The Shambling Guide to New York City

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty (Review)

Genre, Review

The Shambling Guide to New York City was the first book that I read this year, and it turns out that it kind of set the tone for my reading year thus far. It’s a book that stretched the boundaries of what I normally look for in a book, but still hit on a lot of my core pleasure buttons. That sounded dirty, didn’t it? Regardless, this is a book that has a really fun premise, solid writing, memorable characters, and a plot that cracks along at a very nice pace.

The first thing that worked for me in TSGTONYC was the heroine, Zoe. She’s smart, competent, and confident, which is how I like my amigas both IRL and in books. In a book that’s going to have a lot of action (and from the set-up, how could it not?), it is vital to establish early on that the heroine is not too-stupid-to-live (TSTL). From the beginning, I could tell that while Zoe might get into shenanigans, it was going to be because she’s in a crazy situation and she’s got moxie, not because she makes idiotic decisions. Actually, having someone so competent at the core of the story makes things more exciting- if there’s a character who can handle their business, it means that the author is going to throw some serious shit at them & that’s fun to read. Other authors, take note! Your heroines don’t have to be TSTL in order for plot developments to ensue!

that's just, like, the rules of feminism

What are these plot elements, you might ask? Well, premise-wise, Zoe is a veteran travel writer, out of work and looking for a project that lives up to her credentials (again with the competence!) after bombing out with her last boss/married lover (okay, so this somewhat undercuts her competent womanness- but Imma give her a pass because, hey, no one is perfect).Through some random circumstances, Zoe ends up working for a paranormal travel writing agency, because of course. She quickly starts to get in over her head as someone sends a Frankenstein heavy after her and then… hijinks ensue! There’s some action, some smexing, some mysterious mysteries, some zombies- pretty much everything you want out of this genre. Mostly, though, this book is rooted in Zoe and her voice- I basically just liked spending time with her and seeing her crazy world through her sassy-pants POV.

Michelle-Visage-Fierce

Paranormal urban fantasy is relatively new flavor for me. I’ve read one of the Jim Butcher Dresden Files books, which I enjoyed, but didn’t feel the need to go on with the series. The elements of this book, however, worked more for me than Butcher’s did. Mostly, I just really liked that there were a variety of paranormal beings wandering around NYC, which Lafferty refers to as “coterie” (maybe this is a thing? I don’t know if this is a thing. It was new to me). From my glancing acquaintance with paranormal worlds, it seems like vampires, zombies, fairies, and werewolves are the big guys on the block. I liked that this book branches out from the core supernatural beasties while using the stalwart favs of the genres. I particularly liked the death goddess and the incubus, which were new to me as major characters in a book. I’ve started to read more paranormal-y kinds of books this year, and I think I tend to like my paranormal with some irreverence. Super serious and intense vampires don’t really work for me- really, buddy? You have magical fangs that pop out when you get a blood boner. Calm down with your self-importance. Do you really think that every human woman you encounter is dying to be your Capri Sun pack?

bitch please!

This book did not fall into that trap- even the incubus, who appears as a hunk of burning love when he’s turning it on is shown as kind of a normal dweeby guy in his non-sex god form. I liked that the book seemed to have a sense of humor about the quotidian realities of coterie life. That’s the attitude I want from a book with paranormal elements.

I’m usually pretty gun shy about series. I want books to be self-contained units, not tune-in-next-week! episodes. I also am not very eager to start with series that aren’t very far along into their arc. For one thing, I don’t like waiting in between books (I’m more of a series binger), and for another, series often take a turn for the worse and I like getting advanced intel on when I should quit reading. While I did have some problems with how this book ended, mostly on a clarity level of what was happening, I did like that it felt like a pretty cohesive single unit. There’s a passing reference to setting things up for the next book, but it wasn’t anything too heavy-handed. I actually bought the next installment in the series, which should tell you that I genuinely had fun reading this book.

Finally, I should note that this book came to my attention because Lafferty hosts a podcast called “I Should Be Writing” that I have found really helpful. It doesn’t always have amazing craft discussions, but I think it is great place to hear about the business/career aspect of writing, and it’s also really encouraging to creative people generally. Lafferty has a very honest posture towards her audience, sharing the ups and downs of her career and process, and she emphasizes the “ditch-digger” attitudes towards creativity… basically, stop waiting for the muse to make you feel special and just get on with doing what you’re trying to do.

