Sunday, January 24, 2010

Magic in a Box: A Look at Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Last week, Jezebel ran an article about Jaclyn Dolamore’s debut novel, Magic Under Glass, that immediately sparked my attention about the book. Published by Bloomsbury, it has already garnered intense controversy after only a few weeks on the shelves because of its cover. Magic Under Glass, a YA fantasy novel, tells the tale of a young performer named Nimira who sings and dances for pennies in a seedy dive as a “trouser girl” until she is hired by a wealthy, mysterious gentleman to sing with his piano playing automaton (a mechanical man). Naturally, she arrives to find that nothing is as it seems. Something we learn about Nimira very early on in the story is that she is a dark-skinned foreigner from a distant land who left home to find her fortune, only to be met with prejudice and disdain at every turn. Now take a look at that cover. What do you see? Exactly. Yet another white girl in a terrifying corset. And that corsage under the glass bell jar doesn’t figure in the book either.

Jezebel link:

This controversy has been bringing to light a lot of unsavory things about the book business. Turns out this is not the first time Bloomsbury has forced a dark-skinned heroine to “pass for white” on her book cover. Last year, the same thing happened to Justine Larbalestier’s novel, Liar, also published by Bloomsbury. Larbalestier spoke out against this and managed to get her cover changed. Even though Dolamore’s less substantial reputation (this is her first novel, after all) made it seem doubtful at first that her book would get a similar reprieve, thankfully, it’s turned out differently thanks to incendiary coverage on-line and in the blogosphere. On January 21st, a representative released this statement, "Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologise for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly."

Reissue link:

It’s an all-too unspoken reality of the business that bookstores are still heavily segregated. Many bookstores I’ve been to, regardless of chain, size, or location, have separate African-American sections where African-American characters deal with African-American issues. Apparently, this section is markedly “lesser,” and a black girl on the cover on a “non-black” (i.e. written by a white woman) YA novel would banish it to this book store purgatory. Do publishers and bookstore owners seriously think this way? Do they seriously think that because I’m white, I couldn’t possibly care about the thoughts, feelings, and struggles of a girl with a different color skin? That’s insulting to readers of all races and negates one of the most beloved reasons for reading: to discover people, places, and things outside yourself and your immediate circle. “Post-racial” is a phrase being thrown around a lot nowadays to suggest that because we have an African-American president, racism is no longer an issue. Magic Under Glass proves otherwise. The fact that Nimira encounters prejudice because of her skin color and heritage repeatedly throughout the story turns this whole controversy into a case of hideous irony.

It also calls to mind another unfortunate reality of the book business: authors, especially first-time authors, have little to no say about their covers and the covers designers rarely read the books. As I said earlier, the scene depicted on the cover never happens in the novel and as we’ve already established, the model looks nothing like Nimira. As a writer, the idea of pouring your heart and soul into a book, struggling to get it published, to get it ready for the world, and then to have no say in the world’s first impression of it, infuriates me. As much as I hate to admit it, the cover almost always influences my decision whether or not to read a book, unless I go in because of a pre-existing interest. However, in the case of Magic Under Glass, Bloomsbury actually accomplished something else. They gave a unique book a generic cover attempting to lure an audience with familiarity rather than originality. Many YA novels, particularly fantasy novels, get covers similar to Magic Under Glass: our heroine (often looking nothing like our heroine), corseted, obscured in dim light, vaguely touching something. Libba Bray’s excellent 2003 novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, may have started this trend. Just for the record, Bray’s book is about a girl at a boarding school in Victorian England, not a prostitute in the Wild West as the cover might suggest. Magic Under Glass’s is so standard, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I had seen it in the store. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read it were it not for this controversy, which brings me to my last point.

