Plenty To Be Thankful For

November 2, 2011 at 8:57 pm (General) (, , , )

I thought about saving this for Sunday, when I do the more general posts, but the more I’ve been turning this over, the more I’ve wanted to answer now. So. Today’s a double header. Over on her blog, Beth Revis is asking a pretty simple question: what book(s) are you grateful for? It’s a simple question, but a less than simple answer.

Because the instinctive answer, perhaps the easy answer, is: all of them.

I am profoundly grateful for the mere existence of books, for the fact of them. For the history they represent, for the scientific endeavours they help produce, for the imaginations they spark, and for the worlds they introduce. I’m grateful for the fifty word stories we read as children, for the convoluted theories we read as students and adults. I’m even grateful for Wuthering Heights and I hate that book.

(Seriously, I hate that book. My sophomore English teacher and I had to work out a compromise that said I could spin all of my assignments to discuss why it’s a terribly book as long as I read the book and did the assignments- it was still a near thing.)

I’m a reader (obviously). I’m a writer. I’m a bookseller. I’m a lifelong amateur student and, if I could afford it, I would gladly be a professional student. Books are the ultimate glorification of language, of words. They’re powerful, they’re life-changing, they’re comforting, they’re frightening. Words have the power to shake apart civilizations. They can inspire us to unthought of heights and distances. They can reach across those same distances to close the gap. They tempt us, sometimes to greater things, sometimes to things that are…not. They can cause wounds, but they can also heal them. Words, written or spoken, can damage or even take a life. Words can also reaffirm life, not only our own but the lives of others, as well.

And we take these words, spin them into fine threads, and weave them into books- amazing, stunning, life-altering books.

And for that, I am grateful beyond words for the mere fact of books.

But to an extent, that answer is cheating. A little. Okay, maybe a lot. Blanket gratitude can still be a powerful and sincere thing, but in trying to define specifics, we come to understand why we’re grateful. So, after a great deal of thought, and in no particular order, here are some of the books I’m grateful for.

Martin the Warrior, by Brian Jacques. Some of you have heard me talk (or gush) about this book before, but in every way that matters, this is the book that made me a reader. I had always loved reading but this was the book that made it amazing, that made it magical and personal and life-altering. When I was ten, my school had an open house/parents night type thing that included a book fair in the media center. By that point, I’d read through most of the books in our school library. I saw people keep picking up the same book and putting it down again after a moment. Person after person after person. So I went over and picked it up, took a look, and from the cover I could kind of understand why they were putting it down. A mouse? In clothing? Wearing a sword? But I flipped it over to read the back and thought, despite the mice, it didn’t seem that different than the fantasies I already read. So I decided to give it a try. I had my allowance with me, no surprise that I would want to spend it on books, but when I went up to purchase it, the media specialist shook her head and gave it to me instead. Just for being willing to try it. I started reading it a few minutes later. And couldn’t put it down. I read all through the open house, through dinner, through the rest of the night, and long after I was supposed to be sleeping I was actually huddled under the covers with a flashlight. Reading. Devouring. Being changed forever. When I finished the book, it was about two in the morning and I was sobbing hysterically. I went across the hall to my mom’s room- it was empty- and then down to the kitchen, where she was sitting at the table with a mug of coffee and a crossword. As soon as she saw me she stood up, asked if I was okay, was I sick, was I hurt, did I have a nightmare, and I managed to sob out “WHY DID SHE HAVE TO DIE?!” Once she finally realized I was talking about the book, she started laughing so hard she sat down too hard and broke the chair. I had never been affected by a book like that! The characters were mice and moles and squirrels but I CARED about them, so much so that I cried when they hurt and I missed them when they were gone and I cheered for their successes and joys. This book made me care, and it made me look for other books, other characters, that would make me love them just as much. I wasn’t just reading for entertainment anymore- I was reading because I wanted to be immersed in lives. I read my first copy of this book to shreds, and when a house fire claimed my second copy, it was the first book I replaced. I read that one to shreds, too, and finally replaced it with a hardcover. I have a full hardcover set of all the Redwall books, and there are some I love beyonds words, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. Without this book, I might not have been open to all the amazing books that came after.

I first read this book when I was in fifth grade, but a lot of things happened between fifth and sixth grade. It wasn’t just the shock and trauma of entering middle school. To this day, I still call that the summer of death. Four people I was close to, three of whom I loved very much, died within a span of two months. I picked this book up at the library between funerals, needing something to read something but not having enough focus to read anything new, and an amazing thing happened: things started to make sense. As much sense as death ever makes, at any rate. It wasn’t that it explained things, it wasn’t that it gave a solution, but rather it showed a lot of different forms of grief and grieving, different ways to cope, and most of all it taught me that death was a part of life. It was scary and sometimes random, painful even it’s accepted with grace, a haunting spectre over all of us that we can’t let overshadow our lives. This book taught me what it was to live with death. It’s a beautiful book, full of poetry and connections and a child-like (though never childish) sense of wonder, where scientists are the world’s last true mystics, but it is, above all, a book about life. Not death- life. Sometimes I reread it for the language, sometimes for the images and the thoughts and the musings on science, but every time someone close to me dies, I reread it specifically for those meditations on life.