This was a book that I enjoyed in a genre that I wasn’t sure about, which has sold me trying the next book in the series. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Rating:

5 – It’s really good: well written and pleasurable

Zachary's Virgin

Zachary’s Virgin by Catherine Spencer (A Review in Crazysauce)

Crazysauce, Genre, Review

Guys, this was one of the worse/best books I have ever read. Which is awesome- to be honest, I’d rather have a really strong reaction to a book in either direction than just a “meh.”

I feel like I need some Harlequin Presents setup for the uninitiated. My first encounter with Harlequin Presents were at beach houses, where they invariably accumulate as ladies read them on vacation.These are the slim paperbacks that sit on your grocer’s check counter or in the book section at your local Wal-Mart. Nowadays, they always have the white background with the red banner across the top, and usually they have some amazing and plot-revealing title like, “The Billionaire’s Secretary’s Secret Baby” or “Enraptured by the Mediterranean Tycoon” or “The Playboy Gazillionaire’s Reluctant Virgin Bride.” These books are uniform in length, very faithful to a handful of tropes (you can guess which ones based on the title), and variable in their prose quality. In other words, they are the book equivalent of cotton candy, and, when done well, there are few delights more frothy, fun, and satisfying. When done badly, however, they cross the line from crazy fun to crazysauce, which is just as awesome for this reader. There is also a lot of sexysex, which my teenage self handled with maturity and poise.

boys giggling

I went on a Harlequin Presents tear earlier this year, kind of in the way that I binge watched HQN in college. I could start by presenting one that I actually thought was pretty good, but where would the fun be in that?

Here’s the official summary of Zachary’s Virgin by Catherine Spencer:

Zachary Alexander was accustomed to beautiful women at his luxury winter resort, but the stunning Claire Durocher took his breath away! Was she looking for a temporary lover? Zach was tempted to oblige her…
In fact, Claire had sworn she’ d always wait for the right man, but Zach seemed to think she was a gold digger! How could she prove before Christmas was over that, far from just a brief fling, what she wanted was to be his wife?

This synopsis is truly fascinating, seeing as how this is not what actually happens in the book.

First of all, the eponymous Zachary doesn’t want a temporary lover. Or a permanent one. Except that he does. Or not… actually, it is impossible to say what Zachary wants because Zachary himself is utterly disconnected from his own interior life. He has the emotional depth of a wet mop. Second, he doesn’t think Claire’s a gold digger (she’s got her own money which she obtained in a totally batshit crazy way): he thinks she’s a stone cold bitch/French temptress. Third, she doesn’t want to be his wife. She wants to bone him and be friends with his daughter. And escape her tragic backstory.

she needs to sort out her priorities gif

The story kicks off with Claire, a super rich French lady of the world, landing in Vancouver (woo-hoo!) to go on a Christmas vacay in the BC interior. She’s cranky and tired from her long trip, which, fair enough. So when the resort she’s staying at messes up her reservations, she’s understandably pissed. She starts to put up a fuss, but immediately backs off when she finds out that the reason for the mix up is a sick child (note her Tender Heart towards the children). However, Alphole Extraordinaire Zachary who owns the resort doesn’t hear this backing off. He only hears her initially huffiness and does not change his perception of Claire from here on in. Even though she immediately back peddles to make it very clear that she has a Tender Heart, he is not here for it. He has made up his mind- so there! Any smexing from here on in will be of the smacksmackkiss variety. He grudgingly puts her in the guest wing of his private house, since the resort is full for the weekend. Claire settles in and instantly starts to make friends with Zach’s daughter. She’s not really a full human being so we’ll just call her Girl Child. Girl Child is about to get boobs, and Zach is kind of freaking out, because he’s a widower (of course he is) and he doesn’t know how to teach her the ways of the Lady Force. [Insert vaguely chauvinist joke here about his discomfort with non-manly man stuff]

cher_eyeroll_clueless

He’s somewhat in denial about this, but is starting to realize that he can’t just keep pretending that Girl Child isn’t going to want a same sex mentor around at some point. Okay, so we’ve got his external/internal conflict set up, right? He’s a widower with a guilt complex and a whole bunch of more or less unfounded ideas about the heroine. What’s our heroine’s deal?

