100 Most Favorite Movies

...because I can never resist a challenge. Want to join in? You can take the challenge yourself at Nathan Bransford's blog.

I didn't think I could come up with a hundred movies, but proved myself wrong in just 24 hours. Goodness only knows what I've missed by not taking a month to do this.

Artistic and literary favorites:

1. Everafter
2. Les Misérables (Hooper)
3. Phantom of the Opera (Schumacher)
4. Much Ado about Nothing (Branagh)
5. Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version)
6. Persuasion (Ciaran Hinds/Amanda Root version)
7. Sense & Sensibility (Ang Lee)
8. Emma (Kate Beckinsale version)
9. Life is Beautiful
10. Bella
11. The King’s Speech
12. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
13. The Scarlet Pimpernel (Anthony Andrews version)
14. Cinderella (Rodgers & Hammerstein; Brandy version)
15. My Fair Lady
16. Fiddler on the Roof
17. Mr. Holland’s Opus
18. Chicago
19. Moulin Rouge


20. Star Wars: A New Hope
21. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
22. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
23. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (it was the only one I liked)
24. The Fellowship of the Ring
25. The Two Towers
26. The Return of the King
27. Stardust
28. Back to the Future (I like the first one best, but they were all lovable)

Old favorites:

29. Casablanca
30. Hot Lead, Cold Feet
31. It’s A Wonderful Life
32. The Happiest Millionaire
33. The Apple Dumpling Gang
34. The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
35. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
36. The African Queen
37. Support Your Local Sheriff


38. Return to Me
39. While You Were Sleeping
40. Anne of Green Gables
41. Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (but do not under any circumstances watch the third)
42. A Walk to Remember
43. Sabrina
44. Sleepless in Seattle
45. You’ve Got Mail
46. Elizabethtown
47. 10 Things I Hate About You
48. My Big Fat Greek Wedding


49. The Man from Snowy River (the sequel's likable, but not as good)
50. Frequency
51. Remember the Titans
52. The Shawshank Redemption
53. The Pelican Brief
54. Castaway
55. Little Women (Winona Ryder version)
56. Slumdog Millionaire
57. Save the Last Dance
58. Polly (the one starring Rudy from The Cosby Show)

Comedies and dramedies:

59. Galaxy Quest
60. A Knight’s Tale
61. Blast from the Past
62. The Gods Must be Crazy
63. The Princess Bride
64. McClintock!
65. Napoleon Dynamite
66. Hook
67. Surf Ninjas
68. The Kid
69. The Replacements
70. Sneakers
71. Sister Act (even though the writers knew absolutely nothing about the Catholic Church)
72. Scrooged
73. What About Bob
74. The Truman Show
75. Liar Liar
76. Elf
77. Stranger than Fiction
78. Office Space
79. The Wedding Singer
80. Spanglish
81. Mr. Deeds
82. Robin Hood: Men in Tights
83. Spaceballs

Favorites of my inner child:

84. Aladdin (Disney)
85. Robin Hood (Disney)
86. Tangled
87. Toy Story 1
88. Toy Story 3
89. Finding Nemo
90. Pete’s Dragon
91. The Muppet Movie
92. The Muppet Christmas Carol
93. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
94. The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit
95. The Sandlot

Favorites of my inner teenager:

96. The Princess Diaries
97. Raise Your Voice
98. Twilight
99. New Moon
100. Eclipse

I have yet to see The Artist, anything by Miyazaki, or Singing in the Rain. I know. Scold if you must. But what else have I missed? And what would you pick?


Currently Reading: The Truth Teller’s Tale

The Truth-Teller's Tale (Safe-Keepers, #2)I amused myself by trying to guess which ones were Safe-Keepers, which Truth-Tellers. The old, grim-looking woman with the hot blue eyes was clearly a Truth-Teller; all the others stayed as far from her as they could, not wanting to have their clothes critiqued or their motives examined aloud. There was a tall, heavy man who sat by himself in the corner. His face looked both watchful and sharp; I thought he could be one of those rare Truth-Tellers who kept as many secrets as he pleased. Across the room from them sat two women and a man, laughing and talking in low voices. Safe-Keepers all, I thought, for it was strange but true: Safe-Keepers, at least the ones I knew, all seemed sociable and at ease with the world, despite all the dreadful secrets they knew and must keep buried in their hearts. Truth-Tellers, who could release their burdens aloud every day, were often nasty-tempered and fierce, and many of them were friendless.

Author: Sharon Shinn

From Goodreads: Innkeeper's daughters Adele and Eleda are mirror twins—identical twins whose looks are reflections of each other's, and their special talents are like mirrors, too. Adele is a Safe-Keeper, entrusted with hearing and never revealing others' secrets; Eleda is a Truth-Teller, who cannot tell a lie when asked a direct question. The town of Merendon relies on the twins, no one more than their best friend, Roelynn Karro, whose strict, wealthy father is determined to marry her off to the prince. When the girls are seventeen, a handsome dancing-master and his apprentice come to stay at the inn, and thus begins a chain of romance, mistaken identity, and some very surprising truths and falsehoods.

Notes: After Summers at Castle Auburn, I couldn’t wait long to track down another Shinn novel. This one, recommended by George (thanks, George), came with so many fascinating concepts that I was hooked from a glance at the back cover.

The fascinating concepts include the idea of mirror-twins, who reflect each other in perfect reverse—in this case, from the palindromic names, Adele and Eleda, on down. What each sees when she looks at the other is her own mirror image and the inverse of her magical gift. Adele hears secrets, offers wisdom, but never betrays a confidence. Eleda never lies or misinforms, and her words can even be prophetic.

Eleda (naturally) narrates the story, which carries a very Shinn setup: festive, lighthearted magic, loosely medieval worldbuilding, and memorable, pronounceable names. For all my fondness for thoughtful naming practices in fantasy, it's certainly easier on the reader to discover Micahs and Gregorys and Melindas mingling with the Roelynns and Darians, with not one Lúthien Tinúviel or King Roedran Almaric do Arreloa a'Naloy in the bunch.

Like Auburn, Eleda’s world comes strikingly alive for that of a standalone novel, and it grows its heroine outside the farm-to-destiny cycle common to its genre. It’s cheerful, likable, relaxing high fantasy—the sort that can be comfortably read, like Shannon Hale’s or Diana Wynne Jones’, even by those who wouldn’t come near million-word monsters like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time.

More than anything else, it’s a love story—or rather, a set of love stories. As such, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, if also thoroughly simplistic about the idea that true love of the romantic type is what grows you up and forms the basis of all your happiness. The story is far from being thoughtless, however. The play of Safe-Keeper against Truth-Teller is downright insightful, and there’s some pretty symbolism around the Wintermoon celebrations especially.

The tale would be worth reading for the attention to tangible detail alone, as that’s simply beautiful in places. The scene of Eleda’s first evening out with her young man is one of the loveliest of its type I’ve ever read.

There was nothing in this story to make me regret picking it up. I’d like to re-read it. As with Summers at Castle Auburn, it’s likely to send me hunting up more of Sharon Shinn’s work.


Top Ten Tuesday: Most Frustrating Characters in Fiction

I suspect most of us are thinking about the same person. Without further ado, then.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

1. Dolores Umbridge (The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling). She dresses in pink; she collects plates with pictures of kittens on them; she never speaks but in a soft, girlish, over-polite voice; and she made Harry carve the words "I must not tell lies" into his own flesh—because he refused to deny the truth. While she didn't kill as many people as Voldemort, she was much more maddening. With Voldemort, at least you knew what you were getting. (AK'd.) Umbridge was a cold-blooded, legalistic, cheaply feminine sadist.

