Armchair BEA: Beyond the Books

ArmchairBEA-LogoExampleToday’s Armchair BEA topic is “Beyond the Books” — What are your favorite alternative forms for experiencing literature?

I think the focus is supposed to be on webcomics, graphic novels, and so on, but this question got me thinking about some of the great theater productions I have seen over the years, several of which were adaptations of books. I’m sure many readers and bloggers must be theater fans as well, yet I don’t see much discussion or reviewing going on in the blogs I follow. Here are a few of the most memorable shows I’ve seen, some of them dating from decades back. I hope you’ll share some of your theater experiences as well!

Inside the Globe
Inside the Globe

To Kill a Mockingbird – unknown theater, Seattle
I’m pretty sure this is one of the first professional theater productions I saw as a child, quite a few years before experiencing the book (or the movie). I still remember its staging and actors sometimes when I read the novel. I just wish I could remember which theater it was…

The Gospel at Colonus – The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
In my first term of college I trekked up to “the Cits” to see experimental theater legend Lee Breuer’s musical version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. As the title suggests, the story is told by a Pentecostal preacher and the choir of his church, an interesting take on the traditional Greek chorus. Morgan Freeman was amazing (this was before he became really famous), as were the gospel singers.

Jane and Bertha, in Jane Eyre
Jane and Bertha, in Jane Eyre

On the Town – Shakespeare in the Park, New York City
It was worth waiting several hours in line for the free tickets to this exuberant revival. Click on the link and you can see a video of the opening number.

Jane Eyre – Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
I’ve already written elsewhere of how impressed I was by this British import, which has the “madwoman” Bertha Mason on stage throughout as a reprentation of Jane’s inner state. (Having a human actor play a dog was maybe not quite such a good idea.)

Twelfth Night – The Globe Theatre, London
This is undoubtedly the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most often, starting with the high school production in which I had a walk-on part as one of Olivia’s ladies-in-waiting. I can think of at least four or five others, but the most memorable had to be this version with an all-male cast at the restored Globe Theatre. Gorgeous music, too.

HisDarkMaterials_1
Lyra and the Armoured Bears, in His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials – Royal Shakespeare Company, London
I was psyched when on the eve of my departure from London I was able to get into a preview of Part II of this theatrical version of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which featured some interesting puppetry, as well as Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel. It’s not my favorite part of the story, so for me the most memorable moment was when part of the revolving stage set got stuck and the cast and crew had to work out what to do.

Illyria – Taproot Theater Company, Seattle
This musical version of Twelfth Night (again!) was utterly charming, and probably better suited to the tiny Taproot stage than to the wider expanses of Broadway, where it flopped. Definitely worth seeing, if you can.

Thinking about these shows brought back so many wonderful memories — I’m now motivated to try to get to the theater more! Do you have any that stand out for you?

Armchair BEA: A Question of Aesthetics

ArmchairBEA-LogoExampleToday’s Armchair BEA topic is about aesthetics: what we think about the purely visual qualities of books, and also of our blogs. To what extent do looks matter to us? How do they affect our reading experience?

Although I can look past the drawbacks of an ugly or poorly designed book if the content is worthwhile, I am so much happier with a beautiful book package in my hands. I think it’s a fascinating challenge to match the visual and tactile qualities of physical books to the really quite different aural/literary experience of reading, and I so appreciate the work of designers, illustrators, and binders who do this important job. I’ve grown to value the convenience of e-books, too, but sometimes their lack of aesthetic quality grates on my nerves.

Pride and Prejudice Folio
Pride and Prejudice, Folio Society

I’ve written about some of my favorite “beautiful books” in these posts:

 

I’ve also had a lot of fun writing about good and bad cover art:

 

forest-words-pagesI find blog design to be if anything even more important than book design. There are blogs that I can’t follow or even look at because they are so cluttered, have too many clashing colors, or distract me with flashing things. Plain, unassuming blogs are fine, but I do really like to see a nice design that, as well as facilitating easy reading, also shows off something of the personality and style of the blog author. Here are some of my favorites:

 

It may be totally unfair, but when a blogger has a visual style that resonates with me, I’m more likely to pay attention to his or her words. I also started enjoying my own blog much more when I replaced my clunky self-made attempts with a custom design that I absolutely love.