I’m grateful for these next two books for a lot of the same reasons. They get compared a lot- with reason- but they both accomplishe something truly amazing.
What Martin the Warrior did for me *mumble mumble* years ago, these series have done for countless other readers across the world. These books made kids WANT TO READ. Kids who a few months before would have groaned and grumbled about a 100 page book were suddenly absorbed in a 900 page book and wanting more. Waiting impatiently for the next book in the series, and in the meantime, looking for other things to fill the gap. They turned to their friends, to their parents, and then- miracle of miracles- to their teachers and librarians and booksellers, because they wanted to know more. Wanted to find more, to discover more. The more kids read, the more books get produced, and they are devouring them. The more people read, the better they do, in school, in life, and now they have springboard series that launch them into a lifelong love affair with books. For that, my gratitude knows no bounds.

I picked this specific book because it was the first one of hers I read, but really, I’m just grateful for Tamora Pierce. I read Wolf-Speaker when I was in seventh grade. I didn’t know it was book two of a series. I didn’t know there was an entire other series before that. It didn’t matter. Pierce wrote the story so fluidly that I didn’t need the previous installments to know what was going on. I loved the book, wanted more, and when I finally found the more, I was bowled over again and again. Talk about kick-ass heroines! But what made them really kick ass was how beautifully complex they were. They were strong but they were also vulnerable. They had faults and flaws, they had weaknesses, they had strengths, they had amazing gifts and skills they worked for, and they also had obstacles they couldn’t use those gifts to solve. They had to learn to rely on other people, as scary as they could be. And here’s the thing that really got me: they had to deal with things like going to the bathroom in the woods. They had to deal with menstruating and breasts and hormones. They were real. And they still are. Book by book, series by series, she maintains characters that are all distinct in their own ways, but in many ways could be considered ideal role models for girls who are too often told that they have to conform to some tame aspect. She takes up an entire shelf on my bookcase, some of them a little battered, but starting my collection of her books took a significant part of my babysitting money one summer. For her characters, for Alanna and Daine and Kel and Aly and Beka, I am grateful.

This next one…it’s…well it’s…

I hate Twilight. I really do. As a writer, it makes me cringe; as a reader, it makes me feel less intelligent; as a female, it makes me genuinely frightened. I hate this book, and I hate this series.
I’m still grateful for it.
Like Harry Potter, like Percy Jackson, the Twilight series got people reading. It reached a massive audience crossing all ages and served as a springboard for other series. I think it could safely be argued that this book launched a hell of a lot of careers, and strengthened others. It didn’t create YA/Teen as a category but it helped define it, helped it stand on its own amidst a number of other categories.
The other reason I’m grateful for this book is a little trickier: this book reminds me on an almost daily basis one of the fundamental truths of reading: everyone reads differently. The same words on the page will be read differently by different people, and they mean different things. They’re taken different ways. And each of those ways, those interpretations? Are completely valid. Twilight reminds me that every book, no matter how much I personally hate it, has readers who love it and will champion it to the ends of the earth in the face of all disdain. There are books I love, books I recommend and gush about and read over and over, that people have come back to me and said they hated. It’s the reason I won’t argue about Wuthering Heights being a classic, only that it’s not romantic in any sense other than the time period and style of the writing. And there are plenty of people, including one of my best friends, who will argue me on that point to their last breaths. And that’s okay.

This last one is a recent discovery, and I’ve gushed about it recently. I can’t talk about this book without gushing. I can’t do it. I’ve tried. I try to talk calmly and rationally about this book but it always ends in me gushing about how absofrickinlutely amazing this book is. Curious yet?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor made me fall in love all over again with language. With the beauty of words and the sheer poetry and grace in the ways they can be spun together. Just as the types and order of the strung objects from Brimstone’s shop change the result, so do the order and choices of the words. I can easily devour books in one sitting, especially ones I love as much as this one, but as much as I didn’t want to stop, there were times when I had to close the book on my finger and just take a moment to savor the images the words painted on the backs of my eyes. Where Martin the Warrior made me fall in love with characters, this book revived my obsession with words, the foundation and the root and the heart of what we do. We can tell a story with gestures, with music notes, with pictures, but what we do as writers, what we absorb as readers, is the words, the language. For reminding me of how elegant my normally clumsy language can be, I am grateful.

And now, just as Beth asked us, I ask you: What books are you grateful for?

