Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Dream of Perpetual Motion

From Goodreads
Doesn't this title just grab you? I remember when I came across it in the FirstReads list. I didn't even know what it was about but the title, the possibility in the title, made me notice it. Once I read it was a steampunk novel based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, I put my name in the hat and won!

Harold lives in an alternate world of mechanical men and infinite possibility thanks to the inventor Prospero Taligent, living in Taligent Tower in the center of Xeroville. At age 10, Harold encounters Prospero and his adopted daughter Miranda and sets himself on a path that will define the rest of his life and lead to his imprisonment on a zeppelin endless circling the earth, propelled by Prospero's last and greatest invention, the perpetual motion machine, a machine Harold knows is failing.  In his imprisonment, Harold tells his story with the help of Miranda, a disembodied voice coming from within the ship, recordings of the cryogenically frozen Prospero and the notebooks of the mad Caliban. The reader then follows the story up to the moment when we first met Harold, imprisoned by his own hand, completing a wish Prospero designed for him as a child.

If that sounds nutty, it is. This story is very non-linear and confusing at times. The mixed voices though keep a reader on her toes and even after I had figured out where the story was heading, it was the way the author decided to tell me the story that kept me reading. The characters are mostly unlikable. Harold is weak and unheroic, taking the easy way out always. Miranda is confused and cruel. Her life in the dark tower has made her incapable of understanding herself. Prospero is insanely sane and Caliban remains a product of his creator, brilliant but vicious. And yet, I still found myself wishing against their characters that these people would somehow escape the paths laid for them. There are moments when the characters themselves realize if they just took a different direction at that very moment, they might have a chance but they never do. Usually that would drive me mad as a reader but the world these characters inhabit seem to call for this sort of terminal weakness. Their world, as fantastic and wonderful as it is, is cruel and unforgiving. The Age of the Machine required that they kill the Age of Miracles to reach it and therefore cannot be a kind master to the humans who willingly walked away from believing in the unbelievable. 

Steampunk is fun just because it requires you to check history and fact completely at the door. To believe that a Victorian era could have mechanical men and flying cars requires a reader to dig into the alternate world, to understand its different sense of humanity and I think that is what Dream of Perpetual Motion does wonderfully. It does create a completely different humanity value and I think that is what lets me enjoy it even when the characters are acting in the exact opposite that I would usually like. They are heroes in their own world; or the best version of a hero that world could create. It was a great book to ponder as I read and something wholly different for me that turned out to be a lot of fun to read.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tenacious things, trees are

When I was a kid, there was a forest behind my house. It led all the way back to the road beyond the field, far off from the end of my dead end road. During my sophomore year of college, they chopped it all down and preceded to build McMansions in the empty lot. I cried. It wasn't just that they chopped down trees. They'd chopped down where I'd played as a kid, paths I'd traipsed with my dog, a log I liked to sit on and read near a small stream. Those were my woods, my trees, my flowers and some one came along and built monstrosities no one can afford there. I didn't open my curtains for three years. Want to know why I finally opened them? The trees were starting to come back. At least the smaller shrub like ones that bordered our yard with the woods. The wildflowers had long ago reclaimed the small hill, reminding me of the early summers where sweet peas went as far as the eye could see. I figured I would meet Mother Nature halfway and realize it would take her a lot longer to give me the towering giants of my childhood and enjoy the little she'd been able to regrow in a short time. The point is, my childhood was measured in trees, much like Francie's was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Only her tree was growing out of the concrete and refuse of the poor neighborhoods and it was if anything, much more stubborn than my trees just managing to regain a foothold next to my home. 

While this is yet another book I should have read long before now, and if I ever have a daughter her reading list is growing by the second, I am also glad I found Francie now for the end of her story. As a kid I would not have appreciated the ending of Francie's narrative. I would have been looking for her happy ending, the comforting ending that would assure me that all would be well for me some day. We aren't so sure of that as Francie's story draws to a close. She is finally heading off to college (go UM!) but she's lost who she thought was the love of her life. She's gained a man as a dad who could take care of her mother and baby sister but still grieved for her handsome papa who slowly drank himself to death. She was smart but scared, determined but still longing for something she could never have. She was every twenty-something in the middle of their quarter life crisis even if she is only seventeen as the book ends. I was glad to find Francie now because her struggles remind me of myself as I still fight to adjust to this adult life I have now. Francie's nostalgia for her childhood, for the days when she knew what to expect and what was expected of her hit a chord with me. I often do that still, wishing against hope that I could go back to those comfortable, carefree summer days in the woods they cut down.

