Monday, November 27, 2006

 

The Irish

Some who know me know I'm Irished out. Still, I had to read Lord Kirkle's Money (Avon Camelot ed. 1998), Book Two of Avi's Beyond the Western Sea, when I found it in the library, even though so much time had passed since I read Book One, I hardly remembered it. The two books are about a family of starved Irish villagers en route to and in America in the mid 19th century. In this one, Avi takes a passionate but hopeless poet, a runaway English lord, a reformed cutpurse, a scheming upstart with his hands on stolen money, a failing businessman on the make, a beautiful, serious elder sister, an impulsive younger brother and a tragically orphaned small girl, throws them together and tosses them all around, like chicken pieces in a Shake'n'Bake bag. A 193-chapter, gasp-a-minute adventure story: very entertaining.

Then, this morning, I polished off Jumping the Scratch by Sarah Weeks (HarperCollins, 2006) while enjoying my coffee. I really like Sarah Weeks' work. This story has a familiar cast of characters and a familiar sad incident at its centre; but Sarah handles it well, lightly and tightly, and makes a very satisfying job of it. She sprinkles the thing with flavour, too (I seem to be in cooking mode this morning!); really, you could use this book as an example of how to build a novel. For example, the title alludes to a very apt comparison made between memory and a scratched record: it takes just the right blow to make the needle jump the scratch, and it takes just the right trigger—or intervention—to get free and recover when you're stuck in a bad place. In a lovely parallel, the rough-saviour character (herself a necessary blow to our suffering hero's careful carapace) reveals a sweet secret: if you kick the pop machine in the laundry room just right, it will let down an orange soda. Lovely.

Friday, November 24, 2006

 

Rapid Review

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison (Dutton/Penguin, 2005): Entertaining. Nice balance between tongue-in-cheek and earnest. Eponymous heroine knows she's a little nuts, but she keeps trying anyway and actually does something useful. Interesting role played by Childhood Depression; it's there and recognized, but not diagnosed and therapied.

Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon/Random House, 2003, 2004). Finally got these from the library. Son read them also—and Daughter was helplessly reading vol. 1 in great distress until I took it gently away from her (kids do assume graphic novels are for them). As Son put it: the political information is very complicated, but it is told in a good way. I found vol. 1 heartbreaking; vol. 2 absorbing and both exactly, on every level, as my son described: told in a good way. Sigh.

Monday, November 20, 2006

 

Happy Endings

I was really liking Elizabeth Berg's We Are All Welcome Here (Random House, 2006). I liked that it was inspired by a true story and suggested by a reader; I liked that Berg thought, "No way" first, then was drawn in irresistibly. I loved the central character and her loyalty for her (the reader can see) untrustworthy friend; I admired Berg for making me believe and understand the forgiveness granted by that character and her remarkable mother to that friend for the enormous, life-destroying betrayal she wreaks upon them. Then I came to the beginning of the ending, where the big problem is solved by Elvis (yes, that Elvis). Berg justified it very well, and she didn't dwell in the moment—the whole scene lasts only a page or so. But still—Elvis! Can one really take this seriously? Berg said she was going to "fictionalize" the story—I didn't think she'd go THAT far!

On the other hand, truth is stranger than fiction, and who's to say that the characters who inspired the story weren't similarly miraculously blessed? I shouldn't be too snobbish about happy endings, seeing as I read children's literature for that reason (among others). Berg's "writing is fluid and her insights profound" (say the critics) and I won't let a preposterously happy ending stand in the way of enjoyment.

Friday, November 17, 2006

 

Can't Read This Stuff Too Often

Friends asked me to read Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire (HarperCollins, 2004) and weigh in on this question: Is the graphic depiction of violent sexual acts necessary to the telling of this story? One of the women especially was, and continues to be disturbed by what is written in the book. One thought especially preys on her mind: What does it say about the author, that she was willing to go to these dark places?

