Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 5 (12/5/2011)

eta: link now up.

"Day 5 - Cranberry Creamed Honey

Colour: Dark amber, cognac. Funny to me how I have such boozy associations, but they are apt.

Smell: There's a sharpness, a resinousness to this. It's also very liquidy.

Taste: A definite cranberry tartness, but the honey taste dominates; the tartness limns it, darts around its edges, makes it one of the more refreshing honeys I've tried. I think of pine, strangely, redwood; tasting it is like walking a forest path."

The story today is complete in itself, and a little odd, and also a little sad. On the surface, it's about a guy who dyes himself red and the bees that try to get pollen from him. Deeper, though, I think it's really about love, and trying to be what our lover wants us to be, and not being able to really do that, because our dreams are not their dreams. It's poignant, and a little tart - not unlike cranberries, I guess.

The Honey Month, Day 4 ( 2/4/2011, posted 2/5/2011)

Due to my lateness, the link to Amal's original is already available!

"Day 4 - Raspberry Rose Honey

Colour:  If yesterday was a Riesling, today is a Sauvignon Blanc. It's just-turned-dawn coloured, pale and clear with less yellow than a hint of gold to come. The consistency is also much thinner than any of the previous honeys; this is much more liquid, not a hint of cloud to it.

Smell: Very nearly odourless, but my first impression was of heat, of a roasted sweet, but then on second thought, no. Very faint hint of the unpleasant thick scent of the peach creamed honey, but that yielded such deliciousness, I'm delighted.

Taste: There's a hint of apple to this, but the rose! I taste rose petals, I taste scent. The raspberries are hidden - there's a faint bit of tartness to the aftertaste, and that's where they come out, but in the main it's golden apple-light and pink roses gilding themselves in dawn. This is so beautiful, subtle and balanced and entwined with itself."

The fiction today is truly just a scrap, something that clearly cries out to be part of something much bigger. It's a short dream sequence, with a poem, and the beginnings of a quest. I want to make it be part of the story from Day 1, but it refuses - either there's no way to connect them, or the bits that are needed for the connection are simply not yet present.

2/5/2011 (Friday reviews for 2/4/2011 - Vampires!)

As Robert Burns says:

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley
Basically, I fouled up the internet connection here last night, and so was unable to post the other two posts I had promised to post. So, here is the vampire portion of yesterday's reviews.

Of the five vampiric novels I brought home this week, I have read two:

Bram Stoker - Dracula

It's hard to know what to say about this. Obviously, the book is now a classic (although it didn't really take off until after Stoker died in 1912), and a great deal has been said and written about it all over the place. Still, I suppose it's possible that someone hasn't read it, so. The novel is a fine example of an early novel form known as the epistolary novel, which is to say that the action is described through letters (and, largely in this case, diaries). While that provides a sense of realism, it has some considerable problems, because it places the reader at a remove from the action - there's the ever present sense that the characters are sitting down well after they've done whatever they are talking about to write it down. If you're not ready for it, this can be a little distracting.

Also off-putting for some is the fact that this is a Victorian novel, written by a Victorian author, and so the language is a little more formal than a modern reader might expect. Also, Stoker wrote with a set of cultural assumptions which are no longer considered normal, especially in regards to gender and ethnicity.

In terms of gender, the two prominent female characters, Lucy and Mina, are presented as delicate, as emotional, as somewhat out of step with reality. They need to be protected. There is some sneering about "modern women," and how they will probably propose to men in the future, rather than the other way around.
It seems logical to ascribe some misogyny to Stoker.

 In terms of ethnicity, the fact that Van Helsing speaks "foreignese" throughout the novel - he's Dutch, and so his English is convoluted and somewhat difficult to understand at times - and the fact that non-British characters are presented as somewhat backwards - the Slovaks are assumed to be dirty peasants unfamiliar with things like guns - indicate some ethnocentrism on the part of Stoker.

