Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sluts should get paid

Being a bookslut is hard work, methinks payment should be involved. My goal is to read 10,000 pages this year - a sad number in comparison to years past, but considering I didn't read any for pretty much the entire Spring, it'll have to do. Yes, it'll have to do indeed.

When I get the time, you'll have a lovely review of an older Coetzee novel and a play I recently went to see. Please try and contain your excitement.

Booksluts get to be teases too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Gregory Maguire - Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

My love for Gregory Maguire has not gone unnoticed; my little bookslut affection for his work is well documented. But I must admit to being a little wary to venture outside of the Wicked series. Maybe my fascination with him was really with his Oz. I loved Wicked and Son of a Witch, and I trust I may have equal affection for A Lion Among Men, but what of these non-Wicked tales. He successfully tackled The Wizard of Oz, but I never much cared for the original. What would happen when he tackled A Christmas Carol? And such beloved fairy tales as Snow White and Cinderella? I shuddered at the thought. (Okay, so I didn’t really shudder, but such language makes for a more dramatic reading.) Enter used bookstore and used bookstore credit. Lost (where Maguire takes on Dickens with a bit of a serial killer just for fun) and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister now belong on my shelf next to the Wicked books.

Published in 1999, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is Maguire’s second adult novel, the first being Wicked. It has a quite lovely cover as well. Disney made it a TV movie a few years later, but I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Disney managed to fully capture the dark & ugly.

Set in 17th century Holland, the novel revolves around two sisters, Iris & Ruth, and their eventual step-sister, Clara. Other central characters are Margarethe (their mother), the Master (Luykas Schoonmaker – the painter), Casper (the Master’s apprentice), Henrika & Cornelius van den Meer (Clara’s parents), van Stolk (a greedy business associate of van den Meer), the Dowager Queen of France (in Holland to have her “final” portrait painted), and the Prince of Marsillac (in Holland to have the Queen Mother find him a bride.) There are other figures, imps and changelings, gypsies and dwarfs – it is a fairytale after all, is it not?

The novel is divided into five sections, not including the prologue and epilogue, and each section is divided into several chapters. The titles Maguire chooses are beautifully fairy-tale-esque. Fancy that.

Prologue – Stories Painted on Porcelain
The novel opens with a very old lady coming across a group of children acting out the story of Cinderella. She questions the fancy of their story, the magic in it, that the real story is void of. “In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats” (x). Clara and Casper are introduced in the prologue, but the reader does not know which “ugly” stepsister tells the tale until the epilogue.

“The Obscure Child”
This first section introduces the reader to all the main players of the novel. It starts with the mystery of Clara, the changeling child, and concludes with Iris, Ruth, and their mother moving into the van den Meer home. Iris also poses for the Master in this first section and the painting horrifies her – her dullness is placed in a beautiful painting. He used her unattractive qualities to bring forth the beauty of the wildflowers, naming the work “Girl with Wildflowers.” Iris is distraught at the painting. She loathes it, but the painting earns him the commission from van den Meer to paint Clara, the golden child. The whole family moves in with the van den Meers as they want a child for Clara to play with and learn English from.

“The Imp-Riddled House”
The second section begins to let readers know that all is indeed not well in the van den Meer household. The children are convinced there is an imp living amongst them, and they half believe Clara’s tales of being a changeling. Clara refuses to leave the house; she is sequestered there by her own will (and that of her mother’s). The Master paints her with the tulips (her father is a tulip merchant and this is their fortune). It’s a beautiful portrait – her beauty lovingly portrayed by the Master’s genius. The portrait is successful – van den Meer becomes wealthy as people buy into the tulip trade. Meanwhile, in the domestic affairs, Margarethe continues to edge her way into the household, demanding payment for her work after the successful tulip portrait venture.

“Girl of the Ashes”
The third section of the novel details the birth of Cinderella – or Clara’s fall into the ashes. A pregnant Henrika dies. Clara leaves the house to go ice skating and her kidnapping story is revealed. Clara and Iris end up at the windmill where Clara had been hidden so many years ago, and a vacant look takes over. Clara becomes more and more distant, refusing to leave the hearth and covering herself in ashes. Margarethe marries van den Meer and becomes a gaudy woman with hideous taste. Iris becomes an apprentice under the Master and begins to fall in love with Casper. Mr. van den Meer becomes quite sick and watches as his fortune trickles away.

“The Gallery of God’s Mistakes”
Enter the Dowager Queen come to arrange a marriage for a distant relative, a godson, Philippe de Marsillac. Iris looks upon what the Master calls “the gallery of God’s mistakes” for the first time and sees the paintings of dwarfs, a child with the face of a parrot, a Girl-Boy, and other such “errors.”

“I think of them as friends,” says the Master, “for aren’t we all bruised?”