First of all, I’ll say that I recognized this territory immediately; these dark places definitely exist. The book Nine and Half Weeks (upon which the movie was based) was a true story. The woman to whom this strange affair happened was not as … well. either courageous or addicted as Maguire’s heroine Sarah. At the nine-and-a-half-week mark, she checked herself into a mental hospital. Her story ends with this statement (paraphrased): “I’ve had several relationships with men since, nice, healthy normal ones based on mutual respect. But during sex, I feel nothing: and I have not had an orgasm since.” Weeks is a quarter of the length of Beast, and contains very few graphic scenes. Yet it is just as disturbing as Beast is. So, I would say that no, it isn’t necessary to graphically describe every act in order to tell a story of sadomasochistic sexual obsession.

However, Beast is fiction, and it has a main character (and author) with something to prove. Sarah believes that her sadomasochistic relationship is true love, which she defines as soul melting into soul with the meeting of bodies (Shakespeare’s “beast with two backs”). The author claims, in the notes appending the story, that what she was trying to convey was utter passion, a reckless abandon to love. Well, that’s what addiction is, too—an abandonment of everything else to the one thing: drugs, alcohol, or sex. (NB: addiction ruins the addict for normal pleasure; like the Weeks author who couldn't enjoy sex anymore, the dry alcoholic has no fun at parties.) The author never manages to convince me that Sarah is the strong, resolute, self-determined Jane Eyre-like heroine she wants her to be. That penultimate paragraph observation that Sarah knows “in some deep, unexamined corner of herself … that this dark, messy, inexplicably beautiful entanglement [is] a choice” is too little, too late. There have been too many descriptions of desperation, and loss of control, and degradation; if there is a choice here, it's the addicts choice, which is to use or not. So on this level, I’d say all the graphic stuff actually got in the way of the novelist’s purpose.

One more observation: I found it interesting that the author kept having Jamie, the main male character, describe Sarah as pretty, even in the depths of depravity. This was somehow supposed to convince us that Sarah's behaviour wasn't sad and desperate, like it is when ugly girls are easy. Hm. Note that Charlotte Bronte made her heroine very definitely "plain."


Thursday, November 16, 2006

 

I'm Actually Working

It's wonderful when work and pleasure converge. A new job I'm engaged in puts me back to reading children's literature for work purposes—yay!

Porch Lies by Patricia C. McKissack (Schwartz& Wade/Random House, 2006) threw me for a bit—I couldn't understand why the author was putting so many layers between me and the story. Each tall tale ("porch lie") in this collection is based on the author's recollection of a real person's porch lie (I assume that's what the credit is for); then, it is presented as if told by a (created) character in the book, and sometimes, the character is telling a story he or she heard from someone else. After several tales, though, I got it: all these layers were creating a wonderful mood of urban-legend "reality": "this actually happened to my next-door-neighbour's cousin." The illustrations—half-tones, I guess—are equally real/not real. I loved it!

It was time to read an Avi title I've avoided. Nothing But the Truth (Orchard, 1991) calls itself a "documentary novel," a description that didn't appeal to me; but a co-worker raved about it. The story is told in memos and conversations. In it, a ninth-grade boy takes an attitude in his disappointment over not making the track team because of a failing grade; the attitude leads to actions, the actions to reactions and before he quite knows what is happening, the boy has been bitten on the backside. The title refers to the spin that each person involved puts on the facts; it's actually the spin—which he began—that makes the whole situation wobble out of the boy's control. It's very deft.

Graphic novels, graphic novels. Here's a cute one: The Clouds Above, by Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics, 2005). A little boy is late for school, and, terrified of repercussions from a nasty teacher, escapes to the roof: there he finds a stairway to the clouds. A lovely little adventure that takes him back to where he started, but better. There's lots of pink and pale blue and bright yellow in this. Throughout, the boy is carrying volume P–Q from what I assume is an encyclopedia: I wonder what happened when he carried N–O?

