Book Review: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

November 24, 2013

Since The Dark Crystal has been occupying so much of my creative space these last couple months, it seemed worth sharing my review of the new Jim Henson biography here. As a creative person, I found the biography to be inspiring on many levels — in its reassurance that even cultural icons faced drawbacks and rejection, and in the knowledge that it really is possible (although perhaps rare) to be successful and to stay true to one’s artistic and moral compass. I feel honored to be participating, even in the smallest of ways, in Jim Henson’s great legacy.

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Fairy Tale Book Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

November 14, 2013

BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wavered between giving this a high three stars or a low four. It was beautifully written, with believable characters and motivations. For me its main drawback was how long it took to get going; for half the book, it’s really just literary fiction rather than fantasy or fairy tale retelling, which makes the occasional fantastical elements feel out of place. The writing style in the beginning half also felt a little distant to me, similar to the writing in fantasy classics like the Narnia series, which I’ve never really loved.

The book really picks up in the second half, though, and here we see Anne Ursu’s fantasy writing skills on full display. Hazel’s trip into the woods leads her through one surreal experience after another, many of them enough to cause a lingering shiver when you think of them. The woods are also rich with metaphor, longing, and darkness, where things are not what they seem. This is “hero’s quest” writing at its best; it changes the character and tests her mettle, and you know nothing will ever be the same again.

The winter ambiance was also incredibly rich. No surprise that the author lives in Minnesota! One comment on the audio version, which is how I read this book: they made the odd choice to have a male narrator even though the story is told almost exclusively from Hazel’s perspective, making a female voice seem the more logical choice. The reader did have a good “storytelling” voice, but that may have contributed to certain parts of the book feeling a tad distant as well.

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Orson Scott Card’s Plea for “Tolerance” is not Enough

November 11, 2013

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” – A.E. Wiggin

Warning: this post contains Ender’s Game spoilers; proceed with caution unless you’ve already read the book, seen the movie, or have no intention of doing either.

It’s a big scary world out there, Ender, full of aliens and homosexuals.

My husband and I went to Ender’s Game on Friday. I thought it was a beautiful movie, but I still left the theater feeling conflicted. I knew many people were boycotting the movie because of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia — which, as an attitude, could perhaps be forgiven, if he hadn’t also taken active steps to block GLTBQ people from enjoying full rights. It was later revealed that OSC won’t receive any money from box office sales, but many continued the protest on philosophical grounds. Others say to go ahead and see the movie if you want to, but just don’t buy OSC’s books. I have a fairly extensive collection of Orson Scott Card’s books, purchased back when I only knew him as a gifted storyteller and not as a homophobic bigot. Luckily, all my OSC books came to me through used book sales and Paperbackswap, so none of my money has made it back to him (and, by extension, into the anti-gay campaigns he supports).

I often don’t have to struggle with such cognitive dissonance about the entertainment I enjoy, because most creative types are pretty open minded people, especially writers of speculative fiction, where being able to imagine new and different worlds is a job requirement. But one thing that always frustrates me about “classic” science fiction (Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, etc.) is that, although these authors could imagine vastly different worlds in terms of politics and technology, they could not imagine gender roles that went beyond the norms of the time they were writing in, leaving their female characters empty and one-dimensional. Orson Scott Card frustrates me in the same way.

In response to the boycott, Orson Scott Card issued a statement in which he said Ender’s Game had nothing to do with “gay rights” (my paraphrase) because they were not an issue when the book was written in 1984 (head in the sand much?). But Ender’s Game, which is ultimately a story about tolerance, remorse, and forgiveness, has plenty to say about prejudice–and that includes homophobia.

Ender is a powerful leader because he understands his enemies to the point of “loving” them. This is what keeps him from becoming brutal, although his mission requires violence. His biggest frustration when faced with the Formics (the alien “invaders”) is that he has trouble understanding them. But eventually, he does — and when he does, he feels such remorse over the genocide he unknowingly committed that he devotes the rest of his life trying to make it right.

In case you missed this, Ender found a way to understand and love an alien species that looked, thought, and communicated nothing like him, and that had wiped out millions of his people. If Orson Scott Card can imagine this feat of understanding, why can’t he make the comparatively tiny leap toward understanding people who fall in love with others of the same sex? Anyone who has fallen in love is already 98% of the way there. If you understand love, if you understand the desire to live a life free from hatred and discrimination, if you understand the desire to follow your heart, there’s not really anything else you need to understand about being gay. And yet, Orson Scott Card apparently cannot make that leap; and he puts his money and his activism into pushing others back from making that leap, too. Is this what Ender would do?