Clara retreats even further and the creditors begin to dismantle the house. Fittingly, Margarethe prepares for the ball. She hints that she may have promised Clara’s hand in marriage in order to pay for her gowns. (Well, it isn’t so much a hint.) Iris decides that Clara must go to the ball and must win the prince. She does this because she doesn’t want the prince – she wants Casper. Ruth blinds Margarethe by putting red pepper in her eye balm, which works out perfectly as Margarethe won’t be able to see the pretty stranger at the ball.

There is no pumpkin. No glass slipper. No fairy godmother. Casper gets the gown and while Margarethe tries to make him out to be one, he is a far from a fairy. (Iris’s mother tries to convince her that Casper is a homosexual because she doesn’t want her daughter to end up with him.) Clara adopts the name Clarissa Santiago of Aragon and stands gorgeous in white shoes, a golden gown, and a black lace veil. (Please note which section this occurs in.)

“The Ball”
Iris meets the Prince and has a lovely conversation with him. Clarissa walks in and he is smitten. Iris talks with the Master, dances with Casper, and tries not to be jealous that Casper seems to find Clarissa beautiful. (She fails at the latter.) Ruth burns Clara’s painting.

Later that night, a confession occurs; Margarethe poisoned Henrika and her unborn child. The reader also clearly learns that she was forced out of England for being a witch. Upon hearing this, Clara is transformed. She saves Ruth from being punished for setting the fire and marries the Prince. Casper ends up with Iris. Ruth ends up not quite as dumb as they all thought her to be.

Epilogue “Stories Written in Oils”
And so the reader discovers that Ruth has told them the story of the pretty girl and her not so wicked (or ugly) stepsisters. Iris and Clara are dead. Margarethe is blind and Ruth does not talk to her about that confession or the night of the ball. Ruth lets the reader know that sometimes memory, even when painted out for the world to see, gets retold incorrectly and that her story may not be the whole truth, but it’s a bit more true that the fairytales.

She does not point fingers or fault anyone. She does not pinpoint a villain or a hero in her story. Perhaps that is what makes it a true confession.

“Crows and scavengers at the top of the story, finches at the top of the linden tree. God and Satan snarling at each other like dogs. Imps and fairy godmothers trying to undo each other’s work. You might be born as donkey-jawed Dame Handelaers or as dazzling as Clara van den Meer, Young Woman with Tulips. How we try to pin the world between opposite extremes” (366-7).

Ruth’s words are beautiful and have a haunting quality that peers out at the reader throughout the entire novel, as if an imp really does watch. She was a fitting choice to tell the story and a bit of a trick on Maguire’s part as it is Iris who is described as so ugly and Ruth as so incompetent. Maguire never lets his readers assume anything. It’s pleasant and he tsks tsks the reader in a loving way for making assumptions.

I love Maguire’s writing and this love officially embraces more than just the Wicked series. Perhaps it is the hour, but I love what he does for fairytales. He captures the darkness that was always meant to be there in a way that a happily ever after never can. It’s a brilliant novel – enchanting and heartbreaking with just the right amount of magic.

Paperback: 372 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins (1999)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants

English literature major turned technical writer (and Canadian turned American) Sara Gruen was given “two years or two books” by her husband upon being laid off in 2001. He suggested she take the time to do what she’d always wanted to do and write. Her first two published novels, Riding Lessons (Harper Collins 2004) and Flying Changes (Harper Collins 2005), were well-received but not earth-shattering. The novels with their equestrian focus had reviewers dropping Nicolas Evans’s name; this isn’t an unpleasant comparison if you’re looking for book sales, but it didn’t really send the masses out to buy her works.

Gruen’s third attempt finally rocked the literary world (and by literary world, I mean the reading public; it put her on the NY Times Bestseller list.) After the success of Water for Elephants, reprints were run on Gruen’s earlier attempts with huge stickers alerting the browser/reader that the author of Flying Changes and Riding Lessons is the exact same as Water for Elephants. Not only did book sales increase, Gruen’s worth as a writer more than tripled. [Water for Elephants was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (this is the division of Workman that I interned with briefly) after Harpers passed on it. They purchased the manuscript for only $55,000 (according to some sources). The success of the novel has resulted in movie talks and Gruen selling the rights to her next novel, Ape House, (based on a mere 12 page summary) and contracting for a fifth novel for five million dollars. Unfortunately, Gruen did not stay with Algonquin (or Harpers); her fame has pushed her to companies with deeper pockets.]

I picked up Water for Elephants quite a bit ago. I will admit I bought into the hype surrounding it just a bit; both Borders and B&N had it plastered in Staff Picks and Awesome Reads, as well as providing it with prominent placements to push sales (including the irresistible “buy 2 get 1” table). The cover is pleasantly appealing – a man’s sequined back walking into a circus tent with the title in the most perfect of fonts in the center. When I saw Algonquin put it out, I was even more interested. A blurb by King sealed the deal.

