Sunday, October 16, 2011

 

Sunday Reading

With cold, fally weather arriving at last, our living room has become a much cosier place. (Some furniture rearrangement helped; and the new music-playing device we acquired using Air Miles.) Now all I want to do is read. Add that to Sunday afternoon and a damn good book, and I can barely tear myself away to type this. (Helps that I needed to update my reading device and now might as well let it charge.)

So, the book is The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. I found it in a “Best British Books” list for young people, the end result of several link hops from Fuse#8. There’s the tiniest SF device—a time and dimension machine, all nicely explained so that we don’t have to worry about things done in the past affecting the present—and then it’s part spec and part historical fiction. We’re sometimes in the 21st century, with the organization that built the machine, and sometimes in the 16th century, in a wild borderland between that day’s England and Scotland, populated by violent, vengeful descendants of Vikings. Our heroine, a disregarded “fat girl” in the 21st century, is living with the Sterkarms, the most vengeful of the lot, and reporting back to her employers—and also coming to love the Sterkarms, who regard her highly and expect her to marry the flower of the flock, the chieftain’s son Per. She loves him, and in such a messy, honest way—this book has Outlander beat, hands down. 

Now, before I forget, I purposely left The Best Laid Plans lying on the coffee table last weekend when my father-in-law came to visit, and over the weekend he read the whole thing. He loved it, as I thought he would, and I thank Terry Fallis for providing him with much entertainment and smiles.

Also, a tip of the hat to Sister, for giving me Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll. I had to promise that I was no Austen purist before she gave it to me. It was definitely entertaining, based on the notion that behind closed doors and properly wed, Darcy and Elizabeth are as passionate toward each other as they are about their self-respect in polite company. So, very salty reading, all couched in Austen-like language. The author managed the latter fairly well, though I think she used “hence” too much and not always properly, and lost her grip on lay-lie when faced with accouchement (laying-in—ouch!). She managed a neat plot trick: when their passion may be getting in the way of procreation, Lizzy and Darcy are separated by the Napoleonic Wars for just the time it takes to grow and deliver two healthy babes. Nice!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

 

Best Lied Plans

So, realizing I wasn’t enjoying The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (I wanted to, I really did) I dismissed the idea of attending the book group meeting at which it would be discussed, feeling that not only would I have nothing to contribute to the discussion, I would also no doubt be inwardly seething. I wanted it to be funnier; also, Fallis erected a glass house when he had two of his characters be grammar purists. Fallis, you have to LIE low; and people get put through the WRINGER. The humour was stuffy, and here’s why: because (in the style of which his narrating character explicitly approves) he didn’t use one word when he could use many more than that.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest; on to Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari (can’t see that name without thinking about Friends’ pal Joey). This was one of those books I read for therapy, dealing as it does with the scenery of my deepest anxieties. It is a YA disaster romance, set in a drowned New York City, when only 1 in a million people have survived hemorraghic smallpox. A crazy scientist, a hot freak of nature, a jealous princess and the guy who won’t declare himself—it was pretty good.

And just for a lark, I checked Molly Bang’s Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life out of the library. What an enthusiastic delivery of one of the most vital processes on Earth. You can never begin too early to understand the importance of photosynthesis and its partner, respiration to Life on our planet: Molly and her partner Penny Chisholm do a great job of making it comprehensible. I never saw so clearly how glucose is so basic: how I love seeing the carbon and hydrogen and oxygen lined up like that in the chemical expression of its makeup. So clear and beautiful! My one difficulty with the book is the design, particularly as applied in the Notes section at the end: the yellow vibrates horribly against the blue page, and I pity any child or adult with vision challenges who wants to read it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

 

Birthday Books

A Good and Old Friend gave me True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey for my birthday last month. Was it ever good! As the reviewer put it, “you can pat yourself on the back for reading a clever book at the same as you’re titillated by adventure, intrigue, murder, love and lust.” Well, love maybe, but the lust is not particularly lusty, unless it’s a lust for stickin’ it to the the man, outlaw style. I loved the tragedy of Carey’s Kelly, how at every step he’s pushed along in a direction he’s not really choosing, from the time he becomes an outlaw’s apprentice to the assembly of a gang bearing his name, to the final, humorously political understanding that, whether he wants to or not, a leader must lead. I love how Carey constructed the painful, deep and damaging love of the son for his mother. I deeply admire the narrating voice—technically brilliant!

Regarding that last point, let me also recommend Inzanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Again, voice is right on and technically adroit, with a surface simplicity that demonstrates admirable restraint on the part of the author. I picked up the book because it’s a girl’s coming-of-age in the 70s, an era to which I feel a connection. There’s humour but never at the expense of our old, adolescent selves; in that respect, I might describe it as a girls’ Catcher in the Rye, except that a) a “girls’” anything seems to ghettoize (sad but true) and b) I despise automatic CitR references, which I believe most often come from people who didn’t read much fiction at all between the ages of 12 and 20, and don’t even read much fiction now. Let me say instead that if my daughter were being asked to read CitR, I’d give her this instead. If she were interested. Which she wouldn’t be.

Another reason I think of CitR is that the book was in the adult section. It was about a teen, and the coming-of-age did not involve a sexual relationship or massive drug use or cutting or self-damaging behaviour of any kind (though there is a scene with a babysitting client early on that is harrowing). It seems strange that all of that stuff can be found in YA novels (Wallflower, for example) and yet this is the book that’s on the adult shelf. Why? Because it’s too real, not black-and-white enough? Do we believe that teen readers don’t want to know about an ordinary girl with an ordinary, sadly drunken parent and a life that moves subtly from childhood to not-childhood? Or is it that the author herself, or her publisher, didn’t want to ghettoize this book? Hm.

Finally, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest by Amos Oz, an old-fashioned fable about secrets, animals, wilderness, community mores and such. It felt a little slow and repetitive at times, and the whole whoopititus thing seemed a little silly. I’d put this in a category with The Old Country and Fish (both of which I felt were more compelling): tales to read aloud, then let the kids lead the discussion, because you’d want to know what they take from it.

Friday, September 02, 2011

 

Karen Cushman Said

... that this book is “Delightful! Funny and wise.” So I picked it up—The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse—and took it home. I was finding it tedious about halfway through: the main character spends so much time trembling and being obedient and trying not to think about her personal history, the thing that would make her more than a powerless, uneducated, timid servant girl. Everything snaps into focus when the key bit of that history is revealed (Spoiler alert: it was her own behaviour that lost her a home and her beloved sister and put her into this put-upon position) but then dwindles away again by the end. She just didn’t come off the page.

