Tag Archives: Mellen

I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

MobyDickIf you haven’t read a big book in a while, I suggest you pick one up soon.

Big books are the warm bubble baths of the book world, but they’re often talked about as if they’re itchy woolen snowsuits instead. Sinking into a big, dense book should be a pleasure, not a headache-inducing nightmare.

What makes a book big? Size, obviously—let’s say (arbitrarily) 600 pages or more—but also, to a lesser extent, complexity. Although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pushes 800 pages (and I loved it dearly), I would hesitate before calling it a big book; it followed too easily the path laid out for it by its six prequels; it tied up too neatly every loose end with an escapist epilogue. But then again, the bigness of big books may lie in the heart of the reader. For me, the really big books are those that intimidate the reader, the ones that feel like a challenge at the start, but a best friend by the finish, the ones that most closely mimic an actual marathon; instead of churning legs over terrain for 26.2 miles, readers of big books sprain their fingers flipping pages and mentally race through page after page to the triumphant end.

As usual, the public reluctance to engage with big books can perhaps be traced back to high school (what problem can’t, really), when a deadline imposed on the reading of a big book like The Grapes of Wrath or The Iliad or Ulysses is a significant threat to getting any other homework done. Students dread large reading assignments, a feeling that usually persists throughout college and beyond.

On the other hand, there are those who see a big book as a challenge to overcome rather than a pleasure. They might read one big book a year, and then talk incessantly about how they read it, leaving out the fact that they haven’t read anything else that year except their Twitter feed. These people may or may not usually be men with scruffy beards who just finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Avoid conversation with them at all costs.

Here’s a list of some of my personal favorite big books, broken up by genre. What big books would be on your list?

Contemporary Literature
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Historical Fiction
Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Classics
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Fantasy
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

These books are all dear to me in their own ways, but they share one thing in common: they contain entire worlds and generation-spanning sagas so richly and completely imagined that they become real, and so real that they become road maps for navigating my own world.

So put a big book in your To Be Read pile–not just because it’s a classic or an award winner, though that’s a good enough reason, too—but because it’s epically, gloriously, luxuriously big. Sink it to it. Let it sweep you away.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

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Who is Your Favorite Fictional Villain?

Today, some of the Sheroes Blog editors dive into their favorite fictional villains and sheroes.

Zoë says: 

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My favorite villain is Hell (or an aspect thereof) from the book Summon the Keeper (Book #1 of The Keeper’s Chronicles) by Tanya Huff. The Keeper’s Chronicles are an incredibly engaging comic-fantasy trilogy, and the first book features the adventures of Claire, her feline sidekick, and a cast of other well-developed characters after Claire is called to deal with a gateway to you-know-where in the basement of a Guest House in Kingston, Ontario.  Hell (or some incarnation thereof) is discovered to be hanging out in the basement, sealed in by the actions of a previous Keeper, but trying quite persistently to escape.  Huff imagines this aspect of Hell as a multi-personalitied, witty, but not altogether brilliant “villain” desperately trying to encroach on the minds of the inhabitants of the Guest House.
Read this if you like light, witty fantasy along the lines of Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, or Patricia C. Wrede.
Ratesjul says:
coverI always find it hard to pick favourites of anything, whether it’s books or authors or characters (or even specifically villains)…. So I’ll give you two. One of my favorite characters is Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter of Three Firs (Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter and sequels). I like Paks because, well, she’s human. She has flaws, and admits to them, and strives to better herself. She goes from little or nothing to honors, and back again. She stumbles into traps, and extricates herself, but will also give in, when it seems best. I guess what I like most about her is that she fights, she doesn’t really give up (and giving in is not giving up), and even as a mercenary she won’t just follow blindly.

20020712022127_105Another favorite character is Elizabeth from V M Caldwell’s The Ocean Within and Tides. I like Elizabeth because she struggles to continue to be herself, to fit within a tug of war between her need to not let anyone matter in case they go away, and to find her place. Particularly when it comes to a small boy who calls her turtle and worms his way into her heart. I read somewhere that there was originally a third book, set between the two of these, and I’d love to read it and see how the family changed in between. Even discovering these books as an adult, I love the characters.

