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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Book Collections

I can sometimes be a little obsessive (who would have thought?). One of the ways this manifests itself is in completism. And since of all the areas of my life reading is the forefront, this completist attitude dictates a good bit of my reading and book buying. I cannot start a book without finishing. I cannot begin a series without finishing. I collect entire bodies of work by various authors or even imprints (Canongate Myths, anyone?). But my two favorite collections? Granta and the Modern Library.

 Granta is a literary magazine of “new writing” that has been published quarterly since 1979. I currently own 15 of the 123 issues. As a subscriber I receive the newest issue each quarter, but my favorite thing about this collection (besides reading them of course) is hunting down back issues. I haunt library sales and used bookstores and since my collection is still in the early stages and I have so few issues I usually find one or two I don’t have.

Modern Library is a publishing house begun in 1917 as a way to disseminate literature to the masses in attractive, cost effective hardcover books. I love the design of Modern Library books, especially those from the 1920s and 1930s. I have been collecting these guys for the last eight years and I’m closing in on 100 editions. This type of collection means defeat for me as a completist (there are thousands of Modern Library editions of classic and modern works) but in this instance I think I can take it. They make for a beautiful bookshelf.

As the book industry and the world continue to change, I can’t help but think about the book as a physical object. I have an ereader and I enjoy using it (especially my Kobo’s backlight – reading in the dark is my new favorite thing) but I still have a passion (some argue fetish) for the book as physical object. I like seeing these two collections on my shelves. A digital file will not remind me of the time John and I found a cache of Modern Library books at a tiny used bookstore in the middle of nowhere on our way home from a trip to North Carolina. I will never loan my Kobo to my sister as I emphatically proclaim “you just have to read this one story!” I don’t consider myself a materialist or a fetishist. However, I see books as a repository of ideas and I enjoy having the physical manifestations of those ideas in my space, creating my world both in my head and outside of it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Seeing Wicked, Doing Good: a Reaction

I’ve spent the last few weeks in a state of Ozmania. After listening to the soundtrack for years, I finally got to see a performance of the musical Wicked this May (two performances actually, you can’t see Wicked just once). Since then I have been enamored of all things Oz. I’d seen the film in the past, but it was never a favorite. I read and enjoyed Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. And above all I have listened to the original cast recording of Wicked countless times. However, none of this ever led me to any of Baum’s fourteen Oz books.

Wicked (both the novel and the musical it is based on) is the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
from the other side of the street. Maguire’s reimaging of the original Oz story is darker and much more adult than Baum’s classic. Wicked is the story of Elphaba, the daughter of the Munchkin mayor who is born mysteriously green. She has grown up as an outcast, too different and frightening to be accepted in society, making her a character that is quick to see the injustice in her world. The wizard of this story is not the kindly savior of Oz we have come to expect but a power mad tyrant piggybacking off of the talents of others. The good witch Glinda may be the character that has changed the least – I never trust goody-two-shoes characters and Maguire makes an excellent argument here for why it is best not to. The novel (and musical) is also peopled with a whole host of new characters from a love interest for the witches to a political ring of talking animals.

This is not your childhood version of Oz. Wicked is about the incomprehensible dichotomy of good and evil. Maguire, by creating a revisionist satire of a beloved children’s story, forces us to question our very morality. In all of our actions is it intentionality or results that matter? If I am wicked for the sake of a great cause am I truly Wicked? If my best intentions lead to grave results is it by mistake or design? The brilliance of the novel is in pitting often selfish actions of Glinda the Good against those of the crusader of justice Elfaba the Wicked. It the same old cliché, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

All of this grand satirizing and moral thinking had me finally looking back to Baum’s novels. I read a lot of literature aimed at children and much of it is written with a greater message. Kid’s lit is full of “teachable moments.” I decided that by only coming to Baum through Judy Garland I was missing out on some of his lessons. Finally I took the time to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I was so surprised.

The first thing I learned was that Baum himself did not intend to moralize. As Baum writes in his introduction, “the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” The greatest thing about this book is how fun it is. It is all absurdity and adventures and all around great fun. I regret that I haven’t been recommending it to kids for ages! But I will definitely start now. The overall theme of this book is simply to believe in yourself, which speaks so greatly to every imagining of the Oz story. From Dorothy to Elfaba, believing in yourself is a steadfast point toward doing Good.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Victoria Reviews: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Have you ever wondered what would happen if New Orleans were hit by a whirlwind of devastating hurricanes, leaving the city completely destroyed only to have a deadly, incurable disease spread its way through the delta? 

Me either.  At least not until I read Sherri L. Smith’s novel, Orleans.

Smith's novel is a fascinating dystopian tale of a future where the wreckage of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are ravaged by a deadly disease called the Delta Fever. The story takes place in the year 2056, years after New Orleans was destroyed by a barrage of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The last and most dangerous hurricane to strike was Hurricane Jesus, and the storm was so fierce that it actually exceeded the 1-5 hurricane categories and was labeled category 6. After the storms die down and the coast starts to rebuild, the devastating Delta Fever sweeps its way across the coast. The United States builds a wall to separate the diseased area and leaves the sick inhabitants to their fate.

