27 February 2013

Book Review: Z, a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

I have no idea how real or imagined this novel of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is, but I found it better written and more entertaining than the other two wife-of-a-more-famous-man novels I've read in the last couple of year: The Paris Wife and The Aviator's Wife, not to mention the terrible novel I just couldn't get through, Hemingway's Girl.

Zelda was already a woman determined to cause scandal when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald just shy of her eighteenth birthday in Montgomery, Alabama. Zelda Sayre was from one of the town's first families, full of high spirits and hijinks, drawing attention wherever she went, with only her father's position as judge protecting her reputation from getting seriously marred.  I loved these early chapters--partly because they're set in the South and I had no idea Zelda was Southern and partly because it's heartbreaking  later in her life when she becomes invisible to the man who published his first novel just to prove his worth to her.

Life together is good at first, even exhilarating. Zelda and Scott take New York by storm, becoming the "it' couple, but little does Zelda know that they're living well beyond their means, borrowing money at every turn against expected sales of Scott's writing. Thus they move to Paris to live more cheaply (oh, that we might do that today!), they have a daughter, and generally meet all of the hip Left Bankers.  Those two crazy kids (emphasis on crazy) probably would have muddled along all right, had it not been for one man whom, as a writer, I have very little use for, and as a human being, none at all: Ernest Hemingway.

Scott becomes utterly enthralled to Hemingway and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Neither, apparently, could Zelda, but that friendship led to dissolution of all kinds.

You know, I understood it better back when William Wordsworth lifted whole passages from his sister Dorothy's journal and claimed them as his own work--I didn't like it, but I understood it for the time.  But F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same to his wife in the 1920s and 1930s, which means I know exactly what that initial "F' stands for, and it ain't Francis, if you know what I mean.

It's Fuckhead.  Or Fuckwad.  (I wanted to make sure you knew exactly what I mean).

Not only that, but Scott claimed authorship of at least one published short story and one essay that were solely Zelda's work. The novel claims more than those two instances, but my independent research [read: Wikipedia] corroborates at least these, and later when Zelda was locked up in the loony bin sanitorium, she produced a novel in a little over one month.  For comparison's sake, Scott had been working on The Beautiful and the Damned for about six years, and it was only after changing one of the characters and creating her dialogue largely from Zelda's letters that he was able to get that published. He insisted on having editorial say over Zelda's novel (which had already been accepted by Scribner's) before it was published, eliminating any parts that might reflect badly on him. Which is to say, most of them, as Zelda's novel, like Scott's previous ones, was autobiographical in many ways.

I wasn't cursing Scott for being an asshole the same way I did when cursing Hemingway whilst reading The Paris Wife, but in a different way. While this novel paints Zelda (and quite rightly as it's her book) as a brilliant, misguided, but sympathetic woman, reading between the lines made me feel sympathy for Scott, too.  They were children who never grew up, both eager to prove themselves beyond the conventions of their time, both with a touch of mental instability, both lending their trust to people undeserving of it. Both bright and burning with talent but living in a time where the wife's successes had to take a backseat to the husband's. Both living lives cut short, their collaboration bookended by the two wars.

I wasn't aware of loving this book while I was reading it, but I've thought of little else since I put it down a couple of days ago. I even talked on and on about the book and the Fitzgeralds to my husband last night at dinner, and I'm still very curious to know more about both Zelda and Scott.  If that's one of the points of fiction, to linger in the mind of the reader, prompting action of some sort, then Therese Anne Fowler's novel is a successful one.

NB: This book will be published in April 2013 by St. Martin's.  I read an advance reading copy provided to me by my sales rep upon my request.

20 February 2013

Everything's Up To Date in Kansas City!

They've gone about as far as they can go. Or so I hear.  I'm going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come, and while I admit that I wasn't originally very excited about Winter Institute's location this year, I've come full circle on that point.  I'm now tremenjusly excited, as Diana from Anne of Green Gables once said. I've recently learned that there's an excellent art museum in town, not to mention our country's premier music performance space. Who knew?  Well, apparently Rodgers and Hammerstein knew, or at least were prescient about such matters many decades ahead of their time.  From what I can tell, Kansas City is kinda the shiz, but apparently a well-kept secret among the more myopic denizens of my country, of which I included myself up until a few weeks ago.I try to guard against that sort bias, hailing as I do from a part of the country that is oft maligned by other people.