Right, so she's going to be hard to top. Here are a few others, though.

2. Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain.) I don't remember much of Tom from the book bearing his own name, but he made me want to throw things at the end of Huck Finn's. The Duke and the Dauphin also deserve mention here, but they were passive irritations who bored me to the point of angst. Tom and his calculating mischief were active sources of distress.

3. Lucinda (Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine). Prone to giving magical gifts that sound nice but carry serious consequences, Lucinda spends most of the tale blissfully blind to the down side of her largesse. Her eventual shame almost made me leave her off the list, but it doesn't change what she did to those giants.

4. John and Fanny Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Mrs. Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen). I couldn't pick. Fanny is mean-spirited and John is an idiot. Lucy is manipulative. Mrs. Ferrars is an unfortunate combination of arrogant, small-minded, and heartless. Lucy plays the most direct role, but they all compete to be the most unfeeling.

I would put Pride & Prejudice's Mr. Collins on here, too, if he weren't so comparatively powerless and stupid as to be more comical than anything.

5. Mrs. Norris (Mansfield Park, Jane Austen). Proof positive that favoritism is a bad idea.

6. Vronsky (Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy). For all that her husband wasn't appealing either, Anna's adultery might have been a touch more emotionally comprehensible if this guy had had even one redeeming quality. I hope he was handsome, because he struck me as neither good-natured nor good-hearted nor intelligent nor even really manly. Maybe riding steeplechasers made him look manly, but for him, even that was a form of indolence.

7. Matrim Cauthon and Fortuona Athaem Kore Paendrag, whenever they're apart (The Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson). Without Tuon, Mat's a selfish skirt-chaser. Without Mat, Tuon is a dispassionate ruler with no shame about her penchant for making collared pets out of Aes Sedai. Also worth mentioning are all the Whitecloaks, the Sea Folk at any bargaining table, and Berelain for her attempts to break up Perrin and Faile.

8. Denethor (The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien). The middle of a world war is a really lousy time to go crazy and nearly kill your own rather important son. Grima/Wormtongue also deserves the demerit here.

9. The Thénardiers and Javert (Les Misérables, Victor Hugo). In the musical, the Thénardiers are sometimes comic and Javert is sometimes sympathetic. Not quite so much in the book—at least, not to my memory. The former are so cruel in their selfishness, and the latter so relentless in his legalism, that I didn't like being around them at all.

10. Erlend Nikulaussøn (Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset). I have never detested a protagonist's love interest like I detested Erlend. The man was selfish and thoughtless and had no self-control. I lost much of my sympathy for Kristin when she fell in love with him, which meant that I spent half the book frustrated with her, too.

Not the most cheerful topic, but perhaps a rather cathartic one. I'm sort of shocked at how many judgmental statements I just made, truthfulness notwithstanding. :)

Which characters do you find most frustrating?


Happy 200th Anniversary, Pride and Prejudice

After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her—

"Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?"

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

"Oh!" said she, "I heard you before; but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say "Yes," that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all—and now despise me if you dare."

"Indeed I do not dare."

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

On January 28, 1813, publisher Thomas Egerton released Jane Austen's second novel to the world—and now, two centuries later:

Quiz: How well do you know Pride & Prejudice? I scored a hundred percent on the questions which were actually about the book. Hey, quiz people, no fair penalizing us for not knowing trivia about adaptations and pastiches and what not.

Apparently in modern-day Britain, parents are more likely to consider marriage as linked to financial security for their sons than for their daughters. The Telegraph has that story.

Tour Britain, Austen-style! I'm drooling. Chatsworth House, a possible inspiration for Pemberley, is bee-ee-ay-yootiful.

Shannon Hale has released a couple of clips from her upcoming movie Austenland! Also, here's director Jerusha Hess talking Pride & Prejudice with Time Entertainment.

I'm still watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Lizzie's at Pemberley Digital right now, and today's episode was SO CUTE. I thought so, anyway. The Daily Dot has brief anniversary tributes from some of the cast and crew.

Need some adaptations, pastiches, spinoffs and the like? Here's JaneAusten.org's list of films and Wikipedia's list of literary adaptations. I doubt the latter is complete, but it'll get you started. Here's a Goodreads list that'll go further. There are 189 items on that list, as I write this.

Merch: Pride & Prejudice 200th Anniversary coffee mug, trivia game, note cards, board game, book charm necklace, and... it looks like Forever Young Adult already did this section for me. Thanks, Megan.

Time to raise a glass of wine and toast the author. Here's to you, Jane!


The Down Side of the Grandiose and other stories

Well, friends, your blogger feels much as a mountaineer must after struggling to a tough peak, waving arms and imbibing champagne at the traditional summit celebration, and, finally, strapping all her gear back on to glissade down.

After reviewing Brideshead Revisited, the Les Misérables movie, and A Memory of Light all in just over a week, it feels a touch anticlimactic to think of returning to books designed as fun reads rather than storm-covered Mt. Everests of emotion. The grandiose tends to temporarily spoil one for the everyday, no matter how good the everyday.

On the other hand, grandiose is a lot of work. The aforementioned mountaineer would certainly agree. If all reviews took me as long as A Memory of Light did... Well. They would be fewer.

Potentially bigger problem: A Memory of Light really made me want to write a fourteen-volume high fantasy saga of my own. About what, you ask? Who knows? Who cares? Something awesome. All that time with the same two hundred characters... No, Jenna. Bad Jenna. You have a lot of revisions to handle first.

* * *

It's awfully tempting, right now, to bore you all with my to-do list. I'm headed to Seattle tonight for a couple of events including overdue catch-up time with a good friend. While I'm gone, Lou—bless that man; bless him from the very heights of heaven—is going to upgrade my computer from Vista to Windows 8, hopefully speeding it up and smoothing out some of the issues that even a good little soldier like my Dell develops after four years of near-constant action. This means that my today is crammed full of things like packing and printing maps and backing up files and settings, on top of the usual Friday housecleaning and whatever.

On account of which, I had thought to abbreviate this blog post. But I do have a handful of things for you:

1. Cat picture.

2. News to delight fellow fans of Jane Austen, Shannon Hale, Stephenie Meyer, and Jerusha Hess: the movie version of Hale's Austenland drew a crowd at the Sundance Film Festival. It also drew some powerful attention, and Sony picked it up for distribution. It's coming to theaters!!! No firm word on when yet, but it doesn't matter—I'm seeing it.

3. For Wheel of Time fans: In a chat recently hosted by Tor, Brandon Sanderson answered fan questions about various plot points in A Memory of Light. Warning: spoilers for A Memory of Light! But if you've read that book, this is a lot of fun to read.

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Music of the week: In honor of our shared birthday on Sunday—his two hundred and twenty-two years before mine—a little Mozart.

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Time to start backing up my computer, if I want to not lose pictures and music and bookmarks tonight. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: A Memory of Light (The Wheel of Time, book 14)

A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14; A Memory of Light, #3)“You think you could stay away from me?” Rand asked, smiling. “You really think it would let you?”

“I could bloody try. No offense, Rand, but you’re going to go mad and all. I figured I’d give you one less friend nearby to kill. You know, save you some trouble. What did you do to your hand, by the way?”

“What did you do to your eye?”

“A little accident with a corkscrew and thirteen angry innkeepers. The hand?”

“Lost it capturing one of the Forsaken.”

“Capturing?” Mat said. “You’re growing soft.”

Rand snorted. “Tell me you’ve done better.”

