Monday, May 24, 2010

Reading Genre

Hello, blogspot! I have been AWOL for most of the month, but I have been a busy worker bee, and I have read BOOKS. And now I shall tell you about them!

But before I do, I want to talk about Genre, because I feel like this blogging attempt needs to come with a very heavy disclaimer, and that is that the experience of reading genre literature is still very knew to me. And inevitably when I talk about it, I will say things that make me sound like a freshman trying on new ideas and finding them extraordinary, when everyone else is politely rolling their eyes and waiting for the n00b to pass out of the 101 level.

Historically I grew up reading children's literature and literary fiction. I read a little mystery & a little detective noir, and a lot of Damon Runyon-esque Americana, but that was basically it. By the same token, I almost never watched tv and stuck mostly to movies.

I didn't honestly discover wider worlds of genre literature until Harry Potter fandom shoved me into an armchair and said "look, you need to understand what the rest of us are all talking about."

To put it in blunter terms: before I came to fandom, I had never heard of Neil Gaiman. I didn't know why Watchmen was extraordinary, and I didn't know what a Cthulhu was, let alone how to spell it without Googling. I had no idea that the casual off-the-cuff style of slang my friends and I had been using all through college had actually come directly from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought that I hated all fantasy, and that the only romance writer worth talking about was Georgette Heyer. And Sci-fi? Forget about it.

Needless to say, I have been on a decade-long quest to disabuse myself of my own ignorance.

But that often means that when I read genre, I feel like I'm coming into the tail end of conversations that have been taking place long before I got here. For instance: when I read Un Lun Dun, I knew in a visceral way that it was responding to general fantasy and YA tropes that I was attuned to; but I didn't understand exactly where that conversation began until I read Neverwhere a year later. And just as Mieville is responding to Gaiman, is responding to Ellison, is responding to Lovecraft, and on and on, these lines between things sometimes get lost for me.

I think, in general, I'm pretty good at picking up the threads. For instance, I feel like I have read enough about sci-fi/fantasy, if not enough sff, to figure out the ways in which N.K. Jemisin's magnificent Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be responding to Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin, yes, but also Lovecraft and Heinlein.

But it's a really vague, wispy sort of knowledge, and I can always use more of it.

So this is a blanket request:
Please pardon the mess of my own ignorance. My genre education is under construction.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

I have tentatively decided to try out a double format for reviewing books--aka, there will be two posts about each book: the fandom version, posted on my LJ/DW, and the reviewer version (that's you guys). Please let me know if you think it works/doesn't work/is ridiculous/is awesome, etc! :D

Last week I read Alcestis, the debut novel by Katharine Beutner and a subversive, powerful retelling of the Greek myth of the woman who trades places with her husband to journey into the Underworld.
They knew the child's name only because her mother died cursing it.
So springs the title character, in a wash of blood and anger, onto the pages of Katharine Beutner's beautiful book about a princess whose coming of age literally involves going to hell and back.

Pick your poison: Read the Fandom Version or the Reviewer Version (below):

Alcestis, careful and proud, lit with mesmerizing flashes of a turbulent inner life, has a quiet, subtly wry voice that moves the first third of this novel quickly through a fluid, shutter-lens view of Ancient Greece. It's hard initially for Alcestis to separate herself from the rest of the maids in the palace of Iolcus. Through Beutner's consistently expanding voice, we see her dawning awareness of what it means to be a woman in a nobleman's court:

All my life I had been given warnings: eyes down, voice soft, knees together. You're different, the servants had told me. You are not like us. We are not like you. A royal girl must lie like an undiscovered island, quiet and empty, skin clear and pure as miles of open shore just waiting for that first footprint, the rut of the hull in the sand, the press of discovery.

I'd listened, and I'd believed them, but I had not cared. Purity came easily to me -- I was young and alone and untempted. But as I watched the dancers, I thought I saw what the serving maids had meant. I was meant for marriage. I would marry, but I could never reveal to a man what was damp and hungry in me, not like these girls, these laughing children, destined to be shepherds' wives or sailors' mistresses, to die bearing or beaten or old. I leaned against the wall and I felt the skin of my inner thighs brush, the dry slide of hot skin and tiny hairs.
Alcestis's grief and yearning for her sister Hippothoe runs deep and strong; overshadowed only by her longing for freedom and agency over her own life. It's no accident that she finds it only when she's already dead.

But death is anything but final: Alcestis' journey into the Underworld moves us into the realm of dark, delicious things--in other words, from purely intriguing to purely AWESOME. (And by "awesome," I mean "hot," and by "hot," I mean I mean "terrifying," and by "terrifying," I mean, "holy crap, The Underworld!" by which I mean AWESOME.)

Alcestis the myth is also Alcestis the woman--her voice is indisputably, refreshingly, feminized and feminist. But Alcestis is anything but that simple; her agency doesn't change the somberness that hangs over her life or her destiny; and fatalism can't cloud this novel's moments of pure delight, discovery, and ecstasy--the sensuous raw danger of the Underworld, with irresistible Persephone as its queen, or Alcestis' transformation into a woman whose life and loves are given back to her, even as she explores the realities and surrealities of death.

A big part of Alcestis' appeal is the pleasure of watching familiar myths interwoven with new stories and new themes -- the knife-edged hospitality rituals Alcestis' father and his fellow noblemen exact; Alcestis's charming but weak husband Admetus, who has secrets of his own; the haunting co-dependence of Hades & Persephone; the way sexuality threads through each of these stories. But far greater is the sheer awareness and vividness of Alcestis' voice, which grows more and more sonorous with the dawning of her consciousness and selfhood, until she echoes in your mind for days after reading, and her final mythical 3 days of silence is nothing if not a shout.

But if Alcestis walks into hell in much the way Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean, her own awakening also comes at a price. Whether that price is ultimately as devastating as Persephone herself, I will leave to you, gentle buyer of books, which you can do at any of the following locations:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

State of the Blog!

This is my first Bookshopaholic post! I am kind of crazy-excited! But first I want to outline some things.

My name is Aja, which is pronounced "Asia," like the continent or the Steely Dan album. I live in Coastal Virginia on a riverside waterfront, over a trufax nautical steampunk shop. I've been casually watching book blogs and writing blogs and agent blogs and editor blogs and author blogs for about a year and a half. Fandom is what brung me, so my reactions to things that I read are by and large fandom-oriented.

Fandom, at least my part of it, tends to be fairly progressive (though we are not without our faults, especially as regards our reception of minority and female characters). We tend to be uber-critical of the source material and uber-enthusiastic when we love something.

So, all that being said, here's a list of things you can possibly expect this blog and/or its writer to do:
  • Be pretty blunt when I don't like something.
  • Critique the text through female-oriented/cultural/queer readings.
  • Bitterly hate 80% of YA and squeal excitedly about the other 20%
  • Occasionally rant about Issues in YA, or in fandom as they relate to YA.
  • Be skewed pretty progressive, but have kneejerk protective impulses towards the following: rural America, the South, and protestant/conservative Christianity in the U.S.
  • Use fandom terminology and concepts. I don't think I'll get too deep into fandom waters, but if you have any questions, just ask. :)
  • Ridicule you if you think sweet tea is just a cute "nickname for tea with two heaping spoonfuls of sugar added." - Sea Change, 2009
  • Occasionally devolve into a full-on babbling, gibbering fangirl, possibly because you just mentioned one of my literary heroes. I'd tell who they are, but I started hyperventilating in glee while trying to type the words.
My main, primarily fandom-oriented journal, is bookshop on LJ, also duplicated on Dreamwidth. Hurrah and welcome! :)