Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Belated Report from the Virginia Festival of the Book (Part 2)

So yesterday, I offered a rather long and detailed recap of one session that I attended during the Virginia Festival of the Book. I was going to talk about the other one then too, but I found too much to say and decided to hold this part for another day.

Crime Wave: Historical Mysteries
Authors: Tasha Alexander (A Poisoned Season), Louis Bayard (The Black Tower), Cordelia Frances Biddle (Deception's Daughter), Katherine Neville (The Eight)

Here you find out my other major genre obssession, which is mystery/crime fiction. And in this case, I have just in the last two years discovered Louis Bayard's books and I think they're brilliant. So I was really excited to find out he was going to be in town to speak, and I grabbed a friend of mine who also loves him and we took off to see him. Unfortunately, when we got to the Omni Hotel, where the session was being held, there was no parking left! So we had to find street parking and walk, and we ended up being a little late...and Louis was the first speaker, so we didn't get to hear his whole talk. What we did hear was really interesting though - he was talking primarily about The Black Tower, which is all about the real (and rather mysterious) French detective Vidocq in post-Napoleonic France, trying to find the rumored Dauphin (or rightful heir to the throne of France, thought to be dead and then thought to possibly be alive).

So Louis talked about his research on the real Vidocq, which was utterly fascinating. He apparently pioneered many of our modern detective and forensic procedures. He was a former convict himself, but they couldn't keep him in prison (he escaped every one they put him in). And a lot of the people he recruited to be on his detective force were other former convicts because he said that only a criminal can possibly know how to catch a criminal. He was the first to insist on things like plastering footprints as evidence at a crime scene, and he envisioned fingerprinting hundreds of years before the technology existed to actually do it. So Louis was rightfully fascinated by this historical figure, and he decided to throw him into a mystery. And what mystery could be more fitting than Vidocq tracking down France's greatest monarchy mystery, on a level of the Anastasia mystery in Russia a couple hundred years later. Let me state now, I adored The Black Tower and I think you should all go read it now!

Then there were the other authors. Tasha Alexander writes a series of books about a Victorian woman detective, and she was a delightful speaker. She was perky and funny and honest. My favorite part of her talk was her story of how she realized she could read - that her mother was sitting next to her, reading to her, and all of a sudden, she realized she was further ahead on the page than her mom. I haven't read any of her books, but she was cute and I think anyone interested in a female Victorian detective story should check her out!

Then there was Cordelia Biddle, who I honestly wanted to take home with me. She was just outright hilarious. Her books are also set in the Victorian era, but specifically in Philadelphia, and they feature an heiress who seems to stumble into mysteries either through boredom or pure bad luck. I am definitely going to check out one of her books, because she was such a personality. She is from Philly, from an old family (yes, the Biddles), a member of whom had a feud with Andrew Jackson. She was quite entertaining talking about that particular altercation.

And finally, Katherine Neville, who talked a bit about her books and how they wandered all over time (which is not recommended for a historical mystery writer). Many of her books are apparently fairly intricate and strategic, set up like a big chess game in novel form. Her books sounded interesting, but I'll be honest - she herself was a bit off-putting to me. I thought that she seemed like she felt herself above the other authors on the stage with her, as though she was better than they. And my friend agreed, so I don't think it was just me. She's certainly been writing for longer than the other writers, and maybe her novels are just fantastic, but I was very put off by her stage presence. Because of that, I probably won't seek any of her books out. All in all, though, it was a great panel and I really enjoyed it!

A Summary of My Festival Experience

I really enjoyed the two panels I went to this year. I'd very much like to go to more next year if there are authors and topics I'm interested in! As for the exhibition, I had really hoped to hand out some of my freelance proofreading business cards to publishers there, but most of the tables seemed to be self-published authors trying to sell their books. All in all, I enjoyed the Festival entirely, and I even went on their website and offered to be a volunteer for next year. No one's contacted me yet, but I hope they do! And I'd encourage any of you in easy driving distance to Charlottesville to give it a try next year - it was a good time!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Belated Report from the Virginia Festival of the Book

Well, I am a little over a week behind in telling you about my attendance at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I ended up only going to two events in the end, but they were both quite worthwhile!

