Sunday, April 30, 2006


Another String of Pearls

Enchantments by Linda Ferri (translated by John Casey; Knopf 2005) is a tiny little book, very nice to look at and hold; also nice to read. A novel in stories, moments in a girl's growing-up that form a sort of tribute to her father. The moments are roughly chronological but each also illuminates an idea. One of my favourites is "The Bukowsi Brothers," in which the four siblings—the narrator and her younger sister and their two older brothers—cut loose together one night when their parents are away. The contrast framing is the narrator's meditation on the otherness of her brothers.

I've read a number of books by Elizabeth George (mystery author) over the years, I know, but I don't know what they are. The names "Thomas Lynley and . . . Lady Helen Clyde" rung a bell. I, Richard (Bantam, 2002) is a collection of 5 long short stories, each introduced by the author. The introductions wrecked the stories for me, but I couldn't help reading them. I wouldn't recommend this volume to someone new to the author.

Friday, April 28, 2006



Godless by Pete Hautman (Simon & Schuster 2004) looked promising, but it was way less about how "the religion [which the main character, a disaffected teenage Catholic, invents for fun] grows and takes on a life of its own" than it was about a bunch of adolescents fooling around on and in a water tower. The religion part seemed only so much windowdressing; nothing about faith, just rebelling against form. Except when it came to the character who goes a little crazy (literally) with it; which might have been interesting, if the author hadn't removed its bite by making this character an ubergeek who goes a little crazy with each of his interests. There is one good moment, when the main character's father finally accepts that his son isn't just rebelling, he really does not believe in God. The father lets him go, to follow a "lonely road" (Dad) but "my own" (son). But again, this could be anything a teenager chooses to reject or take up in opposition to his parents. . . .

Simple atheism is boring.

BTW, I betcha in most places these days the water tower is protected the way it is in my town: with a huge chainlink fence topped with razorwire. How old are the watertower stories the author thanks people for?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


The Rest of The Kin

The next two stories in Peter Dickinson's The Kin quartet, Po's and Mana's (1998 & 1999), get a little more complex, as The Kin encounter two more peoples, the marshpeople in Po's Story and the "demon people" in Mana's Story. As well, we get inside two more of Suth's and Noli's ersatz family. Suth and Noli functioned as a man and woman in their books, and in these two books they really are grown, mated and starting their own, real families. Po is still a boy, struggling to grow into a man that Suth and the others will be proud of; he makes mistakes, but his rash eagerness brings with it a kind of luck that he recognizes, at the end, to be a blessing, for which he is grateful. Mana is young, too, but not for long. The Kin experience war, and Mana must deal with a wound in her spirit, which she does in a uniquely womanly way. Her story brings the Kin back to where we started with them, and completes them.

Mana's Story is the most complex of all the four, both in its subject matter (a murderous culture) and in its approach. The Kin's language doesn't have a future tense, nor, really, a speculative mood. Everything is present, or past. The Oldtales running through each book aren't metaphorical in spirit, just as the Kin's interactions with the "First Ones" are visible and, though awe-ful, almost tangible. But there is one symbolic thing they do, which is introduced in Po's Story: they choose a rock, and declare it to be the sacred rock on the mountain of the First Ones; then they make their oath on that metaphorically sacred rock. The Oldtale running through Mana's Story asks the listener several times to "see" something outside of the tale; then it picks up the thread of the tale again, holds that moment next to the scene the teller just described and says, "It was like that." Two heroes are locked in mortal combat, and one deals a death blow to the other; the tale pauses, and asks us to see a "father tree" being struck by lightning; then the tale resumes with, "Such was the blow." Delightful!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Time Travel Hurts

I'm always interested in what my old friend James Heneghan is up to, but I got a bit behind for a while. The Grave was published in 2000 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and is awfully good—even to someone who is close to maxed out on all things Irish. Grave is like a better version of Flood, which came after—in the latter book the supernatural element seemed downright silly to me. Here there's just the lightest hint of faery—thank goodness. The editor could have lightened up on the tough talk a bit; surely a mouth isn't always a "cake-hole" (especially when it's "lipsticked"!). But here's a really great idea: time travel hurts. At least, when your actual flesh does the travelling. Your molecules (or "mollies") get rearranged, and the pain nearly kills you.