Do I expect too much? I don't think so. Other authors have dealt with powerless females in history (Karen, for example) but have managed to infuse them with wit and interest without making them historically exceptional. How the author came to this story is really interesting, but maybe (again!) the truth of it cramped her style. All the physical abuse and humiliation the maidservant suffers throughout the book needed a like satisfaction: Margery Kempe, that self-righteous pontificatress, deserved to fall down some stairs and expose her bum, at least. So, in short, this is a competent enough book, but for real fun just go straight to Karen.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

 

Not Lost Without Carol Shields

Just finished Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay (and just in time, meeting my personal goal of being at the keyboard no later than 9 am today; yes, 8 is better, but I slept badly last night, so there).


I loved every word of this book. It showed me how you can tell a family story: as it comes to you, in bits and pieces, going backwards and forwards, filtered through the changing motives and circumstances of the person telling the story. Because it is (at least presented as) completely fiction, it is free to be more truthful than truth—compare, say, The Year of Finding Memory, which was brought up short by the facts (or lack of them) and so didn’t move me as much as “Classroom” does.


 What is the truer truth? How you can never get the whole story, and how it changes as the new pieces are added and your understanding of the characters involved, your relatives and friends of the family, changes, as it does as you get older—especially your elder relatives, the ones who cared for you as a child and whom you see anew, over and over, as you move through life: teen, fighting free; twenties, setting your feet on your own path; thirties; a parent yourself; forties, that time of reassessment; and onward. And all this in the most economical, plain (meaning: not “lyrical”) but evocative and rich language. The best of prose. All the elements that satisfy me in a novel.  And then, of course, it’s also about teachers and teaching (the family trade); and about the regenerative qualities of art, and craftsmanship; and sneaky little bits about writing and being a writer.

Note: you may want to read the excellent review by Aretha Van Herk in the Globe and Mail, April 29, 2011: http://preview.tinyurl.com/4yhyvjy).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

 

The Children's Book

Another Byatt–how delightful! This one was very good, especially if you have read or read about E. Nesbitt. This is about a Nesbitt-like character who writes for children and lives in a household comprised of more than two adults and children who belong to one of two possible mothers. The Fabian world and mindset is illuminated; this very interesting period of history (end of Victoria, beginning of new century) in England and Europe is examined through the lens of children growing up and differentiating from their parents. (An argument thereby being made about the beginning of the modern age: that’s a dinner conversation right there.) Byatt does a good job of showing how children in a large family relate or don’t and find space for themselves or don’t. Byatt plays her checkerboard of related families and characters very adroitly, jumping this one forward, then that, to carry us forward through history; and the culmination in WW I is brilliant: sketchy, but deeply felt because, in the end, so shockingly few of the golden children we have come to care for survive.

I will confess that I skimmed through the purely political passages fairly rapidly. I am sure they are very good, too, if you like that sort of thing.

In other news, I felt it necessary to pick up something from the reading list accumulated by one of my book groups (after all, this was my idea!) and chose the first of the Simon Serrailler mysteries, The Various Haunts of Men. Meh. Maybe it gets better, but the character of Simon in this book is a bit of a blank: he’s just the boss of the main character and also the object of a sudden and unwanted crush. And then that character is killed off—doesn’t that seem like a strange way to begin a series? I guess he’s supposed to be mysterious: hints of a past, family black sheep, personal but cultured tastes demonstrated by a beautiful apartment in an unlikely neighbourhood. But nothing about Simon was compelling to me, and neither was the writing—not enough to drive me to book two. And in a final note, how does one pronounce Simon’s last name? I want to go French with it, but I know the British will have some wonderfully woolly way of saying it, so I just kind of mentally mumble over it, and that bugs me. Oh, and one last last note: there were about half a dozen words in this book that I had (gasp!) never read before—not fancy words, slangy ones. Shtum, for example. I wish I had noted them all—this doesn’t happen very often.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

 

Smut

I enjoyed Alan Bennett’s reading Queen (you know I am partial to the Queen, dear Readers) and so picked up Smut, which was a quick read and most entertaining. Light and clever and not marketable if it were written by someone unknown. And such fare is necessary—I don't always want or need Meaning but do want and need good writing, however frivolous the topic. This book is two long stories about alt lifestyles in the proper bedrooms of suburban or maybe smaller-town Britain. One thing I found odd: the author or the editor seemed averse to commas, which made some of the sentences a reading challenge. British style employs fewer commas to start with but this book was extreme.

Also read in the last few weeks: 
The White Garden by Stephanie Barron, on the recommendation of a colleague/professional friend, with whom telephone meetings always start out on business matters and devolve into satisfying chats on everything. I like my myths unmythified, generally, but Barron used Virginia cleverly and Jo, her main character, was so different in nature that it worked. I’ll try the Austen mystery series next.
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott; can’t remember how I learned of this title. It was wonderful. The writing was careful and measured and the story well built. The genius in it was how I believed in and liked the main character, Clare and yet, when the fault in her good works was revealed and shook her AND the novel, I also believed that, and recognized that Clare as well. It was remarkable. 

In a nutshell: a long-divorced, living-alone, looking-at-middle age woman gets involved in the lives of a struggling family. Her community (an Anglican congregation, mostly) looks with favour on her good works; she’s uncomfortable with their approval, because she’s aware of how much caring for the family’s three children is giving her. But she doesn’t examine it too closely, until she’s forced to: and then the truth is galling and she almost doesn’t make it back to life. I loved the book, couldn’t put it down, but don’t tell me if you try it and can’t get into it. The earth-shattering truth of the book is so subtle, anyone might miss it; I think it entered into a very personal place that has nothing to do with the book, and I don’t want to explain or even look at that place. But this book is very, very good.

Now I’m reading The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. It’s wonderful if you know about E. Nesbitt and her milieu—the children’s writer in the book is obviously based upon her. The Fabians, tra la—what an interesting time in Britain this was, the time when Canada was granted its wish for independence. So far, I am observing that Byatt captures large-family life well, utterly avoiding the preciousness that creeps in so often when, for example, a writer is trying to portray the layered conversation full of internal reference that large witty families engage in. I think because, conversely, she invest more time in the less obvious part of large-family life: the layered and very strong interior lives of at least some of the siblings involved. I know I am going to enjoy this novel.