Well, for starters, her mother was a French prostitute who emotionally abused her and died of a drug overdose in the seedy streets of Paris, leaving Claire a friendless orphan. So there’s that.

yeesh peggy mad men

When I first realized that this was her tragic backstory, I wanted to double check the time period. Was this a Victor Hugo novel I had stumbled into? Is the heroine seriously a tragic French orphan? Who now makes her living renting out upscale paste jewelry to rich ladies? But no. This is set in the early 2000s. She’s still a virgin (see title) because she doesn’t want to end up being a whore like her mom. Okay- so that’s her totally normal backstory. She’s also (understandably) annoyed at Zach constantly accusing her of being a seductive French bitch.

The subsequent “love story” is so ridiculous that it’s impossible to keep track of why Claire would ever want to fuck Zach, who consistently treats her like utter shit despite how great she is with his daughter (remember, Tender Heart). There’s some petty jealousy when his ex-brother-in-law shows up. There’s misunderstandings about her intentions towards his daughter. There’s unfounded accusations of her being a slut. All of this builds to her seeing him in a hot tub and then deciding to get it on with him.

The deflowering scene took this book from bad to awesomely bad for me. Zach is putting his thing down, making sweet, sweet love to her with his magical wang so that it’s all rainbows and unicorn tears and orgasms galore. He can tell she’s a virgin and is of course grossly turned on by it. However, in the final throes, he is so overwhelmed by her magical hoo-ha’s perfection that he starts to feel guilty about how he never felt this way about his dead wife and ends up calling out his dead wife’s name. Yes, fair reader, he screams his dead wife’s name when he comes as he’s deflowering his current lover. As in, “Betty Sue, I’m so sorry!”

excuse me, i have to go and vomit

There was basically nothing that he could do after this to redeem himself for me. To Claire’s credit, she utterly rebuffs his attempts to explain this away to her. She even pretends that she wasn’t really a virgin and is all, “don’t flatter yourself, it wasn’t that good for me, monsieur.” So I gained some respect for her at that point, even if her “nuh-huh” approach was probably a little immature.

However, from this point on in the book, Zach should be in total pursuit mode. He should be groveling and trying to make things up to Claire. After all, he’s found his magically perfect smexing partner who’s hot, loves Girl Child, has her own money, and makes him feel all the feelings that his alphole heart has blocked out for so long. But does he do this?

britney-no

He continues to be a totally ambivalent asshat to her for pretty much the remainder of the book. There’s some superficial efforts on his part to smooth things over. There’s some external conflict when Girl Child goes missing and they end up having sex in a cabin while they are looking for her (we’ve already established that Claire doesn’t have the best priorities). Eventually, Girl Child is located in Vancouver, Zach realizes that he’s found a keeper, and Claire inexplicably reveals her love for both of them. In time for Christmas! Yay!

This book is more competently written then many of the HP books I’ve encountered. The action was clear and the motivations were clear. It’s just that the action and motivation were crazy and completely bizarre for any normal human person with human feelings. I could never figure out why on earth Claire was interested in Zach, other than he was hot, broody, and there. Surely she had encountered men with these traits in France? I understood why Zach ought to like Claire- it was just maddening watching him trying to find reasons why he shouldn’t like her.

However, I did derive a good deal of twisted enjoyment from the book. If you’re looking for the kind of over the top crazysauce that the HP line can provide, this is a great choice.

Rating:

1* – It’s so terrible that it’s amazing

The Duchess War Courtney Milan

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan (Review)

Genre, Review

I was tempted to start with the craziest of the crazysauce genre I’ve encountered in my adventures. I resisted (though the time for that is coming soon) and instead, I give you one of the best.

THE FEELS. This book gave me all of them!

#awesome

Okay, so I knew going into this book that I was going to love it. Smart, feminist-y, non-perfect looking heroine with a past? Check. Socially conscious duke in pursuit? Check. Sharp dialogue, Victoriana, non-ton setting? Check, check, check. Result? I am all in…

thrift shop coat dance

Reading books like The Duchess War makes me feel sheepish that I’ve been so reluctant to try romance before. I mean, as this recent Flavorwire list reminded me, most of my favorite lit fic books have strong romantic elements in them. Remains of the DayJane EyrePossession, etc. are all very focused on a love story. The difference between straight romance and lit fic-y romance? The happily ever after (HEA). If it’s a romance, the hero and heroine will be established in a happy ending by the final pages. The knowledge that the H/H are going to end up happily together at the end is important for me in books like The Duchess War, where the setup itself is rife with angst. It gets me through the dark times.

