The Teresa Jusino Experience

Create Like An Activist

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TERESA’S BOOKSHELF: Fables Vol. 3 – Storybook Love

When I read Volumes 1 and 2 of Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s Fables, I fell in love. I loved this irreverent, modern look at classic fairy tales. I also loved the idea of the fables that live on The Farm are at odds with the fables who can pass for “mundys” in the city. Such an interesting idea! Rose Red is a great character, and watching her go from Snow White’s bratty little sister to caretaker of the Farm was an interesting journey. And Goldilocks as a lefty political agitator? Awesome.

After I read Volume 2, I picked up Volume 3: Storybook Love immediately with the full intention of reading it. Then life got in the way, as did other books and comics. It sat on my “to be read” shelf for over a year…

And in that time, I grew annoyed with the trend of “retelling” fairy tales. From Gregory Maguire books (and the Broadway musicals based on them), to Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, to just about every SyFy movie (Red, Tin Man, Alice in Wonderland…), the constant barrage of retellings was getting on my nerves. Where are OUR fairy tales? I wondered. What happened to people inventing new characters and making up stories about THEM?!

And I think this weariness of fairy tale retellings affected my reading of Storybook Love. I found myself rolling my eyes at everything, because despite several interesting things happening with the characters, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was simply tired of this kind of story. My reaction wasn’t helped by a story that too often focused characters I never gave a crap about in the first place.

Storybook Love is divided into two parts, the first of which focuses on Bigby (ie: Big Bad Wolf, who is also the sheriff) leading an effort against a mundy (regular human) reporter who threatens to expose the fables as…vampires. (Yet another trend that’s long overstayed its welcome) The second part focuses on Bluebeard’s attempt to assassinate Snow White (deputy mayor of Fabletown) and Bigby by sending them into the woods under a spell, and sending Goldilocks after them with a gun. The first story, “A Sharp Operation,” fell flat for me. It was too clever for its own good, from the reporter thinking these immortal fables vampires, to using Briar Rose’s sleep enchantment to break into a building. Despite the supposed gravity of their situation, it all seemed so…cute.

The second half of the volume, the titular “Storybook Love,” was better, as Snow White and Bigby got closer as they fled for their lives. Goldilocks continues to be an intriguing character, and Snow and Bigby do have great chemistry. The twist with them at the end also makes me curious enough to continue the series. However, so much time was spent on Bluebeard and Prince Charming, two of the least interesting characters in the whole thing, that I found myself getting bored every time they appeared. Prince Charming’s desire for power means nothing to me, because I don’t care about him. And the attempt to “humanize” Bluebeard by making him upset about being a coward seemed forced.

The best part of the volume are the two one-offs that bookend the story arcs. The first issue, a one-off about Jack Horner (of Beanstalk fame) called “Bag O’ Bones,” is loosely based on the American “Mountain Jack” folktales, and tells the story of how Jack comes across a beautiful dying woman, captures death just so she can stay alive and he can have sex with her, then realizes that maybe a world where nothing dies isn’t the best idea ever. This issue is a perfect combination of humor and gravity, and I think what I liked most about it is that there was no discussion about Jack’s origins or references to beanstalks. He was just an unthinking trickster in an odd situation.The last issue in the volume, “Barleycorn Brides,” is cute in a good way, telling the story of how the tradition among young Lilliputian men to steal magic barleycorns came to be. It is both a rare glimpse of Bigby being charming and warm, and a fun story.

Overall, what bothers me about Fables sometimes, and what bothers me in general about the trend of retelling fairy tales is that there’s only so many times you can be self-referential. How many cute references to mirrors and apples can Snow White make? How often can Briar Rose mention her aversion to needles? It’s so rare that, in stories like this, the characters get to be characters in their own right in a new story without constantly referring back to the original source material. Fables gets it right a lot of the time, which makes it particularly disheartening when it gets it wrong.

Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Currently Reading: Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates

TERESA’S BOOKSHELF: Great House by Nicole Krauss

There’s something about Nicole Krauss that, while I like her work, bothers me.