Monday, July 25, 2011

 

Teen Angst, 90s Style

What do I think about The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky? Hm. The reason I gave my copy away without reading it was that I didn’t want to go to the place where The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace (books this one was being compared to) and, I suspected, Go Ask Alice and Ghost World (thanks, Tara) and all those other teen angsty novels live. It’s a place I never lived, but am repeatedly told is real and genuine. (In this particular novel, parts of it strongly resembled Say Anything.) Obviously, a lot of teens both now and when I was a teen take them to heart. For me, the problem is that they are written by adults who have since achieved some clarity. So the teens in them seem to me as real as teens in most Hollywood movies about teens (see previous comment RE: Say Anything): all the actors are actually in their twenties. (I think this is what made “Freaks and Geeks” different. The high school cafeteria was a room with chairs and tables in it. The little gang of three Grade 9s looked like overgrown children. The characters seemed to be stumbling around looking for something, while simultaneously trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in their lives.)

In different decades, the bus driving through this territory has different stops: this one was sexual molestation. It was interesting that one of the former stops—drinking and drugs—in this and other such books seems now just part of the ride. This is progress, in that the characters (read: today’s young people) understand that misuse of these substances (i.e., getting wasted for its own sake rather than in the context of friends and enjoyment) is a symptom and not the disease. Characters deal with their business and then get back on the wagon, relatively speaking. I think sexual molestation may become part of the ride in the novels of tomorrow: from all the talk I hear amongst the teens in my house about pervs and inappropriateness, and considering the ending of Wallflower, the culture may learn to deal and move on. Does this kind of progress make you feel sad?

One touching difference in Wallflower was the narrating character’s love for his family, and their love for him. That is definite progress, and I feel, writing this, a huge gratitude to Stephen C. for unlocking the handcuffs and setting us free from the Boomer mythology of generational divides. On a different plane, in a different vein, Edeet Ravel did the same in her Pauline books (which I recommend, BTW: first one is The Mysterious Adventures of Pauline Bovary). To these authors I am truly thankful.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

 

Top-Up on Tepper

A Sister informed me that Sheri S. Tepper had published a new novel so I hied me hence to the ebook store and loaded The Waters Rising onto my Kobo, as the library didn’t seem to have it yet. It was good for quite a while and then it fell apart, into ridiculousness. I had already reserved another SST at the library, though, my interest being rekindled: It was The Family Tree, and I soon beheld some of the pieces of Waters: a world from which humans had been removed (could have been either the plague or the Big Kill of Waters); outraged nature taking a stand; secret hidden repositories of tech and knowledge. A friend mentioned she had stopped reading SST because it was all getting too political and agenda-driven and I can see, in these books, why she thought so. Maybe I caught a whiff of that possibility myself after reading The Frescoes, and that was my semiconscious reason for not reading more....

Anyway, also read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I loved The Corrections in spite of my antipathy toward sweeping novels of social commentary: why? I tried to figure it out while I was enjoying Freedom, which I did, very much. I think it’s because both novels are so strongly character driven, and the rants/wanks are pretty well contained. And many times Franzen hits upon things I have been quietly wondering about myself: like the disappearance of the overpopulation problem, which I remember being taught when I was in elementary school (along with “ecology”, which simply became “the environment”). I think about this problem every time I pass another housing farm in my rapidly-developing suburb, each one chock full of people from countries far more populated and competitive than mine; and I think about all the fertile topsoil that was trucked away from the land beneath these hectares of houses; and about how this urban area has enough food within it to feed its population for only three days.... Time to go outside and listen to the birds for a while, I think. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

 

Escaping Fugitive

Call me a philistine, but Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, which I have finally read, escapes me. Why that bit at the end about a whole new character and his girlfriend(s)? And how did Jakob and Michaela die? Aside from those mysteries, the book confirms for me my bias against poetic novels. I like poetry, I like novels, I don’t like poetic novels.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

 

Penderwicks Return

The third Penderwick story, in which they exeunt somewhat severally for vacation (the bulk of them in Maine, where Jeffrey, released into Penderwick custody reluctantly, makes a Discovery), prompted a realization: why, these are the Little Women! Skye is Jo, Rosalind is Meg, Batty is Beth (with her stuffies but a more life-giving mystery, embodied now in her musical talent) and Jane is Amy (what is Sabrina Starr, her alter ego, but a romantic heroine?) They even have a Laurie—Jeffrey, of course. 

Also read since last post: My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen, a romp worth of children’s literature, but with sex. Not so very much of it, dear reader. Time travel and plucky clever whores and a hero who is a loving father. It was a bargain book at Megastore and is an example of why I love the bargain table. First Light by Rebecca Stead: interesting premise, a race of people who have been living under (literally under, as in within) a glacier for generations, and the discovery of same by a boy whose ice scientist father and periodic depression-suffering mother who is a geneticist have unspoken reasons for their family research trip to Greenland. Liked it. Finally, Still Alice by Lisa Genova: much better than Left Neglected. Still somewhat casual fiction but more emotionally engaging. In the end, husband can’t take it and effectively leaves, but daughters step in to care for mother in the last way possible: by physically and emotionally being there for her. And that reminded me of the one thing I engaged with in Left, which was the relationship between the protag and her mother.

That’s all, must return to the caribou! She said cryptically.

Friday, June 10, 2011

 

More Haven

I went on to Something Rising (Light and Swift) and it went down better than the other Haven; but if I read a reference to Hillman or “The White Heron” again I’m going to scream. I think a novelist should only be allowed to use her university course material once, no matter how resonant and mythopoeic; at least, not this obviously. And now I recall something from a NYorker piece I read this morning: “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

Monday, June 06, 2011

 

Thanks, Friend!

I picked up Practical Jean by Trevor Cole on the recommendation of friend Tara Harte (check out her blog for detailed comments on the book); what a funny and satisfying story! The book cover alone was enough to make you want to read it. I commend the author on his nailing of certain kinds of females and female relationships (in a somewhat exaggerated way, but that was just fine in the context); also true was the relationships of Jean and her brothers. The comedy was right on.

Not so successful an experience was Iodine by Haven Kimmel. The structure of the book was spacey, bouncing between first and third person narration, with the main character having one name to herself and another to others, and sometimes and inexplicably breaking off mid sentence. This was a fine way to bring to the page someone who, it turns out, suffers from frequent dissociative/fugue states (owing to childhood horrors); the reader is put firmly on her side, so that it comes as a surprise (though you can backtrack and see the trail) when a period that added up to four months for the narrating character was actually over four years. What I’m saying is that there was nothing wrong with the book; I just wasn’t in a place to enjoy it. This was my first foray into the author’s fiction and I haven’t stopped, as you will see next post.