Heneghan's author's note gets into and out of the facts quickly and lightly—and leaves a wound. His connection of the discovery of a mass grave with the Irish potato famine is a theory only. But it clicks. The secrecy and obfuscation that surrounds the discovery makes it even more suspicious. After more than a century and a half, do the English still try to deny the atrocities they visited upon the Irish peasantry in the 19th century? Then I guess the Irish more than deserve of the warmth on the world stage they are currently experiencing.

News flash: a little background research reveals that The Grave is a continuation (an in-fill?) of the Monaghan story started in Wish Me Luck.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


First Try

Here's how synchronicity works: because something has come to your attention once, a random encounter with the same thing gets your attention a second time. I would not have given First Boy by Gary Schmidt a third look (the cover is very attractive) if I hadn't encountered the author in the pages of the Calvin College alumni magazine at a friend's house. He teaches children's literature and the Middle Ages there. He had some agreeable things to say about the former. He's a big fan of Katherine Paterson. His book was very good.

But American politics are weird.


One Sunday Afternoon

. . . I thought about One Sunday Morning by Amy Ephron (HarperCollins 2005). It was an annoying read for quite a while, with such strange comma usage one had to reread sentences constantly; and full of dumb misusages of language. Given that this a tiny, moments-on-a-string sort of novel, these problems are serious. But the story was brought to a close so deftly—a clasped necklace—that I forgive both author and publisher.

I was rearranged by Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing (the book of hers that The Kin books remind me of); I have not been able to forget it. So I eagerly pounced on The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. That this book is about Dann was a backwards reminder of how Lessing favoured that character; she is fascinated by The Other One in him, the crafty raging id who will do anything—or nothing—for itself. The rangy title represents perfectly what this book is: the door held open a while longer on this world Lessing created, and the characters and wars that animate it. It doesn't end, either, just comes to stop. (This is not a criticism at all.)

While you are there, in that world, you are entertained, teased, made to sorrow, bemused, intrigued . . . all those Doris Lessing things. I wonder, in this world of hers, with Yerrup under (rapidly melting) ice and Ifrik dust on one end and marsh on the other, what Central and South America might be up to. . . .

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Disaster Revisited

A friend to whom I was sure I lent my copy of A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (Puffin, 1996) found it, fessed up and returned it. So I reread it. I think I'll add it to my "books every woman should read" booklist. I love Farmer's portrayal of the "restless spirit," which can't help but observe and absorb knowledge, even while the body that contains it is worked to exhaustion by menial labour. I love too how Farmer honours belief. I love her Africa.

I read a review in Q&Q of Travels With My Family by Marie-Louise Gay and David Homel (Groundwood, 2006) so picked it up at the library. What a delightful little book this is! How well the authors have managed to look at themselves through the eyes of their children, to create this family of misadventurers. Nothing that happens in these pages is huge, or wacky, or ironic, or outrageous; really, it is the mild stuff of every family's life. But, not. Because this is a family of artists.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Big Bird

In Murkmere by Patricia Elliott (Little, Brown and Co., 2006), religion is built on a sacred Great Eagle and the pantheon of lesser birds. Elliott borrows the language of English Protestantism (not CofE, but Chapel—think Cromwell) and seems to have read an Elizabethan or Victorian book on the Language of Birds (seeing a robin betokens Love, for example) but that's about as deep as religion goes, in this book. Jehovah=Eagle, and the rest can shift for itself. She doesn't not seem to consider how worshipping birds might form a culture—she has her villain, a carefully whitewashed sepulchre, describe someone casually as being "no bigger than a bird." (Excuse me?) She doesn't look for the places where such a religion might answer people's need; she wants it for its repressive tendencies and the way it played out in the Houses of Parliament.

The main character, Agnes, is a pious innocent, who is sent to the manor house from her village to be companion to the Lord's ward, Leah. As we get closer to Leah's birthday, when she will be proclaimed the legal inheritor to the Lord's estate, Aggie discovers long-kept secrets in the Manor and in the village, and her piety (not her faith--there doesn't seem to be any, really; no one prays to a bird for guidance) is shaken.

Is it just me, or is the patchwork too obvious in this book? The swanskin, the religion, the government, the wise fool, the unctuous villain, the rustic but honest sweetheart, the village-manor house relationship, even the human relationships all seem have been carried in from other places. I could easily blurb this book and make it sound absolutely compelling, because all the elements are there. But I never felt I was really living in the story, while I was reading it. Yet it was well written. Perhaps Ambergate, the promised next book by this new author, will be better.