As the series progresses, we see that Ender’s remorse over his role in the Formic genocide leads him to a deeper understanding of all life. In Speaker for the Dead, he makes it his work to find the seeds of good in even the most seemingly “evil” of people, so that after life they can retain some dignity and be remembered as human beings rather than “monsters.” Again, if Orson Scott Card can theoretically make the leap and see “good” in someone who beats his wife and children, why can he not make the same leap to see the “good” in people who are not of his politcal/moral/homophobic persuasion?

Many people speculate that OSC is a “closet case” who feels that the current social order is the only thing “saving” him from giving into his own secret gay desires. While I’m not going to use this blog to speculate on his sexual orientation, he hasn’t left issues of gender ambiguity completely alone in his work. In Children of the Mind, Ender’s adopted son Miro finds himself attracted to “Young Valentine,” who is a projection of Ender’s mind. That means that Young Valentine essentially has Ender’s soul; she is not a real woman, but a man’s imagining of a woman, retaining something that is ultimately male. Miro reflects on this — does it mean that, underneath it all, he’s really attracted to Ender? He can’t shake his feelings for Young Valentine, even after this contemplation. Is it just me, or are things getting a little queer in here?

While the characters in the Ender’s saga attempt a “live and let live” philosophy toward alien races, viruses, and other humans, Orson Scott Card agitated to prevent his fellow human beings from having equal rights and equal dignity. To his credit, he’s willing to “let the case rest” now that the Supreme Court has ruled that forbidding same-sex marriage is unconstitutional (even though, in the past, he’s called to “overthrow” any government that would let such a thing happen.) But how much of this is him “taking it like a man,” and how much of it is his fear over how his homophobia might affect his pocketbook? He’s pleaded for “tolerance” of his views from those on the other side, just as he’s decided to “tolerate” them by no longer fighting against same sex marriage.

Let’s return to Ender’s Game. Although I love the story’s message, there remains a bit that rubs me the wrong way. And that is how quickly, how easily, Ender is forgiven for wiping out an entire sentient species by that very species. While human beings commit genocide to retaliate for millions who died in a past war, the Formic Queen forgives genocide and allies herself with the one who committed it as soon as she understands the depth of his remorse. Now, it seems that Orson Scott Card wants a similarly quick “forgiveness turnaround” from the GLTBQ community. But there’s one important difference: Orson Scott Card has expressed no remorse for the spiritual violence his activism has committed on millions of GLTBQ people and those who love them; instead, he’s simply decided to “let it go.” This is not enough. We have been “tolerating” homophobes forever — when was the last time you heard of gay people committing “hate crimes” against the people who spread hatred toward them? Despite fear rhetoric to the contrary, GLTBQ people have never tried to take away the rights of homophobic people — they just don’t want their homophobia imposed on secular institutions. That is tolerance, and those of us who support GLTBQ rights have been doling it for years. Orson Scott Card can have my “tolerance,” but he cannot have my respect, my admiration, or my money.

In Orson Scott Card’s crusade against homosexuality, he has committed a grave evil, just as Ender Wiggin has. The difference is that Ender immediately feels acute remorse, whereas Orson Scott Card seems to feel a smidgen of embarrassment. Asking for tolerance is not enough. To truly redeem himself, he must ask for forgiveness.

Writing Book Review: APE by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

November 10, 2013

This book makes its point well: that it is possible to self publish a book that is high enough quality to compete with traditionally published books. The writing here is clean, direct, and clear, and the formatting is impeccable — no small feat in an ebook that is being delivered across multiple devices.

The content is useful as well, although I didn’t find a lot here that I didn’t already know. It mostly offers an overview of various terms associated with self publishing, as well as different services and opportunities available for self publishers. The approach the authors take to self publishing is realistic, too, not a “get quick rich” sort of approach, acknowledging the success stories while also cautioning that they are not the norm. I think this book, while being a treasure trove of information for someone totally new to the concept of self publishing, might also be overwhelming to those same people. Still, I expect to eventually incorporate some of what I learned here into my own self publishing plans.

