Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 5, 2013
From My Shelf
Today's release of Carlene Bauer's debut, Frances and Bernard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) marks a new opportunity for readers to meet literary characters through their correspondence. As our reviewer noted, the 1950s setting lends itself to this epistolary form.
Thirty-five years ago Elizabeth Forsyth Hailey introduced Bess Steed Garner in A Woman of Independent Means, whose first letter in 1899 was to her fourth grade pal, later her husband. Her correspondence spans half a century and is rich in history (aboard the Lusitania, Kennedy's assassination). Bess was indeed ahead of her time, yet her letters flow from the pen of a proper lady, and this novel is a delightful peek at her era.
Ella Minnow Pea's island paradise is named after the man who wrote the iconic sentence using every letter: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When the town leaders ban specific letters, one at a time, writing requires increasing cleverness in Mark Dunn's 2001 "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," a cautionary tale to delight wordsmiths and Scrabble addicts. (Lipogram: a writing composed of words not having a certain letter.)
Peeking into a stranger's mail suggests a surreptitious intimacy, and Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer's beloved 2008 Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society epitomizes the epistolary form. Letters and telegrams fly across the English Channel between author Juliet and the charming citizens of Guernsey, so recently deprived of communication during the World War II Nazi occupation of their island.
Agoraphobic Bernadette is lucky to live in a world of multiple means of communication that allow her to remain reclusive, including e-mail, school memos, NPR weather bulletins, police reports and tape recordings, all neatly linked by her daughter, tech-savvy teen narrator Bee, in Maria Semple's hilarious 2012 Where'd You Go, Bernadette.
While most 2013 communication might be via texts and tweets, reading these letter-writers could inspire you to purchase stationery and a sheet of forever stamps, just in time for Valentine's Day. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller, Book Passage, San Francisco
Super Bowl-Poe Quiz; Google Maps Catching Fire
Post-Super-Bowl pop quiz. Mental Floss tested both our literary and sports fan skills with its quiz: "Baltimore Raven or Edgar Allan Poe character?"
"Long before Edward Gorey offed children alphabetically, writers sought to instill good manners and exemplary behavior through strange, scary cautionary tales," Mental Floss observed in showcasing "6 creepy cautionary tales for kids of yesteryear."
Hunger Games spoiler alert: Buzzfeed featured a series of aerial photographs over the set of Catching Fire, which was filming in Atlanta, Ga., last October when "the production accidentally ended up in the crosshairs of a Google Maps satellite."
Calling it a "provisional, partisan list," the Guardian proposed "English literature's 50 key moments from Marlowe to J.K. Rowling"
Flavorwire featured a selection of "great literary characters inspired by real famous people."
Frances and Bernard
by Carlene Bauer
In Carlene Bauer's debut novel, Frances and Bernard, the intricacies of a relationship are recounted through a years-long correspondence, a device suited to the period in which the novel is set, the 1950s. That time is reflected in many aspects of the book, from Frances's dilemmas as a woman trying to make her way as a writer in New York City, to the epistolary structure itself--far different set in the late 1950s than it would be if it involved e-mail in contemporary times.
A writer's colony in 1957 sets the scene for the fateful meeting of two young writers. Frances Reardon is a devoutly religious Catholic and hard at work on her first novel. Harvard graduate Bernard Eliot is also Catholic, but has a pronounced Dionysian streak and writes poetry reminiscent of the sensuous John Donne. The two strike up a correspondence that is to reverberate down the years, across continents, and will ultimately shape the course of their lives.
When they first meet at the colony, Bernard says to Frances that men "have a tendency to wreck beautiful things." His words may prove prophetic in the years that follow, as their friendship progresses into a complex and tormented sort of love. While a romance between Frances and Bernard is fraught with traps, there can be no doubt how they got into it: sparks fly between them in the form of remarkably erudite, vividly written letters that only artists of equal and impressive calibre could have produced.
At the beginning, the balance of power between the protagonists is uneven at best. Bernard is wealthy, Harvard-educated and well-connected in the New York City literary scene. In contrast, Frances faces a gauntlet of challenges--a father and sister who need her care, the necessity of working in a secretarial position, and the sexism endemic to the period. She begins life in New York City in a home for single women where they are institutionalized and infantilized, denied true independence. Perhaps more significantly, Frances will repeatedly wrestle with the prospect of marrying and how it might affect her ability to keep writing. Frances's struggle to reconcile the demands of love and work becomes even more pronounced when Bernard is diagnosed with debilitating mental illness, which would make caring for him the focus of any relationship, possibly to the exclusion of all else.
