Saturday, December 31, 2005

 

Happy Happy Holidays

So much more time for reading, despite visiting and cooking.
Before I started Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones, I finished the library book I had been reading: The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall. Well, I never read the Moffats books, but I loved the Melendys and this brought back all those family-of-children delights. Once you get the four girls sorted (Skye-blue eyes-blue Skye doesn't help the reader much!) you can just go along for the ride. The subtitle is "A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy" and that about sums it up. The girls' loving and relaxed single father (Mom died of cancer a little while after the youngest was born) had to book a different summer place at the last minute, which turns out to be the gatehouse of a huge and gorgeous estate. The girls befriend the young heir, son of a battleaxe mother, as well as the gardener, who becomes the object of the eldest's first crush. In the end, the girls, with some help from their father, help the heir and his mother gets some things straight. And the eldest gets her heart straight--with a little help from the gardener himself.
Also read: Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You by Laurie Lynn Drummond. A clever title given that the stories, all about police officers, are based on the author's 8 years of experience on the force. It took me a while to realize that the stories, all told in first person, are actually about different police officers, and weren't different stories about the same character. Now I look at the table of contents and see the reason for my confusion: there are actually five characters, some of them with more than one story apiece. Huh. So, do all female police officers speak with the same voice, then?
Anyway, after a half-dozen, I was done. As I am done now. On to DWJ.
I am such a huge DWJ fan. And a very forgiving one--heck, I've tried Fire and Hemlock three times, and each time feel it almost works. But, Diana, this one left me scratching my head. Stallery Castle was great--that whole pulling of possibilities thing, and the wreck the possibilities faultline makes of whatever's on it. Christopher was great, and his reasons for being in that world were, too. And Conrad was fine, as a character. But that whole thing with the camera--THAT was his talent?!? It was so last-minutey--even his taking the thing along on that particular jaunt seemed an afterthought, and as for the camera in the rest of the book, he only acquired it--we never saw him use it. And shouldn't there have been some twinge of significance with Amos, given the magic Conrad's uncle had loaded on him to make him recognize the right person? Speaking of that magic, when Millie or whoever noticed it on Conrad, it felt familiar. Here it comes, I thought, that delicious "the ne'er-do-well is going to turn out to be the golden boy" thing. But I don't know if I believe Conrad was so magically gifted. Maybe it was just all the magic Conrad's uncle had heaped on him that Millie saw. Because, frankly, capturing layers of worlds in a single shot seems to have more to do with the special properties of the camera than the talent of the photographer. Especially when the photographer didn't even see them until the film was developed. (And who developed the film.) Arg. It makes me want to resurrect that hoary old fight about whether photography truly is art.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

 

Merry Christmas!

With P taking care of Christmas dinner, the children occupied with Christmas gifts and the in-laws not yet arrived (oops, they just arrived, better hurry) I steal a moment to mark the reading of Barbara Pym's The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and The Boy and the Samurai by Erik Christian Haugaard (Houghton Mifflin 1991). About the first: it might have been a rereading. Anyway, very British/Jamesian and well-written. About the second: how have I missed this excellent children's author?
Next, my Christmas gift to myself: the latest Diana Wynne Jones!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

 

Teeny Tiny KO

Thank God for the library, else how would one know about Bad Girls by Mary Flanagan? (Bloomsbury Classics 1992; originally published 1984 by Jonathan Cape). It's a tiny, fat hardcover, a short story collection of high and entertaining quality. The Bad Girls are mostly all women, going off sideways each in her own way. One story deals with the casual cruelty of girls so deftly you hardly know what's hitting until, one, two, you're down!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

 

Chickens See Blood

(Peck, Peck)
What makes The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck (Dial, 2004) good? The old country language, Peck's inability to resist the story within a story (looking back, and looking back again through layers of history); the characters, so colourful and real; the male expression of family love, and Peck's drawing of the hardworking world of old farming life as a well-functioning, mutually respectful "separate but equal" dual universe, males one one side, females on the other. And it's funny, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

