Friday, August 31, 2007

This makes me sad

Though I am the first to admit that I think Neil Gaiman is hot, it's more than just his dark good looks that make him attractive. It's his wit and intelligence that make me swoon, as it does with Steve Jobs and Sting and Alan Rickman, all men that I feel are sexy because they're brilliant first, they're good at what they do, and they have charisma and decent looks.
Still, books should be chosen for publication on their merits, not on the physical beauty, or lack thereof, of the author. Is nothing sacred anymore? Is there no part of society that is not subject now to the cult of celebrity and good looks? This article just makes me sad. I am only posting an excerpt, not the whole thing.

Aesthetic genius
Why can’t more writers be smart enough to be beautiful, handsome, or at least cute
By SHARON STEELAugust 29, 2007 5:55:20 PM
When I saw Marisha Pessl in the New York Times Style Section, meticulously posed on an antique chair wearing a pair of buttery leather high heels and a coy smile, I cringed. Pessl was responsible for 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a Nabokovian coming-of-age mystery that had become my favorite novel of the year before I had even finished it. Her story follows Blue van Meer, an unlikely heroine who undergoes a series of personal transformations — and one major physical alteration as well: the proverbial ugly duckling turned swan. While I was reading about Blue, I often turned to the book-jacket flap to gape at Pessl’s photo. She stared back at me, an Audrey Hepburn in sweet black-and-white tones, someone who wouldn’t be out of place on the Ford Models women’s board. Pessl was, in fact, also an actress and a model. And she had written Special Topics, a New York Times bestseller, when she was only 25. But were the fuck-me boots in the photo really necessary?Literature, unlike so many other media industries, is technically a meritocracy. But that won’t stop book marketers, bloggers, critics, and the literary community at large from collectively slobbering over a pretty author. No, the literary rules changed ages ago. Books no longer need to be serious in order to be published; there are fewer and fewer venues available for reviews (rendering competition more intense with every passing catalogue season), and critics aren’t doing their job unless they are merciless. Perhaps as a response to all of this, publishers have begun to count on their authors to do double-duty — to act as sex symbols as well.The definition of beauty worship is still evolving, but if you thought phrases such as chick-lit or post-apocalyptic were annoying, wait until bloggers and reviewers start pegging authors as everything from “Lit Boys” (WASP-y Ivy League graduates with floppy hair who’ve written yet another coming-of-age book) to “literary wunderkinds” (they’re changing the state of fiction as we know it, right here, right now, grab your inhalers!) to “literary ingĂ©nues” (so endearingly innocent they’ll wrap you and your $24.95 hardcover book budget around their soft little finger). Armed with such superlatives, many of these writers go on to be inducted, from the first flush of their careers, into the postmodern canon of Hot Young Authors. Every published writer is bound to receive a varying amount of raves and pans, sure, but this group is special: each has been held to scrutiny not simply because of the hype their books have received, but because it has been suggested that their youth and appearance have given them an advantage that a less striking yet more gifted writer would never achieve.Agents of do-me feminism, such as Naomi Wolf, Candace Bushnell, and Jane magazine, said it was okay to be girly, confident, and in full possession of one’s womanly wiles. And the publishing industry has made a point to effusively court good-looking male authors ever since Hemingway appeared on the scene. But in the post-do-me feminist, post–Harry Potter publishing climate, nobody can predict what the Next Big Thing will be. So it makes sense, if you can’t force a phenomenon, to attract readers to books the same way you’d attract them to another human being. Instead of confining sex to the text, publishers have been quietly whoring out their authors in the best way they know how.“It’s incredibly difficult to get anyone to read, i.e. buy a book, in our joyously semi-literate age,” says Steve Almond, an Arlington-based writer and the author of short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal, The Evil B.B. Chow, and the memoir Candyfreak.“It’s easy to blame the folks in publishing for being so superficial and cynical,” says Almond. “But the fact is, it’s the culture at large that enforces these values.”Writing and publishing are businesses. Literature still has to sell. And when you’re working on a book that is in competition with the other 170,000 tomes published each year, clawing for rankings, review coverage, and the hilariously impossible lottery of Oprah’s Book Club, things can get ugly. Which is why it helps if the author you’re marketing is, well, pretty.
TOO PRETTY: Marisha Pessl is one of a growing group of young authors celebrated as much for their looks as their talent.Looking goodThe publishing industry is a lot like Hollywood: cruel, unpredictable, and rife with disillusionment. That doesn’t stop thousands of hopefuls from wanting to carve out their own stake in it. Youth and aesthetics have always been a major marketing currency — that’s why coming-of-age novels will be reinvented with every new generation. Nearly all of the books by the Hot Young Authors are of this variety. Everyone needs to write the book only they can write about what it’s like to be a postmodern adolescent in a postmodern world dealing with the sorts of postmodern problems that, inevitably, sound poetic instead of horrifyingly awkward.“It’s easier in life to be attractive. That’s reductive but true,” says HarperCollins editor Gail Winston. “On the other hand, a brilliant book by an author who is not young and not attractive isn’t going to fail. It’s just, I think that those other books — for those reasons, those authors maybe get a little bit of an advantage.
"The combination of fair-to-middling — or even strong but underdeveloped — talent with attractiveness and youth seems to be eternal catnip to publishers, if not reading audiences, and I think that’s a shame,” says Emily Gould, Gawker’s co-editor and a former associate editor at Hyperion. Gould, who has co-written a young-adult novel titled Hex Education, looks like Harry Potter’s Emma Watson might 10 years from now. She composes many of Gawker’s posts on the current stable of Hot Young Authors, commenting on recent mainstream media frenzies regarding literary merit versus a writer’s physical appearance. “What I am deeply, passionately opposed to,” Gould says, “is all the ridiculous praise that’s heaped on just-okay books because of the looks and pedigree and other accomplishments of their authors.”

