If I were a godzilla-monster, I would track by scent

Years ago, I discovered something strange: the smell of cardboard makes me happy.

I was working at breaking down close to a hundred large cardboard boxes in a relatively small room, and after a while the smell filled the whole space.  I kept feeling happier, and I had no idea why.  Before that, I hadn’t even consciously known that cardboard had a distinct scent.  And then I realized: it smells like old books.  Walk into a used book store, and what you smell will be almost exactly like concentrated cardboard.  

That’s right, folks.  I have walked into bookstores so many times, and been so consistently happy about it, that I have a Pavlovian response to the scent of cardboard.  Of course, this does mean that when nuclear radiation inevitably turns me into a giant bookstore-eating godzilla monster, defeating me will be fairly simple.  All the military will need to do is set a trap and bait it with massive quantities of cardboard.

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Romance in non-romantic fiction

This topic has been stewing around in the back of my head for a while now.  I hadn’t written about it because I really wanted to post something intelligent and thoughtful, and that seemed so difficult.  I also didn’t want to just put it off indefinitely, though, so finally I decided to jump in, even if it came out warty.  Disclaimer: this is primarily about straight romances, mostly because I’ve read a lot more of those so the patterns are more obvious to me.  There’s so much swirling around in my head even just with that that I doubt I’ll be able to fit it all in one post.  Probably I’ll just make a start on the parts that most preoccupy me today, and come back to other bits later.  

What I keep circling back to when I think about romance in non-romantic fiction is how compulsory romance seems, even in stories that aren’t about romance.  I feel as if it’s worse for women than for men – that not only is it rarer for female protagonists to have a story without romance, romance has to be a bigger part of their stories when it’s present.  Women are more defined by their relationships with men than the reverse.

For some reason this came to a head for me when I was reading Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  I felt a little bad for being so frustrated because I very much liked the book otherwise.  Now that I think about it, in fact, it’s probably because I liked the book otherwise that I got so hung up on the compulsory romance aspect.  Particularly, I was a big fan of the main character.  She’s clever and determined and compassionate and of course she winds up in a romance with the mysterious vampire guy.

It’s not that I objected to him, specifically.  I actually liked him as a character as well.  But after reading uncountable stories in which women just always wind up having (male) love interests, I snapped a little bit.  Why does she have to have a crush on him?  Why can’t she just be clever and determined and compassionate – and be complete without a love interest?

I don’t object to characters having romantic relationships in general.  (Some of my best friends have romantic relationships!)  People have romantic relationships; therefore, characters have romantic relationships.  It would be ridiculous if they didn’t.  It’s the ubiquity of it that bothers me, especially for women.  It’s as if there’s no comprehensible way for a woman to exist without being involved with a man.

This means that books without compulsory romance (especially for women) appear like oases in the desert.  Reason number two why I absolutely adore Dealing with Dragons and always have is that the main character is a princess who doesn’t have to get married.  And it’s not just that she doesn’t get married.  She doesn’t have a crush.  She doesn’t go adventuring with a guy and realize how great he is.*  There’s only one male character with whom she might conceivably have any kind of relationship, and she’s not interested in him.  It’s not even an emphatic lack of interest – she’s not rejecting him for any reason.  She’s just not interested, and she has other things to do.  I really have no words for how amazing, how refreshing, how completely delightful that is to me.

That’s sad.

It also leads me to something else that bothers me: usually, when characters (both men and women, but again, more so with women) don’t have any sort of romantic interest, it’s an emphatic lack of interest.  That is, they actively reject the possibility for some particular reason.  A highly non-scientific survey of my bookshelf suggests that for men it’s most often that their prior (female) love interest died.  Women’s (male) love interests are usually gone in some other way.**  But the possibility that a person (especially a woman) might just not be that interested in the people around them and have other things going on is practically unheard-of.

This drives me crazy.  Like I said, it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with any specific example of having a romance or pining for a lost love.  But frankly, I’d like a little more variety in my reading.  And sure, I can go searching for it – but it’d be awfully nice if I didn’t have to search.


* This does happen in the second book – that is, she goes adventuring with a guy, realizes how great he is, and marries him.  I know it’s not unreasonable.  Expecting people to never change and develop is just as unrealistic as expecting people to always have a romantic interest.  I still found it disappointing.  On the other hand, in the third book she goes on an adventure (while pregnant!) while her husband stays home to take care of the kingdom.  Which is pretty great, and couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gotten married.  Second book is still my least-favorite.

** This probably says something (probably lots of somethings), though I’m not sure exactly what.  Female characters being killed off to serve as motivation for male characters is a well-documented trend in a variety of media, but the reverse doesn’t seem to happen as much.  Maybe it’s a bigger deal for a man to be unable to protect his love interest, but for a woman it’s a bigger deal to not be able to hold onto hers?