Monday, May 30, 2011

 

Family Stories

As I’ve said before, I’m not fond of fat books of the sprawling transgenerational sort, but my neighbour across the road recommended The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan, and since I generally like Indo-Canadian novels, I read it. Like my neighbour, I couldn’t put it down; but when I finally did, I was left with an unfinished feeling. The novel had been one thing, then another: pure fiction of the magic realist sort, with one character bleeding gold dust, another talking with Ganesh and horoscopic predictions coming true time after time; and then acknowledged realist fiction based on the author’s family’s stories—but with a fictional narrator suddenly speaking up between the story and the author’s acknowledgements. Many of the characters really delivered as they were carried through time; some, not so much: for example, Janaki, one of the main female characters, whose daughter becomes that aforementioned narrating voice, was lost between childhood and wifehood. She didn’t seem like the same person. And did the author mean for us not to understand, exactly, why the main male character treated his mother so very badly?

Then there’s Not Suitable for Family Viewing by Vicki Grant—a Canadian writer of whom I am fond. (Quid Pro Quo, et al.) This one has a female MC with romance, but has that familiar thread of mystery, quirky but solid relationships and slight tongue-in-cheek air. A truly satisfying read that I will leave lying about for a while in hopes that Wilful Daughter will pick it up.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

 

End of the Line

Nothing like a holiday weekend to finish a series. The Singing was satisfying enough, though I don’t know what Hem, aside from wielding the tuning fork of power, actually did. ... I guess he was the physical stand-in for the Nameless One. Oh, yeah, clever—Maerad, too, was nameless, as no one knew her secret, third Elidhu name.

How does it feel, to live in a fictional world of your own creation for seven years, and then to leave it?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

 

The Second Book of Pellinor

And the third, actually—and we’ll start with that.

When Hem and Maenad were parted in Book I, I had a hunch we were in for a Farmer Boy—you know, having to endure a story about a character we don’t really care about just because the author has an agenda. (I was a dutiful reader of FB as a child, every time I went through the series, and the only thing I picked up was that Almanzo ate a lot. But as an adult, and especially visiting the Wilder homestead, I understood what a huge economic difference there had been between Almanzo’s and Laura’s families, and what pains the author had taken to prove that, socially and aspirationally, at least—all that emphasis on education and correct behaviour—Laura’s family was equal to or even a little better than Almanzo’s.) So I was not surprised that Book III was all about Hem. While I was reading it I was carried along well enough by his motives and desires; but afterward, I judged the plot pretty much a machine to get him into the Iron Tower (well, more-or-less) to receive his part of the Treesong. It was a good ride, though. And the way Hem is forced to grow and mature is pretty organic—he’s ready to be Maerad’s equal now. I especially liked the portrayal of the living earth, not as female (for a change—hurrah!) but as male in a way that feels true; I’d have to talk it out with someone to figure out how. But it reminded me of a male friend who is a deep nature boy with the same odd twist of grace and implacability. The representation of the same as a huge stag at the end was resonant, too. Anyway, by the time the book was done Hem had become an important character.

And as for Book II, well, that was terrific. Totally Journey literature—character is raw and dependent at the beginning; and self-sufficient, tempered and ready for the task at the end. How the author handled sexual desire was interesting, but still a little remote and theoretical, I thought; this is the only part of her maturation journey that isn’t quite complete. But maybe it is, for a YA novel. And for fun, let’s compare Hem’s and Maerad’s romantic (for lack of a better word) experiences.
Hem: is driven to save Zelika, realizing in the process that he loves her (wants to marry her when he grows up); his search (read: pursuit) for her is rash, against his own better judgement, disapproved of by the adults in his life—very Romeo, in its way, except for the absence of the physical. Throughout, in the Bardic way, he is searching for her mind, and when he finds it, it isn’t hers, after all, but her brother’s. Read: he isn’t ready.
Maerad: is hunted by the Winterking, and then downright wooed; her will and spirit are up to the task of resisting him and protecting her growing sense of self and her ambition to succeed at her task, but her body (her desire is described all in physical though not sensual terms) nearly betrays her, and she is saved by the intervention of her spirit grandmother/the Wise Crone—who helps her to exchange her betraying body for a wolf’s (!). How you want to read that is up to you!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

 

Spring, O Spring!

One of the benefits of being unemployed (in an official capacity; I’m not saying I have nothing to do) is strolling out to the backyard with your morning coffee and counting up all the treasures: first leaves on the peonies, flowering periwinkle, what looks like domestic strawberry mysteriously appearing where you’ve never planted it, or, even, seen it before... but darn all that garlic mustard. Drastic measures must be taken.

Words That Start with B by Vikki VanSickle: Very nice story, interesting characters, clever use of title/chapter titles. Good read.
Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet by Tina Grimberg: speaking of titles, this was a strange choice, given that the expression used throughout the book was “out of step”. Otherwise, informative and well put together, and will furnish examples for a talk on memoir I somewhat rashly promised to give at the end of the month.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach: From 2003; compelling, both in content and delivery. Enjoyed it very much. Got a few ideas of my own out of it.

Now, darling friend who recommended Left Neglected by Lisa Genova: Such is my esteem for you that when I saw I was Number 73 in line for it at the library, I bought it for my Kobo instead. So please don’t take what I’m about to write personally; I try to be honest here, and snarky only when I must relieve my feelings. More to the point, maybe due to my work history, it’s so often more interesting to figure out why a book doesn’t work (for me) than why it does. So: it was well-conceived and all the oddities and trials of the condition were intriguing—and it read exactly like a teen problem novel. The choice to tell the story chronologically was a mistake. We go into it knowing the main character has an accident and becomes brain-damaged in a fascinating way; we are naturally impatient, therefore, with everything that happens beforehand. Since the author was using the time to build the character, that impatience meant I couldn’t engage with the character. It might have been better to use a third-person limited PoV, as well: this Type-A (as we are told many times), driven, competitive character isn’t particularly observant or thoughtful and so being in her head wasn’t a particularly rich experience.

Now, of course, I’m going to have to read Still Alice, just for comparison’s sake....

Friday, April 29, 2011

 

Was Is It About This Writer?

