Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Oscar Books, The Museum of Extraordinary Things and Kristin Cashore's Graceling Trilogy

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of Helene Hanff's books, not just her famed "84 Charing Cross Road" but all of her other works, including "Q's Legacy" and "Underfoot in Show Business." My late best friend, Rosemarie Larson's mother, Jean Russel Larson, had a long correspondence with Helene Hanff, and was gracious enough to encourage my love of her works. Now her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz has written a book that is getting lots of attention, and she's also listed as a Book Brahmin on Shelf Awareness this week.  I couldn't resist putting in a plug for her book and pasting her Brahmin choices below, since the latter are fairly similar to my own, and she does mention "Underfoot in Show Business."
You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz (March 18)
A successful New York City therapist, Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the
life she always envisioned for herself. A happily devoted doctor's wife
and mother to a young son, she is also the author of You Should Have
Known, in which she cautions women really to hear what men are trying to
tell them. But just as the book is about to be published, her own
marriage is suddenly thrust into turmoil with a violent death and a
missing husband it turns out she never really knew. Horrified by the
ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice and for neglecting
to see the clues in front of her, Grace must emerge from the detritus of
one life to create another for her child and herself.

This smart, gripping story is "unputdownable in the most delicious
way--not only are Jean's insights into family and trust brilliantly
observed, but her heroine is also intelligent, sensitive and perpetually
on the brink of earth-shattering disaster," said Deb Futter, the editor
of You Should Have Known. "Jean has woven a page-turning story about
living in New York City, learning to deal with the lies we tell one
another (and ourselves) and how tricky it sometimes is to be a wife, a
mother and a fully actualized individual."

Book Brahmin: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Intriguing, suspenseful You Should Have Known is Jean Hanff Korelitz's fifth novel, following A Jury of
Her Peers, The Sabbathday River, The White Rose and Admission, which was
made into a feature film starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. She is also
the author of a poetry collection, The Properties of Breath, and the
children's book Interference Powder, and has contributed essays to
Modern Love and other anthologies. Korelitz lives in New York City with
her husband, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, and their children.

On your nightstand now:
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence
Wright; Longbourn by Jo Baker; The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

Book you've faked reading:
Ulysses. (Though to be honest I faked listening to it by sort of not
paying attention while it was playing. But seriously, does anyone
actually NOT fake reading it?)

Book you're an evangelist for:
Underfoot in Show Business by my distant cousin, Helene Hanff. Utterly
charming, howlingly funny tale of a failed playwright knocking around
mid-century New York. (We know, as the author does not, that she will
soon find wild acclaim as the author of 84, Charing Cross Road.)

Book that changed your life:
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. The book that made me an atheist at the
age of eight, while filling me with a passion for stories and art.

Favorite line from a book:
"(A)nd here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am at home;
and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at
Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple-trees." --Black

Also: That passage in Gatsby, about the train heading west from Chicago
across the Plains--always makes me cry. And I'm not even from the

Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I am very jealous of people who've never read Austen, because they can
read Austen for the first time. I am also excited to recommend Thomas
Perry's Jane Whitefield novels to people who don't know them, because
they are so breathtakingly paced and so smart.

Favorite book when you were a child:
Anything involving a horse.

Your top five authors:
I'd prefer to do books, actually:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Edie by Jean Stein and George Plimpton
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

This is a grand idea, allowing writers to have a whole ride aboard a train dedicated to writing! I would LOVE to be aboard a train full of writers/authors, and just be able to sit and read and soak in all the inspiration!

Authors and trains? It's a natural fit. Amtrak has begun offering
"writers' residencies"
in the form of "long roundtrip rides aboard Amtrak trains dedicated
solely for the purpose of writing," the Atlantic Wire reported, adding
that the company plans to "turn the writers' residencies into an
established, long-term program, sending writers on trains throughout its
network of routes."

The genesis of the idea was a remark made by Alexander Chee
interview, where he said, "I still like a train best for [writing]. I
wish Amtrak had residencies for writers." Jessica Gross tweeted
support for the concept, and "though such lofty fantasies often die
unrealized, by the grace of some transportation-and-prose-loving god,
Amtrak actually responded to Gross on Twitter, and liked the idea," the
Wire wrote. She was offered the first "test-run"
residency, traveling from New York City to Chicago and back.

Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, confirmed there has been
"overwhelming demand" from people interested in the program--part of the
reason the company is intent on turning this into a regular operation.
And what about the guy who started it all? Chee tweeted
up his own test run.

This trend by Hollywood to adapt novels to the screen is wonderful, in my opinion, as long as they stay as faithful to the original pages as possible. Still, there needs to be more adaptations of science fiction and fantasy novels, other than Phillip K Dick's work and Stephen Kings.  Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liadens would do marvelously on the screen, as would Maria Snyders Poison Study books and Lois McMaster Bujold's wonderful Miles Vorkosigan and his space adventures. Here's the run down for next month's Oscar contenders that are adaptations of books.

Oscar Preview: 'Adaptations Continue to Shape the Conversation'
With the Academy Awards coming up this Sunday, Word & Film explored the
power of book-to-film adaptations
and "how films based on written source material have fared in the Best
Picture competition, noting that during Oscar's 85 years, 54 Best
Picture winners "officially have been derived from novels, nonfiction
books, newspaper articles or stage dramas. For you numbers-crunchers,
that's 63.5%. Since comic books and pop fiction also now account for
half of the highest-grossing films of all time, the literary world
clearly has a major impact on both the box office and the awards

In 2014, four of the nine Best Picture nominees are "officially
book-based": The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, Philomena and 12
Years a Slave. Word & Film observed that while Alfonso Cuaron's
blockbuster Gravity "is certainly exerting a strong pull on voters, 12
Years is a more comprehensive powerhouse.... Steve McQueen and John
Ridley's compelling statement makes an excellent case for collecting a
bunch of statuettes, including the big one, when the envelopes are
opened March 2."
I've finished, in the past 10 days, a raft of fascinating books, but four in particular stand out. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, and Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue, the series by Kristin Cashore.
Though I often read several books at a time, in this case, these books harmonized together quite nicely, though Museum is more "magical realism" from an author who really helped create a market for that sub-genre, and the Graceling series is YA fantasy, though it's the kind of fantasy that, like the Harry Potter novels or the Lord of the Rings trilogy that can, and should, be read by adults who like a ripping good read.
All of these novels deal with young women who have terrible parents and have to navigate the world, and learn to love despite personal setbacks and awful surroundings.
Museum, according to Book Page begins thus: "Coralie is the only child of a once-famous French magician who now runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue. His curiosity show—packed with acts performed by so-called “freaks and oddities” like the Wolfman and Butterfly Girl—is being threatened by competing attractions that are being built nearby. Coralie was born with webbed hands, and unbeknownst to her, her father has been preparing her to one day become part of the museum."
What Coralie doesn't realize until she's in her late teens is that her father is a ruthless predator who uses people who are different in some way for his own gain, both monetarily and sexually. He even goes so far as to steal a female corpse to try and "create" a mermaid by cobbling her together with a large fish. The whole 19th century, turn of the 20th century background and the wretched way that those who are born different are treated was by turns heart-wrenching and fascinating, including the rights, or lack thereof, of women and children workers in the garment district of New York at the turn of the century (yes, that includes the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed so many young women). Though she eventually rebels, the only problem I had with the novel was that Coralie was such a whinging coward when it came to leaving her horrific father, and when she goes back into the burning building with her beloved for no apparent reason, when she's putting her life and the life of her beloved at risk. I realize that at that time in history, women were not encouraged to read or write, or have strong opinions, and were thought to have only one true function, which was to marry and have children. Still, I took heart when Coralie had the courage to see her nanny/housekeeper/mum out of the house, knowing that she would stay behind to face her fathers wrath. All in all, a very engrossing story that will be of interest to anyone who wonders about the birth of labor unions and sufferage movements of the early 20th century, and to women who are interested in the lives of those who were considered "freaks" and who went on display in circuses and other venues. An A-, and a happy kudos to Hoffman for getting The Dovekeepers made into a mini-series.