This topic is endlessly fascinating to me, so I’d love to know your take on it. Please comment or share your own posts below!

Armchair BEA: Introduction

ArmchairBEA-LogoExampleThis week, many lucky bloggers are heading to Book Expo America, held in Chicago this year. Those of us who can’t make it to this bookish mecca get to share a conference from our favorite armchairs, with discussions, giveaways, updates from the real BEA, and more.

Today is the day to introduce ourselves, so here are the answers to some of the questions posed by the organizers.

What is the name you prefer to use?
I use my real first name, Lory. I prefer it if it’s spelled correctly (with a “y”), but I’ll forgive you if you mess up. Maybe. 😉

How long have you been a book blogger?
I started blogging in January of 2014, so almost two and a half years now.

Have you participated in ABEA before?
ABEA was one of the first events I participated in when I started blogging and it really helped me  to connect to the book blogging community. This will be my third year.

LieTreeDo you have a favorite book? If you cannot choose a favorite book of all time, pick your favorite book today – just this second. Remember that favorites are allowed to change if something affects you deeply enough.
I’m going to pick my favorite book from last month, which was clearly The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. In my review I wrote that I loved it “for the interesting things Hardinge does with ideas and relationships and history and myth…With so many ingredients that are very much to my taste, the result was a delicious treat for me.” And for you too, I hope!

If you could recommend one other book blogger, who would it be and why?
Ergh, this is hard. I follow so many great blogs and don’t want anyone to feel left out. But I’m going to somewhat randomly choose one who is not on my blogroll: Charlene of Bookish Whimsy. Charlene runs a fun challenge/ongoing series where she’s watching and reviewing the top movie musicals, and I always enjoy reading her thoughts. She’s also a Jane Eyre fanatic with really interesting posts on that topic, and was an enthusiastic participant in Brooding About the Brontes along with me. She’s in England at the moment, which makes me so jealous, but I’m looking forward to hearing about her adventures when she gets back!

Bookshelf2How do you arrange your bookshelves? Is there a rhyme or reason? Or not at all? (#ABEAShelfie)
I arrange my books by size, format (paperback/hardcover) and subject. This shelf by my desk, for example, has most of my nonfiction and reference books, with one shelf for music, and fairy tales and some miscellaneous fiction in the middle. Plus some boxes of wool and my knitting magazine collection.

What book are you most excited for on your TBR? What are you most intimidated by?
I’m excited to read more books for my Reading New England Challengenext month for my nonfiction focus I plan to read New England Bound, a new book that explores how the institution of slavery was woven into the origins of our nation, in the north as well as the south.

I’m a bit intimidated/scared by the subject of The Sixth Extinction. I don’t really want to read about how we’re driving ourselves to the brink of extinction, but I still think it’s important to know so I’m really determined to read the book this year.

What is the most interesting thing that you have learned through your reading this year so far?
From How To Be A Tudor by Ruth Goodman I learned that our customary order of serving dishes at the table (appetizer, main course, salad, dessert) is based on pre-Enlightenment theories about the stomach — you needed to give it certain foods in a certain order to keep it warm but not too hot. It’s fascinating how many outdated beliefs persist in our culture!

Once Upon a Time: The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

 

Today’s Armchair BEA topic is Character Chatter. Here are my thoughts on a book that reimagines some of the most famous characters in literature.

The Penelopiad is a decidedly odd little book. It’s a riff on the story of faithful Penelope from the Odyssey, who waited twenty years for her husband to return from his travels (and his amours) while fending off a pack of rapacious suitors. It takes an aspect of the story usually considered a minor detail — the hanging of twelve of Penelope’s maids for sleeping with said suitors — and makes it the subject of a sort of literary theme and variations, incorporating poetry, music-hall style comic songs, feminist criticism, and even a court transcript, which interrupt Penelope’s own first-person narrative (delivered from Hades).