So Minnie is on the lower end of the genteel impoverished gentry in Victorian Leicester. She’s pretty sure this utter asshat is about to propose to her and she knows that she’s going to have to accept. Her (lesbian?) aunts took her in after [INSERT BIG BACKSTORY SECRET], but they really can’t afford to keep her indefinitely. She is amazingly smart, socially conscious, and incredibly kind, but she has spent her post [INSERT BIG BACKSTORY SECRET] life keeping her head down and trying to not want more than she can have. Meanwhile, our hero – Robert, Duke of Clermont- is in town trying to stir up the proletariat to overthrow their oppressive overlords and seize the means of production for themselves. No, really. He has some seeeerrrious daddy issues and his social activism flows out of an attempt to overcompensate for the sins of his father. These two crazy kids get thrown together when Robert’s secret shenanigans start to threaten Minnie’s [INSERT BIG BACKSTORY SECRET]. Tears ensue. Important Issues ensue. Love ensues. Reader smiling ensues.

Bookish happy dance

Bookish happy dance

The reason I love this book is tied into the characterization. I was so moved by how well Milan motivates her characters and how beautifully she describes that motivation. There is a looking up/looking down theme in the middle of the book that was masterful, both moving the internal conflict forward and illuminating what makes Minnie tick without insufferable navel gazing. The prose in general was as strong as anything I would expect from a contemporary lit fic book. It’s not the very best I’ve ever read, but Milan has a lovely voice and an emotionally evocative style.

Besides the writing and characters, this has lots of tropes that I love. I tend to prefer the hero-in-pursuit model of romance, as the heroine-in-pursuit can to lead to doormat heroines who put up with an ungodly amount of bullshit from the jerks that they love for no apparent reason. I enjoyed Robert’s growing admiration and attraction for Minnie, and Milan did a good job exploring the difficulties in a duke getting together with a barely respectable yeoman’s daughter. There’s also fiesty/feminist heroine (which I love), funny & whimsical supporting characters (who get their own books later in the series – yay!), and a virgin hero & heroine. The smexing is handled tastefully- hot but not vulgar, and there is a great scene where the heroine lady-splains orgasms to Robert.

Nice try, dukey- but I got this

Nice try, your dukeness- I got this

Overall, this was a really wonderful read- I’m going to be using this in my final major masters paper. It’s a great place to start for someone who needs strong prose to be able to get into a book and the first book of a small series. I’m looking forward to gobbling up the other books in this series – A Kiss for Midwinter was a fantastic novella and left me ready for book 2.

Rating: 6 – Why are you still reading this? Go pick this one up NOW

feelings i cannot fight

Genre Magic Sauce, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Genre

Genre

My breakthrough on genre came when I was listening to a podcast about plot, character, and style. The podcasters discussed these three building blocks of stories and speculated that most readers have an ordered preference of what they value in a book. For myself, I’ve traditionally been a style first, plot second, character third kind of girl. Style has always been very important to me; this isn’t just the mechanics of writing, like grammar or language. It’s also the voice of the author. I’ll put up with a lot of bullshit and crazysauce in plot and character if I like the overall voice/tone of the book.

Yes, Bertie, I’m looking at you.

Voice is the reason that I love authors like P.G. Wodehouse and J.K. Rowling… they can write almost any kind of plot with any kinds of characters and I’m going to enjoy it. Think about movies: there are directors and actors that people love and will support any project that they do, like Quentin Tarantino, Meryl Streep, Tim Burton, or Benedict Cumberbatch. There are fans who love what those storytellers bring to film and are therefore pretty flexible on the who/what/when/where of any given project.

I think the generalization that genre novels tend to value plot and character over style has been a big part of what has kept me away. And even though I’m finding my genre sea-legs, I don’t think that my order preference has changed. I do think, however, that I have a more nuanced way of understanding what it is about style, plot, and character that is important to me. Basically, within each element, there are 2 things I’m looking for: believability and quality. Believability means that characters act in sane, understandable ways, plots unfold in a logical, well-paced manner, and the style is conveyed through solid grammar and consistent POV without intrusion on the story. Quality means characters who are interesting and engaging, plots that live up to and/or play with established tropes, and style that is beautiful or different or unique. Believability is the mechanics. Quality is the X factor.