Susan Vreeland, Clara and Mr. Tiffany: I picked this up because I had read The Forest Lover, given to me by my sister years ago. I’m interested in Emily Carr and found that book pretty good, though now, after Clara, remember that I had to get over the writing style, which I found awkward in some way. This feeling was worse with Clara: was it overly writer-y? arch, somehow? I didn’t believe the main character, at least, was of her time (turn of the century NYC)—though, to be fair, who knows how a woman of that time and type would describe the world to herself? I certainly didn’t “cry over the glory of women’s work” as one blurber said. On the contrary, the detailed descriptions of cutting and setting and glass in general got a bit tedious—I could never picture it. My conclusion? Meh.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

 

Margaretha’s Recommendation

I’m not a huge fan of fantasy that involves an invented language and history and cultural notes in an appendix (I’m too lazy to learn something that isn’t real) but this one was recommended by Biggie and so I persevered. The story was great, the main character a real winner, and some of the feminist issues involved (not driven, just there) make The Naming by Alison Croggon a rich read. it got me thinking about the physics of magic. I think it would take a lot of energy. Afterward, a magic worker would be need to be kept warm, like an athlete. A magic worker would be pretty thin, as a rule, though not fit—this isn’t muscle work. He or she would eat a lot and suffer from weird food cravings. Some kinds of magic would involve more drawing on the universe than others, and would have unique physical effects: deep shivers, perhaps, or blanking out afterward. As I write this, I begin to believe that writers of magic don’t take the human body into account much. Alison did, more than most—her heroine gets her period (though weirdly frequently, it seemed like).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

 

Good News

Ages ago (it’s funny how those two words look alike) I wrote about Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; it’s my joy to say now that there are sequels! I found out by accident. The second book is One Good Turn; the third, which I just finished (I’m going to work today, honest!) is When Will There Be Good News? (I have the answer to that question—when you learn that there are sequels to a book you loved.) This is detective fiction for people who don’t like detective fiction. In Good News, Atkinson brings together Jackson Brodie, the hapless sleuth; a character from the second book, wonderfully underwritten somehow, even when we’re in her head (she isn’t very self-aware); and two new characters who carry big bags of unluckiness. One of these is pure genius of the writer’s art. Read the books and then let’s talk about how.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

 

Novels that stir up the pond

My first Walter Mosley was The Man in My Basement, which I thought was extremely odd but couldn’t forget. When I found Six Easy Pieces on a bargain table, I bought it, and then had to read the Easy Rawlins series (I’ve only got about 3 in so far, the early ones being hard to find, and I must read them in order). Now there’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Let’s get this straight—the only thing I have in common with the characters in this novel is that we’re all human beings. But that’s enough for Mosley, who never loses hold for a second in this book. The story is this: a scared old man descending into dementia gets a reprieve through the arrival of a teenaged girl and an experimental drug. He uses the reprieve to deal with the particular memories that haunted his dementia; to love the girl as thoroughly as he can; and to carry out a task given him by a man he loved and saw lynched as a child. How he does this is as satisfying as it always is when a character who has suffered uses money and knowledge/power to exact justice without mercy, and to reward the merciful. That’s the detective fiction part of Mosley’s craft. But deeper than that is how he looks at aging, and love, and one human being seeing another over barriers of age, experience, sex. I finished the book at bedtime and then couldn’t sleep, for all the memories and thoughts it had stirred up.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

 

Polygamy Sucks

... for women.
I’ve had a bit of a smiley-face on for polygamy ever since I started watching “Big Love.” With the ending of that show (a first-class pie-eyed wimp-out, IMO) my eyes have gone a bit squinty on the subject. “Sister Wives” makes it look so wholesome—and then there was the article on plyg in Canada in The Walrus, and after that a nonfiction book on Bountiful and a memoir of an escapee—the latter rather spectacular. Finally, Hidden Wives by Claire Avery. Nothing new here, information-wise, except for a detailed description of some “temple” practices that recalled that one episode of BL where Barb goes to the temple. Fig leaf aprons over white garments and being pulled through a white sheet, etc. As for the book itself... hm. I could hear the writing instruction hovering in the air: “Don’t say your character is afraid; instead, describe the physical effects of fear.” So this book was full of acid reflux, vomiting, stomachs clenched like fists, burning throats, etc. Except for the gastric distress, the narrating characters were empty—while the others were laughable stereotypes.

For refreshment after that, it was nice to turn to When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. The humour was there, yes, but what struck me reading this collection is the way he collects separate little experiences and brings them together in a way that lets you feel how they may have come together for him, in his own mind. This looks simple, but I’ll bet it has taken a lot of time and effort to learn to do. I’m always having mash-ups going on in my head, but I’ve seen the glazed look on Husband’s face (and he loves me!) when I’ve tried to explain why they matter.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

 

I’m Back!

“A long while” turned out to be two years; but my little cyberspace time machine returns me to the point at which I departed, and unchanged, even, unless I make “physical” adjustments to this page.

The world is different, though: no more DWJ.
[moment of silence]

I wonder if she would have enjoyed the movie I saw last night, “Source Code.” A completely satisfying movie-going experience, which has left some bits in my mental teeth that I could pleasurably worry loose. The ideas in that movie were so beguiling I was willing to accept what didn’t work, a mood supported by the lead actor’s sad/hopeful face and his character’s good-soldier persona. Go and see this movie, and then consider these two points: Could the 8-minute conceit work anyhow but as a movie? and, That magic 8 minutes is a perfect metaphor for the work of the writer’s imagination. Source code, indeed. Watch for the nerdy guy in the short-sleeved dress shirt who charges up the machinery, who looks like Neil Gaiman as a short-sleeved dress shirt-wearing nerdy guy.

As for reading: in the past two years I've been a member of two reading groups, one new. The later has been... interesting; during the second year there was an accidental influx of new members, some of whom drive me up the wall. But some of them are not afraid of argument and they keep me going. Next month’s book is/was The Bishop's Man by Lynden MacIntyre: what a boring mess. I couldn’t connect with the main character, couldn’t keep track of the three or four timelines the author was working out, and by the end, felt I had missed the key moment that may have explained everything.

For the old book group, we read Room by Emma Donoghue; that was fascinating, hard, unbearable, and then the author helped us all escape from the unbearable place and the novel became a more ordinary one which you continue to read because you wish the characters well.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

 

Year of Writing

This will be my last posting, at least for a long, long while. I have to jettison a few things to make room in my life for more purposeful writing, and this is one of the things to go. I'm going to shoot for less reading, too, but we'll see how far that resolution takes me!