The maids never get individual voices, speaking rather as a chorus that echoes the use of such satirical relief as a counterpoise to Greek tragedy. As they contrast with and comment on Penelope’s version of the tale, they cast doubt on her motives and leave us with unresolved questions about what really happened. As Penelope says herself, along with her husband she is one of the great liars of all time, after all.

This is a book by Margaret Atwood, so it’s sly and witty and gracefully written. It didn’t quite satisfy me as a reading experience, though, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because the interposed chorus sections sometimes felt too contrived, their stylistic changes showing off Atwood’s virtuosity for its own sake. The highlighting of issues of gender and class was somewhat heavy-handed, and the mixture of ancient and modern idioms sometimes jarring rather than amusing.

Still, Atwood is nothing if not a compelling storyteller, and the questions she raises are worth asking. Her attempt to give voice to the voiceless women of one of our foundational Western myths is admirable, and worth any reader’s time. I’d love to go back to the sources (particularly The Odyssey and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths), and then read it again and see what I think.

I’m counting The Penelopiad for the “Myth” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.

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Armchair BEA 2015: Introductions

It’s time once again for Armchair BEA, an online event for all of us poor bloggers who can’t make it to the real Book Expo America in New York City, due to trivial concerns like work, family, distance and cost.

I enjoyed this event last year and am glad to join in again, if only intermittently. Here are my answers to five of the intro questions. Please share yours in the comments!

How long have you been blogging? How did you get into blogging?
I’ve been blogging for almost a year and a half now, having started on a whim when I had some extra time on my hands over the New Year in 2014. I almost quit after a month but now I’m totally addicted.

Why do you love reading and blogging?
I love reading because it’s like breathing for me! And I love blogging because I get to share my obsession with other people who are nutty about books. I also find it to be a good creative outlet and mental exercise, counterbalancing my day job which isn’t literary at all.

Share your favorite blog post on your blog.
I had a lot of fun writing The Curse of the Terrible Cover Art for Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week. It always baffles me when good authors are subjected to these horrendous covers. For some library love (today’s other BEA topic), see my post My Life in Libraries.

What book are you reading right now?
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams) by Carol and Philip Zaleski. I’m a longtime fan of all of these writers and I’m finding their group biography very enlightening.

Take a picture of your bookshelf and share it with us!
Here’s my prettiest bookshelf, showing off my Folio Society and other good-looking books:



Are you participating in ABEA? Be sure to share your introduction post in the comments if you have one.

Armchair BEA Wrap-up

This was my first year participating in Armchair BEA and I really enjoyed it. While I didn’t take home as much swag as from the actual BEA, do I really need more books? (Don’t answer that.) What I did take home was many more interactions with other booklovers, and I think that was actually easier to do in this context as I am much more shy to approach people in person. I found many new blogs and met people I hope to continue the conversation with in the coming months. I’ll definitely be back for more!

Here are my posts for the week:

Day One: Introduction
Day Two: Author Interactions (my letter from Robin McKinley)
Day Three: Short Stories/Novellas (my list of favorites)
Day Four: Giveaway (a copy of Tell Me a Story)
Day Five: Middle Grade/YA (review of Enchantress from the Stars)

Many thanks to all who made this event possible.

Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day Five

Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars (1970).  

Today’s Armchair BEA theme is middle-grade/YA fiction, so I’m taking a second look at a YA science fiction classic. This was the recipient of the 1990 Phoenix Award and has been praised by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry, so it quickly rose to the top of my list.

Enchantress from the Stars is a space-age fable that takes on some knotty questions of truth, belief, freedom and sacrifice. It posits the existence of human-like beings at three stages of evolution: members of the Federation, who have advanced beyond war and exploitation and have developed psychic powers such as telepathy and telekinesis; citizens of the Empire, who have advanced technology that they are using to take over other planets; and the medieval-stage people of Andrecia, a planet in the process of being colonized.