“I killed a gholam,” Mat said.

“I freed Illian from Sammael.”

“I married the Empress of the Seanchan.”

“Mat,” Rand said, “are you really trying to get into a bragging contest with the Dragon Reborn?” He paused for a moment. “Besides, I cleansed saidin. I win.”

Authors: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Synopsis: The armies of the Light are finally marshaling against the armies of the Shadow for the Last Battle, Tarmon Gai'don. While Rand prepares to go to Shayol Ghul and challenge the Dark One, the remaining Forsaken compete with each other for the Shadow's favor by working against Rand's allies. But even without the Forsaken to deal with, the Light's armies are outnumbered and desperate. Their only hope of winning means laying aside differences and even old enmities: Seanchan and Aes Sedai, Whitecloak and Windfinder, farmer and fisherman and Aiel warrior must all take up their weapons side by side.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Notes: The wind that is a beginning rises in the first chapter of every Wheel of Time novel, and as it blew down from the Mountains of Mist to herald the series finale, it carried—like a snatch of haunting melody, like a familiar scent—a startling nostalgic rush. The world so carefully and thoroughly built over thirteen previous installments and a prequel, the characters we loved enough to travel this far alongside—this was an ending for them and us together. Our ending.

"Eastward the wind blew" reads the chapter title, and certainly the wind blew east, directing the story up the final arcing segment of its circle: a circle ultimately shown to be half black and half white, the contrast marked off by a single, sinuous line. While I noted the (modified) yin and yang imagery throughout the series, I failed to think through certain of its implications, which took me by surprise toward the end. But as Light faced off with Shadow, as White and Black Towers played their part in the war, as the White Lion of Andor flew its banner over one battlefield and the black hawk of Shienar marched on another, the symbol upon which the story turned was as obvious as ever it had been.

Structurally the novel was tighter than some of its predecessors. Sanderson's meant-to-be-touching scenes were sometimes a little trite, but to make up for that, there was good humor and some quality character development. Character arcs got priority over plot points in regards to completion, which has other readers complaining around the internet, but which failed to bother me. The great heart of this story is in its cultures and characters, and the authors did not disappoint me there.

Which is impressive, considering that of the nine hundred pages, probably six or seven hundred were battle scenes. This would not normally be my thing. Because each scene was shown through a character's thoughts and emotions, however, I got through with little difficulty aside from wondering how Elayne was bouncing around on horseback while six months pregnant with twins, or from trying to imagine Shayol Ghul as large enough to house Shadowspawn in the apparent millions needed for the Last Battle.

The perspective changed every few pages, which proved less aggravating to read overall than the alternating long and short head hops found in some of the previous novels. More importantly, all of my favorite characters got head time. Rand and Egwene. Nynaeve, if not nearly often enough. Min. Perrin and Faile. Mat and Tuon together—I could never stand either of them separately, but together they’re fantastic. Aviendha. And comparative newcomers Androl and Pevara turned out to be wonderful.

There were deaths, of course. Without spoilers, all I can say is that while J.K. Rowling probably killed off a higher percentage of her key players, Jordan made up for that by killing more named characters than Rowling even possessed. I was sometimes surprised by who died and who kept surviving, but then, plot developments surprised me all over the place. That's all to the good.

Without spoilers, it's also hard to comment much on individual character trajectories. Perrin, Mat, and Elayne had, if I recall correctly, the most onstage time of anyone besides Rand. Perrin fans like myself will almost certainly enjoy his growth as he pursues and battles Slayer. Elayne was Elayne as always, brash and queenly by turns and sometimes funny as well, but she also learned a few things. Mat was outstanding as general and hero and comic relief; Sanderson wrote his personality perfectly as far as I was concerned. Lan got some airplay, too, and his climactic scene was beautiful.

But the most interesting and emotional parts of the story for me involved Rand and Egwene. When the pair of them left the Two Rivers, innocent and in love, I rooted for them all the way. Even when they discarded the romance, leaving Egwene free to fall for Gawyn Trakand and Rand to get Wheel-woven into his exceedingly weird polyamory, it always seemed clear to me that they had some joint destiny.

It's not an obvious thing—not nearly as clear as I expected it to be, but that joint destiny is there. It's in their titular headship of the White and Black Towers; it's in a small continuum of interaction between them throughout the book. Most of all, it's in the fact that his big moment and hers bore a whole spoilerific list of interesting parallels. The hints of Christian influence in the imagery—whether intentionally included by the authors (Anglican and Mormon, respectively) or merely incidental to the esoteric symbolism—happen in part through the two of them. Egwene's moment of glory was, for me at least, probably the most powerful part of the story.

The ultimate symbolic direction of the book, however, hashed out in an extended philosophical contest between Rand and Shai'tan at the cusp of the final power struggle, did not quite make sense to me. My cruciform thought processes got tangled in the circular syllogism, and have not yet sorted themselves out. I'd rather not prove myself a fool by attempting to interpret what I know so little about, so I'll just say that the resolution suited the tale.

Despite the deaths, the ending was generally satisfactory. Sometimes happy. And for all my love for good sound moral philosophy and theology, for all my cataphatic Western preference for things that mean something positive and sensible—if I set those expectations aside enough to just enjoy it as a story, I did enjoy it. It was a good story, with flawed but beloved characters and a brilliantly realized world. I don't have a single regret either for starting it or for finishing it. Someday I will probably pick it up and walk in its winds again.


Unsettling Wonder Release and Top Ten Tuesday

First, big news: the inaugural issue of Unsettling Wonder is out, themed around the concept of Wonder Voyages! There are some lovely stories in there. I know that for a fact; I'm the associate fiction editor.

From the introduction:
In offering you these stories, we hope that they guide you on a voyage of imagination—if not from island to island in goatskin boats, then from story to story, to new lands discovered by story. I do not promise they will change you. But you will, I hope, discover something new, even indescribable.
Print and digital editions are available. I'm looking forward to my own copy coming in the mail!

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
Now, back to scheduled programming: the top ten settings I'd like to see more of in fiction. This is a tough one for me because I favor high fantasy, where the two important rules for setting are: 1) use your imagination, and 2) use the heck out of it.  I'll try to come up with a list nonetheless. It just might be abstract.

1. The Epic Landscape. Scenery expansive and varied enough to take in whole cultures and multiple plot lines and enormous series. Think Tolkien's work, or Jordan's—from the flowers and treehouses of Lothlorien to the mines of Moria, from the river-island of Tar Valon to the plains and walled cities of the Borderlands. I just finished the Wheel of Time, and I need another large-scale saga with a fascinating world.

2. The Beautiful Wonderland. Magical worlds with an emphasis on the lovely. Shannon Hale's teen heroines live in such places, and Maria Merryweather enters the exquisite Silverydew in The Little White Horse. Lewis' Narnia is glorious, and even Montgomery's handling of setting, notably Lake Mistawis (The Blue Castle), belongs fairly in this category. The land traveled by the boy in Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist is yet another, as is Cornelia Funke's Inkworld.

3. The Ambiguous Place in Time. This is the world that may or may not be on Planet Earth; it's not specifically tied to any location in the universe or any time period. Sharon Shinn's Auburn is an example of this, as is the world in The Wheel of Time. "In one age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist...."

4. The Unknown Planet. Here's where my taste for sci-fi drops into the mix. Someplace in the unexplored heavens, unfamiliar peoples work unfamiliar lands—on Lewis' Perelandra, for instance, or Card's Lusitania (Speaker for the Dead). This is a great way to set up a world with unique rules and features.

