Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sunday: Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” could be the centerpiece of a course on how to rewrite fairy tales. (If there aren’t such classes…there should be.) Gaiman takes elements of the vampire myth and Snow White and turns them on each other, narrating the story from the point of view of the woman who, in the Disney story, is the witch. The narrator, married to the King and stepmother to his daughter (who killed her mother during birth), offers up descriptions of the vampire that are soothing to anyone frustrated by the number of sparkling Edward Cullen lookalikes in today’s literature. After the girl latches on to the narrator’s hand and sucks her blood, she writes, “I had been frozen by her, owned and dominated. That scared me, more than the blood she had fed on.”

It becomes the duty of the narrator, the Queen, to kill her vampire stepdaughter, but her attempts to do so are rife with missteps. Gaiman’s story is suffused with sadness, with this woman’s sense of loss over her inability to kill this “girl” who so easily dominates her. After describing what she would do, today, to the girl, had she only known, she writes, “I did not do this thing, and we pay for our mistakes.”

Gaiman’s story is stunning. Not a word is out of place. To put Snow White and vampires into one story is something that never would have occurred to me – but out of these tales he crafts something far more chilling than even an accomplished novel like Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.

Read “Snow, Glass, Apples” online

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Borders, E-books and the Future of Book Buying
July 30, 2011, 5:08 pm
Filed under: General Book Stuff | Tags: , , , ,

Gillian at Portrait of a Would-Be Artist as a Young Woman recently posted about the failure of Borders as viewed through the eyes of a, for lack of a better term, “real booker,” someone who doesn’t believe that e-books are a great idea. It’s undeniable that Borders’ demise is due in large part to e-books, but to place the blame for its liquidation solely on e-books is unfair and not wholly accurate. E-books are changing the way we read and buy books, but there are bookstores out there – Borders not among them – demonstrating that e-books can be made part of a successful business plan.

To ignore the impact e-books will have on the way we read, borrow and buy our books would be a fatal error, because as much as we may want to believe that real books will always win out in the end (they smell better, feel better, you can write in them, you can start conversations based on the books strangers are reading) it looks more and more like it’s going to be e-books our kids will be reading ten or twenty years from now. Unless you run a bookstore, the desire to wipe e-books off the reading map probably won’t be a harmful one; but the desire to frame Borders’ closure through the rise of e-books is an interesting one for the way it suggests our thoughts on books and reading are formed in part by nostalgia, by a desire to go back not just to the days before e-books but to a day before book buying was dominated by Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

To get it out of the way early, e-books did contribute to Borders’ fall – not that people are reading and buying them, but that the management at Borders never tried to get into e-books in the way that Barnes & Noble did. Borders is a startling example of what happens when a company fails to get into new technology; not only did Borders not make an effort to jump, Barnes & Noble- or Amazon-style, into developing and selling e-readers, they never had their own, independent website for buying books. Gillian is right when she posits that e-books mean lost sales for physical bookstores (if you own a Kindle, the only place you can buy your e-books is from Amazon), but even creative independent bookstores are seeking ways into the sale of e-books.

To offer customers a way to purchase a lower-priced e-book version of a hardcover book may not be the most viable of business models. The stores that partnered up with Google Books to offer their customers a way to purchase e-books, though, are showing more creativity and initiative in this realm than Borders did. Still, while Borders’ failure to get into e-books was a contributor to the end of the brand, it was the company’s management – not e-books or readers of e-books – that deserves the blame here.

Now that e-books are a major part of our reading landscape, why do so many of us continue to resist them? Why do so many of us look at e-books as another sign that reading culture is failing, when they may prove a way to invigorate that same culture by making books more immediately accessible and making it easy (maybe too easy?) for first-time authors to get their books into publication as e-books? Do e-books and e-readers “devalue” books by making them cheaper and faster to buy and produce? Or is that they’re one more sign of the loss of the independent stores that used to exist all over America, before they were replaced by the box stores? (And how odd that we are now mourning one of those box stores – the same store that put so many independent bookstores out of business.)

I imagine the reason the news about Borders brings up some tension over e-books is not just that the store may have held on longer if it had figured out how to work with the new format, but because – contrary to our daydreams of a reinvigorated landscape of independent bookstores filling the gaps left by Borders – the closure of the chain’s stores will probably create new e-book readers out of people who have lost their last physical bookstore. As Gillian wrote, “Once Borders closes for good, there will be communities that have no bookstore at all.” And those communities, most of them, won’t be getting a new mom-&-pop bookstore to replace the Borders.