Appropriately for a book in which the protagonists are writers, books are as essential in Frances and Bernard as the punctuation. The atmosphere is rich with the scent of books old and new, with rapid-fire literary references exchanged back and forth. But the discussions are by no means limited to literature: The common thread that originally draws the two together is religion. At a time when most artists are beginning to turn away from Christianity, these Catholic writers recognize a kinship with one another. The nature of belief and God is therefore fuel for much lively conversation, which includes the citations of theologians from St. Augustine to Simone Weil. Readers of Carlene Bauer's memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, about her life growing up an Evangelical Christian, will recognize religious turmoil as familiar territory for the author.
While religion seems to be something Bernard dabbles in or flirts with, it defines Frances. How she reconciles this religious devoutness with a subsequent free-wheeling sexual relationship with Bernard is unclear--the conflict is never addressed--but generally Frances's faith lends her a rigidity that tends to shade into judgmentalism. She is, however, no easier on herself in her judgments than she is on anyone else. She is a character at once very much of her time, and very much of ours: while religiously committed in a manner unusual for contemporary artists, Frances is also determinedly ambitious and independent compared to the women surrounding her. Most are content to be wives and mothers, while her highest priority is to become a successful writer.
If not for the brilliance of his poetry, Bernard would be a pleasant rake, a character identifiable in any century. Perhaps there has been less need for men to adapt to the times in which they lived, and thus a character like Bernard could exist in any age. For this reason, while technically he is as equally in the spotlight as Frances, his character sometimes seems like a foil for hers. By bringing chaos to Frances's life, Bernard's role is to spur her development, and ultimately her profound struggles in religion, art and life. --Ilana Teitelbaum
Discover: An epistolary novel of considerable erudition and wit, chronicling a stormy relationship between two writers beginning in 1957 and exploring diverse questions of art, faith, and love.
Carlene Bauer: Temperaments in Conflict
|photo: Justin Lane|
Carlene Bauer is the author of the memoir Not That Kind of Girl, described as "soulful" by Walter Kirn in Elle and "approaching the greatness of Cantwell" in the New York Post. She has written for n +1, Slate, Salon and the New York Times and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bauer's debut novel, Frances and Bernard, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 5, 2013.
Can you tell us a bit about the background of Frances and Bernard--how you decided to write an epistolary novel set in the literary scene of New York City in the 1950s and '60s?
About 10 years ago I read Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a biography of four American Catholic writers, Flannery O'Connor being one of them. In the book Elie discusses how O'Connor and Robert Lowell met at Yaddo and became friends, and there is also some suggestion that perhaps O'Connor had a little bit of a crush on Lowell. This surprised me. I didn't know that they were friends, and O'Connor wasn't a writer who turned her love life into an ancillary art project. I wondered--what on earth would it have been like if they actually had some sort of affair? It was hard to imagine them being friends, let alone lovers, their temperaments being so different.
|photo: David McLane/NY Daily News|
In the months before my first book was published, wanting to start another project, I tried to imagine what would happen if two characters inspired by Lowell and O'Connor, sharing those temperaments and some biographical details, did fall in love. It was a classic "What if?" impulse. Setting it in the literary scene of '50s and '60s New York was dictated somewhat by the facts, somewhat by my desire for verisimilitude and somewhat by inclination. That was the milieu known by Lowell and, to a lesser degree, O'Connor, and it seemed to me that the time and the place would make the characters' struggles with religion and love more believable. Setting the book in this period also allowed me to indulge my fantasy that I had a past life as a lady screenwriter of screwball comedies starring Rosalind Russell.
It became an epistolary novel when my third-person omniscient attempt at this story was not as alive as I wanted it to be. The correspondence between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop had been published around the time I'd begun work on the novel, and watching those two navigate a lifelong friendship reminded me that letters could be a vehicle for drama between characters. You could pack scenes, memories, character assessments (or assassinations!)--whatever you needed--into letters. And you would create, hopefully, a powerful sense of intimacy between the reader and the characters, because you would have a more unfettered access to their consciousness.
Though the book is for the most part a tête-à-tête between Frances and Bernard, God is almost as much a presence in the novel--though not literally, of course. You wrote a memoir about the impact of religion in your life. Do you see this novel as a further exploration of this theme?