I’ve enjoyed Nicole Krauss’ writing ever since I read her first novel, Man Walks Into A Room. I was fascinated by her insights into memory loss and what that does to a relationship, because I’d seen what Alzheimer’s Disease had done to my family at the time, and while her novel was about memory loss of a different sort, many of the repercussions were the same. I loved that book, and immediately fantasized about being the one allowed to adapt it into a screenplay. 🙂

I enjoyed her second novel, A History of Love, too. But this story had less of an impact on me because of the voice and style she chose to tell it. Perhaps it was because I was used to her husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s style, and it seemed very much like him (making the reading experience visual by using things like lists and charts as part of the narrative, etc), but I felt like she was doing a ventriloquist act. While I enjoyed the characters (particularly the brother, who I thought was underused), and appreciated the story she was trying to tell, it didn’t feel like a natural progression from Man Walks Into a Room, nor did it sound like her voice from what I’d gathered from short stories of hers I’d read.

So, I recently picked up her latest novel, Great House, because I respect her talent as a writer, and was hoping that this book would be more her own. Great House tells the stories of three groups of people that are all connected by an old desk. Once again, Krauss is adept at capturing certain emotional situations – getting older, memory loss, life as a writer – with precision and elegance. There were passages where I recognized myself in what she was describing so much that I had to put the book down, because my heart was racing. The problem I have with this book, though, is that it’s told from the point of view of three different characters, but they all pretty much sound the same, and they all sound “literary.” Rather than have distinct voices with the distinct cadences that come with being at different stages in life, or different education levels, they all sound the same level of poetic and have the same self-awareness.

What’s strange is that, looking back, her first novel was probably really rough. But it also seemed to be a book that wasn’t trying so hard. It was telling an interesting story in an insightful way with characters I cared about, and I loved it. It seems, though, that once that book did so well, her subsequent novels seem to be trying so hard to be art that they forget to be stories. In A History of Love, all the characters are bound together by a manuscript they have in common. In Great House, there’s the desk. She seems to be settling into a formula where story doesn’t matter (There’ll be this central thing that unites the characters, which will allow me to tell the story Magnolia-style, being really insightful about characters and emotions, but not having anything actually happen except that someone, you know, ends up with this thing). Which is interesting, considering that Man Walks Into a Room told a story that was also insightful, and her short story, “Future Emergencies”, managed to tell a story that was bigger than her characters – it was about the post-9/11 world.

Thing is, I really do love Nicole Krauss’ writing. I just wish she put it to better use. I wish she would get out of her comfort zone a little more and risk sounding a little less polished. I’ll probably pick up her next novel, too, but if it’s about a disparate group of people bound together by a central object, I quit.

Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham, art by Mark Buckingham

Currently Reading: Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Teresa’s Bookshelf: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I have been preaching the gospel of The Hunger Games since I started reading the series recently, recommending it to everyone I know (even one person I didn’t know!). Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and I bought it while I was still reading the first book, because I knew I’d want it immediately. However, after The Hunger Games, I read My Sister’s Keeper first, because I didn’t want to rush the series. Now, I’m down to one book left, and I already miss it. It’s been a long while since a book has affected me like this.

Catching Fire focuses on Katniss Everdeen’s post-Hunger Games life, and the changing political climate in Panem. The “catching fire” of the title refers to Katniss having been a spark for revolution in the first book, and the idea for revolution now spreading like a brush fire across the country. Catching Fire was a slower, but more thoughtful read than the first. Whereas The Hunger Games sped along, because there was suspense in whether or not Katniss and her friends/family would survive, Catching Fire was more about exploring ideas and fleshing out relationships. It also raised the political stakes, and forces you to ask yourself what you would do in Katniss’ place. Would you stand up against oppression, or would you keep your head down and worry only about your own survival? The answers aren’t simple, and Katniss isn’t a cookie-cutter heroine who is a paragon of activism. She’s a strong girl, but she is also scared and more experienced with taking care of herself than she is with worrying about the larger picture. She is learning to think beyond day-to-day survivial to the kind of world she’d like to grow old in and raise children in.

I also love what Collins has done with Peeta, who matches Katniss in complexity. Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal with Gale. I sort of imagine him as Katniss’ Jordan Catalano – like, yeah he looks great leaning up against a locker…but he can’t read, you know? Granted, he’s a bit more than that, and they’ve been best friends forever, but still.  I’m Team Peeta.