There are books that work on all levels for me, like Remains of the DayJane Eyre, and Gilead. I would argue that these books are scoring 100% in both believability and quality for all three story elements. Result?

feelings i cannot fight

So here’s my realization: for genre, as long as there is a quality plot (i.e. a plot that is playing into tropes I like) and believable characters (i.e. characters that are credibly, properly motivated), I am in. I am all in. I am willing to forego quality style- and sometimes even a believable style- for the sake of a plot that’s in my wheelhouse with characters who are acting sanely within the boundaries of the world. Though I typically don’t think of myself as a big character person, the character aspect is especially important in genre. I finally get why big genre readers harp so much characters! If I have suspended my disbelief for your urban fantasy plot (and it turns out that I will believe almost anything plot-wise as long as it is consistent in the world), you need to give me some believable characters I can anchor my credibility on. Basically, genre is much more focused on someone telling you a story that happens to be in written form, rather than literary fiction which always aware of the written part of the story communication.

Since style is such a non-issue for me in genre (though when it’s there, it is a delicious bonus!), plot becomes super important. That means to enjoy genre, I have to figure out what kind of tropes work for me in each realm. I’ve always known what I liked in mysteries – more on the cozy end (Brits and secluded country houses welcome) and less on the grisly procedural end (gross-out descriptions of mutilated bodies are not my jam). But for each new genre, I’ve had to start getting my hands dirty to see what works.

So-It-Begins-Lord of the Rings

Figuring out my trope preferences means a lot o’ reading. Some of the books I have read on this journey have been bad. Like, truly and terribly bad. But honestly, that’s part of the fun. I kind of love a book that is so terrible that it transcends it badness and begins to reapproach awesome. I will share some of my favorite terrible books with you at some point. However, there is this thing called the internet which makes figuring out tropes a lot easier. For example, there are great resources to break down tropes in the romance genre. How else would I have known what romangst or too-stupid-to-live heroines or alpholes are?

Soooooo… having said all this, I’m going to start posting some reviews of books I’ve encountered on this genre journey. Some will be of books that I loved. Some will be of books I hated. Some will be of books that I loved to hate.

yeah, you failed

An Adventure in Genre

Genre

By my normal standards, this reading year has been a great flaming disaster. Every New Year’s Day, I take stock of where I’ve been with my reading, where I’m at, and where I want to go for the upcoming year. Eight months ago, when I looked forward and set my reading goals, I decided I wanted to get some of the big, doorstopper books off of my TBR. I thought I’d read The Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch, maybe Infinite Jest. You know. Lit-ruh-chah.

yeah, you failed

Instead, I’m coming out of one of the most emotionally tumultuous 6 months I’ve had in a while. I haven’t had the energy to read anything heavy outside of what I’ve needed to read for school. All I’ve wanted is some brain candy. Now, back in the day, I would have handled this thirst for fluff with some Flavor of Love. Sadly, I do not have cable up here in the Great White North… besides, VH1 no longer supplies me with my trashy fix on a weekly basis.

VH1... How dare you, sir?

VH1… How dare you, sir?

I found myself at a loss as to how to have some entertaining brain down time. And somehow, I found myself filling my entertainment void with genre fiction.

Now here’s the thing- I would not have classified myself as a genre snob up until this point. Nobody loves a good mystery more than me. My adoration of Agatha Christie is well documented. And there are few books I enjoy more than [literary fiction] + [genre plot/tropes]. However, there have always been straight genres that I have just not really been able to get into. At the top of this list are romances, chick lit, westerns, paranormal, and sci-fi/fantasy. Basically, I thought that I was just not into those kinds of stories when they weren’t filtered through the pretty-prosification of lit fit. From what I could tell, I just didn’t like those kinds of tropes when they didn’t have a strong literary voice to go along with them. No judgment- just not my thing.

But I have had a break-through! It turns out that, given the right combination tropes, I do like genre. In fact, I like it a lot. So, instead of a year of deepening my lit cred, I’ve had a year of really diving into genre. I am slowly but surely figuring out what works for me. I have certainly received my share of side eye when trying to talk about this reading adventure with most of my fellow bookish friends.

hi haters!

But I am persevering with my experiment. I’ll be posting some reviews of books that have been key in me figuring out what works for me in genre fiction. There have been some epically bad books. Certainly there have. But there have also been some (surprisingly?) fantastic books, and I’m not just talking about on the level of plots or characters. There are some authors in genre whose voice, prose, and style are as strong as many of the authors that I encounter in “serious” contemporary literature. There are pleasures and riches to be found in genre. I’m only bummed that it took me so long to open myself up to them.