 

White Male Takes on Black Female

Well, this in interesting: The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman. What motivated Philip Pullman to tell the story (in first person, no less) of the sixteen-year-old daughter of a white English computer salesman and a black painter from Haiti? (Let's get out the alethiometer, and ask!) It's the summer she confronts everything she doesn't know about her past and puts it all together. I raise my eyebrows at her instinctive connection to voodoo; her moment of possession by Baron Samedi is clumsy and odd, though not without a balancing "white" parallel, in the madness of her paternal grandmother.
Reading this after Just Like That, I feel a need to read, now, some Brian Doyle, that master of the main character who is nothing particularly special--no painting genius with secrets, just a normal kid at a normal crossroads.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

 

Just So-So

This book reminded me of those SBS paperback teen romances I gobbled up when I was 11 and 12 and 13, which my father deplored but my sisters passed around with good appetite. We knew they were fluff, and that's why we liked them. Some of them, recalled with sweetness, surprise when when reread. The book in which the teenaged girl is given a fresh olive and it's inedible, a trick played on her by the younger daughter of the family she is visiting, turned out to be by Beverly Cleary. That was The Luckiest Girl, and I have it and it is still sweet. But the book about the old-maid highschool teacher who busts loose one day with the purchase of a red convertible (The Red Red Roadster)--I pounced on that when I found it in a library sale box, but found it nearly incomprehensible. Surely its teen slang was dated even when I read the book as child?
What will the 13-year-old of today find in Just Like That by Marsha Qualey (Dial, 2005), when she rereads it 30 years from now? The blurb says that Hanna's life is changed forever when she becomes "the bearer of a major secret"; well, perhaps readers closer to Hanna's age will understand what the big deal is about the accident she didn't witness and had, really, very little to do with. Her life changes, yes, but what 18-year-old's life doesn't change, once she leaves high school? That incident, the colourful family Hanna takes up with, the major fight she has with her two best friends--it's all just window-dressing to the one thing that the 13-year-old reader will find fascinating: Hanna takes a 14-year-old boy to bed. Of course, when she finds out his age, she ends the relationship; but the 13-year-old will be satisfied by the appropriately romantic ending, in which, five years later, the two find each other again.

Friday, December 09, 2005

 

Irshad the Terrible

Everyone! Read The Trouble With Islam (aka The Trouble With Islam Today) by Irshad Manji (Random House, 2003)! If you're a liberal humanist, you'll learn how to argue with a conservative libertarian; if you're a liberal Christian, you'll learn how to respond to a Bible-thumper; if fear of seeming like a judgemental racist keeps you from challenging fuzzy "multi-culti" thinking, this book is for you. And if you are a courageous conservative, Bible-thumper or "multi-culti", then this book will rock your world! And then there's all the Muslim readers! Go, Irshad!

Monday, December 05, 2005

 

The Lost Recommendation

A long time ago I heard a book discussed on the radio and thought it sounded good, so I scribbled the author name and title on a bit of paper (while I was driving--never a good idea!) and then lost the paper. Then I saw it advertised in The New Yorker, but forgot which issue it was in. I knew I would recognize the book if I ever heard of or saw it again, and lo! on Sunday I found it at the library while browsing the "bestsellers" shelves at the library.
The book is Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown and Co, 2004 [1st American ed.]). It starts out with telling about three shattering incidents that happened at various times in the past; about the characters immediately involved and the days or situations which lead up to them: one, a child who disappears; two, a young woman dies in an office after being stabbed by an unknown attacker off the street; three, a young mother's increasing rage at infant, husband and remote country living is relieved by an axe to the husband's head. Then the book starts a new story, that of the private detective who becomes involved in each of the cases, and, because of the involvement, becomes a link amongst them. The case of the missing child and that of the murdered young woman are most tied up in the detective's own life; the last case is the most tenously connected, but offers an interesting aside in a sort of fifth case, which is the new, post-prison persona and life of the formerly infamous axe-murderer. All this awkward wording is for a purpose; let us just say that the author keeps a few secrets to the very end.
The book has much of the satisfaction of psychological detective fiction of the Ruth Rendell sort (characters and what motivates their actions), but is humorous, even ironic sometimes, where the other is, well, not. There have been some thorough reviews written on this book that can be viewed on Amazon. I enjoyed this read and will look for others by this author.

