Wednesday, September 28, 2005

 

What I Like About Children's Literature

The new books shelf is the first one I visit when I go to the library. Last visit I picked up this little treat: Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach. It was satisfying, had some good characters with interaction between young and old, a happy ending and something to learn about. What I learned is that the solid Shakespeare money these days is on Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Hero and her elder sister Beatrice (yes, named after the characters in Much Ado About Nothing) have recently moved into a new town and Hero gets a hand up in her usual uphill battle with adjustment when she becomes friends with the next-door neighbour--and, by accident, with the hottest guy in her sister's class. A mystery is solved, a priceless treasure recovered, and a happy reunion is stumbled into. Two of my favourite poems are included and, of course, many snippets of Shakespeare quoted. But the author is lighthanded with it, and the book is never precious, nor sententious. The story remains in the realm of the young. (Beatrice gives Hero some interesting advice on getting along at school, and the two consider the personal sacrifice involved in being popular.) It is so hard to build a mystery, though. I have to reprimand the editor for not asking the author to follow up on the chandelier. Hero and Danny should have at least discussed it.
Also made my way through the NY Style double--a slog, for this is my least favourite issue. Now on to this week's--mmm.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

 

En Roulant Ma Boule

An imminent canoe camping trip with P sans children sent me to Chapters looking for a bargain paperback (fat, lightweight, and no disaster if it gets dunked). I found Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone (McArthur & Co., 2003)--an appropriate choice, I thought.
What a good book! An English Quaker man travels in 1811 to North America in search of his sister, who followed her new husband into Michigan Territory, then disappeared. Mark is a taciturn young man whose relationship with his younger sister has always been rocky; he doesn't understand what motivates her, finding her restlessness and provoking. Setting out to look for her he is prompted by his caretaking, dutiful role but also, deep down, by his streak of un-Quakerish adventure-loving, something he has in common with his sister, though he is too bound by his time and his older-brother role to make use of that commonality. Mark sets out utterly green, and his search takes two years, during which his every experience prepares him for what he needs to do in order to get his sister back. In the course of his search, he is forced repeatedly to hold his Quaker beliefs up to new light and reexamine them.
The novel's pretense is that Mark's story is one he has related himself as an older man, using the journals he kept on his journey. The author, then, is merely the modern-day "editor", who found the hidden story in Mark's house, which she bought from a family descendant. This device creates the leeway needed to make a good novel out of a character who, when it comes down to it, is stubborn, blind, callow, unimaginative, stiff and unsympathetically, at least to the modern reader, righteous.
It is interesting to read about Canada's War of 1812 from the perspective of an outsider. (The author is a Scottish academic.) The colonist's impatience with the superior ignorance of the mother country is given a good trot in the character of Alan, Mark's brother-in-law. The star of the novel, though, is how the Quaker way of life and belief system is placed next to the Indian's; Mark is surprised and often discomfited by having more sympathy, in his nature, with the Native people he encounters than with his sister's husband. I appreciated, too, how well the author conveyed how tentative the concepts of "Canadian" and "American" were, in voyageur country: being a North West Company man meant more than either of those designations. Mark's education is the reader's education, too: by the time he finds Rachel, we all understand the significance of her disappearance.
Also read this week: Somebody Else's Summer by Jean Little (Viking Canada, 2005). Far-fetched and incredible, but enjoyable. No one does convincing family life like Jean Little does; and she is honest in portraying adults who care for children without necessarily liking or "getting" them. Here's Lily by Nancy Rue (Zonderkidz, 2000). Very much a series book--there's a complete edifice being built here, with novels and "non-fiction companion books" dealing with, I presume, the issues that the novel brings up. This particular story introduces Lily, an awkward sixth-grader who stumbles into modelling and discovers in it a way to self-confidence. Lily's parents allow it so long as Lily "finds God" in the activity, which she does, with the help of her mentor, the owner of the modelling agency and also, as it happens, a Christian. The book was all right but disappointing. I would have liked a deeper examination about what "finding God" in something means--that's something I struggle with in raising my own children.
But why should I be disappointed? Series fiction is, essentially, shallow; so Christian series fiction's handling of religion must perforce be shallow, a matter of lifestyle issues, not faith issues. I find that distasteful, when matters of faith for me have always involved the deepest questions and the most nutritious thought. Is there a happy medium out there, between God as joke and God as setting?
BTW, the camping trip was fabulous. We saw a bear--fortunately, on our paddle out.