Need some incentive to share? To celebrate her gratitude for books, Beth is hosting a giveaway- check out her site or the image below to find out more.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Between the Sea and Sky, by Jaclyn Dolamore

November 2, 2011 at 10:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Esmerine has always longed to be a siren like her sister Dosia, guardians of the waters always dancing upon the knife’s edge of facination with the human world. It is this fascination that makes their magic the more potent, but also the more dangerous, for some sirens become as entranced as their human listeners. When Dosia goes missing, Esmerine braves the bewildering human world to find her sister, despite the homesickness that settles deep in her stomach, despite the pain that prickles up her transformed legs with every step, even despite her memories of a winged boy who used to play games and teach a young mermaid how to read. But Esmerine is a siren like her sister, and that fascination can cut sharp.

I wasn’t too sure what to think when I first saw this book in the computer at work. For months, it was only the title and the cover, no description. It might have been one of the Goodreads giveaways that gave me my first description of it, which left me in mind of The Little Mermaid (the real one, not the Disney hack-off) meets Gail Carson Levine’s Ever. But, I ordered it in anyway, and when skimming through the first few pages didn’t send off any warning bells, I bought it and took it home.

And I am SO GLAD I DID.

In a way, my initial instinct about the description wasn’t wrong. There are definite echoes here, along with a rather humorous reference to the Disney production that made me giggle in my orange juice, but the story stands on its own two legs (no pun intended). The worldbuilding was gorgeous, detailed without ever falling aside into tedium, and the three separate races are richly and uniquely drawn.

Humans, of course, are largely the same, and certainly not the focus of the story. Most of what we see of them is belligerence and lustfulness, rather typical reactions of the coastal humans in the face of a mermaid. There’s a delicate balance between the landcrawlers and the seadwellers, an understanding of how much fish can be caught of a time and the tribue owed the merfolk and the sirens who keep them from running aground- or will run them into ground if the tribute is skipped. What the typical human understands of mermaids is that they can be kidnapped into marriage if the man steals and hides their belts (a rather ingenious reference to the selkie legends) and that they sink ships seemingly at a whim. The human world isn’t necessarily a safe place for merfolk, especially not a vulnerable young woman on her own.

The merfolk don’t read or write (which, let’s be honest, would be quite a neat trick under water), nor do they have a language of pictures or icons, but they have a rich history of stories and songs that they share through clubs and theatricals. To be a siren is a mark of distinction, of honor, but they also have to be cautious. Sirens are those who already have a fascination with the surface world, a reciprocal tug that makes their magic most effective. A mermaid can give her belt away willingly but the homesickness never goes away, and there aren’t many stories of these brides- willing or not- living for long away from the sea. They exist in a natural form, not just part of the sea but also unfettered by the more human constraints of modesty and clothing, the latter of which could never be but inconvenient under water. Even their diet is different, seaweed and raw fish, a diet that leaves their bodies lean and their stomachs uncomfortable with the idea and weight of cooked food.

And then there are the Fandarsee, the winged race, and when I got to the first description of one of these intriguing creatures, I may or may not have dropped the book in my lap so I could clap with glee (all the windows are open, so I’d feel self-conscious squealing). Some of the humans call them bird-boys, but this is very inaccurate. Rather, they have wings that more resemble a bat’s, attached all along the lengths of their arms and their sides almost to their knees, with piercings in the membranes to allow for side fastenings for clothing. At the tips of these leathery soft wings, the Fandarsee have a thumb and single finger, with the other three bent back in supports for the wings, making maneuvers rather involved. Even their feet are different, curved almost like a bird’s so they can grip things while they fly. They’re intellectual, educated, and as youths often serve as messengers across the great distances.

And though this probably isn’t the most accurate comparison, they rather reminded me of an Amish community complete with rumspringa, only replace the severe simplicity of life with a scientific calling.

Though the impetus of the story is the search for Dosia, this is primarily a love story, but what a love story! As chidren, Esmerine and Alander, a rather grave-minded Fandarsee, played on an island between sea and sky, an island where he taught her to read and write, where they shared stories and games. They haven’t seen each other in four years, after Alander left to attend the Academy and complete his messenger years, but he’s the only one Esmerine can think to look for when she needs help.

Here’s where I really fell in love with this book: after four years, they weren’t immediately the best of friends again. They’d both grown up, grown in different ways, and things were awkward and stilted, full of misunderstandings and frayed nerves. As children, they could play together in a neutral space. As adults, or young adults really, things feel rather more black and white, without the grey areas where unorthodox friendships can flourish. As the story progresses, as they’re pushed together to search for the missing Dosia, they don’t just stumble upon that neutral space again. While they eventually forge a space between them, step by painful step, they earn every moment of it with fear and grief and the despair that comes of the utter certainty that there is no place where a mermaid and a winged man can create a life together. What’s between them is real and natural, full of angst but not of melodrama, and it’s something they will always- always– have to work at. Their relationship is one that will always require hard work to maintain, to keep it strong against all the struggles and obstacles and outside opinions, and I love that, because it’s real.

It isn’t quite a fairy tale, though it feels like one, but it’s a book that leaves you sappily content as you turn the final page, and well worth a read. Between the Sea and Sky, by Jaclyn Dolamore, out in stores now. Check it out!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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