TamLinAs for a favorite villain, I’m not so sure…. So many of them don’t really stick with me as much as the heroes and sheroes do. (I guess I like the happy endings!) One that sticks the most is Tam Lin, who doesn’t particularly have much of a choice in the matter of being a villain. In some ways he isn’t the villain – he is a product of the life he lives (or is forced to live) – but to Janet, in some ways, I guess he is.

Marie says:

119322Compelling villains are the backbone of good literature! I don’t even know where to start. I’m always most taken in by insidious, surprise villains, where you don’t know they’re bad until close to the end. Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of those villains. You can almost feel how evil this cloying, beautiful woman is but it’s not until the main character herself figures it out that you realize just how truly horrible Mrs. Coulter is.

As for a favorite character, again, I could pick a thousand! But I’ll stick with His Dark Materials, since those books are fantastic and if you haven’t read them yet and you like young adult fantasy that is deep and sweet and smart, you need to read them ASAP. My favorite character is Lyra Belacqua, the main character,  the girl-who-saves-the-world. She does this, with extreme personal sacrifice, at the age of twelve. She is wild and tough and vulnerable and loving and her sharp as a knife little-girlness is pitch perfect, as is her wrestle with what it means to grow up.

 

We want to know: who is your favorite fictional villain? Who is your favorite fictional shero?

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Marie, Ratesjul, and Zoë are Sheroes Blog editors who fight crime…er…read a lot of books in their free time.

 

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Keeping YouTube celebrity in perspective

TRIGGER WARNING: The following blog post includes discussion of rape, sexual assault, and underage sexual behavior. Please be careful and read at your own discretion.

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Say “YouTube” and what comes to mind for most people are cat videos, grainy home footage of dads getting hit in the crotch with tennis balls and rakes, and comment sections populated by anonymous trolls who are most likely actual Neo-Nazis. What the average Joe doesn’t know, or knows only in passing, is that for nearly two million viewers, many of whom are teenaged girls, the name of the website brings to mind almost subconsciously the word “community,” tacked onto it like a shadow.

The community is comprised, on the one hand, of a group of people who make YouTube videos for a living (“content creators”), and, on the other, of the fans who tune in on a regular basis to keep up with their favorite artists. For these people, YouTube can be a refuge from ordinary life, and a place to make likeminded friends. Most of the time, the community is warm and inviting, and whole videos may go by with nary a racial slur.

In March of 2014, however, the YouTube community was shaken to its core when sexual assault and rape allegations against at least nine high-profile male YouTubers emerged on the blog-hosting site Tumblr. Fans’ reactions to the news typically fell on one of two very different sides of the fence: visceral horror and outrage on behalf of the victims, or a reflexive defense of the beloved YouTubers.

My own response to those defending the rapists and sexual harassers was disgust, and I wrote them off as young, impassioned teenagers who had completely missed the point. Caught up in their own feelings, they were reclassifying the perpetrators as victims in need of protection, instead of empathizing with the young women who experienced sexual assault at the hands of content creators who had age, experience, and celebrity all pulling to their advantage. I didn’t understand how so many responses could be lacking any sense of measured, thoughtful distance from the shocking news.

But then, allegations appeared targeting a YouTuber I followed. Alex Day is a 24-year old white British male, an irreverently funny entrepreneur whose vlogs amplify the comedic element of day-to-day minutiae. He is also, it turns out, an expert emotional manipulator who admitted to coercing young female fans into sexual behavior they had explicitly refused.

Until this past March, I had watched Day’s videos regularly since 2011. When the accusations came to light, I had to actively restrain myself from responding with pity for Day, and redirect my emotions to where I logically knew they belonged: with the victims. Yet I felt a personal sense of betrayal, hurt, anger, and disappointment, including, but going far beyond, a natural empathy and sadness for the young women who were stepping forward.

Why?

Handily enough, YouTuber Anthony D’Angelo uploaded a video in response to the sexual harassment scandal called “The Science and Dangers of YouTube Celebrity” explaining this very phenomenon, which discusses “para-social interaction” as a reason for the knee-jerk desire to defend our favorite celebrities against negative claims. Para-social interaction is a sociology term that can be defined as “one-sided intimacy, at a distance.” Mass media is rife with opportunity for one-sided intimacy to manifest, as it offers viewers at home frequent chances to develop a feeling of community with content creators. The nature of YouTube engenders a seemingly personal connection, blurring the line between performance and reality. YouTubers often vlog from their bedrooms on a weekly basis, and many don’t use scripts. While the intimacy is fictitious, it can feel incredibly realistic.

