It’s official….

your resident bookslut is sick. Could be the piggy flu. *weeps* She feels horrible – too horrible to even read. And she’s currently reading a great book by Chang-rae Lee that will prompt a fantastic multicultural response on “the other” writing from the POV of the white man. Be patient… your bookslut has not forsaken you.

Edit: Not the piggy flu. Feeling better. Football is taking up my time though. My apologies.

Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

Published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are quickly earned a permanent place in the BEST BOOKS EVER. Maurice Sendak has said that the monsters were originally horses but he couldn’t draw horses but that he could draw a “thing” – he even modeled his things after relatives. It is and always has been a book close to my heart – “I’ll eat you up I love you so.”

When I learned about Spike Jonze’s movie, I was a little skeptical. But now I’m just smitten. I can’t wait. Add the fact that Dave Eggers help adapt the screen play and Sendak served as one of the producers, and I think it’s worth the price of admission. (I’m even interested in Egger’s ficitonal novel, The Wild Things – excerpt here:

See the trailer below – couldn’t embed for some reason.–N9klJXbjQ

Shakespeare’s R & J

(The cast of Shakespeare’s R & J – the guy in the front is the one I loved.)

This isn’t a book, but sluts get to break the rules. I recently went to see the Raleigh Ensemble Players Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s R & J. The play was adapted in 1999 by Joe Calarco. Calarco is quoted as saying, “This is a play about men. It is about how men interact with other men. Thus it deals with how men view women, sex, sexuality, and violence.” He goes on to say that it is a play about students so the actors are students first and foremost, not Shakespearean characters. This is very important to remember when viewing the play.

Shakespeare’s R&J is about four male students in strict boarding school finding release, comedy, love, realization, and self through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The first act of the play has four very boyish students laughing their way through the text. They’re finding in humor in making sex jokes and portraying women with large breasts; they’re typical teenagers. But something happens between two of the students. The obvious attraction between the two students is ridiculed by the other two boys and they mock it and even try to stop it. At one point, things become violent. The brief violence jars them and they apologize through sonnets and the urging of all to continue. After intermission, the boys are engrossed in playing the parts – it has become real for them.

The stage is bare – four black boxes that start as desks become all the play of them. There’s a tattered copy of Romeo and Juliet that gets read from and tossed around the stage. And there’s a red cloth that was used to hide the text. It makes sense that this red cloth has to serve the purpose of all the props needed to put on the Shakespeare play; the students wouldn’t have swords, costumes, vials, etc. at their disposal. It was easy to accept the cloth in this role – the cloth is also important because it connects, conceals, and violently separates the boys.

At the end of the play, the boys are startled into their routines and hurriedly scramble around to find their socks, shoes, ties, and books. One boy, the one who played mostly Romeo, urges them to continue. They all leave him; the boy who played Juliet looks back, noticeably conflicted, before brushing it off as a game and leaving him. It’s heartbreaking, really.

The cast was made up of Shawn S. Stoner, Jack Benton, L.A. Rogers, and Ryan Brock – these four men did an excellent job. The clear stand-out for me was the student who played the nurse (among others.) The problem with four men playing several characters (and sometimes playing the same character) is that the playbill doesn’t let you know who is who as they are just listed as students 1-4.

I thought it was well done though I do have some issues with the actual script – other parts of Shakespeare get tossed into the reading (other plays & sonnets) and I wish there was a bit more to explain this heavy reliance on all of Shakespeare’s work when it seems that the tragedy is a dirty secret. I also didn’t much care for the boy who played Juliet. His voice annoyed me.

With all that in mind, if a local ensemble group is putting it on near you, go check it out – it’s worth the two hours of your life.

As for the REP – check them out, you Raleighites, at — it doesn’t hurt that their new home is over Foundation (a lovely little bar with amazing drinks – try cucumber on the vine –

J.M. Coetzee – Life & Times of Michael K

J.M. Coetzee is one of my favorite South African writers. I have a special love for the white voices of South Africa and even though Coetzee has since moved his citizenship to Australia, I still consider him a South African novelist. Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940. He moved to London in the early ‘60s and worked as a computer programmer. While in London, he was awarded his Masters of Arts degree based on his work with the novels of Ford Madox Ford. (Sidenote: The Good Solider is one of the best novels ever. Ford’s relationship with Jean Rhys was also pretty awesome for the literary world.) Soon after, he came to the States, where he earned his PhD. He sought citizenship here but was denied due to his role in anti-war protests. He went back to South Africa and started teaching at the University of Cape Town. In 2002, he retired to Australia and in 2006, he became an Australian citizen.

A pretty well lauded novelist, Coetzee is a two-time recipient of the Man Booker Prize [Life &Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999)] and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He’s actually long listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize award. The shortlist comes out on Tuesday and the winner will be announced in October, but sources indicate Coetzee as a strong favorite. (Summertime seems a bit masturbatory in nature – I’ll read it eventually.)

