Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Honey Month, day 12 (2/12/2011)

"Day 12 - Red Gum Honey

Colour: Another in the white wine series. This one has much of dawn over rivers to it, says Italian Pinot Grigio to me.

Smell: Pie crusts just shy of brown. A hint of molasses.

Taste: A perfect honey. It's all gold brown and dark sugar, all mellow, its texture that languorous liquid that makes women sing  slow like honey in aching voices. It has this beautiful elasticity to it; I can twirl it around the imp's wand like I'm using it to sign my name. There's a vanilla flavour here, that must be the baking association. But it also casts my mind back to the first honeys I tasted, and I can't remember at all, now, when I first tasted honey - I think it must have been in a pita wrap with cheese, that's how my mother would have served it. I'll have to ask her. Meantime it's childhood and my grandmother and the word  assal, and while I'm acutely aware of the  each lovelier than the last dynamic in most of these descriptions, I think this is my favourite one to date."

 Oh! Another languorous sensuous poem, quite delicious, and full of tempting innuendo. Unrequited love, in a triangle this time - I love him, and he loves her, and she won't be caught by whatever he does - sweet, and a little sad. I hesitate to call it a perfect poem, because what is that beast, anyway, but it is lovely. I would add nothing, I would remove nothing, and so it should be in the consideration for poetic perfection, if such exists.

More on Libraries in the UK

My visitor stats indicate that I have several readers in the UK, or at least one reader who checks the blog several times a week, so I don't feel entirely out of place posting information about libraries in the UK. Further, I remind readers in the US that libraries are similarly threatened here.

Marcus Moore, an author in Gloucestershire, discusses the frustrations involved in campaigning for libraries.

Phillip Pullman, the author of several very good YA novels, before there were YA novels, on the value of public libraries and why cutting them is stupid and short sighted. He says what I want to say with a higher level of eloquence than I could possibly muster.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Reviews, 2/11/2011

More blood, but also some laughing this week.

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

A sequel to Dracula.  Ambitious, and a deliberate attempt to address an issue with US copyright law - because Bram Stoker did not cross every t and dot every i, Dracula has been in the public domain in the US since 1899. That means that, when people noticed that the story was pretty good, round about 1912, and started adapting for film, they did not have to ask permission. As a result, most of the film versions have taken rather a lot of liberties with the original story. So, part of the purpose of this sequel was to get something called Dracula out into the market with the Stoker name on it. This is, perhaps, commendable, and is also evidence of the best part of the book - the short essays at the back about the history of Stoker's novel and the decision to write this novel, and the explanation for the liberties that were taken with the original text to make it conform to the sequel.

Wait, what? The essays complain about the liberties taken by film makers, and yet the authors take liberties of their own? Indeed. Stoker and Holt made a conscious decision to merge the narratives of the original novel with the most popular elements of the film version. In the original, for instance, Dracula can go out during the day, he is only greatly weakened by sunlight. In the sequel's version of the original, sunlight is anathema to the vampires, as has become widely accepted in the years since Stoker's book. Many of the movie versions have some sort of romantic relationship between Dracula and Mina Harker - Holt and Stoker incorporate that, even explaining where it might have slipped into Bram's original. These alterations and others were included, say the authors, so that people who had only experienced the story through the movies could still connect with the sequel.

Leaving aside the possibly faulty logic of that assertion, the authors also changed some other things for their own narrative purposes - most notably, moving the action of the original novel backwards in time from 1893 to 1888, so that it coincided with the Jack the Ripper case. This allowed them to set the sequel in 1912, which allows for a cameo appearance by Bram Stoker, while still having Quincy Harker be old enough to logically participate in the action of this novel. This, I found to be somewhat more dubious than the inclusion of alterations from the film versions - was it really necessary to have Bram in the novel? For that matter, would 5 years really have made that much difference in re: Quincy? I'm not sure that his age was every definitively established, but if we assume that he was born in 1888, or even 1889, he would be 23 or 24. Surely 18 or 19 is entirely old enough to participate in a monster hunt - perhaps even more logical, given that Quincy's role is to be headstrong, naive, and brash - characteristics more suited to late teens than early twenties.