There are also some wonderful new characters in this book. Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason are both deceptively shallow at first, but stick with them. They are intriguing additions to the world of the Hunger Games.

The world of this trilogy gets more complex and mature in this book, and the slow simmer of most of the book gives way to a huge boil at the end when the stakes are raised even higher for everyone.

Collins has amazed me once again with Catching Fire, and I can’t get Panem and its inhabitants out of my head. I’ll be reading another book before reading the final installment, Mockingjay, because I’m just not ready for this story to end!

Currently Reading: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Teresa’s Bookshelf: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This is me caught up, and I’m back to the original Teresa’s Bookshelf format: one book per post! Let’s see if we can’t keep it this way!

I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years. It was one of those things where when it came out, the book was really popular and everyone was talking about it so I picked it up with every intention of reading it only to have it get lost on my To Be Read bookshelves. After a healthy diet of sci-fi/fantasy-related stuff (and a token “chick lit” book for good measure), I decided I needed to get back to some good ol’, normal contemporary fiction.

Leave it to me to choose the contemporary novel off my shelf that is science fiction in the truest sense – fiction that incorporates current scientific advancements.

I was fascinated by the topic brought up in My Sister’s Keeper: do parents have the right to concieve a child in a test tube for the sole purpose of being a tissue match for a sick child they already have? And if so, do they have the right to continue to expect that the new child continue to donate organs and marrow and platelets without being asked? Does the child have the right to say no if it means the death of their sick sibling? Anna, the 13 year old protagonist of the book (the “designer baby”conceived to be a match for her sister, Kate, who has a rare form of leukemia), thinks that she should, and so she goes to a lawyer and sues her parents for medical emancipation.

Jodi Picoult does an amazing job of examining all sides of this issue by skillfully creating her cast of characters. She allows each character to narrate different chapters in the novel, and each has a distinct, lived-in voice. From 13-year-old Anna, to her mother Sara (40s), to her sarcastic lawyer Campbell, to her older brother Jesse, Picoult pulls off a hell of a ventriloquist act as she careens her characters through a desperate chain of events in which Kate’s life and Anna’s freedom hang in the balance.

In addition to the strength of the characters, Picoult brings the events of the book to a logical conclusion without it being at all predictable. In fact, the ending of the book slapped me in the face! I didn’t see it coming in quite the way it did. Yet, when it happened, I realized that it couldn’t have happened any other way.

My Sister’s Keeper is a book that had me crying as I read the ending on the subway, and had me thinking about it long after I put it down. If you’re looking for a book that will make you examine your own moral and ethical compass as well as make you feel deeply for the characters involved, I’d highly recommend this one.

Currently Reading: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Teresa’s Bookshelf: Russell, Weiner, Orringer, Collins

At the beginning of the year, and at the beginning of this blog, I meant to start keeping a record of the books I was reading and offering my thoughts on those books. Not reviews so much as personal impressions (I do enough reviewing elsewhere!). I started with Toni Morrison’s brilliant Song of Solomon, which was the first book I read in 2010. And then I stopped keeping track of them here. However, this doesn’t mean I stopped reading. Far from it. I’ve stayed true to my goal of always having a book on me at all times and reading whenever I have a free moment, usually during a commute. I haven’t read as many books as I would’ve liked so far this year, but I haven’t done too shabbily either. Here’s what I’ve been reading while you weren’t looking:

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

At the beginning of this year I realized that, while I’ve watched a lot of sci-fi television, I’ve read comparatively few sci-fi novels. I asked around for recommendations and, knowing that I have a penchant for sci-fi mixed with spirituality, the book that came to the top of everyone’s list for me was The Sparrow, a story of first contact with an alien race by a ragtag group of human civilians financed by the Jesuits.  I’m so glad I read it. First of all, the main chracter is a Puerto Rican priest, and the entire first part of the book takes place at and around the Arecibo Observatory, which just tickles me to no end for obvious reasons. All of the characters are incredibly well-done and none feel superfluous. What I loved most of all was that religion wasn’t presented as an obstacle to a greater reward. Rather, it was presented as the constant for this character. He loves one of the women in the story, but he values the promise he made to God more, and so he lets her go, allowing her to be with someone who ends up being better for her anyway. The book raises some interesting ethical issues that could only arise on another planet, and it really makes you consider, then reconsider the things you value. While it’s definitely science fiction, it reads like a more domestic, literary book, and when hard science makes its appearances, because all the characters are civilians, it is explained in layman’s terms, so it’s easy to follow. Finely etched characters and a story looked at through an unusual prism make this a great choice of novel whether you’re interested in sci-fi or not.