So, Winter Institute.  It's a pretty amazing time.  Five hundred independent booksellers from all over the US get together to drink, gossip, and generally talk about books in an appreciative manner. Have I mentioned recently how much I love my job? (In fact, I did. Just last week.) Well, being able to attend conventions like Winter Institute ranks up there pretty high for reasons why I love my job.

In addition to getting to explore a new and interesting city, I'll get to meet with bookseller friends whom I only see once a year (or so) at these get-togethers.  I'll meet tons of authors and gets tons of free books signed.  I'll take notes and learn stuff.  And I'll make heroic efforts to get up in time for the breakfast sessions each morning, even if it means propping my eyes open with sawed-off toothpicks. Because in all likelihood, I will be behaving like a bookseller. I'm generally tame in comparison to the booksellers I grew up with (Lemurians, I'm looking at y'all), so I've been trying to build up some drinking endurance by drinking a little more each night with dinner this past week.  Which essentially means up I'm to three glasses of wine. Yes, I know.  Wild child am I.

This year I'm excited to be included for two author/publisher dinners: one on Saturday night with FSG/Bloomsbury and one on Sunday night with Algonquin/Houghton Mifflin.  I've never been invited to an FSG/Bloomsbury event, so I'm greatly anticipating that.  But last year's Algonquin bash was the talk of the town and I can't wait for this year's.  Books, blues brews, & bbq should sum it up. 

15 February 2013

Harry Potter and Prisoner of AWESOME: Blog--a-long

In honor of yesterday
It's part two of the Prisoner of Awesome Azkaban readalong, sponsored by Alice at Reading Rambo, and that means that the series is starting to hit its stride. PoA has long been my favorite book in the series, at least in memory, but participating in this readalong has already altered my perception of the books and characters, so it will be interesting for me to see if it will continue to be my favorite throughout the series. It is still my favorite of the books so far, by a factor of roughly one gazillion, but we shall see. Namely, I love this book for the tightness of the plotting, the introduction of many interesting secondary characters, the groundwork-laying of important subplots, and the fact that Hermione gets to be a badass in the end. Oddly enough, I rushed through the end of this book and didn't make as many notes as I usually do.

Chapter Twelve The Patronus ends with a bang, and I'm pleased that it provides me with my favorite gif ever.

Chapter Thirteen: Gryffindor vs. Ravenclaw.  More quidditch. Yawn. I like watching quidditch in the films, but reading about it doesn't do much for me. Except I think the word "quidditch" is an excellent word, and except for the time when Luna is commentator, but that's not for two more books yet.

p. 264: the twins sneak off to Hogsmeade and return with piles of sweets for the party. Do you reckon it's bought or stolen from basement of Honeyduke's? As much as I'd like to think they bought it, I think it's unlikely. Exhibit A: no money for treating an entire house. Exhibit B: Wouldn't the proprietors of Honeyduke's be likely to report back to the school if a student were in the shop outside of a Hogsmeade weekend? You know, with Sirius Black on the loose and all?

Chapter Fourteen: Snape's Grudge. p. 270. Wait, they have trolls hired to guard the Fat Lady?  What the what? Beyond the matter of their "comparing the size of their clubs," which makes me smirk, what makes these trolls different from the "OMG, troll in the dungeon, everybody head to your common room" panic from book one?

p. 274. See, here's some language play I like: "'Because her cat acted like all cats do,' Hagrid continued doggedly." and then later on the same page, Hagrid whomps those two schoolboys with some Hard Truth: "But I gotta tell yeh. I thought you two'd value yer friend more'n broomsticks or rats. That's all."

That's right. Hermione's been running attending more classes than either Harry or Ron, and she still made time to help Hagrid with his court case.

p. 283. I love this bit from Snape, too: "'What would your head have been doing in Hogsmeade, Potter?' Snape said softly. 'Your head is not allowed in Hogsmeade. No part of your body has permission to be in Hogsmeade.'"