Anyway. The foundation of the novel is shaky, because of the changes that Holt and Stoker felt necessary to include in the original, and the rest of the novel rests uneasily on that shaky foundation. Once you've altered the setting, changing the characters is not too much of stretch, and so that stretch is made. I felt that the decision not to use letters and diary entries as the primary narrative form was a mistake as well - granted, a more conventional (by today's standards) narrative form allows the authors to fill in narrative gaps that letters and diaries are prone to, but to completely leave the element out of the sequel seems like a mistake. (I know, I complained about the letters and diaries in the original - surely there is a happy balance between all epistolary and not at all?)

In the final assessment, I did not really like this book. It was a bold idea, and had a great deal of potential, but the authors were timid where they should have been bold and inclined to blaze new trails where hewing to the original would have been a better idea. I did finish the novel. I think I would be inclined to say that, were it not a sequel to Dracula, but rather a vampire novel in its own right, it would have worked quite nicely. The reliance on the Stoker name and the desire to write a sequel were, I think, a mistake.

After the serious Dracula business of last week, this week I went for something rather lighter: vampires as comedy. I started with:

Brian Meehl - Suck it Up

This was not as funny as I thought it would be. There were several cutely amusing bits - names of characters, little character quirks, things like that - but the novel was quite serious, and increasingly so as I made my way through it. Meehl understands something that Holt and Stoker seemed to have forgotten - vampires work very well as metaphors, and less well as protagonists. Here, the vampires are a stand in for many other minorities in society struggling to get their justice and full citizenship. Meehl tells a strong story about the desire of the majority of vampires to leave the selve obscura (the dark woods) and enter the daylight world as full and equal partners with "lifers." He has carefully thought out the implications of vampirism, and kept the bits that make sense in his narrative while discarding much of the rest - his vampires, through careful training, can walk in the daylight, for instance.

The plot: Morning McCobb, 16 year old vampire and brand new graduate of the International Vampire League academy has been chosen (for a series of highly logical reasons) to be the first vampire to publicly reveal himself - the "Jackie Robinson of the Vampire League", as he is called several times. With the assistance of a savvy PR director, McCobb gets his 15 minutes of fame. Some old vampires, who don't want to live peacefully with humans, try to stop him. Moderate mayhem ensues.

There were two things I didn't like. First, there is a fairly significant plot point in which McCobb acts completely against type, which was explained, but still troubling, and I'm not sure it was necessary. Second, Meehl in his author's note thanks "all those politically correct producers in children's television [Meehl was a puppeteer for Sesame Street, and wrote for Between the Lions] who, over the years, have saved me from ignorantly offending minorities I was unaware of." While it's possible to read this as straight thanks, it felt a little off to me - to easy to put a tongue in cheek spin on, too much like "gosh, those easily offended minorities." I dunno, perhaps I reading something there that  I shouldn't, but it seemed ... off, given the content of the book.

Despite that, a surprisingly deep and complex narrative, I really enjoyed this one. It was a quick read, the characters were engaging, the action was good, there was a touch of romance, and a happy ending.

Christopher Moore - Bite Me and You Suck

These are, respectively, the third and second of Moore's vampire trilogy, which starts with Blood Sucking Fiends, which my library didn't have. I read them in the above order, and I think the experience was better for it.

Moore is a comic author, and his books are quite genuinely funny. There were several places where I was literally laughing out loud through these books. They were a rollicking good time, a romp even. Jody and Tommy are two young folks, in love, in San Francisco. They are also freshly turned vampires, trying to figure out what that means. They are surrounded by a complex cast of wacky characters, from Abby Normal (goth/valley girl, and blogger), their minion, and her friend, Jared (goth, also), to a group of Safeway night stockers (stoners) who seem intent on hunting Jody and Tommy down. There's a fairly significant role played by a man claiming to be the Emperor of San Francisco (and his two dogs), and there is a pair of homicide cops who would really like to retire and open a book store. In the second book, there is a Las Vegas call girl whose schtick is that she's dyed blue, and a truly ancient vampire (who turned Jody in the first book) who is stalking San Francisco. This cast interacts, they misconstrue things, they get in each other's way, they jump to conclusions, they fail to pick up cues, and, ultimately, hilarity ensues.

