Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Game of Thrones: First Chapters, First Impressions
My Home Town, Actually
I am familiar with this kind of book: its endpapers includes a map of the imagined land, it has characters with vaguely familiar but ultimately non-Earth names, and it uses language that lightly imitates the diction and structure of medieval English. Its familiarity is comforting, but I am hoping for more than a routine fantasy novel (there are so many of them).

I like the idea of a story set in winter, though, there again, the idea of a land cursed by an evil entity goes at least as far back as JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Kite Runner: Comparing Bestsellers

Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers: From Charlotte Temple to The Da Vinci Code, edited by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith, seems a topical book for this blog right now. I do not yet have a copy, but I have been able to preview its introduction, written by Churchwell and Smith, on Amazon.

I found myself both congratulating myself on my standards and wincing at my weaknesses while reading these pages. Churchwell and Smith quote with approval (and I agree with) Jane Tompkins's statement "it is morally and politically objectionable, and intellectually obtuse, to have contempt for literary works that appeal to millions of people simply because they are popular." Wince.

At the same time, the editors draw attention to "the modernist exultation of the difficult" that likely has affected my own resistance to bestselling books. Wince. I have assumed that bestsellers are likely, though not necessarily, easy to read and thus not challenging. I need my books to challenge something, either in their content or their form.

The Eyes of the World: A Fiction and Literature Clasic By Harold Bell Wright! AAA+++
Bestseller of 1915
My bestseller for the week, The Kite Runner, is not a challenge in its form. It is narrated in the first person by the main character, Amir. This is a common point of view (Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight both use it.) Because the book describes the narrator's development as a person, it is a Bildungsroman. As well, the book's narrator becomes a writer, and in that sense the novel is also a Kunstlerroman.  The writing style is solidly in the realist vein too. Hosseini is not an experimental writer that way.

The book describes the lives of Afghan people during the terrible end of the 20th century. That part of the book is where the challenging material lies. The novel certainly has sympathy with the lives of ordinary people at the mercy of the warring factions who have tried to make Afghanistan into their own images, but the main Afghan character Amir is not exactly likeable. Only through the concerted efforts of people nobler than he (his father's friend, his wife, the well-meaning Afghan people he encounters in America and abroad) does the hero Amir return to his homeland to repair the damage he and his father have done to a family of ethnic minority Hazaras. Near the novel's end, Amir has enough self-knowledge to realize that his lifelong enemy Assef, now a Taliban, and not the loyal Hazara man Amir was raised with, is his double.

 The novel is mostly realist, though it does employ the strategies of other types of fiction. The appearance of Assef at the beginning and at the end of the novel constitutes the kind of circularity that fable often uses to emphasize the connectedness of the past and the present. Amir eventually acquires a scar on his lip that mirrors the scar on the lip of his childhood friend Hassan, cementing the essential ties between them. Such strategies may seem like clunky attempts at creating links between Amir and his roots, but the clunkiness is sign of its turn to myth and fable rather than realism.

The book's moralism is strong too, a temptation that even Dan Brown can't avoid using in his thriller. In Khosseini's book, however, these strategies are perhaps unnecessary appurtenances to a strong moral sensibility, when in Brown's book the moralism is simply there to give a reassuring ego stroke during an otherwise low-stakes stroll through a short-walled labyrinth.
Charlotte Temple: Bestseller

The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were bestselling books. None of these books compare with The Kite Runner in terms of creativity, originality and tension. Yet they are all bestsellers.

Perhaps I am making a false comparison, however.  According to "Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s Literature, Bestseller Lists, and the “Harry Potter Effect”" by Rebekah Fitzsimmons, the "bestseller list" has served different purposes over time. In the United States, Harry Thurston Peck's 1895 invention of the bestseller list in The Bookman was a corollary to the 1891 Copyright Act, for this list connected specific titles and authors with specific publishers, thus cementing the idea that a book "belonged to" a writer and the writer's publisher. Before then, writers had to contend with publishers in other countries republishing books without giving the writers any royalties.

The bestseller list later became more than a record of books that sold well, Fitzsimmons argues. It became a way to give a certain kind of approval or notice. A bestselling book may or may not be a book worth reading. Fitzsimmons suggests that the idea of "middlebrow" and "highbrow" may reveal an attitude towards bestsellers. The middlebrow label applies to books that are popular (that is, that sell well), whereas the highbrow label applies to books that meet some critieria of quality irrespective of popularity. The  bestseller list became associated with popularity, that is, of middlebrow books.
The idea of a bestseller list was picked up by other publishers after The Bookman. Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times were two early compilers of bestsellers lists.