The novel opens with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent.” This is followed by a prologue that introduces Jacob and sets up his love for Marlena (a woman) and Rosie (an elephant) and describes the stampede and murder. This scene actually appears again, later in the book, and provides more detail. The prologue hints that Marlena murdered a man; chapter twenty-two clearly states that Rosie committed the crime. Some critics have argued that Marlena actually commits the crime but that memory, which frames the novel, is unreliable and Jacob retells the story the way he wants to remember it. I think Gruen sets up the prologue and then retells it with more details to trick the reader; as you’re reading the novel, you are rooting for Marlena and you hope she killed her abusive husband – it’s a surprising twist when you read how the mischievous elephant commits murder. There’s no doubt in my mind Gruen really intends for Rosie to be the murderer; the opening quote and information from Gruen about how Rosie is modeled after an elephant who actually killed her trainer combined with Marlena’s size and general inability to commit the murder are all supporting evidence. Authors employ tricks like this all the time and I wasn’t bothered so much by it. I was bothered, however, by the memory frame. I generally do not like novels that are told as memories. I find the narrators unreliable, the current time period parts annoying, and generally think it’s an attempt on the author to extend the plot by adding “filler.” I do not like filler.

The novel is set when Jacob Jankowski is ninety or ninety-three – he can’t remember. He’s in an assisted living facility and he’s a bit of an ornery old man. These chapters feed far too seamlessly into his recollections of his 3 months with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth when he was twenty three. There is no clear audience for his story-telling – sometimes it appears as if he is speaking directly to the reader, other times to a nurse that is not always present during these sessions (a nurse whose name and eyes remind him of his beloved elephant), and sometimes the recollections are just dreams. I loathe this framework and typically associate it with a puff piece author (Nicholas Sparks anyone?) At the end of the novel, he tells the manager of the circus that has set up near the assisted living facility everything that happened in those 3 months – that would have been a much better frame to construct the entire novel around and it would highlight Gruen’s strengths as a writer, which are most obvious in the circus scenes and with her meticulous research.

A quick summary – It is 1931, when at the age of 23, during his final year at Cornell’s vet school, Jacob’s parents are killed in a car wreck. When the estate is settled, Jacob learned his parents took out a mortgage to pay for his education and that his father had been accepting beans and eggs as payment for his services (he was a vet); the bank claimed everything. Jacob attempts to take his final exams, but he is emotionally unable. He starts walking and ends up jumping on a train just to escape. Fortunately (or unfortunately), fate lands him on the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth train and he is hired as the vet. The circus goes from location to location, occasionally cannibalizing shows that have fallen on hard times, getting run out of town because of the cooch tent, and avoiding raids. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, wife of the crazy equestrian director, Augustus. He makes friends with Kinko – Walter – the redheaded dwarf he has to bunk with. (There are some great scenes between the two.) He is nearly raped by two whores but vomits on them. It’s unclear if they were successful in taking his virginity, but since this is such a romantic novel, I’m going to say Marlena was his first and only. Speaking of sex, the actual sex scene is unbelievable as described; Gruen describes it as a woman would, not as a 23 year old virgin man/boy would. Marlena’s husband, Augustus, is a paranoid schizophrenic and violent. The perceived relationship between Marlena and Jacob sends him over the edge. There are fights, animal abuse, sex, strippers, alcohol, toothless lions, and a lemonade & gin loving elephant that only speaks Polish.

Gruen shows real talent as a writer in her descriptions of the circus life, of the freaks, and of the hierarchy between workers and performers. But it’s hard to buy some of what she’s selling; I had difficulty accepting the love/passion between Marlena and Jacob – a passion that essentially is the ruination of the circus and of several lives. Other issues include awkward dialogue, Jacob’s Catholicism (Gruen can’t seem to decide if she wants him to be serious about it or not), Augustus’s paranoid schizophrenia, the sudden unexplained shift in Jacob’s affection for the menagerie, and the previously mentioned framework and difficult to believe minor plots. I don’t mean to be so hard on Gruen, but she shows brilliant potential to be more than a puff piece writer. And I shouldn’t knock puff piece, easy reads; I’m just disappointed. If you want a book that you can swallow in one sitting while hanging out by the beach or the pool, or if you love Sparks and Evans (and lately Kingsolver), pick it up. I won’t judge you – I just hate to see what could have been a fantastic literary work fall short. (I’d love to see it on screen, however.)

I will leave you with what I find to be a fantastic description of the stampede:

“The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mess of spots and stripes – of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat – BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.” (3)

Paperback: 350 pages
Publisher: Algonquin (2006)