What annoyed me most about this book, and the main reason, aside from the lack of truly “new” content, that I gave it only three stars was its tone. There’s a sort of smugness in the writing, as well as a bit of latent judgment about various writing processes (I ranted a bit about the inherent judgment toward authors who write without an outline here, which is just one example). The shameless promotion of Google, Apple, and Amazon also got to be a little much, especially since it came without any mention of the “darker side” of any of these companies to balance it out (privacy rights, proprietorship, monopolies).

The authors have put together a good resource of which they can be rightfully proud; it’s just too bad that so much of the book, while conveying useful information, also feels like a protracted opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back.

Fairy Tale Book Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

September 1, 2013

Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book had nice pacing, a good narrative arc, and perhaps most importantly, a good balance between its two primary storylines — the continuation of Cinder’s story, and the introduction of Scarlet. Initially I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as Cinder because I didn’t like Scarlet as much as I liked Cinder. I think I still prefer Cinder, but by the end of the book, Scarlet had grown on me.

I think what I really love about this series is the way that it melds so many different genres that I like — although it’s science fiction with spaceships and androids, it’s “light” science fiction, so I don’t have to feel stupid if I don’t get the “hard” science. The retold fairy tales bring something new to the table, but they also stay true to their source material. I felt a little ambivalent about how closely this one skirted toward the paranormal romance genre, but it’s still loads better than “Twilight” or even “Sisters Red.”

While these books have a nice balance of plotting and character development, I do feel uncomfortable with how cavalier they are about death. Characters who are vitally important to the protagonists die in both books, and their passing doesn’t seem to engender the kind of bereavement that it should, feeling too much like a plot point and not like a devastating loss. These books maintain my interest and my emotional investment, but they don’t bring me anywhere close to tears — which they should. Instead, the deaths make me feel indignant, like the character has been dealt an injustice not only in losing their loved one, but in not being allowed the emotional resonance that the situation calls for.

Still, I loved the way Marissa Meyer managed to intertwine Cinder’s and Scarlet’s stories, and I look forward to seeing how she will continue to weave ever-more fairy tale threads together in future books.

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Speculative Fiction … Literary Fiction’s Best-Kept Secret

August 19, 2013

A couple weeks ago, I commented on a newly published author’s implication that the reason many writers are not getting published is because they’re writing stories with fantastical elements (and received a very insightful comment from one of my readers that the nature of this particular author’s novel, Race Across the Sky, follows fantasy’s “hero quest” paradigm. Hm.)

This same podcast series also included an interview with Emily Croy Barker, author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. There was no denying that this was a book of fantasy; the interviewer admitted that she didn’t read much fantasy and was “pleasantly surprised” that she enjoyed the book. She then went on to ask Ms. Barker whether she read fantasy, as though we were about to receive a scandalous reveal. Not surprisingly, Ms. Barker said that she did, without hesitation. (I would have been disappointed if she didn’t, as I don’t think authors have much business publishing in genres they don’t even read.)

I’ve been noticing this tendency to eschew the sci-fi or fantasy label amongst other recent books that clearly draw upon the genre for their premises. The July issue of BookPage includes a review of a novel called The Humans which is told from the perspective of an alien who seeks to intercept humans’ development of a certain technology, which he doesn’t believe they’re ready for. In case you missed this important point, this book is told from the perspective of an alien. But instead of being labeled as science fiction, it receives the rather vague designation of “popular fiction.”

On the next page, we have a review of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a novel in which the main character time travels and inhabits different lives while she receives electroshock therapy for depression. The genre? Literary fiction. That’s shortly followed up by Sisterland, a novel about twins with psychic abilities, which is designated as merely “fiction.”

I saw something similar happen with The Time Traveler’s Wife. It has time travel in the title. There is actual time traveling in the book. There is even a (somewhat weak) “scientific” explanation for the time travel. I defiantly shelved it with “science fiction” on my Goodreads account, although you’ll find it under “fiction” or “literature” in most libraries and bookstores.

Can you think of other examples?

So, if time traveling, aliens, and the ability to predict the future don’t qualify as science fiction, what exactly does? To me, this comes down to the problem of a desire to elevate “literature” above genre. Literature is read by those who like to feel superior, convinced that they read for enlightenment rather than for entertainment, and that their college + educations make them oh-so-much-better judges of good literature than the masses. If you want women’s book clubs to buy your book, or to have a shot at that Oprah sticker on the cover, you better not be shelved with genre fiction.