Or are either of those things really true? This is one of the things that makes this novel fascinating. Stoker doesn't write in his voice, instead, he writes in the voices of his characters. So, the assumptions above (with the exception of Van Helsing's English) are the assumptions of Harker and Godalming and Seward, and not, necessarily, of Stoker himself. Consider - Johnathan Harker sneers at the foreign superstitions that he encounters on his way to Castle Dracula - but those superstitions turn out to be entirely real. Van Helsing, odd diction and all, is the only one who really knows what is going on, the only one who is capable of applying the rigors of science to the experiences of Harker and co. And, further consider that it is the desire of Arthur, Andrew, Johnathan, James, and Quincy to protect Lucy and Mina* which puts the women in danger - if they had explained to Lucy what was happening to her, they could far more easily have protected her, and it is only because Mina is excluded from their planning and their activities that she is left alone for Dracula to prey on. Finally, Mina is instrumental in the tracking down and destroying of Dracula at the end of the book - perhaps Stoker was, quietly and subtly, criticizing the assumptions of his culture.

Clearly, there's a reason why this book is still as widely read as it is - there's a great deal of depth in it, and thus it still has the ability to fascinate audiences. If you have not read it, I do recommend that you do so - the link I've provided above is to the Public Domain version of the book, because the copyright has long since expired - an copy of Dracula that you have to pay for is enriching only scholars and publishing houses.

* Consider, as an example of cultural assumptions, how odd this looks - and yet, I can't say Westerna and Harker for the women, because I might be referring to Lucy's mother, or to Jonathan Harker.

Bekka Black - iDrakula

As an indication of the enduring nature of this story, consider this - a modern re-telling of the story, using text messages and e-mails. A fascinating experiment, and largely, I think, true to the spirit of the original, which was as much about the clash of modern technology (Seward's phonographic diary,Mina Harker's use of a typewriter, the race between sailing ships and steam trains, etc) and premodern superstition as anything else. So, when Johnathan vanishes from the narrative for the first time, it is because his e-mail can no longer connect, and he has lost the charger for his phone (or it has been stolen, perhaps?). A nice example of how our modern technological assumptions make writing some sorts of stories more difficult.

This book was much quicker to read than Stoker's version (perhaps because text messages are able to convey information more efficiently than letters?). Black has moved the action from London to "Gotham" in the US (Boston? New York? Hard to say), and has also compressed some of the characters to simplify the narrative somewhat. Additionally, there are some nice touches - for instance, the point where Johnathan suggests to Mina that he is collecting a recipe for her (Chicken Paprikash - and the scene is in the original), Mina responds that perhaps he is collecting it for himself - thus defining the gender relations right from the start.

Black deviates from Stoker in some of the places that many post-Stoker adaptations have done, such as placing Renfield in the law firm where Harker is interning (another modern touch) to explain how Renfield has made contact with Dracula. Black also changes the ending of the novel to be more consistent with her modern setting.  It's a little off-putting, and will doubtless throw purists into a tizzy (assuming the whole premise of the novel has not already done that), but it makes sense, and is ultimately satisfying.

A final interesting twist - the book is available as an iPhone app, enabling readers to experience the novel in a different, but thematically consistent, way. This was an interesting, and largely satisfying adaptation.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Review, 2/4/2011

There will be 3 posts today; this post, a vampire post, and a Honey Month post. This post will address the books I read at the end of last month.

Kathryn Stockett - The Help
This is a lovely historical novel about life in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It focuses on the fraught relationship between white middle-class homeowners and their black servants - the "help" of the title - at the height of the Civil Rights movement.  The book was often funny, and just as often painful. The plot centers on a project to document the lives of the servants - a sort of anthropological tell-all work.  Historically accurate for the most part (Stockett notes a few minor details which she moved around historically, like the introduction of Shake and Bake), and all in all a satisfying read. My mom recommended it, and I'm glad she did.

Terry Pratchett - Wee Free Men
This is the first of a quartet (thus far) of YA novels set in Pratchett's Discworld (mentioned earlier, see the Christmas Eve post). Focused on the actions of a young witch-in-training, Tiffany Aching, as she saves the world from an invasion by the Elf Queen.  This book has much of the characteristic humor that we've come to expect from Pratchett, with perhaps a few considerations for the YA market.  Unlike much of Pratchett's work, for instance, this book has chapters, which make it much easier to stop reading periodically. The protagonist is younger than in most of Pratchett's other works - 9 years old - and she approaches the world from a fairly straightforward YA sort of perspective.

The highlight of this book, and indeed the series, is the Wee Free Men of the title. Pictsies (so, basically, little Scotsmen), they approach the world with their own sort of straightforwardness - if it can't be eaten, drunk, stolen, or fought with, they are not interested in it. They believe that they died in an earlier life and are currently in heaven - with an abundance of good things to eat, drink, steal, and fight with, where else could they be?