I just finished another Geraldine M: The Kite Rider (Oxford U.P. 2001). This story was almost too painful to read—I had to put it down a few times just to get some relief. It's a bit like Crispin—a boy finding his way (but much more painfully) past one way of being and thinking to another. It takes place in newly-conquered Mongol China, around the time of Kublai Khan's attempt at invading Japan; it concerns change, obedience, revenge and salvation. Haoyou, the boy, is so slow to learn; but isn't that also so real? After this, any quicker personal transformation in fiction will eem false, I feel.

For fun, a couple of Joan Aikens: The Scream (Macmillan, 2002) and The Witch of Clatteringshaws (Delacorte/Random House, 2005) The latter was published posthumously, the last of the Dido Twite adventures. The former was a short and compelling tale of the supernatural—very well done. I will now troll the Internet for nice things said about JA postermortem.

Here are two titles that bear comparison: The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn (Scholastic Inc., 2004) and Unwind by Neal Shusterman (Simon & Schuster, 2007). These are SF titles set in a world not too far in the future whose stories are inspired by a single idea; one starts out promising and doesn't deliver, while the other is far-fetched yet well-executed.

The premise of the first is credible and interesting: what if it became mandatory for everyone to get a bar code tattooed onto their arms, which would give access to all the personal information required to live and take part in society? Sadly, the story is half-baked and ill-informed. There's too much teenie romance and not enough hard thinking. "The wilderness" is not some kind of endless grocery store that can supply the needs of anyone who hangs out in it. You can't go from city living to feeding and clothing yourself with what you manage to hunt without a lot of training—and you certainly can't provide for a whole colony that way. And the number of the beast argument coming from a teenager with no understanding or even consideration of the gleeful apocalypse accounting that underlies it—it's just ridiculous.

The premise of Unwind is completely unbelievable—I read the book just to see if the author could make me believe it, and though he didn't, he did make the story and characters compelling enough to have me finish the book. His future world is a post abortion-war USA in which parents can choose to "retroactively abort" an unsatisfactory child aged 13 to 17, as long as about 95 per cent (every useable part and piece of tissue) of the child is used again as transplant material—i.e., it's not a death but a new, expanded life. This is supposed to have been a ridiculous compromise brokered just to get the sides talking, and unexpectedly taken up in seriousness. But I just can't buy it. I can't even buy the war itself, even with the explanation that it really wasn't about abortion or no abortion, just about one side against another. The culture Shusterman builds to support the premise is convincing for the most part, though, and his main character offers some interesting scope for discussion about what makes a leader.

Continuing my Meg Tilly explorations, there is Porcupine (Tundra, 2007). Very competent, humorous and touching. There is nothing like family dysfunction, it appears, to teach a person how to write about sibling relationships in a realistic way: the love, the ignorance, the loyalty, fear and jealously all bundled up and doled out blindly by the characters but to excellent effect by a committed writer.

Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida (University of Washington Press, 1987), is about a young, educated Japanese woman who travels to the U.S. to marry a Japanese bachelor storekeeper. It reads a bit like a novel resulting from graduate school research, but not enough to be off-putting. The characters were real and the writing didn't draw attention to itself, which in this case was good.

Finally, What Happened This Summer by Paul Yee (Tradewind, 2006), a collection of short stories in the voices of Chinese teenagers in a number of contemporary Canadian Chinese communities. Very good indeed.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

 

Bad Bad Bad Blogger

How could I have forgotten? The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie; art by Ellen Forney (Little, Brown and Co., 2007). A fantastic book! At the beginning I was doubtful; the approach—the way the narrator was presenting himself, and the tone he was using, made me think it was going to be one of those clownish, over-the-top confessionals that seem so popular these days. But it ended up being full of the deep humour that carries hope and insight with it. The hero risks everything has, which is little enough, for something he hardly understands he's hoping for—and he gets it. Think Adrian Mole, but with more wit and self-awareness—and better friends.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

 

The Bad Bad Blogger

Once upon a time, there was a little blogger, who wrote about the books she was reading. Then she started to put off the writing in favour of more reading. The longer she put off blogging what she had read, the more onerous the task of catching up became—especially since it was buried underneath some freelance work that she was also behind on. Until finally a tiny cry went up from her readers and she thought, “Well, maybe today, blogging would be less onerous than the editing I have to do.” So she logged in to her blog and discovered—oh my!—that is was two whole months since she had written, and here it was, nearly Christmas, when her readers might be looking for something to while away the holiday hours. So she set to work. As she began, a sense of weird otherness came over her. Surely she had written about Kristin Lavransdatter already? She went back to her blog, and searched, and discovered, by means of technical divination, that it had not been two months since last she blogged, but only one—but the November blog had languished, unposted, in the draft pile. She tried to clean it up, but, foiled by the blog site’s inscrutable magic, she was forced, in the end to post the entry with all its errors and hope for the best.

Sorry for that; blogspot didn't like something in the draft and I couldn't find or get it out—hopeless. On to the next lot of reads.

Just finished: Singing Songs by Meg Tilly (Syren, 1994): Yes, that Meg Tilly. Arresting and sad autobiographical fiction (she thought she was writing fiction but it turned out to be her memories, unpacking themselves). I found it on the new books shelf in the kids' section, and it definitely doesn't belong there. Teens, at the youngest, for though the stories are told in a clear, convincing child's voice, what she relates is devastating. How very interesting to compare to this to Haven Kimmel's autobiographical stories, which also emerge from a grubby and inadequately supported, though much less abusive, childhood. I am now keen to read her fiction, and see if she keeps that unadorned voice and clear vision.

Spilled Water by Sally Grindley (Bloomsbury, 2004): maybe someday, we'll read a work by the Chinese female peasant/domestic slave/factory worker herself. In the meantime, such a story is enough to make you think twice about how "cheap" goods made in China are.

I would not recommend What Makes Women Happy (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, 2006) to first-time readers of Fay Weldon, but you fans out there should enjoy it tremendously. It is her wise-woman's compendium. The short answer is "nothing, not for more than ten minutes" and I find that to be absolutely true. And in the lovely way of synchronicity, let me direct you to the little video a co-worker sent me before I had ever heard of Fourth Estate:
http://vimeo.com/2295261

I've been reading tons of historical fiction for work, good, bad and indifferent: I don't have all the info by me and won't go into these in detail except to recommend them: When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park and Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli. I also recommend What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (Scholastic Inc, 2008): how excellently evocative of a certain time and circumstance without being exactly about them. A coming-of-age story set in postwar USA, in which a girl very simply makes a hugely complicated moral decision.