Kristin Cashore's Graceling series is also about young women in their teens who are all different, and therefore have to find their purpose and place in society. 
The first book, "Graceling" is Katsa's story. "Graces" are what people in this realm call a particularly strong talent or ability, such as telepathy, enormous strength, or even the ability to see long distances or never miss with an arrow. Those who possess extraordinary abilities have one eye that's one color and the other is another color, and they're called "Gracelings." Unfortunately, in the kingdom that Katsa lives in, the king has thugs who 'discover' graces that are useful and then enslave the gracelings and use them for nefarious purposes. Katsa's grace, she believes, is killing, because that's what the king forces her to do, even before she becomes a teenager. Life as the king's enforcer and assassin palls for Katsa, and she soon discovers that her real grace is not for killing, but for survival. She also comes upon a graced lord who is her equal in battle, and romance begins to insinuate itself into her life. Katsa helps save a princess, Bitterblue, from her horrific father, who is king only because he has the "grace" of being able to control people with his words in a limited kind of telepathy that clouds minds and makes people believe he's not the psychopathic monster that he has become. Katsa and her lover Po's adventures are riveting reading, and the crystal clear prose combines with the roller coaster thrills of the plot to create a book that I was not able to put down. 
So I was a bit put off to learn that the second book, "Fire" was supposedly about Leck, the psychopathic monster king and his origins. It turns out that, while Leck was in the novel and we learn more about him, he's not the focus at all. The novel's protagonist is Fire, a young woman who is the daughter of a king even more monsterous than Leck, because he's fully psychic and able to easily get into people's minds and control them and change them into whatever he wants them to be. Of course, this makes him extremely beautiful, power-mad, arrogant and cruel, and while his daughter is just as powerful, she's eventually the only one who can stop his reign of terror. Fire has hair of every shade of red, gold and pink, and is so beautiful that, like her father, strange monster creatures that fly or crawl or swim are attracted to her presence as prey whenever she steps outside. After her father's death, Fire feels shunned for her powers, and spends a lot of time hiding indoors. She refuses to use her telepathic and empathetic abilities to harm others or to read their minds without their consent. Still, she is compelled to become involved in political problems when her nation is at threat of war with several other nations. In the process, she meets one prince whose mind is unavailable to her, and finds herself falling in love with him as a result. Leck is disposed of at the end of the book, or so it would appear, until readers encounter the tale of Queen Bitterblue in the third book of the series. Bitterblue takes place after Bitterblue's father Leck has been killed,(after a nightmarish 35 years as king) and her kingdom is in a shambles. While she was rescued by Katsa and Po, and put on the throne at age 10, Bitterblue has not been allowed to learn, 8 years later, of how the terrible killings and molestations her father conducted had such dire repercussions with her people and especially those who serve her in the castle. There are a number of illiterates, there are whole towns with buildings that are in a state of decay, and there's a river full of bones of her father's victims, plus no one wants to talk about the hatred and resentment people carry for her father's killings and his misuse of everyone. However, the castle librarian, known as Death (and pronounced, for some odd reason, to rhyme with teeth) has a photographic memory and is attempting to reproduce, by hand, all the books that her father destroyed to keep the people ignorant of what he was doing. Bitterblue also discovers that, once she sneaks out at night, there are thieves trying to steal back the artworks created for the king that were never paid for (and the artists were killed). She encounters a thief named Sapphire (called "Saf") and starts to have romantic feelings for him, until he discovers she's not just a commoner nicknamed "Sparks" but is, really, the Queen of Monsea. Acting out of a sudden fit of anger at Bitterblue's lying to him, Saf steals her crown (though she'd just saved him from being hanged) and throws it in the river. Soon after, Bitterblue, determined to get to the bottom of why she can't seem to make a dent in the problems of her kingdom or her subjects, discovers her father's journals and her mother's cyphered embroidery, and from then on, it's a race to figure out just how deep the corruption in her kingdom goes.
Though Bitterblue seems to be a smart woman, she makes a number of mistakes that come across as stupid, but I gather that her youth is at fault for this. I was heartened to see characters from the previous two books popping up in this final novel, and Katsa and Po were just as fascinating as seen from another perspective as they were from the first person. Fire was also interesting, and enlightening, toward the end of the book, which, though it was over 600 pages, was somehow still too short. I'd recommend this series to anyone who loved Harry Potter or  those who enjoyed Carrie Jone's dark pixies series, or lovers of fantasy with kick-butt heroines. An unreserved A, and a plea for Cashore to PLEASE write more books in this series.

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