5. The Undersea Paradise. I am on a quest for a good mermaid book. It needs to have strong, sensory worldbuilding, lovable characters, and a meaningful concept, which combination seems unreasonably hard to find in the little world of mermaid fiction. Granted, I haven't read the entirety of said world yet.

6. The Far Side of the Portal. This is a common urban fantasy concept, but is not often done to my taste, mainly because most writers are light worldbuilders by my standards. The portal concept is as follows: step into a wardrobe in the English countryside, and voila! There's a world through there. Platform 9 3/4 is likewise a perfect example.

7. The Artists' Guild. I'm a writer and musician, and I have dabbled in both drawing and dance—and I love to see the arts and artistic gatherings in novels. Love, love, love. Artists have a way of turning their associations and spaces into settings with distinctive personalities. Sometimes these form the primary setting, as in Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Other times, they're small aspects of the larger world but important to the story, like the musicians' nightclub in Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. Either way, this is one of my favorite things to find in a tale.

It's likely that I could go on, but it might take more hours than I've got to give. What settings would you like to see more of in fiction?


Les Misérables: The Movie, The Musical

What I mean is, ugly things can also be beautiful. A hawk swooping in to kill its prey is beautiful. A woman, stripped of all worldly cares and possessions, about to face her own death at the hands of a murderer, and who realizes that she is a poor soul in need of God's grace just as much as the man who is about to kill her, is beautiful ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). The Crucifixion is beautiful. But they're all, to certain degrees painful. Even ugly. Grace reclaims even that.
~Christie, in last Wednesday's combox on Brideshead Revisited

Christie's words returned to haunt me Saturday night during the dark, frosty walk from cinema to car. Schönberg's music still pounded in my head, my cheeks were still tacky and my eyes hot from crying, and the leftover meditative mood kept all of us to a slow pace.

I didn't expect to have to write a second superlative review in the space of one week, but the movie astounded me too thoroughly to go unmentioned here, and besides, I needed a Monday post. Apologies, therefore, if I seem to be in raving mode.

I'm not. It was just that good.

Not being a film critic but merely a writer, singer, and artist's daughter, I've got only armchair observations on the technical side of the making. Director Tom Hooper did remarkable work with The King’s Speech, but I thought he equaled or surpassed himself with Les Mis. It's well written for the screen; William Nicholson’s adaptation of the Boublil/Schönberg/Kretzmer script is flawless, as far as I can tell, though I’ve not seen the stage performance to miss the handful of things that were cut or changed.

The cinematography is on the grand scale and beautiful, even a little bit magical, though that last might be the effect of heavy use of CGI. Shot in an almost monochromatic blue, with thoughtful use of earth tones and strong red as accents, the images retain a hint of stage-play feel while—as with Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera—offering perspectives to the moviegoer that simply can't be had through the proscenium arch. There are especially stunning moments: Javert's patent leather shoes pacing the very edge of the high bridge wall, for instance; furniture thrown from windows in the making of the revolutionaries' barricade; Cosette among flowers behind the gate at Marius' first visit.

Hugh Jackman (left) as Jean Valjean
and Anne Hathaway as Fantine
AP Photo/Universal Pictures
The cast surprised me despite my high expectations. Jackman brought all the grim determination to Valjean that he brought to Wolverine in the X-Men movies, plus a superb compassion and gentleness. Hathaway, whom I'd mostly seen in romantic comedies like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, threw herself into Fantine's desperation. I was in tears nearly every time she was onscreen.

Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne—Cosette and Marius—were mostly new to me, but did quite credibly as the innocent-souled young lovers. Samantha Barks, strikingly beautiful and expressive, will probably always be my vision of Eponine. Child actors Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone floored me as young Cosette and Gavroche; I'm not sure how children learn how to act so convincingly so early, but Allen and Jackman displayed an exquisite father-daughter tenderness together, and Huttlestone stole the show every time the camera turned his way.

The Thénardiers could not have been better cast. Helena Bonham Carter is an astonishingly flexible actress; her roles have varied from sweet Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View to elegant Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech to crazed Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, with Mme. Thénardier loosely resembling the latter (that hair!) I know less of Sacha Baron Cohen's work, never having seen Borat—all the way through the movie I wondered why his face was so familiar—but he didn't hold back a thing as the thieving, garish "Master of the House". The pair brought a much-needed comic relief to the story.

The only actor I questioned was Russell Crowe, who comes off a shade too generous, I think, to be properly believable as the merciless Javert. On the other hand, Crowe's touch of noblesse oblige made Javert unusually sympathetic, which prevented me from questioning very much.

The vocals, recorded live during filming rather than in studios for lip-syncing on camera, were unadorned and unstylized, to sound like speech, in contrast to Broadway-standard tone and projection. This made the lyrics more immediately emotional, more accessible, and while I heard tones I didn’t like, the effect was lovely overall. Crowe has a firm, if not very dynamic voice; Redmayne hit just a hair off strident now and again, but made up for that with passion; Jackman was a touch thin in the high register, but his whole heart was in the music. I was too busy crying to find fault with Hathaway's vocals. I loved both Barks and Seyfried, as well as Allen's innocent, lovely rendition of "Castle on a Cloud."

The extended facial closeups of various actors singing passionately, often while in tears, came off a little awkward, though not nearly as bad as it could have been. If the emotions had been off in the slightest, it would have been more than usually uncomfortable. But Hathaway, Jackman, Redmayne and Barks, all of whom underwent the camera in the face, performed without a slip. Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is particularly gutwrenching.

Russell Crowe as Javert.
AP Photo/Universal Pictures/Laurie Sparham
There’s no nudity and comparatively little gore, but the horror of the deaths, the prostitution, the prison, and the turning of cold law upon Valjean and Fantine and the revolutionaries are not passed over lightly. It is hard to watch, hard to sit through without feeling vaguely guilty over comfortable theater seats and warm rooms and the fact of having plenty of food and clothing. Yet the suffering is reclaimed—as the story demands—by recourse to grace.

Which is why Christie's thoughts on painful beauty came back to me. For all Victor Hugo's spiritual wandering, this story is intensely, emotionally Christian, and for once Hollywood didn’t try to get in the way. It had been over ten years since I read the book, and I was thunderstruck by the lyrics, the scenes of prayer complete with candles and crucifixes, and the ending. The musical is impressively faithful to the novel, but if anything, it emphasizes the power of the bishop's gift to Jean Valjean more strongly than Hugo did.

For those who have never read the book or seen any of the adaptations thereof, the story may prove a bit challenging to follow. It may also be too much, emotionally speaking, for anyone dealing with extreme heaviness or sorrow in their own life.

Those are my only disclaimers. This was the first time in a couple of years that I felt that a movie was really worth the price of theater tickets.

The problem with claiming that a film is astoundingly good is that most of us respond to such reviews by plopping down in a theater seat and saying, eagerly, "Astound me!"—which often means coming away disappointed. So maybe it's better to go in with low expectations. Seize on your dislike for whichever of the actors you've never cared for. Imagine obvious computer effects and way-too-intimate photography. Remind yourself just how dang unhappy the story is. Whatever you need to think about. Just don't let it actually stop you from going.

Go with someone you're comfortable crying with, though.


Lone Redwoods and other stories

The fog rolled in this morning—and vanished, unfortunately, before I thought to get the camera out—but we've had several lovely clear evenings lately, with Jupiter directly overhead in Taurus, not far from the Pleiades, and Sirius tracking Orion through the sky. It's perfect stargazing except for one thing: it's so cold that I haven't yet convinced myself to pull out the telescope. Even though Jupiter and the Pleiades are two of the more stunning sights a home telescope can offer.

