Tuesday, May 30, 2006

 

What Have I Been Doing?

Not reading, obviously. Actually, that's not true. I have been catching up on The New Yorker, and working my way bit by bit through the four nonfiction books I have going.

Went to Chapters a couple of times (children's birthdays this month) and was irresistibly drawn to the bargain fiction shelves. In the future I am going to try harder to resist. A cheap bad read is still a bad read; e.g., Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch by Joan Barfoot (Key Porter, 1994). Why does a novelist give her two main characters names that start with the same letter? Is it a personal challenge—let's make them as similar as possible from the outset, and then see how well I can distinguish them? It took me about seventy pages to be able to keep Charlotte and Claudia apart in my mind. And thinky, thinky, think—nothing happened in this book! Even when a little something was happening (dialogue!), it was so fogged by internalizing one couldn't feel or notice anything for oneself. I skipped over a lot in this book. Sigh. I'm sorry, Ms Barfoot.

Went to the Silver Birch Award ceremonies at Toronto's Harbourfront and took the kids along for the experience. While waiting to speak to the author I had come to morally support, we bought some books ("one each! that's all!") and the children's choices surprised me: Daughter, almost 9, chose Rain Tonight: A Story of Hurricane Hazel by Steve Pitt (Tundra, 2005); Son, 11, chose Quid Pro Quo by Vicki Grant (Orca,2005)—neither of them winners (though the latter was a finalist). I guess they are both reading above their age level, now. Or maybe I'm just surprised, again, that Daughter has finally discovered reading is enjoyable. They settled down and started reading, then and there (no interest in autographs). I chose A Bloom of Friendship: The Story of the Canadian Tulip Festival by Anne Renaud (Ashley Spires, ill.; Lobster Press, 2005) so that I could read about my people. It's a strangely put-together book, a bit busy (the repeating-tulips screen in the Instant History boxes is very distracting), and why did they choose to narrow in on what is essentially the Ottawa Tulip Festival? This choice required a page on Karsh, when they could have used every page for the real story, which was the relationship between Holland and Canada during WWII and which up to that point they had been handling quite well. Rain Tonight is a very nice book, and Heather Collins was a good choice for illustrator; I'm reading Quid Pro Quo and it's delightful. Son admitted that it had some mature content ("statutory rape") but he loved the Latin legal terms. I doff my hat to Vicki Grant, who did a lot of talking to lawyers to write this book.

P.S. Killer author's note in the above.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

 

More From Joseph

Just finished (just started, as well--these books are short!) The Dark Pond by Joseph Bruchac (HarperCollins, 2004). I'm liking this author. Okay, you might argue that he does nothing to dispel the "Indians are mysteriously close to Nature" idea that those Native American-loving Germans and New Agers hold so dear; but I do like the way he mixes it up. The hero of this book is part Armenian, part Shawnee; and when the monster in the dark pond makes itself known, the hero is set off on his research path by a reference to Grendel in Beowulf. And I like it that these books are short, and illustrated (well); the hero in this one is sixteen or so, which would make this a good choice for an older but below-grade reader.

I borrowed What I Meant To Say (Ian Brown, ed.; Thomas Allen, 2005) from my younger sister, intending to browse, and ended up reading the thing from cover to cover. For one thing, I like Ian Brown. I find him amusing, clever, humble and eager—at least, on screen and on the page. This is an anthology, inspired by Dropped Threads, of Canadian men (writers) writing about being men; it's addressed to women ("men wouldn't buy a book like this") but I'll be directing my husband to a couple of the esssays at least ("but they'll read it if a women they care about passes it on to them"). Hats off to Ian (and editor Janice Zawerbny) that the essays are of consistently high quality. Hats off to the writers for being, if not candid, then pretty convincing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

 

Is There a Future in Beautiful, Meaningful Books?

Like this one—Simeon's Fire by Cathryn Clinton (Candlewick, 2005). Deeply researched and felt. Painstakingly simple. A labour of love. Will children want to read it?

The story is straightforward: after two suspicious fires in the community, an Amish boy stumbles into an act of arson. Threatened and afraid, he hides the truth until he can't contain it any longer. The skin of the story is the family relationships, particularly the father and his sons, Simeon and his eldest brother, Simeon and a grandmother; the flesh is the Amish way. Christian educators will love this story. So will a lot of Christian parents. But the portrait it paints is too small and deep for for those who love the Amish the way North Americans love elephants.

There are still, I think, omnivorous child readers around who will pick it up, mostly girls. What will they get from this? How to overcome fear and figure out "the right thing to do." she hopes; "If we can still ourselves to listen to our hearts and our communities, we will find the way to live." Hm. Maybe. (When did I become this sour and cynical?)

