The Eyre Affair: Looking at literature from the inside out

The Eyre Affair by Jasper FfordeJasper Fforde (with two F’s, really) is a superstar in the world of contemporary literature. The Eyre Affair (2003) is the first in Fforde’s series of Thursday Next novels which, with the release of Thursday Next: First Among Sequels last year, recently came back from a publishing hiatus. My general opinion is that anyone who reads books in English should pick up a copy. The book’s refusal to fit neatly into one genre (I’ve seen it catalogued as sci-fi, mystery, general fiction, and young adult fiction) supports my feeling that The Eyre Affair has something for everyone. (Find it on Bookshop.)

The novel is narrated by a woman named Thursday Next who lives in England. The year is 1985. But Thursday’s England is not one that many readers will recognize. To name but a few differences: Cloning has been viable since the 1970s when home cloning kits for Dodo’s were released, cheese is illegal, and Wales is still an independent republic.

Law enforcement in Fforde’s novel also takes a unique turn with the Special Operations Network that was created to “handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force.” There are thirty departments in the network ranging from SO-12—a unit called the ChronoGuard that polices time travel and “chronuption” while trying to maintain the Standard History Eventline—to SO-27: the Literary Detectives who have to deal with problems like Baconians who preach that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays along with more mundane problems like “illegal traders, copyright infringements and fraud.”

Thursday Next is a Literary Detective.

The real problems for our intrepid heroine start when Archeron Hades (the third most wanted criminal in the world) begins kidnapping characters from great literary works. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of her novel, thereby leaving it unreadable, the pressure is on to rescue her before one of England’s greatest novels is destroyed forever.

As that summary might suggest, Fforde packs a lot into this tome (the hardcover runs 374 pages). The beauty of all of The Eyre Affair is that he makes it look so easy. The Thursday Next novels work together with a dynamic almost unheard of in other contemporary series as Fforde seamlessly connects plot points and refers back to past events between novels to create a tight, engaging narrative that remains entertaining long after the first read.

Furthermore, Fforde isn’t afraid to have a little fun. Everything is up for grabs in this novel where vampires, time travel, and literature all play their part in the narrative. Fforde also takes known historical and literary facts and turns them upside down (as with Wales not being a part of the United Kingdom). It sounds like this tinkering would make the book confusing for readers without the proper background, but it really doesn’t. Some of the story’s subtleties might be lost but the main story doesn’t suffer in the least.

Part of the allure of The Eyre Affair and the rest of the series is that Fforde asks the hard questions about literature. Later novels look at the writing and reading process in such an inventive way that the adjective “mind-blowing” is a justified description. At the same time, Fforde looks at plot points in classic novels like Jane Eyre and tries to explain the reason behind the strange bits such as Jane and Rochester’s fortuitous reunion at the end of the story—often with the help of the characters in question. (Jane Eyre and Rochester both make appearances here.)

In the world of novels, this one is something completely new combining satire, sci-fi, mystery, and a touch of pop culture to create a book like no other. Fforde uses clear, succinct language to create an utterly convincing alternate England that readers will want to visit again and again (don’t worry, the series has five more novels with the promise of more to come).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Geek Fantasy Novel by E. Archer, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Alice, I Think: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Alice, I Think by Susan JubyAlice, I Think (2003) is Susan Juby’s first novel. It is also the start of her Alice series (not to be confused with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series). Before going into the details of plot and why I love this book, I want to address some of the issues I saw in negative reviews by saying this: The book is fiction and it is in the vein of satire. Juby uses hyperbole, sarcasm, and caustic wit to create this story. That doesn’t always create realistic situations or accurate portrayals of “real” people. But it does create a good novel. As long as readers go into this novel with what the film industry would call a willing suspension of disbelief, I genuinely believe most of them will be able to find something to like about this book. So, why am I saying all of that? Because Alice is awesome of course.

Alice MacLeod, our intrepid Canadian hero, read The Hobbit when she was very young. This led to a strong desire to attend her first day of school as a hobbit which is well and good creatively, but doesn’t work out so well in actuality. In fact it works out so badly, that Alice’s non-conformist parents decide to pull her out of school and teach her themselves at home.

Flash forward to the present. Alice is fifteen and talking her new therapist Death Lord Bob at the Teens in Transition (not trouble) center in town. In a misguided attempt to cheer Bob up, Alice finds herself agreeing to return to “normal” school among but one of many items placed on a “Life Goals List.”