The Federation’s goal is to preserve the freedom of less-evolved civilizations, to allow them to continue to progress on their individual paths without annihilating each other (on the planetary level…it seems they are free to have wars and commit injustices with other people and civilizations on the same planet). To do this, specially trained agents interfere selectively in situations like the one on Andrecia, appearing within the native belief system as beings from a world of mystery and enchantment. To give the account of one such mission, Engdahl uses the device of narrating it from three alternating points of view. The primary voice is that of young Elana, who tells her own story of stowing away on a Federation mission to save the endangered inhabitants of Andrecia, with life-changing consequences for all concerned. A third-person narrative thread follows Jarel, a doctor whose view of the Empire is being soured by the treatment of the “natives” who have the misfortune to be in the way on their new planetary colony. The final part is narrated in classic folktale style, telling of Georyn, a woodcutter’s youngest son who sets out to slay the dragon that is menacing the land.

It’s an ingenious notion, and Engdahl plays it out well, with all the shifts in perspective smoothly and convincingly done. (Ostensibly the entire book is actually being written by Elana as her report to the Federation following the mission, which would seem to qualify her for a career as a novelist if space exploration doesn’t work out.) Each incident that seems magical to the Andrecians has a logical explanation from another point of view. The rock-chewing “dragon” is actually an Imperial machine that’s working to clear the land for the colonists, for example, and the magical trials that Georyn goes through are engineered by the Enchantress (Elana) and her colleagues to strengthen him for his task of frightening away the invaders. Things get complicated as Elana becomes more involved, and more emotionally invested, in the mission than she had ever expected to be. She wonders about the ethics of manipulating Georyn in this way, while the necessity to conceal the very existence of the Federation from the Imperial colonists (to avoid their gaining access to ideas and technology they are not yet ready for) becomes increasingly fraught.

I don’t have a strong memory of this book from reading it as a child or young teen. I think I liked it, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me — unlike A Wrinkle in Time, which is somewhat similar in using space travel as a vehicle for philosophical exploration, and is engraved on my heart. Reading Enchantress again today, I was distracted by questions about the plausibility of the whole idea, which of course is fatal to a fable, as well as bothered by the oversimplified opposition between science and magic, which implies that all numinous or magical experiences can be made mundane by a shift in perspective. I was also uncomfortable with Georyn and Elana’s relationship — to him, she’s something like a goddess, while to her he’s like a highly intelligent pet; yet they are supposed to fall in love. Perhaps this is meant to be a comment on how love can reach across boundaries, or obviate the need to actually know a person, but I found it hard to swallow.

Quibbles aside, I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this book, which is well-written and thoughtful, even if I don’t agree with all the thoughts in it. It might strike just the right chord with you, as it has done with many readers through the years, and could spark discussion and contemplation of many interesting questions. Although I didn’t whole-heartedly enjoy it, I had to think hard about why — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1990 Phoenix Award winner

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Keeping It Short: Armchair BEA Day Three

 

Confession: I do not generally like novellas or short stories. If a story is worth telling, it seems to me it should go on for as long as possible — or at least for a good couple of hundred pages. I’m usually left unsatisfied by shorter works of fiction, and my favorite books tend to be on the long side. So for today’s Armchair BEA topic, which asks us to celebrate those small-scale narratives, I had to think hard to come up with a list of favorite shorts. But when I got started, I had a hard time stopping! It seems I do like short fiction, as long as there is enough of it.

The Light Princess and The Golden Key – George MacDonald
Two long fantasy stories by MacDonald, one a humorously profound tale about a princess who loses her gravity (in both senses), the other a dreamlike journey full of luminous images.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Not perhaps the strongest story about consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his indispensable companion, Dr. Watson, but it’s good to start at the beginning and learn how their partnership began, while being introduced to Holmes’s endlessly entertaining inductive methods. You can always skip the weird Mormon interlude in the middle.

E. Nesbit Fairy StoriesE. Nesbit 
This collection edited by Naomi Lewis includes most of Nesbit’s best original fairy tales, which comically mix modern elements into traditional forms.

Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – A.A. Milne
Please, avoid Disneyfied versions at all costs and read the originals aloud, preferably to a child. If you think of them as too twee and precious, you’ll be amazed at the craft of these perfect small narratives that can interest and amuse a five-year-old while slyly commenting on universal human foibles.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder
I posted about the beautiful Heritage Press edition of this brief novel here. Using Wilder’s favored mode of linked short narratives, it brings to life a whole world of distinctive characters, from aristocrats to peasants. Wilder sets his story in 18th century Peru, but his people, while convincingly of their place and time, are also universal in their struggles with the great questions of life, death, love, and fate.