There are two problems with Moore, though. First, the comedy is often fairly shallow, based on character traits and stereotypes. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't make for particularly satisfying novels - popcorn, rather than steak. Second, he has a nasty tendency to write himself into corners, and then introduce powerful new characters with a solution to the corner in the last 1/3 or 1/4 of the book - deus ex machina, largely. It's like he hasn't properly figured out how to get from his initial starting point to his ultimate conclusion before he sits down to write, and doesn't go back to pull his later arrivals more neatly into the narrative. As a result, Bite Me is, mostly, a more satisfying novel than You Suck (although I found the ending of Bite Me to be a bit of a down note in an otherwise up novel).

Additionally, trigger warnings for references to cutting, suicide, eating disorders, and, possibly, broad gay stereotypes.

Terry Pratchett - Carpe Jugulum

Mr. Pratchett, as is often the case, proves that a novel can be both truly fantastically funny, and also very deep and philosophical, often at the same time.

King Verance and Queen Magrat of the tiny Discworld country of Lancre, have had a baby. To the christening (although, is it a christening in a world where there is no Christ? Hard to say, actually.), Verance invites neighboring dignitaries, include the Count and Countess Magpyr and their children - vampires from nearby Uberwald. This was, it turns out, a bad idea. The attempt by the Magpyr's to take over Lancre is thwarted by the resident witches, Nanny Ogg, Agnes Nitt, Magrat (the Queen, yes), and Granny Wetherwax. They accomplish their task with a great deal of funny puns, footnotes, innuendo, and sheer bloody mindedness. En route, Pratchett delivers a simple and delightful meditation on the nature of faith and religion - "sin is treating people as if they are things."

Here, incidentally, the vampires are both a metaphor (for dictatorial governments, perhaps, or multi-national corporations, or, possibly, a mindless desire to advance without retaining any traditions - or something else, that's the wonder of metaphors, really) and satisfying characters, at the same time. The humor is of a highly British sort (I firmly assert that most British humor comes from placing characters in situations where they absolutely fit, and then intensifying their natural predilections to hilarious effect. American humor comes from taking characters and putting them where they do not fit at all, and watching them flail about, trying to make sense of their new environment.). This is also, I think, the first appearance of the Nac Mac Feegle pictsies - Pratchett fleshes them out and makes them somewhat more comprehensible in the Tiffany Aching series, but the broad strokes of the characters are here, the fighting, the drinking, "the snaffling o' coobeasties," the swearing (Crivens!). I had forgotten that they were in this book first.

That was it. Next week, vampire romances, which might be funny, but not on purpose, perhaps.

Library Activism in the UK

From an NPR story yesterday:

Libraries play a vital role in communities all over; closing a library is like snuffing out one of the candles which keep the darkness of ignorance at bay. Closing libraries produces very short term benefits in terms of budgets, but result in long term and often irreversible losses - as John Dougherty, the last guy quoted in the article, says, "If you lay off your staff and sell off your library buildings, then when the good times come, you have nothing." Restarting a library is infinitely more difficult than closing it was, because you have to start from scratch; new building, new books, new staff - libraries grow slowly, so that each year's cost is so much smaller than the value of the institution.

This story is about libraries in the UK, but the same story is being repeated all over the United States as well, and it's not just libraries - it's parks, it's playgrounds, it's after school programs - in California, it's school programs like music and art and PE (these are paid for by the PTA, not the school - so if you are in a poor school district where the PTA can't gather the funds to pay for an art teacher or a PE teacher - the kids don't do PE or art. Sorry kids, you should have been smart enough to get born to rich people!)

The Honey Month, Day 11 (2/11/2011)

eta: note link.

