Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fire Watch by Connie Willis (1985)

I am pretty sure I got this copy of Fire Watch by Connie Willis (1985) from the lovely St. Murse before his big move out of state. I am a little surprised I'd never read any Willis before -- she is a prominent and prolific author of just the kind of Ray Bradburyish, feminist without beating you over the head with it, science fiction that I really love. I'm so glad that I finally got this introduction to her!

The stories in this collection cover some familiar sci-fi tropes (time travel, other planets, apocalyptic futures) but with a focus on character and humanity that is missing in some science fiction. My favorite story might be "All My Darling Daughters," set in an extraterrestrial boarding school for the daughters of wealthy men who donate sperm to unknown surrogates in order to create heirs who they don't meet until they've grown up. Our narrator is a bad little rich girl (with a really great Clockwork Orange kind of vocabulary) who is used to getting high and having sex with all the boys, but who finds her sex life thwarted when the boys come back from vacation with freaky little ferret things with obscenely prominent vaginas. I'm not sure what you envision happening next, but I can pretty much guarantee that it isn't what you expect.

This is definitely the kind of science fiction that would appeal to readers who don't think that sci-fi is their thing. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel The Night Circus (2011) is extremely well written, and if all it took to make a great novel was to have a creative mind and a wonderful ability to describe the scenery, this would be at the top of my list. Unfortunately for Morgenstern, a great novel also needs well-formed characters, an interesting plot, and a connection with the reader. The Night Circus just didn't come through for me on those fronts.

In the late 1800s, two powerful magicians get together to start a game. They will take two children, teach them their secrets, and then pit them against each other in a test of their different forms of magic. One of the magicians puts his six-year-old daughter Celia into the competition. The other magician gets Marco, a young boy from an orphanage to train as his contestant.

A dozen or so years later, an artistic promoter in London comes up with the idea of a wonder-filled circus. He finds the best designers, performers, and creative minds and creates the Night Circus. It is only open at night. It appears in different locations around the world without announcement. Its performers are all silent. And all the sets and costumes are only in the colors black and white.

Celia is hired as a magician in the circus, and Marco is the assistant of the circus owner. The circus is their playing field.

And so it goes. Descriptions of the circus. Some romantic tension. More descriptions. Some additional characters. Rooms, tents, tricks, illusions. Description description description. All the description is really good, mind you, it just leaves room for little else.

I would be remiss in not also praising Morgenstern's sense of structure. The book moves back and forth between a chronological telling of the events starting in the 1870s and a second storyline beginning at the turn of the century. The "past" section moves more quickly than the "present" section and eventually catches up to and merges with it.

Pulling off a structure like that (much like pulling off a precisely designed circus) takes a lot of control, and control is what Morgenstern has in spades. For a book to really work as more than just a meditation on style, though, an author, or at least her characters, sometimes needs to lose a little bit of that control. Here's hoping that Morgenstern lets loose in her next novel and combines some of her wonderful descriptive skills with a little more feeling.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights) by Anonymous (1706)

What have you been doing for the past 633 days? Me, I've been reading One Thousand and One Nights [aka The Arabian Nights aka The Arabian Entertainments] (first English translation, 1706) in 633 daily segments in my email through the wonder of DailyLit. I've been a fan of DailyLit for awhile, and although it takes almost two years to do it, One Thousand and One Nights might be the perfect book to have serialized in your email.

Most people are familiar with the set up for these stories: A sultan thinks all women are promiscuous and unvirtuous, so he marries a new woman each day, and then has her killed the following morning so she can't cheat on him. No one really likes this system except the sultan, and one day his vizier's smart and beautiful daughter Scheherazade tells her father to offer her up to the sultan in marriage because she has a plan to stop the killing. As they are preparing to sleep, Scheherazade begins telling a story to the sultan that needs to be continued the next night. He spares her life for one day so he can find out what happens next. This goes on and on and on for one thousand and one nights until the sultan learns his lesson and starts trusting women again.