The creation, and hence the analysis, of a bestseller list is not easy, for tracking sales means cooperating with both publishers and booksellers. These lists derive from formulas, necessarily, considering the different ways books get distributed. Nowadays, The New York Times has several bestsellers lists (the "Harry Potter Effect" refers to a splitting off of children's literature from the fiction list), which means it needs different formulas for calculating what is a bestseller in different genres. Different list-makers offer varying degrees of clarity on how they calculate their sales. 

I am thinking of gathering up some data on the sales of the books on my humble list, but I am afraid of attempting this. Whose list do I use? I could use the New York Times or Publisher's Weekly; in Canada I can use Globe and Mail. These lists derive from data collected (somehow or other) from publishers or booksellers. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have bestsellers lists that reflect the sales of books that they sell (not what anyone else sells); in Canada I can use Chapters-Indigo. How about a list that covers world sales?
For this humble blog, my stakes were not that high, so I just poked around different lists to get my list; I mainly used As for finding specific sales numbers, I don't know how to go about it.

Now I am confronting the beast behind my list: the idea of sales. I am reading these eight books because of their sales. This is a data set that may seem easily quantifiable but in the end is not. Sales figures derive from financial statements belonging to businesses who have good reason to want to present their numbers in a certain way. Popularity may seem quantifiable and thus may seem "value-free," but quantifiability is not equivalent to objectivity. What can sales figures tell me about a book, in the end? 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Guest Column: Reflection on Twilight by Vivian's Son

This is probably the worst book I've read and/or will ever read. The only reason I read it was that I couldn't justify disliking it without reading it. (I hadn't read any of the books nor had I watched any of the movies before reading this book.) Bella is constantly pessimistic, even when nothing's wrong. Edward is too perfect, so there's nothing surprising or interesting about him that we find out about. The reader pretty much knows everything about his personality right when he's introduced. The relationship between Him and Bella is pathetic. He's trying so hard to be flawed when the book literally describes him as "perfect." He's trying to act mysterious even when he introduces them to his vampire family and goes over their history. The climax is rushed, over-the-top and brought in with with barely any explanation (Seriously, I've read it over and over and still don't get it). There are several other problems with this book, but why should I spoil all the fun? Read it for yourself and see how bad it gets. I give this book a 9/10 because it boldly goes where no bad book has gone before.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

First Chapters, First Impressions: The Kite Runner

This is a very masculine book. The mothers of the two male characters are gone. One is dead, and the other ran off a week after giving birth. A few more chapters in, and this characteristic broadens into the novel's main theme of how the accident of birth determines the course of one's life: male or female, elite or plebeian, ugly or handsome, "good" race versus "bad" race. I am rankling at the exclusion of woman in the novel, but I have to read on before I can make fair comment on that.

Already, though, what is at stake in The Kite Runner is much different than in the other books I have read in this popular reading series. The stakes are much higher, clearly. Likely it will not be giving easy solutions; in the first chapter the novel reveals that the main character has come to grips with a past that he is not proud of.

I am not as worried about fact-checking Hosseini's novel as with The Da Vinci Code.  I did look up "Hazara,' for example, and, not to my surprise, found out that the novel didn't make up this culture.  Something about the book leads me to believe that Hosseini knows something about Afghanistan. He also knows something about history, and he wants to teach others about that history. That's my kind of book.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Twilight: or, Vampires Love Us (a Halloween special)

If I had read Twilight when I was a teenager, I may have liked it. Its appeal to teenage girls seems manifold. The story, basically, is that an ordinary teenager, Bella, finds an unbelievably awesome boyfriend. Edward is super-hot and super-smart. He has a garageful of cool cars at his disposal and a great (nice, close-knit, good-looking, wealthy) family. He even has a really sweet sister (Alice) that Bella gets along with like her own sister.
Philip Burne Jones's vampire (Wikimedia Commons)
Edward is extremely moody, but that is because he thinks that he is not good enough for Bella so is not sure he should be with her. This humbleness is matched by extraordinary physical strength (useful for someone whose girlfriend is extremely clumsy) and fierce loyalty. He can never die, either. When he says, "I'll love you forever," he really means it. He is immortal, after all--"till death do us part" is a quaint limitation that only the profane love of ordinary mortals must contend with.