Monday, September 19, 2005

 

Beautiful Weekend

Sundays, I have a habit that has become, over the years, somewhat of a necessary ritual for me to wipe away the previous week and ready myself for the coming one, and that ritual involves a good couple of hours with a novel (and several other things, including church, coffee and home baking). I get snarly if I'm not left alone to do this, me and my family have learned. So even though I had a lovely time of socializing with and/or entertaining some very dear people (you know who you are) this weekend, and even though P had been away camping and came back attractively light of heart and bristly of chin, I had to sequester myself on the sofa in the late afternoon and devour something. (Alas, the home baking was all finished.)
Hold Me Tight by Lorie Ann Grover (Simon and Schuster, 2005) is billed as a YA though the protagonist is apparently 10 years old, perhaps because there is some "content" (a brief assault upon a child). It is told in a sort of free verse style, similar to Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Why? Free verse can be intoxicating; you can give a simple statement poetic power by arranging it to look like poetry. At least, you can for a while; but if the language isn't poetic (careful, rich, unexpected, powerful, lyrical), it starts to feel like laziness. Or like a screenplay, annoyingly staccato. The assault (by a family friend) also seemed like one thing too many. In the end, this book fell apart for me. Too many strong elements (a child abducted, a missing father, a predatory family friend); too young a protagonist (and a first-person PoV) contained in language too flimsy to hold them. But I am extremely critical. The book isn't terrible.
I'd started reading "Hold Me" as a break from the two I'd been struggling to get into: Honest Doubt by Amanda Cross and I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. The latter I gave up on. It's about a underachiever youth who begins receiving mysterious instructions after (accidentally) intervening in a bank hold-up; I tried, but I couldn't get past the first three underachieving chapters. (Note to self: when letting a boring character describe his boring life, be VERY CAREFUL.)
The Amanda Cross I think I'll also give up on. It's just not grabbing me. Too much dull detail. Detective work, we are told by detectives, is a lot more plodding than literature makes it out to be; it follows, then, that detective fiction should be a lot less plodding than actual detecting.
I have now begun a book I bought this summer in the obviously Christian section of a hybrid, resort-town bookstore. There is a LOT of Christian children's fiction out there, and though I have an instinctive cringe reaction about it (less-holy-than-thou?) I am also getting impatient with mainstream (children's) publishing's prejudice against any evidence of religious practice in ordinary characters' lives. So far, the book's interesting. More later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

 

Found in Children's Section

There's someone at the library who thinks a red maple leaf on the spine means the book belongs in the juvenile section. I've pulled quite a few adult books off the "new books" shelf in the children's department. Battered Soles by Paul Nicholas Mason is one of them. I thought it looked interesting, so instead of handing it in to the librarian I put it in my checkout bag. (The maple leaf, by the way, indicates a Canadian author.)
Lakefield isn't very far from where I live and a quick scan piqued my curiousity: was there really a shrine there, and a pilgrimage route to it from the nearest city? If so, why hadn't I heard of it?
Turns out I missed the fine print, about how the book is "utterly fictional." It was more exciting when I thought it was true (for about four and a half pages) but oh, well. I kept reading anyway, and was entertained. This is no Canterbury Tales but the writing is competent and humorous and the characters are quirky--a little too-too much so, sometimes, but it was okay. There's some spiritual pondering, too, though nothing so deep or "religious" that it would scare anyone who might be scared off. Knowing some of the landmarks was fun. Anyone for a visit to the Hamlet of Frodo?

Monday, September 12, 2005

 

Steve Martin As Author

Reading about the making of Steve Martin's Shopgirl into a movie, I looked up the title when I went to the library. I had read The Pleasure of My Company a year or so ago and liked it very much, to my surprise; my previous experience of Steve Martin As Author was with the book Cruel Shoes. Now, I adore that book. Almost daily I give thanks to SM for providing me with the perfect shorthand way to dismiss bad poetry utterly: the phrase "skyed sparrows." Also, I think the little poem therein entitled "Things Not To Be" is a tiny work of comic genius.
But Cruel Shoes did not prepare me for earnestness in the work of Steve Martin. When I took up "The Pleasure," I was prepared to laugh. Now, for the author of a work of comedy, this is a frame of mind devoutly to be wished in the reader; but for a work of earnestness, not so much. The formerly comic author runs the risk, in not giving his readers laughs, of having the laughs taken from him forcibly, in the form of mockery. So, I have to salute SM for his courage in trying it, even if it is a sort of Dutch courage provided by a big bottle of disaster-preventing money and fame planted by his elbow. (On the other hand, if LA is as unforgiving a place as complaining movie stars say it is, then there was still the risk of being laughed out of a few parties.)
"The Pleasure" won me over completely. It was funny, yes, but in sad/tender way. And it was insightful, and thoughtful, and unusual. Shopgirl is the same. SM writes in a dry, almost clinical way, laying out the details with a stingy precision. It would bore you except that he is so often right on the money in the way he puts the details together. (And, frankly, I'd rather be given too little detail than too much.) In Shopgirl, the earlier of the two books, you can see his philosophy-major background, it's true--but it's philosophy put to work in my favourite way, in the minds and actions of interesting characters. And his characters are interesting, for some reason. They should be little wooden puppets, the way he sets them up, but they never are. You feel for them the way you feel for toddlers (if you really observe toddlers); you laugh at their falls, but you admire how hard they work, how much they want to succeed, and how persistent they are. And when they get tired, how ready you are to have them in your lap and let them rest awhile.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

 

I Give Up

I tried, but I couldn't finish Red Plaid Shirt. None of the characters connected with me, and several of the stories read like writing exercises. (See "A Simple Story" and the title story.) Maybe I'm missing something; maybe I just don't like short stories. After all, I can't even get through an Alice Munro collection. But that's another topic, for another day.
Now I've run out of reading material (never mind the bookshelves full in the basement) so it's time to go to the library!