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

My July Reads

I've had quite a tumultuous month going through books on my TBR stack and books for my book group at the library.
Here's what I read, or attempted to read in July:

Mercy by Jodi Picoult
The Sharing Knife/ Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Kushiel's Justice by Jacqueline Carey
The Inhabited World by David Long

I'll start at the top and work my way down. I've never read any other books by popular fiction author Jodi Picoult, and now I know why. Her characters are pathetic, dishonorable or stupid, her plots obvious and her prose riddled with cliches and stereotypes. I was so disgusted with the nonsense of Mercy that I only made it to page 77 before I just had to take it back to the library. I couldn't go on reading such tripe. The story is about a mercy killing, and the sheriff of a small Massachusetts town who is also the clan chief of a group of people with Scottish heritage who founded the town. Poor sheriff, who is chaffing under the leash of what he's supposed to do (he dreams of tahitian beaches, but for some reason can't take a vacation and actually go to some sunny place, I guess clan chiefs aren't allowed the freedom to take time off) suddenly and inexplicably falls in lust with a homeless woman who shows up at the sheriffs wifes flower shop out of nowhere and manages to get a job instantly. This drifter woman then weasels her way into the sheriffs home (she doesn't have anywhere else to stay) and proceeds to snoop into the wifes things and have a little tete-a-tete with her husband who catches the drifter sifting through his wifes stuff, and doesn't seem to care (rather odd for a lawman to not care about theft) he's just intent on getting into the drifters pants. Suddenly, he has no morals and is willing to commit adultery, just because this woman has eyes that remind him of a tropical ocean. Puuulllease! That just strains my credulity, that someone who supposedly loves his wife is willing to cheat on her so quickly. What a jerk. And his wife, meanwhile, is a real idiot, taking in the drifter, and worshipping her husband, never suspecting what a snake he is, as she goes about in a dreamy state of adoration in which she waits on the man like a slave. Feh. Nauseating.
I couldn't wait to get into Lois McMaster Bujolds second book in the Sharing Knife series, Legacy, thinking it would be full of her usual excitement and adventure and witty dialog. Alas, for some reason, Legacy is the only book I've ever read of Bujolds that bored me to tears. I was shocked that she had so many chapters of nothing but prejudice and complaint, whining and ugliness, with no real movement in the plot at all. The main character, Dag, has taken a farmer wife 30 years his junior, and she, of course, is all innocence and adulation, while Dag is a grizzled veteran of the malice wars who has a hook for one hand and a 'magical' energy stream for the other that works sometimes and sometimes doesn't. We are supposed to just accept that, with little explanation. Oh, and Dags child bride is called, wait for it, FAWN. Yes, like a baby deer. Pardon me while I try not to hurl and snigger. Bujold has written such smart works previously, I find it hard to believe she's fallen this far, with such a ridiculous situation, stereotypical characters and leaden plot. What happened to her strong female leads? Miles Vorkosigan's mother Cordelia springs to mind. She wouldn't be caught dead being breathless and childish and stupidly following around a man twice her age, nervously waiting for his approval on her every movement! Ugh! Bujold prose usually sparkles with wit and verve, yet Legacy shows not a scintilla of wit...nothing from her usual repartee or her normally fascinating characters. I was so dissappointed I wanted to cry.
Fortunately, just as I was giving up on Bujold, the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out and my husband bought me a copy at the grocery store while on a beer run. (No, not for me, I can't stand beer). Though I thought it could have used a good, brisk edit or three (the time spent on the lam in the woods seemed to go on forever!), I was gratified to learn that Harry didn't die to rid the world of Voldemort, and actually lived on, producing 3 children with the "pampered princess" Ginny Weasley. Personally, I was hoping he'd marry someone more of his calibre, like Cho Chang, but it seems Rowling wanted him to have some kind of 'traditional' stay at home wife who never realizes her potential and just lives for her husband the hero. (What is it with all these wimpy women in fiction lately? Some kind of hideous feminist backlash?) I was also sorry that Snape died, because I think he might have been a friend to Harry, in the end. I was also dissapointed that the Malfoys weren't killed off, as the only member of that family with any backbone was the mother. Draco and Lucius were proven to be craven, sniveling cowards, in addition to being Nazis. But, it was interesting of Rowling to round out Dumbledore and his brother as characters, and show us how human they really were, warts and all. It was also good to see that Hagrid and the others fared well, though I was shocked that Harry wasn't more upset at the death of Tonks and Lupin, or of Fred Weasley. Thank heaven for Molly Weasley, though, and thank god we got to see her in a strong role, protecting her young like the lioness that we all knew she has been all along! I found the afterword to be a bit anemic, but at least we got to see how everyone fared. So it was a decent ending, not perfect, but decent. Thanks JK, for your imaginative world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter, long may he wave his wand!