On the other end of the scale, there way Balmoral by Isabel Vane (Robson Books, 2004). A lead balloon. The audience who would most eagerly eat the possibility that Princess Di lives and is nursing in Pakistan would be completely baffled by the obtuse and belaboured musings presented here. Why the tortured angle and off-again, on-again hinting? Why not have her live, and go crazy with it? Either the authors (Isabel Vane is "the pen-name of two well-known British novelists") are wearing libel-muzzles (If they wanted to bite, why did they throw themselves into the very lap of the royal family, at Balmoral?) or there's something British going on here that I just don't get.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

 

Reading Irregardlessly

Yeah, I meant to say that.

Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac (HarperCollins, 2001): I've been waiting for some Native North Americans to enter mainstream children's literature. Here's one. Abenaki by ancestry, Bruchac in this book brings a traditional bogeyman out of the lodge and into the Victorian three-storey. It's a short book, but well written and suspenseful.

Whales on Stilts! by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005) is the latest in the heavily ironic children's literature trend. It's pretty funny.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

 

Tired of Reading

Finished a book Sunday night that made me feel like I'm tired of reading. There were a few good lines; I did get caught up in the story, about halfway through, enough to carry me to the end; but on the whole the thing seemed so small. I feel bad saying this as I'm sure the author, Christy Yorke, put her heart and soul into it, and did her research and came to love a place (Idaho's Salmon River) because of it. . . but I think that if I were to have dinner with her I would be bored.

Again, there were lots of irritating errors, that should have been caught: a stream "winded" through a landscape, for example. There were sentences that didn't make sense, referring either to scenes too far back or not lived in long enough, or to who knows what. (There was one sentence I read about ten times, and I still have no clue what it means.) The editor was either too close to the material or not good enough, because these should have been caught and fixed.

Of course, I would have gladly forgiven the text if the story had gripped me, but that's hard to do when it's repeatedly baffling you. The title is The Secret Lives of the Sushi Club (Penguin, 2005) which is also the title of the bestselling book one of the characters has just published, in which she reveals the secret lives of her own "sushi club," only thinly disguised and in what was apparently a gloating, mean way. My problem was I couldn't believe these four women were any kind of club. What is a sushi club, anyway? They get together to eat sushi once a month? At least two of them can't stand each other, so why are they wasting their time? And then the way they all jump into that rafting trip. . . . These aren't real people—they're chicklit people.

The strongest element in the book, to which everything else seems only so much windowdressing, is the true main character and her relationships with her son, her live-in boyfriend and her former husband, her son's father, whom she lost on their honeymoon rafting trip 12 years before. The author, observing the boy observing one of his mother's friends crying, writes, "Why couldn't Alice pretend that after a certain age, no one can touch you? He didn't care if it was all illusion: he wanted to believe there came a time when pain stopped."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

 

Good Badness

Ack! The current stack has to go back to the library so I had better blog everything. A friend who always prided her self on being "good" left her first husband, married again, and wasted no time in having two beautiful children, as both she and her new husband were getting on in years to be parents. Her first husband was not a nice person, and she endured much obloquy on his hearth; she was well rid of him; but the thing, is he was ill—a diabetic gone blind with a failed liver who needed help for daily living. She ceased to be "good" the day she left him, and in fact admits that in her second marriage, her husband is gooder than she is. (Yes, I mean gooder.) Truth and Consequences by Alison Lurie (Viking, 2005) is about that sort of situation, and despite being told from the PoV of both parties in the broken marriage (and even ending with the husband's) it is the wife's story, really. She thought herself good; but being good made her resentful and drained her of every bit of true goodness she had. She did everything for her ailing husband, including leaving him.

Is this always true? That when suffering turns someone you love(d) into a different person, a person you don't like, you have to leave or get pulled under? Is it impossible to maintain a marriage in which one person is the caregiver and one is the care receiver? What if an accident or illness causes a change, but, though there is dependency, there is no ongoing suffering? Would that make a difference?

 

Heartwarming

Lost Goat Lane by Rosa Jordan (Peachtree, 2004) is one of those books like Because of Winn-Dixie, the heartwarming tale of a child who makes it through a difficult time with the help of unusual friends (and animals). Meanwhile, something is learned about human nature, both the good and the bad. This book was a fine, well-crafted example of the genre, with which there is absolutely nothing wrong, if you like that sort of thing.

A friend from Edmonton had a writing group there, one of whose members had published a book he told me about. A few years later, I finally ordered and read it: One Good Outfit by Jocelyn Brown (Mercury Press, 2000). It wasn't what I expected; I expected something more novel-like, while it turned out to be like a vastly extended New Yorker "Shouts and Whispers," on the topic of using your one good outfit to eat for free at any conference or event. An amusing idea; but without a warm body beneath, even the finest outfit is just clothes. The book needed to be less a "hilarious send-up of self-help books" and more of a tale, the whole "ogoer" shtick acting as the outward trappings of a sad, funny character with a sad, funny shipwrecked life. Just a few times there was a hint of that character, in little asides (of course I can't find them now), the tiniest kiss of flesh making one impatient with yet another refinement of "ogo" technique.

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