Coming of Age in the South: Novels
Authors: Cary Holladay (A Fight in the Doctor's Office), Jayne Pupek (Tomato Girl), Susan White (Bound South)

I wanted to attend this session because I am a HUGE fan of Southern literature; I'd say it may be my very favorite genre. I'd never heard of Cary Holladay or Susan White, but I've read Jayne Pupek's Tomato Girl (and enjoyed it), plus she lives very near Charlottesville so I thought it might be fun to meet a local author who writes a genre so near and dear to my heart. Well, I got there about 15 minutes early, and it was packed. I ended up sitting on the floor for most of the session, until a little old lady got up during the Q&A, put her hand on my arm and whispered, "I've got to get out of here; I'm not from the South and these people are driving me crazy! You can have my seat." HA!

At the beginning, they made the announcement that Jayne would not be able to come because of a family emergency. I was a little disappointed, but they said that both of the other authors would be reading from their most recent books, and I knew that would be fun. Cary Holladay read first, part of a story that takes place really near to us, in Glen Allen, VA. She was quite entertaining - she had a quotation from a famous author or historical figure for nearly every situation, or an anecdote from her days at William & Mary (go Tribe!). Her book, A Fight in the Doctor's Office, was published because it won a contest, and the prize was getting published. She's had several books published, and they've all happened in some way like that - she said she's never had an agent or been published through the traditional process.

Anyway - her book was about a woman and her parents on a road trip to find her husband (who they all call The Topiary because he's shaped perfectly round and always wears a fuzzy green sweater) because he has run off somewhere. They don't know where and they don't know why. They stop in Glen Allen for a night because her mother has a guide book that is a thousand years old that paints it as a quaint, beautiful town, but by the time they arrive, it's kind of dusty and run-down and in the middle of nowhere (I think it takes place in the 1960s). And the heroine falls in love with a little deaf black child and refuses to leave Glen Allen with her parents. That's about all of the book we got to hear, but it was definitely an intriguing intro!

Then Susan White stepped up to read from her first novel, hot off the presses, Bound South. I felt some connection to her, too, because she got her MFA and started writing this book while at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, which is near to my family and Hollins has figured in my life at several different times for various reasons. Not to mention the fact that when asked what album she'd choose as the soundtrack for her book, she said she would have to pick different albums for the three different characters from whose viewpoint she wrote the book, but for the first character...(and here she scrunched up her nose and peered inquiringly and doubtfully into the audience of 90% women over the age of 65)...had anybody heard of an album called Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair? And I wooted on the inside and smiled and half-raised my hand on the outside. Anyway, she's moved back home to Atlanta now, and most of this story takes place in Atlanta. She started reading and I could not stop laughing. She read a little bit from each of the three characters' perspectives, and I do not know where she came up with these people, but I was dying laughing.

The story seems to mainly be about the relationship and interaction among these three women. One is the daughter (about 12 years old) of a housekeeper who works for a wealthy Atlanta society lady. This little girl belongs to a fundamentalist evangelical Christian church, and that colors everything in her world view. The society lady her mom works for is main character #2, and she is the archetype of Southern society, where everything has to be proper and just so...though she has an odd modern art collection, we learn, including a portrait of Jesus in a sparkly blue ballgown. Madam Society's daughter is main character #3, and she is a wild child in hot pursuit of tearing down everything her mother believes is right and good. She's the character the Liz Phair album was meant to back up. All three came alive before my eyes with her reading, and I wanted desperately to know their story. So I bought her book and got her to sign it. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I will before long, I'm sure.

It was a great session, especially for someone as enamored of Southern lit as I am. I hope for more on this topic at next year's Festival!! And now it's late and this is long, so I'm going to stop. More on the other session I attended at the Festival next time!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Look! I'm a Book Maven!

Most of you are not Facebook friends and so you haven't seen this yet. Therefore I'm going to share here too and you can take it and fill it in on your blog or Facebook or whatever. Sorry for being lazy tonight. I do have a report to share with you all on the Virginia Festival of the Book events that I attended - that's coming in the next couple of days! In the meantime...enjoy.

"Book Maven" Quiz

You have received this note because someone thinks you are a literary maven. Copy the questions into your own note, answer the questions, and tag any friends who would appreciate the quiz, including the person who sent you this. Don't bother trying to italicize your book titles.

1) What author do you own the most books by?
Unquestionably L.M. Montgomery. I have owned every book ever published that was written by her since I was probably 11 or so, and I still have them all. That's a lot of books; I doubt I'll ever own more than that by any other author just because I doubt any of my living favorites will be that prolific.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
I don't *think* we own more than one copy of anything at the moment except two books that I have both as hardbacks and as audiobooks (Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield).