Friday, September 09, 2005

 

The New Yorker Explains It All

P gave me a subscription to The New Yorker for my birthday. Oh, joy! I won't have to read the tattered library copies out of sequence to get my fix of intelligence, humour, thoughtfulness and educated Americans at their best for an entire year.
This week's issue devoted the entire Talk of the Town section to the situation in New Orleans. I have a personal interest in the disaster, as my brother lives (lived) there. He's fine--he and his wife and son evacuated to Savannah, where they used to live, before Katrina, and it appears from satellite imagery helpfully found and circulated by cartographer P that their house is high and dry. Who knows about looting, though--that topic is the one that has confounded me. How can chaos prevail so quickly?
Well, The New Yorker painted a bigger picture of the kind of studied neglect New Orleans and its environs has been receiving for years, and that put current events in context.
Larry's Party is done. I heaved a big sigh of contentment, kissed the image of Carol Shields on the back flap and thanked her. Writing at length is so lonely, laborious, and can create such a vacuum between your ears--I am grateful that people make the effort.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

 

An F---ing Genius

Larry's Party is good. Really, really good. Rereading it now, almost ten years after it came out and ten years further on down the road of age, adds a whole new dimension. The method--CAT scan cross-sections (author's analogy) of the main character's life, complete with unapologetic overlaps and repetitions--is so real. It's how one thinks about one's life. Every time some new information or angle comes up, you review, and what you know or understand is skewed again.
Last night P and I talked with the cast-off boyfriend of a neighbour. Although our friendship with the neighbour is our primary loyalty, our hearts went out to this wounded, puzzled man. And Larry came to mind. Afterward, when I mentioned the comparison to P, he said, "Everything's a novel in your mind."

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

 

Old favourites

Finished "Bone" on Monday; it was definitely stronger earlier on, but I still enjoyed it to the end. On to Red Plaid Shirt (Harper Flamingo, 2002), a collection of the short stories of Diane Schoemperlen, a Canadian writer whose work I have never read. Her reference in one story to "a box of barbecue chips" made me smile in fond reminiscence of the western brand Old Dutch, which came two bags to a box. Mmmm.
I can't figure out whether or not I actually like short stories. They used to be rather like jokes, with endings like punchlines; now the style seems to be to let them end with a dribble. Often I'm not sure what the point of the story was--and by this I mean, am I any richer in any way for having read it?
At the same time I am rereading Larry's Party by Carol Shields (Random House, 1997), a book that really bludgeoned the Husband (hereafter referred to as P) years ago (he feeling like he was rather uncomfortably like Larry, minus the details). I enjoyed it very much then, and am enjoying it again now. Processing some fruit with P yesterday, I wondered aloud what the likelihood of botulism was in canned peaches. Do we dare eat the one onto which P put a used sealer lid? My mom used to reuse them all the time when she made jam, but ours is a more safety conscious age.
I have been reading the Edward Eager books to the children in a rather desultory fashion over the past months. They seem to be enjoying them but I wonder how many of the literary refs go past them without making an impression. To be fair, what I know of Ivanhoe I learned from Knight's Castle! I love the illustrations (by N.M. Bodecker). I always have--their angular look, the expressions on the faces (especially haughtiness!), the straightforward blackness of the line, balanced by all those times the artist expresses things (invisibility, steam) with dots. Last night, in The Time Garden (Odyssey Classic/Harcourt, 1999) I found a description of that time in summer that people call "dog days" but which has always felt to me exactly as E.E. described it (I guess this is where I learned!): "That time [..] that you all know only too well, when everything stops growing, and the leaves hang heavy, and no birds sing, and even the most ideal vacation takes on a certain sameness. And the thought of summer ending and school beginning again would be almost welcome, if it weren't so utterly unthinkable and horrible." (p 109)
Of course, I feel differently about the school part now. Me and all the other moms think this, not Christmas, is "the most beautiful time/Of the year"!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

 

A Lucky Find

Browsing in the 2nd-hand bookshops Saturday afternoon on behalf of a visiting friend’s university-bound daughter I found Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (Broadway Books, 1998). I bought it for another, food-loving friend, intending to read it first and then pass it on. Now I don’t want to give it away. It has some hilarious bits, recipes, and is also thought-provoking. Read this bit aloud to Husband and he said, “Sounds like someone I know”: “Alice [...] was the first person I ever met who understood the power of cooking. She was a great cook, but she cooked more for herself than for other people, not because she was hungry but because she was comforted by the rituals of the kitchen.” (p 26)

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