As Alice leaves the shelter of her home, she embarks on a search for a new haircut, new clothes, a boyfriend and lots of other things. These hunts lead to hilarity of a high degree along with not a little bit of mayhem. In the end, Alice comes out maybe a little worse for wear but no less enthusiastic about checking items off of her list in the future. As Susan Juby suggests on her newly designed website, Alice shows that sometimes oddballs make the best characters.

As I started reading, I was surprised that I liked Alice, I Think as much as I did. (Although I am not alone in my enthusiasm. The book inspired a Canadian TV series as well as the entire trilogy receiving heaps of praise and award nominations.) The novel is written in a diary style, which usually doesn’t appeal. But Juby handles the style creatively, not letting it limit Alice’s narration or how events are conveyed to the reader and, most importantly, Juby still includes lots of hilarious dialogue.

Juby’s characters are also amazingly handled. Yes, a lot of them might sound more like cartoons than true-to-life people. But that’s okay. In a novel this funny, a lot of things have a cartoonish exuberance to them. Aside from that, the characters are endearing no matter how silly they might be.

As Alice works through the issues inherent to starting at a new school and tries to find new friends, readers watch her simultaneously learn how better to engage with the world at large (a revolution that continues in this novel’s two sequels Miss Smithers and Alice MacLeod: Realist at Last). Then there’s the fact that it’s literally a laugh out loud funny book. Definitely worth a look for anyone who wants a good, funny, entertaining novel.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

No more half-assed blogs

Lea: “I’ve been trying to cut down on distractions. So I temporarily shut down my blog. I plan on bringing it back later, but right now I feel like if I worked on it I’d be doing a half-assed job and I don’t want to do that. I want to give it my . . . ”

Miss Print: “Full ass?”

Lea: “Yes. You know where I’m coming from.”

Passing the mantle

Last year I made a myspace page for the library where I work. This year I decided I wanted to edit down my email accounts/websites so I decided to offer the big shots at the library control of the building’s myspace. I passed that particular mantle of power to Ralph today at work and now feeling strangely lost without it. (I also deleted an email account and am closer to deleting my own myspace, both of which are good things.) Even though the site wasn’t that useful to the library during my phase of leadership, I feel somewhat dispensable now that the site is no longer in my control. These fears are tempered by volunteering to help with tons of things in the children’s room and all around the library that no one else does for whatever reason.

Also, currently in the middle of doing my taxes. I hate taxes and would totally hire someone to do them for me, except I make so little money that it seems silly to pay out even more money to avoid the hassle.

Rx: A review

Rx by Tracy LynnI make no claims that this book shows the “real” life of teens or sensationalizes the less-than-dramatic reality. I simply don’t know. What I can say is that Rx (2005) by Tracy Lynn is very timely. Last December, for example, there were numerous news stories detailing the pressures teens face to be perfect and pretty and fun while making it all look easy. This book offers one explanation of how some teens do that.

Thyme Gilcrest goes to a competitive high school in a rich suburban neighborhood. It’s senior year and she is jockeying for position among the top 20 of her class–a coveted spot that Thyme can barely cling to despite hours of work each night. This all changes when Thyme gets a hold of some Ritalin to treat her self-diagnosed ADHD. Suddenly she can focus and life is good. Then her friends find out about the drug and start asking her to get other “cure alls” for them.

Lynn writes this story in matter-of-fact, concise prose. Narrated by Thyme, the story never offers judgment on the druggies, dealers and misfits that populate its pages. Instead, Lynn is simply setting down the facts as she knows them (read the afterward to see why the story is important to her) to offer up a cautionary tale about the hazards of prescription drug abuse and dealing.

The prose here is arresting. After the first pages I was hooked. Thyme’s commentary is sardonic and caustic–an appealing combination. At the same time, her story is painful to read as Thyme describes her let-downs and her own shortcomings. Despite that, the middle begins to drag as Thyme transitions from user to dealer. However, Lynn will throw in a trick now and then to surprise you.

Stylistically, this novel isn’t overly exceptional. It’s what I would term a “gimmick” novel–trying to cash in on the popularity (for lack of a better word) of the issue of prescription drug abuse in high schools.