From The Heroine's Bookshelf
Another reason the story resonates with me is it is a story of a family of women. Strong-willed, smart, determined women who often realize their men are more of an accessory than a necessity. Reminded me of a paper I wrote once about Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Alcott's Work where the men become the obstacle, not the goal of the female characters. Francie's mother is pure strength but she doesn't understand her eldest daughter. They are too much alike, cut from the same cloth with fatal differences than mean they can never be close. Her papa had been the dreamer, the man who got Francie and once he was gone, she was on her own. Yet, with her mother, her aunts and her grandmother's example, she keeps going and when she loses the man she loves (in a really unrealistic quick moment in the book that rang false to me in a book that was brilliantly written otherwise), her mother truthfully tells her that she'll love again but she'll never forget him. The women in this family love and lose children, husbands, homes and yet nothing destroys them. The tree growing against all the odds in the hostile environment of Brooklyn, the tree Francie safely sits under to read as a child is her family of women, shielding her until the tree has to be cut down and grow out of the ashes on her own, elsewhere, where it can someday protect her children.

So to recap, a coming of age story with a brilliant female protagonist surrounded by inspiring, if somewhat unorthodox, women who uses her brains to raise above her upbringing to head west to go to university and the sky is the about a book made for me. Seriously though, this is a book a person can read at different times in their life and always find the advice they are looking for, always with the idea that the tree growing against all odds, even when it's burned down, will always find a way to start over again.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Boys will be boys

I almost didn’t finish William Golding's Lord of the Flies. After 60 pages, it put me to sleep for a good two hours last weekend so I was hesitant to pick it back up but I had to reach my 100-page limit before I could call it. So I picked it up again Monday night and somehow, it managed to capture my attention enough to help me finish it. I didn’t care for it all that much but then again I am not a fourteen year old boy. 

I am not one for survival stories either so a book with all male protagonists on an island trying to survive was pretty much everything Krystal is bound to not care about in a story. While I appreciated what Golding was trying to convey in his characterizations and plot, I can’t say I cared much either way who lived or who died. Also, I thought the ending was a bit, I don’t know, odd. Though can you imagine the therapy bills for those boys once they got to civilization?

From Lostpedia
A few scenes however made me stop and think for a moment. The character of Roger especially caught my eye as he’s on the periphery of the story except for two all-important moments. In the first scene, he is throwing stones at one of the younger boys but all the stones miss their mark, as if he is afraid of throwing them directly at the child for fear of punishment. Golding notes the chains of society, still clinging to him, stopped his aim for hitting the child directly. Fast forward to the climax of the story and Roger is one of the most bloodthirsty boys on the island, Jack’s right hand man who terrifies the twins into disclosing Ralph’s location. I thought his particular storyline crystalized the rest of the boys’ evolution as they all went to the extreme in some degree or another. My logical brain though just can’t quite see how a boy comes to the conclusions Jack makes in this storyline. I guess that would explain my affinity for poor Piggy. And why I spent the whole book thinking, “If this had been girls, we wouldn’t have this problem.” So, I got to feel superior. Bonus!

This book ended up on my “books I should have read by now” list because I remember the Regents English classes reading it in high school and wondering what it was about. Why I didn’t read it back then, who knows, I imagine I was too busy trying to keep up with the reading for my own English class. I can see the teachability of the novel and how it would make excellent discussion fodder in a high school English class but still, I would have been unamused even as a high schooler to find that book assigned reading. I just failed to connect to it in a way that made it relevant to myself. Perhaps I was just too old to understand the instincts of kids left on their own.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Romeo, Romeo...oh you know the rest

From Elle (great Q&A with author!)
So, don't strike me down with lightning or anything but I've never been a big fan of Romeo and Juliet. I thought Romeo was a bit of a wimp and Juliet just seemed to cry her way through the play. This was a revelation to me when I read it the first time. I was a hopeless romantic, adored every love story I read but come to my first Shakespeare and I just didn't get it. I have since learned I'm more of a Beatrice kind of girl than a Juliet and that is infinitely cooler but back in 8th grade, I was seriously concerned about myself. The greatest love story of all time and I didn't like it?! Luckily we read A Midsummer Night's Dream in 9th grade and my love of Shakespeare was born but still, I've always wanted to love Romeo and Juliet more than I do.