Yes. In a talk she gave on Southern fiction and the grotesque, Flannery O'Connor described her native region as "Christ-haunted." I'd like to borrow that phrase and say that I am God-haunted. I was raised evangelical and then very briefly converted to Catholicism before giving up belief at 29, but I think I'll always be asking questions about faith, and will always be interested in narratives about it, especially narratives about losing your religion. What is it like, life after God? What parts of faith are we reluctant to let go of? How can we create meaning when we don't have religion as a framework? Are we giving up too easily when we set God aside, as Frances suggests (and as I imagine some people have wanted to suggest to me)? I realize it is very American to be asking these questions in the first place, but I think there are more people living these quandaries than get written about in trend pieces on evangelicals--or in novels, as Paul Elie recently pointed out. It can be lonely, asking yourself these questions without the support of a community like a church, knowing, of course, that you forfeited that kind of community the first moment you found yourself thinking skeptically. But I think books can provide some solace for those in the midst of this kind of wrestling.
One aspect of an epistolary novel is that we only find out what the characters choose to reveal to one another in correspondence. How do you think this subjectivity serves the story?
My hope was that it would allow the reader the frisson of being in the presence of unreliable narrators. I wanted the reader to experience a charge from never being sure whether they're getting the whole truth, and never being sure whether the characters are deluding themselves into, or cheating themselves out of, something. I wanted the reader to be able to listen to Frances and Bernard as if they were jurors hearing testimony. Is she being overly cautious? Is he being overly optimistic, and how much of that optimism can be attributed to his illness?
How do you think this story would have developed if Frances and Bernard were living in 2013, with e-mail and texts?
My first impulse is to say it would not have developed! I only half-joke. Well, it might have developed along similar lines if the story took place in 1998, when, it seems to me, people still used e-mail to write long letters. Do people still use e-mail to write long letters now? They're probably Skyping instead. I know this is going to make me sound like a reactionary crank who fears progress, which means that I need to come clean and admit that writing Frances was not a stretch, but I don't think texting is a way to illuminate anything but your own sense of humor and how late you're going to be for brunch. As a human tracking device, texting is without peer. But it's an empty form of communication.
|photo: James Burke|
The "nunnery" where Frances lives in New York City, with all its colorful and disappointed women, sounds like a rich enough subject for a novel on its own. Was it inspired by a real place?
It was inspired by a real place, or real places, to be more accurate. Around the end of the 19th century, when single girls where leaving their homes to come work in cities, benevolent societies or other organizations created women-only residences where, for a reasonable fee, girls could have a room, three hot meals, and the security of knowing that they could keep themselves clean of the literal and figurative dirt of the city. I've had a fascination with them because they're secular nunneries, strange sororities. Frances lives in a place modeled on the Barbizon, which was one of the most famous women-only residences in New York. It was on the Upper East Side. Women like Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath stayed there--Plath called it the Amazon in The Bell Jar. It's now, of course, a luxury apartment building.
Frances and Bernard are both so fully realized as characters that they evoke a complex response from the reader, as real people often do. Neither is easy to like or to get to know. How did these characters take shape for you?
They took shape first as voices. One passionate, one aloof. With Bernard, I wanted to capture Lowell's blustery, generous confidence and fearlessness, and with Frances I wanted to see if I could approximate the mix of wisdom and an almost juvenile kind of crank found in O'Connor's letters. I tried to play these voices like instruments, always asking myself whether I was about to hit a note that would ring false.
Then I sketched out a story that would put those temperaments in conflict in a believable but dramatic way, hoping that the voices would be amplified at crucial moments, and as a result you'd see their characters more clearly. To sketch that story I drew on the struggles experienced by Lowell and O'Connor, and then let myself run toward an obsession or fascination I wanted to explore, or question I wanted to answer. --Ilana Teitelbaum
Shelf vetted, publisher supported.
A Skeptic's Quest
Nathanael Johnson is a journalist who lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. All Natural*: A Skeptic's Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety (Rodale) is his first book.
In researching my book All Natural*, I ended up debunking a lot of my assumptions about the virtuous healthfulness of whatever seemed closest to the earth. That squared with the conventional theory for how progress works: for most of human history nature was the enemy, and technology allowed us separate and protect ourselves from nature (starting with the rocks cavemen presumably piled in front of their caves to keep out the sabertooth tigers). Technology's triumph has given us longer life spans, nearly effortless travel, and a lot of really cool gadgets. Everything seems to get better and easier every day.