"Day 11 - Blackberry Honey

Colour: dark amber, almost identical to a Betty Stog's bitter*, ascertained by the fact that I held my imp up to a glass of the latter. Let it not be said that I am less than rigorous in my booze-inspired descriptions.

Smell: Faint and mellow; grass and earth, but not cut grass, not that mown-lawn smell, but a scent that's clean and warm and sweet. Caramel 'round its edges.

Taste: This tastes like a mouthful of ripe blueberries. Not so much black; there isn't that tart juiciness of the blackberry. It's much more the fleshy freshness of blueberries. That texture, in fact."

A longer blank verse poem today. I must confess that I do not get all of the references - Alexander and David vs Goliath the Philistine, and a strong sense of loss and desertion - but it is perhaps metaphorically about the removal of the Palestinians? Amal has asserted in the past that the Biblical Philistines are the modern Palestinians, and I have no reason to disagree with her - certainly, the poem places the sympathy with Goliath's Philistines and not David's Israelites.**

For all that I'm not entirely sure what the poem is about (so I'm waiting, eagerly, for Amal's DVD extras today), it is deeply affective; there is a strong sense of loss and displacement, and it makes me feel sad and uncomfortable. That, I think, is one of the marks of a good poem - it cuts through the images to make a direct impact upon the reader.

* It's beer, a Cornish microbrew. Bitters are traditionally quite dark in colour.

** I've been discussing cultural assumptions with my students for the past couple of weeks; the way in which an author assumes that she shares a set of cultural references with her audience that will make the metaphors work in her writing.  We've been looking at poetry and prose from the late 1700's, where the authors assume a level of familiarity with Christian scripture and the Greek and Roman classics - a familiarity that my students do not have; that most modern readers do not have. This poem is an excellent example of twisting those assumptions - most of us in Western societies know the David and Goliath story, but we instinctively associate and sympathize with David. Amal asks us to reconsider those assumptions, as a good poet must, if she is doing her job.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 10 (2/10/2011)

"Day 10 - French Rhododendron Honey

Colour: The colour of sugar dissolving in hot water; that white cloudiness, with a faint yellow tint I can only see when looking at it slantwise, to the left of me, not when I hold it up to the light.

Smell: Strange, it has almost no scent at all; it's also crystallized, so it's a bit difficult to scoop some out with the wand, but it smells cold with an elusive citrus squirt hovering about its edges.

Taste: There is a kind of sugar cube my grandfather used to give my sister and me every morning when we were small, not so much a cube as a cabochon, irregularly rounded, clear and cloudy by turns. It was called sikkar nabet, which is "plant sugar." This tastes like it. The honey taste is so pale, so faint, it really is almost sugar water. I'm reminded of maple sap in buckets, right at the beginning of the boiling process that produces maple syrup, where it's still water enough to be used for steeping tea."

Two haiku today
One which is written in French
Is this showing off?

My French is only really good enough to approximate the second haiku, but they seem to be a matched set, one replying to the other from opposite sides of the Atlantic, with the moon as the pivot. They are both ethereal and lovely, as (well written) haiku tend to be. There is a continuity there, as well - as the honey recalls Amal's grandfather's sugar candy (and I went looking for some sort of link or image of sikkar nabet, and could not find one), the first haiku recalls the second, and both recall the sugar candy - delightful.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 9 (2/9/2011)

eta: link is up now.

"Day 9 - Zambian Honey

Colour: Mulled cider; caramelized orange peels.

Smell: Dry and fresh at once, like a windy wheat field. Sunshine - my first impression. Spring sunshine, golden without heat, because the wind's stolen it away. But also earth; not damp, but not cracked dry. Earth just shy of being dust, caked gold.

Taste: This is the first of the honeys to have crystallised in the vial; I drew the wand out covered in chunks. Oh, and it is dry and burnished, caramel tones, burnt-sugar tasting and thick, strong; close to buckwheat honey, that distinctive taste, brown. Makes me think of the scent of beeswax, and the darker colours of it, too."