So stay tuned! Because first up in my genre exploration is perhaps the most maligned of genres… romance. And, *spoilers*, it turns out that with the right book, I really like it.

Blog Flashback: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Uncategorized

I have to confess, I’ve always defended Harry against his nay-sayers for this book. But on this reread… I finally had to admit that they had a point. Project Reread HP ticks along with book numero 5…

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

First Read: I was there at midnight in 2003 to get my copy, which I tore through immediately

Format: Plugging along on the audiobooks courtesy of Pottermore and Jim Dale – love that man

Thoughts:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is one of my favorites in the series, or at least it has been up to this reading. Yet I have had to come to grips on this reread with a simple fact: it is built on a trifecta of asshattery. The asshats in question are Harry, Sirius, and Dumbledore. Let’s consider each of their asshattiness in turn.

Harry is basically a whiny schmuck throughout this entire book. I will defend him, because he is a 15 year old boy, and his normal hormonal craziness is likely simmering alongside a solid case of PTSD. He is still an asshat, especially when it comes to lashing out at his friends without being able to articulate what he’s so mad about.

But considering that he’s basically coming to grips with a lifetime case of being Typhoid Mary, I’ll give him somewhat of a pass.

Now let’s look at Sirius. He is more responsible for acting like a petulant child, considering that he is a GAM.* But to be fair, he went to a Guantanomo-esque prison when he was innocent and still a pretty young guy, so that’s enough to screw you up royally. True, he literally pouts when Harry refuses to aid and abet him in genuinely reckless behavior.

And his cockiness *SPOILERS* gets him killed, which is the last thing that his godson needs at the moment.

But again, he clearly has some serious psychological baggage that is motivating his actions. I can make my peace with his immaturity.

The final corner of this asshat triangle is Dumbledore and let’s be real, he has by far the fewest excuses. This is one of the only times in the series that I truly feel Rowling fails to properly/realistically motivate her characters. He’s keeping all the backstory from Harry (which we’ll deal with in the next reread) for 2 ostensible reasons: 1) Dumbledore doesn’t want Voldemort to catch onto his plans and be tempted to control Harry, and 2) He wants to preserve what’s left of Harry’s childhood and not cause him any more pain. The first reason is ab.surd. Voldemort is bound to figure out that he can see into Harry’s mind sooner than later. Voldemort will then know that Harry knows there’s a connection. Considering that Harry is Dumbldore’s #1 protege, don’t you think Voldemort can make that leap that Dumbledore knows that Voldemort knows that he can get up into Harry’s psyche?

Insane. Why Dumdledore didn’t have Harry onto Occlumency lessons, like, the day after the Triwizard Tournament fiasco makes zero sense. As for the second supposed reason, let’s get real here. Harry kissed his innocence goodbye a long time ago. Even if we were to ignore his mother being murdered in front of him, his subservient treatment by his unloving relatives, the 2 previous times that an embodied form of Voldemort tried to murder him at Hogwarts, and the trauma of being nearly soul-sucked by a herd of Dementors, let’s just look at what happened to him right before Dumbledore starts giving him the freeze out…

Harry is lured into a death trap by his mentor/confidant, who is actually his attempted murderer’s minion. His friend is murdered in front of him. He is strapped to a tombstone and watches his parents’ Judas cut off his own arm. He sees Voldemort emerged from a bubbling caldron and then has to have the equivalent of a wizard street fight with the guy in the middle of a graveyard while a bunch of menacing adults taunt him. His dead loved ones emerge in ghost form to aid him and then he has to carry his dead friend’s body back to Hogwarts. Just when Harry thinks he’s safe, his mentor reveals that he is an impostor who is also going to try to kill him. And then he’s basically called a liar by the head of the government.

So, yeah, Dumbledore. I think the innocence ship has sailed. And is it really going to be less painful to found out that he’s probably going to be murdered by Voldemort in a couple years? I say yank that band-aid off sooner than later. I know JK is trying to pass off that Dumbley is too emotionally involved with Harry, but really…

Anyways, my biggest take away from this book is that Dumbledore’s faults are a lot more glaring now that I’m an adult and have a better gauge as to what constitutes reasonable behavior towards the care of minors. There is no real reason why Dumbledore doesn’t give Harry at least a little more information, other than it would ruin JK’s plotting. I can feel the gears turning here a little too hard in an attempt to hold the major plot arc off for the next book. That being said, this makes me even more excited for books 6 & 7.