But I also began tripping over all sorts of counterintuitive paradoxes--ways in which our attempts to improve our lives have left us worse off. For instance: we have amazing successes in protecting ourselves from germs, but this seems to have given rise to a surge in debilitating autoimmune disease. One in 10 Americans is medicated for depression, and yet the more antidepressants we take, the sadder we become, and severe, disabling depression has reached record highs. We spend more per capita on fighting disease in this country than anywhere else, and as a side effect we now have so much unnecessary treatment that more U.S. citizens die because they get too much health care than those who die because they don't have access to health care. Our culture has developed a scientific understanding of nutrition, and along with that came an endemic obesity problem. And of course, everything we do seems to diminish our environment. When you add all this up, it yields a reply to the dominant theory of progress: We were shaped for Eden and grasping at knowledge yields misery. The trick, I think, is to accept both perspectives at the same time. Nature wants to eat us, but it also wants to feed us.
House of Earth
by Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie's posthumously published novel, House of Earth, is about the connection of the people to the land and the inherent injustice of private property, themes at the heart of his best known song, "This Land Is Your Land."
Tike Hamlin has never had much, but then he falls "about as low and lousy as he can get... ending up being just another [share]cropper." Worse yet, he's dragging his beloved Ella Mae with him. Together they are tethered to a hardscrabble piece of Texas land they can never own, trapped in a one-room shack that leaks flies and dust and wind. There is still love and laughter of course, but the daily grind against indignity and despair takes its toll. The one ray of light is their dream to build a house of earth.
Experiencing firsthand the devastating dust storms that ravaged the Texas plains in the 1930s, Guthrie sought a more secure shelter for the people there and found, in the ancient adobe structures of New Mexico, inspiration for a better way of life--and for his only novel. It's impossible to avoid the obvious comparison to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath: In theme, ethos and character, the two books are kissing cousins; in terms of style, however, they are a breed apart. Told in the unmistakable vernacular of Woody, at once earthy and erudite, House of Earth is less a novel than an extended prose poem interrupted by healthy smatterings of folksy dialogue. Tike and Ella Mae are figures torn from the pages of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but rather than leaving us on the outside to stare back at his characters' stark gazes, Guthrie gains us entry into their world. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: Johnny Depp and Doug Brinkley launch their publishing imprint with a powerful tale of poverty and poetry on the upper plains of Texas from one of America's greatest folksingers.
All This Talk of Love
by Christopher Castellani
All This Talk of Love is the conclusion of a trilogy Christopher Castellani began with 2004's A Kiss from Maddalena, and it is by far the best of the three novels. Castellani has hit his writerly stride in exploring the hopes, wishes and dreams of an Italian-American family: Antonio and Maddalena Grasso, their daughter, Prima, and their son, Frankie.
Prima decides that she is taking the whole family--including her husband and their four sons--to Santa Cecilia, the Italian village where her mother was born. But Maddalena has no desire to go back to the town she left more than 50 years ago. She is estranged from her brother and sister; furthermore, her sister married the man she really loved. (A Kiss from Maddalena tells the full story.) A full-blown soap opera ensues, with Prima and Maddalena at odds about everything, not just the trip. The men in the family mostly stay out of the way.
Then Fate intervenes: Prima and her son Patrick are in an automobile accident that leaves Prima needing therapy; Frankie moves home; Maddalena begins the long slide into Alzheimer's, sometimes failing even to recognize Antonio.
Antonio, seeing Maddalena slipping away, insists they go to Italy; Maddalena goes along without objection. Prima hopes that when her mother sees her sister and brother she will recognize and forgive them. What happens in Italy is an act of kindness on Antonio's part that gives Maddalena back to Prima and Frankie for a moment--a pure act of love. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.
Discover: A lovely and loving story of an Italian-American family, not far from their roots, coping with loss, old myths and memories.
The Tin Horse
by Janice Steinberg
Family identity comes from a shared collection of origin stories: how parents got together, how fortunes were made or lost, why allegiances were made or ties broken. In The Tin Horse, Janice Steinberg spins a decades-spanning drama of familial discovery that examines the seismic shifts in self-understanding when the underlying legends of a family prove unreliable.
