Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Zilpha, O Zilpha

How I loved the books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder when I was young. (Or maybe, I just liked her name: Zilpha Keatley Snyder, in its entirety.) Black and Blue Magic, The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm . . . the last two being examples of the dangers of too much imagination, which is something I associate with ZKS: perfectly ordinary children getting carried away, and then having the fantasy they've created turn on them, eerily.

Alas for the kids of today, unable to enjoy anything without safety equipment. Even a child's interior, imaginative world gets hemmed in these days. The imagination in the Magic Nation Thing (Delacorte, 2005) is not quite imagination; it's second sight. Abby can actually get images of a person by holding one of his or her belongings. But this skill is strapped into a character desperate to be "normal" and by a story construction that, after allowing it an introductory success, carefully neutralizes it. Abby has a few failures, which cause her to doubt what she sees; her best friend Paige is more willing to run with it, but chooses cockamamie test subjects; and finally, it is allowed no real part in the solution of the novel's big crisis. The search for Paige's little brother Sky is carried out in the ordinary way, despite Abby's sensations and worries and insights (the only one of which that she shares turning out to be wrong); and in the end, Little Sky is brought home by the friendly folks whose car he crept into.

Hmm. I seem to remember a missing little brother in The Egypt Game. I also remember there being a more sober, holding-back sort of character and one with more desire to get carried away. Which one was the main character? I think I'll go check.

Anyway, it's no wonder fantasy is so popular now: created worlds are the only places where kids can play without helmets and knee pads and don't have to call home on their cell phones every twenty minutes. But the problem with created worlds is that so often their horrors are also unreal. You close the book, and the world it contains closes also. How much chillier is the chill of the being under your sister's bed, which you created yourself out of imaginary elements as familiar and ordinary as an outgrown T-shirt, a couple of hockey sticks and a pair of your dad's gardening shoes; but which, long after your sister has fallen asleep, clicks and clacks there in the darkness, keeping you awake.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


And now, the . . . novel?

Well, there's no reason why a former newscaster can't write a novel. Bill Cameron's Cat's Crossing (Random House, 2003) is a humorously far-fetched trawl through Toronto, whose central line is the animystical journey of a cat toward the plant he needs to cure an ailment. When he leaves his home, all kinds of junk piles up behind him: eventually, lives are ruined, people die, mobs riot and cars crash. I was quite taken with the story. It was packed with description but most of it quite sincerely felt, and the characters were very . . . fleshy.

I borrowed this book from a friend, who bought it off a library sale table. I searched Amazon and it is not to be found. Wow, Bill, that must bite.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Star Gazing

I enjoyed, with a sort of wondering dismay, Neil Gaiman's Coraline; Stardust (Morrow, 1999; Perennial Edition 2001) is definitely easier to digest, but no less wonderful. What, though, makes the one a "children's" book and the other "adult"? There's some sex in the latter, but I think my son would find the chilly darkness of the former more disturbing. Or maybe it's me that finds it disturbing. I know sex embarrasses my 10-yr-old, but does that mean it should be hidden from him? How can it be, when it is everywhere in our culture? Hmm. This is something I would like to talk about with a bunch of children's lit enthusiasts some time.

P.S. My son inhaled The King in the Window (up illegally reading until 10 at night) and declared when done that it was "very, very good." He loved the wraiths. Good on ya, Gopnik!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


James Territory

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938; Anchor Books Edition, 2000): Wow, I haven't been here in a long time. Henry James territory—tiny shifts of emotional landscape so meticulously (agonisingly) described it reads like a foreign language. The witty chat of the upper middle class felt like that of "Six Degrees of Separation," only more difficult, because of the greater remove in time, and the Britishness. (How tortured between-the-wars Britain must have been.) The patter of the high-energy young felt artificial and hackneyed, because of having seen too many movies and too much backward-looking British TV. The servant class--well, that was just Monty Python: "Well, I never! I come over all queer, like!"

But these are not faults of the book, just of the reader. I feel too tired, too experienced . . . really, too like one of Bowen's characters to give it its due. One would do well to read this book in university; the topic of one's paper could easily be how the modern (young) reader of this book is like the character Portia, the "innocent" newly arrived into a world on which she has some claim but which is foreign to her. Utterly ignorant and with no equipment but her own sensitivity (which offends) and observation (which frightens and mistakes), Portia must try to find a place for herself in this world, or be drowned by it.

"Curious tautness and intensity" indeed.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


A Little Philosophy Goes a Long Way

. . . but a lot doesn't get very far.
The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, 2004) introduces a new benevolently meddlesome spinster gumshoe to readers: Isobel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, who bends her mysteries through the prism of applied ethics. My advice to Mr. McCall: in future books, more application, and less ethics. The philophical musing in this book bored me, yes; but more than that—it seemed suspiciously like padding, for a mystery that was pretty thin.