Over the course of three years of watching his videos, my brain constructed a pattern of fondness for Alex Day, developing something that is, chemically at least, very akin to friendship. I was therefore deeply resistant to the criminal allegations that upset my expected patterns of his behavior. Instead of immediately setting aside my enjoyment of Day’s work and writing him off, I felt both the urge to defend him and a sense of betrayed friendship.

These are false feelings that must be set aside in order to fully support and honor the victims and survivors in the community. As D’Angelo says in his video, the phenomenon of para-social interaction is especially common on YouTube, “which, by its connective and egalitarian nature, puts celebrities closer to fans than ever before.” Such closeness, however, is a fabrication. While we are eagerly watching someone whom our brain has counseled us to recognize as a “friend,” we must always remember that the person on the other side is merely staring into the impassive eye of a camera.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

 

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When authors change the story

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Not too long ago, JK Rowling, beloved author of the even more beloved Harry Potter series, confirmed that hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. In an interview for the February/March 2014 edition of Wonderland magazine conducted by Emma Watson (the acclaimed actress who played Hermione Granger in the eight-part Harry Potter film series), Rowling revealed that, if given her druthers, major supporting characters Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley would not have ended up as a romantic couple. Even worse, she went so far as to suggest that Hermione might have been better off paired with the main man himself, Harry Potter.

Putting aside both the fact that this is straight-up blasphemy to Harry Potter lovers worldwide, and the fact that speaking of a kick-ass female heroine in terms of which one of the boy-heroes she should’ve married undermines her important role in the series, there are other, more philosophical reasons why Rowling’s opinions on the matter are irrelevant.

The furor over this situation in the world of Harry Potter fandom brings up really interesting questions about the nature of literary characters and of literature itself, as well as an author’s authority over his or her own works of literature. Is an author always “right” about his or her characters? Can characters exist outside of their text? They are born in an author’s mind, but are they really brought to “life,” so to speak, until they are published and read?

If the answer to the latter question is “no,” as I think it must be (for example, Hamlet would no more exist in the literary canon if Shakespeare hadn’t been widely read and published than the crush I wrote about in my diary at age 12), then, by the same token, characters are contained, or “live,” wholly within the published works in which they feature. What an author says or thinks outside of those works amounts to nothing whatsoever. For example, imagine John Green saying, twenty years for now, “It’s okay, fandom. Ansel Elgort Augustus Waters actually lives.” Do we reinterpret our understanding of The Fault in Our Stars based on the author’s opinion of his own work?

Of course not. While the above is an extreme example, it demonstrates that if authors hold an incorrect opinion about their own books, they’re not granted any more “rightness” than anyone else just because of their relationship to the material. Once a piece of literature exists, its interpretation is passed into the hands of its readers. An author’s opinions may be considered secondary or tertiary or completely irrelevant when it comes to an interpretation. Like any other reader, an author may correctly or incorrectly analyze a given work, even if that work is his or her own creative property.

So when Rowling says that Hermione and Ron might not have worked out together after all, even though there is an (admittedly poorly written) epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that says that they did, readers are rightfully infuriated. Their vital role in the conversation between text and reader is being ignored, while Rowling is failing to take up her proper place as a reader like anyone else. However, it should soothe readers to realize, even if Rowling doesn’t, that as a reader, she is just as susceptible to wrong or unsupported interpretations of her own text as anyone else.

Harry Potter is finished (as much as it pains me to admit it). Not just finished, but edited, published, and offered for sale in both physical and digital versions. Had Rowling still been drafting the novels at the time of the Wonderland interview, her opinion on the matter would have the utmost importance, and she could have gone home and rewritten the scenes that so clearly demonstrated Hermione and Ron’s growing attraction and affection for one another. However, given that the complete series has been available for public consumption since 2007 (and new paperback editions with gorgeous cover art were just released in August 2013), the content of those books are now outside her control.

Then again, Rowling owns her characters and she can do whatever she wants with them by asserting her absolute authority in published writing that reaches a widespread audience as an obvious continuation of the series. While her interview comments are irrelevant, readers should beware: she could always wave her magic wand and conjure up a new novel in which Hermione and Ron divorce and split their wizarding belongings between them.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

 

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