Retired activist lawyer Elaine Greenstein is packing to move to a senior community. When she runs across an intriguing clue to the whereabouts of her long-lost twin sister, she is swept back in reverie to her prewar Los Angeles childhood in the historical Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. As Elaine recounts the family legends--a dangerous love for a Christian in a time of pogroms, a young girl who walked across Romania to emigrate, an entrepreneurial egg ranch in California--she also remembers the pain of learning some of those family-defining stories were less than accurate. As she gets closer to finding her sister, it becomes clear that, even at this late age, she must once again challenge herself to face the inconsistencies in family lore if she wishes to come to terms with the truth of her sister's disappearance.
Though the present-day scenes are compelling, Steinberg's writing really blossoms in her re-creation of the Boyle Heights of Elaine's youth. And though Steinberg is a mystery writer, here the "mystery" is merely a tool to uncover a sometimes painful wisdom: Families often build their identities on cherished stories of questionable veracity. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic
Discover: A rich drama of family identity set in the historic Jewish community of Los Angeles.
Biography & Memoir
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography
by J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard's haunting autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun chronicled his experiences as a young boy in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where he was separated from his parents and put into a prison camp; his imagination helped him survive. Miracles of Life, Ballard's autobiography (and his last book before he died in 2009), returns to this formative period--and more.
In his introduction, China Miéville calls Ballard an "epochal writer" whose science fiction "sits like a single alien tooth in a human mouth." "Ballardian" has entered the 21st-century lexicon as a descriptor of the dystopian modern world and its effects on the human psyche: His novels portrayed a world filled with monstrosities of violence and urban debris intended to shock readers into emotions, reactions, especially repulsive ones. In 1970, when Nelson Doubleday actually looked at a collection of Ballard's stories he was publishing, The Atrocity Exhibition, he ordered all copies destroyed.
Ballard once arranged for an exhibit of crashed cars and hired a woman to walk around topless (she refused to go naked). Later, he wrote Crash--"my psychopathic hymn"--and gave the narrator his own name, "accepting all that this entailed." (Just as many know Empire of the Sun from Steven Spielberg's adaptation, you might also recognize Crash as a David Cronenberg film.) A quiet, loving family man, Ballard wrote haunting, even horrific books to show us what was happening all around us, over and over. He finally believed that it was no longer possible to "stir or outrage spectators by aesthetic means alone." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: A beautifully written autobiography by the controversial and contentious English writer Martin Amis calls the "most gifted writer of the last century."
A Child's Walk in the Wilderness: An 8-Year-Old Boy and His Father Take On the Appalachian Trail
by Paul Molyneaux , illus. by Asher Molyneaux
Adventure tale, heroes' journey, environmental treatise, inspirational memoir--Paul Molyneaux's A Child's Walk in the Wilderness is all these and more. Temporarily unemployed and struggling in his marriage, environmental writer Molyneaux decides to join his eight-year-old son on a hike of the Appalachian Trail. Assuming the trail names Tecolote (owl) and Venado (deer), father and son begin at the midpoint of "the AT," at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in order to avoid the worst of Lyme disease season. At times, they are joined by Venado's 10-year-old sister (Bluish) and mother (Seaweed), as well as other hikers and like-minded friends who follow along on their Facebook page.
Molyneaux discusses the vision of Benton McKaye, the co-creator of the Appalachian Trail, at every opportunity; "in order to understand life," McKaye wrote, "people need connection to three critical things: community, rural processes, and wilderness." Most people Molyneaux meets have never heard of McKaye but are soon converted by his passion.
Since the first "thru-hike" was completed on the Appalachian Trail 1n 1939, countless individuals have turned to this terrain to cleanse and rejuvenate their minds and souls by exhausting their bodies. Molyneaux continues this tradition in true form, and the pairing of his eight-year-old son's enthusiasm and wonder--and endless questioning--with his own 52-year-old wisdom and keen storytelling produces an inspiring and thought-provoking tale of perseverance and tenacity that will surely inspire others to tackle the AT with their own children. --Kristen Galles blogger at Book Club Classics
Discover: A Child's Walk in the Wilderness is a testament to a father's love for his children as well as his love of the natural world.
How Literature Saved My Life
by David Shields
David Shields (The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead) once again, in How Literature Saved My Live, tries to convince readers that fiction is dead and that the essay--and perhaps the memoir--are the most authentic genres extant today. In this ongoing crusade, he succeeds in writing personal essays that are clever, entertaining, erudite, funny and genre-bending.