Highly recommended for the 9-15 year old, or the adult with good contact with their inner young adult.

Kit Whitfield - Benighted

As I said when I brought this one home, I know Kit a little, which makes reviewing her book a little touchy - what if I don't like it? Thankfully, this is not the case - this was, for the most part, an excellent book. The premise - a world in which 99% of the population are werewolves (or, rather, "lunes," as they are called in the book), focusing on the 1% of non-lunes, as they struggle to survive as second class citizens - was interesting.  However, what made the book such a satisfying read, and one which I heartily recommend, was the characterization.  Ms. Whitfield has done a fantastic job of making her characters fully and believably human, and they are a delight to read.

That is not to say that they are likable - although I loved the characterization, I didn't particularly like the characters.  Non-lunes have a very important role in Whitfield's society. They are, almost to a person, members of the Department of Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. (DORLA) On full moons, they make sure that society continues to function by rounding up stray lunes who might injure themselves or others, and (it is suggested) by keeping the basic functions of the military running, so that no nation is able to attack another while the majority of the population is in animal form. In that capacity, they basically act as a medieval inquisition - indeed, the historical scraps that Whitfield provides state that the organization began as an inquisition. Lola May, the central character, is not a nice person, and she is not doing a nice job. Over the course of the novel, she grows as a character, and, given two or three more books, might turn into a nice person (or, alternatively, very much not), but she was exceedingly difficult to like in this book. And, because she was so well written, that didn't matter.

A note on Whitfield's lunes - they are not wolves. This is fascinating - there has been some effort by authors over the past couple of decades to make werewolves into people who become wolves, and thus live like wolves, even when in human form. Werewolves, in this construction, form packs, and act like wolves - that sort of werewolf would never run amok, or madly attack humans, or anything of that nature. Whitfield's lunes are not wolves who become human, they are humans who, in beast form, are stripped of all the human inhibitions without gaining any of the animal instincts - they are the sort of beast who would destroy livestock, or attack a human without thinking, or damage themselves.

The combination of utterly bestial lunes and the inquisitional nature of DORLA really dictate the tone of the book - this is a dark novel, which deals with dark and painful matters. It does what all good speculative fiction does - it forces the readers to confront their own world (where people behave in a bestial fashion towards each other with the excuse of lycanthropy), while maintaining an enjoyable narrative. This is not an easy book, and, in places, it's not even a particularly pleasant book, but it is a very very good book.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Honey Month, day 3 (2/3/2011)

eta: Link to the original is up now.

"Day 3 - Sag Harbor, NY, Early Spring Honey

Colour: Pale and clear as snowmelt, just about as much coulor as a Riesling.

Smell: The colour must be affecting me - but, crystals, cool sugar crystals. If honey were water. As I pull it out of the imp*, I think of a stingless jellyfish I once held in the palm of my hand, in Oman. Very faint hint of citrus, too, but more grapefruit than lemon.

Taste: This honey tastes like winter. No - it tastes like the end of winter, but not quite spring. It tastes like those days where you can still see clumps of snow on the ground and the air is heavy with damp but it all smells so good because snowmelt is like that, the trees are black and fragrant though they've barely begun to bud. Refreshing; the sweetness isn't cloying, it's faint and gentle and almost an afterthought. My favorite so far."

Actually, I prefer the description of the honey today to the scrap of fiction; a short-short about a harbor with a bee hive. The description summons memories of exactly that time of year, which is my favorite. The short fiction really doesn't do anything for me today - it's nice, and evocative, but it doesn't evoke anything spectacular for me. This is bound to happen sometimes in a collection like this, I suppose - some of the pieces will speak more directly to one reader than another. This piece, for instance, is one of the favorites of Danielle Sucher, who wrote the introduction to the book, because it speaks to her in a way that it does not to me.

*for those unfamiliar with the custom perfume thing, an imp is a small glass tube with a secure plastic stopper. Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab sells perfume samples in them, and clearly Amal's honey was shipped in them. They look like this, and are, for many, the preferred size for collecting and trading perfumes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 2 (2/2/2011)

I'll post links to Amal's re-posts as the re-posts become available.

eta: link added

"Day 2 - Peach Creamed Honey

Colour: Pale and cloudy, like lemonade

Smell: Rather unpleasant; sweaty underthings, but with a hint of lemon beyond it.

