Friday, September 29, 2006

 

Family Stories

How long ago was it that I read The Penderwicks? (I think that's what it was called.) I'll go back and check later. A publishing industry friend who also read it observed wonderingly, "I don't know how the editor got this past financing," which was in regards to the book's deep old-fashionedness.

Where, in this land of organized play dates and adult-led after-school activities, does one find a family of harum-scarum girls only lightly supervised? Well, if you're Sarah Ellis, you make one, out of a passle of cousins and a wise grandmother with a house that's about to be torn down. In Odd Man Out (Groundwood, 2006), Kip joins his five girl cousins at their grandmother's house for the summer. Kip is busy "shelving" the thought of his mother and her new husband on their honeymoon, so it's easy for him to be alone in the crowd. When he finds a binder chock full of evidence of a big conspiracy theory, Kip is given one more way to be the odd man out.

As with all passle-of-girls situations, this book verges on preciousness. Maybe it's the effect of trying to convey from the outside the rapid exchange of internal references and private jokes. Or maybe it's the effect of a female observing a male observing females. Maybe we credit them with noticing too much—how much do we really know about what goes on in the male head, anyway? The only answer Ellis provides is "a lot of shelving"—which is accurate, I think. My boy is thinky and emotionally aware, and yet I have been surprised repeatedly by just how much he shoves under his mental bed.

The nice thing about this aspect of boys is that you can change their minds (as characters) without making a big deal of it. Kip scares Grandma with a reference from the binder he's been reading; Mom and new husband return early from the honeymoon due to the health scare that ensues. In one instant, Kip sees something new and attractive in his new family situation: "Two men replacing hardware." The girly way to this would be through the emotional changes that the crisis of Grandma, the binder and facing the truth about his father have wrought in Kip; yes, it's true that they have readied Kip for this new realization. But it's equally true in Ellis's story to say that hanging around with all these girls all summer has made even the enemy Orm (what associations this name has!) seem refreshing.

Despite cleaning up after electricians and getting mugged by a sinus infection, I have also read Eager's Nephew by Helen Fox (Random House, 2006). This book is a little scattered, as there are so many characters, and you're supposed to know them. But it has been a while since I read Eager, and I didn't know which grown-ups were the children of Eager, and which were new. There are so many technological ideas in the book, too—do you have to be clever to enjoy this book? Perhaps. It doesn't lay out and explain every action and reaction, like, say Jenny Nimmo's books do. The last page sums it up: the characters are laughing, and the sweet wise robot at the centre of their laughter doesn't get the joke—and the author doesn't explain it. The clever reader will get it, though.

Monday, September 25, 2006

 

Expat Indian Novelists

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (HarperCollins, 2005): another offering from the expanding ranks of expat Indian novelists. In this one the author "vividly captures how the bonds ofwomanhood are pitted against the divisions of class and culture." This is from flap copy, and it's accurate. Although the story is told from two PoVs, those of a middle class Parsi woman and her Hindu servant, the first and last words belong to Bhima, the servant. I'm not in a position to know if her voice is completely true; I wondered a bit, at the end when she got very philsophical, but not so much that it got in the way. The author chose a fine device on which to hang Bhima's philosophical musing, so it works.

For most of the novel, the story bounces between scenes from the past and scenes of the narrative present, the latter told in the present tense. This can be tricky to do, but the author pulls it off. The advantage of this technique is that the novel's past and its present get equal weight, which is important, because, as Bhima observes to her granddaughter, the past is never gone; you wear it like your skin.

I saw what was coming in the matter of Maya's pregnancy, but it didn't matter; the revelation of the truth so completely belongs to Bhima. In fact, it is clear that the author's heart completely belongs to Bhima. She is sympathetic about the particular pressures that have made Serabai, the other narrating character, what she is; but the blessings she bestows on Serabai in the novel—material comfort, an imminent grandchild—are mundane ones. Upon Bhima, however, she heaps the novelist's true and everlasting treasures: mental clarity, freedom of soul, and one final grand, poetic gesture.

Friday, September 15, 2006

 

Escapist Reading?

I was going to say that for escapist reading, SF is one of my choices, but I think that's not quite true. It's just like anything else: it has to be good SF. I read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell a couple of years ago, when its sequel was already out. I was so blown away and distressed I could not go near the sequel until now. The first one was a better book, I think: it was more plot-driven (though this, my favourite kind of SF, is on the whole very thinky and character dependent), and more of a piece with itself. I can see that Children of God (Random House, 1998) was written for the sake of its characters; in particular, for the sake of Emilio Sandoz, to send him back to the place of his undoing and stitch him up again: to save his soul. That doesn't mean that the ride back to Rakhat isn't a good one, but it's still not as fun when you can see the scaffolding, so to speak.

I have always found deep meaning in the music of my religion (I can sing things with sincerity that I could never say in just words), so it was exciting to be taken very deeply into the subject of music and what it tells us about (belief in) God in this book. MDR, a highly educated woman, also brings in autism, chemistry, poetry, music, Mafia thinking and warfare: what a lot to chew on. It was hard to keep focussed, sometimes, however. There were so many characters, and so much time had to pass (we're dealing with two planets, space travel between them and the time distortions that result) that sometimes the characters became stereotypes of themselves, as it were—the way they do in long series built around the same characters. But there wer enough new, complex characters to spark against the old familiars ones and make them shine in new places.