Water for Elephants has gotten a lot of good ink from local and national newspapers and magazines. My neighbor Janine read the advanced copy I brought home from the Book Expo and pronounced it well worth the time, so I scooped it up last week and decided to give it a chance. Ironically, last week we were on vacation in Oregon, and stopped by my grandmothers nursing home in Canby. She will be 99 in October this year, and is still as cantankerous as ever. My 7 year old son just adores her, and we stopped by a store to bring her a bag of the special bite size prunes she likes. Grandma hates living in this very nice, clean nursing home, though, because she wanted her children to wait on her and take care of her for the rest of her life. That just wasn't going to work, because my grandmother has to have care 24/7, and my mother has an 89 year old husband whom she has to care for and Crohns disease that she has to deal with.
At any rate, the protagonist of Water for Elephants is a man who worked as a veterinarian for the circus during the depression, but now, at age 93, is in a nursing home and railing against the too soft food and the ravages of time on his mind and his body. He's also saddened by the lack of attention from his children, but when they do visit, or his grandchildren visit, he doesn't remember who they are, so I don't see why he's so sour about it. He recounts his time with the circus in vivid detail, including the incredible cruelty to the circus animals. The humans were also treated poorly, it seems, but Jakob seems to find that somewhat more tolerable than the cruelty to the beasts, especially the elephant Rosie, whom he learns only responds to commands in Polish. The bad guys in this novel come to a gruesome end, while the protagonist manages to marry his circus sweetheart and have a nice family. He even manages to escape back to the circus in an ending that is just a bit too convenient and easy for my tastes, but its happy, so that's all that is really important, right?
The latest book in the Kushiels series, Kushiels Justice, was just as juicy and riveting as the first book in the series, though we saw very little of our favorite courtesan, Phaedra, in this book. Imriel takes center stage, and we watch him mature and grow as a human and a man throughout the novel. There is a succulence to Carey's prose that leaves the reader satisfied both emotionally and intellectually. Her plots rarely flag, her characters are honorable, smart and often flawed but fascinating. I can hardly wait for the next novel in the series, as I have a feeling the main characters are going to flush Melisande Shaharizahi out of the bushes and into the court of Terre D'Ange. I only hope that Imriel and Sidonnie can marry before then.
Finally, though its a NYT notable book and is being read by all the KCLS book groups, I found The Inhabited World to be rather boring and depressing. It is all about the ghost of a man who committed suicide hovering around the denizens of the house he used to live in, and reflecting on his own life and why he married the same woman twice and lost her both times. The man character, Evan, is a pathetic creature, a real nutball who would have driven me crazy long before he drove away his wife. He has an affair for no other reason than because he can, and he lusts after this slutty woman in his office, and then he claims that he still loves his wife, though he treats her like crap both times he married her. His father, a strong man who works as a blacksmith, sounded like more of an interesting person than Evan, who just couldn't seem to cope with life or people or reality. He even says he commited suicide not for any noble reasons, but because he failed to live, failed to not have a good reason not to do it. How stupid, and apathetic. Nancy Pearl claims that there are moments of transcendant joy in the book, but I failed to see those. It was just one depressing scene after another. The woman whom Evan tries to convince to leave town because she's apparently incapable of saying no to this jerk she's having an affair with, does leave town and gets rid of the house, but we're not sure whether that is due to Evans influence or whether this woman actually grows a spine and decides to move on with her life. I certainly hope its the latter. Meanwhile, I have to say that all the affairs I've been reading about in these books shock and sicken me, mainly because they are made to seem normal and commonplace. As if there is no moral problem with committing adultery, no spiritual degradation. Shame on authors for portraying such a terrible thing in such a positive way.