As it turns out, I was not a teenager when Twilight was published. I did, however, latch on to Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Twilight is a lightened version of that book, though Interview with a Vampire seems to be the model for Meyer's vampires. Moody Edward is a version of moody Louis; both vampires must explain the difference between the myth of vampires and the reality of vampires to their naive human companions. Louis, like Edward, does not like having to kill humans to survive.

Edward's world, however, is much easier than Louis's. Louis cannot easily turn away from human prey like Edward can. Louis's torment is more existential than Edward's: Edward worries that he cannot control his bloodlust with humans, but he is more or less at peace with himself, thanks to the guidance of his vampire family. Louis is anguished about his entire existence, and he doesn't have the luxury of a nice family to show him how to live among humans--his vampire father is the gleefully murderous Lestat.  Louis's adventures, in the end, are more complex--he travels farther, has lived longer, and has engaged in relationships that are more morally contentious. Rice's stories are more erotic too. As I look at the two books side by side, I can see how one book is in the young adult category and the other is in the adult category.

 The difference between Anne Rice's books and Stephanie Meyer's books is that Rice makes the restraint of passion a very difficult prospect. Even if Rice's vampires don't actually ever have "sex," the sexual passion among vampires--whether male to male, female to male, female to female or adult to child--and between vampires and humans is a constant presence. Relationships in those books are more tenuous, too, except perhaps for the primary relationship of Louis and Lestat. (Anne Rice has, unsurprisingly, had a few things to say about Twilight.)

In the end, I am an adult, not a teenager. Even when I was a teenager I was reading adult books--I left children's literature behind me after I finished reading The Black Stallion books in Grade Six. I have to pick Anne Rice over Stephanie Meyer now, and I probably would have made the same choice when I was a teenager. I was not a prom-going, high-school gossip kind of girl, and I didn't watch or play baseball (the Cullen family plays baseball).

The question for me, though, is why so many adults have read Twilight. Anne Silver, in her article "Twilight Is Not Good for Maidens: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Series," argues that the series advertises the benefit of the traditional nuclear family by having Bella, a child of divorce, acquiring in the Cullens a better family than her biological family. Bella does not become truly herself until she and Edward marry and she has a child. Edward turns her into a vampire, and from that moment, Bella  becomes competent and equal to her domineering boyfriend--she can hunt and fight as well as he can.

People who value that kind of traditional family would, I would say, find the book's tension lying not in the feud between the different vampire and werewolf clans, but in the conflict between the Cullens' closeness and Bella's desire to root herself somewhere. The right thing to do, Bella knows, is to become a vampire (that is, join Edward's family). Many things get in the way, though, before that happens (beyond the boundaries of the first book, certainly). Getting into a traditional family is difficult, not easy, in the dystopia of the human world. Like in Harry Potter books, in which the wizards, not the Muggles, are truly human, the Cullen clan is a moral and familial elite. Belonging to that elite is not just a matter of paying a membership fee or attending meetings. Bella is special; that is why she can become a vampire.

Meyer, a practicing Mormon, is pro-abstinence and anti-abortion per her belief system. Silver says that this moral orientation is overt in the later books. The two heroes do not have sex until after they are married; in the later books, this abstinence becomes a bigger focus than it is in the first book, though it is already present in Edward's fear that he could accidentally hurt Bella in a moment of passion. I know of someone, actually, who said she wanted her daughter to read Twilight as a kind of pro-abstinence education. Some readers of Twilight also see this aspect of the book highly desirable. Those who see marriage as the only place for woman to have social power and physical security would also like the book. There are the  Twilight Moms, for example. Perhaps these mothers are the kind of mothers that have made Twilight a bestseller.

Are these the same moms buying Fifty Shades of Grey? As I noted in my previous  post, E.L. James's book started as fan fiction. The plots of the two books are parallel to each other in a shameless way. They are so parallel that my complaints about that book pretty much also apply to this one, except Meyer is a slightly smarter and much better writer in terms of language.

Twilight is better than the previous two I've read, but that isn't saying much. I must confess I am getting tired of reading books that disappoint me so broadly.

The next book should be a change of pace. It's The Kite Runner.