Meanwhile, those left behind split into tribes based on blood type to survive. The novel focuses on the story of fifteen-year-old Fen, a girl living with a tribe of O-Positives who are less affected by the disease than many others. Their tribe is attacked one night, and Fen is left alone with the care of her tribe leader's newborn baby. Since the Fever will take seven days to get into a healthy baby's system, Fen decides to try to get the baby over the wall and to a better life. Along the way, she meets Daniel, a scientist from over the wall who has entered the Gulf in an attempt to find a cure for the Delta Fever. The two form an unlikely alliance as they help each other out and try to survive life in the harsh New Orleans wilderness.

This was a fascinating story. I've read my share of dystopian novels, but I think this is the first with a degenerate society with little order or authority. The story is told in two separate ways: some of it is from Fen's first person point of view, and other bits are from Daniel's third person limited point of view. At first, it was difficult to read Fen's voice, as it is written in her particular dialect (she "talks tribe" as she says). After the first few chapters, however, the flow of the language felt much more natural. Some might not be able to get past that, but I was, and the story was worth the effort.

Having lived my whole life in Louisiana and visited New Orleans on numerous occasions, reading this book was very exciting and rather strange at the same time.  Though the New Orleans Smith writes is nearly unrecognizable, there are several well-known landmarks we see throughout the novel.  It’s rather unsettling to read what became of the ruins of familiar and sometimes famous New Orleans landmarks like the Super Dome, the French Quarter, and other places that I have actually visited in real life.  It’s not often that I read a novel with a setting I’ve actually visited, much less when that setting is completely destroyed and reworked.  It offers a really interesting look at an alternate New Orleans and what could happen after one too many hurricanes.

Smith handles both suspense and action very well.  Fen and Daniel have to be constantly vigilant against attackers because the Gulf Coast has become such a dangerous place.  It’s almost ironic how dangerous Orleans is in the story when you juxtapose it with how dangerous the city is considered today.  Smith helps the reader feel the fear and adrenaline from constantly having to watch your back.  There’s a constant feeling that anything can happen at any time.  It’s animalistic, even.

The characters are nicely portrayed.  Fen’s personality comes across strongly right from the beginning.  She’s one who has had to take care of herself for a long time, and it’s obvious.  You feel like you really know her well by the end.  Daniel doesn’t come across as strongly as Fen, but he’s not meant to.  He’s the one the reader should be better able to identify with since he’s from the outside.  He hasn’t spent his whole life fighting against the New Orleans wilderness, and neither have we.  We’re experiencing it all for the first time along with him with Fen as our guide.

Overall, it’s an excellent book that those who enjoy action, adventure, and a character-driven story should really enjoy.  Especially if you’ve ever been to New Orleans.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Victoria: Spotlight on Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) is one of the most beloved children's authors of all time. He is the author of over 40 picture books throughout his career, with his two most popular books being Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat respectively.

Seuss began writing children's books in 1937 with And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, which went through many rejections before finally reaching publication. He published three more books, but interrupted the writing of his fifth picture book, McElligot’s Pool, in 1941 to begin writing political cartoons during World War II. By 1950, Seuss was back on the picture book track with the publication of If I Ran the Zoo. His distinction as a beloved children's author really began when Life magazine published an article in 1954 about why children were not reading. The article called the Dick and Jane children's books of the time "boring" and claimed that this was the reason that children were not learning to read. The director of publisher Houghtin Mifflin at the time - an old collegue of Seuss' - challenged Seuss to write an engaging, fun children's book comprised of no more than 225 different words.  From this list of words he was given, Seuss created the classic children's picture book The Cat in the Hat in 1957. The book was a raging success, and this inspired Seuss and his wife to start Beginner Books, a division of Random House that would publish books for early readers.
Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham in much the same way.  In 1960, a friend remarked that Seuss could not write a book with fewer than 50 words, and Green Eggs and Ham was born. Seuss continued to write Beginner Books, and even dipped his pen into the realm of political or moralistic children's tales. The Lorax, Yertle the Turtle, The Butter Battle Book, The Sneetches, and Horton Hears a Who! are several of Seuss' books that he used to teach important lessons to children about racism, freedom, environmentalism, and even the futility of the arms race. Seuss wanted to teach children without boring or preaching to them. He was quoted as saying, "I think I can communicate with kids because I don’t try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children’s books patronize the child and say there’s a difference between you and me, so you listen to this story. I, for some reason or another, don’t do that. I treat the child as an equal." 

Though he died in 1991, Seuss' books are still favorites with children and parents alike today. The rhythm, rhyme, and whimsical nonsense found in his books appeal to readers of every kind. Seuss' obvious influence on child literacy continues over two decades after his death, and it is seen most clearly in the National Education Association's event to promote children's literacy, Read Across America. The event is held yearly on March 2nd, Seuss' birthday, or "Dr. Seuss Day."


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