I should declare myself, though. Philosophy annoyed me in college. It seemed to me like a big make-work project, creating complications in order to settle them. Hmmm . . . sounds like mystery writing. Perhaps that's the problem, then. The murder mystery, as a genre, is applied ethics; the most we should see is the backside of the embroidery, as it were. No one but the embroiderer should have to read the pattern.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


So It Goes

Reread Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Burnt through the KV oeuvre in my late teens/early twenties and now see how very good he is. Oh, to be able say so much using so few words! And yet, I think of William Steig. Maybe it's the similarity of philosophy: So it goes/I didn't make the world. A shock, then; anodyne now.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Last and First

The last book I finished in 2005 was Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle (Firebird, 2004; first published 1999). I've picked up and put down again more times than I can count books which delve into the ancient superstitions and beliefs of the English/UK countryside. You know them: the Green Man, boggarts, the Wild Hunt. Those are worlds I feel too tired to enter, at this time in my life.

So it's a good thing I believed Tamsin was a ghost story when I started. And it is, really. An American girl from NYC, Jenny, is transported to Dorset by the marriage of her mother, and ends up in an ancient manor house infested by spirits, in particular the 300-year-old ghost of a young woman. Beagle's take on ghosts—that they are the emanations of memory, and construct themselves daily out of what they remember of their lives (and what they forget of their traumas) is a wholly convincing one. His choice of narrator, a fish out of water, allows him not to get bogged down in the layers of myth attached to his setting; he takes advantage of her ignorance to skate on its surface, taking things, refreshingly, as they come. His choice of voice, the narrator recounting what happened in her recent past, gives him opportunity to prepare, explain, comment, judge—to direct the reader beyond the surface with hints which they may follow up on or not, as they choose.

These choices come to fruition when Jenny meets and is aided by The Lady of the Elder Tree. This venerable legend lives in the form of the single and strange lady-farmer nearby. Jenny, of course, does not recognize who she is—nor does she particularly care. "'Aye, and here's first 'un, here's first on 'em'" says the Lady. "' Aye, I knowed they'd be coming along any day, the children as wuddn't know Lady of the Elder Tree. So, there 'tis. No harm.'" Because of her ignorance, which poses no challenge to the Lady's continued hidden life, Jenny is allowed to keep the memory of her experiences with Tamsin, her lover, her enemy and the Wild Hunt. I didn't know the Lady of the Elder Tree, either, so her saving acts came as a brilliant surprise, and made for an extremely satisfying ending.

The first book I finished in 2006 was The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik (Hyperion, 2005). I know and love Mr Gopnik's writing from The New Yorker, and his familiar wry commentary on all things Parisian leaks through these pages. (I know, there's a single word that describes this leaking-through on a page, but it's the most uneuphonious, unnatural word in the English language, and I hate it.) The start of the story is a bit rough: a series of separate discursions, almost, on the main character, Oliver, and various aspects of his life. (And there are a few annoying errors, too, which the editor should have caught. There are no feathers in Oliver's first encounter with the wraiths!) Then at last the book's imaginative engine gets to running smoothly, and one can sit back and enjoy the ride to the end.

Oliver, an American boy living with his parents in Paris, accidentally becomes the King in the Window, ruling over window wraiths and various other ghostly peoples whom he discovers as the novel progresses. The wraiths are in danger from The One With None, who rules The Way, an alternate world on the other side of mirrors; this enemy is about to launch a serious incursion into the "real" world, and only Oliver can prevent it.

But how? He is only a lonely 12-year-old of no particular significance or intelligence. But in a fiction informed by Lewis Carroll, St Exupery and French intellectual history, ignorance can't last. Various helpers come along, who instruct, push, pull and goad Oliver into bending his mind; and Oliver learns to think, and thus to bend reality and win the war.

This is a very thinky adventure, and it didn't always all add up, and least for me. (I still don't know what function the skaters played in the final confrontation, or even who they were.) But it was chock full of wonderful characters, and spicy with Gopnik's characteristic distillations of mighty truths into pithy metaphors. If you want to get a handle on Moliere and Racine, look no further. Gopnik combines (and disses) the French and the American beautifully (one can see the very American Charlie going home with a new, very French shrug). I'm grateful to Gopnik, professed Judeo-Christian unbeliever that he is, for removing the veil of allure from Buddhism, and championing human longing and desire as a life-giving function of the soul. (And for championing the soul, for that matter.) And he is to be commended for taking the modern, sexual-abuse-in-every-corner heat off poor old Dodson.

About Alice and The Little Prince: I never enjoyed them as a child, and even now, I think they aren't children's books; they are books about how adults like to think about children. They are books about adults' inner child. There's a strong flavour of that in this book, too; I think it would be worse if not for the author's son, and his admonishment to "bring the cool bits closer together." There are plenty of cool bits in this book; enough, I hope, to make it worthy of children's, as well as critical, attention. In this age of sensation (both senses of the word), couldn't we all do with a bit more thinking?

One last thing: P asked if I could please put space between my paragraphs. This is a recent convention which I despise. I'll do it, but only because I cannot find a way to make first lines indent in Blogger.

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