Carry On,
Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
This collection of stories about the hapless Bertie Wooster and his brainiac valet, Jeeves,  contains some of their most hilarious escapades, and sets the stage for further developments in more stories and novels.

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this book captivated me at an early age with its alternately creepy, elegaic, poetic, and stark visions of a brilliantly imagined future in which we conquer Mars, and then it conquers us.

Travel Light – Naomi Mitchison
Daughter of a king but raised by bears, Halla makes her way from the forest to the great city of Byzantium with determination and a bit of magic, encountering dragons, valkyries, and the All-Father himself on the way. If it sounds odd, it is — but also oddly charming. This is a companion of sorts to a much longer book I also love, The Corn King and the Spring Queen.

84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff
A reader’s delight, 20 years of letters between an American who craves real books and the London bookshop that becomes her source. Some interesting details of the before-and-after story of the book and its 1971 publication are found in this article.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
A long-unfulfilled wish of the author’s finally came to fruition after her death with this collection of all the Armitage family stories. Written over the course of more than 50 years, these tales of magic invading ordinary life display Aiken’s distinctive blend of imagination and humor to its best advantage.

 

Author Interactions: Armchair BEA Day Two

For Day Two of Armchair BEA, we’re sharing something about interactions with authors. I’ve met a few authors and attended some readings I enjoyed, but my favorite interaction has to be the letter I received from Robin McKinley when I wrote to her at age 14. Among other questions (advice for would-be writers, favorite books), I asked how I could find a copy of her second book, The Door in the Hedge, which I was having trouble locating (this was pre-Internet of course). Instead of directing me to contact the publisher, she sent me a signed copy! This was a major thrill in my young life.

She also was the first person to recommend Diana Wynne Jones to me, for which I am deeply grateful. I find it interesting that she mentions Peter Dickinson as another favorite author…

 

Some Words of Introduction: Armchair BEA Day One

This week, I’m pleased to join the Armchair BEA conference. A few years ago I got to attend the actual BEA (Book Expo America), thanks to my sister who is an editor for Wizards of the Coast, and it was amazing — but now I live too far away from New York for that. When I learned about this virtual event, I was curious to see what it was all about, so I signed up. And here we go!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging? Where in the world are you blogging from?

Books define who I am; I just can’t imagine life without reading. I started blogging in January to record and share some of my enthusiasms. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to it, but I’m enjoying making more bookish friends and collecting more book recommendations than I could ever get around to in a lifetime.

I’m blogging from the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, an area with great natural beauty and many fine cultural opportunities (and bookstores). I live and work in a community centered around the care of adults with special needs; I also work part time as managing editor for the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America. When not reading or writing, I may be found spinning, knitting, singing, hiking, or cooking. I’m married and have a story-loving seven-year-old son.

What does your favorite/ideal reading space look like?

 

Share your favorite book or reading related quote.

Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are carolled and said —
On wings they are carried —
After the singer is dead
And the maker buried.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

If you were stranded on a deserted island, what 3 books would you bring? Why? What 3 non-book items would you bring? Why?

For my non-book items, I would bring a person who knows everything about how to survive on a deserted island, and whatever other two items s/he finds most essential. That would free up my book selections to be chosen for sanity-saving value.

For books, I think I could do worse than to bring along my two-volume Norton Anthology of English Literature, which I’m still hanging onto from college. There’s plenty of meaty material in there to keep me occupied for a long time. I could memorize poetry and shout it at the waves as I await the rescue boat, or learn to appreciate a Johnsonian sentence at last. For pure narrative comfort, I’d bring a one-volume edition of the novels of Jane Austen.
 
What book would you love to see as a movie?

Few movie versions of books are really satisfying to me, but if it could be done well, I’d love to see a Georgette Heyer novel on the screen. Those clothes! That dialogue! Which one, exactly? Hmm…I’d better go re-read them all and let you know.