Shredderman 1: Secret Identity by Wendelin van Draanen (Brian Biggs, ill; Borzoi/Knopf, 2004): This book is a bit of a head-scratcher. A fifth-grade nerd, Nolan, gets back at the school bully by creating a Website (anonymously, under the name Shredderman) that exposes his misdoings. Here are my puzzlements:
1. Nolan has tried to speak about the bully, but the teacher tells him, basically, to buck up: that dealing with bullies prepares you for life.
2. The teacher figures out that Nolan is Shredderman; and he doesn't just approve, he offers to be Nolan's secret "sidekick." Okay, he suggests that now that the bully has been exposed, Shredderman turns his powers to promote positive classroom behaviour, but other than that, there is no discussion of invasion of privacy (Nolan has posted photographs he took at school with a hidden camera!).
3. There are no repercussions from the bully's parents. Nolan himself observes that Bubba's father is a bully: well, if so, he'd be on the school with lawsuit threats before anyone could blink.

There are sound anti-bully principles being brought to bear, here—present a united front, don't let the bully set the rules, stand up for yourself individually and as a group—but nothing is mentioned about Internet bullying, which is what Nolan has engaged in.

I checked around and found that there are several other Shredderman books, all of which involve Nolan rushing around town taking secret pictures of things, and exposing things on his Website. Does no one see the problem with this? For the sake of our civic life, I hope there is a future volume being planned: Shredderman: Slapped With a Lawsuit.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

 

Read About It

You can watch movies about movie people, or you can read about them. In Once Upon a Day by Lisa Tucker (Atria/Simon and Schuster, 2006) we are introduced to a Citizen Kane-like character (minus the politics) whose actions, mysterious to many, are motivated by an earlier, unacknowledged psychic wound. Almost every character in this story is dealing with a hidden wound, in fact. We are treated to the points of view of Stephen, who lost his wife and child in a collision and has since limped through his days as a cabdriver; Dorothea, who leaves the isolation of her upbringing to seek her brother in the outside world; Lucy, Dorothea's unknown, abandoned mother; and Janice (briefly), Lucy's one friend. Stephen is in the story because of Dorothea; all the others characters circle around the one we don't hear from until the very end, Charles, a wealthy successful director who leaves LA with his children and remains hidden for 18 years.

An entertaining, smoothly written story with no challenges.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

 

Good Mystery

This is the last one this week, I swear—I really MUST do some packing.

I never liked mysteries as a child—too easy to solve, and boringly detailed. I could see where Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams (HarperCollins, 2005) was going quite early on, but the main character and sleuth, Ingrid, was so engaging, I let myself be carried along in the current. I was rewarded with a great ending. There was enough "whydunnit" to the story to make it fascinating, and enough obscurity to the "whodunnit" part to make it exciting (hence the great ending). I managed to get over my middle-of-the-story "Why doesn't she just go to the police with this?" moment, too. Go, Peter!

Monday, November 06, 2006

 

Inimitable Fay

I once read a novel whose author had obviously been reading Fay Weldon. I had read a memoir by this author and liked it a lot; when she brought the subject of her memoir—her training as a pediatrician—to the world of fiction, it must have seemed the only logical way to tell the story. But unfortunately it was hard not to think of Weldon while reading the imitation, and like any off-brand imitation, it didn't measure up.

For a long while I stopped reading Weldon because I got sick of her not having a single good thing to say about people. Then I read The Lives and Hearts of Men and suddenly saw how her characters are constructed precisely so that she can criticize them; she's a social critic. (I know: no duh, as my children say. But ten years ago they weren't calling her a "cultural journalist" in her bios.) Of course there are no grounded, steady, good, sensible, wisely loving people in her books—they need no criticism. It's the wicked, stupid, selfish people who need the rap on the knuckles—and whose behaviour makes for such interesting fiction, naturally. Particularly if those people are splendidly beautiful and have no difficult in coaxing other people into bed with them.