Monday, April 17, 2006


More Prehistoric Peter

I went right on to Peter Dickinson's The Kin, a series of four books about more prehistoric people. The first two are Suth's Story and Noli's Story (Penguin Putnam, 1998). In these, Dickinson explores more deeply the idea of the religious impulse in human beings (and the storytelling impulse, actually). He has some interesting insights—and the stories are rivetting. Son is gobbling up Noli's Story right now.

Somehow between churchgoing, housecleaning and Easter dinner preparations I managed to read Small Steps (Doubleday Canada, 2006), Louis Sachar's sequel to (or maybe spinoff of) Holes. It's a bit more real, and hence a bit more distressing (to someone like, say, Son) than Holes. Definitely YA. It's about Armpit; it's about the guy who's big and naive and his own worst enemy, trying not to be. Touching and sad, even when it's being hopeful.

Friday, April 14, 2006


The Friday That Feels Like a Sunday

A good time to blog.

Laugh Till You Cry by Joan Lowery Nixon (Random House, 2004); her last book, I guess. It's a bit slim. And not so funny as all that. Good enough for fans but not enough to make you one.

The Children Who Smelled a Rat by Allan Ahlberg (Candlewick, 2005; ill. by Katharine McEwen); Katharine gives us no reason whatsoever to miss Janet, but of course we do anyway. Very colourful and amusing and British and Ahlberg; I'll give it to Daughter to read, since there's lots of "stuff" (typefaces, spot illustration) in it and she likes that.

Tangled in Time by Lynne Fairbridge (Ronsdale Press, 1999). I'm pretty sure I read this in manuscript, a long time ago. I remember the Dutchness (it's set in Neerlandia and Edmonton) and also the unsatisfactory feel of the time-travel. This has all the ingredients of a good read; so why isn't it. It's okay and everything, just . . . flat.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Messages from the Universe

The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Roaring Brook Press, 2003) was a bit of a disappointment. It's a straightforward fantasy adventure with a hero who has some learning to do along the way, from the impertinent (female) sidekick and the wise (male) elder. I recognized some themes from a fantasy work I edited a while ago, by an author of Indian background: the balance of good and evil, the idea that the universe is a web of interplaying essences. That was interesting. For a child unfamiliar with (fiction set in) India, then the setting might be a source of wonder and surprises. What was disappointing was that stuff seemed to happen without clear purpose, just to make the story "exciting." The conch, which is central to the story, starts out awe-inspiring, and ends up with a character halfway between the sidekick and the elder. This shows a lack of authorial control. And the main character wasn't particularly compelling, to me. Still, I might read the sequel.

Peter Dickinson's A Bone From a Dry Sea (Bantam Doubleday, 1992) has some echoes of Eva, but the apelike female here is from the past, an ocean-living Lucy meant to put some flesh on an interesting but rather raffish theory about humankind's missing link. As in Eva, our heroine, Li, is cleverer than her tribe, trying to steer her vision through the tribe's complex social heirarchy (particularly its males) without violating it—or being violated. Dickinson balances this nicely against an equally touchy "now": a paleontological dig, run by an alpha male of uneven temperament, in the area where Li and her tribe foraged eons ago. Vinny has joined her father for the summer, looking for a way to get closer to her father after her parents' acrimonious divorce. She proves to be a lucky finder of fossils; she is also a keen observer of human interaction, constantly checking her own behaviour and responses so as not to alienate her father, or cause him trouble amongst his co-workers (but always with her own goals in mind). I deeply admire Dickinson's ability to combine the imaginative, the intellectual, and the social/emotional. He is rather like Doris Lessing in this respect, I think, but I find him more . . . amiable. More true. One of Li's traits is a keener self-awareness than in those around her: "She felt that she was being watched with the same intentness as she had watched the spider building its web long ago . . . Yes, like that, that sort of web, herself at the center of it, all the lines drawing in to her, here, now. No one else. Nowhere else. No other time." This intense me-ness—which in this book hints also at a watcher, the beginning of religion—is something Lessing's characters don't ever seem to have. So I find them cold.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Bad Blurb Award

What were the editors at Tradewind Books thinking? The blurb describing Nannycatch Chronicles by James Heneghan and Bruce McBay (2005) is terrible. It blathers on and on about the place names and a possum and his "mean old uncle" and talks about the spirit of Thornton W. Burgess. Excuse me—who are they trying to sell this to, old folks? Then why the "don't tell the grownups" note to the reader from the publishers? The only reason I checked it out of the library was because of James Heneghan.