As part of a generation that grew up surrounded by bookstores offering plush chairs, coffee and pastries, seemingly endless rows of magazines and novels and remaindered coffee table books, there’s something undeniably sad about the thought of losing the ability to pick up a book and flip through it before buying. The thought of walking into a bookstore, looking through a book and then purchasing it as an e-book (as is possible with the Google Books partnership some indies are testing out) feels wrong, not just because it is so similar to visiting a store to make a list of books to buy on Amazon, but because it’s trading the “real thing” for a product you can’t hold. While I hope that independent bookstores will rise to the occasion and take over where Borders failed, it’s more likely that they won’t. Book selling is a tough business whether you’re a box store or an indie, as evidenced by the (still nearly unimaginable, to me) collapse of Borders. The ways we buy books have changed tremendously over the past few years as more and more people start buying e-books over paperbacks, and that’s been scary enough. Looking at this new America without Borders, and our inability to predict how people will be reading and buying when they lose their town or county’s only bookstore, is terrifying.

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Bookish Report from Macedonia
July 28, 2011, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Brief Reviews | Tags: , ,

I’ve been back in Macedonia a few days now. What’s odd to me is that it feels like I never left – it’s like America, all its grocery stores and bookstores and libraries and gyms and running trails, was some awesome dream I had, only I was able to emerge from it with a bag of pretzel M&Ms (just one of many snack foods debuted in my absence!) and minus a few pounds.

All the books I thought I’d come back with, I didn’t come back with. When we got to the airport and found my bag was overweight, all contingency plans (pay a fee or debate which books earned a spot in my backpack) fell apart in the face of (a) crying, (b) trying to explain why I didn’t need a visa to get back in Macedonia. Some of the books I’ve most wanted to read, like The Pale King and Matterhorn, are back in the States so I don’t have to risk leaving them behind in Albania a year from now, and others my dad packed up and mailed to me. You probably still want to know what books I came back with though (right? right?) so lemme tell you: Game of Thrones, Math Review for Standardized Tests, and a new Albanian-English dictionary. Pretty exciting stuff.

The point of this post isn’t just to whine about all the books I failed to pack, or to tell you about all the food I ate (two burritos, Indian, countless fake chicken patties, about five pounds of edamame, roughly twenty bowls of Honey Bunches of Oats), but to sum up some of the books I didn’t write reviews for. Here goes.

Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which I finished just before leaving Macedonia, is a stunning book. The first volume of the trilogy, which I reviewed a few months ago, left me disgusted with most of her characters, who are neither likeable nor easy to read about for a thousand pages, but in the second and third volumes these characters grow a new depth as the war becomes more a part of their lives. I’m looking forward to reading the three novel wrap-up to her six-volume series. Also her School for Love, one of the books that is back in NJ, waiting for me.

After I read The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan I couldn’t say whether I liked or disliked Shteyngart’s writing, which seemed to me a good reason not to seek out Super Sad True Love Story. The library had it on the new book shelf, though, so I read it – and man, am I glad I did, and do I wish I had had time to write a review. Super Sad True Love Story is the first of Shteyngart’s books that I’ve felt adds an amount of heart and depth to his sometimes too-clever writing. I’m not in love with some details of his future world (it’s so easy for company names and other details to devolve into gimmicks) but Lenny Abramov is the first Shteyngart character I haven’t regretted spending a few days with. (Resounding praise, right?)

Although I read Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife before leaving for America, I may still try and get a review out. (Check out the post at What Red Read about how long we wait to review the books we read. I may have left this one too long.) For now, I’m kinda busy “recovering” from jet lag by watching Breaking Bad and reading Game of Thrones…not the worst way to spend a day.

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Review: Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

Disclaimer: Other Press provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, is a compelling book for the way its narrator, Blessing, approaches her world of the Niger delta in all its complexities. Watson opens the book with the dissolution of Blessing’s parents’ marriage, and with the move of Blessing, her brother Ezikiel, and their mother to their grandparents’ compound. Blessing’s move is from one type of compound to another – from a secure upper-class apartment complex to the rural home of her grandfather, where there is no running water and the family must bathe in a stream. Probably the greatest strength of Watson’s book is that she never steps outside the voice of her twelve-year-old narrator. Things that older narrators would have questioned, such as Blessing’s sudden and forced shift from Christianity to Islam when her family moves to her grandfather’s compound, are here taken in stride, nothing more than another inexplicable element in a world impossible to understand.

Blessing is unique, too, for not having aspirations to leave her country, her economic class, or even her grandparents’ home (once she gets used to living without power or running water). It’s rare to see a character who is so fully-formed yet doesn’t aspire to “better” herself in an acceptable, Westernized fashion; in fact, one of the miseries of Blessing’s life is her attendance at school, and when her family loses the money to pay her school fees and she is forced to stay home, her relief is palpable. Watson’s decision to show a character who doesn’t want to attend school, doesn’t want to “better” herself, is a brave one, and rather than giving us another too-typical example of a girl without options finding options through a Western-style education, Watson shows us one who embraces her family and her roots. Whatever the reader’s opinion on Blessing’s decision may be, Watson is able to convince us that her decision to refuse to return to school when her mother’s white boyfriend provides the money for her school fees, is the correct one for her. Blessing, who instead of attending school trains at her grandmother’s side to become a midwife, takes a joy in her work that she never did in school, and there is something empowering in following this twelve-year-old girl as she learns to deliver babies first with her grandmother’s help, then without. Though Blessing’s choices at times read as painfully constrained, when she at last has the option to leave her new home, to take on the more Westernized life that her mother idealizes, she rejects her choice, and it becomes clear the degree to which her decision to cease her formal education, to follow her grandmother’s path, is the correct one for her.

