On Bloomsday and Ex-Boyfriends

For those who like classic 20th century Irish literature, or famously difficult books, or stories with memorable poop scenes: tomorrow is Bloomsday! And not just any Bloomsday, but the first one since the book entered public domain in the UK! Which means Stephen Joyce can't stop people from reading the book, aloud, in public, to celebrate. (And yes he did try, the jerk.) Many people are doing many wonderful festive things, and tomorrow I will join them, but today I am reflecting.

My experience with Joyce started with one boyfriend in college, a math major who had figured out how many pages per day he had to read to finish Ulysses in a year. Halfway through, he realized he had forgotten what happened at the beginning, so he doubled his page number and started over while also keeping his more advanced bookmark -- meaning that by this schedule he would finish both his first and his second rereading at the same time. Of course, school and social life (ahem!) kept getting in the way, so he turned out to be reading Ulysses for pretty much the entirety of our year-and-a-half-long relationship.

Sometimes, I could persuade him to read bits aloud right before bed. I never had any idea what was happening plot-wise or character-wise, but it always sounded fantastic.

Many years later I would learn that this is a near-perfect way to approach Ulysses, which is rich and dreamlike and makes little to no sense when you read it in a straight line.

I read the book myself for my masters' thesis in comparative literature. This was a foolhardy, ambitious document I was thoroughly unqualified to attempt, since it started with Ovid's Fasti (Roman calendar poem, super-good), went through Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, and ended with Ulysses. Any one of these would have been more than enough for a thesis, and here I was cherry-picking material on time, ghosts, reading, holidays, bodies, and food. I'm pretty sure my professors let me pass just to get me out of the department. Our budget for grad student pretension was used up long ago.

I thoroughly enjoy Ulysses, especially now that I can hop around and reread my favorite parts (the Lazarus episode!) without having to slog through my least favorite parts (the whole brothel thing, ugh). But even though I've read it, and talked very pedantically about how it works as a novel (while quoting Ricoeur—I KNOW), it still doesn't feel like it's actually mine, in the way that Jane Eyre is mine or Good Omens or Howl's Moving Castle by the great Diana Wynne Jones (genuflects).

Ulysses will always belong to that ex-boyfriend, and I will read it with a mild sense of guilt, in the same way that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band will always belong to that first guy I had a crush on in 8th grade, who told me the Beatles I loved for songs like "All My Loving" had a psychedelic phase. (Abbey Road, though? Totally mine.)

And there is a part of me that feels Joyce would approve this, or at least get an arch sort of Irish satisfaction out of it, this idea that there is always something furtive about how I approach his masterpiece, that there is no way I could ever fully grab onto it and fold it into my heart. None of the characters in the novel really get to do that with one another, either—and Joyce put so much effort into the poetry and music of his sentences that I know he would love to hear that for the first two years, I only listened to it spoken and never so much as looked at the words on the page.

And there's something pleasing in the idea that people we've loved leave something behind when they go. That this failed relationship lives on between Ulysses and I: awkward and ill-suited, but also still valuable, and worth every moment of the time.

Joyce might call it a gravestone in a cemetery; I think of it as adding one more volume to the library.

My Favorite Subgenre: Fire And Hemlock

{This is one of a series of posts on historical fantasy romance; earlier episodes have talked about Mairelon the Magician and The Enchanted Chocolate Pot.} Although I've been a fan of Diana Wynne Jones from way, way back, I am still finding books of hers I haven't read. She has so many! One of these was the strange, thought-provoking Fire and Hemlock, which has both one of my favorite and one of my least favorite plot devices. Favorite Plot Device: Blurring Fact and Fiction

I love when stories cross lines between what is real and what is fictive. I loved it in Sophie's World and I loved it in this book as well. And nobody can capture that eerie moment where the world feels capable of coming apart better than Diana Wynne Jones. Things move very fluidly here between legends and modern London, between Polly's buried set of memories with Tom and her surface set of memories without him. Stories that Polly and Tom write to each other start coming true, which is just plain eerie, and it's not immediately clear what's happening or how dangerous it may be.