A nice poem of unrequited love with dry baked earth and bees as potent metaphors. Irregular meter, and occasional rhymes. Simple, short, sweet, and a little sad.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 8 (2/8/2011)

"Day 8 - Raspberry Creamed Honey

Colour: Close to cognac but a little lighter, with a hint of pale pink rose when the light shines through it; also, very evenly cloudy.

Smell: Hmm. Similarly to the peach creamed honey, there's an unpleasantness - an odd non-food smell, like sugared belly-button fuzz*, and warm.

Taste: Pure raspberries. Raspberries made golden. Tart sharpness made smooth, and it's amazing. Much clearer fruit taste than the other creamed honeys so far."

Ooooo, another example of dreamy magic realism, delicious. As Amal's DVD extra for today suggests (I'm late in posting today), this piece is a little meta, but I think it works perfectly well without the back story too. It's a beautiful piece of writing which, like yesterday's, hints at a bigger narrative while standing entirely on its own.

No discussion of belly-button fuzz within the story, though - only flaw.

*ummm, ok, ewww?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday Library Post, 2/7/2011

Ok. So, after all the Dracula of last week (and I'm finishing up Dracula: The Un-Dead right now [and I don't like it much]) I've decided to start out this week with vampire humor. To that end, I have the following:

Terry Pratchett - Carpe Jugulum

This is Pratchett's take on the vampire genre - I recall it being fairly good, but I've only read it once, so we'll see. For those of you familiar with Pratchett, but not this book in particular, it's part of the Witches sub-series. It is a Discworld novel, and so you can expect a few things - a send up of the genre, naturally, some interesting philosophical discussions, and an appearance by DEATH. Also, footnotes.

Christopher Moore - Bite Me and You Suck

These are the second and third of Moore's vampire trilogy. Generally, it is felt that the first book (Bloodsucking Fiends) is better than either of these, but my local library doesn't have a copy. I have ambivalence about Moore, which I will no doubt discuss when I'm done with the books.

Those go with the book from last Monday, Suck it Up, by Brian Meehl, which I haven't read yet.

From there, we go into vampires as romance protagonists with:

Kerrelyn Sparks - Be Still my Vampire Heart

This would appear to be the 3rd in a series, but whatever. It's a vampire romance. The vampire is a Scottish Highlander. The non-vampire is a CIA agent. Vampires, Highlanders, and risky undercover operatives - if there were vikings, this might be the ur Romance novel.

Lynn Viehl - Twilight Fall

It's a novel of the Darkyn. He's an immortal vampire wracked with guilt, she's a landscape designer makred for death by an shadowy organisation. They fall insatiably in love. I'm not sure how this book could possibly be anything less than good.

J.R. Ward - Lover Avenged

I really wanted the first book of the "Black Dagger Brotherhood" series, but the library didn't seem to have a copy. When I asked people for recommendations, Ward came up, with some considerable disagreement about how good the books were. I'll let you know.

Finally, I have some oddball books, which I probably won't get to until next week:

John Steakley - Vampire$

I've read this one before, and I recall I quite liked it. The movie adaptation was not very good, though. Anyway, this is a book about people who make money by hunting vampires - I recall it being somewhat darkly humorous.

Fred Saberhagen - A Question of Time

Saberhagen brings us back to Dracula - this is the last (?) of Saberhagen's novels involving Dracula as a private detective, which begins with The Dracula Tapes. I've read several of these, and they are not bad - I don't think I've read this one.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro - Borne in Blood

I could hardly do a vampire month without looking at Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain, so here's one of those.

February may, actually, be too short for this theme - I think I have books to last me the next two weeks, and I haven't even gotten to the Robin McKinley and the Nancy Baker. We shall see.

The Honey Month, Day 7 (2/7/2011)

eta: link exists.

"Day 7 - Thistle Honey

Colour: Sauvignon Blanc again; pale clear gold.

Smell: Similar to clover honey*, light, with a tiny bit of green apple.