And besides the trifecta of asshattery, Order has an abundance of delights. Watching the gang form Dumbledore’s Army is delightful (Harry puts on one hell of a night class!) and the Weasley twins’ escape from Umbridge’s clutches never fails to bring a smile for me.

Ehrmagerd, speaking of Umbridge, she is pure evil! I never fail to be totally creeped out by her twisted combination of sadism and obsessive pink collecting. She is a bureaucratic Satan incarnate, truly, and hat’s off to JK for creating such a thoroughly despicable character in such a plausible way. And the scene in the Department of Mysteries never fails to creep the ever loving crap out of me.

Besides all the faults that I can see in Phoenix‘s plotting, it continues to be an incredibly emotional reading experience for me. When I got to the end and realized who died on my first read, it screwed up my life for a while. It is the reason that I read the ending of any book I am emotionally involved with before getting too far into things. I can’t handle having it sprung on me. And even though I know the ends and outs of this book pretty well, it still gives me the feels in a serious way.

The audio on book 5 continues to be great – the adverbs seem to be letting up. Maybe she’ll out grow them? Anyways, you go Jim Dale. You’re the best. (Though that being said, I have recently been made aware that in the UK, you can get a version with Stephen Fry narrating. I wants it, my precious!)

*Grown Ass Man. Counterpart is Grown Ass Woman. Patent pending.

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Blog Flashback: Rereading Tolkien

Blog Flashback

Oh, Mr. Tolkien. How I love you. How I’ve missed you.


This summer, I took a class on J.R.R. Tolkien, which involved rereading most of the Tolkien oeuvre. I know, my life is so hard. It was one of the more joyful assignments I have had and conversation about the books has rippled out from the classroom into many other corners of my life. 

And since this was one of the most significant reading experiences of my year, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on how I found these old friends this time around.

***


What surprised me most about The Hobbit this time around was the amount of sympathy I had for Bilbo at the beginning. 12 year old Frankie thought he was being a wet blanket about the whole adventuring thing. 26 year old Frankie was totally with him on the rude, unexpected house guest front. Seriously, a bunch of people you’ve never met show up and start eating your food and throwing your shit around?


No. Not cool. Frankly, I salute Bilbo for keeping it together as well as he does. 

I loved seeing how Tolkien uses Bilbo’s genealogy throughout the book to explain why Bilbo makes certain choices, framing his decisions as the conflict between his adventuresome, Tookish side and his homebody, Baggins side. What a genius way to externalize an internal conflict – and a totally approachable way to illustrate inner ambivalence to children. 


This is also a genuinely funny book. Throughout Tolkien’s Middle-earth cycle, I was struck by Tolkien’s very dry sense of humor. He does a particularly nice job of funneling his commentary through Bilbo’s inner thoughts and I especially enjoyed the sheer annoyance that Bilbo feels over the standoff between Thorin and the men of Dale/Elf king. 


This was probably my favorite reread, since I didn’t remember very much about the book from the first time around. It was a delight to rediscover its pleasures.  


I know that this corner of Tolkien’s work doesn’t appeal to everyone. Not everyone enjoys reading made up history and mythology, but I find this fictional version of non-fiction delectable. My only real revelation on this reread was that since I’m much more familiar with Tolkien lore than I used to be, I didn’t have to check the family trees as often. I still loved The Silmarillion and I love that I will probably make new connections every time I read it.


Whew. Y’all. I forgot how amazing this book really is. I had tried to read it when I was about 12, after The Hobbit, and struck out. Once the movies came out and helped me get into the plot (and assured me that they weren’t going to be hanging out with Tom Bombadil for 1000 pages), I breezed through LOTR, primarily to find out what was going to happen. Consequently, the impact of the prose was pretty fuzzy in my memory and I didn’t pay much attention to the thematic content. This time I did, and y’all…


It’s breathtaking. Tolkien’s prose is truly beautiful – the details he lavishes in painting the landscapes are gorgeous and his linguistic interests shine through in the perfection of his word choice. His themes are consistently woven throughout the narrative: never too heavy-handed, but omnipresent to give weight to even the smallest scene or interaction. 


And even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I found myself crying on multiple occasions (OMG, Theoden? All the goodbyes at the end? The Grey Havens?). In the library. With people awkwardly walking away from me.