Taste: Oh, so delicious. Sweet, syrup-sweet, thick and sugary. I have to think of peaches to discern a peachy flavour; it comes out at the back of my mouth, the top of my throat. It's a mischievous honey, sexy and wry."

A poem today, partially blank verse, partially rhymed. It toys around the edges of a sonnet, but is not a sonnet. It is a poem of seduction, and it's steamy, full of double entendre and, indeed, single entendre. Peaches are sexy (because soft, moist, juicy, and sticky things are strongly evocative of sex), and it's hard, I think, to write a poem about peaches without it becoming a poem about sex. Amal doesn't even try to avoid it - as she says of the honey, this poem is "sexy and wry."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 1 (2/1/2011)

A note, first, on what I'm doing. Last February, Amal El-Mohtar wrote a series of short stories and poems in response to a selection of honey that one of her friends sent her. The result is a slim book called The Honey Month, with 28 little pieces of writing and 28 descriptions of honey. I reviewed the book back a ways, and I liked it, but thought it might be better if read slower. So, this month, I will read one selection a day, and make a short comment about them.

Amal is a lovely person, one of those people who makes writing look easy. In addition to this book, she has a poem in the most recent Borderlands (Welcome to Bordertown) book, and a short story in SteamPowered, a collection of lesbian Steampunk fiction. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online zine.

I'm going to include the honey descriptions, but you'll have to buy the book for the rest:

"Day 1 - Fireweed Honey

Smell: Slightly resinous, warm, not very strong.

Colour: Mellow gold, an almost "typical" honey colour - what you'd imagine saying "honey tones" would mean, referring to hair or wood.

Taste: Gentle. Very similar to clover honey, but not quite as sweet: mellow, kind. No unusual notes; all I can think is "mm, honey," but without that extra quality that makes me so keenly understand the line from Romeo and Juliet where honey is "loathsome in its own deliciousness," where the sweetness takes on an added dimension so different from sugar, in a way that scrunches your nose when you're a child but closes your eyes when you're grown up. If I were to attempt to be sophisticated I'd say it was understated. Delicious, all the same."

The story here feels a little incomplete. I recall that I spent much of the rest of the book hoping there would be more to this particular story. As I mentioned in my earlier review, much of the fiction is reminiscent of Cat Valente, to whom the work is dedicated. This piece, with its dreamy protagonist and its star girl, is particularly in the Valente mold. This is not to suggest that it is derivative - Amal has a strong voice which is entirely her own - merely that it is easy to see the influence of the one upon the other here. Anyway, a tantalizing first taste, mysterious and sweet, but not cloying, with a hint of danger and wildness. Delightful.

ETA: Amal is re-running the original blog posts that were eventually collected as The Honey Month, with additional commentary, starting here. You should go and take a look, you won't regret it.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Wil Wheaton on Librarians

As part of my (tenuous) on going campaign in favor of libraries (libraries are cool, and you should support your local library!), I give you a link to an article from Wil Wheaton's blog on librarians, and their awesomeness.

Monday Library Post, 1/31/2011

Ok, so I'm all ready for snowpocalypse (which probably won't be, because it never is) with a largeish stack of vampire novels for Blood and Honey Month.

Bram Stoker - Dracula

This seemed like a logical place to start.

Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt - Dracula: The Un-Dead

A sequel. To Dracula. No, really.

Dacre Stoker is the great-grand nephew of Bram Stoker, and Ian Holt is a Dracula expert. I don't know how much writing Stoker did and how much Holt did, but this seemed like an apropos moment to pick this one up.

Bekka Black - iDrakula

A modern re-telling of Dracula, using e-mails and text messages. How could I resist? We'll see how it holds up to the original.

Leonard Wolf - A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead
Non-fiction book about "the role of the vampire in civilization ... from ancient Egypt to contemporary [1970s] American." I got a raft of recommendations from folks at Slactivist, and this was one of them.

Brian Meehl - Suck it Up

Vampires in the 21st century - drinking Blood Lite - a soy based blood substitute - and trying to organize Vampire Pride parades. Meehl was, at one point, a puppeteer on Sesame Street, so, naturally, he has experience with vampires.

That should keep me busy for a while.

A reminder, I will also be re-reading Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month (now available through Amazon!) starting tomorrow.