Taste: Intriguing - definitely an apple taste, definitely green apple, and again, this is one of the refreshing ones; there's a crispness and a mellowness at once, and I feel it's playful, a child among honeys, but a wise-eyed child, somehow, the kind to whom you'd speak seriously one moment before tickling the next."**

I absolutely adore today's piece of fiction, certainly one of my favorites in the book. It's a DeLintesque piece of modern magic, although entirely El-Mohtar in voice and spirit. Cornwall is one of those places where you feel that things of an other nature might happen - it has that whole King Arthur vibe. Anyway, an absolutely delightful piece of fiction, fully complete and satisfying in itself - a little longer than some of the other works in the book, but clearly happy to be itself, and not yearning for another little piece to connect it to something else.

* clover honey is the sort of honey you usually get in the store; the stuff in the squeezy bear.

** note that this paragraph is evidence that Amal would make an excellent aunt.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 6 (2/6/2011)

"Day 6 - Lemon Creamed Honey

Colour: Pale yellow and cloudy, just about the colour of lemon flesh.

Smell: I've described others as having a faint citrus after-scent, but this one has a real lemon bite to it, makes me expect to see bits of pulp in the vial.

Taste: Refreshing. The lemon in this is like morning light, its sweetness juicy rather than sugary, without the slightest hint of tartness or sourness, like lemon and honey bind in a way that cancels out the less desirable qualities of each and marries only their virtues together. Delicious."

Today's writing is a short poem, with a strong rhyme, an ABA ABA scheme. The rhythm seems a little off to me, some of the lines a little shorter than others, but it works - it's sort of a walking/marching chant, and so the rhythm pulls you along, forcing you into a particular stride. It's also an odd cautionary tale - perhaps, sometimes, it is not wise to go against the warnings of others? But, I'm not sure - there is a sense of regret at the end of the poem, but at the same time, there is the strong implication that there was no other choice than the one the speaker made, and the laughter at the end does not seem to be directed at the speaker - perhaps it is a welcoming laughter. So, it's not entirely clear if this poem is a "march to the beat of your own drum" poem or a "march to the beat of the drum for which you are suited" poem, or something in between. I like it.

eta: Amal points out that this poem is a villanelle, one of two in the collection. From wikipedia:

villanelle is a poetic form which entered English-language poetry in the 19th century from the imitation of French models. The word derives from the Italian villanella from Latin villanus (rustic). A villanelle has only two rhyme sounds. The first and third lines of the first stanza are rhyming refrains that alternate as the third line in each successive stanza and form a couplet at the close. A villanelle is nineteen lines long, consisting of five tercets and one concluding quatrain. In music, it is a dance form, accompanied by sung lyrics or an instrumental piece based on this dance form.

I can totally see this piece as a dance form.

A note on what's going on here. Two years ago, Amal El-Mohtar began a month long exploration of a variety of honeys, tasting and describing each, and then writing a short piece of fiction, or a poem, or something of that nature which was inspired by the honey of the day. Last year, these posts were collected into a short book - more formal than a simple chapbook, perhaps - called The Honey Month, which I reviewed when it came out. My biggest problem, at that time, was that I ploughed through the book too quickly, and so I resolved to do a more careful reading of it at a later date. That later date is now - the posts were originally a February project, and so there are 28 honey days. This is now February, and I cannot think of a better time to slowly read poems and stories about honey. The material in quotation marks is the description of the day's honey, from the book (so that you get a good taste of Amal's lovely writing), what follows that is a brief thought about the piece of poetry or fiction of that day from yours truly.

In addition to my daily reviews, Amal has been re-running the original posts with what she is describing as "DVD Extras," some commentary on the piece for the day, some discussion of the differences between the original post and the finished piece in the book, and some delicious LJ Honey Month icons. The first of the re-runs is here, and I have been linking the appropriate post via the daily title, above, as the post becomes available. Amal is currently in England (because she is fabulous), and so her sense of what time it is and my sense of what time it is are somewhat askew. And that's ok.

(A further note on spelling - Amal is Canadian (as am I, for that matter), and so she spell colour and many other words in the proper way. She also pronounces Z as zed, like the entire rest of the world.)