Whatevs. LOTR was an amazing reread, one that I would love to revisit every couple of years for as long as I’m reading.  


There are a lot of great things contained in this collection of smaller Tolkien writings, but the stand out for me was Leaf by Niggle. I’m not sure that I had ever read this short story before, but seriously, it is one of the best allegories I have ever encountered. Considering how much Tolkien is known for disdaining allegory, he hits one out of the park with this story. LBN should be required reading for anyone interested in thinking about how a short story can deliver a wallop of a punch to a reader. Truly, it is an example of a perfect short story.

***


The bottom line? I wasn’t sure if Tolkien’s work would stand up to intense scrutiny and rereading. But my fears were unfounded: his oeuvre deepens and opens out with rereading. If you’ve only been through these books once, I’d highly recommend revisiting them, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They really do hold up.

Blog Flashback: The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor

Blog Flashback

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor

Procured from the Regent Bookstore

Procured in February 2013

Finished in July 2013

Format: Trade paperback with a beautiful illustration of a phoenix on the cover

Why I gave it a try:  I had this book checked out of the library for months on end for papers I was writing… I eventually bought it because I wanted to write in it, real bad

Summary: This is a curated collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, spanning from the late 40’s through the early 60’s. Her dear friend, Sally Fitzgerald, collected and edited them in the 1970’s. 

Thoughts: I have now spent two terms thinking about Flannery O’Connor (which is a delightful way to spend one’s time) and it only makes me want to spend more time thinking about her. She is an enchanting cipher – so funny yet so harsh, with equal measures of self-deprecation and self-confidence. 

I find much of her fiction quite funny (I know, it’s also brutal, but go read “The Enduring Chill” and tell me that she is not a humorist), but her letters are even better. I have spent much library time this year trying to stifle my giggles at her descriptions of people, her wry observations, her hilarious metaphors. I especially enjoy her descriptions of people’s wacky responses to her work.

But besides getting a better sense of her warmth as a person, I also have enjoyed seeing her sharp mind at work in literary criticism, the writing process, and philosophy. Flannery was incredibly well read in theology, as well, and she engages in fascinating correspondence on the subject of faith with Christians and non-Christians alike.

My favorite letter on belief was written to a college freshman who heard her speak and sent her a letter asking for advice about whether he should renounce his faith:


To Alfred Corn

May 30, 1962


“I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.

I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”* It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of idea, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do, and I think from your letter that you will not take the path of least resistance in this matter and simply decide that you have lost your faith and that there is nothing you can do about it.

One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.

The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. When you get a reasonable hold on one, another will come to take its place. At one time, the clash of the different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of Heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories. I might suggest that you look into some of the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man et al.). He was a paleontologist- helped discover Peking man- and also a man of God. I don’t suggest you go to him for answers but for different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a sceptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking, but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes it place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others. Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian. A book that might help you is The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson. Another is Newman’s The Grammar of Assent. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you. Much of the criticism of belief that you find today comes from people who are judging it from the standpoint of another and narrower discipline. The Biblical criticism of the 19th century, for instance, was the product of historical disciplines. It has been entirely revamped in the 20th century by apply broader criteria to it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on it blind trust.

Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticism. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

I don’t know if this is the kind of answer that can help you, but any time you care to write me, I can try to do better.”

The Habit of Being, 476-478

I wish that when I was younger, someone had said this to me. I wish that I had had enough self-awareness to ask!

What I love (and the theme I’ve been meditating on in some of my classes this summer) is O’Connor’s comfort with doubt and unbelief. Most of my Christian experiences have responded to doubt as a stain to be removed. Here’s the 20-minute scrub in the form of an argument, new exegesis, or apologetic, and voila! Doubt is gone! I’m just not sure that’s how faith actually works. I’ll be blogging more about some of the other books I read this summer which will tie into this theme, but suffice it to say, I don’t think that in the modern world it is possible to have mature faith without undertones of unbelief or doubt. Rereading Flannery, along with Bonhoeffer, Dostoevsky, and many others, makes me long for constructive ways to address doubt as a part of the gift of faith, rather than a disease to be cured.

This is a stellar collection of letters that illuminate much of O’Connor’s thoughts on writing, philosophy, literary interpretation, faith, and culture. She is one of America’s greatest literary treasures and her letters, I am sure, will continue to amuse and inspire readers for generations to come. 


Rating: 6 – Why are you still reading this? Go pick this one up NOW