Friday, December 02, 2005

 

The Awful Dodger


It's not often that the hero of a children's book is an antihero. Joe of The Whispering Road by Livi Michael (Putnam, 2005) comes close. One can sympathize, certainly, but he is at times unlikeable: self-centred, resentful and ungrateful, almost cruel. In short, Joe is a deeply troubled and unhappy child. His most heroic act comes right at the beginning, when his little sister, Annie, is beaten unconscious by their cruel master, and Joe makes good their escape. Joe as been looking out for his sister since their mother left them at the workhouse door, years ago, promising to come back when she found work. Now, Joe and Annie decide they must go to Manchester to find her. As soon as the opportunity comes up, Joe abandons Annie--and forgets about looking for his mother. He runs free, with a gang of street children who give him the moniker Dodger and teach him to steal; soon he sports a tall hat and corduroy trousers stolen from an office messenger boy. The name, the outfit, are nods to Dickens, and the author plays with Oliver Twist again when Joe is taken up by a wealthy benefactor. Joe is no Oliver: there is no secret stain of nobility within him, waiting to be buffed to a shine. But neither is he an Artful Dodger, entertainingly cocksure, admirably, ruefully shrewd. He appreciates the food, both scoffs at and admires his new clothing, and eagerly seizes on the opportunity to learn to read; he ignores his misgivings about Mr. M's motives because he is comfortable, and physical comfort has been so scarce in his life. When at last Joe is faced with the limits of Mr M's philanthropy, he is outraged, and he viciously beats Mr M with his own stick.
This is the story's bleakest point, when the dark figure of Bill Sykes looms over Joe's shoulder. Is it also the story's weakest point, so far as the character of Joe is concerned? I thought so at first, because I found it hard to believe the political jargon coming out of his mouth, especially when it was so recently learned. But I look closer at the words he speaks as he raises the stick: "You may be an organ grinder, Mr. M, but I ain't no monkey." Joe throughout is opportunistic, not calculating. If the nearest "stick" his fragile ego could seize on to beat off threat with is political this time, well, that fits right in with other such opportunities: the folktale that got him away from his cruel master, and the fiction of compatible freakdom that motivated him to abandon Annie to a travelling circus.
Fortunately, Joe comes under the protection of a printer, who makes an honest boy of him, and eventually helps him to find and reclaim his sister. Although the relationship is fictional, the character of Abel Heywood is based on the real Abel Heywood, who published a paper (at first illegally) for Manchester's poorest, was active in union development and eventually became mayor. The author makes use of Abel not just to bring about a necessary happy ending, but to shed a ray of light into the very dark world she has recreated. Abel is right--things change. There are no more workhouses. Children are no longer worked until they die--at least, not in the average reader's world.
What of Annie? What is she in this story? Annie is magical--she is a medium, seeing people others can't see. She freaks Joe out, scares him; she's a constant reproach, an impediment. But she is his conscience. Only Annie shares the central story of Joe's life. She's his way back to his mother, whom he needs to find and forgive before he can grow up. Child readers who store this inside them will discover it again when they are grown: no matter how you fought when you were kids, if you hold on, and you're lucky, you'll find that there's no one like a sibling to guide you out of your family and into your own.
There is much more to this story than Joe: a feral dog-woman in a dark forest, a happy wanderer, cheaters and liars and the wonderful, heartbreaking Queenie. It is at times hard to read, at least as an adult; I'll be interested to see what my son makes of it.

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