Though Blessing’s mother, Timi, never reads as complete a character as Blessing, she too is a unique character for being a mother who does not want to be a mother, for being a woman whose love for her children doesn’t fit within the confines of traditionally defined motherhood. Watson’s successes with Tiny Sunbirds is not so much with the prose, which is never able to transcend the voice of its twelve-year-old narrator (nor should it), but with her approach to characters who take on roles with elements of the repellant to them. There’s Blessing’s brother, Ezikiel, whose anger over his father’s abandonment of the family leads him to abandon his schooling in what seems a less self-empowered fashion than Blessing’s earlier exit from school; Alhaji, Blessing’s grandfather, who for most of the novel reads as a failed man, one whose ambitions will always outstrip his talents; Blessing’s grandmother, who in her role as midwife practices genital mutilation; and Celestine, the second wife of Alhaji, a young woman whose level of self-awareness is shockingly low. All these characters, though, redeem themselves in one way or another by novel’s close, and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop and form themselves through Sunbird‘s pages.

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, is a fast 400 pages, a novel that manages to be at once complex and a perfect pool-side read. Watson’s characters – their motivations, their choices, their relations to one another – aren’t ones that you will forget soon, and though the novel is whole in and of itself, the lives of these characters don’t end when you turn the last page.

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America, bookstores, crying
July 8, 2011, 3:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been in America over a week now, I’ve been in one library and three bookstores, so it seems time to make the promised “what it’s like going into a bookstore for the first time in two years” post.

It’s really confusing.

Actually, as far as culture shock goes, the grocery store is a better indicator than the bookstore. In the months leading up to my flight home I had countless dreams about visiting an American grocery store, about half ending with me weeping in an aisle while waiting for my mother to find me. My first trip to a store, made the same night I landed, ended with my mother pulling me around while I pointed down aisle after aisle, shouting variations on, “An aisle of SOUP! Who needs a whole AISLE of soup?! Half an aisle of TISSUES?!” and laughing so hard I started to cry. The second trip, to a WholeFoods, saw me picking up item after item, saying its name, saying its price, and replacing it on the shelf. The third visit, my mother told me to pick out a salad dressing and I started to cry because there were too many and I didn’t know which type would be best.

Now that I’ve been here a week, though, I’ve recovered enough that I can walk down the aisles exclaiming over all the new types of M&Ms and Keebler cookies without giving in to tears. I’m trying to get you ready for the experience of going into a bookstore, though, which isn’t shocking in the same way a visit to a grocery store is – somehow, I don’t get weepy when I see how many books there are – but is in terms of pricing, for someone who gets a $200 living allowance a month. I went to The Strand in Manhattan, a bookstore that I didn’t like before (too big, poorly organized, shelves are so high you can’t see the top two or three rows of books, little quality control [my favorite bookstores only sell “good” books, which may be why they aren’t around for long]) and don’t like now, then on to St. Mark’s bookstore, which I liked and still like. At St. Mark’s, though, I kept building and diminishing my pile, because I couldn’t imagine spending money on so many books. So, pick up McSweeney’s and The Believer, add Matterhorn, return McSweeney’s and The Believer, pick up Electric Literature, pick up Joe Sacco’s Notes from Gaza, return Matterhorn, pick up Bitch Magazine, stare at pile of books and magazines until friend reminds me that I can purchase the books instead of just looking at them. Or a few nights ago, when I got Goon Squad, Game of Thrones and The Blind Assassin, and got all weepy looking at the prices, even when my dad said he would pay for them. (And he, by the way, got Matterhorn. A copy for me to steal!…in a year.)

I never thought I would say this, but America has too many books, and every time I’ve been in a bookstore or a library so far, I’ve gone in with a clear idea of what I want. Goon Squad was the first book I thought of buying after booking my flight home, and because these books are “extra precious” to me in that they’ll be the only ones I buy for a year, and the ones that come back to Macedonia/Albania with me, I can’t even begin to entertain the thought of buying a book that is “unknown” to me. My hesitance to try a book by an author I don’t know much about is heightened by the cost of doing so; I can’t help but convert prices into Macedonian denars, and figuring that a paperback costs 750 denars (that’s probably more than I spend on my groceries in a week) is pretty good incentive to NOT buy.

Other books coming back to Macedonia with me, if you were wondering: DFW’s Pale King, John M. Thompson’s The Reservoir, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a new Albanian-English dictionary.

It may not sound like I am enjoying the wealth of books here, but I am. I’m also enjoying buying The New York Times every day.