Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 

James Bad

Long ago I read the entire Ian Fleming oeuvre. Noticing a James title on the library shelf I picked it up to reread it. I had no recollection of it. But, aside from James himself (and really, isn't one always thinking of Sean Connery?) the books were so unmemorable--really, pulp fiction of the worst kind. The Spy Who Loved Me doesn't resemble the movie version at all. The entire action takes place in a remote NY state "motor court"--exotic for Brits, maybe, but strangely up-the-roadish for yours truly, particularly as it stars a "Canadian," from Quebec. This "Canadian" is a young woman, and the story is told from her "female" perspective. All I can say about that is that I am so glad I wasn't a young woman in 1962. To be perceived and "understood" this way--yuck! Double yuck!

Monday, November 28, 2005

 

Ring-o

The Rinaldi Ring by Jenny Nimmo; a reissue of an early title by this author. It was all right.

 

Dud Auntie

On the strength of The Sex Life of My Aunt, I picked up another Mavis Cheek title, Aunt Margaret's Lover. After about 40 pages I closed it, and suddenly my head felt like I had left a room that was noisy and too crowded. Ah, blessed quiet! On to The Rinaldi Ring by Jenny Nimmo.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

 

A Cryptic Past and a Possible Future


The Snow Fox Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (Norton, 2004) is a long, detailed story set in medieval Japan. I say it is long because although the way through was entertaining, I forgot what the story was supposed to be about by the time I reached the end. It claims to be about "the four children", and is mainly the love story of the first and second of "the four children"; the fourth of "the four children" was a girl who is now "lost to history"--except, of course, she's the one framing the novel. (It isn't even her story--it was delivered to her by a bandit and peddlar from a monk--the third of "the four children.") Confused? Wait til you get to the middle somewhere, where another four children play a key role--two samurai children and two peasant children, dressed in one another's clothes in the confusion of battle and sent to live one another's lives, for the protection of the clan heirs. The first and second of "the four children" may or may not be two of the latter four children--hard to tell, and the author herself seemed a bit confused. (Are the latter four two girls and two boys? Does Matsuhito have a brother, or a sister? Can a clan leader really have no clue what his own children look like?)
The author is in love with medieval Japanese detail, and I think that's really what the book is about. I have nothing against it, though all that cryptic poetry and sideways conversation got a little tedious. I guess I just couldn't enter the medieval Japanese mind. I certainly had trouble believing that Matsuhito didn't recognize his old lover, even while sleeping with her again. "He thought women didn't age" -- huh? What about that old woman in the hut he defended? Okay, so the samurai didn't believe the peasants were human--maybe by "women" Matsuhito means "samurai women". Still...all this not-recognizing going on kind of takes the wind out of the framing story's sails. That story of the four children is supposedly "a story to make ungrateful children behave well, to frighten them into obeying their parents because at least they knew who their parents were." It seems like the real warning is for the parents telling the story--look how easy it is to lose your own children!
As I write this, I think maybe the story is really about what it might be like to have to carve an identity for yourself in a culture where identity is carven into its people from the moment they are conceived. That would explain why the most engaging (to this Western post-modern reader) part of the novel is when Matsuhito and Lady Utsu are together in a hut in the snowy woods, a world unto themselves. Significantly, though they have a child, that child does not live. There's no future outside the culture, apparently--even Shinda, the most free of all the story's characters, is remembered as no more than "a peddler and...bandit," once his friends are gone.
To conclude, a quotable quote: "'Ah,' [Lady Utsu] said. 'Complaining is what I do. What is writing poetry but complaining? You take something, refuse to let it go and remind everyone it has gone. Is that not complaining?'" (p 289)
The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau (Random House, 2004) is a sequel to The City of Ember, and is the better novel, I think. The first had a slight gimmicky, prequel quality; I got the feeling this book was the one the author really wanted to write. It really tests the mettle of its main characters, and brings in some great new ones, as well. The Emberites (most of them--there are riots before departure) make it upside and are taken on by the people of Sparks village. Inevitably, hard feelings start to rise--then are tipped into strife by unhappy Sparker Torren, and whipped up by Tick (the name!!!), an Emberite who wants not to work, but to lead (and preferably a war) . The author struck one wrong note: a "roamer" comes to the village with his load of salvage, and even a useless pair of taps are bartered for. "But only a few people seem interested in [the jewellry], and they bid hardly anything.... [A] man got [it] for a slighly used pair of sandals. 'If my wife doesn't want [it],' he [says], 'I'll use [it] to pretty up my oxen.' " Well, if the warfaring instinct hasn't died in these post-Apocalyptic people, then neither would the tricket-collecting instinct. I would wager the author has never donned something truly exquisite, and felt the jewel-lust pinch her breast!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