Coetzee has always been a bit political, but his novels do not read with the same political urgency that laces Gordimer’s works. The two are forever placed side-by-side as the white voices in a black fight. It is a very interesting comparison when one looks at Coetzee’s women vs. Gordimer’s women; I’ll save such interesting reading for a later day.

I recently read the Life & Times of Michael K and found it similar to Disgrace in haunting qualities. I don’t know that it’s as fine tuned as Disgrace or even as Slowman, but there’s no denying that Coetzee was and continues to be a very powerful writer.

The novel is relatively short (under 200 pages) and divided into three sections. The first section is the longest. It is written in third person and follows Michael K. The second section is told in first person through the eyes of a doctor who treats and envies Michael K. The final section is back in third person. The writing in all three sections is brilliantly Coetzee.

The title makes it very clear what the novel is about – Life & Times of Michael K is surprisingly about the life of Michael K. Michael is a nonwhite, slightly slow, man in his early 30s. His cleft lip is the reason he doesn’t even have a face a mother could love. His mother, Anna K, is a very unsympathetic character who is disgusted and embarrassed by her son. She sends him away as a child, but readily calls on him when she needs him. Rather sick and dying, she convinces Michael to take her to her childhood home of Prince Albert. She’s very large and cannot walk so he pushes her in a cart. Shouldering the burden of caring for her with filial love, he sets off. When she dies, he continues the journey, carting her ashes with him.

But the novel isn’t about a son’s love; it’s about a man trying to find himself or lose himself. He’s beaten, robbed, arrested, and nearly starves himself. The most annoying scene for me is when he buries money and walks away. Parts of it reminded me of the L’etranger by Camus, but Michael is such a simpleton that it’s a bit more annoying. I felt no connection to Michael, but Coetzee does that on purpose. The writing is brilliant, but the story is unsatisfying. I do think this is one of Coetzee’s blatantly more political works and it is well-deserving of all the awards bestowed upon it, but I found it a bit too depressing. Everyone should read Coetzee, but not everyone should use Life & Times of Michael K as their starter Coetzee novel.

All this said, if any of you lovely people find an autographed Coetzee work, it’s a sure fired way of forever buying my love. That is all.

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.

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)

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)

Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith — Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

I’ve never been the biggest Jane Austen fan. The Austen finger-puppet on my fridge isn’t there because I’m madly in love with Darcy or any other of Austen’s manly creations. I read Pride and Prejudice ages ago and simply remember not being all that impressed. I guess in the Austen/Bronte battle, I picked Charlotte.

P&P was originally published in 1813 and it was well-received. Most critics still consider it Austen’s best work and I can understand why, I suppose. I will concede that it is not a bad novel, and Austen is not a bad writer; it’s just not my favorite and I think it may be lauded a bit more than it deserves. But enough about my history with Austen – this is about my reading of a parody novel. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published by Quirk books in April of this year, is a genius idea (and a freaking fantastic title). I’m not sure that I will read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (due out in September), but this was a novel idea that broke away from my normal reading material. Part of me wants to reread P&P to see if the humor I found this time around is due solely to Seth Grahame-Smith and the zombies or if I’ve developed an appreciation for Austen in my old age.
The novel is pretty self-explanatory; it is the original story with zombies added in. Elizabeth Bennet, the beloved Lizzie, is a fantastic zombie slayer. She is quite content to be the “bride of death” and has no need of a man. All the sisters are well trained in the art of killing, but the desire to be wed still penetrates through. Mrs. Bennet is just as annoying as before. Darcy pushes Bingley away from Jane because he fears Jane has caught the “disease.” Charlotte becomes stricken with the “disease” and some of the best scenes in the novel detail her fall before her husband beheads her and hangs himself. There are ninjas and fighting for honor. There are zombie captives and blood, pus, and oozing brains. There’s sexual innuendo and wink, wink, nudge, nudge language. There are scenes of mass destruction and the smell of burning zombies. There are fancy dresses and balls and banquets. It was a fantastic, fun read. I suggest that schools actually teach it with the original; students will love it. It will make a fantastic movie a la Shaun of the Dead.
I realize this isn’t much of a bookslut review, but there really isn’t much I can say. It is a fun read and it breathes new life in the form of zombies (no pun intended) into Austen’s work. I’ll leave you with the closing lines:
“The dead continued to claw their way through crypt and coffin alike, feasting on the British brains. Victories were celebrated, defeats lamented. And the sisters Bennet – servants of His Majesty, protectors of Hertfordshire, beholders of the secrets of Shaolin, and brides of death – were now, three of them, brides of man, their swords quieted by the only force more powerful than any warrior.”
Paperback: 317 pages
Publisher: Quirk Books (2009)