Just so in She May Not Leave (HarperCollins, 2005). What an antidote to The Au Pairs! In this story, Hattie wants to return to work and so engages an au pair to look after her baby and do some light housekeeping. The au pair is devilishly good at her job, and eventually takes over. On the way, we hear all about Hattie's antecents, wayfaring women all, whose choices, in the aggregate, seem to make Hattie's error inevitable. Or is that so? We have only the narrator's word for it—Hattie's grandmother, who like any grandmother wants to justify her family and who, personally, seems keen on making the best of it, practicing contentment. (A recurring theme in Weldon's books, this desire in women to make the best of it.) But at the very end, in a neat turn, Hattie does the very same thing herself, claiming she engineered the whole thing herself, because she wanted to "get out from under." And who knows—this may be true.

Fay Weldon is such a tease.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

 

Teenagers

I have to do a lot of reading now, because getting time to start some serious packing, and then I won't have time for much else. Just the books, for instance—that's going to be the work of a week, at least.

I see I have been missing a lot by not checking the YA section more regularly. Back of Beyond by Sarah Ellis (Groundwood, 1996) is a lovely collection of short stories, with one theme in common, the brief encounter with something supernatural. I think my favourite for sheer perfection is the first one, "Tunnel." What I like in general about these stories are the characters in them, who are teenagers because of their age, not because of their lifestyle. These characters are still members of families, have lives outside of school, don't hang about in groups defined by the roles their members play in what we imagine to be teen culture. The time we spend in that culture (if we ever do) is so short, shorter that childhood, even—why do TV and Hollywood and books such as The Au Pairs make so much of it?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

 

The Smiths

Now seem to be getting into a bit of an Alexander McCall Smith thing. (Though it will not extend as far as The Portuguese Irregular Verbs, I can tell you that.) 44 Scotland Street (Random House, 2005) was a newspaper serial to start with, nicely illustrated with newspapery black line drawings. There are a few character/story lines: that of Pat, a vague 20-year-old on her second gap year, that sensible-sounding experience young citizens of the UK enjoy; of Bruce, a man too perfectly beautiful for his own good; and of Irene and her son Bertie, only one of whom recognizes the need for space between them. I jumped through the parts that bored me—philosophical musings and goings-into-detail about Edinburgh—and enjoyed the parts that were enjoyable. I'm sure it would have been much more enjoyable as a serial, read while living in Edinburgh.

I was in the teen section of the library looking for Charles DeLint and found The Au Pairs by Melissa de la Cruz (Simon and Schuster, 2003). What a dumb book. "Mara noticed that every screw in the teak veranda had been hand-turned to a ninety-degree angle, orthogonal to the direction of the boards. Did the Perrys expect this level of stringent perfectionism from everything, and everyone, around them?" Gaak.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

 

Long Time Ago, Million Years BC

Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L Holm (Random House, 2006) is set in fifties New Jersey, mostly in the midst of an Italian-American family, with all that entails. For the first two-thirds of the book I was continually put off by too much explanation: e.g., "There are always old Italian men there, drinking dark coffee that looks like tar served in little cups and reading the Italian-language newspapers. They're newpapers that are printed in Italian so people can find out what's going on if they don't know English." Right. Thanks, Jennifer. The excessive explanations were explained in turn by all the author's notes at the end, in which she shows photos of and makes connections to her own family, upon which the characters of this story are loosely based. I view this somewhat as I view all the behind-the-scenes stuff doled out on DVDs—nice for those who like it, but please, leave me the magic. In fact, the story had somewhat of a pieced-together feel; or is this just in the backwards look? I don't think so; I experienced as I was reading a sort of stop-start feeling.

Otherwise, this was a pretty good book, with one supremely nice moment, when Penny has an epiphany about her Nonny. And how the revelations about Penny's dad come about is interesting. (So's the author photo, which is utterly worthy of the author's other creation, BabyMouse, a book series Daughter adores.)

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