The novel also deals with the world of privileged teens: kids whose parents have enough money that they are never home and leave their children with a bit too much free reign in their absence. The term “latch key children” might also come to mind. In a world where family dinners don’t happen as often as they used to, perhaps it’s not surprising to see more and more novels focusing on “latch key teens.”

Part of me wants to do more research on the subject to see if prescription drugs are really that available to random teenagers but, as with most things, I think it depends on the teen and the location. For my part, I had a nagging sense that the novel was overstating the problem or perhaps focusing on a more suburban phenomenon (although Meg Cabot’s new novel Jinx which is set in New York City briefly touches upon this issue as well). Perhaps I’m the only one who didn’t know how to go about getting illegal substances as a teen (and still doesn’t) and had no desire to.

At any rate, Rx is an interesting look at the burdens of overachievers even if the novel might leave you with more of a nagging feeling than a completely satisfied one.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, The New Rules of High School by Blake Nelson, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

A day in the life

With the passing of my birthday, I decided to post one last introspective blog for the start of the new year.

My favorite birthday gift was a combination of a terrarium and an automated plant light. Three of the four plants are sprouting and I am confident the fourth will also show signs of life soon. I have also started my last semester as an undergrad and things are looking good so far. I’m even working on my massive thesis story again with some new inspiration. Someday (preferably by May) it might even be readable.

Operation library school is also well underway, and perhaps out of my hands. I just need to send in a financial aid form and  then my work is done (until I find out if I got in at least).

Lastly, I have a bunch of material in my queue to post on here but it’s all fragmented and in draft stages so I need some time to finish/fix things before they will be posted.

Life is good. I’m even finally feeling better and less sick.

Dragonsong: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffreyA brief forward to the review: Dragonsong (1976) is the first book in Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy. (Find it on Bookshop.) The series is generally catalogued as children’s (at least in the nypl catalog) but is really for any readers. Like many of McCaffrey’s novels, it’s set in the world of Pern. I haven’t read anything but this trilogy yet, but am pretty sure these novels (from the 1970s) operate as prequels to the other more adult oriented novels. Oh, and I absolutely loved the entire trilogy.

On to the review:

Menolly was born in the small fishing village of Half Circle Sea Hold on Pern. Despite her father’s leadership position in the community, Menolly finds herself with very little freedom–especially freedom to make music, her one bliss. When Petiron, the village’s old Harper, passes away Menolly’s parents realize with some horror that their daughter is the only one who can take up the Harper’s duties until a replacement is sent from the Harper Hall.

Once this replacement arrives, Menolly is ordered to abandon her music (even in her head) on threat of physical harm in order to save her family and the hold from the scandal of having produced a girl Harper. Her hopes shattered, Menolly runs away from the hold and takes refuge in a beach cave where Menolly discovers a nest of the much sought after (and semi-mythical) fire lizards. After finding her new friends, things begin to look up for Menolly who realizes that anything is possible if you aren’t afraid of going after what you want.

There’s more to the plot, of course, but all of that is better learned by reading the book instead of this review.

Dragonsong is written in what I would call an understated style. McCaffrey isn’t at pains to illustrate her talent as a writer–she knows she’s good and has a story worth telling. Having never read about Pern, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite a mildly confusing start, McCaffrey created a story here that functions as a standalone from the larger world of the Pern series. Furthermore, she also expertly builds up the landscapes and cities of Pern the better for readers to imagine them.

The other thing that I really like about this story is that it has a fairly narrow focus. The novel centers on Menolly and her journey to the Harper Hall. There are a lot of stories out there about girls who are told they don’t deserve much from life, or girls who think they can’t do what they really want to do. In a way, Menolly has that problem–especially because of her parents. But she’s more than that too. As the novel progresses, Menolly begins to realize with the help of her friends (fire lizard and otherwise) that she deserves better and that there is more to life than pleasing others.

So, on the one hand we have a wonderfully written fantasy novel that is arguably the first word on Dragon stories in the genre. On the other hand we have the story of a girl finding her own way in the world as she discovers that she’s a much stronger, smarter and more vibrant girl than her parents would have her believe.

Possible Pairings: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

No, really. I’m twenty-two.

A mother came into the library looking for horse books. I don’t read horse books so I sent her to Lea since she is a librarian and has the training to deal with such questions. While Lea was helping her the woman proceeded to ask about page positions in the library (hourly positions designed for students).