At times this makes it hard to predict what's going to happen and how obstacles are going to be overcome—but I am almost always more comfortable when I either know what's going to happen or have read a story before. Movies, too, unless they are clearly following a formula, often take a second viewing for me to get beyond the mechanics of plot and into the shape of the narrative. (I'm looking at you, Joel and Ethan Coen.) The first time through, except in very rare cases, I'm always more concerned about what's going to happen than in why something is happening.

This may well be a fault of mine as a reader/viewer, but that's another story.

There were times during my reading of Fire and Hemlock where I wasn't sure if I was enjoying myself. The threats are keenly rendered and vivid, while our main character Polly spends much time out of her depth and struggling to get by. Another readerly fault of mine: if I can tell something really, truly, appallingly bad is going to happen to a character I've come to like, I may just put the book aside, never to return. (I'm looking at you, Brenda Vantrease's The Illuminator.) I'm not going to sit through torture unless there's a good reason.

And one of the things that bugged me? Age difference in a romance.

Least Favorite Plot Device: You Watched Me Grow Up, Now Let's Make Out

Polly meets Tom when she's a kid, and when she's sixteen she realizes she's fallen in love with him. Tom, quite rightly, is a little squicked out—plus there's a whole deal with his ex-wife who's superhumanly evil and still has some mysterious but powerful control over his life. It's all a bit much for a romance—though to be fair, I'm not quite sure if this book qualifies as a romance, based on certain ambiguities in the ending. I imagine the ending is happy—but then, given a choice, I always imagine an ending is happy, so that does not say much about the book one way or the other. Polly and Tom—spoiler!—are victorious over their enemies, but this frees them up to start exploring the issues between them, rather than resolving said issues.

I'm getting off-track. What I'm trying to say: unless a couple has grown up together, or they meet when both are adults, I find age differences can really cast doubt on a romance for me. This is partly why it's so funny when Buster Bluth hooks up with his mother's best friend Lucille 2 on Arrested Development (Lucille Bluth: "She changed him as a baby!"), and it's partly why the delightful Tumblr Reasoning with Vampires finds so much to criticize about the Twilight saga (he's a century old and still hangs out in high school?). Smart Bitches, Trashy Books just recently did a whole discussion on age differences, with a lovely and spoileriffic comments thread worth the perusing.

Ultimately, the more I think about Fire and Hemlock, the more I am pleased with it. It's a dark, rich mystery of a book, with some excellent character studies and plenty of honest emotion. Highly recommended if you want something extraordinary and challenging to shake up your reading list.

{Next up on My Favorite Subgenre, we'll discuss Amanda Quick's Arcane Society series and especially the first book, Second Sight.

Disclaimer: I have recently joined the Partner Program at Powell's Books, and so clicking on some of the book links on this blog may in fact lead to me receiving benefits, such as credits to buy more books from Powell's. But I think we can all agree this is a good thing.}

The Problem Of Fidelity In Book Covers

We here at Olivia Waite don't believe you can judge a book by its cover, but you sure can judge a cover in relation to the book it's guarding. Not too long ago, there was a rash of whitewashing in YA fiction which made everyone quite properly upset. Nor was it clear whether this happened because cover designers/marketers had assumed white characters were central without reading the manuscript, or if it had been a more calculated (and thus more reprehensible) strategy based on the questionable idea that books with people of color on the cover don't sell.

One thing I noticed in all this was the widely accepted idea that the cover should be faithful to the contents of the book. And then I read a book that made me rethink that.

Cover for Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones: round-topped towers rise on a black background. A cloudy shape with a hand coming out of it is clinging to the foremost tower, and a black-clad human is dangling from it as well. The black-clad figure is waving a knife at another figure, a man in pale clothes and a clashing tie, who is supported in the claws of an enormous golden griffin, beak open in a screech.

The scene depicted here does in fact take place in the story, so I can tell you that the towers are a University for wizards, and the black-clad man is a ninja assassin sent by the Emir to assassinate his younger brother, a new student. The man in pale clothes and, yes, a modern tie, is Corkoran, the University headmaster, who is unwillingly being hefted up by Elda the griffin, and who is about to shrink the assassin down and put him in a rat cage. The black blob on top is another assassin run afoul of a protective spell, and he will be shrunk down as well.