The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman (Razorbill/Penguin, 2008) describes another sort of coming-of-age, in a future world where the environment is scary and threatening and safety is to be found in the town of the Mother and the Corporation—or so they say. The story is told from the perspective of the deeply loved but unaware and conforming daughter of rebels. Couldn't put it down!

Another great title by Caroline B. Cooney: The Ransom of Mercy Carter (Dell/Random House, 2001). It addresses an historical question: why did so many kidnapped settlers refuse to rejoin their families when ransom was offered, in early 18th century America? I'd add this title to a booklist illustrating "the resilience of children" for sure—and it might give readers pause, looked at that way.

Ah, Susan Juby—a national treasure! Getting the Girl (HarperTrophy, 2008) does not disappoint. I was curious, though, if the male voice worked for males, so I pressed Son for his opinion.
Me: What did you think of Getting the Girl?
Him: It was okay—not that great.
Me: What didn't you like about it?
Him: I can't really say.
I'll spare you the agony (he is 13, and not universally eloquent) and sum up: he thought the book would appeal more to girls than boys, due to some aspects of the story and the characters that weren't "realistic." Disclaimer: this was my word, which he allowed for.

I don't know how my work searches led to this title, but it did, and I read it: The Boy From the Basement by Susan Shaw (Speak/Penguin, 2004). Sad and touching, a well-written novel of the sort I ate up when I was 13 and 14, about abused children getting away and finding the love and help they deserve.

Well, that's all! I have a few things from the library and on my shelves to choose from tomorrow. I will need them because the house was not cleaned today, or even tidied up, and a face shield will be necessary if there is to be any relaxing!




Monday, November 03, 2008

 

Penderwicks Rampage Again

Why didn't Candlewick publish The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)? Perhaps they couldn't afford to carry another and then the three more that are planned. The second Penderwick is just as delightfully, bewilderingly old-fashioned as the first, and even a bit more deliberately so, with references to Lewis, Nesbitt, and Eager ("O Turtle!") The main story is bracketed by an end and a beginning, with plenty of love, hijinks and excellent writing in between. Readers of the current and next couple of generations who discover and love these books will be just as dear to one another as readers of the Melendys have been to me.

I'm doing a lot of reading for work again, and so there is much criss-crossing between reading stacks for me. Definitely on the pleasure side was my third read of Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset—the greatest work of historical fiction of the twentieth century. This time I read the new (1990s) translation by Tiina Nunnally—what an improvement. And it is so interesting to read it at this stage of life, with my children beginning to grow up and and away a bit. I find the way Kristin's life is told is so true, in incidents and breakthroughs of understanding. Just as in life, where ordinary days hurry by until something happens that alters your course or colours everything backwards with a different shade, again. I would love to see this work revived as an HBO or British television mini-series. It has everything—passion, politics, swordfights, plague, disaster, wealth, mountains, ships, dread superstition, near death by childbirth and heights of soul fervour...

Now I'm going to hasten through a whack of reading I have done in the last few weeks:

Ursula K Le Guin: Powers (Harcourt 2007): The third book, which follows Gifts and Voices; very good, though I preferred the other two. This seemed more of a portmanteau than the others, with more packed in and feeling more deliberately carried to a certain destination. The best part of it is the relationship the main character, Gavir, has with three significant women in his life: his sister Sallo, his friend Diero, and his aunt, Gegemer, who rescues hims from that Old General always waiting in the wings to make the Young Soldier suffer for his own glory—in this case, Dorod, the seer’s interpreter. These three relationships channel into his care of Melle, whom fate hands him when he is ready to take the gift and responsibility of uninnocent love.

Also by this author:
Lavinia (Harcourt 2008): A homage to the Aeneid by Vergil. Powers, I see, was a lead-in to this look at that classic male thing, a hero, this time from the perspective of The Hero’s Wife (or maybe “Prize” is a better title for the thing Lavinia is). The author plays with voice and time a bit, using the device of the poet himself conversing with his hal-formed creation in a dream or vision; but it's not enough to overcome them, causing more confusion than anything else. And it wasn’t necessary. Most remarkable is the calm and sideways way in which Aeneas’s eldest son is defined as gay—or rather, that his “sexual attraction is not to women.” Wow!

Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks (The Chicken House, 2002; Scholastic PUSH ed.) The first novel of the author of Being; I can see the hard and even cold edge of the latter title is a characteristic of his writing. He describes the feelings his character is having—or, sometimes, the character describes them to himsself—but the character doesn’t quite have the feelings, just experiences the effects of them—the confusion, the sweats, the rising up in violence. This story is about a boy who accidentally kills his drunken father, then covers it up with the help of a girl who ultimately betrays him utterly; but he’s hoist on his own petard there, because, justifying the cover-up, he has said, “It’s only wrong because people say it is; if it’s right for you it’s okay.”

Heroes by Robert Cormier (Delacorte 1998): Again, spare and simple on the surface, below complex and unresolved. Very good.
Naked by David Sedaris (Little, Brown and Co, 1997): I didn't realize starting out that this book was so old. Which means he came out flying.
The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith (Alred A Knopf, 2008) My somewhat guilty pleasure. Can't read these too close together or they will cloy, but it's fun to read them from time to time.
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg (DC Comics, 2007): Love the style, story and characters great. Daughter liked it too and wanted to check out the chix graphic novel line advertised in the back ("Minx": love the name!); but Friend tells me it has folded already. Darn!
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve (Scholastic Press , 2007): After The Sword in the Stone, this is the treatment of Arthurian legend I have enjoyed most. It's historical, not mythical, and posit Merlin as a spin doctor of the highest order.

Monday, October 06, 2008

 

Human Variety

There's something that keeps turning over in my mind, from The Shadows of Ghadames (blogged 9/6/08); it is this kind of thing that got me started doing this in the first place. The sequestered women of that book take turns hosting a regular women's market. They trade goods, but not for money: out of their powerlessness and poverty, they erect a framework of social support and personal favours. Each trader, by giving of what she has when she has it, assures herself of the blind eye or loaf of bread she or her loved ones will surely need somewhere down the road. Hey! It's a reputation economy! just like in ...