Shields here continues the process of examining, through his writing, every nook and cranny of his psyche. His subjects have ranged from his stutter to his familial relationships, failed love affairs, his take on sports and race--and, in this book, his dogmatic statement that literature is the only stay against oblivion, despair, chaos and the abyss.
What saves all of this from being simply a narcissistic exercise in navel-gazing is that Shields is possessed of a mordant wit and a nicely overstuffed brain. He has read widely. "If you want to write serious books," he says, reflecting on his earlier book Reality Hunger, "you must be ready to break forms." Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, he says, shows us a path to this goal: "She establishes the problem, deepens the problem, suggests 'solutions,' explores the permutations of these solutions, argues against and finally undermines these solutions, returning us to the problem." (Which is, he admits, "pretty much the M.O. of this book as well.")
"I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness," he writes at the end. "Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this--which is what makes it essential." --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.
Discover: An incisive, deeply thoughtful meditation on literature, life and where they intersect.
Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage
by Jeffrey Frank
The dynamic between an American president and his vice president always seems mysterious, mostly because the latter's role is so loosely defined by the Constitution that it gets reimagined with each administration. Perhaps no such duo in modern history, though, has been quite as odd as the team of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. In Ike and Dick, Jeffrey Frank (The Columnist) explains how the affable and beloved Eisenhower held the brooding and bristly Nixon at bay for decades like a distant father--and how the need for both affirmation from his ostensible mentor as well as a desire to escape Ike's massive shadow shaped Nixon's troubling political destiny.
Based in large part on the personal correspondence and histories of the two men and those who knew them, Ike and Dick describes how Eisenhower reluctantly chose the rising-star Nixon for a running mate in 1952 and then made no secret that he considered dumping him during the reelection campaign--and spent the rest of his life vacillating between support and indifference for his former veep. Assuming that Eisenhower's ambivalence must have stoked the younger man's inherent bitterness and paranoia, it's hard not to wonder if Watergate would have happened had Ike treated Dick differently--and it's ultimately to Frank's credit that one comes away sympathizing for Nixon's plight as the red-headed stepchild of the Eisenhower administration. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic
Discover: A fascinating examination of the unhealthy dynamic between Eisenhower and Nixon.
Essays & Criticism
The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story
by Ian Condry
Japanese television broadcasts 90 animated series each week, only a fraction of which cross international lines through commercial distribution, amateur "fansubbing" translations or piracy. Harvard cultural anthropologist and anime connoisseur Ian Condry set out to examine the shifting, relatively unknown world of Japanese animation and discern just what makes this labor-intensive, low-paying niche art form an unbridled success.
The critical essays in The Soul of Anime, each of which could stand as its own case study, dissect the genre at its most basic level to explore the interplay between the creative texts and the social contexts, with an emphasis on the collaborations between the artists and filmmakers who create the characters and worlds and the fans who devour them.
To understand better how this "collaborative creativity" works, Condry immersed himself in the day-to-day workings of the anime studio--attending script meetings, storyboard sessions and voice acting read-throughs--and interviewed some of Japan's most important animators, including Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). On the fan side of the equation, he examines a "Never Never Land" of grown men searching for social acceptance in a harsh world, redefining masculinity through their consumptive love of two-dimensional cartoon characters. It's the global network of avid fans and geeky consumers supporting these doe-eyed characters, he says, that is essential to understanding anime's explosive worldwide success. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: An ethnographic study on how the makers of Japanese anime and its fans work together to promote the art form on a global level.
Children's & Young Adult
Etiquette & Espionage: Finishing School, Book the First
by Gail Carriger
If spunky Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey happened onto a steampunk set, she might look a lot like Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.
It's 1851, and Sophronia tumbles into Gail Carriger's (the Parasol Protectorate series) debut YA novel through a dumbwaiter she deems the ideal eavesdropping conveyance. However, her tampering with the pulley system expels her onto precisely the scene for which she'd hoped to remain a fly on the wall. Her mother, at wit's end, commits 14-year-old Sophronia to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. While in transport, Sophronia must save herself and two others under Mademoiselle Geraldine's guardianship from a group of renegade flywaymen (highwaymen who travel by air). She realizes there's more to Mademoiselle--and the story--than is immediately apparent.