Anyway, I'm glad I did. Yay, James and Bruce! If you have to write about fuzzy woodland creatures, this is definitely the way to do it—quirky and humourous, pretty (but not too much) but not precious. Thornton Burgess meets Lemony Snickett. Why on earth didn't the editors say that?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


What Happens When Your Internet Access Is Down

. . . You do a lot of book reading. I'm going to be a while, so bear with me.

First, not far from the question, "Where are all the Dutch authors?", I reread another childhood favourite, Mine For Keeps by Jean Little (Little, Brown and Co., 1962). I had not remembered that some key characters in this book were a family of recent immigrants from Holland. There is actual Dutch used in this book! No wonder I kept it. Jean Little's books do not lose their lustre at all over time. Her parents tend to be very very wise; however, in later books, she has included some muddled, imperfect parents as well. (And she did love her own parents so much.) The old-fashioned quality about her old books which is tender and lovable and not dusty is the sense that families pull together. Parents are parents and kids are kids, and they get angry with each other, but they aren't the natural enemies or mutually alien life forms some newer (trendier?) fiction makes them out to be.

Because it is pleasant to compare, I'll take things out of order now and skip ahead to Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay (Simon&Schuster, 2001). McKay is a British author of several books, none of which I had read. The jacket blurbs use "old-fashioned" as a term of praise, and I see why: this book and, apparently, her others return you to that place where fictional families pull together and love one another in ordinary, hands-on ways. This particular family is muddled and harum-scarum (the Penderwicks again, only this time there's a mother in charge--sort of; the British seem fond of this kind of family) with Dad away in the city all week and Mom in the garden shed most of the time, painting. Saffy discovers she's adopted, a cousin instead of the sister she thought she was, and the rest of the book is really about how the family shows her what that means. Bravely and quite successfully, McKay does something I have not seen very often: skips things ahead a few years in a couple of sentences with no break between.

This leaves me with Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930; Penguin Classics ed. 1996) and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf, 2005) to discuss. Yes, they can be compared, too: the one, the stuff of English lit courses for a generation or two already; the other, sure to be for generations to come.

I bought Vile Bodies at a secondhand shop just because it looked interesting and I hadn't read a Waugh (faugh!) for a while. It was a pretty smooth read, funny and sad, and interesting especially in the light of Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart. This book is really about the same thing, when it comes down to it; only, given it's Waugh, it's more clever and quick. The same era is presented, between-the-wars in England; again I see what a trial it was that there was so little work to be had by upper middle class and upper class young people. I see how Bowen's (lower-middle class) young people aped the "Bright Young Thing" manners in vogue at the time, which Waugh writes about. There is a sense in both books of a world in which the soul is foundered in loss, the body stalled by inertia. The dull eye of a hurricane: for certainly, the more one reads out of this era, the more one sees that the two wars were one war, with a tense and depressed hiatus inbetween.

And speaking of loss, let me turn to "one of our most eloquent poets of loss" (says Joyce Carol Oates): Kazuo Ishiguro. How agonizing it is to endure all the missed opportunity, unsaid words, unexpressed emotion, misunderstood circumstances in Ishiguro's novels. In Never Let Me Go he creates an alternate post-WWII England in which cloned young people are a national resource of replacement organs. Sorry for giving this away; I know part of Ishiguro's charm, if you can call it that, is the way he lets you in so very, very slowly (it's torture!). But I found it remarkable to read this because a year or so ago I was working with an author who was developing a YA novel something to this effect, about clones in society; replacement-organ culture was one of the ideas bandied about. Ishiguro treats the idea with absolutely no wow-ism; this book cannot be categorized as SF by any stretch of the genre. Rather, it's a reason to trap his characters in a very sticky net, then make them wriggle. One of the key scenes is when the three childhood friends from the same school are reunited as adult donor/carers, and take a trip to see a "boat" that has been spotted offshore somewhere. They get there, and look at the boat: it's a half-submerged hulk. So what? you think, but it's all very symbolic: England is an island, and there's no way off. This scene is the absolute death of any hope you might still harbour of the characters overcoming their inner hamstringing and escaping their fate. Yikes!

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