CERTAIN GIRLS by Jennifer Weiner

I’ve been a Jennifer Weiner fan since her first novel, Good in Bed. Certain Girls is sort of a sequel to that book, in that it goes back to check in on Cannie Shapiro, now married to the love of her life, and the mother of a daughter who is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah. What I like about Weiner’s books is that she doesn’t sacrifice intelligence when using the conventions of “chick lit” (a term I hate, but it’s a term that, when you say it, people sort of know what you mean). Her characters aren’t catty and only interested in men and designer shoes. They tend to be regular women who are smart and ambitious and have very real, normal concerns. Cannie, however, is her most successful character in this way, and I feel like it has something to do with Cannie being her most autobiographical character. Both Cannie and her story have a depth to them that books like In Her Shoes don’t. I think Little Earthquakes comes close, but that has so many characters in it that it became a little unwieldy. Certain Girls also focuses on Cannie’s daughter, who is trying to become her own person in the shadow of a very overprotective mother, and she too is a believeable character. It was refreshing to have the narration ping-pong between Cannie and her daughter, getting to see Cannie (and ourselves) through someone else’s eyes. Not only was the story very true-to-life, but the ending was completely unexpected sad in a way that real life is often unexpected and sad. I would highly recommend reading Good In Bed and Certain Girls back to back.

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer

Ever since I read her fabulous short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, years ago, I’ve been looking forward to a full-length novel by Julie Orringer. Her prose is elegant without being snooty, if that makes any sense, and she’s really great at capturing the voices of young women. So, I snatched up a hardcover copy of The Invisible Bridge the second it came out. It tells the story of a young, Jewish architecture student named Andras who falls in love with an older woman in Hungary just before the beginning of WWII, and the novel follows the couple through the war and its aftermath. I hate to say it, but I was a bit disappointed in this book. Perhaps it was the years of waiting for it, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations of what Orringer would or could do. At the start of the novel, it completely pulled me into the world of these characters. No lie – I found myself going to cafes more often just so I could read this book and feel like I was in Europe. (I’m so fucking pretentious and lame) The love story between Andras and Klara was interesting in the way that their age difference mattered then in a way it wouldn’t matter now (she wasn’t even 10 years older), and their personalities were such that watching them navigate their relationship kept me intrigued. But then The War Came. And that’s kind of the problem with historical fiction about WWII. There are just so many books set there, particularly books about the Jewish experience of it, that unless there is a real reason why this particular story needs to be told in this particular way, the whole thing falls flat. And so once it becomes yet another litany of hardships and horrors, it became clear that there was no reason for this story to exist except that Orringer wanted to tell the story of her family. That is a goal I greatly respect, but it doesn’t make a book interesting. There was one character, Andras’ best friend, Polaner, who was interesting because he was gay in addition to being Jewish. His portions of the story were fascinating and all too brief. I almost wish the novel would’ve been about him instead. Then The Invisible Bridge would have a reason to exist instead of being a superfluous Holocaust novel.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

It’s the first book in the latest Young Adult trilogy that’s sweeping the nation. There’s already a film in the works, and when the last book in the series, Mockingjay, came out a few months ago, the internet burst with excitement. That excitement was the first I’d ever heard of this series, and after several friends insisted, I decided to give the first book a whirl. This is quite possibly the first time I’ve ever thought that the hype should have been more. The Hunger Games is an intelligent, nuanced story featuring an amazing female protagonist that I hope every young girl makes her role model. Katniss Everdeen is a wonderful character, and Collins doesn’t shy away from putting her through hell. The story of The Hunger Games is surprisingly dark and political for a YA book, and the first-person present tense narration makes it a nail-biting read. I’ve already purchased the second book in the series, Catching Fire, and I know I will love it. The Hunger Games proves that not all YA sci-fi/fantasy fiction has to be painfully written, vapid, or feature helpless girls and glittery vampires.