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Not really. If I had been in editing mode for some sort of textbook or nonfiction, I would have corrected them, but since most people talk and write that way in casual conversation, I'm used to it and it doesn't really bother me.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
That's a hard one for me. Maybe Philip Marlowe (from Raymond Chandler's books)?

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?
Definitely Little Women.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
Again, definitely Little Women. That probably contributes significantly to #5's answer...

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor Macgregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History by David Sinclair. BO. RING. And that's even worse because it *should* have been an interesting story to tell.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?
Oooo, really tough call for me. I have five that I really really loved, and I'm not sure I can pick just one so I'll give you all five: The Black Tower (Louis Bayard), The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield), The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Joshilyn Jackson), The Used World (Haven Kimmel) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon).

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
Yeesh, I dunno. Possibly just because I've been thinking about it lately and planning to re-read it, the comic book series Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
I have no idea. I don't even know who's won...ever, maybe. I tend to like some of the Booker and Pulitzer winners, though!

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
Playing in my mind right now: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
Well, they're already making a movie of this and I'm terrified of what it's going to be like. I really think it might ruin the story. And that would be The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenneger.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I don't know that I've ever had a weird dream about a writer, book or literary character.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
I absolutely have to agree with Moon Rat on this one - Twilight. Hands down. Even though I enjoyed it.

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
Anna Karenina. It was awesome, and I loved it, but it took a long time and a lot of concentration to get through.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
That I've seen performed? Probably Taming of the Shrew, which is not a terribly obscure play, but there's not a whole lot of variety in performances (Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer Nights Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth; rinse, lather, repeat).

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
Russians I suppose. I don't have a whole lot of experience with the Russians, but I have even less with the French!

18) Roth or Updike?
I'm about to start my first ever Updike book - we're reading The Witches of Eastwick for my book club, and I'll probably be starting it tomorrow or Monday. I've never read any Roth to date.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
I'll pick Sedaris. I read one of his books for book club and I enjoyed it. I read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work...(blah blah blah) and hated it; I thought it was incredibly and terribly pretentious.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

21) Austen or Eliot?
Austen. I've actually never read Eliot (*ducks*).

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
There are lots. There is not enough time in life to read everything. I answered a question similar to this a few months ago, and I said A Tale of Two Cities because I started it when I was about 12, hated it, never finished it and never went back to try to read it again. And it's Dickens - I really should have read it.

23) What is your favorite novel?
Dear God. How on earth am I supposed to pick a favorite? Crap. Well, for today, I'll pick Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

24) Play?
I saw Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in college once, and it was amazing. Fave Shakespeare is The Tempest, other faves are Hedda Gabler and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

25) Poem?
"Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas.

26) Essay?
Er...not much on essays, so I'm inserting my favorite memoir here, which would be A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel.

27) Short Story?
I think The Killers by Hemingway.

28) Work of nonfiction?
Well, I'm still reading it, but I think A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is awesome.

29) Who is your favorite writer?
Generally, my answer would be Hemingway.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
There are probably quite a few, but not the ones I like the most. Of the ones I've read, I'd say Dave Eggers. (Side note: My mom-in-law answered this with Nicholas Sparks and I went, "Ooo, I wish I'd said that!")

31) What is your desert island book?
Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins.

32) And... what are you reading right now?
The afore-mentioned Short History of Nearly Everything and Deception by Denise Mina.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Does It Just Elicit Strong Emotions, or Is It Emotional Manipulation?

I will not pretend. This book is utterly depressing from about page 5. It's also hauntingly beautiful, emotionally raw and pretty much impossible to put down.
What's the absolute worst thing you can imagine happening to you? What if it happened on your watch, seemed to be your fault? What if you still had hope that you could fix it, for a whole year, even though everyone else had lost hope? What if, after even you had given up hope too, you managed to right everything after all? Would it be enough to heal all the damage?

Abby thinks things are going perfectly. She's met an amazing man, who has an amazing daughter, and she's fallen in love with both of them. She and Jake are getting married soon, and he's even entrusted her to take care of Emma by herself for a weekend while he's gone. They're walking on the beach on a particularly foggy morning. Abby looks away to take a picture of something, and when she looks back, Emma's gone.

The emotional torment and tense, frantic searching comprise the rest of the book. Honestly, for most of the book, nothing happens. But the author keeps you eagerly turning pages, wondering and hoping if Emma might be found on the next page or in the next chapter. It is absolutely emotional manipulation, and a part of me dislikes my feelings being manhandled in such a fashion. But I kept reading the book, and I had a good cry at the end of it. That's two books in a row that have sent me to tears at the end...

