Tuesday, August 29, 2006

 

Next Best Thing To Eating Candy

...is reading about it.

Sweets by Tim Richardson (Bloomsbury, 2002) is a very interesting history of "sweets", which for the book are defined as candy plus those chocolate and sugary confections that are consumed not primarily as desserts but as between-meal or celebratory treats. Internationally, this means that quite a lot of what I would consider desserts (things that involve flour and baking) are included, but for the most part the author focusses on the kind of sweet thing that is given to children and enjoyed by adults between meals as a pick-me-up or with coffee and tea.

The book was a pleasant and sometimes quite absorbing read, covering the history of sugar refinery and confection development quite thoroughly, and lightly passing through chocolate history and worldwide sweet habits. It's not always completely accurate and at least one confectionary myth crept in as fact (the invention of the ice cream cone); but the book doesn't claim to be scholarly at all. The tone is friendly and personal. Maybe a little too much so, actually. The first time the author referred to himself as "an international confectionary historian" was quite properly sheepish; but then the more he used the descriptor the more seriously he took it, until I was quite tired of it. Especially as the "international" part was cursory. I spotted quite a few mistakes and omissions in the small areas of international confectionery I'm familiar with. How can you talk about salted licorice without talking about salmiac, aka ammonium chloride? And in North America, Smarties do not come in different flavours. Also, the classic Swedish candy is Ahlgrens "Bilar," not "Bihar."

The book was at its best when it was covering the history of the use of sugar, and the development of particular sorts of British sweets; the author seemed to find it difficult to find interest in the history of any kind of sweet he didn't find personally delicious, and could be quite repetitive on some subjects especially germane to his own devoted relationship to British sweets. (Enough about the "boiled sweets," especially "rhubarb and custards.") I guess this is not surprising, as he is British; as he says himself, our most passionate sweets love is usually devoted to whatever sweets we ate as children.

P.S. Another bargain book I didn't regret buying.

Also read: Men of Stone by Gail Friesen (KidsCan, 2000), primarily because I read her first book in manuscript and so am curious about her writing career. The story was good and the characters unusual, with some Mennonite history brought in lightly; but I found the character of the auntie hard to believe. And what is the market for this book, I wonder? Maybe thirteen-year-old boys whose mothers make them read it? Or girls who want to understand boys? Or grade eight students whose teacher takes it on as a novel study? I don't know.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

 

More Lester

"Biblical" is the adjective to describe Time's Memory by Julius Lester (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006) . In the way the stories in the Bible examine human relations with the eyes of God, this book looks at the history of slavery through the Dogon religion of Mali. As in the Bible, the story is told from multiple points of view, and there are spirit incarnations and jumps in time and sense that give you the feeling something bigger than the novel form is being served here. And why not? It's a big question that Lester is trying to answer, which is, what do we do with the leftover pain of slavery still haunting American society (and many African societies as well)? The novel has an African feel, reminding me of some of the African books I have read—that combination of the modern and the traditional, and the way myth weaves in and out of the characters' s daily lives. There is in this book something of what is in Cupid, t00: Lester's ability to examine mythic assumptions and have his characters decide for themselves what is useful in them, and what should be discarded.

On a totally different plane, there is 24 Hours by Margaret Mahy (Aladdin, 2000) which turns out to be a reread. It's a perfectly constructed book, relating the events in 24 hours of a 17-year-old's life, events which bring him out of a standstill he didn't know he was in, and carry him forward more keenly into the life he wants to go on with next.

Monday, August 21, 2006

 
It may be that Grace Lin, the author of The Year of the Dog (Little, Brown and Co., 2006) felt the lack of books like hers when she was growing up—books about ordinary Asian-American (in this case, Taiwanese) characters and their families living their lives, in their Asian-American way, the way Carolyn Haywood's Betsy and her family did in their uber-American way. But in the time between Lin's childhood and the publication of her book about her childhood (though it is set in a indeterminate time, with just a couple of dated references that push it slightly to the past) Asian culture has taken firm root in Canada, at least. The the elements of Chinese/Taiwanese culture included in the novel seem unremarkable, at least to me; a young reader with no Asian aquaintances in a smaller urban or rural centre who never watches CBC might be amazed. However, the author's line drawings (she is also a children's book illustrator) give the story another special something. They are simple and childlike, and silently round out the main character, who is constantly drawing and colouring, without even being aware that this is just the special talent she is looking for in herself.