Being ridiculously nosy, I decided to put in my ten cents since I had been a page for quite some time before getting promoted.

Woman: “So could you get school work done here? Obviously you have time to read.”

Miss Print: “Well, being a page is pretty mellow. But this is actually a different job.”

Woman: “Oh, how old are you?”

Miss Print: “I’m twenty-two.”

Woman: “You look a lot younger. Do you get carded?”

Miss Print: “. . .”

African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus: A non-fiction review

African Queen by Rachel HolmesThe Hottentot Venus exhibit–promising to present a rare African woman from the Hottentot region for public view–opened in London in 1810 to an expectant audience waiting to see the new curiosity otherwise known as Saartjie (“Saar-key”) Baartman. Saartjie’s skills as a performer combined with her particularly large buttocks and allusions to her supposedly extended labia only added to the exhibit’s appeal to rich (white) Londoners.

According to Rachel Holmes, author of African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus (2007), Saartjie Baartman is one of South Africa’s most widely known historical figures. Everyone in South Africa knows Saartjie’s name and story.

Born in 1789, Saartjie was illegally transported to England by her master Hendrik Cesars, a free black, and Cesar’s employer military doctor Alexander Dunlop. Once in London, Saartjie debuted as the Hottentot Venus. Singing and dancing and generally exhibiting herself in “tribal” attire before fashionable Londoners in the audience, Saartjie was, Holmes writes, “got up like a fetish and a showgirl.” It also helped that Lord Granville, a well-known politician of the time, had a large posterior similar to Saartjie’s. Thanks to this combination of otherness and entertainment disguised as scientific curiosity, Saartjie became England’s most well known black entertainer of her time.

Her fame covered the darker fact that Saartjie was “literally a scientific object,” Holmes said. This fact was painfully obvious after her death in 1815 when renowned French scientist Georges Cuvier supervised Saartjie’s dissection. Her skeleton, brain, genitals and full plaster casts of her body remained in the collection of Paris’ Museum of Natural History until 2002 when they were returned to South Africa for a proper burial.

In the 189 years between her death and burial, Holmes says, Saartjie became a “living ancestor” in South Africa, “a representative figure in the struggle for women’s equality in South Africa.” This book tells all of the story, the glamorous and dark aspects of Saartjie’s life. The prose flows well and is written simply, making the book a quick and informative read.

When Holmes came to Saartjie’s story she “literally had bare bones” and a variety of scientific documents from which to start her research. Unable to read or write, Saartjie was in many ways a slave during her years of performing. While many offered theories on how Saartjie must feel (abolitionists tried to persuade her to attend bible school and return to Africa; Saartjie refused in favor of promised wages and return passage at the end of six years abroad), “no one asked for her opinion.” Holmes does a good job here of imagining what Saartjie might have said if asked. The book includes a lot of inference on Holmes’ part, but not enough to make the story ring untrue.

African Queen is Holmes’ second biographical work (her first was Scanty Particulars, which tells the story of James Barry–a British doctor who was likely a woman, or hermaphrodite, living as a man). Holmes says that she chooses to write historical and biographical works because “truth is always more curious than fiction.”

She also felt compelled to tell the stories of those who did not have a hand in writing history, namely the people who were not privileged, literate or otherwise empowered during their lives. These ideas of fact and fiction converged when Apartheid ended in South Africa, giving citizens the opportunity to “uncover our history and unravel the fictions that were sold as reality,” Holmes says.

Writing African Queen took five years, including extensive research in South Africa and Europe. When asked how she found all of her material–describing the experiences of a woman who was never interviewed and who left behind no personal writings–Holmes said, “If you work hard enough you can go back two hundred years. You can find the information.”
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus

YA kick

On Monday a woman came in returning a book I had chosen as a staff pick (I wrote up a little review and put it on a special display shelf with the other staff picks). The book was a young adult title called “Lily’s Ghosts” by Laura Ruby. It is one of my favorite titles. Upon asking the woman if she had read it she replied that she had. She added that she had lately been on a YA kick because she didn’t read much of it when she was a young adult.

I then told her that I was the one who had put out the staff pick. She replied, “Oh it’s you. Your recommendations are the main reason for this kick because a lot of the titles you put out are ones that appeal to me.”

Sometimes it’s nice to be appreciated for the little things.