So when a friend pointed out Anne Fortier's novel Juliet to me last year I thought maybe this was my chance, maybe someone would finally make me love this play. I'm not sure the book deserves that much praise but I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who would enjoy taking history and fiction and melding it into a romantic adventure in modern-day Siena.

Julie Jacobs has never belonged. She's never really tried, knowing whatever she expressed interest in, her twin sister Janice would mock into oblivion. So she's skated along in life, forever the outsider with a protester's past and a blank future. Then her Aunt Rose dies and sets Julie off in an adventure in her native Siena where her long-dead mother once almost solved the great mystery of the real Romeo and Juliet and was trying to lift the curse on the houses when she died. Julie, always wanting to know where she belongs jumps into the mystery, not understanding she just embarked on the most dangerous adventure of her life.

Reading this right after People of the Book was a risk; both books have a similar format where you follow a modern day character unraveling the mystery the reader also sees unfold in historical chapters. What I think helps Juliet is the modern-day tale is always the focus of the book; the historically based chapters never take over the narrative completely and in fact fall off later in the story. Fortier also changes how she tells the history; some chapters are from the characters' points of view, others are chapters told as if they were bedtime stories to the modern day heroine. This change in format makes all the difference to me as it kept me on my toes as a reader and meant the story was not always going to be predictable.

Another major difference, and where Fortier almost succeeds in winning me over to the Romeo and Juliet bandwagon, is she fleshes out their characters brilliantly. You don't necessarily always like them but they are always interesting and fun to read about. Her characterization of the original Juliet alone made me want to hug her. Here was a girl who wanted revenge, who was filled with anger and hate and who did not fall in love with Romeo without asking a price from him. I'm not sure how she did it but her Romeo and Juliet were equals, both passionate and fierce. They were fighters originally, browbeaten into submission and death by the society they found themselves in. Miscommunication plays a part but it is not what leads to their deaths ultimately. I liked that; I always despised that part of the plot in the play. It seemed too easy an ending.  

The modern-day Julie is more complicated; a woman who has spent her whole life trying to be opposite of her sister, trying to fade into the woodwork. She loves dead and fictional men because they cannot hurt her (word on that sister - my ideals are often fictional or dead). When she dares to go on her big adventure, she is unsure and scared but she also has a will to fight and to follow her instincts. In fact, it is when Julie doesn't follow her heart that she gets into trouble. She is in turn likable and yet pathetic. You want to hug her and say "you go girl" and then the next minute you're smacking the page going "really hon? really?" which is a realistic character when you think about it. One thing you do want is a happy ending for her and Shakespeare does his best to thwart her throughout the narrative.

Once I started reading this book, I had a hard time putting it down. The action is fast paced and entertaining. In a sense, it's a very cinematic book in that I had an easy time of it imagine how scenes played out and what sort of music might work best in the background. Fortier's descriptions of Siena and its surrounding countryside show a woman who knows her landscape and loves it. She understand a balance between telling a story to the reader and letting a reader unfold it as she goes. Not always the easiest balance to strike but she did well here. Heck, she almost made me want to read Romeo and Juliet again and that is saying something.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

People of the Book

From The Baltimore Sun
When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I worked at their digital conversion unit. Between the many pages I quality checked for the Google Book Project and the Cohen AIDS archive, I also spent hours numbering Islamic manuscripts for digitization. These are the most beautiful books I have ever worked with; the script was like art itself but the borders were the true works of art and the occasional picture, gilded with gold was truly spectacular to see. Most were not decorated, in fact as I recall, many were math texts but there were a few that were so beautiful they could take your breath away.

Geraldine Brooks' novel, People of the Book, tells the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book used at Passover. This is a real book with its own storied history but Brooks takes the book and creates a (highly) fictionalized history of it, following the book from the days of the Spanish Inquisition to the Venice of Carnivale to the mountains of Bosnia as the conservator working on the book follows the few clues these places have left behind on its pages and binding: missing clasps, wine stains, a grain of sea salt. As a reader, we of course always know more than the conservator in the book. She cannot know the whole story as Brooks presents it to the reader, she'll never know the names or reasons behind her clues but we do in the end and she at least has parts of the story.