Chapter Nineteen: The Servant of Lord Voldemort. Oh, I get plenty emotional reading this chapter.  If I had been born a man in any century but this one, I would have been among the first to enlist for any war if the cause were just.  I'm embarrassingly manipulated moved by lines like this one on p. 375: "'What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?'  asked Black with a terribly [sic] fury in his face. 'Only innocent lives, Peter!'"

Chapter Twenty-One: Hermione's Secret. Now, I'm clearly the biggest Snape apologist in this readalong, but even I have to say that it stretches the limits of my credulity that 15 (or so) years later, he remembers precisely which knot on the Whomping Willow to prod in order to crawl in safely. The tree itself would have grown and changed in that time, too.  I know Snape is brilliant, but that might be going too far.

Later in the same chapter, I think it's important to note that Snape, despite his hatred and belief that Sirius is a cold-blood killer, still treats Black more kindly than Black treated him. He conjures up a stretcher for Harry, Hermione and Sirius after they've fainted from the Dementors, whereas Sirius just used mobilicorpus on Snape and allowed his head to be bumped all along the passageway between the Shrieking Shack and the Whomping Willow.

Snape is awesome and basically the best character ever. He's brilliant and complicated and deeply unpleasant and wounded and lonely and loyal and brave. Therefore he deserves as many gifs as I can gif him.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Owl Post Again. When Dumbledore explains to Harry that Pettigrew now owes him a life debt--I had so much fun imagining how that would play out at the end of the series. Frankly, I think my version would have tied multiple plot lines together and come full circle better than the one JKR chose: that Pettigrew, using his new silver arm courtesy of GoF, would protect Harry against Fenrir in some version of the final battle.

All in all, a very satisfying conclusion to the series and a wonderful lead in to the next book. Almost perfect. Assuming, of course, that you are able to swallow the whole time travel issue with all of its paradoxes, which I confess is sometimes a bit of a challenge.

12 February 2013

Book (P)Review: Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Have I mentioned recently how much I love my job?  No? Let me be clear: I do. Not least because occasionally I am able to make the long trek from where I live to Boston to have dinner with authors, publishers, and other booksellers. Last week the unpredictable New England winter weather cooperated and so I made my way to The Met Bar & Grill in Boston's Back Bay, courtesy of Little, Brown, to meet Peggy Riley, author of Amity and Sorrow.

When I read this book last month preparatory to meeting the author, I wasn't sure what to make of it at first.  It's the story of a mother named Amaranth who makes a desperate and reckless escape from a polygamous cult, fleeing with her two daughters across state lines, believing that the madman of her husband will pursue them at any cost. She may have been willing for him to take on all of his other wives after marrying her, but she'll be damned if he'll let him take one of their daughters as his next one, and so amidst the confusion of a police raid and the conflagration of their homemade temple, they escape in the night. Thus the book gets off to a start that is rife with sensationalism and it's as difficult for the reader to turn away from it as from a traffic accident.

Her daughters, named Amity and Sorrow, have never known anything outside their narrowly circumscribed life, but while Amity's youth and inherent sweetness might preserve her sanity and enable her to start a new life, Sorrow has no such refuge. She is very much her father's daughter, believing that she is the bringer of signs and the bearer of the new messiah, and she is so deeply imbalanced that in her quest to be reunited with her father her actions become as brutal as they are unpredictable.

In the meantime, Amaranth is pretty close to being useless as a parent, immobilized as much from the guilt she feels about raising her children in such a way as from being completely unaware of how to live in the modern world, one where women are allowed to talk with men who aren't their husbands, and where literacy in girls is required, not forbidden. She doesn't know whom to trust, she constantly fears that her husband is just one step behind her, and her uneasy alliance with the local farmer who allows them to live on his property in exchange for work only serves to confuse her.