Link to A Great and Terrible Beauty cover:

The overall consensus from those who wrote about the controversy was not that readers should boycott the book, but that they should read it and then write about the issue. Hence, yours truly. Of course, boycotting is not the solution. Dolamore is a talented author who worked hard on her book and deserves to see it read and enjoyed. However, part of me can’t help thinking that perhaps Bloomsbury did this on purpose to garner publicity for it. After all, cover designers seldom read the book, but publishers do and any publisher with common sense should know that putting a white girl on the cover of a book with a black heroine will make a lot of people angry. And get them talking. It’s not exactly as if YA Fantasy is a dwindling genre (at least from a reader’s perspective). There are SO many books to choose from, how do you promote one by an unknown author that could easily fall through the cracks? I'm not saying Bloomsbury meant to do this, but if they did, it seems to be working, especially since they dealt with such a similar controversy so recently and this book’s heading in the same direction, new cover and all.

I enjoyed parts of Magic Under Glass very much, but I didn't love it. Admittedly, this is partly because the ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered, implying that it’s the first book in a series, which always pisses me off. If I’m starting a series, I like to know going in. However, there's a lot to like. Ironically, Dolamore creates a fantasy world where prejudice is as much a reality as it is here. I liked Nimira. She's a heroine who having been born to wealth and lost it all, has left home to make her own way but found only disappointment. And then her story begins. She has moments of snobbery as well as compassion, fear as well as bravery, homesickness, divided affection, and uncertainty. She understands how often women must pretend in the company of men simply to stay safe but is still willing to fight for what she loves and believes in. However, other characters in the book (many of the supporting characters) get next to no development, while others (like Hollin Parry, the mysterious gentleman who “rescues” Nimira from life as a trouser girl) are so fascinating, I wished for pages more dedicated to them. Like I said, it’s the first in a series. Many of these issues may be resolved in later books, which is all the more reason there should be something on the cover to indicate this. Beware though: it ends on a cliffhanger and I genuinely felt cheated at the end. Magic Under Glass is an uneven offering, but as I said before, Dolamore is a talented author and I enjoyed falling into her unique, well-drawn world. I can’t wait to see Nimira represented as she should be.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Miep Gies: 15 February 1909-11 January 2010

This is long overdue.

Miep Gies, the last surviving helper who protected Anne Frank and seven others in the "secret annex" of an office building in Nazi-occupied Holland during WWII, passed away on January 11 at age 100. Between July 1942 and August 1944, along with colleagues Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskujil, she had daily contact with the Frank family, the van Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer, bringing them food, supplies, comfort, and news, and risking her own life to keep them safe. After their discovery in 1944, she narrowly escaped arrest and unsuccessfully tried to bribe a Nazi officer to set them free. She is also the also the one who discovered Anne's diary and kept it safe until she learned of her death.

After the war, she and her husband, Jan had one son, Paul. She was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1997 and for decades, provided Anne's readers with a window into her life and times.

I am only one of the countless people who have read, loved, and been moved by Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. Without Miep and her awe-inspiring courage, we probably never would have known Anne and experienced her remarkable testament to the power of endurance, goodness, and hope during one of the darkest periods in human history.

With my thanks, rest in peace.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stranger in Paradise: A Look at The Wicker Man (1973)

A few years back when I was a wee high school senior, I became fixated with a certain television special ranking the "100 Scariest Movie Moments of All Time." Combining my love of lists and my masochistic relationship with the horror genre, this special--which first aired on the days leading up to Halloween 2004--fascinated and terrified me in equal amounts. I think what made this list so unique for me (apart from the incredibly creepy music they used in it) was the choice of movies they featured. Some were classics I had seen many times, but some I had never even heard of and seeing their "scariest scenes" isolated and out of context in marathon form was like running the horror movie gauntlet. And the thing was about five hours long in total stretched over a period of days so you can imagine. I would watch the installments in the hours before bedtime (of course) and then be unable to sleep. I became so jittery I developed an irrational fear of my friend's bathroom (her father kept a radio in a linen closet and accidentally left it on one night, tuned into a talk radio station so while using the toilet, I heard a man's voice speaking softly in the linen closet and it knocked me sideways). The List made me aware of many cool, creepy movies I later sought out, watched in full, and enjoyed very much. But there were five movies included on the it that I vowed never to see because the snippets they showed freaked me out so much. The original version of The Wicker Man was one of these five.