Maybe soon. I love the Pleiades. They make me think of Christmas lights.

* * *

* * *

All right. I know kid stuff isn't always interesting to everyone, but I have the cutest nieces and nephews ever. The three-year-old niece sent me this email the other day, with a little help from her Nana:

I visited her a couple of days later, and had the unfortunate experience of discovering that one of her pet rabbits was sick. Relaying that news to her mother meant causing the poor kid some worry over the fact of mortality, which resulted in the following conversation:

My sister: "Well, we need to have three bunnies, so if this one dies, we'll get you another one."
Tearful niece: "Another bunny?"
Sister: "Yes, another bunny."
Niece: "Another little tiny one?"
Sister: "Probably a little one, yes."
Niece, with a sorrowful sniff: "I think I would like a little pink one."

* * *

From Tall Girl Problems:

There's a reason for this, as I rediscovered at this week's choir practice. I never stand up front in the soprano line if I can help it; usually I go off to the side or, if there's room, get in the back row with the men. But practice was sparse this week, and everyone said hey, come on up, get in here—and stuck me in the middle.

I, of all things, had chosen to wear heeled boots, which put me well over six feet. The two or three girls closest on my right came barely to my shoulder. The girl on my left was shorter yet. The girl on the far side of her stood on a lower step, which put her head right at about my waist. Nobody in the entire front line got past my chin.

So yeah, sopranos: it's not that I don't like you, or that I'm too much of a loner to join in the group fun. I just feel like this tree:


* * *

Music of the week: Lou and I listen to one of his Pandora stations on weekends, an easy alt-rock thing that plays a lot of great music but had started repeating songs to death. He wanted to broaden the input bands, and as I was coming up with suggestions—The Civil Wars, Muse, The Fray—I remembered a voice I'd hardly thought of for years.

We added him. Turns out I still find Peter Bradley Adams a hundred percent listenable.

* * *

The plan is to finally see Les Mis with Lou's parents over the weekend, which I'm very much looking forward to. Though I'm nervous. I don't like crying in the theater, and all my friends' Facebook posts suggest that tears are unavoidable.

No, I still haven't seen The Hobbit. I know. The unfortunate thing is that I've stopped caring. I've begun envisioning it as a long string of goblin fights and action scenes, like Return of the King, and... ugh. I might stay home and watch the BBC miniseries of Brideshead Revisited instead.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited“So you see we’re a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; Mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and Papa is excommunicated—and I wouldn’t know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want.... I wish I liked Catholics more.”

“They seem just like other people.”

“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not—particularly in this country, where they’re so few. It’s not just that they’re a clique—as a matter of fact, they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time—but they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time. It’s quite natural, really, that they should. But you see it’s difficult for semi-heathens like Julia and me.”

Author: Evelyn Waugh

Goodreads synopsis: The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Notes: Much as I love all my favorite Anglican and Mormon novelists—and, oddly, it does seem as though my favorites are usually one or the other—it’s something to come across quality Catholic fiction that manages to get into my heart. I’m frankly afraid of O’Connor and Greene; my responses to Tolkien are a mixture of admiration and failed interest; and Chesterton’s novels, while likable, never seem to catch at my sympathy the way his non-fiction does. Waugh, however, in this book at least, got my attention and admiration and sympathy all together.

There are two primary divisors that, for me, work toward a final quotient of like or dislike for novels, regardless of genre or category or level. First, I must love the principal characters. Second, the book—however dark—must focus with manifest intensity on the light. This is why I love The Wheel of Time and haven’t brought myself to read A Song of Ice and Fire, why I avoid Steinbeck and adore Tolstoy. Brideshead Revisited, though hardly a cheerful story, fell on the right side of the line. I might as well pause here to admit that I loved it.

Waugh’s Charles Ryder, the protagonist, spent the first half of the book reminding me of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby: a creature of uncertain opinions and passive temperament, shaped primarily by contact with and love for a defined and charismatic personality. Charles is an agnostic, not convinced enough of the unlikeliness of a higher power to be an atheist, but certain that Christianity is a dangerous myth. He falls in love with Sebastian Flyte at college—whether that love is sexual or not is left unexplained—and sees the Flytes’ sometimes manipulative Catholicism as a direct threat to Sebastian’s life and health and freedom.

Sebastian furthered the Gatsby comparison by seeming, from the outset, the sort likely to die an early and ignominious death. Unlike Jay Gatsby, however, whom I merely loved, I both loved and admired Sebastian. It was easy to envision the beautiful young man, an artist’s delight, with his big teddy bear and his liquors, his desperation to be free of his family and his inability to be free of his God. Though he became less admirable, he never lost my sympathy.

His family was a thoroughly mixed bag as far as emotional appeal went, but all of them exemplified what the novel was more or less about: the reality of what it means to be Catholic—to have in one’s heart the Eucharistic fire despite sin, weakness, addiction, doubts, the presence or absence of happiness, and inconsonant nature. It would mean spoilers to describe how this worked out in the book, and would be pointless anyway. The thing is best portrayed, and it is the mastery of that portrayal which makes the book a successful work of art. Which makes it convincing, when countless works of ‘Christian fiction’, Catholic or Protestant, attempting to depict the life of the modern believer, seem to treat humanity as a creature other than it is, or at best to deploy their ideals in an alternate reality.

It’s not merely tragedy that makes the mastery, though the book is mostly tragic. Charles achieves some greatness as an artist but fails roundly in the private sphere, making indolent choices that gradually push him toward emotional and spiritual isolation. Despite his deep loves, he was not always likable, and his plight sometimes inspired serves-you-right emotions rather than sympathy. By the end of the story, though, he had won both my love and respect; two of the very few things that make tragedy survivable.

The book is literary fiction of the old school; the prose is comprehensible and meaningful and lovely, the suffering human and painful, and the characters shown in unshrinking clarity. Its scenes range from dull to engaging, from the idyllic to the horrible. It began with some light and grew darker and harder to bear, and yet—

To review this novel primarily in comparison to The Great Gatsby would be preposterous on several fronts, but the similarities I’d felt early on, which faded into nothingness as I read, popped back up rather hauntingly at the end. Fitzgerald closed his novel with Gatsby’s belief “in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” There’s no more sign of an orgastic future in Brideshead than in Gatsby. Yet Waugh ends with the opposite light: a red flame, immanent and permanent, the unlooked-for hope of “builders and tragedians”, the holy place the sinner returns to when he feels 'the twitch upon the thread'.

The red flame sits at the heart of Catholicism. It’s hard to say how a non-Catholic—let alone a non-Christian—might respond to this book, though both Waugh and his novel have had literary acclaim.

I should say, it’s hard for me to say. Hot debate topics like the confessional, papal authority, and honor (it is never worship) for Mary do not even garner mention in the tale as I recall, though atheistic talking points like "this is all a load of bosh" do. In my own Protestant days, I simply might not have understood the story or the final imagery. The picture the evangelical church had drawn for me of Catholicism lacked detail, and anyway it did not really resemble what I found when I began looking. Now that the red flame sits at my heart—now that I recognize it, at least—Brideshead’s ending put me in tears with an emotion that’s impossible to communicate or explain.

The Anglican Rowling shot close to that core place, in the climactic moments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with the chapters 'The Forest Again' and 'King’s Cross'. The Mormon Card shot close in Speaker for the Dead with “It was the miracle of the wafer, turned into the flesh of God in his hands. How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust.”

Evelyn Waugh shot a bull’s-eye. While proving himself an exceptional artist. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.


Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2012

Yes, it's old news, but this week's topic—Top Ten 2013 Debuts I'm Looking Forward To—is one I did a broader version of just a few weeks back and only came up with three. Will I read more debuts than that? I certainly hope so. It just takes me some time to sort through the internet buzz for the ones I'm actually interested in. Especially since the internet buzz usually focuses on trends like paranormals and dystopians, and I'm more interested in the epic fantasy and non-apocalyptic science fiction.

Ergo, a topic I missed from a few weeks ago.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
Only books I read for the first time last year count, which is why I'm leaving off Sense and Sensibility and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Also, these are not necessarily ordered according to greatness. Blurbs are from the reviews, just so you have something to look at. :)

1. Lilith by George MacDonald
—I sat on a blanket out in the sun with tears running down my face, feeling as close to having glimpsed a bit of the afterlife as ever I get.

2. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
—From its beautiful title and short, haunting first chapter, Kvothe’s story sets itself among the great works of fantasy.

3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
—The book... offers hope despite its horrors and uncertainties—a hope centered in the redemptive character of Jonas. Like many a child protagonist, he sees the world with an innocent clarity, a striking purity of heart. The very hopefulness of his closing dreams and of his selfless bravery are the sort of thing that can stand between the human person and inhumanity.

4. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
—Some may find it too neatly tied up, but I am shameless about such things. I can’t believe it took me thirty years to find this book. I adored it.

5. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
—Ella has the pluck to accept her plight as something she must live with for the time, while always searching for her escape. Her playful spirit and her knack for the goofy linguistics carry the story, making her positively irresistible as a heroine.

6. Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn
—Good worldbuilding is supposedly the high point of fantasy, and it’s still one of my favorite discoveries to make in a new author or book. Shinn’s quasi-medieval Auburn... [is] beautifully realized.

7. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
—Cazaril proved both interesting and sympathetic, a good man who becomes a great one not so much by growing from naivete to wisdom (though there is some of that, particularly as regards his relationship to the gods) as by continual willingness to obey the demands of rightness despite his feelings.

8. The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson #5) by Rick Riordan
—It’s hard not to love Percy’s enthusiastic, humorous middle-grade narrative, and he doesn’t let us down in this final installment.

9a. Xenocide by Orson Scott Card
—One of Card’s greatest strengths as a writer is in his empathy. Whatever a character thinks or believes or does, he is capable of putting himself into their mind and heart, showing the best of who they are and placing the reader firmly on their side.

9b. Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card
—Card’s Ender is arguably one of the most wholly and intrinsically lovable characters in fiction.... Larger than life in his wrongs and compassion as well as his intelligence, Ender turns his own unbearable guilt into humility, wisdom and understanding—a broken hero, but then, that’s the only kind humanity ever has.

10. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
—The novel’s third great success was the mythology of the capaill uisce themselves. Stiefvater portrays them with all the beauty and mystique of a horse, all the danger of grizzly bears, and all the magic of the Pegasus.

What were the best books you read in 2013? Or your favorites, at least?


Romantic Words, Reading Slowly, and Moldy Potatoes

From Problems of a Book Nerd:

I think I need to read The Fault in Our Stars. But not yet—not, at least, until I've finished this:

I am this far:

Originally, I'd intended to blast through it and have a review up Wednesday. Upon opening it to the first page, though, something rare happened: it struck me that I ought to slow down and enjoy this final new Wheel of Time—and, to my surprise, I realized that I can do that, if I try. At least, till the suspense finally gets to me.

To be fair, I could meander through it and still have a review by Wednesday if I dropped everything else. The problem is, I'm having too much fun writing my own book. I owe much of that enthusiasm to Christie. Thank you, Christie. <3

Along the recovering-enthusiasm lines, here's a writer's link for the week: Kiersten White on raising the rent on the destructive little voices in your head:
But occasionally something slips in, destructive, seeping, something that collapses your space in around itself until it is small and huddled, looking inward instead of outward....
The voices dominating the space, ringing around in it, are not your own, but that makes them all the more powerful, louder still. And the very worst ones, the cruelest and hardest to ignore, sometimes sound just like you.
Kick them the crap out.
Not until the fourth or fifth time through this post did I realize she wasn't necessarily talking about writing. The reason being, probably, that nearly every negative voice in my head this last year has had to do with my writing of a certain 2009 NaNoWriMo novel. (Obsessive much? That's the prerogative of the artist, I suppose.)

It's not something I blame on any one person, or any one reason. It's like my memories of working in customer service. I remember two things: 1) the people who went out of their way to be friendly—the ones who came in regularly, the ones who made me laugh, the Spanish guy who, after forty-five terribly difficult minutes of trying to figure out what was wrong with his software, said, "I am very, very pleased with you"—and 2) the people who went out of their way to be nasty, who, like the one moldy potato in the sack, could spoil a week's work in ten minutes. The big man who got in my face, while his wife stood by and watched, and cursed me out because, after ten minutes of measuring, he determined that his picture was framed a hair off center—that memory still gives me a rush of adrenaline jitters.

After a couple of years of reading loads and loads of industry blogs and going through lots and lots of critique, I've caught my mind clinging to a few exceptionally affirmative comments, yet allowing a handful of negatives to taint huge portions of my work. It's hard to know what to do with negatives when you value truth. Is it going to be impossible to sell something of that nature in this market? Was that reader right to suggest that change, even if it doesn't quite fit with my vision for the story? Does the likelihood of drawing certain criticisms matter?

At some point, moving forward requires making a judgment call. Either lay it aside as 'a learning experience' and try something new, or accept challenges and even the certainty of making mistakes and fight for what is good in the work. I'm choosing the latter. There's something damn good in that book, something worth fighting for, and I will see it become the best it can be.

End of manifesto. For now.

Random customer service memory: an extremely loquacious patron who got angry because our water pitcher splashed on his expensive shoes. He bought us a new one and handed it to me with a sheepish look and "It's yellow. It matches your shirt. And your teeth."

It's collapse-into-giggles hilarity to me now. But I have brushed with whitening toothpaste ever since.


Innocent Mewing and other stories

Last night I forgot I'd made myself a goal of getting more sleep and stayed up till 1:30 finishing Brideshead Revisited. Which would not be so very awful if I'd gone to bed before midnight any other night this week. At any rate, I had a mostly positive emotional experience with the book, and my mind kicked off this morning with all sorts of ideas for reviewing it.

The rough draft won't happen today. It's three-thirty, and I'm late to blogging. My lateness cannot be blamed on the unexpected but lovely visit with my sister and nieces, however; they left before two. No, the fault lies with the fact that when I have my day all planned out and something adds itself to the schedule last-minute, instead of kicking something off my to-do list, I just compress everything. I meant to play the piano, and I played the piano—I just didn't work as far into Clair de Lune as I might have. I meant to curl my hair before tonight's dinner party, but I might end up just straightening it.

I meant to blog, but this will be a short post. The blame for that lies with my having gotten distracted on the internet. I'm sorry. Look, here's a cat picture:

* * *

From Lou and I, Maia got a can of Friskies for Christmas. This was perhaps a mistake. She's learned that the refrigerator and the silverware drawer are involved in her getting a Very Special Treat, which means that my days have been going something like this:

9:00 AM
Maia: Nice human. I like nice humans. *Purrrrrr* *rubs up against my shins*
Me: Maia, I'm taking my vitamins. You can have your treat when we have dinner.
Maia: You can't resist me. I'm CUTE.