The book is pretty easy to race through (after all, it ticks SO MANY of the boxes: cults, rape, incest, wild pursuits, madness, torture, brainwashing) but it was only when I got to the end of the book and could see Sorrow's insanity laid bare that led me to a better understanding of the novel and the women in it.  Well, that and being able to hear the author talk about the psychology of cults and how otherwise bright, "normal" women can be lured into situations like Amaranth was, with the promise of family and always having someone to belong to.

I suspect that this book will be making a big splash when it's published in April.

photo of me with Peggy Riley. Sorry for the bad lighting!

08 February 2013

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Rock On

Oh, PoA, how long I've awaited thee.  Slugging through the first two books of the series to get to you. Only to discover that you, too, are slower than what I remember. Join me as I hash and rehash pointless bits of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in order to earn house point for Slytherin in the Harry Potter Readalong, sponsored by Alice at Reading Rambo. Maybe we can agree at this point that all of the books end with a bang, but they mostly are a slower build (with the exception of DH, which starts with bang but then you have to wade through hundreds of pages of pointless camping).

Also, I think this book should have been broken up into three parts--it's a little too chunky for two and not quite chunky enough for an entire month.

Chapter One, page 2. Burning witches & wizards at the stake: but what happened when magical folk were caught without their wand? Surely many were actually burned instead of just tickled.  And what about the muggles who preferred to drown witches?  I'm pretty sure that they didn't all have a pocketful of gillyweed handy.  What about all of the underage magical kids? Children as young as 7 or 8 could be tried and killed as a witch back in the day. So I'm not sure that Bathilda Bagshot was writing a particularly accurate history. (I've been thinking about this ever since reading a fanfiction that prompted these questions--I didn't come to these conclusions on my own.)

Chapter 1, p. 5. Straight up inquiry, no snark: do most British schools not let out for summer holiday until the start of the 4th week in June? Because it's Harry's birthday (July 31) when the book opens and he says that it's been five long weeks since the end of term.  If that's the case, then Brits have a much shorter summer break than I thought.

Chapter 1, p. 11. Hermione's letter, which informs Harry that Hedwig showed up in time to get a present to Harry for his birthday.  Made my heart swell a little bit. I'd forgotten that detail.  Makes that early moment in DH (you know what I mean) all the more poignant.

Chapter 3: The whole Knight Bus thing. The more I think about it, the more I think this is just one big inexcusable deus ex machina. Even within the wizarding world it doesn't make sense. First of all, how can muggle trees and houses and things just move out of the way when it comes through?  It would be far more believable if the Knight Bus itself just split into pieces to go around otherwise immoveable objects. And why does it take forever to actually travel anywhere on the Knight Bus if, the moment a magical person raises their wand arm, the Knight Bus appears immediately--why can't it just appear that quickly at the person's destination, too?  And why doesn't it show up when people are casting magic by raising their wand arms--how can it tell the difference between a wand arm trying to flag a ride and a wand arm trying to cast magic? I'm sorry, I'm just not buying it.

Same chapter but later, when Harry and Fudge are talking: Harry's worried about getting expelled for blowing up his aunt and Fudge assures him that they don't send people to Azkaban just for accidental magic.  Okay, that's good.  But in the wizarding world, is there no level of punishment between getting sent to prison and...nothing?

Chapter Four: The Leaky Cauldron.  Curious thing that Harry overhears Arthur and Molly talking about: "I don't think anything could hurt Harry at Hogwarts while Dumbledore's headmaster." Did Molly just happen to forget that Ron was grievously hurt in an animated chess match a little over a year ago and that her daughter almost died a few months ago, all while under Dumbledore's watch?  I get that they trust Dumbledore, but that seems a little extreme to me.

Chapter Five: The Dementor. I'd love to know if Lupin is recovering from a full moon change here and that's why he's sleeping so soundly on the train, or if he's merely pretending to sleep on the way to Hogwarts.

Also, he's never taught before, so why should the letters stamped into his "small, battered case" be peeling already.  Sure, most of stuff should be shabby and threadbare. But he just got this teaching gig, so if "Professor R J Lupin" is stamped on his bag, then the letters shouldn't be peeling already. Dear me, what are they paying copy and line editors for these days?