On anthologies and how to speak to one’s inner child

I love anthologies.

I love anthologies for a couple of reasons, but right now the one I want to talk about is this: anthologies introduce me to new authors.  New stories to hunt down and devour.  Delicious.

I discovered Jim Butcher in an anthology years ago (Dark and Stormy Knights) and have since gobbled up nearly everything he’s written.  I was disappointed when I read the Dresden Files novels to discover that Gentleman Johnny Marcone, the character I’d met in Dark and Stormy Knights, wasn’t actually the protagonist in the series.  Probably not the usual reaction to his character, but I was eventually reconciled to the fact and enjoyed the series regardless.*

Sometimes, though, things don’t work out so nicely.  I’ve now read two stories by Naomi Novik in different anthologies,** checked the author, and thought, oh, darn.  Because I’ve already read her novels.  Similarly, I found “Iphigenia in Aulis” – best !zombie story I have ever read – by Mike Carey in An Apple for the Creature, looked up his bibliography, and was terribly disappointed to find that he hadn’t published many novels.‡  

Then again, my to-read list is pages long and perpetually growing faster than I can cross books off of it (a phenomenon I’m sure is familiar to many of you), so maybe, I tell myself, it’s just as well.  Myself is unconvinced.  On the plus side, anthologies are still excellent things, a whole cornucopia of stories, even if they don’t lead one to further stories.

Myself is still unconvinced.  Myself wants those further stories.

Ah, well.  What’re you gonna do?

Read more stories, obviously.


* That was a joke.

** The most recent is “Rocks Fall” in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, and for the life of me I can’t remember the title or anthology of the first.  I’m starting to think I misremembered, because I can’t find a listing for it that sounds right on either Wikipedia or her website.  Too bad, because it was a fun story – New York real estate brokers for story monsters.  I wish I could find it again.

† Okay, this is obviously not an objective and analytical assessment.  Even if it were, I don’t read that many zombie stories, so it still wouldn’t be a really authoritative assessment.  But it’s hands-down my favorite !zombie story I’ve ever read.  I’ve read some good ones, but man, they don’t hold a candle to this.

‡ Except now, I find, he’s since written a book based on “Iphigenia in Aulis” and I need to read this book right now.  Also, he has written or co-written quite a lot of comics I like: Lucifer, Sandman Presents, Hellblazer.  I may have to go look up some of the other comics he’s written.

Judgey

Recently I ran across a fun little project called Judgey, in which participants are invited to judge books by their covers.  You’re presented with a book cover and asked to rate it from 0 to 5 stars.  Then, you’re shown the Goodreads rating for that book.  After a set of ten, Judgey “judges” you – by telling you how accurate your ratings were to the Goodreads ratings.

There’s a short post with some of their results here, but for the most part I’ve had more fun just playing around with Judgey itself.  At first I was a little confused as to whether I was supposed to be rating the cover itself, how much I wanted to read the book based on the cover, or how good I thought the book inside was likely to be.  All of them are related, of course, but they do result in different ratings.  At first I was trending more towards the first, upon which Judgey declared me pretty judgmental.  Then I realized that maybe that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, so I transitioned more towards the last, with a little of “What would Goodreads say?” thrown in.  (Because, after all, Goodreads ratings are probably skewed by voluntary response bias, among other things.)  Now, Judgey has declared me “pretty darn fair.”

Frankly, though, I was having more fun judging the covers themselves.  Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the way Judgey is set up; if anything, it just shows that there are multiple ways to play around with the program.  You can play it like a game, trying to get your ratings as close as possible to the Goodreads ratings, or you can click through a bunch of book covers and judge them however the heck you like!  Like I said, I’m partial to judging the covers themselves.  I’m hardly a graphics design expert, but we’re so constantly bombarded with such images that it’s hard not to develop some kind of grasp on what works and what doesn’t.  I’ve read some interesting articles about cover design, too, which I wish I could dig up now.

The thing is, books actually try to be easy to judge based on their covers.  The people who create and disseminate the books want people to buy them, after all.  That means giving potential buyers a good idea of what’s inside the book based on various visual shorthands.  From that perspective, a good book cover is just one that communicates effectively what it encloses.  Justin Bieber: His World, for example, actually has a decent cover by that standard:  

Justin Bieber

I have no idea what the quality of the book is like (I’m biased towards “poor,” but that is a bias), and I definitely have no desire to read it, but the cover is of decent quality and it does its job.