12:00 PM
Maia: Look, I've perfected my innocent mewing. I'm like a helpless kitten. Out in the rain. Starving.
Me: You're underfoot, and I'm heating up lunch.

3:00 PM
Maia: Hold still, I'm trying to rub up against your legs. Humans are supposed to love that.
Me: Maia, if you're hungry, I think there's some of your dry breakfast left in your dish. I'm only getting a glass of water.
Maia: You're a disgrace to humankind. Which isn't feline on its best day.

6:00 PM
Me: All right, Maia, time for your treat!
Me: I could give it to you faster if you'd stop shoving yourself between my hand and the floor.

* * *

Music of the week: A likable piano piece that looks way too difficult to be on my to-learn list any time soon.

* * *

All right, this has been around for a few weeks, but if you haven't seen Cat Friend vs. Dog Friend... I laughed so hard.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Reached

Reached (Matched, #3)“You’ll need to be patient,” he said. “It may take some time.”

Which was a wise piece of advice, it seems, since I haven’t sorted anything out of the ordinary yet. Not that I remember, anyway. But that’s all right. I don’t need the Rising to tell me how to fight the Society.

Whenever I can, I write letters. I’ve made them in many ways: a K out of strands of grass; an X with two sticks crossed over each other, their wet bark black against a silvery metal bench in the greenspace near my workplace. I set out a little ring of stones in the shape of an O, like an open mouth, on the ground. And of course I write the way Ky taught me, too.

Wherever I go, I look to see if there are new letters. So far, no one else is writing, or if they are, I haven’t seen it. But it will happen. Maybe even now there’s someone charring sticks the way Ky told me he did, preparing to write the name of someone they love.

I know that I’m not the only one doing these things, committing small acts of rebellion. There are people swimming against the current and shadows moving slowly in the deep. I have been the one looking up when something dark passed before the sun. And I have been the shadow itself, slipping along the place where earth and water meet the sky.

Day after day, I push the rock that the Society has given me up the hill, over and over again. Inside me are the real things that give me strength—my thoughts, the small stones of my own choosing. They tumble in my mind, some polished from frequent turning, some new and rough, some that cut.

Author: Ally Condie

From Goodreads: After leaving Society and desperately searching for the Rising—and each other—Cassia and Ky have found what they were looking for, but at the cost of losing each other yet again: Cassia has been assigned to work for the Rising from within Society, while Ky has been stationed outside its borders. But nothing is as predicted, and all too soon the veil lifts and things shift once again.

In this gripping conclusion to the #1 New York Times-bestselling Matched trilogy, Cassia will reconcile the difficulties of challenging a life too confining, seeking a freedom she never dreamed possible, and honoring a love she cannot live without.

Notes: As I’ve mentioned from time to time and possibly harped on once or twice, I don’t generally get along with the dystopian subgenre. Much as I admired—even loved—The Giver, it didn’t send me to the library or the bookstore desperate for more like it. I don't often go looking for an ugly cry.

But when I swore off pop-dystopians a few months ago, overwhelmed by the garish violence common to the type, I knew I’d make an exception for the finale of Condie’s Matched trilogy. The undercurrent of peace in the story, despite all Cassia’s talk of raging with Dylan Thomas “against the dying of the light”, allowed me to give Reached a chance on the faint hope that it might go more gently on me than the Insurgents and the Mockingjays. I must admit, however, that I still expected a bloodbath.

To my great surprise and greater relief—it was not that.

It was also not a lot of other negatives it could have been. It was not confusing as to which of the young people was narrating at any given time, as Crossed was. It was not a hurrah-we-overthrew-the-big-bad-government tropefest. It was not a final grinding down of the heroine and her friends into postwar PTSD. I appreciated these things.

Better yet, however, are the things it was. It was a thoughtful story, with something to say about art and history, about loving and heartbreak and loving again, about the value of choice. It was a startling and hopeful resolution to the trilogy—perhaps too complex for its page count, but not complicated to the point of becoming really baffling. It was blessedly quiet, even peaceful beneath the surface—a reprieve, one I happened to need very much, from the nerve-grating amorality and brutality so common in fiction nowadays.

Tales of love triangles and competing tyrannies don’t often star heroines as gentle-spirited and artistic as Cassia Reyes. While undeniably passionate, her emotions are tempered by empathy and innocence, and while her poetry is not at the level of Tennyson or Thomas, it’s—as she puts it—her “first time feeling and telling”, and interesting as such. Her thoughtfulness is the quiet that underscores the story, trumping Xander’s fervor for the cause and Ky’s apathy and even her own idealism.

Her nature and the turn of events eventually softened the big objection I had at the beginning of the book, which was that Condie didn’t develop her world anywhere near thoroughly enough. The Society and the Rising both came off a little thin. By the end, however, while the individual storylines resolved, the world itself was left room to grow, which left me uninterested in complaining much about the lack of detail in the worldbuilding.

More than that cannot easily be said without spoilers, of course, so I’ll rein myself in. It's enough to say that Condie brought her tale to a resolution worthy of Cassia and her ideals. The story's stated goal of 'freedom to choose' is nicely handled; it's a popular enough theme among Americans and teenagers, but I suspect its place in the tale may also derive organically from the author's religious (LDS) belief in human agency and the natural yearning of the artist for license to create.

As for the prose: despite the use of present tense narrative mode, which I have never much liked, I thought it so beautiful that I’m half tempted to read the author’s earlier works, risking the likelihood that books written for the exhortation of Mormon teens will be about on par with books written for the exhortation of Catholics or Protestants of the same ages. Any writer can write a weak book, but Condie's work is empathetic and lovely enough that it's hard to imagine her writing an entirely flat one.

Regardless, I’ll be watching closely for what she does in the future.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Resolve to Read in 2013

This week's topic is Top Ten Bookish Goals For 2013, but I've already made public note of my primary goals for the year, bookish and otherwise. On account of which, I'm doing last week's topic, which I missed as last Tuesday was New Year's.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Since I've pledged to read four to six fairy tale retellings:
  • I'm particularly fond of the tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, so 1) Jessica Day George's Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow should hit my inbox before long.
  • I'd like to read 2) Edith Pattou's East, another version of the same tale, too.
  • My sister Beth means to loan me 3) Robin McKinley's Sleeping Beauty adaptation, Spindle's End, which I'd have already if I'd remembered to get it from her yesterday.
  • I've got my eye on Janette Rallison's Cinderella twists 4a) My Fair Godmother and/or 4b) My Unfair Godmother.
All this amounts to the likelihood that I'll hit my goal of four retellings sometime in February. I might become a Great and Terrible Beast instead of a Lady in Waiting by the end of the year.

And now, fireworks, please:

5) The final Wheel of Time book, A Memory of Light, came out today! I'll spare you the number of exclamation points I'm actually feeling on this subject. Suffice it to say that I'm resolved to begin reading the instant my copy shows up in the mail.

Yes, the mail. My go-to local bookstores didn't—as far as I could discover—host the sort of release celebration that would've allowed me to dress up as Aviendha, which would've been my best motivation for paying fifteen dollars more for the book than it cost to pre-order on Amazon. Ergo, I'm waiting on Standard Shipping. I have to finish 6) Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited before book club, anyway, so I might as well read that while I wait.

Somewhere in my resolves, I should make room for 7) Moby-Dick or War and Peace or even The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the latter of which I've at least begun, though I lost patience with Tristram when he started going on for pages about his uncle's groin. I also ought to finish 8) The Silmarillion, which I started before last Christmas.

Oh, and I'd like to read Orson Scott Card's 9) Shadow Puppets and 10) Shadow of the Giant, too.