As she does in her adult novels, Carriger peoples Etiquette & Espionage with enchanting werewolves and vampires, and the dynamics among the humans will keep readers turning the pages. There's Sidheag Maccon, a titled young woman raised by wolves--literally, albeit werewolves; and Preshea Buss, who speaks with "clipped elocution, as if each word were being prematurely assassinated." Lady Linette stands out as an especially entertaining instructor. The tale builds to a hilarious and eventful denouement at a coming-out ball hosted by the Temminnick family for Sophronia's younger sister, Petunia. Carriger delivers a grand mix of etiquette and espionage with a dash of humor and enough subterfuge to spring some surprises. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A funny and suspenseful steampunk tale of a teen sent off to an unusual finishing school.
by Ted Lewin
Breathtaking watercolor images of animals native to Africa make this addition to the "I Like to Read" series pure pleasure.
The book begins with a full-page image of a wide-eyed boy: "Look!" His command introduces an array of animals engaged in various activities. "Look! An elephant eats" accompanies a picture of a pachyderm pulling branches with its trunk. Have you ever thought about how "giraffes drink?" Author-artist Ted Lewin depicts them with front legs splayed so they can lower their extra-long necks to a pool of water. A gorilla's fur seems to shimmer as it hides among thick, leafy vines.
Lewin captures the animals as if in a candid photo with a zoom lens. For "Wild dogs listen," they stand at attention, their ears perked, their necks taut. You can almost feel the dust fly as a herd of zebras stampedes across two double-page spreads ("Zebras run"), and feel the water as "hippos splash." The action comes full circle when Lewin returns to the boy at play, surrounded by his stuffed animals--many of them featured in Lewin's glorious nature scenes. The story closes with an image of the young hero ("A boy dreams").
The animals go through many of the activities a child experiences in the course of his or her day, so parents can help children make that connection during mealtimes or bathtime or be encouraged to listen attentively, like the wild dogs. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Animals in the wild that come alive through short declarative sentences and breathtaking watercolors.
TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet
by Cynthia Littleton
In November 2007, the Writers Guild of America brought much of Hollywood's television production to a standstill with a strike that lasted roughly three months. As Variety TV correspondent Cynthia Littleton describes the core of the WGA's dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the writers wanted to be paid when the studios sold or streamed their shows over the Internet--they hadn't gotten the best of deals when they had a similar dispute over home video distribution back in the '80s, and many of them were itching to right the balance.
TV on Strike is a play-by-play account of the strike's origins and the ebb and flow of the negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP. Littleton is at her best when she's got behind-the-scenes revelations about the personal drama, like the animosity studio heads felt toward the WGA's leadership--and the growing realization among other top writers in the Guild that they probably did need someone else handling their end of the discussions. There's also a lot of juicy material about tensions between the WGA and Jay Leno, who brought his show back on the air in the midst of the strike but seemed to draw more fire than other late-night hosts who did likewise. (David Letterman, who owns Late Night outright, cut a separate deal with the Guild.) As for the financial issues involved, Littleton observes this strike was likely just "the first act in a high-tension drama" we'll come back to again, as writers and producers continue to adapt to their shifting technological playing field. --Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com
Discover: What was at stake when Hollywood's writers went on strike in the winter of 2007? Variety's television correspondent lays out the economic issues along with the major backstage dramas.
Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths
by Sholeh Wolpe
Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe explores pain, personal and public, in her third collection, Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths. The book is divided into four parts. The first uses an epigraph taken from Robert Frost: "The best way out is always through." Many of the poems in this section--"The Chill," "Matrimony," "Illusion," "Divorce"--are emotionally painful, as they speak about the breakdown of a marriage and love's leaving, filled with sadness and anger, loss and truth. "What's buried among their bed's decaying springs?" Wolpe asks in "Measure." "He says I love you, she says I love you/ to something she cannot see in the dark."
The second section uses an epigraph from Eliot's "The Rock" ("Where is the life we have lost in living?") to introduce poems about the past, Wolpe's schooling in England, her family and the Iranian home she can't go back to, as she tells us in the poignant "Sanctuary":
"Home is a missing tooth.
The tongue reaches
The poems in the third section are more political, like "I Am Neda." A young woman shot to death protesting Ahmadinejad's controversial election speaks: "Leave the Basiji bullet in my heart,/ fall to prayer in my blood." The final section talks about keeping time with spring's blue hyacinths, echoing Frost's simplicity:
"grace in movement, movement in grace,
like the lifting of a hand,
...the rotation of the heart."
--Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: A gifted Iranian-American poet beautifully explores love and the loss of love, beauty and war and the ghosts of the past.