Literary fiction is generally understood as fiction that is character driven, that is concerned with the artfulness of the storytelling, and that attempts to say something “larger” about humanity and/or the world. I have no doubt that the books referenced above fit these descriptions. They may not follow what are considered “typical” fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but then, the very best in any genre reaches beyond expectation. And genre fiction will continue to struggle to be taken seriously if those who are employing aspects of genre as central features in their story deny their association with their high-fantasy and space-opera writing kin.

Despite all the talk about geek being “chic,” apparently in the book world science fiction still reeks of fanboys dressed in Trek gear and shelves cluttered with action figure collections. I’ve certainly encountered this culture (and found much to love in it, btw) as a lifelong lover of science fiction and fantasy. But I’ve also found people who are willing to look critically at the world, to ask the big “what if?” questions, and to join in deeply exploring this thing we call life. Although reading sci-fi and fantasy is certainly not a prerequisite for friendship with me, I find that all my closest relationships are, indeed, with other speculative fiction readers–because they are willing to “boldly go” into new territory of the mind, and bring a continued sense of wonder to the world.

Thus, I think it’s a shame that fantasy and sci-fi writers with a somewhat literary bent distance themselves from this rich community, reinforcing stereotypes that it is not real literature (as opposed to their own story about an alien). I, too, strive to infuse my fantasy and science fiction with literary conventions; plot tends to emerge as secondary behind writing and characters for me. But when I publish, I will wear the label of fantasy/sci-fi writer proudly, and have no doubts about the good company I am in.

Imagination, Reality, and the Ever-Shifting Line Between

June 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I relied upon imagination throughout my life to get me through tough times. Because of this, and because, as a writer, my inner life is still very rich and active, one of my favorite themes to see addressed in books and movies is the exploration of that changeable line between fantasy and reality. Recently, I read Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which deals with this issue in a way that is especially concrete. The book explores the trauma a boy feels when his dad throws out the toys that represented his best characters in an ongoing story he was playing with two of his friends. That trauma reverberates to his friends, who also suffer the loss of those characters and all the stories that remain untold. The book really resonated with me, because it was the stories I created with my dolls when I was younger that first revealed to me the addictive power of imagination. I also had an ongoing story with my sister and a close friend, so I also appreciated Holly Black’s handling of the nuances and vulnerability of sharing a created reality with someone else. (You can read my review of the book here.)

This was the main issue I was grappling with in my own middle-grade novel, Ever This Day, although Holly Black has accomplished it more directly and more elegantly than I have. In Ever This Day, a 13-year-old girl discovers an angel in the grove behind her house, and she quickly gets sucked into a world she shares only with the angel and her two-year-old sister, her strongest link to the childhood she is moving away from.

I’ve sort of kept a running list in my mind of books and movies that follow this theme, and I have a lot of books on my “to-read” list that also seem to address it.

  •  Glint by Ann Coburn. This book follows two parallel stories, one that is happening in “real life” and one that is happening in an imaginary realm. My review is here.
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. This book manages to be beautiful despite its brutality. I loved it for its writing and its deft handling of the theme, and it’s an added bonus that it’s also a fairy tale retelling. Back when I was a Teen Services Librarian, I led a program where teens used Animoto to make book trailers. I made my example trailer for this book. (And you can read my review here.)
  • Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of my top-three favorite movies. It’s a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny until subsequent watchings; the first time, I was too enthralled with its handling of the subject matter.
  • Ruby Sparks. I admit it — I was drawn to this movie because the premise is so similar to Lars and the Real Girl. And any writer will appreciate the complications that can ensue when you fall in love with your own character … and find that she’s literally “come to life.”
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I’ve never seen this film, but the play had a lasting effect on me.
  • The Wild Hunt. This is the most disturbing of the movies listed here, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it; it’s definitely a darker “take” on what can happen when the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred.
  • Pete’s Dragon. One could argue that this movie doesn’t belong in this category, if one makes the case that Elliot was not imaginary. For me, that’s beside the point. I’ve found this movie to speak eloquently to the theme of needing to give up something magical and special that has helped you cope in hard times, in exchange for something more solid, real, and equally wonderful.

And of course, this list would not be complete without The Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps the true gold standard in this category: “Once you’ve become real, you cannot become unreal again.”

What books or movies have you come across that address this theme? I’d love to add them to my list!