The stories include the very familiar (Ali Baba and the forty thieves, Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his lamp), and dozens and dozens that are just as good but that you've never heard. Some are very short, some are very long, and many of them repeat elements from the other stories. Sultans are constantly going out in disguise among the common people and overhearing things; men accidentally catch glimpses of women through their veils and fall so deeply in love that they become ill until they can have their beloved; sultans have no heirs and pray to God that they would do anything for a son, but their heir ends up coming with a catch; comeuppance is rampant; and people tell their stories, and within their stories more characters tell stories in a nesting box of creativity.

Just to give you a taste, here is a brief, half-remembered outline of one of my favorite stories: There was a prince in Persia and a princess in China who both refused all offers of marriage even though their fathers insisted that they marry soon. In punishment, they are securely locked in their respective rooms under guard. One night a genie plays a hilarious trick by transporting the prince into the princess's locked bedroom, where they quickly fall in love. In the morning, the prince is transported back to Persia but both the prince and princess insist that they have to marry the mysterious and beautiful stranger that appeared to them the night before with no warning. The prince goes off to find the princess and through a long and exciting series of adventures, he gets to China and they are married. After staying there awhile, they journey back to Persia, but the prince gets caught up in a mini-misadventure and can't get back to his caravan. The princess puts on his clothes and pretends to be him so that all his men aren't concerned and they make their way to the next town. While there, the princess of that kingdom falls in love with the new "prince" (who is really the Chinese princess) and through a series of events the two are married. On their wedding night, the Chinese princess reveals herself to her new wife and the two pledge to hold up the facade and rule until the original prince can find them and then they can both be his wives. That eventually happens, and the two princesses (and former spouses) both get pregnant at the same time and have two sons. The sons grow up strong and handsome, but spoiled, and each fall in love with the other one's mother. When the sultan is out, they try to seduce the women, who are too virtuous to succumb, and the princes are sent out to fend for themselves in punishment (which starts a whole new series of adventures).

Whew. I'm not even remembering all of that one (or even necessarily remembering it all correctly) and it is still the most complicated and awesome thing I have ever typed.

633 days may seem like a lot, but give it a shot -- I'm going to miss having my daily visit from Scheherazade, but now I have the fun of picking out my next DailyLit read.

Monday, March 05, 2012

For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films by Ric Meyers (Revised edition, 2011)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films by Rick Meyers (revised edition, 2011) seemed like a natural fit -- I love exploitation movies (come on, I'm married to this guy), and I'm always down for a nice compendium. Sadly, while there is a lot to like in Meyers' exploitation exploration, the book ultimately just didn't work for me.

This book was originally written in 1982, but never properly distributed, so Meyers revised and re-released it this year. The films are divided into three rather arbitrary categories: Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll; Violence; and Horror (never mind that most of the Violence movies are horror movies, and all the science fiction movies are put under horror). In each section, Meyers gives an alphabetical rundown of individual films, interspersed with longer essays focusing on a director or pivotal film. The write-ups of individual films are a little free form -- usually giving us a plot summary and some factoids, combined with information on similar films, other works by the same director or actors, and Meyers' own take on the movie.

And that is where the problem lies: Meyers just doesn't seem to like most exploitation movies. I understand that most of these movies are "so bad they're good," but I think you need to be someone who can eventually appreciate the good part if you are going to write an entire book about the genre. Some things Meyers really doesn't like include: gore, movies that resemble other movies, movies with titles that don't match the plot, and movies with ad campaigns that are better than the film itself. Stupid exploitation movies that don't need to be watched certainly exist, but there are so many out there that are funny, creative, gross, exciting, or hilarious, and Meyers doesn't seem to like any of them. He also uses the word "gorehound" way way way way way too much.

The book has a nice name and title index, but would have risen above its negative qualities if the publisher had sprung for more illustrations. There are black and white collages of movie posters before each section, but the posters are half the fun with exploitation movies, and it is too bad they couldn't include more of them. The longer essays on individual filmmakers are better written and definitely worth reading, but Meyers slapdash writing style and negative attitude really bring this book down.