But that’s only one metric.  My personal favorite is simply, Is it attractive?  Is it beautiful, as a work of art in itself?  That, of course, is far more subjective.  But the cover I most liked from Judgey (so far) is for Normal, by Graeme Cameron:

Normal

I like the simplicity of the imagery, and how much it communicates in spite of its simplicity – the threateningness, the isolation, the inescapability.  I don’t think it’s a book I’d enjoy, but I do enjoy the cover.  Similarly, I enjoy the Twilight cover.  It has minimalistic imagery that nevertheless carries a tremendous freight of meaning.  (Why yes, I do in fact have a thing for symbolism, how did you guess?)  It loses points for the font, but one can’t have everything.

But I digress.  The point is, Judgey is a fun project, and there are multiple ways to have fun with it.  So go forth!  And have some fun.

Bits and pieces

Lately I’ve had a collection of minor thoughts, but nothing major.  I figured I’d throw them all together and have a grab-bag post.  Here we go!

Fables: Blood of Heroes:  My beloved local library did, in fact, have the tie-in novel I was unsure about reading.  Adventure, ho!  I requested it, and it arrived surprisingly quickly.  I read it even more quickly.  It’s a fun little light read, and certainly better than the tie-in novels I’ve read previously.  I’m not really surprised by that – like I said, I really like other works I’ve read by this author – but considering my earlier experiences, I’m still glad.  I tend to refer to books like this one as cotton candy reads.  They’re tasty, but not big on substance.  The game world the story is set in is generally fairly light-hearted, though, so that makes sense.  And for the record, I don’t mean cotton candy as an insult.  I read a lot of cotton candy, and so do most other people who are big readers, because often I (and other people) just want some fun entertainment.  

One of the things I like about this book in particular is that it has eight different heroes, each formed on a different stereotype (or archetype, if you like).  The book deliberately plays on the stereotypes for humor.  None of the characters is really developed past their archetype, but since the book seems to be winking at the reader, it works.  Cliches that might otherwise grate become endearing.  For me, it was like watching ghosts of other players going on their own adventure through a game I knew.  There’s a singular pleasure in watching someone else enjoy something, and I felt a little of that in this book.

Devil in the Wires: I finally finished one of the books I’d stopped in the middle of.  I am disappointed.  Like I said, I really liked the concept for this one.  It involves the various gods humans have worshipped over the millennia actually existing (in a Lovecraftian unknowable mind-breaking monster kind of way) and gaining power or sustenance or something from human worship (or human pain, or…).  Except now, human beings have found a way to trap these gods and extract the power from them.  Instead of burning coal for electricity, we burn gods.  

Cool idea, right?  Having finally finished it, though, I’ve figured out why it was such a slog for the longest time: first, I wasn’t interested in any of the characters.  It’s not even that I didn’t like them; I’ve said before that I can dislike a character and still find them interesting and want to see how their story develops.  But these didn’t interest me, to the point where I consistently confused two of them (the main character’s boss, who was on another continent, and the suspicious cop).  I thought it was just the writing style, which runs to gritty, that made them seem colorless, but even at the climax I didn’t much care about any of them.  And second, there’s a stretch in the middle where not much is happening.  Maybe there would be, if I cared about the characters.  But as it was, it dragged.  Which is disappointing, because I really wanted to like this book.  Another anecdotal data point: characters are a Big Deal when it comes to the quality and enjoyability of a book.

The Casual Vacancy: I actually read this months ago.  A friend of mine (who is now and again mentioned on this blog, namelessly) suggested that, since we often have excellent conversations about books, we should read a book together, record our conversation about it, and put it up here.  The Casual Vacancy was the book we decided on.  He’s taking a while to read it, though, so since I don’t know if or when that conversation will happen, I figured I’d toss up a few thoughts on here.

The Casual Vacancy was really painful to read at first.  It highlights the pettiness in human beings, the venial selfishness present even in positive actions, in a way that makes it impossible not to recognize those same traits in oneself.  Or at least, it did for me.  I started it immediately after finishing Grace of Kings, too, which only exacerbated the effect.  But over the course of the book, it gradually begins to feel humanizing rather than caustic.  Everyone is small and everyone screws up (often), but I found myself wishing for them to do better, rather than condemning them.  

This also made me wonder about Barry Fairbrother, the character whose death kicks off the plot of the book.  He’s simultaneously present and absent throughout the story, a looming gap whom all of the characters know but the reader does not.  At least, the characters know his public face – which is what makes me curious.  One of the things the book emphasizes constantly is the difference between people’s public faces and their private thoughts and feelings.  So I have to wonder, what lies inside Barry Fairbrother’s public face?  I have no way of knowing.