Later in the same chapter: it makes no logical sense to me that Harry faints in the presence of the Dementors and Ginny does not.  Harry saw his parents killed when he was one year old; Ginny almost killed many of her schoolmates and almost died, all whilst being possessed by the spirit of an evil wizard, but she huddles in a corner and lets out a sob.  I dunno, but it seems to me that either JKR got things a little mixed up here, or Ginny is one serious BAMF and made of sterner stuff than anybody else in the series. I present these as evidence:

Later in the same chapter: "The golden plates and goblets filled suddenly with food and drink. Harry, suddenly ravenous, helped himself..." It's too bad there aren't any words or phrases in the English language that could have replaced "suddenly" in one of those sentences.  Oh, wait, there are about a dozen of them. Never mind.

Chapter Six: Talons and Tea Leaves. I generally like Hagrid (I don't love him, but I'm not one of those readers who has no use for him, either), but I really cannot condone his appointment as teacher. Not without some pedagogical training at least.  Starting 13-year-olds with powerful and dangerous creatures?  Not making sure that the class was paying attention to his instructions before sending them into the arena where the outcome could be mauling or death?  I'm sorry, but that's just terrible. I wouldn't want to take classes from Hagrid (unless it were a directed study, one-on-one) and I sure as hell wouldn't want children in my care to be taking classes, either. I don't agree with Draco's attitude here, but I sure agree when he says his father will have a fit when he hears about Hagrid.

Same chapter: do you reckon that Hippogriffs can understand insults in any language, or just English? Or maybe they just understand human tone and can interpret when they're being insulted?  I dunno, but this seems a little odd to me.

Okay, couldn't find any "bad teacher" gifs that didn't involve Cameron Diaz or naughtiness, but I ran across this and thought, what the hell?  It might make Alice laugh, and that's worth something:

Chapter Seven: The Boggart.  Okay, I cheerfully admit it.  I like this chapter.  I love Snape as a character but I don't love the way he bullies children and cultivates their fear of him, so I think it's a great come-uppance.

Chapter Eight: Flight of the Fat Lady. I used to think that JKR meant something when she used surnames vs given names vs full names in the text.  Now I am not so sure.  How many characters named Pansy or George are flitting about the books?  Why would she feel she needs to name their full name, then?  And with George it's not constant.  It's like duck, duck, goose, the way JKR names him in the text, but instead it's George, George, George Weasley.

Later in the same chapter: Harry and Lupin have their first one on one moment, and I love it. I don't love the Marauders, and I don't always respect Lupin in the later books, but in this book I love him. Perhaps not least because he seems to be the only Gryffindor (besides, perhaps, McGonagall) who respects Snape and doesn't show anti-Slytherin bias.

Chapter Nine: Grim Defeat.  Okay, I should probably admit here that if I weren't participating in this readalong I'd probably be less critical.  But then I run across something like this, where the students are debating how Sirius Black broke into Hogwarts and I just laugh: "'Maybe he knows how to Apparate,' said a Ravenclaw." I can easily forgive a student, even a Ravenclaw, for not reading Howarts: A History and therefore not knowing that you cannot Apparate into Hogwarts.  No, my criticism lies elsewhere for that comment.  One of the brightest students at Hogwarts suggests that being able to apparate is something special, as if nearly everybody over the age of 17 couldn't do it.  It would be like a muggle student saying, "maybe he knows how to drive" when it's the opposite that should be noteworthy.

Chapter Ten: The Marauders' Map. That is one nifty piece of magic, I have to say, and quite clever of those four boys to create it.  And not significantly less clever for Fred & George to figure out how to work that map, though I don't believe for a moment that the twins would have given it to Harry for keeps.

Further exasperation: I get that Harry needs his info-dump to learn about Sirius Black, but if, in Fudge's own words, that "not many people are aware" of what he's about to say, why is he gossiping about it in a crowded bar, to a bartender, and why doesn't McGonagall know the whole story when Draco Malfoy does? I would have much preferred for Dumbledore to have taken Harry aside and shared this information with him than to put it out there in that way.