There, that's ten—just ten of the at-least-fifty-two I hope to read this year. Some titles may be subject to change without notice.

What books do you plan to read this year?


Kitsch, Artistic Courage, Public Disinterest, and the Writer

Rod Dreher recently had a few fascinating things to say about writing and the social courage of the writer and various ways of dealing with religious themes. After a partial reprint of a book review, he begins by quoting Walker Percy at some length. Here's a snippet:
My own suspicion is that many American writers secretly envy writers like Solzhenitsyn... The total freedom of writers in this country can be distressing. What a burden to bear, that the government not only allows us complete freedom — even freedom for atrocities...! — but, like ninety-five percent of Americans, couldn’t care less what we write.
Then makes some remarks of his own:

Who wants a feel-bad story about how Mary was really a faithless crone pushed around by men? It’s a mystery. I’m not saying that the media ought to ballyhoo religious kitsch. But it sounds for all the world like Toibin’s book is antireligious kitsch....
You don’t have to write pious goop to take up [religious] themes. But who wants to read impious goop?
There are those, of course—the irreligious who are as comfortable with trite blasphemies as some Christians are with trite praises. Plenty of people can enjoy a cliché, as long as it's not an antagonistic cliché. Half the bumper stickers I see around Bellingham are proof of that fact.

That aside, there are all kinds of interesting discussion points in Dreher's piece. For instance, Percy's statement about the utter freedom of the American author and the relative disinterest it occasions him (which emotional setup is probably responsible for the fact that the bookish community holds a tarring and feathering, complete with pitchforks and torches, over minor deals like moms who dare to publicly voice concern about graphic content in teen lit). Likewise, the fact that an attempt to shortcut your way to Art through shock value usually results in kitsch. And the question of dealing with religious themes in a way that doesn't turn to goop of either the pious or the impious sort.



Remnants of Christmas and other stories

A little quiet at home is a wonderfully restorative thing. After four days of not having to go much beyond the grocery store and library, yesterday I managed to work on both sets of novel revisions and enjoy the rare day of winter sunshine. Today I'd prefer to go back to bed and stay there, but that's a head cold talking. It shall pass.

* * *

It's only the eleventh day of Christmas, but the tree must come down tonight as the Boy Scouts run their pick-up service in the morning. I am always a little sad at taking down the tree. Removing the decorations after having it in my house for three weeks—and then putting it outside in the cold—makes me almost as sorrowful as when the last stem of my jade plant finally collapsed from want of sunlight, or when I discovered that Maia, in her kittenhood, had knocked my African violet to the floor and smashed it.

Yes, even though I'm now an adult and responsible for cleaning up all the dropping needles.

Maybe heaven will be forested with the souls of Christmas trees. (Not an orthodox thought, I suppose, but a consoling one.) Meanwhile, I have the lights on and will enjoy them to the last minute and post all sorts of Christmassy pictures here while I can.

Brace yourselves.

The angel atop the tree:

Mom made me these beautiful ornaments as a Christmas gift; they represent one of my stories. A hint of things to come:

Now, for a few of my old favorites, in the scrambled order in which they uploaded:

one of the fish my sister Beth gave me

a particularly lovely Holy Family

the rafting Santas my boss Paul gave me
when I worked as a raft guide

beautiful Slavic Madonna-and-child

the pianoforte, of course
This one does not belong to Lou and I; my in-laws gave it to Maia for Christmas. She bats at it, gets startled by the noisy bell inside, and runs away. Which, of course, is rather amusing for us.

It's pretty, too.
The whole tree:

The little stocking has moved, as Maia used it
to try and pull the tree over last night
And our first year of finally using the family method of displaying Christmas cards:

One last time for the season: Merry Christmas! And happy Epiphany!

* * *

Music of the week: This is not Christmas music, but even I am a little tired of Christmas music. I am not, however, tired of the King of Instruments, which we reliably get in church on Christmas and Easter (and almost never in between, to the everlasting shame of modernity.) This symphony played on Seattle classical station King FM the other day and is made of all things wonderful.

* * *

And now, to clean house and plan dinner. I'm not sure what to cook, but a loaf of bread will likely be involved. Lou got me a breadmaker for Christmas. The thing is such a miracle that I don't begrudge it a centimeter of its counter space. I can hardly experiment fast enough.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Christmas Train

The Christmas TrainIn the standard section, the smaller compartments ran down both sides of the car, with the aisle in the middle. Tom noticed that across this corridor were stretched a pair of hands, holding one to the other.

As he drew closer, he saw that it was the young nervous couple. They had compartments right across from one another, with the guy on the right and the girl on the left.

“Okay, do I have to pay a toll to pass through?” he said jokingly.

They both looked at him and returned the smile.

“Sorry,” the guy said, while the girl looked away shyly. They were about twenty and looked like brother and sister, with their blond hair and fair skin.

“So, on your way to Chicago for the holidays?”

“Actually,” began the young man a little sheepishly.

“Steve,” interrupted the woman, “we don’t even know him.”

“Well,” Tom said, “it’s different on a train. We’re all on this long journey together. It opens people up. I’ll go first. I’m a writer, doing a piece about a trip across the country. There’s my story, so what’s yours?”

The two looked at each other, and Steve said, “Well, actually, we’re getting married.”

Author: David Baldacci

From Goodreads: Disillusioned journalist Tom Langdon must get from Washington D.C. to L.A in time for Christmas. Forced to travel by train, he begins a journey of rude awakenings, thrilling adventures and holiday magic. He has no idea that the locomotives pulling him across America will actually take him into the rugged terrain of his own heart, as he rediscovers people's essential goodness and someone very special he believed he had lost.

The Christmas Train is filled with memorable characters who have packed their bags with as much wisdom as mischief ... and shows how we do get second chances to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams, especially during this season of miracles.

Notes: It’s the ninth day of Christmas and almost the last minute for posting seasonal things, though it might have better benefited all ye readers if I’d written up this review before Christmas as I meant to. As it stands, however, if you want to wind down your holidays with a bit of pleasant, commercial light reading with a dependably heartwarming ending, Baldacci may be worth a try.

I’ve read a handful of these cheery, simple romantic comedies—not more, because they’re brain candy of a type I don't often find appealing enough to waste caloric intake upon. They’re so happy-go-lucky, though, that I don’t bother making great detours to avoid them. The Christmas Train does everything one of these books is supposed to do: it uses prose that in the charity of the season shall be called accessible, it creates a good positive mood, and it tells a remarkably well-constructed holiday mystery in which the only predictable feature is the reader’s comfortable confidence that in the end, the hero and his girl will kiss and make up and be happy.

It’s also likely to make the reader dream of taking a train trip—though perhaps not in the dead of winter.

For all that the prose isn't much to look at, the story is likable. It gives its setting a nice little ambience and populates the trains with big-hearted, larger-than-life characters. The plot develops nicely to a climax and takes a couple of surprising little twists before rumbling pleasantly to its conclusion.

In the tradition of its genre, it contains some common linguistic and sexual vulgarity. Less according to that tradition, it makes a few references to religion and varying degrees of participation thereof, mostly friendly; as an insider, I could put forth a mild mumble or two about the unlikeliness of a couple of scenes, but that would involve spoilers, so I won’t.

December often manages to be the busiest and most stressful time of the year; it can be a relief, then, to read a tale that intentionally takes things a little slower. I know from stories friends have told me that trains and hurry do not go well together—which on some days would seem to be another recommendation for traveling by train. At any rate, I don’t regret the two hours I spent on this one.