As much as I enjoyed it, I'm not sure if I want to read more of Michelle Richmond's books. This is the second one I've read, and both were beautifully written and pretty upsetting at the same time. I don't know if I like having my feelings manipulated in that way. At the same time, I guess all books try to do that to a certain extent, and the visceral reaction she causes in me means that she's doing something very well, very successfully.

How about you guys? Ever read a book like that, one that you know is engineered to make you feel the depths of sadness, hopelessness, anger, ? How do you feel about it? Is it okay for an author to do that if it's well done, or is there a difference between writing a good story that causes emotion and writing a good story to intentionally cause emotion?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Learn to Love Comics: Transmetropolitan

Okay, okay - I suck a little bit. I've already broken my promise to update the blog at least weekly. I was out of town for a girls weekend at the beach last weekend, and spent most evenings this week trying to desperately to catch up on my editing jobs that I would normally have worked on over the weekend. Tonight, I am tired, but I am caught up! So I'm back. I won't promise that I won't lapse again, but I'll do my best to prevent it.

On to the business of blogging. I know a lot of avid readers, absolute lovers of books, who look down their noses at comic books and graphic novels. I read some comics when I was younger, but I didn't really get hooked until I met the man who is now my husband. He is what you would call a comics FAN. Not like the comics guy on The Simpsons, he's not pretentious and dorky like that, but he does love the art form. He's turned me on to quite a lot of comics, and I would like to try and spread the love. Because comics aren't all superheroes and manga; there are a lot of great stories and characters out there, just the same as prose novels, even better than some prose. So here begins your education on some of my favorite comics - one title at a time.

I'm going to start with a great comic I love that has lots of snarky irreverence and social commentary - a series called Transmetropolitan, written by Warren Ellis. The series hero is Spider Jerusalem, a kick-ass gonzo-style journalist in a sort of cyberpunk future. The series starts off with Spider living as a hermit with no technology, no hygiene and no clothes on a mountain outside the big city. The problem is that he has a two-book deal for books he has not written that were due probably years ago, a publisher breathing down his neck for them, and he's spent pretty much his entire advance and has no more cigarette money. So he girds his loins with hatred, shaves his head and beard, puts on clothes and heads back to the city to write some articles again.

With the help of his filthy assistants, Spider fights the good fight, trying to expose the corruption and stupidity that is threatening to ruin the entire world (sound at all familiar?), hating his fellow humans and hating that he has to save them from themselves, but unable to stop himself doing something about it because it drives him so insane. He exposes complete idiots who are mutilating themselves in ridiculous ways in the name of fashion; he successfully exposes severe cases of police brutality and stops a riot; and he takes on his biggest challenge of exposing the evil represented by the jackasses running for public office in the big election.

I like Transmetropolitan because I identify so much with Spider Jerusalem. He gets so frustrated by the way people around him refuse to think for themselves, instead letting the ever-present media tell them what to think and what to do. He hates them for their laziness and stupidity, and yet he really wants to believe they don't have to be that way. I feel that way on pretty much a daily basis. The social and cultural issues that Ellis tackles are extremely relevant to our current sociopolitical situation, as all good sci-fi should be. And on top of all of that, it's irreverent and hilarious and beautifully drawn. I highly recommend the series to anyone who revels in sharp, snarky societal commentary and/or is a Hunter S. Thomspon fan. I love this series, and I think it should be required reading in high schools to hopefully shock some of those kids out of the lazy complacency our society seems to prize these days.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere, and Nothing Left to Drink

I've finished two books in the last week, but I don't really feel like reviewing them. One was a collection of nonfiction essays on Chinese economics and one was a kind of boring chick lit book. I reviewed both over on Goodreads.com, but I don't really want to talk about them here.

I'm going through a thing right now where I have tons to read - at least 50 books on my nightstand that are waiting for me to pick them up and dive into them - but I don't want to read anything I have. I've started a beautifully written but rather depressing book, but it's hard to get motivated to read something sad right now, as much as I like the main character and the writing. I've got all sorts of things in my to-read pile: women's fiction, Southern lit, chick lit, mystery, nonfiction and memoirs, literary comedy, classics, comics, YA...nothing's doing it for me right now.

Does anybody else ever go through that? Tons to read, but nothing you feel like reading? Any recommendations to kick me out of my funk?