The Spell of the Sensuous: This one I actually haven’t finished reading yet, but a friend of mine recommended it to me and said she’d like to see me review it.  I was excited!  And I adored the opening.  It’s beautiful.  What I’ve read since then reads like a strangely harmonious combination of poetry, dissertation, and travelogue.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

And they all lived happily ever after

I’ve been thinking for a while about happy endings.  Years ago, a friend of mine said he was annoyed at a perceived trend in books of the time to refuse purely happy endings – he felt as if there always had to be some bittersweet element, some catch.  Which made me wonder: what makes an ending “happy”?  Personal closure/happiness/success for the main character(s)?  Justice for the bad guys?  (Which of course raises the question of how one defines “justice” and “bad guys.”)  And a related question: when is (sympathetic?) character death acceptable?

The thing is, of course, that it’s almost certainly possible to think of good books, books we like, books we find satisfying, that don’t fit whatever criteria we might come up with in response to those questions.  After all, one of the fantastic things about books is how varied they are.  In fact, that same friend later told me he was a little disappointed in the ending of a book he’d otherwise liked because it felt too happy, too neat and easy.  It didn’t seem plausible to him.  Which was, in fact, part of the issue he’d had with earlier, less happy endings: he felt that because of the trend, less-happy endings were often contrived.

It made me think that maybe what makes an ending happy isn’t the right question.  Maybe a better question would be what makes an ending satisfying.  An ending doesn’t have to be happy to be satisfying; if that were so, then tragedies wouldn’t be so perennially popular.  I think satisfaction basically comes down to one thing: reader expectations.  That’s true in any kind of writing, really.  I used to tutor essay-writing (still do, occasionally), and one of the necessities of that is guiding reader expectations, using structure and language cues so that readers can anticipate what you’ll discuss next.  It’s surprisingly painful when that’s done poorly.  Fiction is a little different because part of the point is to surprise readers with plot twists they didn’t expect, but even surprises must be properly staged, or they fail as surprises.

Obviously, a perfectly predictable ending would be boring.  But still, an ending needs to fit within the general spectrum of what readers anticipate from the book, or it fails to satisfy.  Thinking back, I can recognize a few times I’ve encountered this, with relatively varied books.  Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example.  The book is dark and threatening and horrifying and as the tension ratcheted higher I became more and more convinced that when the final cataclysm came everything would be blasted beyond recognition.  And then…it wasn’t.  The cataclysm never quite came.  The protagonists got a happy ending.  Everything was all right.  I was left feeling entirely nonplussed.  

I didn’t expect quite such a calamitous ending from Daughter of the Sword.  It’s a mystery story, and, as expected, the main character solves the mystery, defeats the bad guy, and gains some respect, all excellent.  But then, as if by magic, her sister suddenly, finally recognizes her addiction problem, and her blatantly sexist boss screws up spectacularly and gets not only fired but arrested?  You are straining my credulity, and it niggles like a splinter under my skin.  

Big Bad Wolf was a similar story – a mystery, a law enforcement officer trying to solve it, an assortment of criminal opponents, familial entanglements.  It went in the opposite direction, however.  After much lead-up, including secondary successes and plenty of challenge, the main character is finally closing in on the head bad guy.  He goes in…and fails utterly.  The bad guy put up someone else as a fall guy and escapes entirely.  The main character hits a dead end and has nothing to show for his efforts.  Not only that, but the familial subplot goes against him as well.  And of course, these things happen in real life.  They even happen in books.  But this, I was convinced, was not that kind of book.  My expectations were built and nothing occurred to contradict them until the ending, upon which they were totally wrecked.  “Dissatisfied” barely begins to describe my response.

On the other hand, sometimes endings that wouldn’t ordinarily work do, because they fit the book they’re in.  I’m thinking of Grace of Kings.  Its ending was one of the things I wanted to discuss in my previous post about it, but I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn it in.  Simply put, the very end of Grace of Kings doesn’t resolve plotlines, whether happily or not.  It creates them.  I’d never seen a book that did that, let alone one where it actually worked.  And yes, Grace of Kings is meant to be the first book in a trilogy, so you could just assume it’s done that way to lead into the next book.  Say, perhaps, that it’s a cliffhanger ending, like so many other trilogies.  But it’s not.  It doesn’t end mid-plot, at some climactic moment of great uncertainty.  It ends at the narrative hook, the sign that a new plot is just about to begin.  In most books, this would be bizarre beyond words.  But in this book, it fits.  One of the major themes of the book is history, how it’s always being made, always continuing – how it never truly ends.  Thus, neither does the book.  I was delighted.

How Literature Plays with the Brain* had much to say about this sort of thing – the balance between harmony and dissonance as we read.  Both are important, enjoyable even.  At different times, we desire differing degrees of each.  We can be satisfied with each.  What causes dissatisfaction with a book, I think, is when it too-suddenly shifts the balance between the two.  Happiness, per se, isn’t the issue.  It’s whether we expect happiness.


* That book I was so very interested in and found so very annoying.