to accept themselves and come out. It's not just a book for people struggling with their sexuality though; it can be for people whose friends are gay, or even for people struggling with being themselves in other ways aside from sexuality. Definitely a recommended book.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The cover of Sean Beaudoin’s Fade to Blue suggests it’s a book for Goth girls who are maybe into comics. This is misleading. Fade to Blue is a book partly about a Goth girl who is maybe into comics, but that's not the same thing at all. (See last months' mrchompchomp entry.)
So don't go browsing about the bookstore looking at the cover and thinking "this book is simply not intended for me where is the zombie section anyway?" Because you'll be missing out. First of all the Goth girl, Sophie Blue, is pretty cool. Funny, resourceful, a talented artist, wears fishnets and combat boots to gym class, tough, bitter and sarcastic but in a charming way. She's really not bad for a guy to hang out with for a good chunk of the story. Besides, this book is about much more than Sophie and her issues.
One of Sophie's major issues is that she keeps getting run over by an ice cream truck. Somehow it doesn't kill her. She'd think it was a dream, but it leaves some pretty nasty ice-cream-truck-grill shaped bruises. No one else can see the ice cream truck. But they can all see the bruises. It's a problem. Her father has vanished, possibly abducted, and that has something to do with the ice cream truck. There's a sexy nurse, too, who regularly shows up, also ice-cream-truck-related. And there are streams of ones and zeros that enter Sophie’s head. You can guess what they might be related to.
Ben Fade, super successful basketball star and school hero, is seeing ones and zeros as well. It's not making him feel too well.
Nearly everyone at Sophie and Ben's high school, from the hot girls mostly named Kirsty to the basketball playing thugs to the evil gym teacher to the evil janitor, keeps drinking a hip beverage called Sour White. So does everyone in town. Anyone not at the high school works at the town’s bio-pharmaceutical lab. Eventually, all of this comes together to help explain the disappearance of Sophie’s father. And the appearance of the evil ice cream truck.
I'm not sure how you would, but if you think you can see where all of this is headed, you're wrong. Fade to Blue starts throwing surprises at the first turn of the page, and doesn't let up until the end. Past the end, really, as the book laughs, literally, at the idea of closure (you can check it's appendix). And for all of its quirkiness, all of its satire, all of its over-the-top twists and turns, it doesn't shy away from real pain, and from the fact that people can do truly evil things, and how much it would suck if those people were related to you.
In short, Fade to Blue is a complete trip. It does cartwheels with reality and then back-flips. (Did I mention the cheerleaders?) It will make you question life and death and the difference between the two. (Did I mention the zombies?) It's written in fast-paced prose so packed with cultural references that Kant and boner–humor have no choice but to hang out in the same paragraph together. (Did I mention the inspirational posters?)
If you already know you like trippy books, dive in and enjoy the ride. If you want more stuff to mess with your mind, you can try one of these: Ubik, Philip K. Dick; V, Thomas Pynchon; Vurt, Jeff Noon; Girl in Landscape, Jonathan Lethem; Geek Love, Katherine Dunn; The Trial, Franz Kafka.
Reality bids you farewell.
Cross-posted at Critique de Mr Chompchomp
Monday, August 3, 2009
In earlier Guys Lit Wire reviews I praised Ekaterina Sedia's novels The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy of Stone. I've just tracked down her first novel, written as "E. Sedia," According to Crow. It's every bit as good as the other two, and completely different at the same time. It also makes it easier to see the recurring themes that make her novels so unique and powerful.
Josiah is seventeen and sticks out like a sore thumb. His mother is a village celebrity for her courageous act eighteen years earlier when she beheaded a conquering general; Josiah's appearance nine months later explained exactly how she got close enough to do it. Always an outcast due to his physical resemblance to their dark-skinned enemies, Josiah jumps at the chance to visit his late father's family on peaceful terms, under the protection of his monastic uncle Caleb. His fellow travelers are Mireille, Thuraya and young archivist Crow, a pre-industrial Johnny Mnemonic who memorizes vast stretches of history.
Josiah experiences every young man's fantasy on the journey: he falls in love with Mireille, the beautiful older woman who protects Crow, and has a wild fling with Thuraya, the young, free-loving priestess. Caleb becomes the father figure he never had, and Crow the little brother. But big events are on the horizon, forcing Josiah to make choices about duty, love, loss, family and his own place in the world.
The things Sedia does well in her other two books are especially evident here, where the story and societal background are more genre-traditional. Her dialogue is sharp and contemporary, but never to a distracting degree. Her characters are vivid and behave like real people. The book is told in first person, and she makes Josiah a strong narrator whose emotions easily become the reader's own.
What's different here is the degree of drama Josiah goes through on his journeys. Both Secret History and Alchemy built gradually and smoothly to powerful conclusions, but there are several climaxes in Josiah's story, which stick with the reader the same way they do Josiah. One passage especially will haunt me, I suspect, for quite some time. In a way it's a more "typical" fantasy book, at least in structure, and might be a more comfortable read for those who like their fantasy traditional.
Amazingly, this 2005 book is already out of print; I got mine from the local library. But I can't recommend it highly enough. If you enjoyed The Alchemy of Stone and The Secret History of Moscow, this is a remarkably different, but no less fascinating, aspect of her considerable talent.
According to me.
SPECIAL OFFER: Ms. Sedia has a few copies of According to Crow she's making available to Guys Lit Wire readers. E-mail her at email@example.com, mention this offer and get the hardcover (signed and personalized) for $20 including shipping.