So, that’s been my reading so far! Well, that and many comic books. I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, and Catching Fire will be next. After that, I hope to get to Great House by Nicole Krauss, the new novel from another one of my favorite authors. Lots of great reading ahead!

Teresa’s Bookshelf: SONG OF SOLOMON, by Toni Morrison

This one’s more for me than for you.  This year, I’d like to start keeping track of the books I read.  I hate getting to the end of the year and not being able to remember the books I’ve read.  I have a book journal I’ve started keeping at home, but I thought it might be nice to share my thoughts on what I’ve read with the world, in case any of you are looking for something to read and care at all about my opinion.  These aren’t going to be critical, academic reviews or anything, just my general impressions…

I’ve had a tumultuous relationship wtih Toni Morrison’s work.  In high school, I loved The Bluest Eye and Sula.  Later, I tried reading Beloved and couldn’t get past the first 75-ish pages.  I don’t know if it was my mood, or if the book just wasn’t my thing at the time, or what.  After that, I gave Paradise a whirl, only to get about 40-50 pages in before giving up.  and I hate giving up on books.  But there comes a point where the working at it just isn’t fun anymore.

But one of my best friends, Jean, is completely and totally head-over-heels in love with Morrison’s work, and she lent me a copy of Song of Solomon at a meeting of the Studio Square Table (our monthly writing workshop along with Adam and Alex), insisting I read it.  I put it off for a week or two, worrying that I’d have the same experience I’d had with the last two novels of Morrison’s I’d tried…I’m so glad I gave this one a fair try.

There’s one thing about Morrison’s writing that I always love, even in the books of hers that I couldn’t get through, and that’s her way of describing things.  I tend to hate description in books, mostly because so many authors do it wrong and write long, flowery passages to describe something that end up saying not very much and boring the hell out of me.  Morrison always manages to get to exactly the heart of the thing she’s describing in short, but powerful sentences.  There’s still this line – “the blueberries tasted like church” – from one of her novels (I think from one of the ones I didn’t finish) that sticks with me because I was amazed at the time by how much it made sense to me.  I knew exactly what that meant, though I’m sure it means different things to different people.  The same was true in Song of Solomon, where everything from the water stain on the dining room table in the Dead home, to the berry-stained lips of the women were described in perfect detail succinctly, with intense emotion packed into tiny two to three word nuggets.

Milkman Dead’s story is one of the truest tales of “finding oneself” I’ve ever come across.  I’m one of the furthest things from a black male that can possibly exist, and yet I identified with his journey from sheltered, naive young person to conflict with the oustide world to discovering who you are outside the context of your loved ones or your environment.  It not only reminded me of myself generally, but it specifically reminded me of a male friend of mine.  It always impresses me when an author can convincingly write the opposite gender.  Yes, we’re all the same, but there are clear differences in voices and concerns.  Morrison’s Milkman sounds like guys I know, as does the character of his best friend, Guitar, and she expertly captures the kind of close/antagonistic friendship generally found between men.  And then there’s her women: Pilate, Ruth, Hagar, Corinthians…all of them eerily recognizable despite the less-than-orthodox choices they make.  In Song of Solomon, despite the real-world injustices and social disparities portrayed therein, Morrison has created a world in which we want to live, because it is more vivid, colorful, warm, and full than the real world.

And then there’s this quote:

It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn’t deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He’d told Guitar that he didn’t ‘deserve’ his family’s dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn’t even ‘deserve’ to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he ‘deserve’ Hagar’s vengeance. But why shouldn’t his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he’d thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone–she had a right to try to kill him too.

Apparently he though he deserved only to be loved–from a distance, though–and given what he wanted. And in return he would be…what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.

How brilliant is that?!  And seriously, think about how many people in your life this quote might fit.  If you think hard enough, you might even discover that sometimes it applies to you.

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