The premise for the book is fascinating, telling the history of a book through the people who have owned it, protected it, and even tried to destroy it. The story was so much stronger in the historical chapters that I skimmed most of the modern shell story. The conservator, Hanna, is distant, abrasive and unlikable. She is easy to skim past to get to the next chapter in the haggadah's history. I particualrly liked the last story of the book, where its famous illumination drawings came from and how they ended up in a Jewish prayer book.

Also, the book celebrates the many ways in which the stories of Christians, Jews and Muslims cross paths over time. It shows a world were these cultures once lived in harmony and then uneasy peace and then in all out war. However, Brooks' idea of the book's story, that it was illustrated by a Muslim woman in the house of a Jewish doctor, scripted by a Spanish Jew on the eve of the expulsion, saved by an alcoholic Jewish-born Catholic priest in Venice, rebound in Vienna and then somehow survives World War II in the mountains of Bosnia before rescue again as war broke out in Sarajevo, is the story of all three cultures as they struggled to keep up with the world around them, to adjust or fight back as needed against forces out of their control. The strength of one book to bring together all these cultures was impressive to see and realize that beneath all the fiction, the truth of the book's story was just as unbelievable and miraculous.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Anchors Aweigh indeed

From Wikipedia
Many years back, I remember my dad hollering from the family room. I was engrossed in some book or other but must have wanted a break because I wandered out. Dad looked up and said that Singin' in the Rain was coming onto TCM in a moment and he'd thought I'd like it. I'd only been tapping for a year but I'd been in some form of dance since second grade and Dad often called me down when musicals were coming onto one of the movie channels. He thought Gene Kelly would impress me. Impress me might be a bit of an understatement. All these years later, Singin' in the Rain remains one of my all-time favorite movies and I still marvel at the talented duo of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor every time I watch it on my beat up old DVD.

Sadly though, I've never watched many of Kelly's other films. I blame An American in Paris. I watched it right after Singin' and was primed to be in love with it but just didn't like it as much. I didn't like the lead actress and the ballet at the end seemed excessive and over long. True, there are many unnecessary dance sequences in Singin' (a trait I realize Kelly musicals just seem to have) but they always held my attention. An American in Paris just kind of bored me.

Because of that, I never got around to Kelly's other films really. At least ones he starred in. Hello, Dolly remains one of my favorite movies as well and his choreography is a major part of my love (Imagine my squeals the first time I saw the Wall-E trailer. They were fan-girlish). But his other major musicals? Never got around to them.

So a few weeks back, I was watching Singin' for the first time in a long time and thought maybe it was time to try out a new Kelly picture. Anchors Aweigh is the other seminal one that came to mind so I added it to my Netflix list, moved it up towards the top and then promptly forgot about it. In the middle of a Doctor Who craze, Anchors Aweigh showed up in my mailbox. In mourning for one companion and not ready to start the next season to get used to a new one, I thought it might be a good time to finally sit down and watch.

In many ways, it's not so different from Singin' in the Rain. A man about town and his sidekick in Hollywood get tangled up with an aspiring actress and hi-jinks follow. Include several unnecessary dance sequences and a few more songs then really fit the plot and there you go. I enjoyed the film overall; the dancing was superb and the dance sequence with Jerry that is so famous did not disappoint (Seriously though, Disney made a miscalculation there - Mickey would have made a much better dance partner). I particularly found the use of children in the film to be fun and interesting. The dance scene with Kelly and the young girl in front of the Mexican restaurant was one of my favorite scenes of the whole film, perhaps one of my favorite Kelly dances ever. However, I found Frank Sinatra a lackluster partner for Kelly. I missed the comic character and superior dancing of Donald O'Connor who made a much better foil for Kelly. Sinatra seemed to just be there to look handsome and croon some love songs.

Also, I found Kathryn Grayson to be rather dull and couldn't quite figure out why everyone loved her character so much. I like a more spunky heroine and she was just sort of pretty to look at with a great voice. But then again, that is really all the character called for so I guess I should blame the writers more than the actress. The film is entertaining but it wasn't fun if that makes any sense. I never laughed with glee at any line or moment or felt a real connection with any of the characters.

So apparently Singin' in the Rain will remain my favorite Kelly musical, and my favorite movie musical period. Nothing wrong with that at all.