Taking Wing by Nancy Price Graff (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin, 2005), on the other hand, never manages to get off the ground. It's always hard to say exactly why a book doesn't "take wing." One ends up pointing at minor, telling details. In this case, it's a moment in the story when the main character, a 13-year-old boy, carefully peruses the advertisements in the Life magazine he is reading. The author's excuse for lingering on them is that Gus is thinking of his friend Louise, who needs the nutrition and energy and beauty aid promised by the advertisers. But the author lingers too long. It doesn't feel right for a 13-year-old boy to be paying this much attention to ads for soap and vitamins; you feel the author inviting the child reading her novel to smile with her over the clumsy boosterism and unsophisticated credulity of yesteryear. That's not to say the author doesn't like her subject; on the contrary, she loves it, a little too much. The story, the characters don't have a life of their own; they stay subject to the author's love of Vermont, its past, and its people, and all the research she has done into WWII-era Vermont, especially.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

 

Backtracking

Before I left on my various vacations this summer, I read Gilead by Marilyn Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2004), a discount (but not bargain) purchase I made because the book felt nice in my hands and because I remembered vaguely my mother recommending it. It is slow, careful, old-fashioned (and yet postmodern)…and very good. In it, an elderly pastor with a young wife tries to explain himself for the benefit of his son, who is now only six or so and whom he will probably not live to see grow into an adult. The narrator has no great sins to confess; at least, not to his son or himself or his wife or his God. Indirectly, though, the whole narrative is a long confession to the narrator's parents and brother, and the fiction is a confession to the reader—that's the postmodern part—of the (postmodern) sin of loving a hard place, a difficult job and a living God.

Another bargain book that I picked up because the cover art was adorable was The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt, 2004). (Sorry, I can't find a picture—the one in the book websites is different.) I began it with mixed feelings; I dislike books about writing or reading, I don't know why. (And here I am writing about reading.) The author's explanation for why he was an obsessive reader as a child was interesting; but other than that, I got bored by his minute studies of general areas of his reading life; examining great swathes with a magnifying glass, and I kept wishing he'd move the glass over a bit.

But one thing I appreciated in the book was his relating what role SF played in his passage during adolescence from children's books to adult books. Children's books, he says, trained him in pure story; only SF offered enough purity of story, albeit with adult themes, to carry him over the divide. I also appreciated his impatience with adult classics. (They are often so boring!) Because of his discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (harper and Row, 1969) I betook myself to the library to read the book.

The inherent sexism Spufford mentions (and which Le Guin, I have read, has contemplated herself) is certainly there; but I don't think it is as bad as critics have made it out to be. Le Guin is imagining what an evolved 1960s man might feel about "the feminine"; putting aside the metacritical significance of the female choosing to make her main characters male (even the one who is not male or female, but both) she takes us to a pretty interesting place in this book. The only bit I felt was truly dated was her assumption, in 1969, of the continuing neutrality in literature of the male pronouns. He, his and him simply aren't so "neutral" anymore; projecting forward from now, the author would have her Terran character struggle much more, I think, with how to think of and refer to hermaphrodites.

And having read Left Hand, I conclude I like later Le Guin more, because it surpasses genre better. The Lathe of Heaven excepted.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

 

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Lucky Rosemary—she gets to have her story thoroughly illustrated by the best (Brian Selznick) and printed on heavy glossy paper, too. Wingwalker by Rosemary Wells (Hyperion, 2002) is a moving, spare but rich story set during the Depression about a prairie boy who discovers there are worse things to live through than fear. When the dust drives his parents and him from their home into the carnival life, the generosity of the sideshow freaks who befriend him (an old theme, like that of the whore with a heart of gold) encourages him to step onto the wing of a flying plane with his father. This event comes at the end of the story (which is short—only 63 pages) and is simply the culmination of a process in which Reuben overcomes his fears and triumphs over his inner critic.

Weighty and serious themes; and the illustrations are in sepia and brown. We're definitely in the Depression, here, though the tragedy is misted over by layers of beauty, in the writing and in the full and tender artwork. This book is a myth, telling of a time when tattooing was freakish and bizarre and not to be seen on every second teenager in the street, and the fat man was in the sideshow and not behind the wheel of every pick-up truck. It's also a woman's story about the way through boyhood: be true to yourself; face the thing you're scared of; accept friendship when it's offered; your father loves you, and no matter how frightening his place in the world looks to you, it has glories that he'll help you understand if you just trust him and hold tight to his hand.

Permanent Rose by Hilary McKay (Simon and Schuster, 2005) is the third book about the Casson family, following Indigo's Star (which my library doesn't have) and Saffy's Angel (which I wrote about earlier). The cover is arresting, and very different from Saffy's Angel. I enjoy these books very much, even while I don't believe, quite, in the realness of the Casson family. I don't think believing them is the point, though, so that's all right. The author does a bang-up job of representing ways of knowing. When a mighty truth is delivered to almost-nine-year-old Rose, it's delivered in a way that makes sense for her age and personality, but still delivers a punch to the reader.