Extras by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, 2007). This clever little addition to the Uglies cycle posits a post "mind-rain" (Tally Youngblood's nano cure for the bubblehead operation) city which decides to curb its rampant consumption problem by the institution of a "reputation economy": in order to get more or better clothes, food, accomodation, stuff, and leisure time, you have to earn merits (ie, do chores or labour for the common good) or fame; to facilitate the earning of fame, every citizen above littlie age gets a feed—their personal port of call on the information superocean. So they go around with hovercam floating above one shoulder, trying to get the attention of the city, the country, the world. Once again, SW does a great job building up this world; the ending (the answer to the mystery of the "inhumans") is a bit cheesy and unbelievable (the reason for the eye-surge, for example: pshaw! SW only wanted us to expect aliens) but it was awfully fun getting there.

The Samurai's Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard (Hougton Mifflin, 1984), another Japanese historical fiction novel from this excellent author, follows the career of the son of a minor warlord murdered by an enemy, as he grows from captive kitchen boy to trusted right hand of a great samurai. This is Medieval Times from another part of the world.

I read Voices by Ursula K. LeGuin before I read its prequel, Gifts (Harcourt, 2006), simply because it looked so good that I couldn't wait. Now I've read the latter and discovered there was no harm done in reading them out of order. These books, though linked by common geography and some characters, stand alone. But so richly! They are much better than the Earthsea books, at least the trilogy. They're a tribute to human imagination, in all its forms—and especially in story.

A Taste for Rabbit by Linda Zuckerman (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Inc., 2007) is a interesting tale, in which an outcast member of a society of intelligent foxes comes face to face with a troubled citizen of a city of intelligent rabbits. There's an intelligent badger, mixed up in it, too, and a pair of lesbian raccoons; and despite all this, the story manages to be quite courtly, old-fashioned and a bit philosophical. The writing is a touch clumsy at times, but how the author deals with the whole prey/predator thing is deft.

The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat (Delacorte/Random House, 2006; translated from the French L'enfant ocean) was puzzling. I'm given the impression that it is supposed to be deeply meaningful, but the meaning escaped me. In looking for it, am I doing what the author cautions the reader not to do, in the voice of "Jean Martiniere, sixty years old, skipper, merchant marine"? To whit:
...this child wasn't real, [...] he had stepped right out of a fairy tale. [...] he was granting [us] the right to enter the tale for a moment [...] willing to take [us] in [as long as we] stop asking stupid questions.
Intellectually, I might deconstruct the tale along the lines of "The story is told in many voices, the voices of all the individual's who "read" Yann's silence and the story which unfolds from the escape he engineers for himself and his brothers , much like a Biblical parable or fable of Aesop is "read" people from all times and places" etc., etc., as you will; but if I can't get pleasure from the first reading, what's the point? If the author doesn't want me to ask questions, then he should do a better job of wooing me. Give me some kind of satisfaction of language or imagery to go on with. Strike my heart's bell.

Is the lack of resonance the fault of the translation? Is French meaning untranslatable? (Was the American Library Association's Batchelder Award for the French original, or English translation?)

Being by Kevin Brooks (Puffin [UK]/Chicken House/Scholastic Inc. [NA], 2007) was a bit gory for Son, who didn't like the idea of cutting yourself open to fish around in your insides. The fact that the person doing the fishing was not-quite-human didn't help at all, I think. But what an interesting way to look at the deeply adolescent "who am I?" question, all wrapped up in a very cool, bite-sized version of the Bourne story. And how strangely cold, yet right, the ending was, with not one of us, not even the not-quite-human himself, knowing who or what he is, beyond what the story tells us about him.

I should point out that all my reading is done against the background hum of The New Yorker, as I keep up with my new subscription. Sisters in the province who are interested in the back issues as they accumulate should speak up!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

 

Mission Burritos

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2008) is chock full of information, of which some will be useful, some eye-opening, some confirming, to some-to-most readers: but I'll wager only a San Francisco thirteen-year-old who likes Mission burritos will find the two paragraphs dedicated to Mission burritos interesting, because they will provide an opportunity for self-congratulation. Now, I am the parent of a 13-year-old, and have been a 13-year-old, and I know how precious and necessary a little self-congratulation can be at that age; but there's too much extraneous explanation in this useful, eye-opening and confirming novel, choking the life out of an otherwise gripping story.

In its own way, the book is a graduate of what I like to call the Barbie School of Writing--you know, where the heroine doesn't just toss her hair, but tosses her golden, shimmering hair that bounces from a long session with a blow dryer and just the right amount of [au courant product name here]. Let's call this the Star Trek 401, though—where every bit of tech is explained, whether the explanation is necessary or not. It's cool to know that you know that bit of tech already; and sometimes it's cool to be taught (there's a few things I'll be Googling, that's for sure) but I really can't stand the author explaining things just because it's cool for him or her to explain them.

You can call me shallow (I've never got through a Great Russian Novel for all the damn philosophy those characters were always yammering on about); I agree with the writer in Wired who said that science fiction is the last bastion of idea novels, and I really appreciate all those ideas. But that writer also pointed out that the genre tolerates execrable writing (he really used that word!) and though the writing in this book is far from execrable, it could be a lot tighter. I blame the editors, or lack thereof. I mean, no one should be allowed to get away with a sentence like this (coming from the 17-year-old narrator who lives and is on good terms with his parents): I never watched TV, but I knew my parents did.

All of that said, I am not flaming this book. It's very very nice, and not just if you like that sort of thing. I'll give it to 13-year-old Son, and recommend it to High School Teacher Sister.


Friday, September 12, 2008

 

In Between New Yorkers

For Daughter's sake (the possibility of a need for m'audition) I checked out of the library Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Robert Boyd ill.). This is another feat of liberal, devil-may-care publishing (2007) from the amazing Candlewick Press. The author wrote the book for a class that wanted to culminate their study of the Middle Ages with a play "with no small parts". The series of linked monologues, some "broken prose" (as Nikki Grimes calls the poetry-looking format), some straight prose, some verse, paints a picture of life in a English medieval settlement, from the point of view of varied young characters living it. The detailed and warm illustrations make it a book; and you can't get through the book without reading at least one of the monologues aloud to a family member (and then the family member insists on reading one back to you).

Kanada by Eva Wiseman (Tundra, 2006) tells, again, the story of the horror perpetrated on the Jews by the Nazis during World War II. It is a good novel, well-built and solidly written, and adds the voice of a young female Hungarian to the grievous chorus. But it doesn't do anything else. It tells no other story. I am always longing for another Milkweed.

Daughter rapidly ingested Click Here (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade) by Denise Vega (Little, Brown and Co., 2005) and stated flatly that I had to read it. So I did, and it was charming. And the chasm between my grade 7 experience and the one Daughter is likely to have cracks even wider.

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