 

Keeping Up

Read: Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman (Ballantine, 2004); the book group edition. A quick read. Stories of the people who live in and are connected to a house in New England over a couple of centuries. Couldn't remember how it had ended three days after I read it. Also: The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan, 2004). Interesting characters, nothing too unexpected, plotwise (speaking as an adult reader of children's books); certainly creates a wonderful pre-WWI Vienna; interesting comment on Fatherland Germany. The map could have been clearer. If I had to compare Ibbotson to another writer, it would be Cornelia Funke, but Ibbotson is much more self-disciplined--or she has a better editor. There's something old-fashioned about both of them. Shades of The Tree That Sat Down/The Stream That Stood Still or The Wind on the Moon.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

 

Rereading

Between library visits I like to take something off my own shelves that I haven't looked at in a while. I've gotten rid of more books than I've kept in my lifetime so after years have passed I become curious as to why I decided to keep something. (And I want to know if I still want to keep it.)
This one I kept because it was written by someone rather famous, under a pseudonym. If the Old Could by Jane Somers (Knopf, 1984) is the story of a women in her fifties, widowed after a shortish, late and childless marriage, who falls in love. (Hmm. This book has some themes in common with My Dream of You.) At the same time Janna is experiencing, for the first time in her life, pure exhilaration and joy (though the relationship is strangely chaste) she is also dealing with a raffish and impossible niece, the sister of a more successful one who has just departed. In this character, you can see intimations of Ben, the Fifth Child (yes, that is the famous author): she is stupid, cunning, intractable, dirty, all instinct. A throwback, female version.
Janna is also reliving her own youth, in Jill, the older sister of the throwback. Jill has just moved into a flat with her boyfriend, and has smart job with responsibility and a future on the editorial staff of the magazine her aunt works on. Janna sees herself: ambitious, careful, organized, a little scary, almost cold. Another character observes, "She's like you, Janna; efficiency doesn't come naturally to her, so she has to work extra hard at it." That observation, though it's never said, hangs in the air above this book: there's a Kate (or a Ben) in all of us, and we fight that with varying degrees of effort and success.
I think I'll keep the book.
Also read: The Anybodies by N.E. Bode (aka Julianna Baggot; HarperCollins, 2004). Entertaining and well-written, with excellent illustration. Nods all round to The Doll People, A Series of Unfortunate Events and every book that refers to other books.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

 