I know I haven't properly begun and I'm already getting tangential, but it feels wrong for me to talk about this movie without mentioning The List. And what better way to ring in the New Year than to try and overcome old fears and insecurities?

The Wicker Man is one of the most popular cult movies of all time. Nevertheless, I am going to summarize it without spoiling the ending.

The Wicker Man opens with the arrival of police officer, Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) on a remote Scottish island governed by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee—big surprise). He’s come to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, from the isolated village (which takes up pretty much the entire island). He’s received an anonymous letter about the vanished girl and a photo of her which he whips out of his pocket with such authority, you’d think it was his badge. However, when he arrives and starts asking questions, he’s hard pressed to find anybody who recognizes Rowan, let alone who knows what happened to her. Half the people in town don’t even think she exists. Even her unfazed mother ignores his inquiries. The more Howie investigates, the clearer it becomes that he’s stumbled into a very unusual community. The people of the island practice paganism, dedicated to worshipping ancient gods and goddesses of nature and free from the traditional morality of Judeo-Christian religions. Orgies take place in public parks, adolescent girls dance naked around bonfires, and teachers speak candidly about fertility and reincarnation. And then there’s that young woman who bangs on his bedroom wall at night, singing about how much she wants to sleep with him. All this is very offensive to the staunchly Christian, still virginal Howie. Soon he’s sure that Rowan is in great danger, if she isn’t already dead.

The Wicker Man is a horror movie, but there are no jump-out-of-your-seat moments, no clear antagonists, no jet streams of split-pea soup or buckets of corn syrup, no cheap special effects etc. Instead there’s a creeping kind of horror at work here. The kind that crawls all over your skin, gets inside your head, and stays there for a week. I saw this three days ago, but every night since, it’s been the first thing I thought of after I shut the light off. It’s a movie about belief and what belief does to people. Something I loved about it was that there were no clearly marked signs declaring who was GOOD and who was EVIL. On the one hand, Summerisle looks idyllic. I found the idea of teachers being allowed to discuss sex in school in a calm, reasonable way to a classroom of attentive, equally calm students so refreshing. The townspeople understand their beliefs and defend them with pride and even practicality. When Howie complains to Lord Summerisle about the naked girls around the bonfire, Summerisle plainly replies (quite rightly) that it would be dangerous to dance around a bonfire with one’s clothes on. But on the flip side of this idyllic life lies something dark and sinister: sweetshops that sell people made out of chocolate, a woman breastfeeding in a graveyard, a bit of meat hanging in a tree, the cheery, smiling attitudes that answer Howie’s questions about death and murder. On top of that, Howie acts so self-righteous and judgmental throughout the film, even going so far as to call the villagers mad to their faces, your fear for him builds early and grows as the movie progresses until you’re screaming “don’t hassle the locals, you tactless fool!” The overall tone of the movie is intensely eerie, filmed in that grainy, almost-documentary style that was so prevalent in 70’s horror cinema and remains effective today. I didn’t think consciously about the acting or direction or technical aspects of the movie at first because it’s so engrossing, which goes to show how good the acting and direction are. And it’s a musical too. The characters break out into song (Celtic folk songs) at every turn and a haunting score by Paul Giovanni contributes to the aforementioned eeriness.

Set up as a confrontation between opposing religions, the movie doesn't pat anyone's back. Instead it shows how all-consuming belief can be and raises the question of why people turn to religion to explain the unknown. As is often the case with good movies of this nature, no answers are provided, only more questions. The movie becomes doubly disturbing when you realize that everything that happens in the movie can actually happen. And probably has. It feels very real. It isn’t for everybody—after all, it took me five years to say the title without feeling sick—but if you like horror movies that make you think, you’re in for a good one here.

Now on to those other four....