But until you have read the book, this image is so busy that it borders on visual nonsense. The presence of a magical creature fits in with the archaic towers, but the tie is very jarring even though it's very accurate. The goals of the action are far from clear. The human figures look strange and disproportionate. The title text is off-balance and not in a good way, and overall it looks sloppy and amateur, which makes me think the book inside is written in a similar fashion.

And yes, a large part of the trouble here comes down to choices made by the designer: why pick this moment to illustrate? It's a great action scene, but it doesn't do anything in the way of character—especially since it leaves out about five of the main protagonists. Why squish all the words in the title to one side like that? It's faithful to what happens in the story—but only to the events. It's not faithful at all to the tone, which is very simple and frank and conversational, or to the careful plotting, where every character takes action and every action has consequences and even so simple a thing as an enchanted coat-rack changes the course of events.

In short, despite its fidelity to the plot, the cover fails to depict what it feels like to read Year of the Griffin. How then could it attract the people for whom Year of the Griffin is written?

Now let's look at my own very first cover for the forthcoming "Hearts and Harbingers":


The cover for Hearts and Harbingers by Olivia Waite. A burly dark-haired man clasps a prone dark-haired woman in his big, beefy arm. The woman wears a lavender silk gown and has one hand nearly caressing the man's cheek.

The hero I'd envisioned when writing this book does not look exactly like the (gorgeous) man Syneca chose for the cover: in my mind Jasper is more chestnut-haired, and slimmer. But I really, really like the look of this black-haired dude with his beefy arm, and I imagine the woman he's holding feels safe being surrounded by all that strength. You can tell by the tender way her hand is reaching up to caress his face. It's an unusual pose, and strikingly intimate.

That combination, power and tenderness, is something I was very much trying to put into the book as a whole. And people who see this cover are going to get that feeling, and pick up the book in search of it. And that's precisely what I want. Quibbling over shades of hair color seemed a waste of time—and this way there's kind of a fun little daydream I get to have where there are two of Jasper ... mmm ...


What all this analysis amounts to is that there are different ways of being faithful to a book when designing a cover.  Whitewashing is deplorable not because it is unfaithful to the details of description, but because the main character's identity as a person of color is going to be more significant to their experience than whether they have green eyes and brown hair or blue eyes and blond hair. But staying too close to the particulars of a story can backfire. It's a tricky dance—and through it all, your cover has to charm and entice and stand out from the other kajillions of book covers readers see on a daily basis.

Makes me happy I only have to write books and not design them.

In Memory of Diana Wynne Jones

I never met Diana Wynne Jones, who died this past Saturday morning. I was simply one of her countless grateful and devoted readers, and like many others I read and re-read her books and held them close and deep in my heart. The first one I remember was Castle in the Air, one of the sequels to Howl's Moving Castle. I was about ten or twelve, and my recent discovery of the Arabian Nights had caused me to look for other stories with genies and lamps and such. After this, I read the Chrestomanci series and Dogsbody and Cart and Cwidder and everything else of hers I could find.

Her books completely transformed what I thought about fantasy, fairy tales, magic, and young adult stories. They changed the way I thought about parents, and siblings, and heroes, and villains. I was young and anxious and well aware of my own weirdness; at the time I thought that I was the only person who still liked fairy tales and myths and books that combined magic with a world that looked very much like our own. A Diana Wynne Jones book was like an oasis, a place where nothing was quite normal so you didn't worry about whether or not you stood out as odd. Certain scenes will be with me as long as I have memory: Cat sawing open his silver bonds with his left pinkie, or Sophie cursed into becoming an old woman.

Every so often, even as I grew up and studied Very Serious Literature in Very Dead Languages, I would make a foray into the library or used bookstore and see if there was anything new, or anything old I'd missed. Quite often, there was—and this constant dedication to her craft and her readers was as astonishing and magical as anything in the books themselves.

Her stories did that most impossible, and most valuable thing: create a living bridge from one mind and heart and life to another.

She will be deeply missed.