Anyway, I whizzed through this with ferocity, and closed the book satisfied. Thank you, MDR, for giving Emilio people to love, at the end.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

 

Fluff

A couple of chapters into Immediate Family by Eileen Goudge (Simon and Schuster, 2006) I was so bored I nearly quit. But having nothing else to hand I persevered (rather skimmingly, I confess) to the end. I see why Nora Roberts was asked for a blurb for this book. Now, I have two sisters who love Nora Roberts and they are two excellent women for whom I have the greatest respect. I understand that NR is escapist reading for them, and I have nothing against that whatsoever. But Nora Roberts bores me, too, just like this book did.

Why? Too many descriptions of outfits and hair, for one; and maybe, too simplistic a psychology behind each character. And plots that are too predictable—I could see that Jay and Franny were going to end up together, and it seemed such a slog to wait while the author made it happen. This kind of reading experience is not an escape for me—it's a chore, like unto reading manuscripts that are okay but not great but which I have been hired to praise and make better. Having to do it all day, so to speak, I find it impossible to forgive unsatisfactory writing when night falls. (And I say this with all due respect to writers, who do a hard job and do it, so often, astoundingly well.)

Now, right now I am reading a book I've been looking forward to, and am so far enjoying tremendously, which I will use to further my contemplation of escape reading, Reader Rabid style. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 11, 2006

 

Horrible Horror

I don't understand why people go to horror movies. I find them distasteful and poisonous to my imagination. And upsetting, but not in themselves—more in what they say about the people who watch them. What is lacking in people's souls that they should find bloody savagery and occult twistedness entertaining? I never got beyond two pages of an Anne Rice vampire novel, either.

So only loyalty (to Canadian writers for children, to Canadian publishing) made me pick up and read The Horrors: Terrifying Tales Book 1 (Peter Carver, ed.: Red Deer Press, 2005). And I found that few of the tales were really horrible. Or even chilling—Sharon Stewart's City of the Dead was worse (better?), for chill. Most of them were simply good short stories. One made me raise my eyebrows, thinking of the author, "Woah, aren't you an angry girl."

The library opened again (yay!) so I could get a few things for my Sunday read. People Like Us by Chris Binchy (Pan Macmillan, 2004) is the story of a fortyish man who is drowning in his own life. The author is very good at bringing his character to the verge of admitting what's really bugging him, then pulling him back sharply. And tragically, because it's that very backing away—which he thinks of as his strength, his value—that is causing the drowning. He won't look at this one truth—that he wishes his life could have done the way he was planning, no pregnant girlfriend, no early marriage—so he can't speak or even see all the truth anywhere; he's working so hard at supressing his regret that his every reaction becomes supression. Man, get some therapy!

The other thing I admired about this book was the author's willingness to go into the minds of the other members of the family. I keep thinking of Philip Pullman's comment in an interview I read about what it meant to him, discovering the power of 3rd person omniscient narration. This is not quite that; it's more like a multiple first person mortared together with an invisible omniscient. Or something. Anyway, I like it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

 

Bible Tales

The library is closed due to the filming of a movie in our town—the nerve! Luckily I still have some BookExpo books on my shelf to choose from. Seeker of Stars by Susan Fish (Winding Trail Press, 2005) is a novel about one of the three wise men of the Nativity story. The story contains the elements of a sprawling saga: a humble carpet weaver rises through the morass of court intrigue to become one of the king's own astronomers, then is cast down to his knees by the tiny, infant hand of God. But it's not that saga. Instead, it's a comfortable little novel about a man, his passion for the stars, and the love of his wife which enables him to see what lies behind the stars. I think I'll donate it to my church library.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

 

Okay, Then

"A Nancy Drew breeziness...addressing serious issues" indeed. This was one reviewer's description of Fighting the Current by Heather Waldorf (Lobster Press, 2004). The more I read teen fiction, the more mysterious I find teenagers to be. I don't think I ever was one, really. I never recognize anything from my own teenage life, anyway, in their pages.

In this book we follow the tumultuous events in the life of a 17-year-old after her father has been brain-damaged. Her aunt dies in a fire, set by the brother of the drunk driver who nearly killed her father; she is forced by circumstances to deal with her absent mother, whom she has been successfully shutting out for years; she develops feelings for a new classmate who has a girlfriend back in Newfoundland; she tries to keep up with her schoolwork and make decisions about her future.

Taken altogether, the story is rather melodramatic; the fact that the reader isn't apprised of the main character's inner goings-on (she's presented as not much of a sharer) while being carried along at a furious pace accounts for the breeziness. Hanging around the fringes of the story is a canoe that the girl's father built, intending to take her on a post-graduation river trip. It seemed artificial, and I scratched my head at the epigrams about rivers and canoes until the very end, when the girl reveals to her boyfriend that the canoe symbolizes her relationship to her father. Okay, then.

Monday, September 04, 2006

 

Yay, Ursula

All that talk about Ursula K Le Guin reminded me I had another reader's advance from BookExpo to read: Voices (Harcourt, Sept 2006), which is described as the "haunting companion to the acclaimed Gifts." I'll have to find that book, because I really liked this one. Ah, how story writers love to write about the power of stories! And how writers in the liberal English-speaking world are fascinated with the desert-living fanatical "other," these days. Here is a world invaded by such an other; invaded and raped and slaughtered and subjugated. All the books are buried and drowned; all the writing effaced. And yet, stories are the link that bring together the tyrant and the tyrannized, and make broken things whole again. It's a potent dream.

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