Argh, must finish soon.  I only had read through chapter 8 by the time I woke up this morning. I'm reading & blogging, blogging & reading.

What else?  Trelawney: I don't love her, but I also don't think it's very much in character for Hermione to mouth off to her.  And as for McGonagall, I'm not sure that I believe she would lose her professional veneer enough to insult a fellow professor.

I'm a little sorry that we didn't get to the next chapter on this post, but I'm going to end with an Expecto Patronum gif anyway. I expect most of us will use one next week in our post!

Okay, seriously, I've already spent too much time on this and haven't made any serious/Sirious puns.  Here's one for the road:

04 February 2013

Last Month In Review: January 2013

January sure had more downs than ups this time around.  My husband and mom had dreadful medical issues they were dealing with, and so did one of my best friends, and when we got back from visiting my mom in Wisconsin, I finally succumbed to the cold I'd been keeping at bay since mid-December. My reading reflects that this month, as audio books and Harry Potter comprise the bulk of my reading. In chronological order:

1. Benediction by Kent Haruf.  I started off 2013 with a bang, reading a book that truly will be difficult to top. Admittedly I started this one in December but I read the bulk of it in January. If you're at all interested in hearing how I go on and on about how much I love it, the review is here.

2. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (audio). I've listened to this book so many times that there are parts I can quote along with the recording, but it's so good, and I was much in need of a comfort read/listen, so I indulged myself again.  I love Bill Bryson.  Maybe not quite in the leave-my-husband-to-move-to-England-to-be-with-him kind of way, but pretty close. I rave about the book and the time I met Bryson here. Correction: I rave about a previous Bill Bryson audio in that post, but go ahead and click on over anyway because it's got knives and shit in it, as Stephen Katz might put it.

3. Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley. This book puzzled me quite a bit as I was reading it.  It was only when I got to one of the final chapters that one of Sorrow's personality traits clicked into place for me, and after having dinner with the author last week (have I mentioned how much I love my job lately?), that I really appreciated this book.  Review here.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J K Rowling.  Speaking of Harry Potter...I'm participating in the readalong sponsored by Alice at Reading Rambo. As a bookseller, I barely make time to read to read any book already published, but I love Alice and I'm wild about Harry, and frankly, comfort reading is important when one is stressed. So sure, re-reading seven books (at approximately 4 bazillion pages of backlist) is my thing this year. I figure that it's better than giving in to the sleeping giant of alcoholism lying dormant in my body. Most days all I want is a drink. There's a certain amount of facetiousness there, but I'm not saying what the percentage is. Anyway, the posts are here and here.

5. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson (audio). This was also a reread/relisten. See #2 above. It also turns out to be an abridged production, which I didn't realize when I bought it.  I had the old audio cassette of it years and years ago, and nothing makes me want to head for parts unknown quite as much as reading about someone who does.

6. Home Is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington.  I started this books months ago and finally finished it in January.  A good travel memoir about an American family who decide to raise their children in China. Review here.

7. The Best Revenge by Arsinoe de Blassenville.  This is a novel-length work of Harry Potter fanfiction that I've read a couple of times before.  It's quite well done, taking the familiar meme of how Harry's life would have been different if it had been Snape and not Hagrid who rescued him from his family. Well-balanced, lacking the notable anti-Slytherin balance found in the books, AND Harry gets sorted into Hufflepuff. You can read it here.

8. This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith (YA). Funny and bittersweet tale of two teens who accidentally "meet" when one of them receives a text intended for a different recipient.  I hope to review it soon.

9. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling. See #4 above. You can find the discussions here and here.

10. Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber (audio). Once again, I didn't realize that this was an abridged edition until after I borrowed it. I love books that tie food & romance together and wrap them up in a big multicultural bow, but this one disappointed. I think the abridgement was unsuccessful, as there were multiple points during the recording when contradictory and/or impossible things happened in the narrative that can only be explained by a clumsy abridgement.

So, it looks like January was a productive month for me, what with the ten books and all, but three of them were audios (two of which were abridged) and two of them were re-reads of middle-grade books. There was only one adult novel that I started and finished in the month, and that's Amity & Sorrow