Another Old Country

Suppose you had a granny dressed in shawls who came here long ago from the old country; and one day, you suddenly realized that you had never known exactly what old country she came from. In The Old Country (Roaring Brook Press, 2005), Mordicai Gerstein creates a fabulous Old Country of his own, rather Baltic, and peoples it with Crags (whom nobody likes) and warring Surlandians and Norlandians, and talking animals and small hidden-kingdom people whose home dimension is being torn apart by the guns of war. And running through it is Gisella, looking for her body, which was stolen from her by a trickster fox.
This is a story about war and its foolishnesses; it's a fanciful story, but it addresses some big philsophical questions. Like Aesop, Gerstein uses characters we can chuckle about to disarm prejudice, and before you know it he has set up a war crimes tribunal and is answering the question, "Who is to blame for the damages of warfare?" And you've been well prepared for his answer (which served up cold would have bounced right off your heart) by Gisella's adventures--and by Gisella herself, who is a plucky Tatterhood straight out of the best fairy tales.
Fairy tales. This story visits all the places of myth—the dark forest, the fairy kingdom, the king's castle, the fox's den. Each visit shapes you to accept the truths of myth; and again, this prepares you for Gerstein's answer (as does, for that matter, the book's epigraph, from a poem by Wallace Stevens). Even so, the book surprises: Gisella, who is also Granny, is not entirely who we think she is. Even that is a lesson, when you think about it: I am reminded of a conversation I had with a priest, after I had been asked by my child, "How do we know the Bible isn't a myth?" With a gesture at his vestments, he said, "I am a myth."
Also read recently: The Complete Short Stories by Muriel Spark. I had read it before but read it again with only vague recollection. It was very fine. I think Muriel Spark is one of my favourite authors. She's witty, clean, judgemental without being unmerciful. And she keeps her necessary secrets.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

 

Quadroons


A sister recommended Richard Peck to me, but of course I had read the Blossom Culp books ages ago. Nevertheless I was open to the recommendation, because I'd had an RP book in my hand a few times at the library but never brought it home. I don't know why. Anyway, I picked up the title she praised especially and was glad I did. The River Between Us (Dial Books, 2003) is an American Civil War story, and a topical read now, as it deals with old New Orleans, specifically, the custom of plaçage. Like the furtrader custom (though much more genteel) of taking a "country wife" and having a family that never saw Edinburgh or London, plaçage allowed a wealthy white planter to take a mistress from among the French-speaking free women of colour in New Orleans, and have a family with her. This is the milieu of The Wind Done Gone (I think that's the title--that controversial freestyle dive off the platform of Gone With the Wind) , and it is a fertile place for any novelist.
Even a children's/YA novelist--but then, perhaps that's just RP's skill. Though the story is essentially about the progeny of one such union, the author frames it brilliantly, in a way that would matter to an adolescent. Quietly, with devastating simplicity, the author asks and answers such questions as: Why do boys lie about their ages and go to war--even knowing its horrors? What does being "free" mean? What secrets does a family keep, and why? I find myself pondering this question especially, as I write this. Such is our respect for RP's characters and their story that one can't see skeletons in their familial closet; rather, in the final revelation (a wonderful twist) you see that their secrets have acted through their history like yeast. And what nourishment it gives, at last!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

 

Sex in the Ould Country

After her warm recommendation, my mother lent me her copy of Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You (Riverhead Books, 2001). It took a while to get into it. I couldn't feel the character—she seemed cold, or her interests were so not interesting to me. But I persevered for the sake of my mother, and was in the end richly rewarded. It now seems like genius on the part of the author that it took so long to connect, because the narrating character turns out to be suffering from a deep internal disconnect that is somewhat healed by the end of the novel and by the end of her sojourn in Ireland, her homeland.
As for the sex referred to above, well, if I had time, I'd sit down with this and a couple of other books I know and figure out why it isn't pornographic or in the least pandering, where so often elsewhere it is. Suffice it to say that the author conveys everything about it, from the cold despair to the hot transport, from the dead alienation to the passionate connection, with perfectly delivered intent.
Also read recently (or not read): The Turning by Gillian Chan (Kids Can, 2005) and Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2005). The latter was enjoyable, though employed a strange device which the author admitted she would have had no use for as a child reader (she "converses" with her main character to explicate the story building process). So why did she do it? It seemed a bit fey to me. And the best friend boy didn't quite ring true as a boy. But I appreciated the work the author did to make the silkworm project live on the page.
The former I gave up on halfway through. No fault of the book, really—I just didn't want to get into that whole Green Man/faery thing. I'm sure a reader encountering that world for the first time would find the book fascinating, though.

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