I look forward to one aspect of our possible move to a big suburb: a more extensive library system!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

 

In the Forest

Back again, after a wedding away and a family camping trip. It's been a few years since I took this much time away from all things work related (i.e., the computer). While ensconced in my parents' house for the wedding event, I reread a book I used to have in my collection but which disappeared, Miriam's Well by Lois Ruby (Scholastic Inc, 2000). It seized me when I first read it; it seemed so understated and powerful, and the author teased, just a bit—was the narrator (one of them—there are two) completely reliable? It's still a good book, but I didn't "steal" my parents' copy (they offered, honest!) to take back home with me. It's enough to know it's out there. It's the story of a fundamentalist Christian girl who gets cancer, and her church doesn't allow invasive treatment. Her treatment is ultimately court-ordered, and she gets well; but it is not at all certain what has made her well—prayer and faith, radiation therapy or therapeutic touch. The narrators are the girl herself and the son of the lawyer for the church's defence. The two are attracted to one another but the relationship is at last ended by the girl, for religious reasons. But not simple ones—nothing is really simple in this book.

Continuing on the rereading of the collection track, on the way out to the near-north provincial park we went to, I read Izzy, Willy-nilly by Cynthia Voigt (Ballantine, 1986). I'm definitely keeping this one. It's a writerly exercise, in a way, I realize: let's make a bad thing happen to a nice, well-behaved person—a bad thing caused by the stupid actions of a not-nice person—and then see how she handles it; the only rule being that her nature cannot change. She has to stay nice. The author succeeds, though it still is really hard to bear that the (drunk) driver who caused her to lose a leg gets away with it. WHY doesn't she tell the cops what happened? The only reason I can think of is that she is ashamed of having put herself into the hands of a known schmuck. Admitting the truth of what happened would make her stupid, or a victim, and she doesn't want to be either of those things. Still, it seems like a upstanding citizen would want to get a careless driver off the road, at least. Isn't that the duty of a nice person? Perhaps it is only to make sure innocents are protected, which she does, and bravely, person to person.

In the forest, I read The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland (Viking Canada, 2003), a gift of my eldest sister in particularly sweet circumstances, for which I am thankful. I'm partial to Emily Carr's story, and the author did a good job selecting her elements to work with and crafting them into a fiction. The friendship between Emily and Sophie, a Squamish woman, is convincing and nicely balanced by her relationships with her sisters. The only thing that felt false was the almost-lover's surrender to Emily's "art" (i.e., her artistic drive) at the last moment. It made that character seem too . . . noble, when all the other main characters were convincingly real.

Vreeland's style in this book (and maybe her others, I don't know) is bracing—descriptive and evocative when it needs to be, but not overly poetic, and her characters converse in staccato bursts. This suits Emily.

Finally, another reread from the collection: The Phaedra Complex by Jeannette Eyerly (Lippincott, 1971). When I first read this book, I didn't get it. I reread it some time later, and thought, "What a quaint artifact. I wonder why I kept it?" Now, I think I do get it; at least, I get what I didn't get. I didn't get the whole in-love-with-the-stepfather thing because it simply isn't there; or, if it is, it is so shrouded in the hints, portents and cultural meaning particular to its time that it might as well have been written in semaphore. Apparently, that your stepfather gets upset that you come home late without phoning means he's in love with you; that you are mad at him for it means you're in love with him. Oh, brother. I can't help thinking how much better the book might have been if Cynthia Voigt had written it! I understand why I kept it, and I'll keep it again for the same reason: it's an example of how not to write teen fiction.

Friday, August 04, 2006

 

Hands On the Past

Deafening by Frances Itani (HarperCollins 2004). A beautiful, rich novel. Set just before and during the First World War, encompassing small-town Ontario life and industry, Spanish influenza (not to be confused with what we call flu and what they called La Grippe), Irish immigrant family life, language and deafness. With books like this, I think, oh, the work involved—all the research, all the reading and thinking about and settling into years ago, in order to make them live again. I try to imagine writing like this about one of my grandmothers, and can't. Too many unhappy secrets and not enough loving pride, in my family. In my family past, anyway. I want to tell the author that the time and effort is appreciated, because one can really live in this novel while reading it.

Continuing my rereading journey through DWJ, I followed with The Time of the Ghost (1981). This is said to be her most personal, springing out of her own childhood life of not-altogether-benign neglect. (Interesting—it's an early one.) It is a deep book, complex and female. I realize from this book that one of the things I love about DWJ is her handling of sibling relationships, of family life in reaction to but nevertheless underneath, around and beyond parenting. I feel some thoughts brewing about religion in her books, too. The magic in this book is possible because the characters aren't religious (they come right out and say this); yet, religion is there, hovering on the sidelines: the Edwardian vicar at the church fete, let us say, sweetly unaware of trouble brewing until he is appealed to, at which point he applies his trade like a Band-Aid. . . . DWJ plays with the dark side, a bit, in this book (an exorcism is attempted, using the Anglican prayer book); I would like to see what would happen if she dove right in. Or, I would like to just sit over dinner with her and ask a few questions.

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